It’s 70 years since Nye Bevan claimed the Tories were ‘lower than vermin’. The speech took on a life of its own; to some it cost Labour two million votes at a general election, blighted his career and ruined the growing political consensus. But to the current Labour activists his words resonate more than ever.
“That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin”
Nye Bevan – Eve of NHS Creation – July 4th 1948
The NHS remains the crown jewel in Labour’s New Jerusalem of the 1940s. Labour have put it central to their election campaigns ever since. Even today it has the power to unite factions within the party. It is why the Brexiters struck gold when they placed the issue on the side of a bus during the referendum campaign.
For Labour’s great heavyweight Nye Bevan, the creation marked the end of a lifelong battle to give the people access to the best medical care available. It also led to his greatest quote, one that is still adorned by Labour activists.
After a tumultuous three-year negotiation, Bevan was highly sensitive to any attacks on its merit. The NHS had been strongly opposed by the Tories, the healthcare professionals and the doctors union the BMA. As his vision began to bear fruit, Bevan delivered his most famous speech, on the eve of its creation at the Belle Vue Rally in Manchester:
“The eyes of the world are turning to Great Britain. We now have the moral leadership of the world, and before many years are over we shall have people coming here as to a modern Mecca, learning from us in the twentieth century as they learned from us in the seventeenth century.”
That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin. They condemned millions of first-class people to semi-starvation. Now the Tories are pouring out money in propaganda of all sorts and are hoping by this organised sustained mass suggestion to eradicate from our minds all memory of what we went through. But, I warn you young men and women, do not listen to what they are saying now. Do not listen to the seductions of Lord Woolton. He is a very good salesman. If you are selling shoddy stuff you have to be a good salesman. But I warn you they have not changed, or if they have they are slightly worse than they were.”
“But after today the weak will be entitled to clamour. After a while the newspapers in the hands of our enemies will give the impression that everything is going wrong. Don’t be deceived, it is then that they will start going right. We are the people to whom the people can complain. I shall be unmoved by the newspapers, but moved by the distress.”
“In 1945 and 1946, we were attacked on our housing policy by every spiv in the country – for what is Toryism, except organized spivery? They wanted to let the spivs loose.”
“In 1950 we shall face you again with all our programme carried out. And when I say all, I mean all. I mean steel is going to be added, we are going to establish a new record: that of being the only British Government that ever carried out all its election promises.”
“We will set that resistance on one side. We shall meet the struggle because we know exactly what we want to do, and how the Tories will react to it.”
The speech sent the right-wing press into a spin, generating a week of bad headlines for Bevan. The Daily Express ran with; `Bevan: my burning hatred of the Tories’; The Times: ‘Mr Bevan’s “Burning Hatred Attack on Tory “vermin” and The Sunday Despatch:`THE MAN WHO HATES 8,093,858 PEOPLE’. Winston Churchill, still opposition leader, declared that Bevan was not a politician but ‘as a projectile discharged from the Welsh valleys’. Churchill re-named him ‘the Minister of Disease’.
The Tories wore the insult – quite literally – like a badge of honour. Young Conservatives across the country set up The Vermin Club to meet and discuss politics. The group would hijack Bevan’s public meetings with chants of “vermin, vermin, vermin”. In Michael Foot’s excellent biography of Nye Bevan, he claims that it was left to his Bevan’s Jennie Lee to dispose of excrement that members pushed through their letter box. At one point it was said to be 120,000 strong and Margaret Thatcher is rumoured to have been a member. Today however it is the Labour supporters who don the vermin badges with pride.
Nye Bevan remains the poster boy of the Labour movement and the quotes have taken on a new lease of life under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Tellingly Bevan is the only politician in Labour’s history worthy of his own merchandise in the Labour shop, where a £3 poster can be bought alongside the Corbyn scarves and t-shirts. The Guardian hit headlines for selling the quote on a mug – whilst asking the question: why has politics become so toxic?
At the time however, Bevan’s combative approach was seen as a hinderance to Labour’s electoral chances. In the wake of the ‘vermin’ speech, Prime Minister Clement Attlee was furious at the needless provocation. He wrote him the following letter:
‘My Dearest Aneurin
I have received a great deal of criticism of the passage in your speech in which you describe the Conservatives as vermin, including a good deal from your own party. It was, I think singularly ill-timed. It had been agreed that we wished to give the new scheme as good a send-off as possible and, to this end, a non-polemical broadcast. Your speech cut right across this. I had myself done as much as I could to point out the injustice of the attacks made upon you for your handling of the doctors, pointing out the difficulties experienced by your predecessors of various political colours in dealing with this profession. You won a victory in obtaining their tardy cooperation but these unfortunate remarks enable the doctors to stage a comeback and have given the general public the impression that there was more to their case than they had supposed. This is, I think, a great pity because without doing any good, it has drawn attention away from the excellent work you have done on the Health Bill. Please be a bit more careful, in your own interest.
When Attlee urged the party celebrate the birth of the NHS as a non-political event, it was too much for Bevan, who replied: “The Conservatives voted against the National Health Act, not only on the second but on the Third Reading. I do not see why we should forget this.”
But the ‘vermin’ speech lingered on in the background for the rest of Bevan’s career. Some people – Herbert Morrison and Harold Laski included – pinned the 1950 Election defeat on the speech and claimed that it lost the party two million votes. Nye needn’t have worried though. When the Health and Social Care Bill was passed into law at the start of 2012, #lowerthanvermin was the Number 1 trend on Twitter, well above the official Labour organised hashtag #welovetheNHS. The speech outlived him and – sadly – will probably outlive the NHS itself.