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Man for a Crisis

A remarkable political career suggests that social mobility is of benefit to us all.

Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary, August 1945 © Popperfoto/Getty Images

Churchill considered him ‘by far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party has thrown up in my time’. Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, reflecting on his political allies, declared: ‘There’s the man I miss.’ Despite their different temperaments, Churchill and Attlee shared a profound admiration for Ernest Bevin. At a time of concern in Britain over a decline in social mobility, the life and career of the man who, during the Second World War, controlled the nation’s labour force, is worth reflecting on.

Bevin, for whom any semblance of formal education ended at 14, worked from the age of 11 at a series of manual tasks before becoming a lorry driver. He had been born in rural Somerset to a farmhand described as a ‘widow’ and never knew his father. It was the young Ernest who read to his illiterate family and his rhetorical skills were honed – in a tradition of radicalism dating back to the 17th century – at the local Baptist chapel. But, despite the Puritan background, he was always aspirational, marrying the daughter of a Bristol wine merchant.

His pathway to power was opened up by the mass movement of Labour. He was one of the founders of the Transport and General Worker’s Union, which soon became Britain’s largest, and as its leader he developed a serious political powerbase. A fierce opponent of Communism and the pacifism of the Labour leader George Lansbury, he became an ally of Attlee – ‘Little Clem’ – his fellow anti-appeaser and, ultimately, a leading member of Churchill’s National Government, once a safe seat had been found for him.

An architect of Nato, Bevin had interesting views on the future of Europe. Britain, he thought, was ‘different in character from other European nations, fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration’. Made in pre-Suez days, one wonders if Bevin would have held to that belief.

The historian Peter Hennessy has asked where the adults are in Britain’s crisis-ridden politics today. Bevin, a man for a crisis, had been an adult for a very long time.

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