Ernest Bevin

Ernest Bevin

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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his autobiography Philip Snowden described telling the Trade Union Congress about his plans in 1931 to cut wages and unemployment benefits (1934)

The spokesman of the Trade Unions was Mr. Bevin and Mr. Citrine, the Secretary of the Trade Union Committee. This deputation took up the attitude of opposition to practically all the economy proposals which had been explained to them. They opposed any interference with the existing terms and conditions of the Unemployment Insurance Scheme, including the limitation of statutory benefit to 26 weeks. We were told the Trade Unions would oppose the suggested economies on teachers' salaries and pay of the men in the Fighting Services, and any suggestions for reducing expenditure on works in relief of unemployment. The only proposal to which the General Council were not completely opposed was that the salaries of Ministers and Judges should be subjected to a cut!

(2) In 1929 Helen Wilkinson wrote about Ernest Bevin in her book on the General Strike.

Ernie Bevin, a rough-hewn fellow, a transport workers' leader, who had started selling ginger beer from a cart. One of the ablest of the younger trade unionists who in quiet tones concluded, "History will ultimately write that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it."

(3) Jack Jones, Union Man (1986)

I was elected as a shop steward, and to the branch and area committees of the TGWU, as well as delegate for the ports of Garston and Preston on the National Docks Group Committee of the union. This meant that I came into contact with Ernie Bevin, the General Secretary of the union, who took a keen interest in the Docks Group and was present at all the national meetings. He had been the driving force in building the union and he let everybody know it. On occasions we had to listen to Ernie orating about the financial problems of the world. My impression was that few, if any, members of the committee took in what he was saying. He spoke over their heads, certainly over mine although I was attending classes on economics and finance organized by the Labour College in Liverpool. No wonder Bevin took a poor view of the Labour College movement! But I wondered sometimes whether he was clear in his own mind or was simply trying to unravel his thoughts aloud to a sympathetic audience. He may not have been the clearest exponent of complicated issues but he achieved remarkable results by his driving power.

(4) Tom Buchanan, The Spanish Civil War and the British Labour Movement (1991)

Developing these themes Bevin made by far the most significant contribution to the subsequent conference, later to become highly controversial on the basis of extracts published in the Daily Worker, following speeches from two Spanish delegates. Pascual Tomas defended the idea of an all-in conference and appealed to socialist MPs to bring about an end to Non-Intervention. Then, directly addressing himself to trade unionists, he asked how many national centres had implemented the embargo on the movement of troops and arms, and called on them to threaten a one-day stoppage against government policies towards Spain." Manuel Cordero (PSOE) dismissed the alleged problems of communism and anarchism in Spain - in particular, the Communist Party had "adapted itself to the realities of the situation in Spain' and was not fighting to install communism."

In this context, Bevin clearly saw his first task as rebutting any cooperation with the communists. "Sometimes I wonder," he began "whether we are being asked to help Spain, or to promote the United Front." He denied that British delegates had, in the past, not expressed the true feelings of their members. In Britain the labour movement presented its own united front and "we do not propose to allow the Communists or anybody else to disrupt us". Later he was to "beg of our friends abroad not to play with factions in this country." Having established this point he went on to outline the factors which had influenced British labour to adopt its specific response to Spain, drawing attention to the internal problems with Catholic members. The attitude to Non-Intervention had been defined in the knowledge that "public opinion in this country, even in our own Movement, was not ripe to face a struggle with Hitler over Spain." Turning to the conference he proposed that no one had yet addressed the problem of how to replace the policy of Non-Intervention, even though there was "no half way house. It is either Intervention or Non-Intervention, one thing or the other has got to be done."

(5) Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, attempted to persuade women to volunteer for war work. A report of his speech was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 10th March, 1941.

Making an urgent appeal to women to come forward for war work mainly in shell-filling factories, Mr. Bevin said he did not want them to wait for registration to take effect. He wanted a big response now, especially by those who might not have been in employment before. There was a tendency to hang back and wait for instructions. If he could get the first 100,000 women to come forward in the next fortnight it would be priceless.

"I have to tell the women that I cannot offer them a delightful life, " said Mr. Bevin. "They will have to suffer some inconveniences. But I want them to come forward in the spirit of determination to help us through."

In districts where married women had been in the habit of doing the work the Government had decided to assist them so far as the minding of children was concerned. They had arranged for the rapid expansion through local authorities of day nurseries and they were asking local authorities to prepare immediately a register of "minders".

The married woman would pay only what she paid in pre-war days - about sixpence a day - and the Government would pay an additional sixpence a day for looking after the children.

(6) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

Of the Labour leaders, Arthur Greenwood was the nicest, but apt to be tight. Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison loathed each other. The story that when someone remarked that Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin said, "Not while I'm alive he ain't", is true.

