Bevin file photo

Ernest Bevin

Born9 Mar 1881
Died14 Apr 1951
CountryUnited Kingdom
CategoryGovernment

Contributor: Alan Chanter

British politician Ernest Bevin was born at Winsford, Somerset, England, United Kingdom. Orphaned at the age of eight, as a boy he worked as a farm labourer. Bevin worked his way up through the ranks of the Dockers' Union to become General secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union (which he helped form in 1921). In 1937, he was appointed chairman of the Trades Union Congress. A powerful figure during the General Strike he ran the Union until he was brought into Churchill's cabinet in May 1940. A Parliamentary seat being hurriedly found for him at Central Wandsworth (This seat he held until 1950, and from then, until his death, as the M.P. for East Woolwich).

In Churchill's coalition government, Bevin was invited to become the Minister of Labour. It fell to him, at a difficult time, to mobilise the man-power of the country without so straining the principle of industrial conscription as to excite the hostile criticism of the left-wing elements in the country. In this he was outstandingly successful, having almost dictatorial powers to direct workers into factories, mines and fields.

Ever the powerful Trade Union leader, Bevin soon used his new position to continue his socialist policies. Within a month of his appointment he was campaigning for a limitation, to a maximum of 60 hours, the hours that could be worked by women and young people, and urged that the same limit should be also applied to men. By the end of 1941 he was insisting that the wartime regulations should not result in poorer working conditions, and insisted that all government contracts should by supported by a satisfactory report on wages welfare and training. Later, in 1943, Bevin campaigned for an increase in the meat ration for men working in heavy industry.

However By 1942, the numbers of days lost through industrial action had once again reached peace time levels. A strike by 4,000 coal miners, backed by their union, presented the Minister with a serious problem. Under the regulations they should all have been imprisoned for striking during wartime. This was clearly an impossible task which would have had seriously hampered essential coal production. The problem was solved by Herbert Morrison, who suggested that the levying of a minimal 1 fine on a thousand of the leading malcontents would satisfy the law whilst retaining the necessary production quotas.

On Labour being returned to power in 1945, Bevin became Foreign Secretary in Attlee's government. Both Attlee and Bevin were mutual admirers, and worked together almost as an alliance. There seems to have been a genuine fondness between the two men, often staying behind after cabinet meetings, charting the Government's future policies. Attlee once said of Bevin "I love that little man", whilst Bevin said of Attlee "the deepest relationship of my political life".

As Foreign Secretary, Bevin became a figure of international importance, his blunt speeches attracting considerable attention, but also exciting some strong criticism from the more left-wing members of his own party. In 1947-1948, the passionate anti-communist Bevin became one of those primarily responsible for the conception of a Western European pact (soon, in 1949, to become NATO) as a way of counteracting the gradual westward infiltration of Russian Communist influence. A Western European treaty valid for 50 years, finally took shape at the Brussels conference in March 1948. He would also be instrumental in the implementation of the Marshall plan for the post-war economic recovery of Europe.

Bevin is less happily remembered for his bitter arguments and fighting that led to the creation of the State of Israel. This led, rather unfairly (for he had supported Zionism during the war), to Bevin being branded by some as an Anti-Semite. The Palestine situation was handled very badly by the Government, having little regard for the Palestinian Arabs, who would now be dispossessed, to make room for the migration of millions of Jewish refugees. Bevin, pressed hard by the United States to allow even greater Jewish migration, would soon be reviled by both Jew and Arab alike.

On the other hand, Ernest Bevin can be credited with establishing Great Britain as a major nuclear power. Having been patronised by his American opposite number the furious Bevin told colleagues that he wanted no British Foreign Secretary to be treated in such a way again. "It was a matter of national status", he said, "we have got to have the Union Jack on top of it" (the bomb).

Bevin's ill health soon became increasingly obvious (a result some hinted as a consequence of a lifetime of heavy smoking, heavy drinking and the pressured lifestyle of a senior Government Minister), and he resigned the foreign secretaryship (being appointed Lord Privy Seal) a month before his death. His speeches and broadcast addresses were published in 1942 under the title The Job to be Done.

Sources: Everymans Encyclopedia Vol 2, A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr, Macmillan, 2007), The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History (Wordswoth Editions, 1981), Wartime Britain 1939-1945 (Juliet Gardiner, Headline Books, 2004).

Ernest Bevin Timeline

9 Mar 1881 Ernest Bevin was born.
19 Sep 1940 British Minister of Labour Ernest Bevin announced that, as of the end of Aug 1940, there were 51,261 registered conscientious objectors in Britain.
16 Apr 1941 British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, announced a National Registration of Women for war work. The first registrations, for women in the age group 20 and 21, was to commence on 19 April 1941.
2 Dec 1943 British Minister of Labor Ernest Bevin announced that the government would soon conscript men to work in coal mines.
14 Apr 1951 Ernest Bevin, Churchill's Minister of Labour during the war years, passed away.

Photographs

Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam Conference, circa 28 Jul to 1 Aug 1945, photo 2 of 5Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam Conference, circa 28 Jul to 1 Aug 1945, photo 4 of 5Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam Conference, circa 28 Jul to 1 Aug 1945, photo 5 of 5Sir Alexander Cadogan, Group Captain D. M. Somerville, and Ernest Bevin arriving at Gatow Airport in Berlin, Germany to attend the Potsdam Conference, 28 Jul 1945
See all 6 photographs of Ernest Bevin



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Visitor Submitted Comments

  1. Alan Chanter says:
    29 Oct 2007 07:32:50 AM

    Ernest Bevin and Lord Beaverbrook (the Minister of Supply) are said to have had a mutual loathing of each other. This is thought to have commenced in 1940 when Bevin had threatened to prosecute the Capitalistic Beaverbrook (at that time Minister of Aircraft Production) for using Child labour. It is said, such was their intense dislike of one another, that whenever they would attend Cabinet meetings together, Bevin would remove his false teeth and place them in his pocket, so that he would not suffer from biting through his own tongue.

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Ernest Bevin Photo Gallery
Attlee, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam Conference, circa 28 Jul to 1 Aug 1945, photo 2 of 5
See all 6 photographs of Ernest Bevin



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