Ernest Bevin, PC (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a British statesman, trade union leader, and Labour politician. He co-founded and served as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union from 1922–40, and as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government. He succeeded in maximizing the British labour supply, for both the armed services and domestic industrial production, with a minimum of strikes and disruption. His most important role came as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, 1945–51. He gained American financial support, strongly opposed Communism, and aided in the creation of NATO. Bevin's tenure also saw the end of the Mandate of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel. His biographer, Alan Bullock, said that Bevin "stands as the last of the line of foreign secretaries in the tradition created by Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston in the first half of the 19th century," and that due to the reduction in British power he has no successors.
Bevin was born in the village of Winsford in Somerset, England, to Diana Bevin who, since 1877, had described herself as a widow. His father is unknown. After his mother's death in 1889, the young Bevin lived with his half-sister's family, moving to Copplestone in Devon. He had little formal education, having briefly attended two village schools and then Hayward's School, Crediton, starting in 1890 and leaving in 1892.
He later recalled being asked as a child to read the newspaper aloud for the benefit of adults in his family who were illiterate. At the age of eleven, he went to work as a labourer, then as a lorry driver in Bristol, where he joined the Bristol Socialist Society. In 1910 he became secretary of the Bristol branch of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers' Union, and in 1914 he became a national organiser for the union.
Bevin was a physically large man, strong and by the time of his political prominence very heavy. He spoke with a strong West Country accent, so much so that on one occasion listeners at Cabinet had difficulty in deciding whether he was talking about "Hugh and Nye (Gaitskell and Bevan)" or "you and I". He had developed his oratorical skills from his time as a Baptist lay preacher, which he had given up as a profession to become a full-time labour activist.
Bevin married Florence Townley, daughter of a wine taster at a Bristol wine merchants. They had one child, a daughter, Queenie (1914-2000). Florence Bevin would be appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 1952.
Transport and General Workers Union
In 1922 Bevin was one of the founding leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), which soon became Britain's largest trade union. Upon his election as the union's general secretary, he became one of country's leading labour leaders, and their strongest advocate within the Labour Party. Politically, he was on the right-wing of the Labour Party, strongly opposed to communism and direct action—allegedly partly due to anti-Semitic paranoia and seeing communism as a "Jewish plot" against Britain. He took part in the British General Strike in 1926, but without enthusiasm.
Bevin had no great faith in parliamentary politics, but had nevertheless been a member of the Labour Party from the time of its formation, and unsuccessfully fought Bristol Central at the 1918 General Election, being defeated by the Coalition Conservative Thomas Inskip. He had poor relations with the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and was not surprised when MacDonald formed a National Government with the Conservatives during the economic crisis of 1931, for which MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party. At the 1931 general election, Bevin was persuaded by the remaining leaders of the Labour Party to contest Gateshead, on the understanding that if successful he would remain as general secretary of the TGWU. The National Government landslide resulted in Gateshead being lost by a large margin to the Liberal National Thomas Magnay.
Bevin was a trade unionist who believed in getting material benefits for his members through direct negotiations, with strike action to be used as a last resort. During the late Thirties, for instance, Bevin helped to instigate a successful campaign by the TUC to extend paid holidays to a wider proportion of the workforce. This culminated in the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, which extended entitlement to paid holidays to about 11 million workers by June 1939.
Foreign policy interests
During the 1930s, with the Labour Party split and weakened, Bevin co-operated with the Conservative-dominated government on practical issues. But during this period he became increasingly involved in foreign policy. He was a firm opponent of fascism and of British appeasement of the fascist powers. In 1935, arguing that Italy should be punished by sanctions for her recent invasion of Abyssinia, he made a blistering attack on the pacifists in the Labour Party, accusing the Labour leader George Lansbury at the Party Conference of "hawking his conscience around" asking to be told what to do with it.
Lansbury resigned and was replaced as leader by his deputy Clement Attlee, who along with Lansbury and Stafford Cripps had been one of only three former Labour Ministers to be re-elected under that party label at the General Election in 1931. After the November 1935 General Election Herbert Morrison, newly returned to Parliament, challenged Attlee for the leadership but was defeated. In later years Bevin gave Attlee (whom he privately referred to as "little Clem") staunch support, especially in 1947 when Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps led further intrigue against Attlee.
