Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis, Biteback Publishing, 352 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1785905988
If, as suggested in Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure and much Remainer analysis in the UK, Brexit was a product of imperialist myths and dreams, then the subject of this excellent biography must bear a heavy responsibility. The negative view of Bevin is decades old. In 1981, on the centenary of his birth, James Downey, the London editor of The Irish Times, reviewed a number of books on the theme of “what went wrong with Britain” (“Contemplations of Doom”, The Irish Times, April 25th, 1981). Downey claimed that the British people had been condemned to continuing deprivation for the sake of the Attlee government’s determination to behave as if Britain was still a great power. He singled out Bevin for particular opprobrium for responding to his role as foreign secretary in the Attlee government as if he was an old Etonian.
This was also the opinion of the “Keep Left” faction of the Labour Party, led by the MPs Michael Foot, Richard Crossman and Ian Mikardo. Arguing for a socialist foreign policy, they proposed that Britain become a democratic socialist “third force” in world politics. This critique became a trope of much of the British new left, the various Trotskyist groups and the left of the Labour Party. Its intellectual basis was developed by the Hull university academic and former Communist Party member John Saville through the concept of “labourism”. This expressed a sceptical view of the British Labour Party based on a critique of the Attlee government’s foreign policy but also of its domestic programme of nationalisation and a universal welfare state, seen as merely corporatist measures which left the main structures of capitalism and the British state fundamentally unaltered.
Labourism, of which Bevin was a vociferous and effective proponent, involved an optimistic faith in the possibility of social change within the existing parliamentary framework. Although recognising the centrality of the class divide between capital and labour, it eschewed confrontation in favour of negotiation and the creation of agreed structures within which wages and conditions could be addressed, with strikes seen as a last resort. For Saville and his co-editor of the Socialist Register for twenty-three years, Ralph Miliband, labourism was a form of corporate class consciousness which was incapable of developing a broader socialist political vision. This was the critique of British Labour made in Miliband’s influential Parliamentary Socialism (1961), but as the labour historian David Howell has argued, the value of analysing actually existing working class politics through a concept of labourism that contrasts the actual against a never realised and imprecise alternative is questionable.
A former minister in the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Andrew Adonis makes it clear he has little time for this “contrarian left”, which he argues did much after 1951 to make the labour movement hostile or indifferent to winning power on a pragmatic basis. Bevin, Adonis claims, would be aghast that the current leader of Unite, the successor union to his Transport and General Workers’ Union, is Len McCluskey , a patron of Jeremy Corbyn, “the most unsuccessful Labour leader since George Lansbury”, whom Bevin ousted at the 1935 Labour Party conference.
This is the first substantial biography of Bevin since the final volume of Alan Bullock’s trilogy was published in 1983. Engagingly written, it is an excellent overview of the trade union leader who played a decisive role in the creation of postwar Britain domestically and internationally. As someone whose mother left his family when he was three and who subsequently spent his formative years in a children’s home, Adonis is fully appreciative of the decisive role in Bevin’s formation played by his mother, Mercy, deserted by her husband and left to bring up her six children in rural Somerset. Her seventh child, Ernest, never knew who his father was and was orphaned at the age of eight when his mother died of cancer. But she had bequeathed him a forceful dissenting religiosity and it was as a Baptist lay preacher and later at the Workers’ Education Association and university extension classes that he honed his oratorical and organisational skills.
