Ernest Bevin – a democrat, a collectivist and a socialist who left a radical legacy.

Ernest Bevin – a democrat, a collectivist and a socialist who left a radical legacy.

What makes for a good politician ? What might the history of politics and politicians show those seek power? Andrew Adonis has produced masterful biography of Ernest Bevin who he describes as Labour’s Churchill. I was glad to be reminded of both the man, the story and the legacy having spent much time in my postgraduate research looking at another working class entrepreneur, Aneurin Bevan and the early history of the establishment of the NHS.

Bevin founded the Transport & General Workers’ Union leading the movement by building the T&G into the largest and most effective union in the free world. This equipped him with the stature and the skills to mobilise labour and industry to win the struggle against the Nazis. It was a struggle than required tenacity, a readiness to tackle power in the courts and a total commitment to hard work over long hours and weeks.

Adonis brings the man to life. It is full of colour and energy and conviction. What Bevin demonstrates is the ability to understand people and he does so out of his won working class roots, he understood poverty and hunger. He endured poor working conditions and pay for years. He battled with power and privilege in the workplace and the courts. A love of his country was combined with a deep desire to improve the lives of working people. Here is a picture of a working class hero that was and remained in touch with people.

Bevin came from literally nothing. His was a desperately poor background. Born in 1881 into a Somerset family of illiterate labourers, he was orphaned at eight and turned up in Bristol at 13 with little more than the clothes on his back. It was in these years that he developed skills of advocacy and negotiation. All this, we are told, was helped by religious roots in the Baptist a union organiser. There was passion and clear articulation of the core questions about the shape of the common good. As Adonis puts it: “Bevin was revolutionary about ends, democratic about means.”

I wonder how the modern Labour Party strategists would view such a life? What price is worth paying for equality and justice? How do we organise economics in such a way that safeguarded the welfare of workers, the importance of industrial and commercial partnership ? Is it possible to recover a deeper sense of collectivism ? In all this democracy needs to be guarded against totalitarianism so that we have a clearer sense of how power works and for whom. Churchill called him “the most distinguished man that the Labour party has thrown up in my time”.

We all live with our flaws and Adonis is are of his flaws. Bevin failed to engage with the nascent integration of Europe and made a mess of the Israel/Palestine question. Adonis suggests that this was because Bevin had had a streak of antisemitism.

The character of the man I painted with care and some affection. He wore well-cut suits, smoked cigars and consumed prodigious amounts of booze (“he used alcohol like a car used petrol”.) He remained independent and was never seduced by the establishment. He turned down all honours, though almost everything was offered. On his death in 1951, he left little besides a flat and his union pension to his wife Flo.

Another good holiday read – I would recommend this to any aspiring politician. Adonis establishes himself as a skilled biographer – I wonder who will be his next subject ?

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