Wartime Minister of Labour
In 1940 Winston Churchill formed an all-party coalition government to run the country during the crisis of World War II. Churchill was impressed by Bevin's opposition to trade-union pacifism and his appetite for work (according to Churchill, Bevin was by 'far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party have thrown up in my time'), and appointed Bevin to the position of Minister for Labour and National Service. As Bevin was not actually an MP at the time, to remove the resulting constitutional anomaly, a parliamentary position was hurriedly found for him and Bevin was elected unopposed to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament (MP) for the London constituency of Wandsworth Central.
The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act gave Bevin complete control over the labour force and the allocation of manpower, and he was determined to use this unprecedented authority not just to help win the war but also to strengthen the bargaining position of trade unions in the postwar future. Bevin once quipped: "They say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 until 1930. I'm going to be at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 until 1990." The industrial settlement he introduced remained largely unaltered by successive postwar administrations until the reforms of Margaret Thatcher's government in the early 1980s.
During the war Bevin was responsible for diverting nearly 48,000 military conscripts to work in the coal industry (these workers became known as the Bevin Boys) while using his position to secure significant improvements in wages and working conditions for working-class people. He also drew up the demobilisation scheme that ultimately returned millions of military personnel and civilian war workers into the peacetime economy. Bevin remained Minister of Labour until 1945 when Labour left the Coalition government. On VE Day he stood next to Churchill looking down on the crowd on Whitehall.
After the 1945 general election, Attlee had it in mind to appoint Bevin as Chancellor and Hugh Dalton as Foreign Secretary, but ultimately changed his mind and swapped them round. One of the reasons may well have been the poor relations which existed between Bevin and Herbert Morrison, who was scheduled to play a leading role in Labour domestic policy.
At that time diplomats were recruited from public schools, and it was said of Bevin that it was hard to imagine him filling any other job in the Foreign Office except perhaps that of an old and truculent lift attendant. In praise of Bevin, his Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office (Alexander Cadogan) wrote, "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 (and our) point of view against anyone." An alternative view is offered by Charmley, who writes that Bevin read and wrote with some difficulty, and that examination of Foreign Office documents shows little sign of the frequent annotations made by Anthony Eden, suggesting that Bevin preferred to reach most of his decisions after oral discussion with his advisers.
However, Charmley dismisses the concerns of contemporaries such as Charles Webster and Lord Cecil of Chelwood that Bevin, a man of very strong personality, was “in the hands of his officials”. Charmley argues that much of Bevin's success came because he shared the views of those officials: his earlier career had left him with an intense dislike of communists, whom he regarded as workshy intellectuals whose attempts to infiltrate trade unions were to be resisted. His former Private Secretary Oliver Harvey thought Bevin’s staunchly anti-Soviet policy was what Eden’s would have been had he not been hamstrung, as at Potsdam, by Churchill’s occasional susceptibility to Stalin’s flattery, whilst Cadogan thought Bevin “pretty sound on the whole”.
Historian Martin H. Folly argues that Bevin was not automatically pro-American. Instead he pushed his embassy in Washington to project a view of Britain that neutralized American criticisms. He felt Britain's problems were in part caused by American irresponsibility. He was frustrated with American attitudes. His strategy was to bring Washington around to support Britain's policies, arguing Britain had earned American support and ought to compensate it for its sacrifices against the Nazis. Bevin was not coldly pragmatic, says Folly, nor was he uncritically pro-American; nor was he a puppet manipulated by the British Foreign Office.
In 1945 Britain was virtually bankrupt as a result of the war and yet was still maintaining a huge air force and conscript army, in an attempt to remain a global power. He played a key role securing a low-interest $3.75 billion loan from the U.S. in December 1945 as the only real alternative to national bankruptcy; he had asked originally for $5 billion.
The cost of rebuilding necessitated austerity at home in order to maximise export earnings, while Britain's colonies and other client states were required to keep their reserves in pounds as "sterling balances". Additional funds—that did not have to be repaid—came from the Marshall Plan in 1948-50, which also required Britain to modernize its business practices and remove trade barriers.
Bevin looked for ways to bring western Europe together in a military alliance. One early attempt was the Dunkirk Treaty with France in 1947. His commitment to the West European security system, made him eager to sign the Brussels Pact in 1948. It drew Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg into an arrangement for collective security, opening the way for the formation of NATO in 1949. NATO was primarily aimed as a defensive measure against Soviet expansion, but it also helped bring its members closer together and enabled them to modernize their forces along parallel lines, and encourage arms purchases from Britain.
