Ernest Bevin’s Lost Labour Heritage

Ernest Bevin – a view from 1981

The April issue of Labour Affairs reviewed a recent book called ‘Bevin, Labour’s Churchill’.  (  Following on from this, we reproduce material from The Communist, precursor magazine to Labour and Trade Union Review / Labour Affairs.  It appeared in 1981 as a series of editorials, but was probably written by Connor Lynch.

  • Anti-Fascism: Words Or Deeds?
  • The Minister Of Labour: Dictator Or Leader?
  • A Creeping Fascist?
  • Bevan versus Bevin: April 28, 1944
  • The Corporate State
  • United Fronts
  • Full Employment

Ernest Bevin is probably the most hated man in the entire history of British Labour politics.  He is hated by the shifting Left of the Labour Party, by the Communist Party, by the Trotskyists, and by every ‘revolutionary’ and every ‘political scientist’ who happens along, and their view has come to dominate general Labour opinion.

With Clement Attlee. Images from Tides of History.

Ramsay MacDonald is denounced because he became a traitor.  But, even though he undoubtedly did become a traitor, there is in the denunciation of him a spark of fellow feeling.  Nobody can say that Bevin became a traitor.  On the contrary, it was he more than any other individual who was responsible for making MacDonald’s treason politically ineffectual, and for establishing Labour politics on sounder foundations than those which MacDonald shook.  The Labour left wanted him to become a traitor, and expected him to become a traitor, but nothing was farther from his thoughts.  It is inconceivable that he should have become a traitor, because he simply had no inclination towards any bourgeois way of life, because he did not wear ideological blinkers like Philip Snowden, and because he was not politically squeamish.  On what grounds, then, could he have become a traitor ?

The ideological left was unrelenting in its hatred of him during his lifetime, and has remained so since his death.  The centenary of the greatest politician that the British working class has produced will pass virtually without notice on the left.  The ideological left, which now controls a multitude of publishing outlets, and is the nearest thing to a publishing monopoly which exists in Britain, takes its revenge against Bevin posthumously for all the defeats which he inflicted on the m during his lifetime, by writing him out of history.  Many of them complain about the way that Trotsky was written out of Russian history by Stalin, and apply themselves to writing out or history a man whose contribution to working class development is immensely greater than Trotsky’s.

Historical justice towards losing factions is not to be expected in the politics of revolutionary dictatorships, and least of all was it to be expected in Russia.  It clashes with the revolutionary objectives to which they are committed.  Trotsky, in his years of power, would have put down as a petty-bourgeois romantic anybody was concerned to do justice to Martov.  Mensheviks were for shooting.  All things considered, Stalin was remarkably fair to Trotsky after Trotsky had made a political mess of himself.

The case of Bevin is entirely different.  He never had anybody shot for disagreeing with him.  He never even had anybody censored.  The left is not taking revenge against him for having silenced them.  He engaged in open political dispute with them over many years, he never tried to restrict their freedom to operate, and yet he always had his way against them.

Bevin’s unforgiveable crime is that he made democratic socialist politics work.  And is that not a far worse thing than selling out to the bourgeoisie, like MacDonald and Snowden did?

Bevin was a Marxist of a kind that is virtually unknown these days.  Marxism today is an ideology to be preached and lived in.  For Bevin it was a source of information.  He took from Marx the substance of what Marx had to offer —the incomparable physiological description of the capitalist economic process in Capital— and then got on with the class struggle in the way that was most effective in the given circumstances.

Wedgewood Benn likes to refer to the combination of Christian and Marxist traditions on the British Labour movement.  He is a flimsy theologian the alliance with ideological Marxists for whom Marxism is a chloroformed blindfold which induces hallucinations.  Bevin combined the two traditions in a more original and effective way.  He became to begin with a Methodist lay preacher (or was it a Baptist?).  Then he became a member of the Social Democratic Federation.  Finally he became Bevin.  He remained on easy terms with both Marx and Jesus, as one might be with ones’ grandparents.  He asked nobody to believe in either of them or in himself.  He thought out what it was possible to do to increase the power and improve the standard of life of the working class, and he expected people who were socialists either to agree with him or to propose alternative courses of action which were realistic.  His socialist opponents almost invariable engaged in phrase mongering, and he told them, without  attempting to soften the blow, that they were phrasemongers.

Bevin was profoundly egalitarian.  It goes without saying that he looked upon nobody as his better—there is no great virtue in that in the 20th century.  But neither did he look upon anybody as his inferior.  Barbara Castle, in a moment of frankness during a recent Woman’s Hour radio programme, described herself as a member of the middle-class elite.  Barbara always oozed condescension.  It is very difficult for left socialists in the middle-class elite not to ooze condescension.  This has nothing to do with any abilities which they might happen to have—indeed, the less ability they have, the less possible it is for them not to condescend.  They relate to people on their own level and above with spurious contempt and to people below them with condescension.  And it is not possible to condescend and to think as well.

Bevin had no epistemological problems connected with guild and condescension.  It is easy, when you come right out of the bottom drawer, to treat everybody as na equal.  An, amongst equals, if a man behaves like a bloody fool, you tell him so.

Bevin practised no revers snobbery.  When anybody joined the Labour party, he became subject to equal treatment.  The temptation to make allowance for  people of middle-class origin whose hearts bled for the workers and who are therefore incapable of thinking, was never entertained by Bevin.  He dealt with the views of Sir Stafford Cripps on the same basis as he would have done if Cripps had been an unskilled worker.

Having come to the conclusion that very substantial reform in the working-class interest was possible int immediate future, and that the sort of revolutionary development envisaged by the Communist Party was a daydream in Britain, Bevin set about achieving the most substantial reform possible.  He built up an unprecedented accumulation of working-class power, devised a programme of reform, and saw that programme implemented.  Through the movement in which he was a guiding influence between h twenties and the late forties, the working class placed itself in the centre of the stage.  It made itself, to use Marx’s phrase, the subject of history in British society: politics, economics and culture have ever since been preoccupied with problems of working-class development.  And the development which has taken place in the thirty years since Bevins’ death has been a working out of the implications of what was achieved under his leadership.

Why, then, is Bevin hated so much?  Anthony Howard, ex-editor of the New Statesman, set out to answer this question on a Radio 4 programme on March 4th.  He asked why Bevin was ‘not popular’ today.  He suggested what it was partly because he died so long ago that he has simply been forgotten; partly that he ‘believed in the concept of strong personal leadership’ and that such a thing is no longer acceptable; and partly because he would have no time for fads like workers’ control, and would dismiss them with a grunt of disgust.  Manny Shinwell chipped in that Bevin ‘didn’t understand the democratic process’.  Roy Jenkins made some vague criticisms of his foreign policy.  And Abba Eban suggested that Bevin had some dark racist undertones, and has expressed ‘non-political ideas’, such as the idea that Truman wanted Jews to be let into Palestine because he didn’t want any more of them in New York.  But all of this is mere waffle.  Bevin is unpopular today despite his Palestine policy.  He understood the democratic process far too well for Shinwell’s comfort.  As for workers’ control: if he would oppose it, then so did most of the left in the moment of truth when Bullock published his report.  But there is no reason to suppose that Bevin would have opposed workers’ control.  Bullock’s proposals were entirely Bevinite in spirit, and were made by a man who has been preoccupied for twenty years with Bevin’s doings and sayings.

Bevin is hated because he made democratic socialist politics effective in bringing about substantial social changes, and, in order to make it effective, took it out of wonderland.  He is hated because he was oblivious of the phrase mongering left classifications of him, and proved them all false.  ‘No, in this Conference, Aneurin Bevan, you are not ging to get the flattery of the gossip columns that you get in London.  You are going to get facts.’  To say such a thing; to continue to direct the Labour movement effectively having said such a thing; and not even to become a landed gentleman like Bevan…. How could he not be hated?  The fragile left of today looks for an escape from reality through its heroes, so how could Bevin be its hero?  In the long run Bevan too became too real for them too, but his windy, inconsequent, phrase mongering denunciations of Bevin between the mid-thirties and 1945 provide much material for ecstasy.

Anti-Fascism: Words Or Deeds?

Bevin’s first great crime is that he has in the thirties an anti-fascist policy that was capable of functioning in the real word, and that ensured that wartime alliance against Germany was based on a real political equality of bourgeois and worker, and operated to Labour’s advantage.  The past held to terrors for Bevin.  It did not give him nightmares.  It did not weigh him down like an Alp.  The past was over and done with, and he neither intended nor expected that it would be repeated.  1914 was one thing.  He had opposed the 1914 war when it happened, and so he didn’t need to oppose the next war as substitute for 1914.  The next war would be another thing.

Michael Foot writes in his biography of Bevan:

‘Many on the Left ….  Were swiftly and deeply stirred by the terrible events on the Continent…But why, then, did these men … deny the need for arms to withstand the menace?  That common give of the pre-war years is now exalted as a decisive indictment against the Left.  We are invited, by contrast, to admire the Churchillian wisdom which kept its eye fixed steadily on the changes disrupting the balance of power among the European states… But to ask that British Socialists, particularly those from the depressed areas, should have regarded the issue on this light is to ask an absurdity.  How could they see the tormentors of their people suddenly translated into stout defenders of working-class liberties?  For Bevan, that would have imped a betrayal of a whole lifetime’s experience struggles.  British capitalism, not German Fascism, was the enemy on his doorstep.’  (Vol 1, p 195-6)

An oppressed working class which can think of nothing but its oppression is clearly not fit to exercise political power in a democracy.  It could exert political influence only by refusing to become entangled in representative politics, and by supporting a dictatorial party to act in its interests.  If the British working class in the thirties was as Foot describes it, if it was incapable of thinking coherently about international affairs, why on earth didn’t it place itself under the guardianship of the Communist Party or of Mosley’s Party, instead of indulging in the vanity that it was capable of looking after its interests in a representative democracy?

