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.
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.