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  Ernest Bevin (1881–1951), by Felix H. Man, 1939–40 Ernest Bevin (1881–1951), by Felix H. Man, 1939–40
Bevin, Ernest (1881–1951), trade unionist and politician, was born at Winsford, Somerset, on 7 March 1881, the seventh child of Diana (known as Mercy) Bevin (1841–1889). His mother, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Tidbould, married William Bevin, an agricultural labourer, in 1864. In 1876 or 1877 William Bevin left his family and Diana Bevin thereafter called herself a widow. Hence the father of Ernest Bevin is unknown. His mother earned a frugal living for herself and the children as a midwife, a domestic servant, and an occasional help in a public house, the Royal Oak, until her death in 1889. Ernest Bevin then lived with his sister Mary Jane and her husband, George Pope, a railway worker, in Morchard Bishop and then Copplestone, Devon.

Unskilled work in Bristol: socialism and trade unionism

Bevin had a fragmented education. When his mother was alive he attended the Winsford church school and the Wesleyan Sunday school. After her death he attended Colebrook board school (1889–90), then Hayward Boys' School, Crediton (1890–92). After leaving school on 25 March 1892 he worked on two farms—first Chaffcombe, then Beers—before moving into Bristol in spring 1894 to join his brothers Jack and Albert. There, as a new migrant from the countryside, he took on a series of unskilled jobs. Jack worked in a butcher's shop in Clifton, and Albert was training as a pastry-cook at the Priory Restaurant. Bevin shared accommodation in Bishopston until 1900 with Jack and through Albert was employed in the Priory Restaurant's city centre bakehouse. He left to work as a van boy for the mineral water firm Brookes and Prudencios. He moved on to work in Jackson's butter shop in High Street, as a waiter in the Priory Restaurant, and as a conductor on the horse trams from December 1897 to March 1900.

From May 1900 until March 1906 Bevin worked as a van driver for the mineral water firm G. C. King, of York Street, St Paul's, which employed his brother Fred. He left his van to run the firm's refreshment rooms for two years. His final job before becoming a paid trade union official was as a van driver for John Macey's, another mineral water firm, where by working long hours he earned nearly £2 per week. During this period of relative job security he began what his friend and biographer Francis Williams called his ‘lifelong partnership’ (DNB) with Florence Anne Townley (d. 1968), the daughter of a wine taster at a Bristol wine merchants. It is not known when or where they married. They had one daughter.

Bevin became strong in his nonconformist beliefs as a young man. His mother had sent him to the Wesleyan Sunday school from the age of three, and when living with his sister at Copplestone he had attended the Ebenezer Chapel. In Bristol he attended numerous chapels but came to favour the Manor Hall Baptist Mission in St Mark's Road, Easton. On 5 January 1902 he was baptized. For a few years up to 1905 he was active in the chapel as a Sunday school teacher and a sidesman, and as a Baptist preacher in Bristol and the surrounding area. He eagerly participated in the large-scale discussion class run by the Revd James Moffat Logan in the Old King Street Baptist Church. Bevin also learned much from Sunday morning classes run by the Adult School Movement and weekday evening classes run by both the YMCA in St James's Square and the city education committee. These experiences typified the drive for self-improvement characteristic of a section of the Victorian and Edwardian working class, and like many contemporaries they assumed for Bevin a political dimension.

After the end of the South African War (1899–1902) Bevin began attending socialist meetings, including those of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Perhaps he drew an element of didactic intolerance and a distaste for self-consciously ethical stances from the federation. The ILP appears to have been less of an influence. When a right-to-work committee was set up in Bristol, Bevin was its first secretary, from 1908 to 1910. He effectively followed other areas' style of campaigning, with highly publicized delegations to Augustine Birrell, local MP and chief secretary for Ireland, and the mayor of Bristol. He organized some 400 unemployed to attend morning service in Bristol Cathedral on 9 November 1908. In 1909 he stood unsuccessfully as a socialist in the city council elections.

Bevin's involvement in trade unionism came relatively late, but it soon became his full-time occupation. His connection with the dockers began in 1910, when he was twenty-nine. During a dock strike at Avonmouth and Bristol in June–July 1910 he was invited to run a relief fund. The Dock, Wharf, Riverside, and General Workers' Union (known as the Dockers' Union) urged Bevin to unionize the carters. Bevin rebuffed the recruitment efforts of the rival Workers' Union and in August 1910 successfully set up a carmen's branch of the Dockers' Union, with himself as chairman. He began his union career at a highly favourable time, at an upturn in trade and in trade union activity, and in a favourable place, already a key area of support for the Dockers' Union. After a year his branch had 2050 members and he had secured collective bargaining with local employers.

Official of the Dockers' Union

In spring 1911 Bevin gave up his job delivering mineral water and became a paid trade union official as a district investigator of the Dockers' Union. He was soon working for the union throughout the south-west of England and south Wales. In March 1914 he became one of his union's three national organizers. Before the outbreak of the First World War Bevin was involved in talks with the General Labourers' National Council for consolidating its constituent unions, with semi-autonomous sections operating within the resulting large union. Bevin favoured such a merger, not least because of his experience in Bristol of a union covering dockers, transport workers, and general labourers. It revealed his concern for broader unity, to construct solidarity out of fragmentation and diversity.

