Bevin, Ernest (1881–1951)

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BEVIN, ERNEST (1881–1951)


British labor leader and statesman.

Ernest Bevin was the greatest British trade union leader of the twentieth century, being a member of the Trades Union Congress from the early 1920s, the organizer of the 1926 general strike, and an influential figure in developing Labour Party policy in the 1930s. Yet he is best known as Winston Churchill's minister of labor during World War II and Clement Attlee's foreign secretary between 1945 and 1951, during which period he helped found the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.

Bevin was born at Winsford in March 1881, the illegitimate son of an agricultural laborer. First raised by his mother, who died when he was eight, he was then raised by his half sister in Devon. He became a farmworker at the age of eleven but moved to Bristol to live with his half brother when he was thirteen and found a job delivering soft drinks. He became an active lay preacher in the Baptist Church and gained experience in public speaking before moving on to work with the Bristol Socialist Society. At this time he married Florence Townley, with whom he had one child, Queenie, who was born in 1914.

Bevin was drawn into organizing the dockers and carters on the Bristol docks following his involvement in Ramsay MacDonald's "Right to Work" movement in 1908. Asked to organize the carters for the Dock, Wharf, Riverside, and General Labourers' Union, he increased the membership substantially and became one of the three national organizers of the union. Bevin became increasingly convinced of the need for unions to unite against increasingly organized employers and strongly pressed for the amalgamation in 1921, which saw fourteen unions form the Transport and General Workers' Union.

Although Bevin became a member of the general council of the Trades Union Congress in 1925, it was the general strike of May 1926 that shot him to fame, for it was his last-minute organizational activity that prevented the strike from being a complete disaster. However, the general council's decision to end the general strike on 12 May, after only nine days, provoked a storm of fury from the Communist Party of Great Britain, which claimed that the miners' cause had been abandoned. Bevin bore the brunt of much of their criticism, and throughout the rest of the interwar years he was in conflict with Communists, in and outside his own union.

Bevin played a major role in shaping the Labour Party throughout the interwar years and was a member of the second Labour government's Economic Advisory Committee and of the Macmillan Committee. However, his economic policies were largely ignored, leading him to publish his views in a pamphlet entitled My Plan for 2,000,000 Workless (1933), which advocated raising the school-leaving age and lowering retirement age in order to create work for the unemployed. After the collapse of MacDonald's second Labour government in 1931 and the expulsion of MacDonald from the Labour Party, Bevin became the dominant figure in the party, helping to remove George Lansbury as leader in 1935 and supporting Clement Attlee's leadership thereafter. He was largely responsible for the Labour Party moving from a pacifist stance in the mid-1930s to openly advocating rearmament by 1937. The need for rearmament was powerfully presented during the Spanish civil war by the German air force's bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937. In other spheres, Bevin was part of the process of socialist planning in the 1930s and contributed significantly to the work of the Amulree Report, which led to the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938.

Bevin never saw himself as a political figure, although he contested and lost parliamentary contests in 1918 and 1931. However, when Winston Churchill formed his wartime administration in May 1940, Bevin was offered the post of minister of labor and national service. This appointment was facilitated by Bevin's unopposed return as member of Parliament for Wandsworth in 1940, a seat he retained until 1951. In his new role Bevin was responsible for the organization of Britain for the war effort. His scheme for directing young men, sometimes boys from private schools, to coal mines gave rise to the term "Bevin's boys."

After the war the Attlee Labour government was returned to power and Bevin was appointed foreign secretary. He was remarkably successful in this role, the Foreign Office particularly enjoying the prominence that Bevin gave it. He supported the Marshall Plan of 1947, whereby the United States gave financial aid to Western Europe, and he pressed for the Washington Treaty of 1949, which led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He was particularly concerned to preserve Britain's position as a world power and fiercely opposed to the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, being prominent in the defeat of the Soviet Union's air blockade of Berlin in June 1948.

Bevin resigned as foreign secretary on 9 March 1951, owing to continuing ill health, and was given the post of lord privy seal, which carried no departmental responsibilities. He left government less than a month later and died on 14 April 1951.

See alsoLabor Movements; MacDonald, Ramsay; United Kingdom.


Bullock, Alan. The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin. 3 vols. London, 1960–1983.

Weiler, Peter. Ernest Bevin. Manchester, U.K., 1983.

Keith Laybourn