In 1960, when the first volume of Bullock’s biography was published, it was reviewed in the Belfast Telegraph by a journalist who had been at a mass meeting of Transport and General Workers members which Bevin had addressed at the Ulster Hall in the 1920s (Belfast Telegraph, March 14th, 1960). He recalled that Bevin was known as the “the dockers’ KC” (King’s Counsel) for his role during the Shaw Inquiry in 1920, a successful defence of a claim by the dockers’ union for a minimum wage against a phalanx of well-paid lawyers representing the employers. In Belfast Bevin had spoken for an hour and a half without notes, beginning with an account of his early life as a child labourer for a Somerset farmer and finishing by defining socialism as the ultimate objective of the labour movement. Type in Bevin’s name to the British Newspaper Archive for the two decades from 1920 to 1940 and restrict the search to Irish papers and there are dozens of articles on his visits to Northern Ireland and the Free State. In April 1932 he came to Belfast to negotiate with the North of Ireland Shipowners’ Federation, which was trying impose wage reductions on the dockers. On his way to Belfast from Dublin he stopped in Lurgan to address textile workers before continuing to Belfast to a mass meeting of dockers in St Mary’s Hall. The next day was spent in negotiation with the shipowners in the Grand Central Hotel. The Northern Whig noted that as with a similar dispute in Glasgow Bevin adopted a conciliatory approach, offering acceptance of a smaller reduction in return for guarantees on future working conditions (Northern Whig, April 4th, 1932). Bevin was keen to bring in the government as arbiter and an official of the Stormont ministry of labour was invited to be an independent chairman of the negotiations. The same day Bevin also addressed fifty-two delegates from the spinning, weaving, bleaching and finishing branches of the linen trade at the union hall to encourage them to enrol more members and negotiate agreements to prevent any wage cuts. In the evening he returned to St Mary’s Hall to meet a deputation led by a Mr W Hannaway, leader of the barmen’s section of the union, to discuss how the national executive could help them to deal with non-union labour and ensure national wages and conditions applied in Belfast. This was probably the same person referred to in Gerry Adams’s Falls Memories as “grandfather Hannaway”, a prominent full-time union official. A visit of little over twenty-four hours illustrated something of the range of occupations and industries that Bevin’s union organised. The reports also illustrated his manifest pride in his own ascent from poverty to become, by the mid-1930s, not only a dominant figure in the trade union movement but also a kingmaker in the Labour Party.
Bullock went on to write two more volumes, amounting to 2,000 pages in total. He could afford to devote one whole volume to Bevin as a trade union leader; Adonis has to cover the whole career in little more than three hundred pages. He has also chosen to emphasise Bevin’s decisive role in the postwar containment of the Soviet Union, the establishment of NATO and the creation of West Germany. As a result, as he acknowledges, two decades of industrial affairs and disputes after the establishment of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1922 are largely ignored, although the General Strike has a chapter devoted to it. In Adonis’s judgement the strike, while a disaster for the unions, was a qualified success for Bevin as it propelled him to national leadership and established his reputation as tough, pragmatic and serious. It also sealed his partnership with Walter Citrine, general secretary of the TUC, both men united in their opposition to communism in the union movement and committed to building up the TUC and the TGWU as foundations for national negotiations with employers and the state. It was Bevin who played a central part in turning the Labour Herald into a mass circulation newspaper after stepping in to prevent an attempt by the left-wing Labour MP and future Labour Party leader George Lansbury to have it clandestinely funded by the Soviet Union. Thanks to Bevin the TUC took a stake in the paper, which was relaunched in 1929, with Bevin touring the country over thirty-five consecutive weekends to persuade Labour and trade union members to subscribe. By 1933 it was the first newspaper in the world to reach a circulation of two million.
Bevin’s gargantuan work ethic was combined with what Adonis, comparing him with Lloyd George, calls a “magpie mind”: “They hardly read books but they read people who read books … and picked out glittering ideas … stashing them in their political nests.” His friendship with Keynes on the Macmillan Committee established by Ramsay MacDonald to consider the relation between industry and finance in the wake of the 1929 Great Crash reflected his pioneering opposition to the decision to return Britain to the gold standard in 1925, previous efforts going back to the Edwardian period to get local and central government to tackle unemployment with job creation schemes and his advocacy of state pensions and unemployment benefits.
The membership of Bevin’s union grew from 300,000 in 1924 to 1,200,000 in 1945 making it by far the largest body of organised workers in the UK. It was also, according to its Irish organiser, the former Northern Ireland Labour Party MP Sam Kyle, in a speech to the all-Ireland conference of the union in Belfast in 1934, “the largest and most powerful union in the country” (Belfast Telegraph, October 18th, 1934), Bevin addressed the meeting on the growing fascist threat to Europe, which could only be met by collective action, while Kyle noted the campaign of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, supported by the Fianna Fáil government, to exploit nationalist feeling aroused by the Economic War to poach members from the TGWU in Dublin.