During the First World War, Bevin acquired a national standing within the trade union movement. He was critical both of those in the labour movement who were strongly against the war and those who were strongly for it. Like most trade union leaders he opposed conscription, arguing that it would ‘enslave labour’. At the TUC in 1915 he called for the immediate creation of a Ministry of Labour. In 1917 he declined the offer of a paid post as a government labour adviser, but earlier he did join the Bristol subcommittee of the Port and Transit Executive. In autumn 1915 he had his first experience of overseas trade union meetings as a TUC fraternal delegate to the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor, held in San Francisco. In 1916 he was elected to the executive committee of the National Transport Workers' Federation (NTWF) when Ben Tillett, the secretary of the Dockers' Union, stood down. The large NTWF had much weight in the British labour movement, unlike the 40,000-strong Dockers' Union.

Bevin increasingly aligned himself with the centrist trade unionists' position, distancing himself from the anti-war left of the First World War. In August 1917, at the Labour Party special conference which debated whether to send delegates to the proposed socialist conference at Stockholm, Bevin and his union backed Arthur Henderson in supporting the conference. However, he seconded a motion moved by William Adamson, the leading moderate miner and soon to be Henderson's successor as chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which restricted ILP or other socialist representation in a British delegation to the conference. Earlier, Bevin had struck a discordant note at the Leeds convention of June 1917, held to welcome the Russian revolution of February 1917. Bevin criticized peace sentiments while there was no change of regime in Germany and made derogatory references to ‘our fatuous friends of the ILP’ and ‘the professional politicians of the Labour Party’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 1.75).

Bevin worked too hard during the difficult war years, and suffered a nervous breakdown in July 1918 from which he took three months to recover. He showed himself again a trade union Labour loyalist at the first post-war general election late in 1918, when he was defeated as the Labour candidate for Central Bristol. He had contested the seat in place of his friend Alderman Frank Sheppard, who stood down after the Labour Party voted to withdraw from Lloyd George's coalition government. Within the Dockers' Union Bevin frequently acted as Tillett's deputy after the latter was elected to parliament in 1917, and this role was formally recognized in May 1920 when the post of assistant general secretary was created for him. Membership had expanded rapidly in the post-war boom, reaching 70,000 in 1920, its income more than doubling from £65,000 to £141,000 in the same year.

Although Bevin often expressed class bitterness, he was a pragmatic and very effective trade union negotiator. In November 1916 he was one of several trade unionists who discussed industrial relations with Arnold Rowntree and afterwards with employers. This led to the establishment in June 1917 of the Bristol Association for Industrial Reconstruction with Bevin as a vice-president. After the First World War Bevin took no part in the national industrial conference of 1919–20, but he did participate in several national committees and subcommittees, including the committee on trusts and the central committee set up under the Profiteering Act of 1919. Along with J. R. Clynes and Arthur Henderson, leaders of the Labour Party, and Harry Gosling, president of the NTWF, he played a part in resolving the national railway strike of September–October 1919. With his trade union role centring more on London than Bristol, Bevin and his wife moved their home to London in February 1920. After renting flats in Adam Street and Gloucester Place, they bought a house, 130 The Vale, Golders Green.

Bevin consolidated his national prominence with his role as ‘the Dockers' KC’ during the inquiry in February and March 1920, chaired by Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, into the dockers' claim for national improved wages and conditions, held under the Industrial Courts Act of 1919. Bevin skilfully turned the twenty public sittings of the court of inquiry into a national stage on which he could indict the employers for the dockers' dire working conditions and standards of life. Bevin argued, ‘The docker who is distributing goods is contributing as much to the national well-being as the capitalist who is manipulating money or handling shares’ (Weiler, Ernest Bevin, 28). He also argued vehemently against the assumption that new houses with only one living room were sufficient for dockers and their families, calling instead for housing which enabled the dockers to have space to read and to develop other leisure interests. The inquiry report vindicated the claims of Bevin and the NTWF.

Bevin underlined his radical credentials with his opposition to British government aid for military intervention against Soviet Russia. When, in May 1920, dockers in the East India dock sought union backing to stop loading cargo marked ‘OHMS Munitions for Poland’ onto the Jolly George, Bevin readily agreed. In August 1920 he took the lead in pressing for the formation of a council of action to stop British involvement in a war against Russia and made its case when a deputation saw Lloyd George, the prime minister. At a mass meeting in Westminster Hall on 13 August, Bevin argued that Labour's ‘willingness to take action to win world peace transcends any claim in connection with wages or hours of labour’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 1.139). Further action proved unnecessary as the British government did not intervene and the Polish army repelled the Red Army. In contrast, Bevin won few plaudits in the labour movement over ‘black Friday’, 15 April 1921, the day when the miners' triple alliance allies voted against taking strike action to support the locked-out miners who were resisting substantial pay cuts. Bevin had, in fact, been supportive of the miners, but he and the other union leaders would not support the miners' leaders in declining further negotiations. His stance was probably influenced by a sharp appreciation of his own union's brittleness in the face of trade depression.

General secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union

With his energy and the support he carried among the dockers, Bevin played the major part in creating the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), a merger of fourteen unions with a combined membership of 300,000 which came into being on 1 January 1922. With the Dockers' Union at its core, the new amalgamation replaced the loose alliance of autonomous unions which comprised the Transport Workers' Federation with a centralized structure. It has been described as ‘a monolithic achievement ruthlessly secured’ (DNB). The NTWF and Robert Williams, its full-time secretary since 1912, were sidelined, and Tillett, Bevin's senior in the Dockers' Union, was pensioned off. At the same time Bevin shrewdly offered the TGWU's constituent unions the prospect of a quasi-federal structure, with existing union officers and executive committee members fitting into the new organization as trade groups. Those amalgamated included groups with reputations for militancy, including some sections of the dockers and the London bus workers. Bevin was elected general secretary by 96,842 votes to a communist-endorsed rival's vote of 7672. From the outset he was in a powerful position, and this was strengthened following the death in 1930 of Harry Gosling, the union's president, after which Bevin became the one full-time officer elected by all members (the other TGWU officers were appointed either by the appropriate trade groups or by the executive).

