Ernest Bevin died on the afternoon of 14 April 1951 of a massive heart attack while in bed reading official papers. It was a Saturday and he had been due to go to the football at Wembley with his wife Flo, but his chest pains were so severe he could not leave the Foreign Secretary’s official residence where he still lived.
He was found with the key to his ministerial red box clasped vice-like in his hand. Death imitated life, raging against the dying of the light. It was four months into his thirtieth year of virtually uninterrupted service at the summit of British affairs, starting with the launch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1922. The only other national leader who went back that far, indeed much further, was Winston Churchill; Bevin’s imprint on his era was in my view second only to Churchill’s.
The loss of Bevin weakened without removing Clement Attlee and possibly cost Labour the 1951 election, Churchill’s last hurrah. It was incredibly close. Labour topped the poll with 48.8 per cent of the vote but came narrowly behind the Conservatives in seats. Had Labour won the three post-war elections (1945, 1950 and 1951) in a row, and had the Tories been out of power for more than a decade, maybe Britain today would be less like the United States and more like Sweden, and perhaps Bevin would have been vindicated in his prophecy: “They say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 to 1930. They’ll say that Bevin was at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 to 1990.” Instead, Bevin was evicted by Thatcher in 1979.
Even so, when Churchill re-entered No. 10 on 26 October 1951, few thought he was inaugurating a new Tory era that would see Britain’s right-wing triumph in ten of the next seventeen elections until 2019, ruling for two-thirds of the next seven decades. At Bevin’s death, post-war Britain appeared to be Labour Britain. It would have astonished him that Labour rule was nearly over and the 1945 landslide would come to look like a freak not a mould. He would have been equally shocked that there would never again — at least not yet — be a trade union leader remotely as powerful as him. He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of “common man” who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.
There was talk of another trade union leader taking over as Foreign Secretary in 1951, on the Bevin model. Sam Watson, leader of the Durham miners and chairman of the Labour Party in 1950, was touted, but a weakened Attlee felt compelled to appoint Herbert Morrison. Watson was in Bevin’s image of pragmatism and self-educated charisma: as late as the 1959 election he was lined up to become Labour leader Gaitskell’s Foreign Secretary had he been elected. But Harold Macmillan won a landslide and the Foreign Office was filled by the fourteenth Earl of Home, who had been Neville Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary at the Munich conference with Hitler twenty years before and proceeded four years later to become one of Eton’s five post-war Tory Prime Ministers, including the present incumbent Boris Johnson. Deflecting an attack from Harold Wilson, “Alec” Home quipped, “When you think about it, Mr Wilson is the 14th Mr Wilson.” But everyone knew which was born with the silver spoon in their mouth.
In retrospect, for all his victories on the home front, Bevin was the harbinger of a seminal moment when England might have undergone a Scandinavian-style equalisation, yet did so only partially. There were two lasting Labour transformations: full, regulated employment, and the National Health Service, a compound of Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan. But it stopped there. Moreover, even this was possible only because of the prior political triumph of Bevin and Attlee, taking Labour into a successful coalition with Churchill in 1940 and winning the 1945 election in its aftermath.
Only two Labour leaders have won general elections in the seventy years since Bevin: Harold Wilson in 1964, 1966 and 1974; and Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. The social democratic achievements of Wilson and Blair were considerable, although lambasted by today’s contrarian left, much as were Attlee and Bevin in their day.
Only the passage of decades converted the left to admiration of the 1945 government. At the time, most of the left was fiercely critical, particularly of Bevin’s anti-Stalinist foreign policy, yet Bevin got the measure of Stalin in the way Churchill got the measure of Hitler, and the creation of West Germany and the transatlantic security alliance were as important as the creation of the NHS to the success of the Attlee government.
“People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors,” said Edmund Burke. This is as true of the left as of the right. Left contrarianism after 1951 had the corrosive effect of making much of the labour movement indifferent or hostile to winning power again on a pragmatic basis. This is the antithesis of Bevin, who grasped the imperative for democratic pragmatism in pursuit of transformational goals. As a result, there have been fewer Labour governments than there might have been and far less social democracy in our national life.
