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12 August 2020

Ernest Bevin: The forgotten titan of Labourism

Andrew Adonis’s biography on “Labour’s Churchill” rescues Bevin from undeserved obscurity.

By George Eaton

Whenever the name Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) is mentioned in conversation, it is often met with: “Do you mean Bevan?” The latter, Aneurin, founded the National Health Service; but his near-namesake was a yet more titanic figure. Ernest Bevin was, in succession, the founder of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and its general secretary for 23 years, minister of labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, foreign secretary in Clement Attlee’s administration, and an architect of Nato. He was a working-class autodidact, a formidable orator, a master of statecraft, a good friend and a bad enemy.

For decades Bevin’s imposing frame loomed over British politics. That he has been largely forgotten would bewilder past generations. In this vivid biography, Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and former transport secretary, makes it his mission to rescue Bevin from undeserved obscurity. Labour’s Churchill is the first major work to be ­published on its subject since the ­historian Alan Bullock’s epic trilogy concluded in 1983. But Bevin’s story is worthy of cinema.

He was born into poverty in Winsford, Somerset, and was orphaned at the age of eight after his mother, Mercy, died of ­cancer. Bevin, who never met his father (his ­parents’ relationship having ended before his birth), would later describe himself as “a turn-up in a million”. Churchill ­reputedly described Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about”. Bevin was an immodest man with much to be immodest about.

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After leaving school at the age of 11, he became a farm labourer before joining his older brothers in Bristol, where he worked as a drayman. For Bevin, in common with many early Labour politicians, the transmission belt to politics was religion. Imbued with faith by his Nonconformist mother, he became a Baptist lay preacher at the age of 20 (while also attending evening classes at the Bristol Adult School Movement and the Workers’ Educational Association). The chapel, writes Adonis, took Bevin’s “ebullience and physical presence and taught him to speak, harangue, inspire and persuade, to impose and be imposing”.

But Bevin would not become a Labour MP until 1940, at the age of 59. It is a measure of his prodigious influence that this was only after he had been appointed minister of labour by Churchill, necessitating his entry into parliament. The vehicle through which Bevin wielded power was the trade union he created in 1922 and transformed into the Western world’s largest: the TGWU (the forerunner to Unite).

Bevin did not found Labour but he, more than anyone else, embodied Labourism: hostile to Marxism and revolutionary socialism, suspicious and even contemptuous of intellectuals, and wedded to the British imperial state. As Adonis writes, “He believed in concerted industrial action to improve workers’ conditions, even to coerce the government, but not to bring down the government or to launch class war.”

Rather than Marx – a significant influence on Labour contemporaries such as Bevan and Stafford Cripps – the economist to whom Bevin was closest was JM Keynes. But as Adonis illuminates, he practised “Keynesianism before Keynes”, with an intuitive, rather than academic, grasp of economics. As a 24-year-old campaigner, he persuaded Bristol city council to construct a lake in Eastville Park (dubbed “Bevin’s lake”) as an unemployment relief measure – an early act of fiscal stimulus.

He later again pre-empted Keynes by arguing in 1917 against the UK’s return to the Gold Standard, the position disastrously adopted by Churchill as chancellor in 1925. As minister for labour, Bevin’s overriding aim was not just to win the war but to win the peace by advancing workers’ rights at every turn. During his tenure, the government committed itself to the “maintenance of a high and stable level of employment”, a development Keynes described as “a revolution in official opinion”.

It would be forgivable to assume that Bevin confined himself to the domestic realm. Yet throughout his political life he was magnetised by foreign affairs (sealing the treaty that created Nato with a gold ring given to him by the US trade union leader Samuel Gompers in 1916).

Long before he became foreign secretary in 1945, Bevin made his presence felt. At the Labour conference in 1935, he “hammered to death” the party’s pacifist leader George Lansbury over his refusal to support military action against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia (“hawking your conscience round from body to body to be told what you ought to do with it”).

From the outset of the 1930s, unlike many others, Bevin grasped that fascism and Stalinism had to be confronted, not appeased. Here, for instance, he is speaking at the 1936 Labour conference in Edinburgh: “If I am asked to face the question of arming this country, I am prepared to face it. Which is the first institution that victorious fascism wipes out? It is the trade union movement. We saw our movement go in Germany.” Though Bevin would bridle at the comparison, his prescience over the twin threat posed by Nazism and Stalinism is perhaps rivalled only by that of Leon Trotsky.

After the war, in the face of US apathy and much fawning over “Uncle Joe”, Bevin fought successfully to prevent the Soviet Union’s expansion into western Europe and oversaw the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany – an act of bravura statesmanship justly hailed by Adonis. Again, with striking prescience, Bevin anticipated the gravitational pull of democracy: “there is more chance of drawing Eastern Germany towards the West than vice versa”.

But if Bevin’s qualities are inescapable, so are his defects. As Adonis acidly observes, “He was an unreconstructed imperialist, which made him all too literally Labour’s Churchill.” Having unsuccessfully resisted Indian independence, he fought to preserve what remained of the British empire while also supporting the reimposition of French colonial power in Vietnam and Dutch ­colonial power in Indonesia. He opposed equal pay for women workers and his views on Israel were tainted by anti-Semitism.

It was Bevin’s aspiration to govern from beyond the grave. “They say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 to 1930,” he declared. “I’m going to be minister of labour from 1940 to 1990.” Thatcherism thwarted his dream.

If Aneurin Bevan is still revered it is because the NHS, now more than ever, ­endures as a national religion. Ernest ­Bevin’s decline, meanwhile, has mirrored that of the trade union movement itself. But as the spectre of mass unemployment once more haunts the land, Bevin’s indomitable voice can be heard anew: “Organise.”

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill
Andrew Adonis
Biteback, 368pp, £20