Book review: Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill

Ernest Bevin was a towering figure in 20th century British history.

But nearly seventy years after his death, he is too easily overlooked today. The original Bevin Boy is too often remembered only as the rotund, bespectacled man pictured walking alongside Winston Churchill or Clement Attlee in photos from the 1940s. It does not help that his surname is so easily confused with that of Nye Bevan, another major figure in the Attlee government, but a completely different person.

Andrew Adonis, himself a figure in the Blair and Brown governments, corrects the balance in this thorough and well-argued biography. Without Bevin, the history of Britain in the 20th century would have been very different. Although he never led a party himself, he founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the start of the Second World War was the largest trade union in the western world. By this point, Bevin (who was born in 1881) was anticipating retirement after a life spent in the union movement. Like Churchill, his finest hour, late in life, was in fact, still to come.

He played a major role in securing the succession of Churchill in 1940 and Attlee as Labour leader in 1935 and was a key figure in ensuring Attlee survived a coup attempt immediately after the 1945 Labour General Election landslide. As the wartime Minister of Labour and as Attlee’s first Foreign Secretary, he was a crucial figure in the two greatest governments of the 20th century.

His final years, establishing Britain’s position in the new Cold War were critical.

“Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other post-war Western leader,” Adonis writes. “Better even than Churchill and far better than Roosevelt or Truman.” Whereas some such as Labour’s George Lansbury (who Adonis sees as sort of 1930s version of Jeremy Corbyn) were weak on Hitler and even Churchill had an inexcusable soft spot for Benito Mussolini early on, Bevin’s no-nonsense approach towards Stalin was vital in ensuring no unnecessary ground was conceded to the Soviets in the Cold War’s critical early stages.

This is not a slavish hagiography. Adonis does not ignore Bevin’s failings: in particular, he was short-sighted on the subject of Britain’s post-war European destiny, had a personal dislike of schoolteachers and had a muddled approach to the Middle East which actually suggests he probably harboured anti-Semitic views.

Nevertheless, at a time when statues of less worthy historical figures are being torn down, this book serves as a fitting monument to a Great British hero.

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill, by Andrew Adonis. Published by: Biteback. Out now.

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