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|In office 27 July 1945 – 9 March 1951|
|In office 13 May 1940 – 23 May 1945|
|In office 1 January 1922 – 27 July 1945|
|9 March 1881 Winford, England|
|14 April 1951(1951-04-14) (aged 70) London, England|
Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a British trade union leader and Labour politician. He co-founded and served as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union from 1922 to 1940, as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government, and as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government he supported the creation of NATO.
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 Morchard Bishop 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 Dockers' Union, and in 1914 he became a national organiser for the union.
Bevin was a physically huge 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 laypreacher, which he had given up as a profession to become a full-time labour activist.
Bevin was married and had a daughter.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. 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. Bevin was a pragmatic 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 Labour Cabinet Ministers to be re-elected 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 LabourSketch of Bevin commissioned by the Ministry of Information in the WWII period
In 1940 Winston Churchill formed an all-party coalition government to run the country during the crisis of World War II. He, being impressed by Bevin's opposition to trade-union pacifism and his work ethic (according to Churchill, Bevin was by 'far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party have thrown up in my time'), 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." Given that the industrial settlement he introduced remained largely unaltered by successive postwar administrations until the reforms of Margaret Thatcher's government in the mid-1980s, this was a prescient remark.
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 back into the peacetime economy. Bevin remained Minister of Labour until 1945 when Labour left the Coalition government. On V-E Day he stood next to Churchill looking down on the crowd on Whitehall.Foreign SecretaryErnest Bevin (left) with Clement Attlee in 1945Potsdam Conference: Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin, William Daniel Leahy, James F. Byrnes and Harry S. Truman.Sitting (from left): Clement Attlee, Harry S. Truman, Joseph Stalin; behind: William Daniel Leahy, Ernest Bevin, James F. Byrnes and Vyacheslav Molotov.
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. Some claim that he was persuaded by King George VI to do so; but others note that whoever was Chancellor would have to work with Herbert Morrison, with whom Bevin did not get on. Indeed, it was once noted that Bevin, on overhearing a (supposed) private conversation in which somebody commented "the trouble with Herbert is that he is his own worst enemy", immediately responded with a booming "Not while I'm alive he ain't!" (Some sources say this was about Nye Bevan, whom he also disliked)
One anecdote from the period after Labour's 1945 landslide election victory was that, late on a Friday afternoon, he was left a number of red ministerial boxes, with a note inviting him to take the boxes home to read over the weekend if he so desired. On the following Monday morning the civil servants found the boxes as they had left them on the previous Friday with the note amended with the words "a kind thought, but sadly erroneous". At that time most diplomats were recruited from public schools, and it was said of Bevin - as a compliment to the respect which he had earned - 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 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."
Bevin became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was almost 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. The effort of paying for all this - and for the US loans - required 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". Britain was still closely allied to France - with whom the Dunkirk Treaty was signed in 1947 - and both countries continued to be treated as major partners at international summits alongside the USA and USSR until Paris in 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 practical, and was part of the Cabinet which approved a speedy British withdrawal from India in 1947, and from other territories. Yet at this stage Britain still maintained a network of client states in the Middle East (Egypt until the early 1950s, Iraq and Jordan until the late 1950s), major bases in such places as Cyprus and Suez (until 1954) and expected to remain in control of parts of Africa for many more decades, Bevin approving the construction of a huge new base in East Africa.
Bevin, 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 'ave!' before being restrained by security." He was a strong supporter of the United States in the early years of the Cold War and a leading advocate for British involvement 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." He also made a crucial intervention in the cabinet committee GEN 75, insisting that the United Kingdom should commit to developing an atomic bomb whatever the cost, because of the effect on Britain's international standing; Bevin's support was said to have swung the meeting.
Bevin was said to have defined his foreign policy as "to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please!"
During the negotiations in Paris for the peace treaty of World War II, the Russian diplomat Vladimir Erofeev met Bevin. He was appalled by his behaviour, which he judged impolite and undiplomatic. According to Erofeev, at one meeting Bevin said that he saw no difference between Russia and Nazi Germany; he took his words back only when Molotov was on the verge of walking out. During a pause of the negotiations, all the delegates rushed to the toilet; he heard Bevin say, in a very loud voice: "This is the only means of production that will ever be in the hands of the working class."Bevin, Palestine and IsraelThe security zone in Jerusalem was dubbed "Bevingrad" during Bevin's term in the Foreign Office
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. Jewish 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 displaced persons to Palestine after the war. Bevin told a Labour Party meeting that American pressure to admit Jews was being applied 'because they do not want too many of them in New York.' He was, though, merely restating what he said he had been told by James 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", the notorious forgery which was designed 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." However, the Bevin 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 mid-1947 was to see the launching of the Marshall Plan), 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 overall 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 rationale supporting Britain's 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 determine Palestine's future 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 founding of the State of Israel 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, which, with British assent, had reached a secret agreement with the Israelis which limited the fighting between their two countries. 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 restricted itself to less direct attacks, further restricted after the King David Hotel bombing (for which it initially gave its authorisation; later, but unknown to the Irgun, withdrawn) to illegal immigration activities.
Bevin negotiated the "Portsmouth Treaty" with Iraq (signed on 15 January 1948), which, according to then-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.
In 1946, an Irgun plan to assassinate Bevin and other British politicians was foiled by the security service, MI5.Later lifeStatue of Ernest Bevin in Southwark, South London
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 statue commemorating Bevin stands opposite Devon Mansions and the former St Olave's Grammar School in Tooley Street, South London.Legacy
Bevin in office showed the same pragmatic stubbornness that had characterised his years as a trade union leader and as one of the integral organisers of the Labour Party. Like Churchill, he was an old-fashioned English (as opposed to British) patriot, which was why the two leaders worked well together. However, he was also an internationalist and a supporter of the American alliance and of European unity. He saw clearly that Britain's days of imperial greatness were over, something he did not regret, unlike Churchill, as Bevin believed that the working class had never benefited from the Empire.
For his critics, his most lasting legacy remains the failure of his Palestine policy.