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.
Two of the major events covered are the amalgamation story which founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1922, and the General Strike. Without Bevin’s drive and political skill there would have been no amalgamation. His greatest contribution was the combination of trade and territorial representation still used successfully in the constitution of the ‘T. & G.’ But remembering that two years before, he had apparently dragged his feet and thus contributed to the defeat of an alternative amalgamation scheme, it is difficult to dismiss the notion that Bevin only wanted an amalgamation if it was of his making, and if it put him at the centre of the new concentration of power which would be the result. How he fixed the full-time national positions, jockeying Ben Tillet out, is well explained and justified. (Incidentally, in his Memoirs and Reflections, Tillet is very restrained about this and puts on record a version which does Bevin more than justice, and Union unity no harm). The officials of amalgamated unions for whom Bevin had no place in the new Union were pensioned off to the House of Commons—a practical enough illustration of what Bevin thought of Labour Parliamentarianism at the time.
Bevin’s fight before the General Strike for a unified and disciplined command culminated in his dominance over the Strike Organisation Committee (the actions of this committee were coloured by Bevin’s desire to “keep power within his own hands”, according to Symons in The General Strike—but Mr. Bullock tells us nothing of this). When the Strike was called off we are told that, “It now became clear that, in their anxiety to call off the Strike, the General Council had taken no steps to implement their own instructions. No arrangements were made for an organised return to work; each Union was left to scramble back and make the best arrangements it could with the employers. Nothing so alarmed and aroused Bevin as the discovery that this had been left to chance” (p. 338). The reader is left doubting if the man who dominated the Strike Organisation Committee should be so easily exonerated from part of the responsibility for this failure? However there is no doubt that at the final surrender to Baldwin, and subsequently when he instructed his own men to stay on strike to prevent victimisation, Bevin came out of the General Strike better than most of the leaders. If only he had been able to muster support in time for his inclination: “For Christ’s sake let’s call it on again”, when humiliation was being piled on humiliation at the surrender meeting.