Bevin was willing and able to exercise great authority in the TGWU, which he saw as his union. Overworked, he suffered nervous exhaustion in December 1922, requiring a seven-week rest. Later, in 1929, Bevin gave the TGWU renewed impetus and more members by amalgamation with the Workers' Union. Although the latter was in poor shape financially, it brought into the TGWU members in sectors such as engineering that proved subsequently to be areas of economic and therefore union expansion. Having broadened out from its original base of road transport workers and dockers, the TGWU, with over 650,000 members, became in the late 1930s Britain's biggest trade union.

Bevin fully committed the TGWU to supporting the Labour Party. By late 1923 his union sponsored more Labour MPs than any union but the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. Nevertheless he was ready to clash with a Labour government on industrial questions that concerned the conditions of his members. The life of the first Labour government (January–October 1924) coincided with an upturn in trade. Bevin had accepted wage reductions during the downturn of 1921–2 and pressed mostly successfully for wage increases when better economic conditions arrived. There was a national dock strike, and there were stoppages among London busmen and tramway workers. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first prime minister, felt that Bevin's strikes represented ‘disloyalty’ to Labour in office. Bevin was highly critical of what he saw as MacDonald's mid-Victorian outlook, his lack of consultation with the TUC, his readiness to invoke the Emergency Powers Act of 1920, and his failure to rebut quickly allegations linked to the Zinoviev letter, and he unsuccessfully pressed Arthur Henderson to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party. What was at stake was a clash between Bevin's view of the Labour interest, and a fundamentally ethical socialist outlook, which in such circumstances viewed the conduct of unions as sectional and unconstructive.

At the Labour Party conference in 1925 Bevin moved that ‘in view of the recent Labour government it is inadvisable that the Labour Party should again accept office whilst having a minority of Members in the House of Commons’. Bevin said that he and his TGWU executive felt that in the circumstances of January 1924 it had been right to take office but that it was not acceptable to return to office ‘when the condition of getting any legislation passed was a continuous compromise with other people’ (Labour Party Conference Report, 1925, 244). The debate ended in acrimony, and defeat for Bevin, who once again spoke of politicians with distaste.

Bevin, who was elected to the general council of the TUC in 1925, was a major figure in the general strike of 1926. He had suffered much abuse from communists and others for not backing the miners on ‘black Friday’ in 1921. In 1925 Bevin backed the miners because he realized that a general attack on wage levels was imminent. He secured the support of his union's biennial delegate conference for full co-operation with the TUC in support of the miners. On ‘red Friday’, 31 July 1925, Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government, faced with strong trade union pressure and a general public sympathetic to the miners, gave a nine-month subsidy to the coal industry. Bevin, like most trade union leaders, expected a negotiated settlement to be reached in these nine months. When it was not, he worked tirelessly to secure an agreement. Once the general strike took place, he was the driving force behind the TUC's organization. When it was called off, he was the sole TUC leader to press Baldwin to ensure there was no victimization of returning strikers.

The general strike confirmed Bevin in his predisposition towards pragmatic collective bargaining. He recognized that it was no longer plausible that capitalism might be replaced or radically changed by industrial action. Instead, modernization, rationalization, and a scientific approach to economic problems became his chief concerns. He worked with Walter Citrine, secretary of the TUC, to make the TUC influential in developing national industrial and economic policy. Bevin had expressed clear views about international economic developments during the post-war boom (1919–20) and the discussions before Britain's return to the gold standard in 1925. He developed his ideas further in the late 1920s and afterwards. Like David Lloyd George, he gained much knowledge from talking to others, rather than from reading. Bevin was notable for advocating unconventional ideas; as at the TUC in 1927, when he called for the creation of a ‘spirit of a United States of Europe—at least on an economic basis, even if we cannot on a totally political basis’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 1.387–8). He also saw the need for British industry to modernize to stay competitive, a view reinforced by his fact-finding trips to the USA. In 1928 he readily joined the Mond–Turner talks between some employers and the TUC. He also believed the British labour movement needed to think big, and this was epitomized in his building Transport House in 1928 as a centre not only for the TGWU but also for the TUC and the Labour Party.

Bevin's thinking on economic issues became very influential in the labour movement after the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929. He served on Lord Macmillan's committee on finance and industry, appointed in November 1929 in response to rising unemployment. There, serving alongside J. M. Keynes, he made it clear that he viewed the devaluation of the pound as a desirable option. He also served with Keynes, whose ideas he absorbed, on the Economic Advisory Council, set up in January 1930, to advise the government. As a member of the TUC's newly created economic committee he readily accepted the need for tariffs to protect British industry. These developments reflected the development of a distinctive TUC approach to politics in some senses distinct from the Labour Party, a position which suited Bevin. He was dismissive of Philip Snowden's arguments that failure to buttress sterling would lead to international economic chaos. During the crisis of August 1931 which led to the fall of MacDonald's Labour government, Bevin played a leading role in confronting ministers and articulating the TUC general council's opposition to reductions in unemployment benefit, and to a surrender to economic orthodoxy. In doing so he strengthened cabinet opponents of cuts.