Bevin had used his unique powers of persuasion to bring together eighteen unions in the docks and road transport to create the TGWU. Adonis quotes Francis Williams, Bevin’s first biographer: “Bevin was an organiser in the sense that some men are writers or artists. He found in organisation his mode of self-expression.” To prevent Balkanisation he established overlapping structures of trade and area groups where negotiations and disputes were the prime responsibility of the trade groups but the power to call strikes was vested in the central executive. Seeking to establish agreements with employers that accepted the legitimacy of the union and the creation of structures for bargaining over wages and conditions he was bitterly opposed to unofficial strikes, frequently blaming them on militants from the Communist Party’s Minority Movement.
Churchill knew that no other figure in the labour movement could lead the total mobilisation of the working class for the war effort. Bevin’s first speech as minister of labour was to two thousand trade union officials whom he asked to place themselves at the service of the state: “We are socialists and this is the test of our socialism.” This was not to be a one-sided bargain, because the working class through its sacrifices was to become an equal part of the state. Bevin would boast that Britain mobilised more of its population than did Nazi Germany and this involved the conscription of women between the ages of twenty and thirty and the encouragement of all women of working age to take up war work. As a result, the female share of the labour force increased from 18 to 30 per cent between 1939 and 1943.
Adonis points out that the annual average of days lost to strikes in the period 1915-1918 was much higher than between 1940 and 1944. However the number of strikes was considerably higher during the Second World War and it was in large part because of the active role played by Bevin, his local officials and the officials of the ministry of labour that many were quickly settled. Bevin’s role in the running of the war was second only to Churchill’s and this in large part reflected his twenty years at the apex of the trade union movement. His own union straddled most of the major industries in the country and, as Adonis shows, his constant visits to factories and workplaces throughout the UK meant that he knew virtually all the union’s 1,500 organisers. He was thus an expert in almost every aspect of his ministry’s business.
Attlee later claimed that he had decided to make Bevin foreign secretary because he would stand up to Stalin and it is Bevin’s role in stiffening the resolve of Roosevelt and later Truman in dealing with the Soviet Union that gets particular emphasis. Adonis has little time for those, like Saville, who depict Bevin as an increasingly infirm prisoner of his officials. It is certainly the case that a long history of tussles with communists in the trade union movement meant that he needed few lessons in scepticism towards the USSR from Foreign Office mandarins. Adonis’s largely admiring view of Bevin at the Foreign Office echoes those of Bullock and Kenneth O Morgan, who in his Labour in Power 1945-1951, described “a period of sustained creativity such as few, if any, British Foreign Secretaries have produced since the time of the Elder Pitt”.
The equation of fascism and communism and the imperative to resist both is seen as Bevin’s most fundamental and consequential insight. Stalingrad is not referred to in the book and there is no recognition that the USSR had borne the bulk of the human and material losses in the Allied struggle against the Nazis and was decisive in the defeat of Germany. Was communism, as Adonis claims, “an existential threat to the labour movement and democratic politics”? Western concern about the extent of Stalin’s ambitions after 1945 was somewhat exaggerated: he was prepared to exploit weak points like Turkey and Iran and gave financial and propaganda support to the powerful communist parties in France and Italy but his priority was the defence of the Soviet Union’s eastern European sphere of influence.
Bevin’s anti-communism was more a reflection of his history of conflicts with communist industrial militants in the TGWU and other unions than it was based on an analysis of the international balance of forces. The CPGB had had two MPs elected in 1945 but in the election of 1950 all its one hundred candidates were defeated and 97 lost their deposits. However, the party’s position in the trade union movement was stronger: it was influential among the dockers, Welsh and Scottish miners and electrical workers. There were eight communists on the TGWU national executive of thirty-eight. Bevin’s successor as general secretary, Arthur Deakin, wanted communists excluded from union office. In October 1948 the General Council of the TUC issued a statement denouncing members of the party as “the abject and slavish agents of forces working incessantly to intensify social misery and create conditions of chaos and economic instability”. In 1949 Bevin’s union voted to ban communists from holding office and Attlee was so concerned about communist activity in the unions that he considered criminal prosecutions (Labour in Power 1945-1951, OUP, 1984, 295-296).
Bevin’s anti-Sovietism was the key to explaining why he played a decisive role in the creation of West Germany. While Churchill and Roosevelt had signed up for the Morgenthau plan for the dismemberment and deindustrialisation of Germany, Bevin pushed for the merger of the British, US and French zones of occupations, including the core industrial areas of the country, to be the basis of a new state strong enough to keep the economic core of Germany firmly in the West. Associated with the process of state formation was the active part Bevin played in the launching of the Marshall Plan and the subsequent creation of NATO.