One consequence of the trade unions mostly going into opposition to the Labour Party after Bevin is that Labour’s only two successful post-1951 leaders regarded the unions as something to be navigated around, rather than as genuine partners in a shared endeavour of social partnership and change. Blair and Wilson had no Bevin. Gordon Brown and Roy Jenkins greatly strengthened these respective leaders with bold ideas and reformist impetus, in the tradition of the Keynesian transformation of Attlee’s Labour Party, championed by Bevin. For all his sniping at intellectuals, Bevin was as formidable a thought leader as he was a trade union leader. But ideas are not enough: organisation and social reach are equally vital. The Labour Party needs again to become a genuine labour movement, otherwise populism fills the void and the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson become leaders of the working class. Bevin successfully resisted this in the 1930s; Bevin today would be doing the same again.
The one trade union leader since 1951 who rose towards Bevin’s level was Jack Jones, leader of the T&G from 1969 to 1978 and one of Bevin’s last appointees as a full-time official in 1939. He was a brilliant organiser in Coventry’s motor and engineering factories.
Jack Jones pioneered a few notably Bevinist state institutions, notably the Health and Safety Commission and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). After Wilson’s re-election in 1974, he initially acquiesced in an incomes policy to tackle rampant inflation. But “Emperor Jones”, as he was known, was distrustful of social democrat politicians, the opposite of Bevin in his heyday, and he mostly kept his distance: his middle name wasn’t Larkin, after the Liverpool-Irish revolutionary trade union leader Jim Larkin, for nothing.
After his retirement in 1978, which followed Wilson’s succession by Jim Callaghan in 1976, collaboration between the Labour government and the trade unions broke down totally. In the ensuing, disastrous Winter of Discontent, the unions became as unpopular as in the General Strike of 1926 before Bevin asserted control, leading to Thatcher’s election in 1979, which simply made the unions more oppositional still.
In the four decades since 1979 union membership has more than halved from a peak of 13.2 million then to just 6.3 million today, its lowest level since 1939. Yet, even as trade unionism has declined, so too has Labour support among trade unionists, particularly when the party has been badly led. In the 1983 and 2019 elections more trade unionists voted Tory than Labour. Since Bevin’s death, the general rule has been a weak, poorly led Labour Party and weak, poorly led trade unions mutually reinforcing each other’s weakness.
Bevin today would prioritise an entrepreneurial expansion and recreation of the trade unions, and Labour’s social organisation, as much as a modernisation of party policy. It is telling that Tony Blair, in his party modernisation prior to winning the 1997 election, essentially adopted the German SPD’s Godesberg programme of 1959, changing the statement of aims and values in Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution from a “nationalisation” to a “communitarian” view of social democracy. This was much needed; it was thirty years overdue. Yet Germany’s SPD was — and is — a warning as much as a model. Commanding huge respect for its stand against both Hitler and Stalin, and providing three outstanding Chancellors after 1969 in Brandt, Schmidt and Schröder, the SPD has nonetheless led post-war Germany for an even shorter period than Labour has led post-war Britain. A key factor has been the weakness of its relationship with Germany’s trade unions, because of the historic strength of communism and the deep working-class roots of the Catholic-allied centre-right parties (the CDU and CSU). The SPD is now in precipitate decline, as are the French socialists, whose trade union links have been similarly weak.
There are glimpses of how different it might have been — and might still be — in Australia and Sweden, whose social democratic parties, while under pressure, have long been more successful than Britain’s, and better able to counter the populism of right and left because they are more deeply rooted in trade unions and their members and families. Sweden’s social democrats have become the largest party in all twenty-nine of the nation’s elections of the past century. Labour has managed this in just ten out of the twenty-seven in Britain. The incumbent social democratic Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, founded a large and successful general trade union akin to Bevin’s T&G. When elected party leader in 2012, Löfven wasn’t even a member of the Swedish parliament and had to be parachuted in much as Bevin was parachuted into the House of Commons as Minister of Labour in 1940.
