In an era obsessed with social mobility, Britain has somehow forgotten about the trade union titan who rose from 11-year-old orphan farm labourer to become a world-shaping statesmanby Chris Mullin / July 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee are rightly recognised as giants of 20th-century British politics. Nye Bevan, too, gets a look-in for his role in founding the NHS. One name, however, is often overlooked: Ernest Bevin. In some respects, he was the most remarkable of them all.
To the extent he is remembered now, it is for having been foreign secretary at that critical post-war moment when the political map of the world was being redrawn, and Britain was coping with the painful realisation that it was no longer a world power of the first rank. But there was much more to him than that. Bevin was a dominant figure in the labour movement from the late 1920s onwards. Without him, Attlee might never have become Labour leader and, even if he had done so, would not have survived long enough to become, arguably, our most successful peacetime prime minister. As Minister of Labour in Churchill’s war cabinet Bevin, more than anyone, helped to mobilise the workforce onto a war footing and to establish a broad social settlement between workers and employers that endured for more than 30 years.
But after a couple of decades in which every prime minister, from John Major to Boris Johnson, has claimed to make “social mobility” their cause, there is something else that makes the recent neglect of Bevin more striking. In contrast to the likes of Churchill and to some extent Attlee, who came from privileged backgrounds, Bevin was born into West Country penury in a remote Somerset village. He was the seventh child of a penniless single mother who died of cancer when he was eight, leaving him to be brought up by a half-sister in north Devon. In later life, he recalled having to read aloud from newspapers for members of the family who were illiterate. Aged 11, he left school to work as a farm labourer. Aged 13 he made his way to Bristol where he lodged with an elder brother and found work as a dogsbody in a restaurant, for six shillings a week plus meals. Later on, he drove a horse and cart around the city; one of his jobs…