Ernest Bevin

British labour leader, politician, and statesman (1881-1951)

Ernest Bevin (9 March 188114 April 1951) was a British statesman, trade union leader, and Labour politician. He co-founded and served as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union from 1922 to 1940, and as Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill's coalition government during World War II. He succeeded in maximizing the British labour supply, for both the armed services and domestic industrial production, with a minimum of strikes and disruption. His most important role came as Foreign Secretary in Clement Attlee's post-war Labour Government of 1945–51, when the Cold War was beginning and when the United Kingdom had been weakened by World War II. He gained American financial support, strongly opposed Communism, and aided in the creation of NATO. Bevin's tenure also saw the end of the Mandate of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel.

The most conservative man in the world is the British Trade Unionist when you want to change him.

Quotes edit

What is the good of blaming anybody? We cannot make our action retrospective whatever we do. We have to start from now and try to do the best we can.
So long as I have any power at all I will never be a party to treating the Army in the future as it has been treated in the past. They broke up in peace-time the very foundations of the Army structure, and expected to build it up during war-time with the enemy at the gates.
There should be a study of a house directly elected by the people of the world to whom the nations are accountable.

1920s edit

  • If the workers see themselves faced with defeat through starvation, they will prefer to go down fighting rather than fainting — and whether or not we leaders agree.
    • Message to the American Federation of Labor appealing for help in the General Strike, quoted in New York World (10 May 1926)
  • The most conservative man in the world is the British Trade Unionist when you want to change him.
    • Speech to the Trades Union Congress General Council (8 September 1927), quoted in Report of the Proceedings of the Trade Union Congress, 1927

1930s edit

  • What I say is this, and I am not afraid of saying it. I sit on a Colonial Development Committee under an Act passed by the Labour Government, and I see the expenditure of millions of pounds going on for the development of areas where native races have not yet begun to be industrialised. You talk about the coal trade. Ought there not to be some control against the possible development of coal in Tanganyika and in East Africa, which might come into competition with your coal here at a time when the world does not want it?
    • Speech to the Trades Union Congress (1930), quoted in Trades Union Congress, Annual Report (1930), p. 286 and Geoffrey Foote, The Labour Party's Political Thought: A History (1986), p. 166
  • It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be taking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what you ought to do with it.
    • Speech to the Labour Party conference (1 October 1935), quoted in Labour Party Annual Conference Report 1935, p. 178. Bevin was criticising George Lansbury. Lansbury, a pacifist, was publicly agonising about the need to confront fascist Italy over Abyssinia; Bevin's speech convinced the conference to back sanctions, and when the vote went against him, Lansbury resigned as Leader of the Labour Party.
  • From the day Hitler came to power, I have felt that the democratic countries would have to face war... I cannot see any way of stopping Hitler and the other dictators except by force.
    • Speech to the Executive Council of the Transport and General Workers' Union (March 1937), quoted in Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Trade Union Leader, 1881–1940 (1960), p. 592

