Was Ernest Bevin a greater statesman than Winston Churchill? Our opportunity to reassess Bevin, just over 50 years after his untimely death, comes not with a fresh work of scholarship, but with an abridged one-volume reissue of Alan Bullock's biography, which was originally published in three volumes over a period of 23 years, between 1960 and 1983.
In his new preface, Bullock sees Bevin as "one of the truly great Englishmen of the 20th century", and as Churchill's equal and occasional superior. Brian Brivati, in the introduction, is less circumspect: "In practical contribution to the lives of most British people and in the achievements of a national and international statesman, Bevin's political life amounts to an even greater one than Churchill's." Even when comparing their wartime records, Brivati maintains that, while Churchill prolonged the war, Bevin's work ensured that Britain had the resources for victory.
The comparison is perhaps invidious. What one can say for certain is that, without either man, Britain could have lost. It is Churchill who has taken the plaudits, because he was the voice of defiance in the darkest hours. But a rereading of Bevin's life serves to remind us of the scale of his achievements.
From a poor West Country background, he rose to become the leader of Britain's largest trade union. During the 1920s and 1930s, he stood as a conservative force against trade union militancy while never shirking his responsibilities to the working man. During the war, he ensured that Britain was able to mobilise the largest force ever under arms in this country, as well as to produce weapons and armaments on a vast scale.
If anything, Bevin's greatness was enhanced and confirmed in the few postwar years remaining to him. He, more than anyone, was the guiding force and creator of the Marshall Plan. Churchill was quick to recognise his essential contribution to the stand against communism and to the setting up of Nato.
This timely reissue of Bevin's life should serve to remind the public not only of his place in history, but also of the Labour Party's honourable heritage in international affairs. Our more recent memories are of anti-Americanism and CND marches. But as Bevin's life shows, there are many Labour politicians who played a crucial role in maintaining a close relationship with the United States. Blair would do well to call on his memory as his party fractures around current foreign policy.
Is Bullock's life of Bevin one of the greatest works of scholar-ship on a 20th-century British politician? Quite possibly, and certainly in the view of Peter Hennessy, who contributes a foreword to this volume. Bullock helped establish St Catherine's College, Oxford, where he was Master and remains as a don today. He identifies closely with Bevin. He is, like Bevin, a combative man with a gritty Yorkshire exterior - one of his colleagues recalls seeing him boot a boisterous undergraduate, singing too loudly at night during finals week, up the backside, with the immortal words "I will be Master in my own college". Bullock matches his subject's delight at being educated at the university of the 'edgerows.
Now in his 88th year, Bullock remains one of our best historians and academics. A greater tribute to him even than this reissue would be to republish his first work, Hitler: a study in tyranny. Published 50 years ago, it is a masterclass in scholarship and objectivity, made even more remarkable by its proximity to the events it describes. But for now, we must be content with Ernest Bevin, and hope that its publication will introduce a new generation to a great politician.
Edward Vaizey is a political commentator