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Ernest Bevin

Ernest Bevin

The career of Ernest Bevin (1881-1951), English trade union leader and Labour politician, is often taken to symbolize the political rise of sections of the working class in 20th-century Britain.

Ernest Bevin was born on March 9, 1881, in Bristol, the son of poor, working-class parents. After finishing elementary school in Bristol, Bevin earned a precarious living in various manual jobs and was introduced to politics via the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the Marxist party. He organized the dockers and transport workers and from 1910 to 1921 led the Dockers Union. Through his union activities Bevin became involved in national politics; his brilliant advocacy at a commission of inquiry on dock conditions in 1920 led to greatly improved conditions for the dockers and national recognition for Bevin.

The noted historian A. J. P. Taylor has bracketed Bevin at this stage of his career with J. H. Thomas, the leader of the National Union of Railwaymen. They were both outstanding union leaders of a new type. Though aggressively working-class in character, they were no longer willing merely to resist. Nor would they put off improvement till the distant dawn of socialism. They bargained with the employers as equals, displaying equal or greater skill, and they never forgot that compromise was their ultimate aim, whether with a strike or preferably without.

Bevin's most important contribution to modern Britain was as creator and general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union from 1921 to 1940. Forging a national force out of scattered, locally organized, occupationally divided workers was a major achievement; in time, the T&GWU became the largest union in Britain.

In the late 1930s Bevin opposed George Lansbury and other pacifists in the Labour party and argued in favor of rearmament. When he entered Parliament in 1940, Bevin became a key figure in the wartime coalition as minister of labor and national service (1940-1945). Without him the Churchill government could not have achieved the levels of wartime production necessary to continue the war.

After the war Bevin served as secretary of state for foreign affairs (1945-1951) and was lord privy seal for a brief period in 1951. In spite of his controversial handling of the Palestine situation, he is generally regarded as a great foreign secretary. Perhaps this accolade springs from surprise that Bevin, a Labour minister, did not depart radically from traditional British policies in foreign affairs. He died in 1951.

Further Reading

The best source for Bevin's career is the uncompleted biography by Alan Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin (1960). The two volumes so far published not only deal comprehensively with Bevin but also set him in the context of changing British society. Bullock's work is a fundamental source of 20th-century British social history. There is a useful biography by Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin: Portrait of a Great Englishman (1952). See also Sir Trevor Evans, Bevin of Britain (1946). To get the feel of Bevin's almost brutal power of argument and his handling of Labour party audiences, one should look at the Report of the Annual Conference of the Labour Party in 1931. A man like Bevin, whose strength lay in negotiation, organization, and domination of audiences in the labor movement rather than in originality of ideas, is best studied through others' reactions to him rather than through his own speeches and writings.

Additional Sources

Bullock, Alan, Ernest Bevin, foreign secretary, 1945-1951, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1985, 1983.

Stephens, Mark, Ernest Bevin, unskilled labourer and world statesman, 1881-1951, Stevenage, Herts: SPA Books, 1985.

Weiler, Peter, Ernest Bevin, Manchester, UK; New York: Manchester University Press; distributed exclusively in the USA and Canada by St. Martin's Press, 1993. □

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Bevin, Ernest

Bevin, Ernest (1881–1951). Trade unionist and Labour politician. The illegitimate son of a village midwife, Bevin left school at 11 but rose to become one of Britain's most respected foreign secretaries. After a succession of manual jobs and considering becoming a baptist minister, Bevin became a full-time official of the Dockers' Union in 1911. By 1914 he was one of the union's three national organizers. By 1920 he had become assistant general secretary. Bevin gained national attention in the immediate post-war years through his evidence to the Shaw Inquiry in 1920 on dock labour and his efforts to use trade union power to end British intervention in the Russian civil war. He was convinced of the need to consolidate union organization and master-minded the amalgamation of eighteen unions into the Transport and General Workers' Union, of which he became the first general secretary in 1922. The failure of the General Strike of 1926 underlined his belief that unions should negotiate from strength.

The collapse of the Labour government of 1929–31 compelled Bevin further into the political arena and he played a major role during the 1930s in committing Labour to realistic policies on the economy and rearmament. A devastating speech at the 1935 party conference helped remove the pacifist George Lansbury from the leadership. By 1937 Bevin was chairman of the TUC and one of the most influential figures in the Labour movement.

When Labour joined Churchill's wartime coalition in May 1940, the prime minister made the surprise but inspired appointment of Bevin to the ministry of Labour. At the age of 59 he entered Parliament. Though he did not always fit easily into the Commons, his contribution to the war effort was invaluable. Probably no other figure could have secured the same level of co-operation from the work-force.

With the election of a majority Labour government in 1945 Bevin went, not as he had expected to the Treasury, but to the Foreign Office. Here he laid the foundation stones of British foreign policy for the next 40 years. To the disappointment of Labour's left wing but the approval of the Conservative opposition, Bevin took a consistently strong line towards the Soviet Union in the developing Cold War. Indeed he saw it as Britain's task to contain Soviet expansion until the USA was persuaded to commit its resources fully to the same end. Under Bevin's powerful influence the government went ahead with the construction of a British atomic bomb, seized the opportunities offered under the Marshall Plan, and played a leading role in the creation of NATO in 1949. Only over the question of Palestine was his stewardship a failure. Many considered he would make a better prime minister than Attlee, but he refused to be drawn into any intrigues.

Bevin had been in poor health since the 1930s. After the 1950 general election he was no longer capable of fulfilling his duties and in the end had to be eased reluctantly out of office by Attlee. He died within a month. Bevin was a man of great intelligence, despite his lack of formal education. He won the unqualified respect of his ministry and left an enduring mark on British diplomacy.

David Dutton

Bibliography

Bullock, A. , Ernest Bevin (3 vols., 1960–83).

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"Bevin, Ernest." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Bevin, Ernest

Ernest Bevin (bĕv´ən), 1881–1951, British labor leader and statesman. An orphan who earned his own living from childhood, he began a long career as a trade union official when he became secretary of the dockworkers' union in 1911. In 1921, Bevin merged his own union with many others to form the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union, of which he became general secretary. From 1925 to 1940 he sat on the general council of the Trade Union Congress, serving as chairman in 1937. Bevin played a leading organizing role in the general strike of 1926, but after the failure of that strike he worked to achieve greater cooperation between labor and the employers. He was enormously influential in Labour party politics in the 1930s but did not enter Parliament until invited to join Winston Churchill's coalition government in 1940. In that government he was minister of labor and national service and thus was responsible for mobilizing manpower for war uses. As foreign minister in the Labour government of 1945 to 1951, Bevin devoted himself to building up the strength of Western Europe in close cooperation with the United States and helped lay the groundwork for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He favored the establishment of a federated Arab-Israeli state in Palestine, but that proved impossible to achieve.

See biography by A. Bullock (3 vol., 1960–83).

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Bevin, Ernest

Bevin, Ernest (1881–1951) British trade unionist and Labour politician. As general secretary (1922–40) of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), Bevin was an organizer of the General Strike (1926). He was minister of labour and national service in Churchill's war cabinet (1940–45). As foreign minister under Clement Attlee (1945–51), he helped create the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

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