Britain was still closely allied to France and both countries continued to be treated as major partners at international summits alongside the USA and USSR until 1960. Broadly speaking, all this remained Britain's foreign policy until the late 1950s, when the humiliation of the 1956 Suez Crisis and the economic revival of continental Europe, now united as the "Common Market", caused a reappraisal.
Bevin was unsentimental about the British Empire in places where the growth of nationalism had made direct rule no longer practicable, and was part of the Cabinet which approved a speedy British withdrawal from India in 1947, and from neighbouring colonies. Yet at this stage Britain still maintained a network of client states in the Middle East (Egypt until 1952, Iraq and Jordan until 1959), major bases in such places as Cyprus and Suez (until 1956) and expected to remain in control of parts of Africa for many more years, Bevin approving the construction of a huge new base in East Africa. Bevin wrote “we have the material resources in the Colonial Empire, if we develop them … which will show clearly that we are not subservient to the United States … or to the Soviet Union”. In this era colonial exports earned $150m a year, mostly Malaysian rubber, West African cocoa, and sugar and sisal from the West Indies. By the end of 1948 colonial exports were 50% higher than before the war, whilst in the first half of 1948 colonial exports accounted for 10.4% of Britain’s imports. After the war Britain helped France and the Netherlands recover their Far Eastern empires, hopeful that this could lead towards the formation of a third superpower bloc. Bevin agreed with Duff Cooper (British Ambassador in Paris) that the Dunkirk Treaty would be a step in this direction and thought that Eden's objection – in 1944 when Cooper first proposed it – that such moves might alienate the Soviets no longer applied.
In December 1947 Bevin hoped (in vain) that the USA would support Britain’s “strategic, political and economic position in the Middle East”. In May 1950 Bevin told the London meeting of foreign ministers that “the United States authorities had recently seemed disposed to press us to adopt a greater measure of economic integration with Europe than we thought wise” (he was referring to the Schuman Plan to set up the European Coal and Steel Community). In May 1950 he said that because of links with USA and the Commonwealth Britain was “different in character from other European nations and fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with them”.
Bevin remained a determined anti-Communist, and critic of the Soviet Union. In 1946 during a conference, the Soviet foreign minister Molotov repeatedly attacked British proposals whilst defending Soviet policies, and in total frustration Bevin stood and lurched towards the minister whilst shouting "I've had enough of this I 'ave!' before being restrained by security.
He strongly encouraged the United States to take a vigorously anti-Communist foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War. He was a leading advocate for British combat operations in the Korean War. Two of the key institutions of the post-war world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Marshall Plan for aid to post-war Europe, were in considerable part the result of Bevin's efforts during these years. This policy, little different from that of the Conservatives ("Hasn't Anthony Eden grown fat?" as wags had it), was a source of frustration to some backbench Labour MPs, who early in the 1945 Parliament formed a "Keep Left" group to push for a more Left-Wing foreign policy.
In 1945, Bevin advocated the creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, saying in the House of Commons that "There should be a study of a house directly elected by the people of the world to whom the nations are accountable."
Attlee and Bevin worked together on the decision to produce a British atomic bomb, despite intense opposition from pro-Soviet elements of the Labour Party, a group Bevin detested. The decision was taken in secret by a small Cabinet committee. Bevin told the committee in October 1946, that 'We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs … We've got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.' It was a matter of both prestige and national security. Those ministers who would have opposed the bomb on grounds of cost, Hugh Dalton and Sir Stafford Cripps, were excluded from the meeting in January 1947 at which the final decision was taken.
Palestine and Israel
Bevin was Foreign Secretary during the period when the Mandate of Palestine ended and the State of Israel was created. Bevin failed to secure the stated British objectives in this area of foreign policy, which included a peaceful settlement of the situation and the avoidance of involuntary population transfers. Regarding Bevin's handling of the Middle East situation, at least one commentator, David Leitch, has suggested that Bevin lacked diplomatic finesse.