The truth is that a very substantial part of the working class felt quite capable of looking after working class interests in a representative democracy.  What Foot describes is the condition of socialist intellectuals, with inadequate political conceptions, observing the working class and feeling sorry for it.  The self-confidence of the working class was represented by Bevin.  It made Bevin possible, and it was enhanced by Bevin.

‘While Socialist thinking stood still—in Soviet Russia no less than in Britain—the world was moving fast.  Way back in 1930 a voice from the wilderness… had given waring to Communists and Socialists alike: ‘Should Fascism come to power in Germany it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank.  And only a unity with Social Democratic workers can  bring victory…’  But that was Trotsky, not Stalin.  Only after the damage had been done in Germany did Communist strategy start to change and give birth to new hope.’  (Foot, p 208)

The trouble about prophets in the wilderness is that they are never specific about the actual policies required to prevent the occurrences which they predict, and even their predictions tend to be obscure.  Trotsky was a power in the Comintern at the time of the first fascist revolution in 1922.  Much was made by him ten years later of the Comintern description of German Social Democracy as ‘social-fascism’.  But in 1922 the Italian Socialists were denounced as social-fascists by the Comintern, with far less justification than in the case of German Social Democrats, and Trotsky, the influential politician, did not demand a change of policy to ward off catastrophe in Italy.

The Italian Socialist Party joined the Comintern.  It was politically in agreement with the Comintern but was divided about the need for a drastic organisational purging.  Because of this disagreement, the Comintern set about splitting eh Socialist Party.  A Communist Party of Italy was formed in 1921, and amidst the war waged by the communist Party on the Socialist Party, Mussolini slipped into power in 1922.

Many years after the first fascist revolution, Trotsky, having given up politics for prophesy and retired to the wilderness, began to warn about the danger of fascism, and to urge working class unity in opposition to it.  Did this imply that the working class unity which actually existed in Italy when the fascist movement began its run-up to power should have been maintained?  Not at all.  Trotsky never suggested that the difference between Communism and social-democracy did  not warrant a political split because there was a danger of fascism.  If Stalin had in 1930 proposed to wind up the  Comintern, and to merge the Communist and socialist movements on a democratic programme and under representative leaderships, it is quite certain that Trotsky would have condemned him as an agent of the bourgeoisie.

Trotsky’s anti-fascist policy was of the kind that looks best when it doesn’t have to be implemented.  And how’s this for prophesy:

‘A victory of fascism in Germany would signify an inevitable war against the USSR.  In fact, it would be sheer political stupidity to believe that once they came to power, the German National Socialists would begin with a war against France, or even Poland… Hitler will need Pilsudski… Both alike will become tools of France.’  (Germany, the Key to The International Situation, November 1931).

Trotsky’s voice from the wilderness urging working class unity against fascism is congenial to Foot, the biographer of Bevan, because it is devoid of practical political content.  The voice within the British working class which not only advocated working class unity against fascism but ensured that it was maintained, is hardly less hateful to Foot than it was to Trotsky.  Bevin saw no sense in splitting the working class and then trying to unite it.  His way of establishing unity was to prevent a split.  And in order to prevent a split he refused to have anything to do with a united front.  In 1934 he replied to an advocate of a united front with the Communist Party of Great Britain:

‘A previous speaker said the Communist Part was an insignificant party.  It would not have been if you gentlemen had had your way: we would have been split like Germany was split.  And if you do not keep down the Communists, you cannot keep down the Fascists.’

Is it not a very curious thing that a socialist intellectual of today should be on the defensive about Churchill’s foreign policy of the thirties, and should be trying to explain away socialist foreign policy by reference to the oppression of the workers making them incompetent to think about foreign affairs?  Bevin made Nazi Germany the focal point of his foreign policy, and began to entertain the idea of a war with Germany, at least as early as Churchill.  He fought an uphill struggle in the socialist movement all through the thirties to prepare it for a war with Germany, as Churchill did in the Tory Party, but with more success than Churchill achieved it before 1939.  The trade union base of the socialist movement was well prepared for the war when it happened, even though the socialist intellectuals weren’t.  It undertook responsibility for the war jointly with the bourgeoisie, it was represented in the War Cabinet equally with the bourgeoisie, and it won the election at the end of the war.

The 1935 Conference of the Labour Party included a particularly dramatic conflict between Bevin and the socialist intellectuals, but this was only spectacular eruption within a conflict that was continuous throughout the thirties.  Foot makes the bewildering comment that ‘Cripps, Bevan and Lansbury… were the hard-headed realists who had put their finder on the kernel of truth.’ (p 212).  As for Bevin: ‘a Labour leader was stabbed to political death in the open forum’ by him.

The trade unions had put the following motion on the agenda: ‘Conference calls upon the British Government, in co-operation with other nations represented at … the League, to use all the necessary measures provided by the Covenant to prevent Italy’s unjust and rapacious attack upon the territory of a fellow member of the League’, i.e. Abyssinia.  These measures were economic sanctions, to be applied by force if necessary, and thus involving the possibility of war. Here is a sample from the debate:

Sir Stafford Cripps:

‘I cannot rid my mind of the sordid history of capitalist deception.  The empty and hollow excuses of 1914, which I was then fool enough to believe, echo through the arguments of today, the ‘War to end war’, the need to save democracy, the cry to crush the foul autocracy of Prussian militarism, all have their counterparts in today’s arguments…  There is no mand in this Conference who more cordially detests Mussolini and all his acts than I do…  If I could feel that British imperialism had turned over a new leaf and become international Socialism, then my difficulties and doubts would largely disappear…

‘If we believe that capitalism and imperialism can be humanised and organised, then, indeed, we have but weak arguments to support our demand for a change to Socialism.  We have told the workers time and again that within capitalism there can be no cure for the rivalries of imperialisms…  The capitalist leopard cannot change his spots…  I do not believe in the theory of deathbed repentance…  If the attack on Italian Fascism turns to an Italian revolution, as some people hope, our ‘National’ Government will not use its forces to assist the Italian workers to freedom.   I certainly do not and cannot trust the capitalists…  Had we a workers’ Government in this country, as they have in Russia, the whole situation would be different…  Then there would always be the power of recall, because the workers would be in control of the foreign policy and of the military machines…  There can be no order within international capitalism…  I beg that you will not, by your decision, ordain that the Labour Movement shall join without power in t responsibility for capitalist and imperialist war that sanctions may entail, but, instead, let us immediately devote our whole energies to the defeat of that very capitalism and imperialism which is represented in this country by our class enemies masquerading under the title of ‘National’ Government which is, as we know and are convinced, at the root of all war.’

John Marchbanks (N.U.R.):

‘I listened with great interest to Sir Stafford… He says, can we trust this Government, No one is going to suggest that we trust this Government…  But what I ask Sir Stafford and those who think with him is, Can we trust ourselves when we are brought up against realities, when we have to face the issue and give effect to our own decisions, arrived at when there was no danger of implementing the decisions?’

George Lansbury: 

‘I am in a very difficult position today…  I agree with the position of those of my friends who think it is quite intolerable that we should have a man speaking as Leader who disagrees fundamentally on an issue of this kind…  I have never under any circumstances said that I believed you could obtain Socialism by force…  One Whose life I revere,  and Who, I believe, is the greatest figure in history, has put it on record: ‘Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword’.  All history down the ages proves that…  Someone said this afternoon something about armaments.  Do you know that what terrified me in all this business was, we were told that the Germans were little by little rearming.  We were told, somewhere about eighteen months ago, I think, that the Government had known that they were rearming.  Then a panic seized the House of Commons, and increased armaments were demanded…  Do you believe that each country has to pile up more and more armaments in order that we may all be secure?  What a world!  We are told that the only means of defence against air attacks…  is that we should massacre more women and children than those who might attack us…

‘War becomes more bestial, more sickening every day.  Christ said that we had to love one another…  I cannot thing that Christ would have found pouring bombs or poison gas on women and children or men for any reason whatsoever.  Not even in retaliation…  I believe that the first nation that will put into practice practical Christianity, doing unto others as you would be done unto, that that nation would lead the world away from war…  It may be that I shall not meet you on this platform any more (Cries of ‘No!’)…  It may very well be that in the carrying out of your policy I shall be in your way.  It is said that people like me are irresponsible.  I am no more irresponsible a leader than the greatest Trade Union leader in the country…  But one think I know is, that during the last war the youth, the early manhood of my division was slaughtered most terribly, and now I see the whole world rushing to perdition…  I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, ‘This is our faith, this is where we stand, if necessary, this is where we will die.’

Lansbury’s speech was long, emotional and sentimental, and was calculated to influence a meeting looking for a good excuse to evade the issue.  Lansbury had not opposed the recommended policy in the committees which had discussed it before the Conference.  He could not have argued a case in committees, but he might sway the Conference into deferring a decision.  The frontal assault launched by the next speaker completely dispelled the atmosphere worked up by Lansbury.

Ernest Bevin:

‘I think the Movement ought to understand the TUC position.   Let me remind the delegates that, when George Lansbury says what he said today in the Conference, it is rather late to say it, and I hope this Conference will not be influenced by either sentiment or personal attachment.  I hope you will carry no resolution of an emergency character telling a man like Lansbury what he ought to do.  If he finds that he ought to take a certain course, then his conscience should direct him as to the course he should take.  It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an absolutely wrong position to be taking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what you ought to do with it.’  (The official record says ‘taking’, but there seems to be general agreement that Bevin actually said, ‘hawking your conscience’. Ed) ‘…It is all very well to cheer somebody you like and interrupt somebody you don’t like, but I ask you to hear the arguments.’

Bevin then described how Lansbury had sat through various committee meetings which discussed the issue without raising any objections to the policy that was now being put to Conference.  Bevin himself had raised some objections, and had asked for clarification of relations with the Empire.

