Thursday, 14 June 2007

Ernest Bevin

I'm reading Alan Bullocks' Ernest Bevin at the moment. It's certainly the most comprehensive biography on Ernie Bevin, but its in some ways a disappointing book. So far I've read one sentence on his marriage and one on his daughter after 300 pages, which is a poor show. We're all a product of the people around us, and I feel that his depth has been stripped by focusing on Bevin's ascent from Trades Union Leader to Minister of Labour, by Churchill's invitation in the coalition government during the second world war. No, its not a great political history book and frankly the British never do quite get it right when trying to paint a picture of our politicians. Its generally either overblown puff pieces or pedestrian led tours of duty-to-detail like the late Roy Jenkins biography on Churchill.

Our cousins in the United States however seem to excel in this department. Maybe its because they have a bigger stage like say in Caro's biographical trilogy of LBJ or for a real left field choice, Edmund Morris' biography on Reagan: 'Dutch'. But for the real master of writing history there probably is no greater insight into power corruption and lies, than by writing your own history, as Kissinger memorably did with his autobiographical trilogy, peaking in the craft of non fiction writing with his second book (for his doctoral dissertation) 'Years of Upheaval' which saw shuttle diplomacy invented, not to mention Vietnam, oil shocks and China to mention a few.

That isn't to say the Bevin biography doesn't shine in parts. In the passage below, we find that he is under pressure in the artificial (for him) habitat as a socialist minister in the house of commons, with criticism all round when the Conservative Churchill steps up and soaks up the punishment in his defence from his own 'side' so to speak.

"To abuse the minister of Labour. He is a working man, a trade union leader. He is taunted with being an unskilled labourer representing an unskilled union. I daresay he gives offence in some quarters; he has his own methods of speech and action. He has a frightful load to carry; he has a job to do which none would envy. He makes mistakes, like I do, though not so many or so serious - he has not got the same opportunities. At any rate he is producing, at this moment, though perhaps on rather expensive terms, a vast and steady volume of faithful effort, the like of which has not been seen before. And if you tell me that the results he produces do not compare with those of totalitarian systems of government and society, I reply by saying 'We shall know more about that when we get to the end of the story'

Time and again Bevin struggles to persuade people that the British worker is motivated most when free to choose their own destiny and less commited when compelled. Only Bevin understood this and fought tooth and nail to gain their permission for anything he subsequently requested from them. This is a logic that totalitarianism never grasps.


  1. Interesting post Charles although I have to disagree about the quality of British political biography and more generally British history.

    There are certain standards which I believe that most British political biographers try to meet. They look to find compelling evidence not just rely on secondary sources and amateur psychology. This can mean you get a less colourful read - however there are plenty of decent politcial bios out there.

    Great story about Churchill taking the opposition's side though (his autobiography is up there too).

    BTW Peter Hennessy is an excellent writer/historian on British politics.

  2. Hey thanks for the tip Henry. I didn't really mean it about the British political bios because I haven't read enough, and the ones I have read are have been a bit of a yawn. But now I know that Hennessy is good that I'll be on his case first.

    Seriously though political history is about the exercise of power and as I was once asked about why I love to read US political history? Because its the only show in town!

    Check out the Caro or Kissinger. I'll maintain they're on another level until I've tucked into your suggestions.

    Seriously though. Disagreements are very welcome here. How else can we learn? (And I'm sure as hell not always right) See you tomorrow if you're around for interesting 2007 if not, have a cracking weekend.

  3. I'll be there tomorrow. I'm a big fan of US history too - I guess the US played such a huge role in shaping 20th century culture that it's hard not to find the stuff interesting. Incidently, David Remnick (editor of the New Yorker) wrote a great Ali biography which captures the 60s superbly.

  4. Good man. See you there. And I really must stop commenting at the speed of light to avoid repetition :)