Something else Nye Bevan (probably) never said

“Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalised, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community.”

So said Aneurin Bevan, titan of the mid 20th-century British Left, founder of the National Health Service and, according to a BBC poll, the second most influential person to come out of Wales in the past thousand years (15th-century prince-cum-revolutionary Owain Glyndŵr came out on top).

The pithy line perfectly sums up both Bevan’s views and the guiding principle behind the NHS. It is quoted online thousands of times. Social media is overflowing with shareable content based on the 33 words, multiplying in recent weeks as the general election looms. You can even buy a t-shirt with the quote on.

There’s just one small problem — I don’t think he ever actually said it.

Earlier this month, Twitter was briefly amused by the debunking of another Bevan “quote”, which was cited and shared by the Leader of the Opposition despite actually coming from the script of a 1997 TV drama rather than the mouth of the long-serving Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale.

I’ve seen a lot of other Bevan quotes being widely shared before and since— he was a very quotable chap — but, like the now-debunked line shared by Jeremy Corbyn, when this one landed in my Facebook feed last week it raised a number of red flags.

For one thing, it’s never reproduced with any wider context: nobody every quotes what he said in the sentences immediately before or after, just the short, sharp, meme-friendly line itself. There are never any variations beyond the “S” in “penalised” sometimes appearing as a “Z”, no longer version containing more of the speech or text from which it was taken.

More obviously, it never comes with attribution to an original source, for example a book, or a speech, or a location or even a date. A couple of websites vaguely say “1948”, but that’s it.

Other Bevan quotes are much easier to pin down. It takes seconds to determine that his famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) “lower than vermin” remark was deployed at a Labour rally in Manchester in July 1948. The spectre of the British Foreign Secretary being sent “naked into the conference chamber” was raised by Bevan at his party conference in Brighton in October 1957. He accused Anthony Eden of being either insincere or “too stupid to be Prime Minister” during an anti-Suez protest in Trafalgar Square in November 1956. And “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means,” a quote that’s even available on tea towels? That’s from Bevan’s 1952 magnum opus In Place Of Fear (page 100, to be precise).

But “illness is neither an indulgence”? Despite being such a perfectly crafted line, an initial search failed to throw up any original source.

So I started digging.

My first port of call was In Place Of Fear, in which Bevan sums up, in his own words, pretty much his entire political philosophy. The quote wasn’t there. In fact the words “illness” and “indulgence” don’t even appear at all. Nor could I find any sign of it in Bevan’s 1944 sort-of anonymous screed Why Not Trust The Tories?

My next stop was the two definitive biographies of Bevan, the epic two-volume affair published by his good friend and the future Labour leader Michael Foot shortly after Bevan’s death, and the slightly more balanced take produced by Oxford politics lecturer Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds in late 2014.

With the second volume of Foot’s work (covering the period after 1945) and Thomas-Symonds’ book both tucked away on my Kindle (other e-readers are available) it took just a few clicks to ascertain that no element of the quote appears in either. The digital edition of the first volume of the Foot biography hasn’t yet been fully indexed, but a quick skim through — with a focus on sections covering health and the Beveridge Report — didn’t turn anything up either.

I also did a Google Books search of Clare Beckett and Francis Beckett’s 2004 text. No joy there. And I checked Bevan’s famous 1951 resignation letter to Clement Attlee, the whole point of which was to object to charges being imposed for healthcare. Still nothing.

At this point, I should mention that I’m not the first person to head down this road. A blogger named Jon Matthias took a quick look at the same quote back in 2011, going so far as to contact the Aneurin Bevan Society for a steer.

Their answer wasn’t exactly definitive:

“the person who got back to me said they thought it was in his speech at the final reading of the NHS bill in 1948 and also mentioned the Foot biography.”

We’ve already seen that it doesn’t appear in the Foot biography. Matthias couldn’t find it in records of the NHS Bill debate either, but I decided to check for myself, just to be on the safe side.

Transcripts of everything said in the House of Commons as far back as 1805 are available online, so it wasn’t difficult to search for various elements of the quote during Bevan’s time as an MP (1929 to 1960). I searched for the whole quote. I searched for bits of the quote. I searched for individual words from the quote. Nothing. Not in the 1948 debate, not in his resignation speech, not in any of his three decades as an MP. If Bevan did say it, he certainly didn’t say it in Parliament.

On a side note, I should point out that the quote is not entirely absent from Hansard. Two Labour MPs — Geraint Davies in 2014 and Sharon Hodgson in 2016 — both stood up in the Commons and credited Bevan with saying the words (Davies went so far as to say Bevan had “famously” said them). Neither, of course, provided a source.

The National Archives have got Cabinet minutes about the creation of the NHS and the text of the Bill that set it up. Nothing there either.