Bevin provided the labour movement with a solid trade union power base after the Labour Party's parliamentary strength was severely reduced in the general election of 1931. He stood unsuccessfully for the usually safe Labour seat of Gateshead, campaigning on the theme ‘Vote Bevin and public control of banking in the interest of trade, commerce and the people’ (Potts). For Bevin the villains were always financiers, whom he regarded as a burden on industrialists and workers alike. A central figure in the party's subsequent recovery, he epitomized the heightened involvement of the TUC general council in party affairs, destroying any lingering links and sympathies with those who had joined the National Government. Even before the election he had become chairman of the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda, what later would have been described as a socialist think-tank. Margaret Cole recalled a preliminary conference when Bevin ‘took full part in all discussion, formal or informal … displaying a grasp of economic and financial essentials which some of the younger intellectuals had scarcely thought to find in a trade union official’ (Cole, 196). After the election débâcle of 1931 Bevin was convinced of the need for more socialist education. However, when the society was merged into the newly formed Socialist League in 1932 Bevin was excluded from a leading role, a move which reinforced his suspicion of the egotism of many intellectual socialists.

With Walter Citrine, Bevin played a major part in moving the British labour movement away from a pacifist or near-pacifist foreign policy between 1935 and 1937 to one which recognized that collective security was likely to lead to war, so requiring the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote for rearmament. At the Labour Party conference of 1935 he was the leading critic of George Lansbury, the Labour Party leader, and Sir Stafford Cripps, the leading figure of the left. His verbal destruction of Lansbury was especially brutal; characteristically Bevin did not distinguish clearly between the individual and the issue. He emphasized that trade unionists were being martyred in fascist countries and condemned Lansbury for not accepting collective responsibility for decisions on war and peace. Lansbury resigned as leader a week later. Bevin was able to further his campaign to commit Labour to rearmament as chairman of the general council of the TUC in 1936–7. In the case of the Spanish Civil War his sympathies for the elected republican government against the Franco rebellion were balanced by suspicions of communism and hostility to united front politics. Bevin had opposed communist critics within the TGWU and the trade union movement generally and moved from a policy of non-intervention on Spain only when the Labour Party and TUC leadership did so, in response to strong pressure from their members.

In the 1930s Bevin and Citrine remained a powerful combination at the heart of the TUC. Citrine later wrote of Bevin, ‘He had great drive and a measure of ruthlessness that I did not possess’ (Citrine, 238). Bevin took a determined stance against communist challenges to trade union leaderships, not least in the TGWU. He was faced with a strongly supported and capable rank-and-file movement among London bus workers, which was set off in 1932 by dissatisfaction with a productivity deal Bevin had negotiated with the London General Omnibus Company to avoid redundancies and wage cuts. Later, after a failed strike during the coronation period in May 1937, the TGWU ended the rank-and-file movement and soon after the leaders were expelled or suspended. However, Bevin and his colleagues allowed those leaders who remained loyal to the union to be readmitted. Thus he defended the hierarchical structure he had established in the TGWU and also the strategy of regaining ground lost since 1926, by cautious negotiation and the steady build-up of union strength. During 1937–8 he represented the TUC on a committee chaired by Lord Amulree to review the right of workers to have paid holidays, a cause which Bevin had long advocated. The committee's recommendations led to the Holidays with Pay Act (1938) which extended to 11 million wage earners the right to one week's annual holiday. This was one of Bevin's few successes in extracting concessions from the National Government; his industrial strategy during the 1930s, like that of his TUC allies, produced only modest results.

In the late 1930s Bevin was seriously thinking of retiring at sixty. His health was poor again after his exertions for the TUC in 1936–7. He and his wife took the opportunity to travel to Commonwealth meetings from July to October 1938. On his return he was involved in preparing the war organization of the docks, road haulage, milling, and demolition industries. After the outbreak of war in September 1939 one of his major tasks was working on various issues relating to British fishing fleets with Winston Churchill, newly returned to office as first lord of the Admiralty.

Minister of labour during the Second World War

When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, Bevin was top of his list of the Labour figures whom he sought for office. Bevin agreed to become minister of labour and national service in the coalition cabinet and, in October 1940, joined Churchill's inner war cabinet. He also entered parliament for the first time after a by-election in June 1940, being elected unopposed as MP for Central Wandsworth when the sitting Labour MP was given a peerage. Bevin held the seat until 1950; he was then elected for the safer constituency of Woolwich East, which he retained until his death.

The need for the efficient use of labour needs of war made Bevin's ministry pivotal on the home front. He was used to taking responsibility, and he was quick to centralize much power in his own hands. At his suggestion there was an attempt to co-ordinate his work with other supply departments through the production council, but Lord Beaverbrook, who used his long friendship with Churchill to go his own way as minister of aircraft production, often frustrated such efforts.

Having seen Arthur Henderson's role in the First World War, Churchill recognized the benefit of having a major trade unionist involved in wartime labour policy. For his part, Bevin was an unequivocal supporter of the war effort, looking back to his early years in the socialist movement to justify military conscription:
I am an old member of the Social Democratic Federation; I never apologise for my faith, I still believe in the Citizen Army, a democratic army. I still believe it is a social obligation to defend your own homestead. (TGWU, Report of Biennial Delegate Conference, August 1941)
In industrial matters, Bevin wished to operate on a basis of consent and to protect trade union freedoms wherever possible. He was given extensive powers, more than he wished for in the case of the Emergency Powers Act passed in May 1940, which allowed him to mobilize and direct labour into industries essential for the war effort. He preferred, however, to rely on voluntary co-operation and addressed a conference of 2000 executive members of trade unions in Central Hall, Westminster, on 25 May 1940, to explain his powers and his policies and to seek the trade union movement's support. He then arranged for the two sides of industry to set up a small advisory council, drawn from the existing bigger National Joint Advisory Council, to give advice on the Ministry of Labour's work.

