The Life & Times of Ernest Bevin, Vol. 1, by Alan Bullock: William Heinemann. 35s.
we have already had two attempts, from journalists, at a life of Ernest Bevin. The standard of scholarship we now get from Mr. Bullock of St. Catherine’s Society is on quite a different plane from that we had from Mr. Trevor Evans of the Daily Express and Mr. Francis Williams of Forward. Unfortunately, however, the absence of a critical approach to their subject is common to all three.
The complaint is not that Mr. Bullock so obviously and thoroughly approves of Bevin; what is asked for is not the antipathetic approach which would perhaps be necessary to satisfy Lord Morrison, Mr. Crossman, Mr. Bert Papworth or Mr. Molotov. What is required is that Mr. Bullock should be able more often to set aside his approval at least to ask questions about Bevin’s motives and behaviour, to ask whether sometimes alternative lines of approach would not have been more successful than the policies he adopted. But there is very little of this in all Mr. Bullock’s 654 pages. In his preface, Mr. Bullock explains that when he was invited by Arthur Deakin to write the life (“as a historian sympathetic to, but not a member of, the Labour Movement”) he agreed, on the one condition that there should be no question of a commission to write an ‘official’ life. Yet despite this, Mr. Bullock, with this book, stakes his claim as hagiographer of the movement. Bevin is painted as near to a Labour Saint as is possible without resort to stained glass.
There is no suggestion, of course, that Mr. Bullock is deliberately slanting the picture he paints. Reading the book one becomes more and more convinced that he finds in Mr. Bevin a true hero-figure; that the qualities Bevin had are those admired by Mr. Bullock and those he lacked are those Mr. Bullock considers unimportant. Bevin is a working-class Churchill, and that is admirable. He is an empiricist and that, too, seems to fit with Mr. Bullock’s own approach—which is one of the reasons why all the patient scholarship which has gone to make this book produces no new insight into its subject matter.
There is plenty of new information about Bevin. All readers, and particularly those ‘on the left’, will find a great deal to surprise them. Bevin’s early militancy and revolutionary socialism, his intense class-consciousness, his desire to build a strong Industrial Alliance as a fighting weapon against the employers, and his attitude to the relationship between ‘direct’ industrial action and ‘the constitutional question’ (here Mr. Bullock does seem to be a little on the defensive) are all brought into high relief. But with all the new information there is very little insight into the motives, mind, values and complexity of the character of Bevin. These are taken for granted, endorsed almost without question.