Starting to run out of options, I turned to my large collection of “important speeches” books (what can I say, I love my job and am a bit of a rhetoric-geek). As you’d expect from a noted orator, Bevan pops up in loads of them — but the quote in question never does.

So the line wasn’t in either of Bevan’s published books. He didn’t say it in Parliament, or in any of his most famous speeches. None of his major biographers mention the quote, even though it seems to perfectly sum up his philosophy to such an extent that countless people are still quoting it today. And although the internet is able to turn up thousands of pages attributing the quote to Bevan, none of them are able to reveal when or where he actually said it.

So where did it come from?

The answer appears to be British sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall. In every search I’ve conducted, his 1967 publication Social Policy in the Twentieth Century is the earliest source in which the much-used phrase appears in the form being widely shared today.

On page 146 of the book, while discussing alternative models of health service funding, Marshall talks about the American model of private insurance and notes that introducing it in the UK would:

“…be to violate the basic principles of the National Health Service as conceived by Aneurin Bevan, namely that no element of commercialism should enter between doctor and patient and that illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community. Some extension of the range of things for which a fixed minimum charge is not out of the question, but it should be noted that when, in July 1964, the British Medical Association declared that it might not object to making patients pay for their family doctor…” [and so on — emphasis added by myself]

There are no quote marks around the line in question because Marshall is not quoting Bevan — the academic is simply summing up the politician’s guiding principles for the NHS. The book is well-referenced, as you’d expect from a senior figure at Cambridge and the London School of Econ0mics, but no source is provided for this line because, quite simply, the author isn’t actually claiming that Bevan said it.

So how did this analysis by a relatively unknown academic get transformed into a direct quote from one of Britain’s best-known Left-wing political figures?

The answer may lie in its next-oldest appearance, a 100-page paper called Medicine, Health, and Justice: The Problem of Priorities, produced in 1978 by someone named Alastair Campbell (no, not that one).

Page nine of Campbell’s paper says:

“The spirit of this view of the state’s obligation is captured in Aneurin Bevan’s justification for a national health service: ‘Illness is neither an indulgence for which people have to pay, nor an offence for which they should be penalized, but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by the community.’ (quoted in Marshall, 1967, p. 146).”

And that, I believe is patient zero. Campbell has read Marshall’s paraphrasing of Bevan’s beliefs and taken it to be a direct quote. He even says so in his own citation. It’s the earliest example I can find anywhere — online or off — in which the phrase is attributed directly to Bevan himself. And it appears nearly two decades after his death.

From then on things go rather quiet until the internet comes along, followed by social media, memes and the rest of it. But by the early 2010s it’s all over the place, being cited as a Bevanism by politicians, journalists, medical students, think tanks, bloggers, even the Welsh Government’s own commission on the future of healthcare. And not one of them ever says where the quote comes from because, presumably, none of them have bothered to check.

It’s possible I’ve missed something. I’m not a professional researcher or fact-checker. I’ve done all this in my spare time and with limited resources. If someone can slide into my inbox and say “actually, he said it at [X] event in [Y] year and here’s the proof”, I would honestly love to hear from you.

But from what I’ve seen and read so far, anyone attributing this directly to Bevan is on very shaky ground. Of course, it’s impossible to prove a negative — nobody can say for sure that he never said it at any point, perhaps while sharing a cup of tea with Jennie Lee at Ashridge Farm. But, like so many quotes that the internet regularly attributes to Gandhi, Churchill and other significant figures, there seems to be no clear evidence that he did.

Does any of this matter? Probably not. Anyone familiar with the man and his thinking will agree that the line accurately sums up his philosophy, even if he never actually used that precise combination of words. It’s certainly the kind of thing he COULD have said, which presumably is why it gets shared so widely.

But from a professional point of view, it makes me uncomfortable. Like any other speechwriter, I regularly dig out helpful quotations from historical figures in order to make a point.

After getting my fingers burned in the past I always, always make sure I find the original source for any quotation before I use it. It’s partly out of intellectual curiosity, partly to make sure I’ve got the wording just right, and partly to avoid any potentially embarrassing mistakes (I’m thinking of a scene from under-rated Sandra Bullock movie Our Brand Is Crisis, in which a spin-doctor tricks a rival into quoting Joseph Goebbels by claiming it’s actually a line from Faust).

As far as I’m concerned, it’s just as important to properly source quotes as it is any other facts and figures. It should be basic due diligence for speechwriters, journalists, politicians and anyone else who leans on figures from the past to support their views today.

After all, if an audience can’t trust the quotations a speaker uses, why should they trust anything else they say?

[UPDATE: The official Labour Party online shop is selling posters featuring Bevan and this non-quote, £4 a pop ].

Many thanks to Rentaquill and Barton Swaim, both of whom helped out with research.