While hugely admiring of his subject, Adonis is not blind to his flaws. A Churchillian scale of achievement was accompanied by some Churchill-like attitudes. Bevin was another unreconstructed imperialist, wrongly thinking that Britain could sustain its place in the postwar world by trying to maintain an empire that was bound to become defunct. He failed to engage with the nascent integration of Europe. He made a terrible mess of the Israel/Palestine question. This was not least, Adonis shows, because he had a pronounced streak of antisemitism.
Ernest Bevin was a great figure of British politics in the second quarter of the 20th century. As a trade union leader, minister of labour during the Second World War and foreign secretary in the 1945 Labour government, he fought Nazism and communism. A pro-empire socialist patriot, he knew and loved power, and wielded it in the service of the organised British working class. He is the subject of a new biography by Andrew Adonis. Heavily reliant on previous Bevin biographies, Adonis offers a nice line in comparisons between Bevin’s and his own political experiences and a lot of respect for his subject. The result is a book that is better researched than Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill by an author who is much less self-obsessed.
For decades Bevin’s imposing frame loomed over British politics. That he has been largely forgotten would bewilder past generations. In this vivid biography, Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer and former transport secretary, makes it his mission to rescue Bevin from undeserved obscurity. Labour’s Churchill is the first major work to be published on its subject since the historian Alan Bullock’s epic trilogy concluded in 1983. But Bevin’s story is worthy of cinema.
A compelling biography requires a compelling subject, and Bevin is certainly that. Raised in poverty by a single mother, “Ernie” rose to become Britain’s Foreign Secretary. “There were only two posts in the Foreign Office he could have held,” went the joke, “Foreign Secretary and doorkeeper.”
As for Bevin’s character, Adonis’s contention that he had ceased to be working class by the time he came into government because of how he dressed and where he lived is like suggesting that the Marquis of Bath ceased to be an aristocrat when he donned a kaftan and moved into a cottage on his vast estate. Bevin the minister was little different to Bevin the Bristol drayman, still finding cultural sustenance in football and the music hall. He refused all honours, including a peerage, a knighthood and the Companion of Honour (CH) offered by Churchill after the war.
This painstakingly researched book also tells us of Bevin’s remarkable rise, starting life as an orphan so poor he had to steal for food.
When he rose to run the grandest of government departments it was sometimes said “there were only two posts in the Foreign Office that Ernie Bevan could have held: foreign secretary and doorkeeper”. As Adonis points out, that was simply not true — his diplomatic achievements were of such an order that he would have made a fine ambassador.
Bevin was a bundle of engaging contradictions: a democrat with an authoritarian manner, a socialist who became a Garrick club member and owned a flamboyantly yellow Talbot Darracq motor car. He loved grub but was not exactly a gourmet. Confronted by caviar, he said, “this jam tastes fishy”.
Adonis acknowledges his debt to earlier works, most notably Alan Bullock’s epic three-volume biography, but as a reintroduction to a forgotten giant this is a fine work. The author — a former member of Tony Blair’s Downing Street strategy unit and later cabinet minister — has one eye firmly on the present and his message is a simple one. Labour needs to return to its most successful roots as a patriotic party, grounded in the everyday needs of ordinary people and focused relentlessly on achievable goals rather than impossible dreams.