(7) Konni Zilliacus wrote about the relative merits of Ernest Bevin and Hugh Dalton in his unpublished autobiography, Challenge to Fear.

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.

Hugh Dalton would have been far better, first of all because he really did know a lot about foreign affairs; secondly because he knew how to manage the Foreign Office officials, instead of being run by them; thirdly, because he was capable of learning from experience and correcting his mistakes; fourthly because he would listen to the views of back bench colleagues instead of treating any criticism or comments as an insult and relying on blind trade union loyalties and the power of the block vote to impose on the Labour Party the Churchillian policies that the Foreign Office had induced him to adopt.

(8) Guy Burgess gave information to Harold Nicolson about a meeting between Ernest Bevin and Vyacheslav Molotov in 1947. Nicolson wrote about it in his book Diaries and Letters (1966)

"Now, Mr Molotov, what is it that you want? What are you after? Do you want to get Austria behind your Iron Curtain? You can't do that. Do you want Turkey and the Straits ? You can't have them. Do you want Korea? You can't have that. You are putting your neck out too far, and one day you will have it chopped off.. .. You cannot look on me as an enemy of Russia. Why, when our Government was trying to stamp out your Revolution, who was it that stopped it? It was I, Ernest Bevin. I called out the transport workers and they refused to load the ships. Now again I am speaking to you as a friend... If war comes between you and America in the East, then we may be able to remain neutral. But if war comes between you and America in the West, then we shall be on America's side. Make no mistake about that. That would be the end of Russia and of your Revolution. So please stop sticking out your neck in this way and tell me what you are after. What

do you want?"

"I want a unified Germany," said Molotov.

"Why do you want that? Do you really believe that a unified Germany would go Communist? They pretend to. They would say all the right things and repeat all the correct formulas. But in their hearts they would be longing for the day when they would revenge their defeat at Stalingrad. You know that as well as I do."

"Yes," said Molotov, "I know that. But I still want a unified Germany."

And that was all he could get out of him.

(9) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)

Attlee relied heavily on Bevin. Ernie filled a gap which was missing in Attlee's life. Clem had never really met trade unionists and ordinary workers, apart from his time at Toynbee Hall and other East End settlements, and also in the First World War where his relationship had been that of a major with his rank and file In the Party he was revered and much respected, but he always seemed to be at a distance. Bevin was a tough leader of working-class origin who had fought Churchill during the General Strike of 1926 and who, all tribute to Churchill, was made Minister of Labour in 1940. He knew trade unionists, he had led, or rather commanded, them for more than a generation. He knew employers too, liked and respected many but feared none.

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.

(10) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

There can be no doubt that Ernest Bevin stands out among all the people I have met. He is in a place by himself. He was a man with little or no taught advantages, who relied wholly upon his own brain, his imagination and his capacity for envisaging things and people. In this capacity he was not surpassed and I think not even matched by anyone else I have ever met. The Churchills, the Attlees, and most other leaders, political or industrial, had all the advantages which their social position and long formal education can bestow. Bevin had none of these advantages, but I have seen him in every kind of situation - trade union negotiations round a table, trade union meetings facing often hostile critics, meetings with industrialists, with statesmen - and on every occasion it was quite clear that he was master of the situation. He said that he hated politics, yet in making politics or in running a political department few could match him. He had a natural dignity which offset his endowment of determination and ruthlessness.

It wasn't until the war that he got his real chance to make a major impact on national history. His work as Minister of Labour during the war contributed as much to victory as that of any of the generals and, as Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government after the war, there were times when he seemed to hold the Western world itself on his great shoulders.

(11) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

A powerful figure at meetings of the War Cabinet was Ernest Bevin. A man of courage, he never allowed anyone to browbeat him, and anyone included the Prime Minister who, I think, admired those who stood up to him so long as it was a gesture rather than an obstructive move. 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.

Ernest Bevin was in some respects a genius. Some facets of his character reminded me and many others of Churchill. For example, he preferred to think aloud and for that reason he needed an audience when there were decisions to make. During these cogitations he was liable to talk too much and to get the wrong idea, but fortunately there was invariably someone in his audience to put him right: a situation which I suspect he arranged deliberately, for he was sometimes conscious of, and sensitive about, his lack of education. Later, rather like Jimmy Thomas, his rough simple ways became something of a pose. He had noticed that his adjectives and Anglo-Saxon monosyllables amused Churchill, and he was not above maintaining this homely style of speaking in audiences at Buckingham Palace, where it went down equally well.

His priceless asset was an enormous fund of working-class common-sense. Nobody could pull the wool over his eyes. His weakness was jealousy of other people. The latter trait made life pretty tough for those who worked for him.