1940s edit

  • The kind of middle-class mentality which actuates both those responsible for strategy and government has little knowledge of the new psychology and organizing ability of the totalitarian States. The forces we are fighting are governed neither by the old strategy nor follow the old tactics.
    • Speech at Stoke-on-Trent (1 May 1940), quoted in "Complacent Conduct of the War", The Times (3 May 1940), p. 3
  • They say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 to 1930. I'm going to be Minister of Labour from 1940 to 1990.
    • Remark after being appointed Minister of Labour (c. 13 May 1940), quoted in Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin (1952), p. 217
  • If anyone asks me who was responsible for the British policy leading up to the war, I should, as a Labour man myself, make a confession and say: "All of us". We refused absolutely to face the facts. When the issue came of arming or rearming millions of people in this country...we refused to face the real issue at a critical moment. But what is the good of blaming anybody? We cannot make our action retrospective whatever we do. We have to start from now and try to do the best we can.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (29 July 1941), quoted in Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 373, col. 1362
  • The fact of it is that all of us agreed to save 6d. in the Income Tax by breaking up the Army in peace-time and not having it prepared when war broke out...I will never be a party to it again.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (4 December 1941), quoted in Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 376, col. 1336
  • So long as I have any power at all I will never be a party to treating the Army in the future as it has been treated in the past. They broke up in peace-time the very foundations of the Army structure, and expected to build it up during war-time with the enemy at the gates.
    • Western Daily Press (30 March 1942)
  • We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry... This is where you boys come in... [O]ur fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.
    • Broadcast to sixth-form boys (12 November 1943), quoted in British Information Services, British Speeches of the Day, Volume 1 (1943), p. 23. Bevin had introduced a system whereby some men conscripted for National Service would be transferred to working in coal-mining; because of this speech, they were known as 'Bevin Boys'.
  • There should be a study of a house directly elected by the people of the world to whom the nations are accountable.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (23 November 1945)
  • I think that in the little argument going on now in New York and the differences that have arisen there are emerging three very fundamental principles. One is that it is improper to negotiate or attempt to negotiate or attempt to gain concessions by a great Power out of a little Power by means of occupying that country with your forces. It is the tradition — and I am not saying of one or other country only they have done it — but it is nineteenth-century imperialism that really must be left behind, and I believe that a solution will be found and the principle accepted that those of us who represent the great Powers will not do that.
    • Speech at Bristol (30 March 1946), referring to the negotiations over the United Nations Charter, quoted in "Mr. Bevin on World Politics", The Times (1 April 1946), p. 4
  • If I may again refer to the different political concepts, there is, I think rather unfortunately, running through all the speeches and writings of our Soviet friends the theory that they alone represent the workers — that they alone are democratic.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (4 June 1946), quoted in Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 423, col. 1827
  • I come now to the question of diplomatic personnel... It is said that I am admitting to the service Eton and Harrow. I am not one of those who decry Eton and Harrow. I was very glad of them in the Battle of Britain—by God, I was!—those fellows paid the price in the Royal Air Force on those fatal days. If the Universities are to be criticized, well, put up a vote of censure on Harold Laski, because it is the product of the Universities I have got to accept.
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth (12 June 1946), quoted in British Information Services, British Speeches of the Day, Vol. IV (1946), pp. 423-424
  • That won't do at all .. we've got to have this .. I don't mind for myself, but I don't want any other Foreign Secretary of this country to be talked to or at by a Secretary of State in the United States as I have just had in my discussions with Mr Byrnes. We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs .. We've got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.
    • Remarks at Cabinet Committee GEN75 (25 October 1946), about the development of the British atomic bomb, quoted in Peter Hennessy, Cabinets and the Bomb (2007), p. 48
  • [T]his Pact is a purely defensive arrangement for the common security of the countries who join it, and it is not directed against anyone. If we are accused of ganging up against any country or group of countries I should say simply: "Examine the text. There is no secrecy about it, and there are no secret clauses. You will not find in the text any provision which threatens the security or the well-being of any nation." No nation innocent of aggressive intentions need have the slightest fear or apprehension about it.
    • Speech in the House of Commons on NATO (18 March 1949)
  • [T]he Pact must be regarded as a concrete expression of the identity of view long held among the Western nations. It recognises the common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law between nations. It is not elaborate; its simplicity is apparent, but I can assure the House that it is based on an understanding and determination to preserve our way of life.
    • Speech in the House of Commons on NATO (18 March 1949)

Undated edit

  • My policy is to be able to take a ticket at Victoria station and go anywhere I damn well please!
    • Bevin's definition of his foreign policy. attributed to Bevin in the Spectator (20 April 1951). Variously quoted as "to be able to buy a ticket at Victoria Station to anywhere I damn please!"

