Ernest Bevin

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The Rt Hon Ernest Bevin

Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 - 14 April 1951), British labour leader and politician, was born in a small village in Somerset, England. His father, who he never knew, was an agricultural labourer and his mother was a housemaid who died when he was eight. He had little formal education, leaving school in Crediton, Devon in 1890. At the age of eleven he went to work as a labourer, then as a truck driver in Bristol. In 1910 he became secretary of the Bristol branch of the Dockers' Union, and in 1914 he became a national organiser for the 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. He was elected the union's general secretary, making him one of the country's leading labour leaders. Politically, he was a moderate socialist, strongly opposed to communism and direct action. He took part in the (British) General Strike in 1926, but without enthusiasm.

On the other hand he had no great faith in parliamentary politics, although he was 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. He 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 1930s, with the Labour Party split and weakened, Bevin co-operated with the Conservative 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 he made a blistering attack on the pacifists in the Labour Party, leading to the resignation of Labour leader George Lansbury and his replacement by Clement Attlee.

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 virtual dictator 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 draftees away from military service to work in the coal industry. These workers became known as the Bevin Boys. Shortly after his appointment Bevin was was elected unopposed to the House of Commons for a London constituency.

Bevin remained Minister of Labour until 1945 when Labour left the Coalition government. After the 1945 general election, Attlee had it in mind to appoint Bevin as Chancellor and Hugh Dalton as Foreign Secretary, but then 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, whom Bevin did not get on with. Bevin became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war and could no longer afford to maintain its overseas Empire. Bevin was unsentimental about the Empire and approved an immediate British withdrawal from India and other territories.

He was also a determined anti-Communist, and was a strong supporter of the United States in the early years of the Cold 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 part the result of Bevin's labours during these years. Bevin defined his foreign policy as being "that I can go to Victoria station and buy a ticket to anywhere I damn please".

Bevin's principal failure was in the British Mandated Territory of Palestine, where he opposed the plans of the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state. He was infuriated by Zionist acts of terrorism against British troops, but Britain's economic weakness, and its dependence on the financial support of the United States, compelled him to yield to American pressure and allow the United Nations to determine Palestine's future, resulting in the creation of Israel.

Bevin in office showed the same pragmatism combined with stubbornness that had characterised his years as a trade union leader. 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 European unity. He saw clearly that Britain's days of imperial greatness were over, something he did not regret since, he said, the working class had never benefitted from the Empire. His health failing, Bevin moved to become Lord Privy Seal in March 1951 but died, worn out from his labours, the following month. Such was his devotion to office that he died still holding to key to his red box.

Preceded by:
Ernest Brown
Minister of Labour and National Service
Succeeded by:
Rab Butler
Preceded by:
Anthony Eden
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by:
Herbert Stanley Morrison
Preceded by:
The Viscount Addison
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by:
Richard Stokes

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