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Bevin, Ernest

A Dictionary of British History

John Cannon

Bevin, Ernest 


Trade unionist and Labour politician. The illegitimate son of a village midwife, Bevin left school at 11. He became a full‐time official of the Dockers' Union in 1911, and by 1920 was assistant general secretary. Bevin gained national attention in the immediate post‐war years through his evidence to the Shaw Inquiry in 1920 on dock labour. He master‐minded the amalgamation of eighteen unions into the Transport and General Workers' Union, of which he became the first general secretary in 1922. The failure of the General Strike of 1926 underlined his belief that unions should negotiate from strength.

The collapse of the Labour government of 1929–31 compelled Bevin further into the political arena and he played a major role during the 1930s in committing Labour to realistic policies on the economy and rearmament. A devastating speech at the 1935 party conference helped remove the pacifist George Lansbury from the leadership. By 1937 Bevin was chairman of the TUC and one of the most influential figures in the Labour movement.

When Labour joined Churchill's wartime coalition in May 1940, the prime minister made the surprise but inspired appointment of Bevin to the Ministry of Labour. At the age of 59 he entered Parliament. Probably no other figure could have secured the same level of co‐operation from the work‐force.

With the election of a majority Labour government in 1945 Bevin went to the Foreign Office. Here he laid the foundation stones of British foreign policy for the next 40 years. To the approval of the Conservative opposition, Bevin took a consistently strong line towards the Soviet Union. Under Bevin's influence the government went ahead with the construction of a British atomic bomb, and played a leading role in the creation of NATO in 1949.

Bevin had been in poor health since the 1930s. After the 1950 general election he was no longer capable of fulfilling his duties, and he died within a month of leaving office. He was a man of great intelligence, despite his lack of formal education.