‘…we  considered the problem of Empire.  Here is the British nation controlling one-third of the world’s surface.  It is no use telling me our forefathers got it, it is here; and however we got it, a large portion of it has been put under self-government…  Then we asked ourselves, If we go on being merely anti-imperial where does it lead?  It leads to a scramble in the world.  It will lead to wars all over the world…

‘The coloured races of the world have been pacifist, they had nothing to defend themselves with, and we march in.  And while I am the last man in the world to decry Christianity, or any other faith, we have had it for 2,000 years, and you may just as well take Christianity as being ineffective on that ground as the policy we are advocating now…

‘We came finally to this conclusion… , that the 19th century empires cannot last.  The world with modern developments cannot remain static.  What are we, then, to do?  In Socialism & Peace we pursued two lines…  First, wherever we could get peoples and territory and could give self-government we would give it.  Secondly, where it was possible we would move this empire principle over to world organisation to supersede the old empire concept…  we cannot bottle nations up and then expect them to remain peaceful.’


The block votes of the unions could carry the day at Labour Party Conferences, but the activity of the Party was, in large part, carried on by people who did not agree with Bevin and his colleagues.  Bevin frequently repeated  what he said at the 1935 Party Conference: ‘I want to say to our friends who have joined us in this political movement, that our predecessors formed this Party.  It was not Keir Hardie who formed it, it grew out of the bowels of the TUC.’  But, while the TUC could always take the horse to water, the horse could always refuse to do more than dip its mouth in.  The unions leaders, therefore, developed policy apart from the Labour Party.  Bevin’s union Executive always discussed world affairs as well as union business, and Bevin always wrote a political commentary for the TGWU paper, The Record.  Historians tell us about eh foreign policy of the Cliveden Set and the foreign policy of Churchill, but hey mostly overlook the foreign policy of the Transport Union.  And yet there can be no doubt that Bevin exerted greater influence on the course of events than the little group of megalomaniac gentlemen who met at Cliveden on weekends.

The Minister Of Labour: Dictator Or Leader?

Bevin knew that because of what he represented he was one of the great powers in the land.  On joining the Churchill government in May 1940, he called a meeting of all the trade union executives in the country and come to an agreement with them as to how the war economy was to be run.  Then, knowing where the power lay, he advised them: ‘I don’t want you to get too worried about every individual that may be in the Government.  We could not stop to have an election…  But this I am convinced of: if our Movement and our class rise with all their energy now and save the people of this country from disaster, the country will always turn with confidence to the people who saved them.  They will pay more attention to an act of that kind than to the theoretical arguments or any particular philosophy.’ (quoted in Life and Times of Ernest Bevin by Alan Bullock, Vol 2, p. 20)

Individuals in Government are unequal either because of what they represent or of what they are.  Bevin was the most powerful Minister in the Cabinet because of what he represented combined with his personal qualities.  His most persistent enemy in the Cabinet was Churchill’s favourite, Lord Beaverbrook.  Beaverbrook imagined himself to be very powerful because of his newspapers and his influence with Churchill.  But Bevin seems to have ignored him as a minor irritant until provoked into swatting him.  And when Beaverbrook forced a showdown there wasn’t a moment’s doubt about who would have to leave the Cabinet.

Bevin organised the home front on the basis of what he called ‘voluntaryism’.   There were demands for labour conscription as a counterpart to military conscription, and some very good arguments were put up for it, but Bevin stuck by his voluntaryism.  He held that the working class was capable of doing voluntarily what was necessary to organise production for the war, and labour conscription would cause such resentment that it would prove to be economically inefficient.  And when it was found necessary to introduce a small amount of conscription later in the war, in the mines, he insisted that it should not be applied especially to miners, or even to workers.  Everybody of the appropriate age should be liable for labour conscription as for military conscription.

Bevin explained his approach in the Commons on November 27, 1940.  Shinwell (an oppositionist throughout the war like Bevan and Sydney Silverman), had criticised the voluntary system as follows:

‘Let us consider the relative position of both sides in this gigantic conflict.  Consider the enemy’s extensive preparations over a period of five or six years, their vast territory, the loot they gained at Dunkirk and elsewhere, their productive capacity, their organisation, their efficient methods, their control, and more particularly, their readiness to resort to compulsion…  The dice are heavily loaded against us’.  Skilled workers move around as if there were no war.  ‘The Government, in short are reluctant to use their powers.  There are too many appeals, too many polite requests… How can we divert labour to assist the war effort, unless a plan is ready?  … Surely, if the voluntary system in connection with training has failed, it ought to be replaced by a measure of compulsion…’


‘When I took office and these powers were granted—I did not expect them when I took office—I had to consider immediately how and in what way should the Department be handled in dealing with manpower.  Whatever may be my other weaknesses, I think I can claim to understand the working classes of this country.  I had to determine whether I would be a leader or a dictator.  I preferred, and still  prefer to be a leader, and if my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham Harbour (Mr Shinwell) had taken office, having regard to the speech he made this morning, I assume that he would have taken the other road, that of being a dictator.  That is a test which we must apply as to which is likely to produce the best results.

‘I suggest that there is no comparison between service in the Army and service in industry (Hon. Members: ‘Why?’) I will tell you why.  IN the Army you have a personnel trained as officers.  In industry you have never built up or established anything comparable int the nature of management or control.  Is it suggested that the officers of industry should be taken willy-nilly from the directors’ boards?  I suggest that the very incompetence which has been described today is more attributable to the tradition policy of directorates than to anything else.  Therefore, if you had to improvise an Army as you had to improvise the mobilisation of man-power in industry, with men of the same calibre in control without training, I suggest you would have a most unfortunate Army… Had we proceeded  to apply conscription of labour in the manner indicated, I suggest we should have made direct for defeat.’

When universal franchise first began to be discussed as a serious possibility in the late 18th century, there were people who considered themselves to be radical democrats who could not see how a franchise divorced from property could have a progressive political effect.  They could not see how people who laced a stake in society could be guided in their political behaviour by a stable interest: universal franchise would bring a mob to power, and because a mob can exercise power only destructively and momentarily it would result in the establishment dictatorship.

This is not simply a problem that was concocted by reactionaries in defence of privilege, though most of those who call themselves historical materialists nowadays treat it as if it were.  Bevin didn’t wear his historical materialism on his sleeve, but his political behaviour was firmly grounded in it.  At a TGWU delegate conference in August 1941 he commented as follows on the problem of representative democracy and the proletariat:

‘… a civilisation cannot survive if it rests upon a propertyless proletariat.  That is why I have urged  that if our country is not big enough to solve our problems by means of the land, like the peasant countries can, you have got to find a substitute, and the substitute is he vested interest of social security within your own state in which all shall participate.’  (quoted in Bullock, Vol 2, p. 77).

Speaking to Dockers’ representatives in February 1942:

‘You have all got your books of rules, you have all got your past customs and practices, and I propose to register them en bloc…; and when the time comes for us to restore them they can be put back without question.  I said in the House of Commons the other day that those things are property rights.  It has taken years to get them—I have spent a few years getting them myself…’ (Ibid, p. 208).

And so workers and capitalists, allies in the war, each gave up certain property rights for the duration of the war.  It was a conception of things which enabled Bevin to act purposefully in the working class interest while his socialist opponents phrasemongered.  And the assumption of an equality of rights for the two classes in every sphere, which he established as a real principle of government, was a very great improvement in the status of the working class.

A Creeping Fascist?

Aneurin Bevan opposed the Coalition, especially during the second half of the war.  He shared in the general conviction of the Labour left that the bourgeoisie were diabolically clever, and that Labour Ministers, especially from trade union backgrounds, were bound either to be fooled or to change sides.  He never suspected that Bevin had thought more deeply about working class affairs than himself, that he was a more imaginative politician than himself, or that he had a more original mind.

On May 20th, 1943, Bevan said in the Commons:

‘We must say to the Labour Members of the Government, ‘You must bring Government policy more into accord with our point of view, or the Government must be broken up’.  I am satisfied that a Labour Opposition would serve the interest of the nation far better than for Labour Ministers to be hostages.  We would get far more, and the people of this country would have their grievances more immediately redressed.  The political atmosphere would be much more healthy…’

Bevan began to see in Bevin’s voluntaryism the substance of the corporate state.  Bevin was more interested in making arrangements than in making laws.  While he secured the abolition of a number of anti-working class laws, (the household means test, for example), he saw arrangements made outside Parliament as being more relevant to the war effort than laws passed by Parliament.  He did not cease to be a trade unio negotiator when he became Minister of Labour, and he supervised the making of arrangements between unions and employers which considered to be very much in the long term interest of the unions as well as of immediate service to the war effort.  Emergency legislation was passed, giving him extensive formal powers, but he never governed by means of it.

The Bevan-Bevin dispute came to a head in April 1944 after Bevin had headed off a miners’ strike and the Emergency legislation for dealing with strikes was renewed.  Bevin had dealt with the substance of the matter outside Parliament before reporting on it to Parliament.  A Regulation was enacted giving him power to imprison for incitement to strike.  A number of Trotskyists were arrested.  And trade union representatives were largely exempted from the emergency legislation.

Bevan versus Bevin: April 28, 1944


‘I have protested, on more than one occasion, about the Government going behind the back of Parliament, and reaching understandings with outside bodies, and then presenting Parliament with a fait accompli.’  Bevan quoted the Daily Express to the effect that Bevin had gone to the TUC and ‘thought aloud’ about what should be done, and commented: ‘He did not consider it necessary to think aloud for us’.  He also suggested that Bevin was fixing press comment on his dealings.