Bevin was keen to work with joint committees of employers and employees throughout industry. He had been sympathetic to such co-operation during and after the First World War, as well as after the general strike. Following Hitler's attack on Russia, his drive for more joint production committees was supported by the Communist Party, which was not only eager to support the Soviet Union but also to lessen managerial prerogatives. As well as protecting trade union freedoms, he also wished to use the enhanced position of Labour to improve conditions, especially in sectors where trade union organization was historically weak. In July 1942 he expressed the hope that ‘by the time that hostilities cease, there will be not a single industry of any kind in the country that has not wage-regulating machinery of some kind or other’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 2.194). He ended casual labour in the docks by creating the National Dock Labour Corporation and, in the face of considerable hostility from Conservative MPs, pressed ahead in 1942–3 with the regulation of the catering industry, the sector least covered by collective agreements or labour regulation. The catering wages board, set up in 1943, set minimum wages and enforced agreed standards over the industry. Its principle was broadened by the Wage Councils Act of 1945, for which he was largely responsible, which extended the powers of existing trade boards to enforce minimum standards. By the end of the Second World War there was a very great extension of collective bargaining.

Bevin was also determined that wartime conditions would buttress, not undermine, the official trade union leadership. During the First World War trade union officials' co-operation with employers and the state had left space for rank-and-file movements; the danger of this happening in the Second World War was reduced when the Communist Party threw its support behind the war effort. He took firm action against unofficial strike organizers, as on Tyneside in 1943, and in April 1944 gave himself additional reserve powers under regulation 1AA of the Emergency Powers (Defence) regulations. More generally, strikes and lock-outs were illegal under order 1305 (issued on 18 July 1940), though there was substantial unrest in the coal industry (which accounted for 56 per cent of all working days lost through strikes from 1940 to 1944).

Bevin insisted that the British people should receive social welfare in return for their all-out efforts in ‘a total war’. Whereas in Russia the peasant armies were fighting to defend their land, in Britain ‘the substitute is the vested interest of social security … in which all shall participate’ (TGWU, Report of the Biennial Delegate Conference, August 1941). Six days earlier Bevin and his colleagues had successfully pressed for the inclusion of improved social security in the allied aims listed in the Atlantic charter. He was willing, however, to set aside the Beveridge report for the duration of Churchill's coalition government, becoming very angry with the Parliamentary Labour Party when it took a different view: he was concerned to keep the coalition together (fearing that Labour would lose an election if it fell); he regarded some of Beveridge's proposals, such as family allowances, as undermining the unions' role in wage bargaining; and he had a personal dislike for Beveridge himself. He believed that controls on the economy would have to be retained after victory. Speaking at the TGWU biennial conference on 3 August 1943, he predicted a necessity for ‘three, four or five years of national discipline’ in order to avoid ‘an orgy of speculation, bringing with it all the troubles that arose after the last war’ (TGWU, Report of the Biennial Delegate Conference, August 1943).

Bevin was a notably successful wartime minister. Churchill soon came to admire his toughness and determination and within five months included him in his small war cabinet. He was the major force in domestic policy while Churchill concentrated on war policy. Churchill saw Bevin as a possible war leader should anything happen to him and, in a speech in the House of Commons on 29 July 1941, paid a fulsome public tribute to Bevin's role in securing high industrial production. Churchill's personal detective was probably right in thinking his employer admired Bevin for being a Labour man of ‘the old school who had been brought up among the working class’ and was ‘as English as the oak’ and not a socialist intellectual (W. H. Thompson, I was Churchill's Shadow, 1951, 154). Bevin, a big (in all senses), self-confident, and egotistic man, could stand up to Churchill, who shared these qualities. The two men symbolized the national unity of the established classes and labour in fighting fascism.

During Bevin's period at the Ministry of Labour, Britain achieved a higher level of civilian mobilization than any other of the nations at war, a feat which was carried out ‘with a speed and efficiency completely unmatched in any of the dictatorships’ (DNB). Women were conscripted from December 1941. Responsible for securing labour to work in the mines, Bevin resorted from December 1943 to recruiting ‘Bevin boys’ by lottery from among those called up for national service. About 8.5 million workers were subject to his emergency powers, which were accompanied by the protection of guaranteed pay and conditions. His initiative extended the powers of the Ministry of Labour to cover the welfare of war workers, ensuring, for example, that they were provided with canteens. Quite apart from the contribution to the war effort, his five years at the ministry were an impressive realization of the corporatist agenda to which he had committed himself after the failure of the general strike. Business, trade unions, and the state were to co-operate in running industry, the trade unions being brought into partnership on an equal basis. The working class backed the war effort, trade union membership grew, and the status of the TUC was transformed, as in many respects were working conditions. He hoped to create a structure for industrial relations which would persist into the post-war world, and to a large extent he succeeded. In 1946 joint industrial councils and trade boards, both of which had been greatly extended by Bevin during the war years, regulated the pay and conditions of 15.5 million out of 17.5 million workers (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.93). ‘They used to say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 to 1930’, Bevin remarked of the late nineteenth-century Liberal prime minister's influence upon public policy, and boasted, ‘I'm going to be at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1990’ (DNB).

Foreign secretary in Attlee's government

Bevin, like most of his contemporaries, was surprised by the scale (if not the fact) of Labour's victory in the general election of 1945. Attlee initially considered making him chancellor of the exchequer and Hugh Dalton foreign secretary, but at the last minute changed his mind—partly in order to keep a distance between Bevin and his arch-enemy Herbert Morrison (whom Attlee had already earmarked as supremo for domestic questions), and partly because he considered Bevin the more likely to adopt a robust stance in foreign affairs, and to carry the Labour Party with him. Bevin took office on 27 July 1945 and held the post until 9 March 1951, longer than any predecessor since Sir Edward Grey. Unusually for a twentieth-century foreign secretary, he was able to manage British foreign policy with very little interference from the prime minister, though this was more the result of his very close working relationship with Attlee than of his own dominating personality. As Attlee later recalled, ‘My relationship with Ernest Bevin was the deepest of my political life’ (Harris, 294). Bevin was assured of the prime minister's unqualified support even in his most unpopular decisions; while he in turn was utterly loyal to Attlee, even at the expense (as in 1945 and 1947, when Sir Stafford Cripps and others touted him as a possible replacement for Attlee) of his own personal ambitions. Alan Bullock's view, that Attlee and Bevin formed ‘one of the most successful political partnerships in English history’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.56), was widely shared by contemporaries.

