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.

Book review: 5 Days In May: The Coalition and Beyond by Andrew Adonis

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Some people got very angry with the Lib Dems after the Coalition was formed in 2010. They felt the party had betrayed its progressive roots for a sniff of power.
This is very unfair. The inconclusive election result virtually guaranteed the Lib Dems a shot a role in the next government whatever happened. As Labour’s Andrew Adonis reveals, they had betrayed their progressive tradition long before then.
Nick Clegg and David Laws were, to all intents and purposes, Tories from the outset. Had they not been passionately pro-European at a time when (then as now) the Tories were tearing themselves to bits over the issue, they would doubtless have joined the Tories on entering politics in the Nineties.
Laws, the author of the main previous account of the Coalition talks, 22 Days in May has been candid about his admiration for George Osborne.
He also openly complained:
“Many Lib Dems were as disenfranchised with Labour as they had earlier been with the Conservatives….the endless centralising and micromanaging, the failure to embrace radical constitutional reform…and the lack of progress on social mobility and improving public services…”
Adonis is rightly astonished by Laws’ words. The Lib Dem seems to have forgotten the revival of the NHS, the thousands of new teachers and nurses, the introduction of devolution, reform of the House of Lords, civil partnerships, the introduction of the minimum wage. Labour in fact had much to be proud of during their thirteen years in office.
But Laws and Clegg weren’t interested in all that. They had no intention of fulfilling their promise to abolish student tuition fees either. They went through the charade of talks with Labour only to fatally undermine them by issuing bogus reports of “bad body language” from the Labour side, a charge which is impossible to verify. The Lib Dems in truth wanted to be with the Tories all along.
Some on the Labour side did their bit too, former cabinet ministers David Blunkett and John Reid each publicly doing their bit to make it harder for a Lib-Lab pact to work. As in 1950 and 1978, Labour did not fight hard enough to keep hold of the reins of power. Once they had relinquished it, it was easier for a new government to trash their record while in office.
But the Lib Dems are the real villains here. To add insult to injury, Clegg dealt his party a very poor hand in negotiations with the Tories, failing even to secure a department for itself.
The end result is that we effectively have an undiluted Tory Government committed to an austerity budget which isn’t working. This is compulsive reading, particularly for anyone contemplating a Coalition with the Lib Dems in 2015.
You have been warned.

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