When Winston Churchill was invited to form a government of National Unity on 10 May 1940, the day that the Nazis launched their offensive which was to reach the Channel coast within three weeks, the first name on the list of those he wished to serve in his cabinet was Ernest Bevin. This was truly remarkable. Bevin wasn`t even an M.P. Born in 1881 in the Exmoor village of Winsford, he never knew his father and was almost certainly illegitimate. Leaving school at the age of 12, he took odd jobs in the area before moving to Bristol, served as a Methodist local preacher and worked in the docks. An effective Trade Union activist, by 1921 he was one of the founders of what was to become the largest Trade Union in the world, the TGWU (Transport and General Workers Union). Despite lacking formal legal training he represented his members in the courts in person and became known as the “Dockers` K.C.”. As Minister of Labour in Churchill`s wartime cabinet, he mobilised the labour force behind the war effort more effectively than did Albert Speer on the other side – and by entirely democratic methods. When Clement Attlee appointed Bevin as Foreign Secretary in the Labour government of 1945 it was said that he was qualified for only two positions in the Foreign Office – Foreign Secretary and doorman. Even though he died in 1951, by any standards his is surely the most remarkable career of any twentieth-century British politician.
And yet he is almost forgotten. Alan Bullock`s three-volume biography was published between 1978 and …1992 (an abridged one-volume edition appeared in 2002 and is my recommended book for further reading). A recent biography by Andrew Adonis has been widely reviewed but adds little to Bullock`s work beyond drawing attention to Bevin`s contemporary relevance to the Labour Party (Bevin, working-class to his roots, was a passionate anti-Communist, an early Eurosceptic and neither Blairite nor Corbynite – an absolute shoo-in for the Labour leadership were he still alive!). Labour desperately needs another Ernest Bevin.
Trivial though it may seem (and anyone who has taught twentieth-century British History will attest to this), Bevin has suffered from being confused with his contemporary Labour politician and near-namesake Aneurin Bevan, whose role in the foundation of the NHS has kept him more in the public eye. Ironically, despite both being from impeccably working-class backgrounds, they loathed each other. Bevan, a flamboyant bon viveur, the epitome of a “champagne socialist”, had flirted with Communism in the 1930s and his wing of the Labour Party opposed much of Bevin`s foreign policy in the late 1940s, including the formation of NATO and the establishment of West Germany. Perhaps Bevin is best remembered in popular parlance through the “Bevin Boys” – one in every ten of those liable for conscription during the Second World War being sent to work in the coal mines, regardless of class background and with only the rarest exemptions on health grounds – boys from the “great” public schools forced to work alongside others who had left school at 14.
Although Bevin fully realised that the golden days of the British Empire were drawing to a close, as a man of his time he did not foresee the rapidity of this process. He bears little responsibility for the carnage surrounding Indian Partition, but his role in the ending of the British Mandate in Palestine and its ensuing problems is more open to question.
I have immense admiration for Ernest Bevin and for what he achieved despite the obstacles which confronted anyone from his background at that time. A later British politician from a very different background lived from the age of 5 on a farm close to Bevin`s home village – one Boris Johnson. As to which of these products of Exmoor will be judged by History as the greater, enough said.