Bevin and his senior officials initially viewed each other with a considerable degree of mutual suspicion. Like many of his Labour colleagues, he at first regarded the Foreign Office as dominated by effete and amateurish aristocrats, and one of his earliest papers on joining the war cabinet in 1940 had called for radical reform of the office's recruitment and promotion procedures. His senior officials in turn were wary of this self-confident but poorly educated scion of the working classes. Nevertheless, within a matter of months suspicion had given way to respect and a good deal of affection, as Bevin came to appreciate his officials' ability and professionalism, while they in turn came to appreciate his intelligence, political skill, and integrity. His first permanent secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, noted:
He knows a great deal, is prepared to read any amount, seems to take in what he does read, and is capable of making up his own mind and sticking up for his (or our) point of view against anyone. (Diaries, 778)
Bevin's loyalty to his staff became legendary; they in turn were happy to endure countless evenings listening to him reminisce about his life, or to arrange shopping trips and other diversions for his wife. Above all, his staff appreciated his robust defence of policies with which they were, with few exceptions, in complete agreement.

The popular image of Bevin as a ‘working-class John Bull’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.82) aptly summarized his almost visceral patriotism. He believed wholeheartedly in Britain's ‘world role’, and in the British empire as a force for good, regarding with suspicion the hostility of the United States towards other nations' empires. He was reluctant to see early independence for India. He was a major advocate of boosting colonial development to aid the British economy—‘our crime is not exploitation; it's neglect’, he said of the colonial empire (Pearce, 95). He saw Britain's economic difficulties as merely temporary, and regarded Britain as uniquely placed to provide international leadership. He thought Britain had earned its right to remain at the ‘top table’. He supported Britain's independent nuclear programme on the grounds that ‘we've got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.352). He viewed his task as foreign secretary from first to last as that of defending and wherever possible furthering Britain's national interests, which he defined in traditional, if not to say conservative, terms. In the case of British military action in Greece, he had defended the Churchill coalition's policies before a hostile Labour Party conference in December 1944; he viewed the prospect of victory for the communists and their allies in the Greek civil war as a danger to British interests in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean and, as foreign secretary, left the royalist reactionaries to prevail.

Bevin came to office with a profound mistrust of communism and the Soviet Union, and believed that Churchill had been insufficiently firm with Stalin. He had fought communism in the British and international trade union movements, and he bitterly resented the communist denunciations of him which had followed ‘black Friday’ in 1921 and the general strike in 1926. However, he had greatly admired Russian courage in repelling the German invasion of Russia. In August 1943 he told the TGWU's conference,
It must have been a terrific thing for Russia, over the last twenty-one years, to have built a new economy in a tremendous effort to catch up with the economic development of the rest of the world and then in a few months to see most of it destroyed. If ever a nation is entitled to complete restoration, it is Russia. (TGWU, Report of the Biennial Delegate Conference, August 1943)
After the war Bevin did not altogether give up on the possibility of improved Anglo-Soviet relations until 1946 or possibly early 1947, but his suspicions of the Soviet Union remained strong, and grew stronger in the face of Stalin's pressures to dominate Europe and his refusal to abide by the British interpretation of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. In Bevin's view, the Soviet Union was motivated by ambition more than fear, and was likely to seize every opportunity for territorial expansion and the spread of communism. At the Labour Party conference in May 1945 he was widely quoted as having said that ‘Left understands Left, but the Right does not’; nevertheless, significantly, he was speaking of France rather than the Soviet Union, and his remarks were taken out of context (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.69). In office, he gave little comfort to those in his own party who hoped for a close understanding with the Soviet Union as part of a distinctively ‘socialist’ foreign policy, and during the first few years of his foreign secretaryship he endured a great deal more criticism from his own party than from the opposition benches.

‘Let us wait until our strength is restored and let us meanwhile, with US help as necessary, hold on to [our] essential positions’, Bevin wrote to Attlee in January 1947 (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.353). His belief that American help was needed in order to contain the Soviet threat led him to play a very active role in persuading the United States to abandon hopes of returning to its pre-war isolationism. Indeed, it can fairly be claimed that Bevin was one of the key architects of the cold war. In February 1947 his initially unwelcome warning to the Americans that Britain could no longer shoulder the burden of supporting the anti-communist forces in Greece and Turkey led within weeks to the announcement of American military aid to those countries, and the enunciation of the ‘Truman doctrine’. In June 1947 his nimble response to secretary of state George Marshall's speech at Harvard calling for European co-operation as a prerequisite for American aid for European recovery (an offer made, Marshall later admitted, without any firm plan in mind) led swiftly to the creation of the Committee of European Economic Co-operation (from 1948 the Organization for European Economic Co-operation, which in turn was replaced by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1961) and the elaboration of the Marshall plan, under which America donated some $13 billion of aid to Europe, including $2.7 billion to Britain. Bevin's biographer described his role in these negotiations as ‘his most decisive personal contribution as Foreign Secretary’ (A. Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1983, 404). Finally, he played a key part in the negotiations leading to the treaty of Dunkirk in March 1947 and the Brussels treaty in March 1948, which (following the Berlin crisis of 1948–9) led directly to the North Atlantic treaty of April 1949, instituting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the following year.