Leitch argued that Bevin tended to make a bad situation worse by making ill-chosen abrasive remarks. Bevin was undeniably a plain-spoken man, some of whose remarks struck many as insensitive. Critics have accused him of being anti-Semitic. One remark which caused particular anger was made when President Truman was pressing Britain to immediately admit 100,000 Jewish refugees, survivors of the Holocaust who wanted to immigrate to Palestine. Bevin told a Labour Party meeting that American pressure to admit Jews was being applied because "There has been agitation in the United States, and particularly in New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put in Palestine. I hope I will not be misunderstood in America if I say that this was proposed by the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York."
He was merely restating what he said he had been told by James F. Byrnes, the United States Secretary of State. For refusing to remove limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the aftermath of the war, Bevin earned the hatred of Zionists. According to historian Howard Sachar, his political foe, Richard Crossman, a fellow Labour Party member of parliament and a pro-Zionist member of the post-war Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, characterised his outlook during the dying days of the Mandate as "corresponding roughly with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a Tsarist fabrication written to inflame anti-Semitic prejudice. In Sachar's account, Crossman intimated that "the main points of Bevin's discourse were ... that the Jews had successfully organised a conspiracy against Britain and against him personally." Bevin's biographer Alan Bullock rejected suggestions that Bevin was motivated by personal anti-Semitism.
Britain's economic weakness and its dependence on the financial support of the United States (Britain had received a large American loan in 1946 and the Marshall Plan began in mid-1947), left him little alternative but to yield to American pressure over Palestine policy. At the reconvened London Conference in January 1947, the Jewish negotiators were only prepared to accept partition and the Arab negotiators only a unitary state (which would automatically have had an Arab majority). Neither would accept limited autonomy under British rule. When no agreement could be reached, Bevin threatened to hand the problem over to the United Nations. The threat failed to move either side, the Jewish representatives because they believed that Bevin was bluffing and the Arabs because they believed that their cause would prevail before the General Assembly. Bevin accordingly announced that he would "ask the UN to take the Palestine question into consideration." A week later, the strategic logic of Britain retaining a presence in Palestine was removed when the intention to withdraw from India in August of that year was announced. The decision to allow the United Nations to dictate the future of Palestine was formalised by the Attlee government's public declaration in February 1947 that Britain's Mandate in Palestine had become "unworkable." Of the UN partition plan which resulted, Bevin commented: "The majority proposal is so manifestly unjust to the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience." During the remainder of the Mandate, fighting between the Jewish and Arab communities intensified. The end of the Mandate and Britain's final withdrawal from Palestine was marked by the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when five Arab states intervened in the inter-communal fighting. The Arab armies were led by the state with that position which was most effective, Jordan, whose military forces were trained and led by British officers. The war ended with Israel, in addition to the territory assigned by the UN for the creation of a Jewish state, also in control of much of the Mandate territory which had been assigned by the UN for the creation of an Arab state. The remainder was divided between Jordan and Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of, overwhelmingly Arab, civilians had become displaced.
Bevin was infuriated by attacks on British troops carried out by the more extreme of the Jewish militant groups, the Irgun and Lehi, commonly known as the Stern Gang. The Haganah carried out less direct attacks, until the King David Hotel bombing, after which it restricted itself to illegal immigration activities. According to declassified British intelligence files, the Irgun and Lehi plotted to assassinate Bevin himself in 1946.
Bevin negotiated the Portsmouth Treaty with Iraq (signed on 15 January 1948), which, according to the Iraqi foreign minister Muhammad Fadhel al-Jamali, was accompanied by a British undertaking to withdraw from Palestine in such a fashion as to provide for swift Arab occupation of all its territory.
His health failing, Bevin reluctantly allowed himself to be moved to become Lord Privy Seal in March 1951. "I am neither a Lord, nor a Privy, nor a Seal", he is said to have commented. He died the following month, still holding the key to his red box. His ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.
When, on Stafford Cripps's death in 1952, Attlee (by this time Leader of the Opposition) was invited to broadcast a tribute by the BBC, he was looked after by announcer Frank Phillips. After the broadcast, Phillips took Attlee to the hospitality room for a drink and in order to make conversation said:
"I suppose you will miss Sir Stafford, sir."
Attlee fixed him with his eye: "Did you know Ernie Bevin?"
"I have met him, sir," Phillips replied.
"There's the man I miss."
A bust of Bevin has been placed opposite Devon Mansions and the former St Olave's Grammar School in Tooley Street, South London.