What Nye Bevan actually said

by reestheskin on 30/12/2015

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Delightful article by John Kay in the FT on famous quotes that aren’t — or at least nobody can track down the original source of when somebody famous is supposed to have said that they are reported to have said. The Casablanca ‘Play it again, Sam’ is a well known example (Bogart didn’t say it in the film). He also reminds that the context of any particular saying often gets lost. He writes, re that Scottish economist:

Sometimes posterity forgets the context. Adam Smith did describe how a merchant might be “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention”. But the remark was not the eulogy to untrammelled free markets attributed to him by modern libertarians.

In fact, Smith was explaining that protectionism was often unnecessary because consumers and traders so often preferred to buy goods made in their home country rather than importing them.

But I also like this one, re that famous remark attributed to Nye Bevan.

No one has yet tracked down a source for the reported words of Aneurin Bevan, Shawcross’s colleague and founder of Britain’s National Health Service: “The sound of a dropped bedpan in Tredegar Hospital will reverberate round the Palace of Westminster.”

Well, a comment by Bill Ellison on the article, sheds some light:

The Times


Mr Bevan, Minister of Health, forecast some of the the probable consequences of the inception on July 5 of the new health service measures when he spoke in London last evening at the annual meeting of the Institute of Almoners.

A situation would arise, he said, in which echoes would reverberate throughout Whitehall every time a maid kicked over a bucket in a hospital ward. (Laughter.) For a while there would be a cacophony of complaints. He continued:-

“For a while it may appear that everything is going wrong. As a matter of fact, everything will be going right, because people will be able to complain. They complain now, but no one hears about it [emphasis added]. What we will happen after July 5 is that a public megaphone will be put in the mouth of every complainant, so that it can be heard all over the country.”

Now that suddenly makes me even more in awe of Bevan’s political genius — and foresight. But also leads to some end of year blues, because in reality people are still not able to complain in any meaningful sense. The ‘public megaphone’ is drowned out by a cacophony of meaningless statistics, press advisers, commissars paid from the public purse, and the amateurs of the nobility.