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Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a Britishmarker Labour politician, best known for his time as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government, and as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government.

Early life

Bevin was born in the village of Winsfordmarker in Somersetmarker, Englandmarker, 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 Bishopmarker in Devonmarker. Compared to most politicians, he had little formal education, briefly attending two village schools before gaining a place at Hayward's School, Creditonmarker, in 1890, 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 Bristolmarker, 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 due to his anti-Semitic paranoia, 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 defected and allied with the Conservatives during the economic crisis of 1931. 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.

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.

Ministerial office

In 1940 Winston Churchill formed an all-party coalition government to defend the country in the crisis of World War II. As part of this he appointed Bevin to the position of Minister for Labour and National Service. He was determined to make his mark in office and 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." In this post he became the director of Britain's wartime domestic economy.

The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act gave him complete control over the labour force and the allocation of manpower. During this period Bevin was responsible for diverting nearly 48,000 military conscripts to work in the coal industry. These workers became known as the Bevin Boys. Shortly after his appointment Bevin was elected unopposed to the House of Commonsmarker for the London constituency of Wandsworth Central. 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 Secretary

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 [Morrison] 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, who 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 mistaken". 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.

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 1950 - 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 Indiamarker 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 chunks of Africa for many more decades, Bevin approving the construction of a huge new base in East Africa.

Bevin, a determined anti-Communist, was a strong supporter of the United Statesmarker 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 Organisationmarker (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 Commonsmarker 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 stationmarker and go anywhere I damn well please!"

Bevin, Palestine and Israel

As Foreign Secretary, Bevin failed to secure British objectives in the British Mandated Territory of Palestine. Personally, Bevin was opposed to the plans of the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state, and supported the creation of a unitary and exclusively Arab-ruled state in western Palestine. Bevin negotiated "the Portsmouth Treaty" with Iraq (signed on January 15, 1948), which was accompanied by British undertaking to withdraw from Palestine in such a fashion as to provide for swift Arab occupation of all its territory. According to then-Iraqi foreign minister Muhammad Fadhel al-Jamali,

" It was agreed that Iraq would buy for the Iraqi police force 50,000 tommy-guns. We intended to hand them over to the Palestine army volunteers for self-defence. Great British was ready to provide the Iraqi army with arms and ammunition as set forth in a list prepared by the Iraqi General Staff. The British undertook to withdraw from Palestine gradually, so that Arab forces could enter every area evacuated by the British in order that the whole of Palestine should be in Arab bands after the British withdrawal. The meeting ended and we were all optimistic about the future of Palestine."[48544]

Regarding Bevin's handling of the Middle East situation, at least one commentator, David Leitch, has suggested that Bevin lacked diplomatic finesse. Leitch argues that Bevin tended to make a bad situation worse by making ill-chosen abrasive remarks. He also argues that Zionists were angered by Bevin's obstinate adherence to policies that limited Jewish immigration into Palestine. Bevin was infuriated by the refusal of the USAmarker to open its doors to more Jewish displaced persons.

Bevin was also infuriated by attacks on British troops by militant Zionist groups, particularly those made by Menachem Begin's Irgun and Avraham Stern's Lehi. However, Britain's economic weakness, and its dependence on the financial support of the United Statesmarker (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 and allow the United Nations to determine Palestine's future, a decision formalised by the Attlee government's public declaration in February 1947 that Britain's Mandate in Palestine had become "unworkable." On Britain's withdrawal, Arab states immediately intervened, leading to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The army of Jordan, a British client state since the 1920s, was commanded by a British General, Sir John Glubb. This war ended in an Israeli victory, and the displacement of thousands of Arab civilians - the very opposite of what Bevin seems to have wanted.

Bevin was undeniably a plain-spoken man, some of whose remarks struck many as insensitive, but his biographer Alan Bullock rejects suggestions that he was motivated by personal anti-Semitism. The historian Howard Sachar cites a source which suggests otherwise. Sachar quotes a remark by Richard Grossman,a Labour Party MP and a member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, who met Bevin on August 4 1947. Sachar claims that Grossman described Bevin's outlook as:

'corresponding roughly with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic canard of the 1920s.
The main points of Bevin's discourse were ... that the Jews had successfully organised a worldwide conspiracy against Britain and against him personally.'

One of Bevin's last comments on the topic was: "The majority proposal is so manifestly unjust to the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience."

Later life

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. He was buried in Westminster Abbeymarker.

When on Stafford Cripps's death in 1952 Attlee, no longer Prime Minister, was invited to broadcast a tribute by the BBC, he was looked after by announcer Frank Phillips. After the broadcast, Phillips took him 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’

‘There’s the man I miss’.

A statue commemorating Bevin stands opposite Devon Mansionsmarker and the former St Olave's Grammar Schoolmarker in Tooley Streetmarker, South London.


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. But he was also an internationalist, 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 for, in his view, the working class had never benefited from the Empire.

For his critics, his most lasting legacy remains the failure of his Palestine policy.

See also


  1. ' From the hedgerows of Devon to the Foreign Office' - Roger Steer. Devon Life Magazine, July 2002.
  2. Peter Weiler, Ernest Bevin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 170-171
  3. Peter Hennessy, "Cabinets and the Bomb", The British Academy/Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 48.
  4. See Spectator, 20 April 1951.
  5. Note. This slip, uncorrected by an historian of Sachar's stature, is odd. The Protocols date back to 1903. The text may allude to the diffusion in the 1920s of the English translation by Victor Marsden in 1920.
  6. Howard Sachar (1996): A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, 2nd Ed. Knopf. p.296. Richard Crossman, who had worked with Bevin, expressed a similar opinion in 1960: "he [Bevin] had become convinced that the Jews were organising a world conspiracy against poor old Britain and, in particular, against poor old Ernie." Crossman, R.H.S., A Nation Reborn, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1960, p.69
  7. British Cabinet Minutes CP47/259 18Sep47 p4
  8. Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1997), p. 285

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