‘I say that this Regulation is the enfranchisement of the corporate society and the disfranchisement of the individual. It gives status to the organised body, and destroys the status of the individual citizens. It elevates the irresponsible trade union official—and I use the word, “irresponsible,” in the constitutional sense of the term, because a trade union official is irresponsible; he is not subject to election, as we are; he is not exposed to pressure, as we are. George Bernard Shaw said, in “The Apple Cart,” that the person in this country who is in the most strongly entrenched position, next to the King, is the trade union official. Between 7,000,000 and 8,000,000 organised workers and trade union officials are protected under this Regulation, but 13,000,000 unorganised workers have no protection at all.’  (

‘I want to ask my trade union friends this question: If Parliament says to the citizen. “Here is your trade union, we are satisfied that it gives you all the protection you need, and if you try to settle grievances in any other way, we will send you to prison for five years,” is not Parliament, therefore, under an obligation to see that the facilities of union are made available to every member of a union? In other words, ought not Parliament to consider all the rules of the unions? The unions are self-governing bodies. Some of them, including the Minister’s own organisation, appoint their organisers from the top.

‘…  Does the Trades Union Congress want all the rules of every union in the country to be submitted to Parliament and be revised? Of course not; they dare not. Will they have secret ballots? Will they re-organise them all? That is what they should do if this law remains. We should insist on the re-consideration of all union rules before we dare hand over the citizens to the protection of these unions.’

McGovern (Glasgow, Shettleston), Independent Labour Party:

‘If a member of the Independent Labour Party dares even to support some justifiable action now in order to remedy a grievance, Communists do not call us “yellow” but “Fascist.” We are opposed to the war, but we have never engaged in any form of sabotage in industry, nor have we encouraged it.

‘I am completely opposed to the war … because I believe it is a purely capitalist war…When anybody says to me “Hitler would not allow you to say that; if you did, you would be in a concentration camp,” I know that they think that I should be in a concentration camp; otherwise they would not say it.’

In Berlin before the war he had been shown a flourishing factory operating under Dr. Ley’s corporate system with the same workforce as before the Nazis came to power, except for the removal of a few Communists: ‘Under the system of the Dr. Ley trade unions, the corporate State has grown, and the workers have developed into a corporation. We are developing along the same lines, without the brutality of the German system.

We are evolving from these sections, the T.U.C., the employers, and the Government, a corporate body, which is going to wield power, and Parliament is going to be subservient to it. That is the greatest danger about these Regulations, not the fact that somebody may get a year’s or six months’ imprisonment for advocating strikes, but the development and the evolution of the corporate State. The British ruling classes have always been very keen on putting across anything of a reactionary character in a completely different way from the way it has been put over on the Continent. The Germans failed completely because of the brutality they used. They put forward a system which would have extended throughout the world, but it was put forward in such a brutal and arrogant manner that it will be their own undoing. I see this not as an isolated case, but as a development of the corporate State, which is not for the good of the people of this country.’


‘I think that I have really no need as an individual to defend myself even before trade unionists…

 I believe that I still enjoy their confidence as much as ever I did, in spite of my present task, and, sooner or later, I will take steps to ascertain whether I do or not. I think that only fair, in view of the charges thrown at anyone holding the job I now hold. It is not an easy one. Making catch phrases is an easier job than directing 24,000,000 people in a war of this character. It was said in the opening speech that I worked up the Press, that I got hold of all the editors, and that I put everything in such a form that I could create the atmosphere for this Regulation. I do not know whether it is Parliamentary, Mr. Speaker, to say so, but that is a lie…’

Mr Bevan

‘In the first place it is quite un-Parliamentary, and in the second place I said no such thing. All I did was to quote Mr. Garvin from the “Sunday Express” to the effect that the atmosphere had been prepared for the Regulation…’


‘I am open to withdraw any word that is un-Parliamentary, but unless I am told by Mr. Speaker to withdraw I want it to go on the record that the whole conception was a lie.

Mr. Speaker

‘… I fear that the word used was not quite a Parliamentary expression. “It is not a fact” would be better.


‘I withdraw the word…  During the three weeks prior to that speech to which reference has been made we had been living on an industrial volcano. We made no speech in public at all, in the hope and in the belief that we could ride the industrial storm, as we had ridden so many during this war. On that week-end, the situation had reached a point where we were in danger of stoppages occurring—stoppages resulting from strikes—which would have stopped the production of nearly 3,000,000 people in this country in gas, shipbuilding, engineering and coal…

‘It happened that I was invited to a lunch. What for? It was a conciliation board, both sides of which had entered into an agreement for post-war; and what was the agreement they were celebrating? To give a guaranteed week in the civil engineering trade, post-war, and to provide for the payment of men for “wet time”…By this ridiculed machinery of conciliation, which I am proud to have played my part in developing in this country—I did not originate it, it was long before my time, but I tried to perfect it—they had arrived at that result, and I am glad of it. I went to that lunch. Instead of the Press being on my side, what did they do? They took care to take a photograph of me with a wine glass in front of me. It was not even mine, and it only had water in it. If my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale had been there, he would have made a speech of protest…They took the photograph, and as I was trying to address the working class on their misbehaviour, the Press—which is all in my favour, we are now told, published that photograph, in order to produce disrepute…

‘In 1940, when the country did not look quite as safe as it does now, I called every executive of every trade union in this country into conference, to meet me in the Central Hall. I asked them at that meeting, in the same way as I have asked them now—and when the first Regulation was made there was no protest from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale against consulting the T.U.C.; things were more dangerous then, and silence reigned over a great part of the country that is now vociferous—if they would forgo strikes, and if, in substitution for the strike, they would accept arbitration for the duration of the war. They agreed…  I do not believe that the working classes of this country have lost by that decision.

‘Every member that sits on my executive, and there are 32 of them, comes straight from the workshop. No official in my union has a vote on a single committee…. It is true that they are appointed as officials; and have they not a right to be? They are employees, and I believe in the employees being in the same position as the Civil Service, and the government of the union being in the hands of the rank and file, through the elected committee. That is what we have always done. These men were not officials, but men from the workshops, the factories, and the fields.

Mr. Silverman

‘The right hon. Gentleman has not prosecuted anyone who went on strike.

Mr. Bevin

‘I have been careful about prosecution…  Is it now to be held against me that I have not gone round using the big stick and prosecuting people? What do my hon. Friends want? I have tried to administer this law with common sense, and a knowledge of the working class…

Bevin was at his ease in the use of power, and since he had never been simply a trade union organiser, but had over a long period thought realistically about possible state policy, he had no difficulty in making the transition from being head of trade union to being head of a Department of State.

The Corporate State

Aneurin Bevan’s vicious attacks on Bevin during the war were based on the assumption that Bevin must necessarily sell out. The wisdom of the ideological left says Labour governments are likely to sell out and that Labour politicians in coalition governments inevitably sell out. The business of the left, then, is to expose the sell out and to prevent itself from selling out by keeping itself in opposition.

This was the framework of assumptions in which Bevan accused Bevin of laying the basis of fascism, of the corporate state in Britain in 1944.

The fact that in this particular instance their assumption proved to be unfounded is regarded as an inexplicable accident which does not invalidate the general assumption. The fact that Bevin did not live up to Bevan’s expectations is an embarrassing but insignificant detail. Bevin’s failure to sell out was some kind of Machiavellian trick which it is safer not to think about too much.

Foot, in his biography of Bevan, glosses over the episode of the corporate state.  He writes that ‘Bevan delivered one of the most devastating speeches of his life.’ (Vol. 1, p 451).  But he chooses to say nothing about the corporate state allegation.  It is lost in a long quote from Bevan’s speech, and one is left to understand that it meant nothing in particular.  But it meant something.  If it was seriously intended it meant, in April 1944, that the war wasn’t worth fighting because fascism was being built at home; that, unless Bevin was overthrown, the issue between Britain and Germany was merely one of which fascist state should be dominant in Western Europe.  And if it was not seriously intended, it branded the speaker as a man whose words are valueless.

Bevin was accustomed to exercising power in the class struggle, and to making particular deals on the basis of power relationships.  He had not, since he first began to organise trade unions, had any experience of activity in which he did not represent some degree of actual power.  The power which he represented had increased steadily over thirty years.  He was at his ease in the user of power, and since he had never been simply a trade union organiser, but had over a long period thought realistically about possible state policy, he had no difficulty in making the transition from being head of trade union to being head of a Department of State.  Because he used power effectively, and had an aptitude for devising ways and means, power gravitated towards his Department until became the most powerful in the government,  He entered the government before he entered Parliament, and while he picked up enough crude Parliamentary procedure to be able to operate in Parliament as effectively as he had operated in the TUC, he had no interest in elaborate Parliamentary games.

Bevan, on the other hand, was accustomed to playing eh class struggle as a Parliamentary game.  He had become skilled at making an impression on Parliament even though he exercised no power.  All the power lay on the other side.  Bevan had only his eloquence and his nimbleness in using Parliamentary procedure.  He succeeded, as a powerless orator, in cutting a dash in Parliament, and was frequently complimented on his Parliamentary abilities by his class enemies.  He also went down well with the press.  Furthermore, he was a lover of the good life.  He was in many ways a displaced person, and he was acutely aware of temptations to which Bevin was simply immune.

The wartime coalition was essentially Churchill and Bevin. If Attlee or Morrison had been taken away from it nothing much would have changed.  but it is impossible to say how it would have developed if Bevin had been taken away from it. Bevan’s instincts about most of his parliamentary Labour Party colleagues where probably sound enough. They were, like himself, accustomed to failure and unaccustomed to power, and they were inclined to phrasemonger rather than to think.

Once the immediate emergency of 1940-41 was over , Bevan saw only the dangers of the coalition and the prospects of another 1918. Bevin, on the other hand, saw the wartime coalition as an opportunity. He knew that Labour would do well out of the coalition this time. His confidence caused all of Bevan’s fears to concentrate on him. And he responded by regarding Bevan as a historical intellectual who was unable to cope with the world.

