Written 26 July 2022
I have had John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee (“Citizen Clem”) on my list of books to read for some time and will get round to it soon enough. But I was after something a bit shorter, saw this one pop up (it’s about half the length) and decided to give it a go.
This is a biography of Ernest Bevin, a hero of the Labour Movement. I think there are likely to be more definitive biographies available, but for someone who wants to know the facts and to get a real sense of the man this was great. It’s comprehensive and easy to read but also moves along at enough of a clip to keep you going. As a reader I knew a bit about Bevin but wanted to learn more, so it fitted the bill very well.
Having got through the book, and learned a few things I didn’t know already, I am even more impressed by Bevin. I already held him in high esteem but in fact he really was a hero, one of a kind in many ways, and one of the most important people in the making of modern Britain. The point is made more than once in the book, and quoting more than one source, that Bevin was second only to Churchill in importance. Even though I was born nearly twenty years after his death, I still feel that in some sense I am one of his children. In terms of Labour history only Attlee really compares in terms of stature. Wilson did some good things, and as for Blair well his reputation barely made it past his leaving office, though sadly much of his influence remains.
Obviously there are a string of achievements that make him so important: his leading role in building the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) into the biggest union in the world, his involvement in the General Strike, his centrality in the Wartime government and then in forging post war Europe while standing up to Stalin. But the one thing that Andrew Adonis conveys throughout is the sheer energy he brought to everything he did. He seems to have been a real force of nature, immensely hard working and focussed but also practical. You get a sense that he would have been a success in the military or in business because he seems to have distilled problems down to their essentials and then set about dealing with them in a completely clearheaded way and without any sentimentality. He was obviously ideological at some level, he loathed communists for example, but ideology with no idea of how to achieve anything is no use at all. His life was always useful, he never gave up. As Adonis points out, he never took on a role and then stepped back from it.
He also had enemies: Herbert Morrison (Peter Mandelson’s grandfather) appears to have disliked him (the feeling was mutual), but he also gathered friends and admirers from all walks of life. Bevin was held in genuine affection by working people, he got on well with the King, Churchill rated him very highly and Attlee knew that he was vital. He was a one off: a socialist, an organiser, a motivator, a genuine patriot with a vision of a better country for millions of people who had little opportunity. He was also essentially English: I’m not sure he had a lot of time for Bevan, with his Celtic theatricality, and he distrusted intellectuals.
Towards the end of the book Adonis does point to two things that Bevin got wrong. The first is Palestine. There does appear to have been more than a whiff of anti-semitism behind the attitude of both Bevin and Attlee towards the Zionists, which makes uncomfortable reading, while Bevin was also unable to see how the British Empire was not going to be any sort of guarantor of peace in wider Middle East. He also seems to have been lukewarm at best about Indian independence. He was an imperialist to the end and that clouded his judgement.
The second is related: Bevin could see that deep and abiding ties were going to be necessary in Europe to enable Europe to be independent (most particularly from the Soviet Union). But he wanted no part of it for the UK as he saw our destiny was different. Bevin in many ways drafted the constitution of what would become West Germany (though he didn’t like Germans much) and also seems to have floated the idea of a European customs union in the 1930s. Here Adonis quite naturally brings Brexit into play but makes an enormous leap from Bevin perhaps regretting joining the movement towards what would become the European Iron and Steel Community (the forerunner of the EU! as Adonis tells us more than once) to not even asking the question what Bevin would have thought of the EU that emerged after Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon. I think Bevin might have perhaps thought we should meet the French and Germans every six months but he would surely have loathed the EU Commission and Commissioners, qualified majority voting amongst 27 countries and all the rest of it. He was fundamentally progressive, but (like most of the Labour Movement until the mid-1980s) he was suspicious of bureaucracies and intellectuals. The idea that the more sovereignty you give away the more you end up having would I think have been given short shrift as an idea that sounds clever but places far more on trust than a reasonable person attached to progress, accountability and democracy can accept.
Adonis then (pretty uncontroversially I think) concludes that the Labour Party, and indeed Britain, needs leaders of Bevin’s ability and stature more than it has for a long time. Unfortunately the fundamental fact is that you can’t just whistle up once in a generation characters like Bevin. As a nation we were blessed to have flawed but courageous leaders like Churchill, Attlee and Bevin when we needed them most; we are a lucky country in so many ways. But in surveying the British political landscape since Bevin it’s really only possible to point to one politician who measured up to Bevin or could properly be put in his league. That politician is of course Margaret Thatcher, a similarly flawed individual with a clear vision of the future she wanted to build. The danger in wishing for the return of great personalities is that Bevin and Thatcher were creatures of their time dealing with particular situations they were presented with at the time. They were much more practical and less ideological than people who regard themselves as their modern day ideological followers. What they had in common was ability and the energy to get things done, to use the resources of the state but also mobilise millions of people. In Bevin’s case quite literally. We need leaders now who can diagnose our problems, identify solutions and actually deliver them. We don’t need people who think the problems of Britain in 2022 can be solved by Bevinite policies from the 1940s or Thatcherite ones from the 1980s. Policies, like leaders, have a time and a place.