No one forgets their first few moments as foreign secretary. You are greeted outside the famous King Charles Street buildings and escorted up the red-carpeted grand staircase. Halfway up is a bust of one of your predecessors — not Palmerston or Grey but Ernest Bevin, Labour foreign secretary between 1945 and 1951, who is rightly considered one of the greatest holders of that office.
A fascinating book by Andrew Adonis goes one step further and calls him Labour’s Churchill. I started deeply sceptical of such a big claim but finished the book if not totally convinced, at least recognising the case to be made.
Why? Concerns about the stability of the world order: the rise of China and the increasingly apparent reluctance of America to provide global leadership. We worry about the survival of the post-1945 settlement because for all its flaws, it has given humanity more prosperity and freedom than ever before. Ernest Bevin did indeed have a strong claim to setting up that order alongside Churchill, not least because although Churchill won the war it was Bevin who was in office after the latter was ejected in 1945.
As Adonis chronicles, Bevin’s extraordinary achievement was standing up to Stalin in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat. As the founder of the largest trade union in the free world, Bevin had spent his life fighting communists. He did not join the fashionable consensus on the Left that communism was somehow better than fascism.
Bevin’s extraordinary achievement was standing up to Stalin in the aftermath of Hitler’s defeat.
Having gone against the grain of Labour and Conservative establishments in opposing appeasement in the Thirties, he was ready to stand up to Stalin even when the Americans under Truman were more sympathetic. His tough negotiating style, learned from his union days, kept the Soviets out of western Germany and led directly to the foundation of the Federal State. He then worked closely with the Americans, by then more hawkish, to set up Nato, probably the most successful military alliance in history.
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. But his political achievement was probably as great: the loyal friend who put and kept Attlee in power so he was able to run the government of which today’s Labour is more proud than any other.
When I was health secretary it was impossible to go far without hearing legends about Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin’s contemporary, who has become more famous because of his founding of the NHS. But Ernest Bevin deserves as much credit for his remarkable shaping of the modern world. He was not perfect — and I apologised as foreign secretary for his shameful immigration caps on Jewish refugees wanting to settle in Israel. But he was — overall — a great foreign secretary who, if not a Churchill, is Labour’s greatest claim to key parts of Churchill’s legacy.
Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis (Biteback, £20), buy it here.