Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill 
by Andrew Adonis.
Biteback, 352 pp., £20, July, 978 1 78590 598 8
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SirNicholas Henderson was British ambassador almost everywhere that mattered – Bonn, Paris, Washington. He met all the great personalities of the second half of the 20th century. Yet in conversation he reverted, time and again, to the few years he spent in his twenties as assistant private secretary to Ernest Bevin. It wasn’t simply the stories that Bevin told and the stories he provoked, with his famous dropped aitches, his heroic drinking and his apparently naive malapropisms: ‘If you open that Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan ’orses will jump out.’ It was obvious that ‘Nico’ (as Henderson was known to everyone, just as Bevin was universally called ‘Ernie’) felt that he had been in the presence of greatness. Listening to him at the time, I couldn’t help suspecting he was indulging in nostalgia, but now I think, emphatically, that he was right. In fact, it isn’t possible to come away from Andrew Adonis’s crisp and affectionate Life with any other impression. Adonis is naturally more light-footed than Alan Bullock was in his three-volume masterwork on Bevin (Bullock only allotted Hitler a single, though memorable, volume), but the picture he presents is much the same. Bevin’s achievements are simply so massive that it is impossible for any biografiend to dent them.

Impossible, too, to exaggerate what a hard start in life he had. Even his name was scarcely his own. Mercy Bevin had six children by her husband William in the mining valleys of South Wales before they split up and she returned to her native Somerset village of Winsford, where quite a few years later she had a seventh child, Ernest, in 1881. Father unknown. Certainly Mercy never saw William again after she left him. She worked as a midwife and domestic help, receiving intermittent parish relief – ‘sixpence a week and bread’. Mercy died of cancer when Bevin was eight, and he went to live with his half-sister, who was 25. At the age of 11, he was a farm boy: ‘scaring birds, stone picking, following the dibble, hoeing, twitching, cutting up mangels and turnips for cattle fodder’. He hated it, and escaped to Bristol where he became first a van boy on a mineral-water wagon, then an assistant to his pastrycook brother, then a waiter, then a horse-tram conductor, and finally a horse-driver on mineral-water wagons, which he stuck at for 11 years before he became a full-time trade-union organiser aged 29. He remained first and foremost a union man all his life. Uniquely in British political history, he reached the top entirely as a result of his dominance within the movement. Though he had stood twice for Parliament, in 1918 and 1931, losing badly both times, it was not until 1940, at the age of 59, that he entered the cabinet as minister of labour and became an MP almost as an afterthought.

His early hardships are briskly described here (it’s hard to forget that Adonis, once schools minister under Tony Blair, was himself abandoned by his mother at the age of three and brought up in care homes until he was 11), but knowledge of them increases the reader’s admiration for Bevin’s lifelong generosity of spirit. This flourished as a consequence of Bevin’s precocious activities as a Baptist Sunday school teacher and later as a travelling local preacher, where he tub-thumped in a style that later translated memorably into politics. No Labour politician of his time better justified the proposition, which Denis Healey may have been the first to make, that ‘Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marx.’

From his religion, Bevin probably also derived his frugality and diligence. Though he drank and smoked himself to death, and enjoyed the music hall and Chelsea Football Club, he refused all honours and never sought a penny beyond his salary, so that when he died in 1951, his wife Flo was left in relative poverty. He was unsparingly hardworking to the end. In his last years as foreign secretary, suffering from severe angina and unable to walk upstairs – at the Colombo Conference in 1950, he had to be carried up on a palanquin – he still started work on his red boxes at 4.30 a.m.

Adonis gives full credit to all Bevin’s qualities, as well as to his overwhelming physical presence. Yet at times I think he goes astray. The mischief starts with the book’s subtitle, ‘Labour’s Churchill’, a comparison repeated in the text. In reality, it’s hard to think of two men less alike, and not just because one was briefly heir to a dukedom and the other was the heir to zero. Bevin was steadfastly loyal to the giant trade union he created and led for twenty years, loyal to the Labour Party and to Clement Attlee (most of whose colleagues, especially Herbert Morrison, never stopped intriguing against him). Churchill, by contrast, was notoriously self-seeking and greedy for cash. He abandoned first the Conservative Party, then the Liberals, and when back with the Conservatives was consistent only in his disloyalty. ‘Anyone can rat,’ he is supposed to have gleefully declared, ‘but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat.’ Nobody who studies Churchill’s career can ignore his delight in violence against all-comers. ‘I would not be out of this glorious, delicious war for anything the world could give me,’ he told Margot Asquith in 1915. He dreamed of the mass bombing of civilians as early as 1917, pioneered it in Iraq in the 1920s, and made it Allied policy as soon as he came to power in 1940. By contrast, Bevin opposed the First World War, though he was in favour of vigorous resistance to Mussolini and Hitler.

