Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 - 14 April 1951) was a British labour leader, politician, and statesman best known for his time as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government, and as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour government.
Bevin was a physically huge man, strong and by the time of his political prominence very heavy. He spoke with a strong West Country accent, so much so that on one occasion listeners at Cabinet had difficulty in deciding whether he was talking about "Hugh and Nye (Gaitskell and Bevan)" or "you and I".
Bevin was married and had a daughter.
Bevin had no great faith in parliamentary politics, but had nevertheless been 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. Bevin 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.
Lansbury resigned and was replaced as leader by his deputy Clement Attlee, who along with Lansbury and Stafford Cripps had been one of only three Labour Cabinet Ministers to be re-elected at the General Election in 1931. After the November 1935 General Election Herbert Morrison, newly returned to Parliament, challenged Attlee for the leadership but was defeated. In later years Bevin gave Attlee (to whom he privately referred as "little Clem") staunch support, especially in 1947 when he was intrigued against by Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps.
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 elected unopposed to the House of Commons for the London constituency of Wandsworth Central. Bevin remained Minister of Labour until 1945 when Labour left the Coalition government. On V-E Day he stood next to Churchill looking down on the crowd on Whitehall.
After the 1945 general election, Attlee had it in mind to appoint Bevin as Chancellor and Hugh Dalton as Foreign Secretary, but ultimately 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, with whom Bevin did not get on. Indeed, it was once noted that Bevin, on overhearing a (supposed) private conversation in which somebody commented "the trouble with Herbert [Morrison] is that he is his own worst enemy", immediately responded with a booming "Not while I'm alive he ain't!"
One anecdote from the period after Labour's 1945 landslide election victory was that, late on a Friday afternoon, he was left a number of red ministerial boxes, with a note inviting him to take the boxes home to read over the weekend if he so desired. On the following Monday morning the civil servants found the boxes as they had left them on the previous Friday with the note amended with the words "a kind thought, but sadly mistaken". At that time most diplomats were recruited from public schools, and it was said of Bevin - as a compliment to the respect which he had earned - that it was hard to imagine him filling any other job in the Foreign Office except perhaps that of an old and truculent lift attendant.
Bevin became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war and yet was still maintaining a huge air force and conscript army, in an attempt to remain a global power. The effort of paying for all this - and for the US loans - required austerity at home in order to maximise export earnings, while Britain's colonies and other client states were required to keep their reserves in pounds as "sterling balances". Britain was still closely allied to France - with whom the Dunkirk Treaty was signed in 1950 - and both countries continued to be treated as major partners at international summits alongside the USA and USSR until Paris in 1960. Broadly speaking, all this remained Britain's foreign policy until the late 1950s, when the humiliation of the 1956 Suez Crisis and the economic revival of continental Europe, now united as the "Common Market", caused a reappraisal.
Bevin was unsentimental about the British Empire in places where the growth of nationalism had made direct rule no longer practical, and was part of the Cabinet which approved a speedy British withdrawal from India in 1947, and from other territories. Yet at this stage Britain still maintained a network of client states in the Middle East (Egypt until the early 1950s, Iraq and Jordan until the late 1950s), major bases in such places as Cyprus and Suez (until 1954) and expected to remain in control of chunks of Africa for many more decades, Bevin approving the construction of a huge new base in East Africa.
In 1945, Bevin advocated the creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, saying in the House of Commons that "There should be a study of a house directly elected by the people of the world to whom the nations are accountable."
Bevin, a determined anti-Communist, 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 considerable part the result of Bevin's efforts during these years. This policy, little different from that of the Conservatives ("Hasn't Anthony Eden grown fat?" as wags had it), was a source of frustration to some backbench Labour MPs, who early in the 1945 Parliament formed a "Keep Left" group to push for a more Left-Wing foreign policy.
Bevin once defined his foreign policy as the type which would allow him to "go to Victoria station and buy a ticket to anywhere I damn please".
As Foreign Secretary, Bevin failed to secure British objectives in the British Mandated Territory of Palestine. Personally, Bevin was opposed to the plans of the Zionist movement to create a Jewish state, and supported the creation of a unitary and exclusively Arab-ruled state in western Palestine.
Regarding Bevin's handling of the Middle East situation, at least one commentator, David Leitch, has suggested that Bevin lacked diplomatic finesse. Leitch argues that Bevin tended to make a bad situation worse by making ill-chosen abrasive remarks. He also argues that Zionists were angered by Bevin's obstinate adherence to policies that limited Jewish immigration into Palestine. Bevin was infuriated by the refusal of the USA to open its doors to more Jewish displaced persons.
Bevin was also infuriated by attacks on British troops by dissident Zionist groups, particularly those made by Menachem Begin's Irgun and Avraham Stern's Lehi. However, Britain's economic weakness, and its dependence on the financial support of the United States (Britain had received a large American loan in 1946, and mid-1947 was to see the launching of the Marshall Plan), left him little alternative but to yield to American pressure and allow the United Nations to determine Palestine's future, a decision formalized by the Attlee government's public declaration in February 1947 that Britain's Mandate in Palestine had become "unworkable." On Britain's withdrawal, Arab states immediately intervened, leading to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The army of Jordan, a British client state since the 1920s, was commanded by a British General, Sir John Glubb. This war ended in an Israeli victory, and the displacement of thousands of Palestinian Arab civilians - the very opposite of what Bevin seems to have wanted.
Bevin was undeniably a plain-spoken man, some of whose remarks struck many as insensitive, but his biographer, Alan Bullock rejects suggestions that he was motivated by personal Anti-Semitism. The historian Howard Sachar cites a source which suggests otherwise. Sachar quotes a remark by an American, Richard Grossman, who met Bevin on August 4 1947. Sachar claims that Grossman described Bevin's outlook as:
'corresponding roughly with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic canard of the 1920s. The main points of Bevin's discourse were ... that the Jews had successfully organized a worldwide conspiracy against Britain and against him personally.'
One of Bevin's last comments on the topic was: "The majority proposal is so manifestly unjust to the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience.
For his critics, his most lasting legacy remains the failure of his Palestine policy.