Alan Johnson

It was Bevin, not Bevan, who was the real national treasure

Andrew Adonis pays tribute to Ernest Bevin, the powerful trades unionist and organiser, widely respected in his lifetime as a true man of the people

‘He was the embodiment of common sense. Yet I have never met a man in politics with as much imagination as he had, with the exception of Winston,’ said Clement Attlee of Bevin. Getty Images

On a family holiday almost 40 years ago I visited Winsford, the village on the edge of Exmoor where Ernest Bevin was born (and Boris Johnson was raised). Having read the first book in Alan Bullock’s scholarly three-volume biography, I’d become a convinced Bevinite (not to be confused with the followers of Nye Bevan, his near namesake and bête noire). As it was the centenary of Bevin’s birth I expected to find some kind of commemoration, but there was nothing apart from a faded plaque on the cottage he was born in. I asked the woman serving in the Post Office opposite if I’d missed anything, but she’d never heard of the great man. This alone explains why a book seeking to reacquaint us with one of the towering political figures of the 20th century is so long overdue.

Bevin always planned to retire at 60. By then he would have been at work for almost half a century. At the age of 11 he was doing a ten-hour day as a farmhand, his mother having died three years earlier. (He never knew who his father was.) Despite his humble origins, by the late 1930s he’d already created the biggest trade union in the free world, rescued the Daily Herald from obscurity and overseen its rise to become the first newspaper to reach a circulation of a million, and built Transport House, the great edifice that served as the headquarters not just of his Transport and General Workers Union but of the Labour party and TUC as well.

Like so many other ‘flowers born to blush unseen’, Bevin had found an outlet for his talents in the trade union movement. An advocate of Ben Tillett’s New Unionism, he believed that the salvation of the working class was to be found in industrial organisation rather than political revolution.

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