But it is Bevin’s political imagination that impresses us so vividly. As chancellor, Churchill dumbly accepted the Treasury orthodoxy and put Britain back on the gold standard, indifferent to or unaware of the inevitable consequences for wages and employment. Bevin, by contrast, was a Keynesian long before he chummed up with Keynes himself and Asquith’s old chancellor Reginald McKenna as part of the Macmillan Committee on Finance and Industry in 1929 (led by an economically illiterate Scottish judge, not Harold Macmillan). As early as 1906, he had led a delegation to Augustine Birrell, the MP for Bristol North, requesting a scheme of public works to relieve unemployment. Birrell didn’t listen, but Bevin persuaded the city council to put men to work constructing a lake in Eastville Park, known for years afterwards as ‘Bevin’s Lake’. In 1917, sitting on a committee to plan postwar reconstruction, he fiercely opposed any return to the gold standard. After the war, again unlike Churchill, he opposed intervention in Russia, not because he was soft on Bolshevism, which he never was, but because ‘we have no right to determine their government.’ He was just as hostile to the Versailles Treaty, and at the Vienna Conference of the International Transport Workers’ Federation in 1922, he spoke out against reparations: ‘this incitement to nationalist feeling in the various states is in reality a crime.’ Remarkably for a socialist, Bevin mused after the Second World War:

It might have been far better for all of us not to have destroyed the institution of the Kaiser after the last war – we might not have had this one if we hadn’t done so. It might have been far better to have guided the Germans to a constitutional monarchy rather than leaving them without a symbol and therefore opening the psychological doors to a man like Hitler.

He was a determined but never dogmatic socialist, believing in the nationalisation of basic industries and thinking of untamed capitalism as like a tiger, ‘savage and pitiless towards the weak’. But at the same time he thought the General Strike was futile. Adonis argues plausibly that if Bevin had been able to control the miners in 1926, the strike would never have happened or would have been better planned, with a decent exit strategy. Bevin always believed in negotiating with a clear settlement in view. He looked forward to the day when there would be a round table in every factory. Uniquely, I think, among union leaders, he liked to call himself ‘an industrialist’, a rhetorical trope that offered escape from the dreary concept of ‘the two sides of industry’. He had made the Transport and General Workers Union the greatest union in the world by tramping the country to persuade even the smaller unions, jealous of their independence – the lightermen and bargees, the humble draymen rattling their mineral-water carts round Bristol – that they would be better protected in a giant union. It was an impeccably democratic process: 14 of the 19 unions initially involved voted for amalgamation, often by huge majorities.

Adonis quotes Bullock’s tribute to Bevin’s ‘prophetic touch of imagination, that sense of historical change’ which shines through his speeches, even when they appear superficially clumsy and vague. But I’m not sure that Adonis puts his finger on why Bevin was so often right, so often far-sighted. He makes another unfortunate comparison when he declares Bevin to have been ‘the Picasso of 20th-century trade union power’. This might suggest that Bevin’s genius was his fertility of invention, his restless search for a more perfect device. But his secret lay rather in his rooted observation of realities. He looked at the record, he examined the facts on the ground, he watched the people, and he drew his conclusions. He never fell for Mussolini, whereas Churchill returning from Rome in 1927 ‘could not help being charmed by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and his calm, detached poise’. After the war, Bevin never fell for Stalin either, as Churchill, FDR and Truman all did to begin with. Truman later tried to cover this up, though he confessed he had ‘liked the little son-of-a-bitch’ at Potsdam. Bevin, by contrast, saw the need for sustained containment of the Soviet Union nearly a year before George Kennan sent his famous Long Telegram from Moscow.

Bevin’s vigorous scepticism and his quick understanding of what other people were actually like – a rare quality in politicians, that race of incurable solipsists – went with an equally quick eye for the possibilities of constructing or improving institutions. Adonis points out that Bevin ‘never dismantled machines that worked’. Some diplomats feared that he would take the Foreign Office apart when he became foreign secretary after the war, but on the contrary he turned it into an unrivalled instrument of British policy and won their lasting adoration (which David Owen sourly put down to ‘inverted snobbery’).

As minister of labour between 1940 and 1945, Bevin achieved with remarkably little agony the greatest mobilisation and demobilisation in British history. Churchill deserves every credit for seeing that this massive upheaval could be finessed only by someone who knew the arts of manpower manipulation from the inside. Bevin was ‘the Labour man I wanted most’, he said afterwards. In office, Bevin proceeded with steady determination but also with tact. (Ironically, the only real trouble came from the so-called ‘Bevin Boys’ who had been dispatched down the pit by ballot and quite a few of whom deserted.) I doubt whether anyone else could have brought off the partial conscription of women in the face of hostility from Tory MPs and Churchill himself. Bevin stood out firmly against the calls from employers and the Treasury for wage freezes and cuts during the war. Indeed, one of his first actions was to put up the wages of farmworkers to stem the drift from the land. By September 1943, more than 22 million of the 33 million men and women of working age were serving in the armed forces, civil defence or industry. Bevin himself liked to claim that Britain was more thoroughly mobilised than totalitarian Germany or Italy – a boast that subsequent research has tended to confirm.