Bevan’s ‘corporate state’  allegation against Bevin was a serious political opinion, and so far as Bevan was capable of holding a serious political opinion. It was seriously intended at the moment when it was made, but was easily dropped later. Bevan was used to flipping about between ideas. He did not expect his ideas to have any long term viability. But Foot made himself a falsifier of history by his treatment of the episode. (And Foot does not even mention the more considered support given to the allegation by Bevan’s colleagues McGovern—McGovern’s name does not even appear in the book—and Maxton.)

‘Corporate society’ was a fascist idea. In actual practice what it involved was the making of arrangements, under the supervision of dictatorial states, between emasculated trade unions and employers’ organisations.  To apply it to arrangements made between independent and powerful trade unions and employers’ organisations is to trivialise the idea of fascism, and to obscure the difference between it and representative democracy.  (Britain was, even in wartime, a representative democracy. The emergency legislation did not abrogate democracy. And if it was suspected that the government intended to continue the emergency measures after the war in an effort to restrict democracy, the way to prevent such a thing being done was not to denounce it at the moment when it was still generally regarded as having wartime validity. In April 1944 the Allies had not yet landed in France and the Germans were still in Russia. )

Bevin had given ample proof by his conduct of affairs that he was not constructing a corporate state, and had no intention of doing so. And it must be said that he knew what the corporate state was much better than Bevan did. He took international trade union connexions very seriously, and he experienced the establishment of fascism in Austria and Germany as the suppression of a movement of which he was part in a much more concrete way than the ideological left.

On July 22nd, 1942, he spoke in parliament about some of the difficulties involved in establishing industries from scratch in areas where none had previously existed, and where various social amenities required by industry did not exist. From Dunkirk until 1942 the prospect of winning the war seemed remote. Immediate defeat was a constant possibility. The construction of new industries in such an atmosphere provided the ideal opportunity for planting some seeds of the corporate state with the blessing of most of the Labour left. Bevin was very careful not to plant any. Here is one of the seeds he refused to plant:

‘We felt as a government that one of the first things we had to do was to assume greater responsibility for the welfare of the workers, not merely inside but outside the factory. We did, however, lay down a principle which has worked extremely well. I emphasised to employers and trade unions at the time the need to remember that the worker inside the factory is a different person from the worker outside the factory; that we must not have a kind of industrial feudalism growing up in war, under which firms would take the responsibility of looking after their people even when they left the factories. A person will accept discipline inside the factory, but immediately he is outside the door he becomes a free citizen.’   (July 22nd, 1942) 

Bevan forced a division over regulation IAA and gained 23 votes against the corporate state. These included the Scottish ILP group which opposed the war (Maxton, McGovern, Kirkwood, Stephen etc), Gallacher of the CPGB , D. N. Pritt, a fellow traveller of the CP, and his own little group (including George Strauss, Tom Driberg and Sydney Silverman). The ‘corporate state’ was approved by a massive Parliamentary majority.

Nor did Bevan’s warnings rouse the country to the danger of fascism from within. The affair made a very bad impression on all sides. The trade unions demanded his expulsion from the party. The national executive proposed a compromise,  requiring him to sign an undertaking to abide by the Standing Orders of the Parliamentary Party.

‘Bevan himself, at packed meetings in his constituency, said that if he were expelled he would still fight to retain the Ebbw Vale seat for Socialism. He challenged Bevin to hold a ballot vote in the unions on the issue of the Regulation itself, and declared that the real quarrel went much deeper; it touched the whole question of the post war aspirations of Socialism.  ‘Had the Labour leaders fought the Germans as hard as they fought me, he added, the war would have been over long ago.’ (Foot. p. 458). 

To sign or not to sign: it was a wretched choice. He believed that the principles he had initiated about the rights of MPs against the party meeting went to the roots of parliamentary government…   Of course Bevan was never opposed to the institution of the party… but who was to bestow the party label? Was it to be done by a central caucus or by the management committees which selected candidates? If the answer was the first there was a real danger of creeping totalitarianism; if the second, democratic vigour could be recaptured. ‘Either we restore the healthy vigour of Parliament with independence, discussion and criticism, he wrote, or we submit to corporate rule of big business and collaborationist Labour leaders…  It is because I believe that there are elements in the party who wish to continue association with the Tories when the war is over that I refuse to allow myself to be manoeuvred out of the party and thus leave them with a clear field in which to accomplish the ruin of the Labour movement. (Foot. p. 460-61)

So Bevan signed, remained in the party, and became a Minister the following year. But it cannot be said but his antics over the corporate state contributed in any way to the massive Labour victory the following year, or prevented the collaborationist Labour leaders from collaborating after the war, or caused Ernest Bevin to do anything other than what Bevin intended to do.

The immediate outcome of the incident from Bevin’s point of view was to put down the Bevanite nuisance. It marked a decline rather than an upsurge in Bevanite capacity to harass. Bevan overreached himself, blustered a bit to save face, and came to heel.

During the year prior to this Bevan and his colleagues had been developing into something resembling an opposition, and their support in the party was at its greatest. Bevin declared that if they won the party to their policy, and pulled out of the Coalition, he intended to remain in the government representing the trade unions, and doing what they put him there to do. But it didn’t come to that. Bevan miscalculated his offensive—and Bevanism went up in smoke and was never heard of again until Bevin was dead. The ‘most devastating speech’ only devastated himself.

The outlook implicit and sometimes explicit in the opposition to Bevin was doctrinaire individualistic Liberalism of the kind that is found on the fringe of 19th century Liberalism, or in the Hayek – von Mises ideology that was produced in the 30s and that gained a base in the Tory party in 1974. To accord any special status to organised bodies between the individual citizen and the state was tantamount to fascism: so said Bevan in a speech already quoted. Sidney Silverman was also vehemently opposed to according special rights to trade unions. Neil Mclean (Glasgow : Govan) declared that Bevin’s method of bringing in legislation, after having previously insured by consultation with the TUC that it would be effective, was ‘the beginning of fascism in this country’. G. Buchanan (Glasgow: Gorbals) declared fastidiously that Bevin ‘does not know parliamentary work’. (It is astonishing to observe how thoroughly these socialist radicals of the 1918 period had adapted to parliamentary ways, and how disapprovingly they regarded Bevin as a crude intruder from the outside world.)

A stark contrast with the finicky Parliamentarism of the Bevanites of April 1944 is made by a speech in support of Bevin delivered by J. E. Glenville (Consett) who had left the Durham coalfields a few months earlier to enter Parliament. This was his first speech in Parliament, and he made it clear that he would not have spoken at all if he had not been provoked beyond endurance by the Bevanite nonsense. He attacked Bevan for wanting to put down the trade union movement, and went on:

‘Why should we be opposed to the Ministry of Labour and the Government arranging a satisfactory settlement in an attempt to solve these difficulties? Why should we be offended if the T.U.C. is consulted so that an agreement can be arrived at which will be satisfactory; because this measure, instead of weakening, will certainly strengthen the trade unions…

‘The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale magnified in high falutin’ language the implications of this measure, but they exist purely in his imagination. This is a wartime measure and it finishes at the end of hostilities. If it is necessary that this House should collect the boys and conscript them to go and risk their lives, it is necessary to exercise severe control over the disrupters, who are preventing the workers carrying on necessary jobs. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale asked what conditions our lads are coming back to. The lads will never come back, unless we see that they get the stuff.

I have been a life-long Socialist… I led pickets in the 1926 strike and I had seven summonses served on me in one day. I have never done any rhetorical flourishing…My record as a local trade union leader in Durham will bear examination… The record of the Minister of Labour will bear examination… Incidentally, when I heard the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale … appealing on behalf of 13 million poor non-unionists… I wondered what the people in South Wales, the miners who sent him here, would think about it. The poor non-unionists’ position is a perfectly simple one—join the unions.’

Foot comments as follows on Bevin’s reply to Bevan: ‘A speech from Ernest Bevin on a major occasion had all the horrific fascination of a public execution. If the mind was left immune, eyes and ears and emotions were riveted. Yet on this day he fumbled the axe. He called Bevan a liar and had to withdraw. He spoke vaguely on the industrial volcano… etc’ (p. 455)

Foot’s literary style is a sort of ersatz Hazlitt— a mimicry of Hazlitt— Hazlitt reduced to cliches. Hazlitt was a lightweight writer, but his writing has that deftness of touch which is made possible only by some actual thought. What Foot writes is entirely devoid of thought content. The act of writing is in his case entirely disconnected from the act of thinking. The only ideas which he is capable of writing are ideas which don’t need to be thought— which cannot be thought about —which can only be repeated: Fleet Street ideas; Althusserian ideas.

What he says of Bevin’s speeches is a Fleet Street notion, and is wildly inaccurate. Bevin’s public executions were few and far between. Exaggerated invective against individuals , indulged in on the slightest excuse, was part and parcel of Bevan’s behaviour. He scattered his daggers like confetti, and people quickly became immune to them. But Bevin used the dagger very sparingly indeed. He only engaged in public disputes when they were unavoidable.

When he felt obliged to engage in public disputes— against Lansbury and against Bevan, for example —it was always thought disputing against rhetoric. Foot says that he battered the senses and left the mind immune. In fact it was the mind that succumbed. What was unusual about Bevin was that he reached people through the intellect when their senses and emotions were predisposed against him. (Perhaps people who are accustomed to shouting, to using rhetorical devices, and to appealing to the emotions, feel when they are subjected to reasoned arguments , softly spoken, without rhetoric, that their whole being is being battered in an intolerable way. What is certain is that in a mere shouting match Bevin would have got nowhere against Foot.)