Australia, midway between Sweden and Britain in historic electoral success for its Labor Party, has an even stronger tradition of trade unionist political leadership. Not just famously Bob Hawke in the 1980s; seven of the eleven Labor Prime Ministers of Australia between 1904 and 2013 were trade union leaders. Poignantly, the leader who effectively established Labor as a party of government in Australia, Andrew Fisher, was a Scots emigrant who had been a trade unionist alongside Keir Hardie, organising the 1881 Ayrshire miners’ strike with Hardie as a nineteen-year-old miner. He was sacked and blacklisted, which is why he emigrated. The story has shades of Bevin in Bristol, who thought of becoming a missionary abroad after his similar experience in 1909.
Lula da Silva of Brazil, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Lech Wałęsa of Poland all became recent leaders of their nations by first leading trade union movements to bring about fundamental social and political change. They were Bevinist all, in force of personality, in ideas, in pragmatism and in organisational prowess.
The Bevin of Britain today would be organising the millions of low-paid workers, particularly in the 5 million-strong and largely non-unionised social care and “gig economy” sectors, maybe by creating a new general union on the scale of the T&G. Bevin’s union of today would be providing the services and benefits needed today, for example affordable housing for the young — who might then start joining trade unions again — just as Bevin in his day built care homes for retired T&G members and organised excursion and holiday companies for working-class families in the 1930s. And he or she would be allying with an electable Labour leader — like Attlee — to get Labour elected on a pragmatic programme.
For inspiration they might also look to the modern American Bevin: Andy Stern, who turned the Service Employees International Union into a transformational industrial and political force in his fifteen years at the helm after 2005, adding 850,000 members, largely unskilled and low paid, while exerting himself mightily on behalf of Barack Obama. After Obama’s election in 2008, Stern was his most regular visitor in the White House and a critical impetus towards “Obamacare”. Stern went to university, which Bevin wished he’d been able to do, but otherwise he is a modern Bevin.
A reincarnated Bevin might also avoid Bevin’s own mistakes. No nostalgia for past empires of any kind, and thoroughly engaged in Europe, its peoples and its politics. Yet he would be equally evangelical in his beliefs. Indeed, he wouldn’t have to change much of what Ernie said to an American audience in 1947, making the case for a transatlantic union of free peoples:
“We believe as good social democrats that it is possible to have public ownership, great advance and social development, and with it maintain what I think is the most vital thing of all, liberty. I don’t believe the two things are inconsistent, and never have. If I believed the development of socialism meant the absolute crush- ing of liberty, then I should plump for liberty, because the advance of human development depends entirely on the right to think, to speak and to use reason, and allow what I call the upsurge to come from the bottom to reach the top.”
After a year living with Bevin while researching my book, I keep asking myself this big question: why in 20th and 21st-century Britain, with all the expectations of a democratic society, did Bevin turn out to be a freak not a mould? Why was he the first and last of his kind?
Maybe because he did not live quite long enough to help win that third post-war election in 1951. Maybe because his partnership with Attlee, while exceptionally close and productive, limited his imprint on the Labour Party since he never became the leader himself. Churchill always regarded Bevin as the more formidable of the Attlee-Bevin duo: “The most distinguished man that the Labour party have thrown up in my time.” Maybe because Bevin was too much of a loner within the trade union movement: he never built a school beyond acolytes in the T&G and too readily believed his own conceit that he was “a turn-up in a million”. Maybe because the Conservative Party was just too strong, with its established elites and its success in welding together economic liberalism and English nationalism into a cross-class political machine even as democracy advanced. All these might be thought contributory factors.
Or maybe it is far simpler. Virtually all human lives end in frustration, if not in failure, and Bevin was no exception. “If only I had had a bit longer,” were among his last words.
Herbert Henry Asquith, the Prime Minister who fatefully took Britain into the First World War, asked of himself, from Robert Browning’s “Christmas Eve”:
T’were to be wished the flaws were fewer
In the earthen vessel that holds the treasure
But the main thing is, does it hold good measure?
To which Attlee made reply for Bevin: “Men recognised in him a national leader, someone to lean on. He attracted power. At a time when the Labour Movement had all the hopes, aspirations, ideas and saints necessary for Utopia, Ernest helped bring its feet to the ground by insisting that these things without power were useless.”
Britain needed Bevin once. Now it needs his kind again.
(This edited extract is taken from Andrew Adonis’s book, Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Churchill. Copies can be ordered here)