In reviewing this massive achievement, we should not overlook the more humane touches: the creation of the Entertainments National Service Association, which brought stars from Spike Milligan and Vera Lynn to Laurence Olivier and Mantovani to entertain troops all over the world, and Workers’ Playtime, where I first heard Peter Sellers do his funny voices (Bevin himself occasionally appeared on the show to egg on the troops), not to mention the introduction of ‘wet canteens’ that could serve beer. All this was very much Bevin’s own work. The 1945 Wages Councils Act, which set minimum wages in low-paid industries such as catering and agriculture, continued in force until repealed by the Thatcher government in 1986. Bevin’s boast that ‘they’ll say that Bevin was at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1990’ was only four years out. It was to be another 12 years before the practice was revived by Blair’s National Minimum Wage Act.

Bevin’s​ greatest achievement was the reconstruction of Germany. How visionary it was, when you consider that at Quebec in September 1944 Churchill and Roosevelt had signed up to the so-called Morgenthau Plan for a dismembered, deindustrialised Germany, ‘eliminating the war-making industries in the Ruhr and Saar, looking forward to converting Germany into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in character’. Much of this pastoral plan survived into the Potsdam Declaration a year later, signed by the new leaders, Attlee and Truman, along with Stalin. It was Bevin who developed a completely different plan for what was to become the Federal Republic of Germany, holding out against Stalin’s demands for reparations and French demands to annex the Saar.

The essential lever that made this switch possible was Churchill’s successful insistence at Yalta that the British zone of occupation should be the economic heart of Germany – the Ruhr, the Rhine, Hamburg, Bremen – and also the largest in terms of population. This enabled the British to take the dominant role in postwar Germany and also, incidentally, gave them the power to lead the new Europe, had they only chosen to exercise it more energetically. Within two years, Bevin had in place a constitutional blueprint which functions nicely to this day, along with the Deutschmark, the Mitbestimmung in industry – or ‘codetermination’, with workers sitting on the supervisory boards of companies; not a complete novelty, similar arrangements having operated in Weimar Germany – and the free press, the whole process lubricated by the generosity of the Marshall Plan. All this for the enduring benefit of the German people whom he detested: ‘I tries ’ard, but I ’ates them.’ And out of this monumental work and confrontation with Stalin grew the no less monumental achievement of Nato, another lasting institution unthinkable without Bevin’s input. As with Christopher Wren, you only have to look around you. There had been no greater foreign secretary since Castlereagh, and there has been none greater since.

Of course he had his glaring faults. He lapped up applause, he was vain and boastful. He slapped down or turfed out rivals like George Lansbury whom he thought weren’t up to the job. He was a good hater. When told that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, he said: ‘Not while I’m alive, ’e ain’t’ – though the quip is attributed to other wags and other targets, including Groucho Marx and Nye Bevan. He played up to the image of the unlettered yokel, dropping more aitches the higher up the social scale he moved (George VI loved him, and was instrumental in his being preferred to Dalton for the Foreign Office). But on top of all this, and largely excusing it, was his gaiety and pleasure in life. The best bit in the whole of Adonis’s book is the ten pages he gives over to Nico Henderson’s account of his and Ernie’s exhausting, uproarious excursion to Port Talbot.

Like most successful politicians, Bevin went on too long. Adonis refuses to attribute his opposition to a two-state solution in Palestine and the possibilities of some sort of European Union to his rapidly declining health. We are told instead that, like Attlee, Bevin was antisemitic and, also like Attlee, blinded by the illusion of the Commonwealth. Well, being anti-German hadn’t prevented him from inventing postwar Germany and, as far back as 1927, he had looked forward to a European customs union. To me, it seems more likely that if he had not been dying, he would have come to understand the virtues of the Schuman Plan in 1950 (harder to imagine getting round his stubborn hostility to the creation of the state of Israel).

It is intriguing, too, to speculate on what sort of future a fully fit Bevin might have plotted for Britain’s trade unions. Churchill, after being returned to office in 1951, simply wanted a quiet life. Having bought off the threat of a rail strike, he rang up his chancellor, Rab Butler, at midnight to crow. ‘On what terms have you settled it?’ Butler asked. ‘Theirs, old cock!’ Churchill answered. ‘We did not like to keep you up.’ Bevin, I fancy, would not have been so accommodating. Might he perhaps have achieved for Britain what he did for Germany, and devised a system of industrial relations that would have spared us thirty years of strife?

With the disappearance of Bevin from the scene, a certain intellectual vigour and ferocity of will disappeared too. It’s important to stress ‘intellectual’. Though he sometimes tried to hide it, Bevin simply thought harder and deeper than his rivals. By comparison today, where is the architecture for the UK’s new relationship with the EU, or for East-West relations, come to that? What is to be done about, against or with China, apart from irritable name-calling and capricious tariff-slapping? If Ernest Bevin were surveying the contemporary political scene, I think that the former West-Country drayman might be tempted to mutter: ‘They use the snaffle and the curb all right, but where’s the bloody horse?’

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