Bevin was by no means an uncritical admirer of the United States, nor a slavish adherent of its foreign policy. Although, for example, he quickly agreed to American air bases in Britain during the Berlin blockade of 1948, and was ready to support the USA in Korea in 1950–51, the criticism (heard more often after the event than at the time) that he reduced Britain to the position of a satellite of the United States is fairly wide of the mark. Indeed, for much of his foreign secretaryship it was he who attempted to drag a reluctant America into foreign entanglements, rather than vice versa. There were numerous areas in which he refused to bow to American pressure: the development of the British atomic bomb was one, his recognition of communist China in October 1949 (on the grounds that this would better protect Britain's interests in Hong Kong and south-east Asia) another, his refusal to countenance the dismantling of the sterling area yet another.

Perhaps the most marked disagreement came over Palestine, which Bevin viewed through the prism of Britain's wider strategic and economic interests in the Middle East. He resisted the Jewish and American demand that Britain permit a further 100,000 Jewish immigrants to enter Palestine after the war, and was angered when Truman endorsed that figure without consulting Britain. His comment that American policy towards Palestine was determined by the fact that Americans ‘don't want too many Jews in New York’ led to an extremely hostile response when he visited that city, with dockers refusing to handle his luggage and him being booed at a baseball match (Williams, 260). His views were undoubtedly coloured by antisemitic sentiments; but also by outrage at the assassinations of British people by Jewish terrorists, by the British need to secure oil from the Middle East, and by his sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. He observed to one Zionist deputation, ‘Under the Jews the Arabs would have no rights but would remain in a permanent minority in a land they had held for 2,000 years’ (Weiler, Ernest Bevin, 171). His decision to hand the mandate for Palestine back to the United Nations, and effectively to wash his hands of the Palestinian problem, was perhaps the most striking failure of his foreign secretaryship; nevertheless it is difficult to see how Britain could have overseen partition (the USA's preferred solution) without incurring widespread hostility in the region.

Bevin's attitude to Europe also gave rise to much criticism from the USA, as well as from his Conservative opponents and from later commentators. In fact, his attitude was complex, if not ambiguous. At various times he lent his weight to calls for European integration—notably in January 1948, when he called for ‘the closest possible collaboration’ between Britain and its European neighbours, and asserted that the government would ‘do all we can to foster both the spirit and the machinery of co-operation’ (Hansard 5C, 22 Jan 1948, 446.395–8). Nevertheless he supported his cabinet colleagues' rejection of Robert Schuman's invitation to take part in talks on a coal and steel community in May 1950 (he was in hospital at the time), and viewed the Pleven plan for a European army, elaborated by the French prime minister in October 1950, as a dangerous attempt to undermine NATO. His response in both cases was conditioned first by a belief that European integration should be subordinated to trans-Atlantic co-operation, secondly by an absolute mistrust of supranational, as opposed to intergovernmental, forms of integration, and thirdly by the belief that (as he and Cripps had put it in October 1949) Britain ‘must remain, as we have always been in the past, different in character from other European nations and fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with them’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.734). In his view, Churchill's vociferous support for European integration was a somewhat hypocritical attempt to make political capital out of an issue on which there was little fundamental disagreement—a view supported by the record of the Conservative government which took power in 1951.

Bevin's foreign policy received much criticism from many directions. He was attacked by the left for being a cold war warrior, especially over relations with the Soviet Union and Greece. He was also denounced for his stance on Palestine. Hugh Gaitskell complained in his diaries (2 February 1949) of Bevin and his ‘pro-Arab policy’ (Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 98). These criticisms have been subsequently echoed by historians. At the Labour Party conference of May 1947, when he accused his critics on the left of stabbing him in the back, he delivered a powerful defence of his foreign policy. He observed in his conclusion, ‘I know things are going to be difficult, and that is why I have cultivated for the first time in my life … a quite remarkable patience’ (Labour Party, Report of the 46th Annual Conference, May 1947, 182). Hugh Dalton noted in his diary, ‘He scored a very great personal success and swept away all opposition. He has a most astonishing—and unique—conference personality’ (War Diary, 393). ‘No man alive is so skilful at handling a working-class audience, mixing the brutal hammer blow with sentimental appeals’, Richard Crossman wrote of Bevin's conference speech. ‘He did not merely smash his critics; he pulverised them into applauding him’ (Sunday Pictorial, 1 June 1947; quoted in J. Schneer, Labour's Conscience: the Labour Left, 1945–51, 1988, p. 63).

Bevin's success in such confrontations rested not just on his abilities, but on the trade union block votes that he inevitably secured. He symbolized the trade union link which remained at the heart of the party's identity. In February 1946 he went straight from a meeting of the United Nations general assembly to take part in a parliamentary debate on the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act (1927), which he regarded as a measure of revenge by Baldwin's government towards the union movement after the general strike:
They cast the trade unions for the role of enemies of the State … I have never been an enemy of the state. I have been as big a constitutionalist as any member on the other side of the House, and I am fighting to remove the stigma which the Tory party in 1927 put upon me as the leader of a trade union. (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.231)
Bevin proved to be one of the strongest figures in Attlee's governments (from 1945 to 1951). He exercised authority in the Foreign Office, much as he had exercised it in the TGWU. His robust defence of British interests and his pro-American and anti-Soviet policies commanded respect from the Foreign Office officials, much of the Labour Party, Sir Winston Churchill, and much of the opposition. He was a workaholic, unhappy when he was not working excessive hours on Foreign Office files, and, apart from the company of his wife, had very few outside interests.