Two areas of foreign policy are singled out for criticism: Bevin’s opposition to a two-state settlement in Palestine and his unabashed defence of Britain continuing as an imperial power. The two are linked in that Bevin and the Foreign Office’s concern to maintain British control of oilfields in the Middle East resulted in a pro-Arab stance which was opposed to significantly increasing Jewish migration to Palestine, despite the Holocaust and intense pressure from Truman to do so. According to Richard Crossman, Bevin’s idée fixe was that the British position in the Middle East was threatened by a Jewish-Communist conspiracy: “I am sure [the Russians] are convinced that by immigration they can pour in sufficient indoctrinated Jews into a communist state in a very short time.” (Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora A History of Anti-Semitism in England, OUP, 2010, p 333). Adonis has little time for attempts by Bullock and Morgan to acquit Bevin of antisemitism. Bevin never understood the driving force of Jewish nationalism or the emotional impact of the Holocaust in transforming the Palestinian issue. This blindness reflected a deep-rooted and ugly antisemitism. For him a Zionist was “a Jew who collects money from another Jew to send another Jew to Palestine”, with the collector taking a good percentage. Both he and Attlee indulged in tropes about Jews and money. American enthusiasm for Jewish emigration to Palestine, he told the 1946 Labour Party conference, was because “they do not want too many Jews in New York”.
Bevin’s belief in the progressive nature of the British empire made him unsympathetic to Attlee’s decision to grant independence to India and determined that Africa and the Middle East would become the heart of a refashioned empire. The war practically bankrupted the country, turning the UK from the world’s largest creditor nation to its largest debtor. The cost of military and diplomatic expenditure in the immediate pre-war period had been £6 million annually. In 1947, when Britain had full fleets in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian oceans, military expenditure was £209 million and over 90 per cent of Marshall Aid, which Bevin had played a central role in securing, was spent on paying off its massive debt. By 1951, spending on defence, including the highly secret decision to acquire the atomic bomb, was more than twice as much as on the welfare state.
Adonis, like many commentators before him, blames Bevin’s imperial delusions for economically crippling the country and the failure to support and be involved in the Schuman Plan which created the basis for European integration. Yet at the time Bevin was far from alone in believing that as empire transformed into commonwealth it continued to form the basis for national strength ‑ in 1950 half of British exports went to Commonwealth markets . The sterling balances held in London by these countries also made it easier for the UK to deal with its periodic balance of payments crisis. The Bank of England believed that British participation in European integration could only come at the expense of financial and fiscal independence. Anticipating the Lexiteers of today, many in the labour movement feared that involvement in European integration would limit the power to pursue socialist policies at home. As Herbert Morrison explained to the cabinet when it considered the Schuman Plan: “It’s no good, we can’t do it, the Durham miners won’t wear it.”
The narrative of postwar decline as a product of imperial delusions, present in Adonis as in much Irish commentary on Brexit, has been frontally challenged by David Edgerton in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, where he points to the success of postwar governments in investing in new productive capacity. This state-induced and -managed national economy meant that from the late 1940s to the early 1970s growth in GDP averaged 2-3 per cent per annum. The size of the national cake measured by real GDP more than doubled between 1975 and 2000 and the working class, the vast bulk of the population, went from austerity to relative plenty between 1950 and 1975. Bevinism ‑ a heavily state-directed economy with a welfarist bias and where the organised working class is recognised by both main parties as a power in the land ‑ deserves Adonis’s determination to recover its historic significance. That it was tied to an imperial and military project was, in the context of Britain’s wartime experience as the only major European state not invaded or occupied, largely inevitable. The late Tony Judt, in his history of Europe since 1945, noted that there was more to London’s stance in 1950 than imperial self-delusion. Quoting Jean Monnet, writing of Britain that unlike France and Germany “she felt no need to exorcise history”, he comments: “This sense of quiet pride at the country’s capacity to suffer, endure and win through marked Britain off from the continent.” (Postwar, Pimlico, 2007, p 161).
Henry Patterson is emeritus professor of Irish politics at Ulster University.