My history hero: Ernest Bevin (1881-1951)

Chosen by Alan Johnson, former Labour home secretary

Ernest Bevin

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Ernest Bevin, trade unionist and Labour politician, co-founded the Transport & General Workers’ Union in 1922, and was its general secretary until 1940. A fierce anti-communist, he served as minister of labour (1940–45) in Churchill’s wartime coalition. As foreign secretary (1945-51) in Attlee’s postwar Labour government, he supported the creation of NATO and the development of nuclear weapons, and aligned Britain with the USA in the Cold War. He was married with one daughter.

When did you first hear about Ernest Bevin?

When I was a young man coming through the trade union movement. It was very difficult not to know about him at that time. You heard the names ‘Churchill, Attlee and Bevin’ in the same breath, so I was aware of him from a pretty young age. Eager to learn more, I read Anthony Bullock’s brilliant biography of him – and the more I read about him, the more impressed I was.

What kind of person was he?

He was a remarkable man. He was the seventh son of a single mother, who never knew his father – the space for his father’s name on his birth certificate was left blank. He grew up

in abject poverty. His mother died when he was eight and he left school when he was 11 with little in the way of qualifications, and went to work on a farm. Yet he formed a mighty trade union [the TGWU] from nothing, was minister of labour during the Second World War, and was one of the greatest foreign secretaries this countries has ever produced – at one of the most important times in world history.

What made him a hero?

Coming from that background, and overcoming what then must have been near-insuperable odds to become one of the most powerful figures in the land. When he was growing up, it was difficult to move from one class to another, and for an uneducated man – in the formal sense – to break down some of those barriers was exceptional. Furthermore, to have the confidence to run the Foreign Office, and command the respect of those around him given his humble beginnings, makes him an extraordinary figure in my mind.

What was his finest hour?

I guess it was his time as foreign secretary. In a way, it’s a hard choice to make because, as minister of labour in the Second World War, he was charged with mobilising the labour force to its full capacity, so we could produce the tanks, guns and planes we needed. Winston Churchill knew that this would be as important to winning the war as the fighting on the front.

After the war, as foreign secretary, Bevin had to deal with Indian independence, the establishment of the state of Israel, the founding of NATO, and the Cold War. He was absolutely the right man for the job at the time.

Is there anything you don’t  admire about Bevin?

Well, he could be stubborn. He could take up a position just for the sake of being contrary. He could also be dictatorial. He didn’t like criticism either, and that’s one of the reasons he didn’t flourish on the floor of the House of Commons. But that’s about the worst I could say about him.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Well, we both had pretty humble origins, were trade unionists, and then went into parliament. But we lived in different ages, and he was an extraordinary man in extraordinary times – so I wouldn’t want to labour the comparison. I’m just about fit to tie his shoe laces!

If you could meet Bevin what would you ask him?

I’d like to ask him if the trade union movement in Britain developed in the way he imagined when he founded the TGWU. After the war, he sent someone to Germany to help reconstruct the German trade union movement. That led to ‘co-determination’ – whereby employers and trade unionists worked closely together. Of course, that never happened in this country, but I rather suspect that’s the way he would have liked things to have gone here too.

Alan Johnson was talking to York Membery

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Alan Johnson was elected Labour MP for a seat in Hull in 1997, and went on to serve as education secretary, health secretary,  home secretary and shadow chancellor of the exchequer. He is currently writing a childhood memoir, to be called This Boy