Bevin was also a powerful force in the post-Second World War Labour Party. This was an uneasy relationship. Bevin, used to crushing rebels in the TGWU, was not emollient to dissent in the Parliamentary Labour Party or Labour Party generally. He made no effort to listen to back-bench MPs or to conciliate those with different views. He was ill at ease in meetings other than trade union gatherings. His blunt, even brutal defences of his policies to parliamentary or other Labour Party meetings became a normal style for some of the ‘old Labour’ centre-right leaders, especially trade union leaders, until the 1980s. Yet, until 1948 or thereabouts, he had immense prestige in the party and Sir Stafford Cripps and others saw him as the best alternative to Clement Attlee as leader and prime minister.

Death, legacy, and assessment

Like Churchill, Bevin ate, drank, and smoked too much and took little exercise. As a result his health crumbled after 1945, and he was an unfit man weighing some 250 pounds. He suffered from angina. He was in a notably poor state of health in early 1947 and was in pain at a meeting in Moscow that March. He had an attack of angina in a Washington theatre in September 1949 and further attacks in the subsequent eighteen months. By 1950 it was a matter of time before his health required him to move to a less stressful post or retire. In January 1951 Bevin went to hospital with pneumonia. He recovered for a while but on 9 March, two days after his seventieth birthday, Attlee told him he would be replaced. He was appointed lord privy seal but died of heart failure at his London home, 1 Carlton Gardens, Westminster, on 14 April 1951.

When Bevin was cremated at Golders Green on 18 April 1951, crowds packed the roads to the building. Later in April some 2000 people, including Attlee and Churchill, attended his memorial ceremony in Westminster Abbey, where his ashes were buried. Churchill recommended his widow for an honour, and she became Dame Florence Bevin in 1952. When Churchill College was founded, the Transport and General Workers' Union donated £50,000 to a memorial library to Bevin.

Bevin was one of Britain's greatest trade union figures. His ministerial career marked the arrival of organized labour at the centre of policy making and the advent of corporatist approaches to the economy. Churchill commented to Anthony Eden of Bevin in October 1944 that Bevin was by ‘far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party have thrown up in my time’ (J. Colville, The Fringes of Power, 1985, 522). Bevin was perhaps second only to Churchill in the wartime coalition government and was a dominant figure in the post-war Labour governments. He had a strong sense of class and of his own struggle upwards from an educationally deprived background of rural poverty followed by dead-end jobs in his early working life. An unpredictable compound of insights and prejudices, he was intellectually highly able but he distrusted socialist intellectuals, though he was ready to refer to his own socialist credentials. In a radio broadcast of 1934 he observed,
I have no confidence in the superman; the limitations of supposedly great men are obvious. I have spent my life among ordinary working people; I am one of them. I have seen them faced with the most difficult problems; place the truth before them—the facts, whether they are good or bad—and they display an understanding, ability and courage that confound the wisdom of the so-called great. (Bevin, 136)
This was a major part of his outlook, even if he was often ready to lead and demand support in superman style. He was a tough and often unforgiving trade union leader and politician, but his word was his bond. Effective and even courageous in office, he attracted the loyalty of those who worked with him.The major substantial study of Bevin remains Alan Bullock's impressive three-volume biography. Of this, Peter Weiler, a later biographer, has reasonably commented, ‘Bullock's stance is that of a Labour loyalist from a generation for whom Bevin was a hero’ (Weiler, Ernest Bevin, viii). Bullock describes Bevin's ‘identification with ordinary men and women’ as ‘the most consistent principle in his career’ and his foremost political aim as being ‘to bring the working class within the national community on equal terms’ (Bullock, Life and Times, 3.92, 857). On that account generally, and more particularly by his success after 1926 in moving the labour movement away from syndicalism and back to its traditional attachment to political participation and free collective bargaining, Bevin has been adjudged ‘the most effective democratic politician’ in twentieth-century Britain (Bullock, Bevin: a Biography, xiii). Weiler's able biography emphasizes Bevin's explicit acceptance of the limits of the capitalist economy. Within these limits he sought a partnership with capital and the state; the co-operation of labour would be complemented by recognition and influence. For some critics this strategy is a matter for concern; but it also suggests that Bevin had a good grasp of the realities of British society from 1921 to 1951.

Chris Wrigley


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CAC Cam., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO, private office papers · U. Warwick Mod. RC, corresp. and papers |  BL, letters to Albert Mansbridge, Add. MS 65253 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Clement Attlee · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lionel Curtis · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with third earl of Selborne · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Arthur Creech Jones · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax · CAC Cam., corresp. with Duff Cooper · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Halifax [copies] · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Halifax [copies] · Joseph Rowntree Foundation Library, York, corresp. with B. Seebohm Rowntree · NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Hugh Dalton, CAB 127/209 · U. Warwick Mod. RC, corresp. with A. P. Young · U. Warwick Mod. RC, Transport and General Workers' Union papers






E. Whitney-Smith, bronze bust, 1929, Transport and General Workers Union headquarters, Liverpool · D. Low, chalk caricature, 1933, NPG · F. H. Man, photograph, 1939–40, NPG [see illus.] · C. Beaton, photograph, 1940, NPG · W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1940–41, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, 1940–49, NPG · Y. Karsh, bromide print, 1943, NPG · T. C. Dugdale, oils, 1945, NPG · G. Davien, oil caricature, 1946, NPG · J. Epstein, bronze bust, Tate collection · L. Illingworth, pen, ink, and wash drawing, NPG · photographs, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at death  

£13,988 10s. 5d.: probate, 12 June 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales