The Foreign Secretaries (12): Ernest Bevin

bevinErnest Bevin, 1945-51

Labour, under Attlee

In his old age, a historian friend of mine interviewed Sir Frank Roberts, who had worked in some capacity for every foreign secretary from Eden through to George Brown. When asked who had been the one he most admired, he replied without hesitation, Ernest Bevin.

I have written about Bevin elsewhere (see here), but one fact about him must be reiterated. Bevin had very little formal education at all. The fact that he played such a key role in Churchill’s wartime coalition, and in one of its most demanding positions, was no less remarkable. Similarly, the high regard in which Churchill, Attlee and Eden held him also spoke volumes, as did the undying loyalty and admiration of his officials. In short, Bevin was perhaps the most able minister in two of our great governments.

Another feature of his career up until 1945 would also explain a great deal. After the failure of a general strike Bevin had not wanted, and Labour’s near fatal election of 1931, Bevin did more than perhaps anyone to keep the Labour movement on the path of constitutional and electoral politics. As leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, he commanded a huge block vote at Conference. He was also the strong man on the National Executive Committee. He knew he had real political weight, and was willing to use it (as he did, to unseat George Lansbury, more anon). Once Attlee was leader, Bevin was unswerving in his support: ‘we must look after little Clem.’

At the heart of Bevin’s socialism was the idea of ‘our people’. In 1935, for Bevin that meant the working classes of Europe under the yoke of Fascism, Nazism and authoritarian conservatives. Even more than that, it meant the threat they all posed to the ordinary people of Britain. Lansbury’s pacifism amounted to betrayal. Bevin was from the traditional pro-imperial and patriotic wing of the trade union movement. He thus shared Attlee’s patriotism and his opposition to communism. Lansbury was crushed, by Bevin: you can read more about it here.

In 1945, Bevin expected the Treasury and Dalton expected the Foreign Office. The first problem Attlee had was Morrison. Attlee knew Morrison was his rival, but such was his position in the party and government he needed him inside the tent, as it were. He had thus set aside the position of economic overlord and general overseer of domestic policy for his deputy. Morrison and Bevin, famously, did not get on. They had managed to work well enough together under Churchill, but with Morrison in overall charge of domestic policy, there were likely to be turf wars with the Treasury. The personal antipathy would hardly help. Furthermore, the Foreign Office officials were known to be uneasy about Dalton. Lastly, Bevin carried huge weight in the wider party, and foreign policy had been deeply contentious in the ‘thirties. If there were difficult and unpopular decisions to take, and there would be, Bevin could carry the party with him.

Thus, Bevin went to the Foreign Office, with some suspicion and reluctance. The ghost of appeasement still hung over it. The Foreign Office was, even by the standards of the time, the most donnish (and poshest) department in government. From their point of view, the uneducated trade unionist with his West Country burr could hardly have been more different from Halifax and Eden. It didn’t take long for them to appreciate Bevin, and he reciprocated. Central to Bevin’s success at the Foreign Office was the relationship he struck up with his officials, who appreciated his eye for detail, his ability to read prodigiously, listen to advice and yet reach his own judgement, and then back his department all the way. Bevin came to trust them, and they him. In addition, Bevin consulted regularly with Eden: his foreign policy centered, above all, on what he perceived to be the national rather than party interest. And Bevin found himself at the top table immediately (seen below at Potsdam).


Bevin and Attlee would take some of the most important foreign policy decisions in our modern history, and several that would be unpopular with sections of their party. The most important were in response to the unfolding Cold War. Bevin certainly believed in Britain’s world role, and initially looked to Britain as a ‘third force’ in the world, alongside their wartime allies. He also hoped for improved Anglo-Soviet relations, and greatly admired the Russian contribution to the allied victory. However, he also had a lifelong enmity towards communism: left understands left, he once said. Once the Cold War opened out, Bevin was decisive. The freedom and independence of Western Europe, and Britain, depended upon the Americans.

bevin timeBevin also recognised something of the reality of Britain’s position in the world. When public finances compelled the British withdrawal from Greece, an initially reluctant Truman promulgated the Truman Doctrine: in effect, a statement of the United States’ political leadership of Western Europe. For Bevin, this was marked the first decisive step in a sustained effort to woo Washington away from what he feared was an isolationist course that looked distinctly possible in 1946.

