Of all Labour’s ‘great resignations’, arguably the most celebrated is Nye Bevan’s in 1951. Bevan famously refused to accept the introduction of NHS charges for teeth and spectacles. Hugh Gaitskell, Clement Attlee’s chancellor and Bevan’s then rival, insisted charges were necessary to pay for massive rearmament for the Korean war. For those asking today ‘What would Clement do’, history records the answer: he backed Gaitskell. But Bevan was joined by two other ministers: Harold Wilson from cabinet and junior minister John Freeman.
Few now recall that for many contemporaries judging the most likely future prime minister of the two, it was Freeman that they would have picked over Wilson. And Freeman’s character – fascinating, elusive, charismatic and inscrutably enigmatic in equal measure – is what Hugh Purcell’s enthralling biography seeks to unravel. A barrister’s son, the newly elected Labour member of parliament for Watford, had become a shining star of the era. On 16 August 1945, the 30-year-old Freeman made the very first speech of that great reforming parliament. ‘It was a faultless act which I shall always remember,’ recalled Hugh Dalton. ‘In the uniform of a Major in the Rifle Brigade, wearing several ribbons, very erect and astonishingly handsome, seeming, as was appropriate, ever so slightly nervous, but speaking in a very clear and pleasant voice,’ his final words captured the passionate optimism of the Labour benches: ‘To-day may rightly be regarded as “D-Day” in the Battle of the New Britain.’
Freeman, Dalton recalled, ‘established at this one blow, and never lost, the reputation of an almost perfect Parliamentary performer’. But it was Wilson who became Labour’s leader, not least because Freeman decided he was sick of parliament. Just before he bailed out of Westminster at the 1955 election, he wrote for the New Statesman, ‘I have in my mind a disenchanted vision of parliamentary man … arrogant, narrow minded and periphrastic … Too many MPs cease to look outside. They perceive one another with the vapid intensity of a goldfish.’
Freeman never ceased to ‘look outside’. At his death, a few short months from his century, he had mastered nine very different careers ranging from pioneering TV interviewer on Face-to-Face to editor of the New Statesman and ambassador to Washington. His ninth and final career was as a leading local bowls player in south London, by which time he had consciously cut himself off from the political and diplomatic glitterati.
On one level he also turned his back on ‘Bevanite’ politics. During the 1980s Freeman recalled, ‘it now seems self-evident, that if you pursue policies of economic collectivism and dirigiste policies … then you necessarily end up with dirigiste government. I realised that was something that I did not want, but not until I had already done considerable harm supporting such ideas.’
But something of Bevan’s egalitarianism lived on. Freeman had once written in tribute to RH Tawney, ‘man cannot be whole or dignified until he lives in a community where his private motives lead him to seek the public good’. In his twilight years Freeman was nothing if not that. The local bowls club regulars recalled: ‘He treated everyone as equal … He was a man who would extend the hand of friendship and he didn’t want to say, “I am the big me”. He wanted to be an ordinary man’.
Greg Rosen is chair of Labour History Group
A Very Private Celebrity:
The Nine Lives of John Freeman
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