Quotes about Ernest Bevin edit

  • I should like to see in any reconstructed Government a strong Labour leader like Bevin.
    • Stanley Baldwin in conversation with Thomas Jones (27 February 1934), quoted in Thomas Jones, A Diary with Letters, 1931–1950 (1954), p. 123
  • There is no doubt that the continuity of foreign policy—which caused one Labour man to remark of Ernest Bevin, "Hasn't Anthony Eden grown fat?"—blunted the blood-letting edge of party warfare during much of the Attlee government's tenure. Bevin was among several prominent Labour politicians who in the 1945 election had promised that Anglo-Russian relations would be better with a left-wing British Government: "Left can speak to left in comradeship and confidence", he had claimed. In office he proved a man big enough to eat his own unguarded words, and will rank high in history as one of the chief organisers of Western resistance against the advance of revolutionary Communism from the East. Particularly in the latter part of the 1945–50 Parliament I spoke with some frequency on foreign affairs against Bevin―or, rather, with Bevin; for, not only was our private relationship friendly, but on the major public issues arising from the "cold war" there was rarely much between us save a difference of emphasis or detail. I remember his taking me into the Smoking Room one evening and saying, "’Ave a beer, Rab, I'm worried about the A-rabs."
  • Bevin will, I think, do well. He knows a good deal, is prepared to read any amount, seems to take in what he does read, and is capable of making up his own mind and sticking up for his (or our) point of view against anyone. I think he's the best we could have had. He effaces Attlee, and at Big 3 meetings he does all the talking while Attlee nods his head convulsively and smokes his pipe.
    • Alexander Cadogan, diary entry (31 July 1945), quoted in The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan O.M., 1938–1945, ed. David Dilks (1971), p. 778
  • [Bevin is] far the most distinguished man the Labour Party have thrown up in my time.
    • Winston Churchill in conversation with Anthony Eden (5 October 1944), quoted in John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939–1955 (1985), p. 522
  • Ernest Bevin had many of the strongest characteristics of the English race. His manliness, his common sense, his rough simplicity, sturdiness and kind heart, easy geniality and generosity, all are qualities which we who live in the southern part of this famous island regard with admiration.
    • Winston Churchill's remarks on unveiling a bust of Bevin in the Foreign Office, quoted in "Sir W. Churchill on 'a great Englishman'", The Times (5 November 1953), p. 5
  • Tizard was fond of describing an incident round a conference table at which the technical pros and cons of Britain starting her own nuclear power industry were being debated. It appeared that the cons were winning when Bevin suddenly intervened: “What!” he said. “Do you mean to say that our kids are going to have to grow up without the benefits of nuclear energy?” Tizard, explaining that no-one could really avoid answering such blunt questions, would add: “Fine man, Bevin.”
    • Ronald W. Clark, Tizard (1965), p. 391
  • [T]he [Labour] Party's success electorally has depended upon its historical identification with working-class interests. Sidney and Beatrice Webb helped, but it was the trade unions that made Labour a major party of state. Ernest Bevin, not Methodism or Marxism, is Labour's heritage.
    • Stephen Haseler, The Gaitskellites: Revisionism in the British Labour Party 1951–64 (1969), p. 1
  • Ernest Bevin died in April. I was deeply moved. By then I had come to regard him, as I still do, as one of the two greatest democratic politicians this century; the other is Franklin Roosevelt. The American patrician and the British trade unionist had two things in common – a powerful sense of direction which was rooted in moral principle, and a street-wise pragmatism in choosing the best route forward. Both men, too, had a constructive approach to politics. They were builders, not destroyers.
    • Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989; 1990), pp. 125–126
  • Hitherto I had regarded him with great admiration: from now onwards, I regarded him with great affection. He was intensely human, warm-hearted, simple and brave, and his common sense was as massive as his shoulders. He threw his whole heart and soul into the war, and no Englishman of any political party had a deeper love for his country, a greater pride in her past, or a surer faith in her future. At the same time he loved his fellow men the world over, and was very internationally minded. As Foreign Secretary in the years of Soviet expansion westwards he was one of the principal architects of the North Atlantic Alliance.