A yet more decisive step along that road came in the form of the Marshall Plan (see Bevin signing it in 1948, below). When Marshall made his speech in 1947 offering aid to Western Europe, he had no plan (as he would later admit). Bevin turned the vague statement into a concrete plan. He organised the Paris Conference, drew up proposals and created the OEEC (the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation) that allocated the actual money. The importance of the Marshall Plan cannot be overestimated. Economically, it kick-stared the recovery of the European economy that would be followed the almost unbroken run of growth and prosperity that would be the hallmark of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties; that, in turn would underpin the greater political stability of that period too. No less importantly, it also played a key part in the West German economic miracle that was central to prosperity and stability in Germany, and Western Europe too. It helped create the idea of Western Europe, and tied it into open markets and democracy. In addition, as Bevin so assiduously sought, it further tied America to Western Europe.

bevin marhall

For its critics, mostly on the left, Labour too readily allowed itself to be tied to America. Those critics have the process the wrong way round. For Bevin, the security, stability and prosperity of Western Europe required the presence of the United States: he was the one looking to do the tying. That did require Britain accepting US leadership, at least some of the time: notably in the Berlin Airlift, for example. It also required Britain to accept US airbases (and nuclear weapons). It necessitated British participation in the Korean War.

bevin natoThe culmination of his wooing of the United States was the creation of NATO in 1949 (Bevin, signing the  treaty, left). Already, learning the lesson from the 1930s, Britain had committed itself to the defence of France, in the treaty of Dunkirk, and of Western Europe in the Brussels Treaty of 1948. Militarily though, Britain could not stand up to a Soviet army six times the size of its own. NATO placed Western Europe under US protection. As the old joke goes, it kept the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans quiet.

Bevin was no American stooge. When the United States refused to share its atomic secrets and technology, Attlee and Bevin took the decision to develop Britain’s independent nuclear weapon: ‘it’s got to have a bloody union jack on it’, as he put it. The Americans wanted Britain to dismantle the Sterling Area: it didn’t. They didn’t want Britain to recognise communist China: it did.

Most of all, there were sharp disagreements over Palestine, and Jewish immigration. For Britain, Palestine would prove insoluble, and Bevin’s pre-emptive decision to hand the problem to the United Nations was hardly his finest hour. Nor did lapses into a lazy anti-Semitic tone do him credit. However, it is hard to see what else Bevin could have done, and the problem has hardly proved soluble since. If many felt that Bevin, and the Foreign Office, were too pro-Arab, that was borne most of a very rational realpolitik: what mattered most were Britain’s interests in the wider Middle East.

Perhaps another critique is more telling, that under Labour Britain missed the European boat. I have written elsewhere on this matter, in the series on Britain and Europe (see here), but for now it is worth noting that the notion that Bevin was wholly antagonistic to cooperation in Western Europe is somewhat misleading: think, after all, of the Marshall Plan and NATO. He was suspicious of other measures. He distrusted the Pleven Plan, to create a European Army, but on the grounds that it would undermine NATO. It was thanks to Britain that the Council of Europe was primarily a talking shop. It was Bevin’s unease that led to the Schumann Plan being promulgated without British involvement. Bevin’s refusal to join it was a much a consequence of his tribal patriotic Labourism as it was rational assessment of the national interest. It is probably true that his distrust of grand European initiatives came from the same root.


Nor was Bevin’s role confined to foreign policy. He remained the rock upon which Attlee’s premiership stood. His loyalty to Attlee was absolute. When Dalton, Morrison and Cripps plotted, it was Bevin as much as Attlee who saw them off: ‘Who do you think I am, Lloyd George?’ His standing in the wider party was immense. In part, that was because the union block vote gave him immense power, but it was also because he held such a sway over his party: again and again, his colleagues marvelled at his hold over Labour’s membership. In essence, that was because he was one of ‘our people’, with an almost instinctive understanding of how they felt, and what was in their interests. That instinct, when combined with his great intellect and contribution to the Labour movement’s history rendered his position unassailable, until his health gave way. In the end, years of hard drinking, heavy smoking and incessant work did their worst.

bevin netcBevin stands as one of the great foreign secretaries. At the root of that stature remains the fact that he and Attlee set the course of post-war foreign policy, arguably up until this day, and got the big decisions right (and they were very big decisions). He recognised the centrality of Western Europe and the United States to Britain’s interests, and the need to take sides in the Cold War. Perhaps above all others, he succeeded in tying the United States to Western Europe, and laid the foundations of post-war security, peace, prosperity and stability. If he did not fully recognise the underlying reality of Britain’s diminished status, when confronted by the reality of it he made pragmatic adjustments to the facts. He may have failed in Palestine, but in that, he is hardly unique. His ambivalence over Europe may have weakened Britain’s position, but it was an ambivalence universally shared (for all Churchill’s rhetoric). Entering the Korean War may have hurt both the economy, skewed defence policy and helped lose an election, but given the primacy of the newly minted Atlantic relationship, it was necessary. Beyond all of that, Bevin was also one of the architects of Britain’s victory in 1945, of the modern Labour Party and its greatest government. As such, he was one of the great men of the age.

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