Ernest Bevin was born in Winford, Somerset in 1881. The son of poor parents, he was an orphan by the age of six. After a couple of years of formal education, Bevin became a farm labourer. At eighteen he moved to Bristol where he found work as a van driver. He became interested in Nonconformist religion and for a while was a Baptist lay preacher.
Bevin joined the Dockers' Union and by the age of 30 was one of its paid officials. Bevin, a member of the Labour Party, was unsuccessful in his attempt to become the MP for Bristol Central in the 1918 General Election.
When Ben Tillett and Harry Gosling formed the National Transport Workers' Federation (NTWF) Bevin was elected to its executive. By 1921 over 32 separate unions had joined together to form the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU). Bevin was elected general secretary, a post he was to hold for the next nineteen years. He was also a member of the General Council of the Trade Union Congress between 1925 and 1940.
Considered to be a moderate by more militant trade unionists, Bevin was opposed to the forming of the Triple Alliance with the miners and railwaymen and played an important role in negotiating the TGWU's withdrawal from the General Strike in 1926. Bevin was defeated when he represented the Labour Party at Gateshead in the 1931 General Election.
In 1936 the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.
Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Philip Noel-Baker, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be."
Bevin was a strong supporter of the Popular Front government in Spain and in August 1936 made a speech where he praised "the heroic struggle being carried on by the workers of Spain to save their democratic regime." He encouraged young men to join the International Brigades and this included the TGWU shop steward, Jack Jones. However, he was against working with the Communist Party of Great Britain.
In May 1940 Winston Churchill invited Bevin to become Minister of Labour in his coalition government. The following month Bevin won a by-election at Wandsworth and joined the House of Commons. Bevin successfully achieved mobilization of Britain's workforce and became one of the most significant members of Churchill's war cabinet.
When the Labour Party won a landslide victory in the 1945 General Election, the new prime-minister, Clement Attlee appointed Bevin as his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Bevin, who held strong anti-communist views, played an important role in the acceptance of the Marshall Plan, the creation of of NATO and Britain's decision to develop nuclear weapons.
Harold Wilson argued that Clement Attlee relied heavily on Bevin during his six years in power: "Ernie sat opposite the Prime Minister at the Long Cabinet table. If a few ministers were talking more than they needed to, and Bevin wanted to get in, he just signalled across. One of the problems in government is whom you put on the various Cabinet sub-committees and who you leave off. If my memory is correct, I do not think Attlee had any sub-committee of which Bevin was not a member, even though it might not in any way be concerned with foreign affairs. The two used to meet often, particularly when a difficult Cabinet meeting was coming up. I do not remember a single occasion when the two disagreed in Cabinet, with Ernie acting as the bulldozer whenever necessary."
Konni Zilliacus thought Bevin was an unsuccessful foreign secretary: "He (Bevin) was a great working class leader with a fine record. But he was tragically miscast as Labour's Foreign Secretary in 1945. For he did not have a clue to the problems facing him. He was too old and set in his ways to learn. Or rather, to unlearn and then learn afresh: that is, to do the kind of painful thinking that goes down to one's own prejudices and assumptions, tests them in the light of reason and facts, and then works out a policy that is genuinely realistic because it is rooted in reality and not to an out-of-date conception of the world in which we are living, and harnessed to Labour's view of the national interest and not to that of the defenders of the old order."
Bevin's main rivil in the cabinet was Herbert Morrison. In his memoirs he claims that: "Bevin, in character and physique a big man, may sometimes have been guilty of treating all opponents as formidable ones, bringing in the full weight of his attack on a target hardly worthy of it. Thus a charge of bullying would sometimes be justified."
Bevin disliked Morrison. A fellow minister, Harold Wilson, explained: "Ernie Bevin could not stand Herbert Morrison, who had been a City boss when Bevin had been head of one of the biggest unions and the two had clashed. I would think that Bevin declared war on Morrison in the 1930s and that they were never going to come together. You could see his hackles rise every time, especially if Morrison tried to encroach on foreign affairs." A fellow MP, Robert Boothby tells the story of how the two men loathed each other. When a MP said to Bevin that "Morrison was his own worst enemy", he replied, "Not while I'm alive he ain't."
In very poor health, Bevin resigned from Attlee's government in March 1951. Ernest Bevin died the following month on 14th April, 1951.