    • Hastings Ismay, The Memoirs of General The Lord Ismay, K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O. (1960), p. 354
  • [H]e was in every sense a big man, who concerned himself only with essentials. "You know my mind" meant that one could go away and take the necessary action without any further reference to him. If the subsequent telegrams and despatches did not quite meet his views, he never complained so long as they conformed broadly to his instructions. This made him very easy and pleasant to work for. He was equally magnanimous in negotiation. When dealing with the Russians he never pulled his punches, but he showed the utmost consideration for his Western associates... But he never allowed himself to be bounced into doing anything against his better judgement. Indeed it was misguised to try to bounce him into anything at all. "I will not be rushed", was his reply. He required time to read the files and to subject his experts to a penetrating cross-examination. Since he had the memory of an elephant, it behoved the expert to be careful. "That's not what you told me a year ago", might be his retort to an ill-considered piece of advice.
  • He was interested in his predecessors in office and particularly Lord Curzon. He saw clearly that what hampered him most in the field of foreign affairs was the precarious state of our economy. So he envied his predecessors and he often asked me: "What would Lord Curzon do if he were in my shoes?" This led to reminiscences of the old Foreign Office, and I once told him a story of Lord Curzon's witty reply to an inappropriate telegram from an Ambassador abroad. More than a year later I went to see him on some Nato problem, but before I could broach my subject he said with a wicked grin: "I behaved like Lord Curzon this morning." "Oh, indeed," I replied. "What did you do?" "I saw a telegram from our Ambassador in Ruritania, reporting that reputable people in Ruritania were criticising the King's matrimonial antics. So I telegraphed back, 'Where have you found reputable people in Ruritania?'"
  • In general his attitude was robust and British; and one could foretell exactly what it would be in any given circumstance. He was a rock.
  • One thing which left its mark upon him was the bellicose attitude of the German Social Democrats in 1914, for which he never forgave them. He felt betrayed and it made him more anti-German than anything else the Germans ever did. His post-war experience confirmed him in his gloomy view of German Social Democracy and he found Dr. Adenauer much less difficult than Dr. Schumacher. But to the end he remained just as suspicious and resentful of Germany as he had ever been, although he never allowed his feelings on this subject to take command of his head.
  • He is a powerful fellow, with a bull neck and a huge voice – a born leader...if there is trouble, mark my words! You will hear more of Bevin!
    • David Lloyd George in conversation with George Riddell (1 March 1919), quoted in J. M. McEwen (ed.), The Riddell Diaries 1908-1923 (1986), p. 258
  • Some of us do not think that passports are the same since they were introduced by the words, "We, Ernest Bevin".
  • One of the biggest surprises the Soviets got in 1945 was the Labour Party victory in the British general election. Stalin may have distrusted Winston Churchill and seen in him the embodiment of British upper-class rule, but Winston was the devil he knew, just as he knew, through his spies, that the old Conservative had formed a bit of a sentimental relationship with Stalin as a fellow survivor and victor in World War II. Besides, there was already bad blood between British Labour and Soviet Bolshevism. The leaders of the Labour Party—Clement Attlee, who now became prime minister, and Ernest Bevin, who became foreign secretary—detested the Communists within their own trade union movement; Moscow’s supporters were responsible, both thought, for splitting the movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Bevin, an unskilled worker who had come to prominence as the head of the biggest of the British trade unions, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, had fought Communist influence there and elsewhere relentlessly. In his postwar dealings with Stalin and Molotov, Bevin saw many of these battles repeated on an international scale. Molotov, said Bevin later, was like a Communist in a local Labour Party branch: if you treated him badly, he made the most of the grievance, and if you treated him well, he put up the price next day and abused you. A cabinet colleague viewed Bevin as “full of bright ideas, as well as earthy sense, but dangerously obsessed with Communists."
    • Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A World History (2017)

External links edit

Wikipedia has an article about: