My grandfather was a proud member of the Labour Party, a Transport and General Workers’ Union shop steward and, in his words, ‘a proper socialist’. And his proudest boast, made often, was ‘I met Ernie Bevin’.
If some lives seem to personify something in politics (perhaps like Lincoln, for example), Bevin personifies something about the history and aspirations of the labour movement. His mother had been deserted by her husband many years before Ernest was born: Bevin, it seems, never knew his father. Interestingly, no one knows whether he ever married his lifelong partner is not known. His schooling was patchy, and he took took a series of low skilled jobs, ending up as a van driver for a mineral water firm in Bristol. If ever a man came from a genuinely disadvantaged background, Bevin was that man.
Another aspect of Bevin’s life gives us another strand of Labour history. Traditionally, the chapel (by which I mean non-conformism) had been associated with Liberalism, but the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw a number of socialists emerge from non-conformism. He attended a Wesleyan Sunday school in his childhood, and then chapel, before being baptised and becoming active in a Baptist Mission in Bristol, even becoming a preacher.
He was symbolic in another way. In part through his connections with the Baptists, like many a serious and bright working class young man of his time, Bevin began to educate himself in discussion groups and adult education. It was this process that led him to socialism. When a Bristol right-to-work campaign was set up in 1908, Bevin was its first secretary; in 1909 he stood as an independent socialist in the local elections.
Bevin was also something of an archetype in what was most fundamental to his socialism: trade unionism, and with a socialism born of the aspiration to better the lives of ‘our people’. In 1910, when Bevin was already twenty-nine years old and an active socialist organiser, a dockers’ strike broke out in Bristol. Bevin ran a relief fund. Bevin was urged to organise the un-unionised carters. As a result he became, the following years, a paid official of the Dockers’ Union. So able was he, three years later he was one of three national organisers, a played a role in the merger with the General Labourers Union. Over the course of the war and after, he became a more and more significant figure in the trade union movement.
His trade unionism was always rooted in an ethical, practical socialism: what Henry Pelling called an ‘undogmatic Labourism’. By 1923, when he played a key part in the creation of the new Transport and General Workers Union and then was elected as its first General Secretary, he had become one of the most important figures in the TUC and in the wider Labour movement. He firmly allied the TGWU to Labour, but not uncritically: he was impatient with both MacDonald and Snowden, seeing the first as out of touch and favouring devaluation in 1931. He also developed a grasp of economics, in part by working with Keynes, which he would never lose. In short, he transcended the conventional economics that scuppered Labour in 1931.
Bevin had been contemplating retirement in the late ‘thirties, when another characteristic he shared with the Labour Party of his time came to the fore: his patriotism. He had supported Britain’s role in The Great War, and took a leading role in turning Labour against pacifism and appeasement in the ‘thirties: he took the lead role in forcing George Lansury from the Labour leadership. When Churchill became prime minister in 1940, Bevin was the first man on his list of Labour men, as Minister of Labour and in the War Cabinet from October. His role would be pivotal, and his patriotism evident.
As foreign secretary after the war, that patriotism helped him steer Britain through the coming of Cold War. Perhaps his finest hour was when, in effect, he organised the Marshall Plan. He could be somewhat parochial (dismissing the European Coal and Steel Community because the Durham minutes would never ‘wear it’), but he had the vision to help bring about Marshall Aid, and NATO.
One other fact about Bevin. When the late Sir Frank Roberts, one of the most distinguished diplomats and civil servants of the last century, was asked about all the ministers he had worked with in a career spanning five decades, he replied in a moment: Bevin. Why? As a minister Bevin had an extraordinary ability to know and understand detail, yet not lose sight of the bigger picture; he mastered his brief and came back with some searching questions; he made his decisions and then backed his officials very inch of the way. That was shown at the foreign office, and even more so in his masterminding of the home front in the war itself.
Which brings us to another trait. Bevin could be prickly, even difficult sometimes. He could be brusque and impatient, especially of any type of socialism which he saw as impractically intellectual of inimical to freedom. His hatred of Herbert Morrison was enduring: famously when told Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin replied ‘not while there’s breath in my body he ain’t’. He was not without ego: ‘We must look after little Clem’. But, he was loyal. When Cripps, Dalton and Morrison sought to oust Attlee in 1947, Bevin rejected their overtures: ‘Who do you think I am, Lloyd George?’.
Underlying that loyalty? Decency, an ethical socialism and what we nowadays call a moral compass.
I’m with my grandad . Bevin was one of the great men of Labour; more than that, a great Briton. I’m proud my grandad met him.