The opening of Bevin’s reply to Bevan and McGovern has already been quoted.  Here is an extract from the conclusion:

‘I have been a trade union official, but I did not know whether I had really been one or not when I listened to the description. This is a protection for the ordinary member in the branch. …

‘Somebody said that this was turning the trade union branch into a masonic lodge. I have never been in a masonic lodge, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) is a member of the Catholic faith, I do not know how he knows what it is like…

‘I regard the trade union branch jealously as a place of assembly, where no one but those entitled to attend can be present. Whatever is said in that branch is as sacrosanct to me as what a man says in his own home and I am against detectives, police or anybody having the right to go into a branch and use anything that is said, however wise or however foolish, in a police court as evidence against a man. That is where I stand, and in that I try to protect them. I also take the view that what happens in the branch is the property of the union, and that the executive is responsible for discipline in its members and for what occurs in the branch. But if a man goes outside and does something then, while he is outside, he is not a member of the branch. You cannot have this privilege and prerogative of protection in the open street, or in the open air, which you give to persons in their own club by law. Therefore, I have tried to protect everything the trades unions have regarded as sacrosanct right from the Act of 1875 until now and not to minimise it by anything in this Regulation.

‘I have created no new privilege… I do not know why it has been magnified into the view that I am doing something extraordinary for the trade union official.

‘I am not going to elaborate this too much, but I have fought more unofficial strikes than any other man in this country and won, and I have got the largest union in the world to-day, one of the most effective and one of the most efficient, whatever may be said. I know that some hon. Members would rather that the working-class went to hell through chaos, than that they won a victory by organisation. The I.L.P. is a grand example of that, one of the most wonderful organisations in this country brought to nothing by that philosophy…

‘Let those who would weaken the war effort by the defence of a few instigators, go their way, but let those who are proud of the fact that we have not been left in this country like the working-class of poor Austria, to fight alone and go down,  stand together. When Fascism and Naziism had to be really faced in England—and this is a justification of the National Government—we, at least, did not pick one class to face it as they did in poor Austria; we have stood as a nation against the vile thing. Let us stand united until it is defeated.’

United Fronts

Bevin had opposed the kind of united front advocated by Bevan and Cripps during the thirties. He achieved a quite different sort of united front. Bevan and Cripps eventually got themselves expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for the way they went about getting a united front with the CPGB. They were in the wilderness when Bevin achieved his national united front with the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

Bevan looked upon a united front with the CP as something which would weaken the Labour Party and split the working class. Since the CP had failed to split the working class, there was no need to unite with it in order to unite the working class. To form a united front with it would be to credit it with having split the working class, and recognise it as being an immensely more influential force but it was: and that would facilitate the splitting of the working class. (And what would have happened in 1939, if there had been a united front, and the CP had spread tentacles throughout the Labour Party?)

In countries where the working class was split, the united front policy did not prevent the rise of fascism (with the partial exception of France). The united front was scarcely ever more than a manoeuvre in a war between Social Democracy and Communism. The kind of united front that might have been effective in preventing the rise of fascism would also have called into question the justification of the split brought about by the Comintern in the years after 1918 .

The Comintern united front policy was designed more to bring about a civil war between the classes than to prevent the rise of fascism. But since fascism usually had a strong base in the working class wherever it was powerful, there is no good reason to suppose but the agreement between the Comintern and the Second International would have brought about an uncomplicated class war situation.

What would put fascism out of the running would be some sort of national united front against it, whether formal or de facto. That is what was achieved by the Labour movement in Britain under Bevin’s leadership at first in a complicated and tentative de facto away, and later in the clearest possible political form.

Such things don’t simply happen. They are brought about by a high degree of political understanding and practical political ability. If the Labour movement had been chiefly influenced by Lansbury’s kind of radicalism, or by Bevan’s, it is probable that something quite different would have happened, something much less advantageous to working class development .

In any case, the fact is that Bevan’s policies were consistently defeated by Bevin, and the situation in which Bevan became a very effective Minister was brought about by Bevinite policies .

Bevan held a sort of betwixt and between position on the war, fluctuating between the government and the Scottish ILP opposition to it. On August 24 , 1939, a bill conferring emergency powers on the Chamberlain government was passed. It was generally understood as authorising it to declare war. It was opposed by Lansbury, Maxton, McGovern, Stephen, and by Gallacher of the CPGB. Shinwell and Silverman seem to have abstained. Bevan voted with Chamberlain.

On September 3, 1939, Lansbury and McGovern opposed the declaration of war. McGovern:

‘…there are two things that are outstanding at this moment. One is that, after all the false propaganda … that if you were to stand up to Hitler it meant peace, standing up to Hitler has ensured war, and believing that… we have stated all along that as threats would end in war, we would not indulge in idle threats.

‘The other thing in my estimation which has driven mankind along the path of war has been the defection of Russia…

‘I look for a world of peace wherein Hitlerism can be eliminated, but the people who can pull Hitler down are the people in Germany…  I cannot support this country in this catastrophe. I do not regard it as being idealistic. I do not regard it as being for freedom, justice and human rights… I regard it on both sides … as a hard, soulless, grinding materialist struggle for human gain.’

On May 13, 1940, a motion welcoming the formation of the Coalition government was opposed by Maxton:

‘because it conflicts with every political belief that I have ever held’.  He ridiculed the ‘belief that by changing a few men round about, something new and strange may happen… The years from 1918 to 1939, … the wasted years, were, in my view largely due to the fact that the then existent parties coalesced and merged their principles, and then, at the conclusion of hostilities, there were left all sorts of individual rancours sapping all party principles, and there was no Government in this country that could face the creation of a new Europe…  It does not require any great courage to attack the late Prime Minister. He was in an awkward spot and the jackals gathered around. It was their night to howl, and they howled, and now we have a new Government—a Government of all the talents—

‘The function of a political working-class movement is to mobilise that anti-war opinion throughout the world and make it effective in the affairs of humanity. [Interruption.] I could make, if I were sitting there, all these cheap, irrelevant interruptions as well as anybody else, and I regret to say that I have frequently done it, but the fact remains that shouting about Hitler will not kill a single German.’

Bevan must have agreed with Maxton about the dangers inherent in a Coalition, but he abstained on the vote, along with Shinwell and Silverman.

On May 21, 1940 Maxton requested that his group should be accorded the status of official Opposition.  The Speaker ruled against recognising any Opposition.  Maxton replied:

‘If as you say, Mr. Speaker, the Opposition is to be abolished, then we are on the Reichstag level at once.’

He was supported by Gallacher:

‘I ask whether it is not the case that there is in this House at the present time an Opposition to this Government and to the policy of this Government? If that Opposition is to be allowed to grow in order that it may have an opportunity to change this Government and to replace it by a Government which will extricate the people from the tragedy now in front of them, is it not the case that that Opposition must be recognised?’

Bevan supported the Speaker’s ruling:

‘Would it not be a real disaster if, at this time, there was any attempt to define a formal Opposition in this House? Let the Opposition disclose itself in the course of the conduct of the proceedings in this House, before you, Mr. Speaker, are asked to define that Opposition. It would be a disaster … if three or four people were defined now as the Opposition, when real opposition to the Government might in the course of the next few months disclose itself?’  (

What this amounts to is that Bevan, who did not feel he could oppose the coalition at that juncture, did not want the position of Leader of the Opposition to be taken up by Maxton because he anticipated that it was a position that he would be able to fill before very long. But the opposition developed by Bevan in later years was little more than disorientated dithering. The 23 votes which he got together in 1944 included the opposition which he opposed in 1940. Bevanism lacked the principled coherence of the ILP position and was incapable of development. In 1943, when he was apparently at loggerheads with the government, Bevan went on a secret mission to Dublin to try to get bases from De Valera.

Full Employment

Bevin made his first appearance in Parliament on June 27, 1940, dealing with affairs of state in question time.  On July 3 he made his maiden speech, introducing a Bill to increase unemployment  benefit and extend the National Insurance system.  He put on no maidenly affectations.  He made no reference whatever to the fact that it was his maiden speech, and was even oblivious of the fact that the was thereby doing something original.  He did not pretend to be anything other than an experienced courtesan ho had acquired a new salon.

Silverman tried to make a patronising speech, telling his grandmother ow to suck eggs.  Gallacher followed with an opposition speech:

‘I did not have the opportunity of hearing the Minister make his maiden speech, because I was an interested listener at a meeting in another part of the building which was discussing the question of the removal of the men of Munich…  There was a time many years ago when I liked to hear the minister of Labour but that is quite long time ago…The Minister of Labour is now giving us an idea of the new world.  He says we will have mass unemployment…’

Bevin, of course, said no such thing.  Gallacher’s reasoning seems to have been that, since Bevin was extending the National Insurance system to include categories of white-collar workers previously excluded from it, he was preparing for mass unemployment.

On October 13, 1944 Bevin introduced a Bill to increase unemployment benefit by 20%, and was attacked by McGovern, Shinwell etc. as if he were repeating eh cut in benefits enacted by Snowdon.  He replied as follows:

‘I want to state a principle. I happen to be a Socialist, and I am still a Socialist, in spite of the chains that join me to the Coalition, and in spite of the same chains that the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) would probably have riveted on himself with great alacrity if the right post had been found. As a Socialist I am never going to admit the principle that insurance is the right way in total to deal with unemployment…

‘I take one view, having gone into this insurance system…There is a great difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals and me. He was trained in what is called the Little Bethel of Socialism, the I.L.P. I got my economic basis when I was young, with the S.D.F. I was like my hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague); we both kept right on the straight and narrow path. I take the view, having got into this insurance, that it was, after all, not a Socialist measure. It was a Liberal measure… and it was devised at the time to avoid the actual steps that ought to have been taken to deal with unemployment. … I am being asked to forsake all my Socialist principles and come down to the I.L.P. philosophy that the dole is the solution for unemployment, and I am not going to do it.’

Bevin had by this time already taken steps to make the maintenance of full employment in the post-war period the first priority which all parties would have to subscribe to, and had proposed measures for achieving it.  The Beveridge Report, produced under his auspices, was a detailed development of an approach which he had had in mind since about 1930, and on Une 21, 1944 he introduced a White Paper on employment policy based on the Beveridge Report.  The object of the White Paper was the maintenance of a ‘high and stable level of employment without sacrificing the essential liberties of a free society’.  ( 


‘We have had many marches of the unemployed.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

‘And good marches, too.

