Michael Sheen spoke on St David’s Day 2015 at an NHS rally in Tredegar, Wales, birthplace of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan
On St David’s Day, Sunday 1 March 2015, Welsh actor Michael Sheen gave the performance of his life. Not at the National Theatre or any of the world stages (and screens) that he has graced, but in the pouring down rain at a political rally in the small town of Tredegar in Wales, birthplace of Aneurin Bevan, the great political dragon and founder of the National Health Service.
There were no TV cameras rolling, but marcher Ashley Meredith captured the speech on her phone, and in the days that followed, the shaky video went viral.
The speech is a great tribute to Bevan, the founding principles of the NHS and its place in a civilised society, and a harsh criticism of opinion poll-obsessed modern politicians. But, more than anything, Sheen’s speech is a rallying call to the public: a warning to take heed, to pay attention to the real threats facing the NHS by the current government and other corporate forces.
The NHS had a starring role in Danny Boyle’s in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony in 2012.
In 1945 Aneurin Bevan said: ‘We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers, and now, we are the builders.’ And my God, how they built. And what they built. Every bit as much a wonder of the world as any architectural marvel, or any natural miracle … The National Health Service. A truly monumental vision. The result of true representation. Of real advocacy. A symbol of equality, of fairness, and of compassion.
The nation that swept the postwar Labour government into power was made up of people who had faced the horrors and the hardships of the second world war. And had bound together as one community to overcome them. They had been sustained and inspired by their feeling of comradeship, and their sense of responsibility for their fellow man and woman. Compelled to help those in need and those struggling in the face of hardship.
These were the experiences that shaped them, and this was the vision of life that the welfare state was born out of. Faced with an enemy that sought only to divide, the National Health Service strove for unity. Where they traded in fear-mongering, and blame, and exploitation of the vulnerable, the NHS represented compassion, and generosity, and acceptance. Where they slavered with voracious self-interest, the NHS symbolised courageous self-sacrifice for the good of all.
In his book In Place of Fear, Bevan said:‘The collective principle asserts that no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’
‘No society can legitimately call itself civilised’: now that begs the question, what sort of society do we want to be? What is our vision for ourselves? What are the qualities and the principles that we aspire towards, and choose to defend?
Because it is a choice.Do we want to be a society that is fractured, divided, disconnected? Do we want to be a society that is suspicious and mistrustful of its own people? A society that is exploitative, that sees people as commodities, as numbers. Mere instruments of profit, to be used while they have use, drained of whatever they can offer, and when they are seen as no longer useful, just abandoned, cut adrift. Preferably unseen and never again heard from.
Or … or … do we want to be a society where each person is recognised? Where all are equal in worth and value. And where that value is not purely a monetary one. A society that is supportive, that is inclusive and compassionate. Where it is acknowledged that not all can prosper. Where those who are most vulnerable, most in need of help, are not seen as lazy, or scrounging, or robbing the rest of us for whatever they can get. Where we …We do not turn our backs on those facing hard times. We do not abandon them or exploit their weakness. Because they are us. If not now, then at some point, and inevitably, they are us.
We are not afraid to acknowledge that we can be ailing, that we can find ourselves weak, that we can be infirm, and that we all at some point need help. We don’t shy away from this hard truth, we embrace it. Because in that way, together, we are always strong.We leave no one behind. We only say we’ve crossed the finish line when the last of us does. Because no one is alone. And there is such a thing as society.
This is what I believe to be Aneurin Bevan’s vision of a living tapestry of a mixed community, as he said.
Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS
At a time now, when people mistrust politicians as being too professional, too disconnected, no longer representing the voice of the people they have been elected to serve but more likely to represent the voice of wherever the money is. No longer standing for anything meaningful, or inspired by strongly held beliefs.
At a time like this a man like Aneurin Bevan seems like a mythical creature. Like a unicorn perhaps. Or perhaps more fittingly, a dragon. He didn’t care what the polls were saying. He didn’t worry about his PR, or what the current popular trends might be.His vision was long term. It was far-reaching, visionary in its scope and revolutionary in its effects. He had cast iron integrity and a raging passion.
This was a man who had no fear in standing up for what he believed in. And he made no bones about how he felt. This was a man who publicly stated:
‘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.’
In today’s political climate, where politicians are careful, tentative, scared of saying what they feel for fear of alienating a part of the electorate; where under the excuse of trying to appear electable, all parties drift into a morass of bland neutrality; and the real deals, the real values we suspect, are kept behind closed doors – is it any wonder that people feel there is very little to choose between? Bevan said:
‘We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.’
So when people are too scared to say what they really mean, when they’re too careful to speak from their hearts, when integrity is too much of a risk, it’s no surprise that people feel disengaged with politics.There is never an excuse to not speak up for what you think is right. You must stand up for what you believe. But first of all – by God, believe in something.
Because there are plenty out there who believe in grabbing as much as they can for themselves. Constantly sniffing around for markets to exploit, for weakness to expose. They won’t say it, of course – they’re too smart for that.
No one says they want to get rid of the NHS. Everyone praises it, across all parties. It is about as powerful a symbol of goodness that we have, so it would be too dangerous not to. But for decades now, there has nevertheless been a systematic undermining of its core values.
This is beyond party politics. The Labour government arguably did as much damage to the NHS as any Tory or coalition-led one.This is about who we want to be as a nation, and what we believe is worth fighting for. Too many people have given too much, and fought too hard, for us to give away what they achieved and to be left with so very little. To those across the whole party political spectrum, and to anyone in any position of power or authority, I ask you to search your heart, and look at who and what you serve.
To those who have discarded all principles, save that of profit before all else; to those who have turned their backs on the very idea of a truly democratic society, and aligned themselves to nothing but self-interest; to those who have betrayed the vision of equality, and justice, and compassion for all – that vision that provided the crucible from which came forth the National Health Service – I say to you, as Aneurin Bevan said in Trafalgar Square in 1956:You have besmirched the name of Britain; you have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud; you have offended against every principle of decency and there is only way in which you can even begin to restore your tarnished reputation. Get out. Get out! Get … out!