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Ernest Bevin

Robert Pearce examines the career of the man who was successively trade union leader, Minister of Labour and Foreign Secretary.

Bevin is surely ripe for historical revision. Partly this is due to the excesses of his major biographers, who have revelled in his 'larger than life' personality, partly to the passage of time which, at the start of the twenty-first century, makes him seem a veritable beached whale of proletarian militancy. The personification of Old Labour, no one seems less at home in the brave slick world of New Labour than Ernie Bevin. 

Bevin's image counts against him. He had no media-friendly elegance. He did not hold a pen between his fingers (which looked 'like a bunch of bananas') - he would use his whole fist. His table manners also left much to be desired. He would rarely keep quiet during meals, and his habit of talking while eating meant that he often spat his food about. It was not a pleasant experience for those in the vicinity. 'Several times I had to pick bits off my hand and sleeve', reported one of his victims. At a dinner in 1943 in honour of the Viceroy of India, he twice brought out his false teeth, fingered them and put them back again. During a meeting with foreign statesmen, a few years later, he was observed cleaning his finger nails with a pen.

Despite being short, he weighed 18 stones, due to excessive eating, and consequently waddled rather than walked. He smoked heavily and also consumed vast quantities of alcohol. According to one of his secretaries, after 1945 he used alcohol as a car uses petrol. His doctor urged him to drink either whisky or champagne, but at official luncheons or dinners he could rarely resist both. Nor was he averse to 'tossing back vodka', and he was partial to a bottle of 'Newts' (Nuits St-Georges). (As Churchill noted, 'everyone has the right to pronounce foreign names as he chooses', and Bevin did so with inimitable latitude. He also regularly murdered the English language.)

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