Mr. Bevin

‘The hon. Member may have enjoyed them but the unemployed have not…

‘I had an opportunity of visiting one of our ports and seeing the men, of the 5th Division… going aboard ship…They were going off to face this terrific battle…The one question they put to me … was, “Ernie, when we have done this job for you, are we going back to the dole?”

Mr. Pickthorn (Cambridge University)

‘For you?

Mr. Bevin

‘Yes, it was put to me in that way, because they knew me personally… Both the Prime Minister and I answered, “No, you are not.” That answer of “No” … I hope, will be supported by the House… There is an obligation on all of us to bend our abilities and our energies to finding the right solution, and not to dissipate energy merely in destructive criticism.

‘The Government have come forward not only with a statement of their objective, but with an outline of the practical measures for attaining it…. I am convinced that although of course Governments may change … any party which faces the people of this country at a General Election and refuses to accept the principle of full employment, will not be returned to this House…

‘The Government do not claim that the White Paper is the final solution of this problem. The proposals do not raise the question, for instance, of whether industry will, for ever, be privately or publicly owned. Some say that all benefits of enterprise arise from private industry, and some say they arise from public ownership. Well, I have seen a bit of both. I have seen enterprise absent from public ownership and I have seen enterprise completely absent from private ownership. Therefore, the question of how you can give effect to decisions as to who will own industry, is not prejudiced by this White Paper. The proposals of the White Paper will operate, whatever the ownership of industry may be. There are those who have gone “cock-a-hoop” in certain parts of the Press, because they think that we who represent the Labour Party in the Coalition Government… have abandoned our principle concerning what we think the right ownership for industry ought to be. What we have tried to do, is to devise a plan which, however you may decide the ownership of industry by adjustments which may have to be made, seeks to attain its objective.

‘The main purpose of the White Paper… is to declare war on unemployment, and to indicate how our resources should be harnessed for that purpose.  Our monetary system, our commercial agreements, our industrial practices, indeed, the whole of our national economy, will have applied to them the acid test—Do they produce employment or unemployment? Under the system which governed our economic life from the industrial revolution onwards, unemployment and deflation were regarded, in the main, as automatic correctives for the lack of equilibrium in our financial and economic position. Incidentally, it was just 100 years ago, after the passing of the Corn Law Act and the Bank Act, that that automatic control was introduced. This meant that industry and human beings had to adapt themselves to the working of the financial system, instead of the system being adapted to the needs of the individual. …

‘ Revisions of rates of wages or production had to be made from time to time, very suddenly, and as a result the two sides in industry were set in conflict. Strikes and lockouts followed, there was lowered production and the national income was cut down still further. We had, moreover, to buttress the old system with our social services… and directly this was done, the automatic adjustments which were the basis of the old system could not be made in the way intended under the doctrines of laissez-faire. The stronger the trade unions became the more the resistance to change in money wages. With the buttress of the social services, the weapon of starvation and bankruptcy did not operate at all quickly enough to make the old system work, and it was doomed from the day when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) introduced his social services into this House.

‘It is worthwhile briefly to call attention to what had to be done between the two wars, …From 1922 to 1939 we lost 250,000,000 days of production, through strikes and lock-outs alone. Over 60 per cent. of those disputes arose from the need for adjustments due either to deflation or Gold Standard adjustment, and were outside the control of industry. Therefore, you set two parties to settle a dispute that someone else had created but which they had no power to settle…

‘I may be forgiven for referring to the General Strike, for which I have never apologised. What happened? In 1921 there was an adjustment of 40 per cent. Many of us trade union leaders had to spend three solid years in making new agreements and, when we had made them, within a year we were thrown out by 12½ per cent. No industrialist in this House will get up and say that you can adjust industrial efficiency to make up 12½ per cent. in one year. … And how was it proposed to deal with it? It was sought to take 2s. 6d. a ton off coal, which meant so much off steel, and so much off other things, all the way up through industry. And so, the people who suffered were one class of the community. I make the assertion, and this is a basic principle of this White Paper, that if either exchange or financial adjustments have to be made, they must be made over the community as a whole, … And … if this House had understood it, we should never have had the General Strike.

‘What happened? With all that loss of 250,000,000 days, wages went down, wages went up, went down again and went up again. What was the net result at the end? The change in money wages over the whole field of sheltered and unsheltered industries, which I admit did not suffer equally…was only five points. In the 17 years from 1922 to 1939, we had all these fights and struggles going on throughout the country, with all the consequent difficulties, and the adjustment was five points. I suggest that the House ought to find some better remedy than that. There will be strikes, there will be disputes, but they ought not to be on this issue, which those concerned cannot settle of themselves. In that same period of 17 years, we had an average of 1,700,000 unemployed, and we paid out a total of £1,260,000,000 in unemployment benefit and assistance. That payment helped to keep the consuming market going and, to that extent, probably prevented unemployment from being worse, but we had not a single pennyworth of production for all that expenditure. I do not think that that was good for the country…

‘We shall be facing a very difficult situation at the end of this war, and apart from all sentiment that one might impart into this proposal, we cannot afford loss of production this time. It would be unsound economically. We shall have to carry the aged on the new pension scheme—good luck to them. We are raising the school-leaving age in order that our children may have a better chance in life. That is right, but if we are to do this, then we must employ every able-bodied man to the full and under decent conditions during the best productive part of his life.

‘Therefore, we are dealing with the situation through the education proposals, the health proposals, the policy of this White Paper and the housing policy, and I want the House to view it as a concerted attack, and not as being dealt with in isolation by this White Paper alone. The coming of the State into the arena, full-blooded, as is now proposed, must mean the writing of a new code of conduct for industry, a new set of rules in our economic life… I ask the House whether a common objective, nationally, cannot be adopted to carry us, not only through the transition period, but into a better economic state after the war.

Mr. Gallacher

‘They do not like that over there.

Mr. Bevin

‘I am not without hope.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

‘Does the right hon. Gentleman mean a continuous Coalition?

Mr. Bevin

‘No, not even if my hon. Friend were a member of it…

‘In future the Government’s policy will be to meet the onset of any depression at an early stage by expanding and riot contracting capital expenditure, and by raising consumption expenditure and not reducing it, by such means and devices as may be found most effective. Paragraph 62 declares that this is a policy directed to the deliberate ironing-out of the slump and the boom, but that it will involve more economic control by the State than has hitherto been experienced. There are three elements to be considered …; there is capital expenditure, both private and public; there is consumption expenditure…; and there is the foreign balance. In the case of private investment, one has to admit that this covers the greater part of the field at the present moment, because it is the most subject to fluctuations and is, admittedly, the most difficult to control. Various devices, such as variations of interest rates and that kind of thing, have some effect, but we cannot rely on that, because the policy of the Government is to maintain our policy of cheap money. … It is impossible to see very far ahead, but,… as at present advised, cheap money is our policy.

Mr. MacLaren (Burslem)

‘It will not stop a slump.

Mr. Bevin

‘Nothing, by itself, will stop a slump. It is necessary to have a combination of activities to stop slumps. Private enterprise will be encouraged to follow the Government’s line in timing investment. …

‘The idea is that … plans will be coordinated and that a target will be set each year …. This is not to be regarded as a public works policy, as understood in the old sense. … this is intended to include the whole range of public activity, using developments of all kinds—just as, when there is a slowdown in industry, every wise management turns on the maintenance for the next turn of the wheel and improves the productive capacity of its undertaking. This sort of thing is being translated into this public works policy—to turn on national capital at the right moment to improve our country, and improve our health and efficiency for future developments. It is in that sense that we should use the Public Works Fund, and we want to adjust it in order to meet those ebbs and flows which are, to a very large extent, outside our control.

Mr. MacLaren


Mr. Bevin

‘The ebbs and flows of overseas trade, harvests and such things are very largely outside Governmental control. We cannot control the harvest failure in the Argentine, or something of that kind….

‘The second line of defence is consumption expenditure. If we are not successful in preventing a decline in capital investment, purchasing power for consumers goods will inevitably decline…’

Bevin then went on to discuss purchasing power, labour mobility, regional development as against transfer of labour, the modification of the concept of profit in the new circumstances, and ways of establishing a ‘reasonably stable international price level’.  He was especially concerned to ensure that expenditure was geared to production:


‘The fundamental issue is simple. It is little use injecting purchasing power to keep up the volume of employment if the additional money all goes in profit. It is equally useless if it all goes in wages and you get no production for it. If the effect of making more money available, for example, for housing, is simply to put up the price of houses and not to get more houses and more workers employed, the Government’s policy will fail. The adjustment of wage rates must go on through the ordinary processes, but the general level ought to be related to productivity. I do not object to that principle. If we had had through the nineteenth century a rise of wages comparable to the productivity of the working people, the standard of living in this country would have been about double. …

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

‘…. What instrument does the right hon. Gentleman intend to use to raise wages to the index of production?

Mr. Bevin

‘We have to discuss it with the parties and work out the methods, …I have not worked out the precise methods, but I have asked my trade union friends, industry and everybody to realise that this is an essential thing that must be done. If it is to be done, we have to alter the old catch-as-catch-can methods … No one has had more throws in the wrestling system with wages than I have had, but the catch-as-catch-can method was rot always on one side. I would like to see that old system in wages go. We want to relate wages to efficient production.

During the three-day debate on the White Paper a backwoods Tory-Labour left united front emerged as an ineffectual opposition to it.  The main body of Labour opinion enthusiastically supported the White Paper and the main body of Tory opinion found it impossible to oppose it— some for opportunistic reasons, and others because they had become convinced that a reversion to laissez-faire would not be possible in the post-war period.

The White Paper was supported on principle by Quintin Hogg (now Lord Hailsham), representing the Reform Toryism that reached its full development in the Macmillan governments of the late fifties and early sixties.  It was also given considered support by the one Ulster Unionist who spoke in the debate (June 22):

Sir Hugh O’Neill (Antrim)

‘I must congratulate the Government upon the White Paper which they have produced. … It approaches the problem on a scale never attempted before. Certainly it aims high, in its attempt to solve the age-old riddle of recurring booms and slumps and to put in their place, as far as possible, a state of continuing good employment. To effect this, it proposes a number of measures of a novel character, such as control of private capital, regulation of public expenditure and works, and the variation of the rates of premium for social insurance in relation to the state of trade. All these involve a measure of Government control of industry, to which this country has never before been subject. The British people do not like Government control, and that may be the snag on which this scheme will founder, but it seems to me obvious that booms and slumps cannot be prevented by allowing the completely free play of economic trends, as in the past. We must recognise that, if stability is to be obtained, there must be some control. It is to a large extent a choice between two evils….

‘I feel that this Debate is the precursor of an attempt to inaugurate in this country a scheme for maintaining employment in the years to come of a character which has never before been attempted by any other Government in the world. All one can do is to wish it success…

O’Neill also dealt with the question of foreign markets in a post-imperialist framework:

‘In facing this problem we have to recognise that many of our old markets are probably permanently lost; some of those, for instance, in the Dominions and India. Take, for example, Australia, … Australia is becoming a manufacturing country. We used to look upon Australia as mainly a primary-producing Dominion. Now, owing to the war, they are manufacturing more and more. … and after the war Australia obviously will not be the market for our manufactured goods that she has been in the past. The same observation applies to India…’

Thus did Ulster Unionism take in its stride the policy of ending laissez-faire and the anticipated fact of the end of Empire.  But who would ever guess from what has been said about eh Ulster Unionist record at Westminster that such things were said by a Unionist at one of the critical turning points in modern British history?

O’Neill was followed in the debate by James Maxton, of the very, very left-wing Independent Labour Party, who proved entirely incapable of seeing the difference between a socialist tract and a government policy.  He could have written a much better socialist tract than the White Paper, and he could only judge the White Paper as if it were a propagandist pamphlet:

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

‘I do not know where to begin to deal with this document, because if it had finished after the first sentence in the foreword, which says: “The Government accept as one of their primary aims and responsibilities the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment after the war”, it would have said all that it has said of practical value. It could well have been published as a pamphlet, bearing the title, “Some musings and meanderings on the economic problems of our time, by a Cambridge undergraduate,” … we are seeing some of the ideas that Keir Hardie propounded on the first day he was in the House, being acknowledged in general terms by the Government of the day, … For the last 20 years, I have taken a primary responsibility for carrying on the party which Hardie led during the whole of his political life, the Independent Labour Party…

‘I find very little ground for congratulation in the fact that, 50 years after the pioneering started, there is an acceptance, in general principle, of the idea. Progress at that rate will not do for the future…

‘This is Mond-Turnerism in 1944. There is not a single concrete thing in it for the working class, and no real serious recognition of the problem as it is now. They put in the forefront the necessity to capture the export markets.

‘I remember Mr. Baldwin… declaring some years ago that our export trade called for 20 per cent. of the total of our industrial production. … It is all wrong to approach our economic problems on the basis of what is going to be needed for that 20 per cent., instead of approaching it from the point of view of the other 80 per cent…

Mr. Spearman (Scarborough)

‘Would the hon. Gentleman agree that we want our export trade, in order to get the materials for the people at home?

Mr. Maxton

‘I wonder. I did not mean to speak at any length, … but it is a subject of interesting rumination to me.  I could write a pamphlet meandering along on this topic, which would compare very well with the White Paper… But, as I saw this problem of export trade before the war, we were bribing, financing customers across the sea to take our goods. …. We would say, “Do not bother about the money; give us the order, and we will lend you the money.”

‘After the war, as before the war, the other nations will want to export. They are all on this same game of wanting to export, and there will be no difficulty about us getting all the imports we want. In approaching the problem from that state of mind, you do not get into the difficulties that are indicated here. …

‘I say, Do not start at the export end at all; indeed, do not start at the end of trying to find employment for our people. Start on the assumption, the general Socialist assumption, and it is the only assumption that can be defended ethically and philosophically, that everybody in the world has a duty to take a share in the work of the world, … Everybody taking a share in the necessary work of the world, … has a right to a full share of the wealth that his labour produces…’

Shinwell followed Maxton in rejecting the White Paper view that exports would continue after the war to be a substantial and necessary part of economic activity in Britain.  But whereas Maxton disposed of the problem of exports by declaring that nothing less than the world economy should be the unit in which economic policy should be applied, Shinwell dealt with it by proposing that the British economy should be made independent of the world economy.

Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)

‘Suppose we did not require imports; would there be any need for exports? Of course not. Why should we send our wealth out of the country? It is because, to some extent, we depend on imported foodstuffs, and a certain quantity of imported raw material…

‘Suppose we expand our agriculture. … suppose we make up our minds, as regards certain categories of foodstuffs, that we can make ourselves independent, is it always to be assumed that this country can only produce at high cost …? Someone said we imported raw materials. Petrol is one of the raw materials. Does anyone suggest that we could not, if we cared, produce synthetic petrol …?  The argument can be extended in many directions…

‘We must eliminate waste in peace-time, as we have tried to eliminate it in war-time. I want it done scientifically.

‘A few weeks ago we had a Debate on an International Monetary Agreement. … I opposed it because I maintain that the implications of that International Monetary Agreement prevent us from adopting our own internal expansionist policy. … Is it not about time that we stopped allowing ourselves to be led by the nose, by American financial experts, or even by Lord Keynes? … I am not going to accept Lord Keynes as my mentor in matters of this kind because I rely on an internal expansionist policy, …

‘Full employment and capitalism cannot go together; there must be a margin. Full employment and Socialism can go together. … If my hon. Friends opposite can solve the problem of unemployment by private ownership or capitalist measures, let them do it and then there will be no need for Socialism.’

Shinwell was followed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Anderson (Tory), who replied to him:

‘I know pretty well what we can do in the matter of producing oil from coal, but I tell the hon. Member that if he would like to set about organising our industry with a view to producing from coal all the products we now import in the form of petrol, fuel oil and kerosene he will be setting a terrible task to the people of this country, a task which would bring them to something very near to slavery. The consumers have to be considered, because they are identical with the workers….’

Bevan passed judgement on the White Paper on the third day of the debate (June 23):

‘I have been astonished … by the laudatory statements which have been made about this document. …Why did the Government find it necessary to produce this document? I can see… that the Government must make some provision for the immediate situation. … But why should the Government assume that they should produce a document dealing with the permanent position? And why on earth a Coalition Government should consider it possible to do so, I cannot understand.

‘The subjects dealt with by the White Paper represent all the matters which distinguish that side of the House from this. The questions of how the work of society is to be organised, how the income of society is to be distributed, to what extent the State is to intervene in the direction of economic affairs—all these are questions which first called this party into existence. They represent in themselves the main bone of contention between the main parties of the State. How on earth, therefore, can a Coalition Government pretend to approach those problems without the gravest sacrifice of principles? It is an impracticable proposition. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that if the implications of the White Paper are sound, there is no longer any justification for this party existing at all. … the Coalition Government has gone outside its terms of reference—it has exceeded its mandate. It was called into existence for the purpose of fighting the war to a successful conclusion, … But the policy we are now discussing is a post-election policy; it can never be operated until after a General Election…

‘…the Minister of Labour told us that this document does not pretend to deal with whether industry should be State-owned or privately-owned. I understand from that that he believes that even under private ownership unemployment can be prevented by the application of these remedies. If a progressive society and an expanding standard of life can be achieved by this document and unemployment can be avoided, then there is no justification for public ownership and there is no argument for it. Nobody believes in public ownership for its own sake. This party did not come into existence demanding Socialism, demanding the State ownership of property, simply because there was some special merit in it. … If private enterprise can deliver all these goods, there will not be any argument for Socialism and no reason for it. My hon. Friends on the other side of the House know full well that that is so, and they will go to the hustings at the next election and will say that the Labour Ministers have stated in the House of Commons their belief that by the application of this doctrine all the worst evils of society can be not only mitigated but prevented. If that be the case, what is our argument going to be? We shall find the argument all right, but I do not want only to find arguments, I want to find international integrity behind the arguments too, and if I believed this document, if I thought its aims would be achieved, …I would join the Tory reformers who have welcomed this document with as much enthusiasm as the Minister himself.’

Bevan then proceeded to caricature the White Paper in order to raise the spectre of labour camps, thereby flying in the face of his assertion that if he thought it would work he would join the Tories in order to implement it:

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

‘This is the scheme which the members of the Tory Reform Committee suggest is the alternative to Socialist regimentation. … When the demand for coal fails, the miners are unemployed. The Minister says, “We will start a public works scheme.” The collier, the steelworker and the building worker are forcibly and at once taken away by the State from their normal occupations and put in labour camps. … The right hon. Gentleman and his friends behind him are suggesting the worst form of regimentation for the workers as a means of dealing with a slump which has already been caused by the unjust distribution of the national income.

‘The workers will not have it. What working class people want is to remain in their jobs all the time … What they do not want is this thermostatic operation to occur every five or six years by which they are taken forcibly away from their normal occupations and put to do some job of public works in order to pump spending power into the system which has caused unemployment. It seems to me that the White Paper makes the final admission of the bankruptcy of a system that hon. Members opposite are attempting to defend.

‘A good deal of it we are asked to welcome because it makes certain admissions. I have heard this sort of thing on Socialist platforms ever since I was a boy. The great British Treasury has caught up with the soap-box orator of Hyde Park. That is all that the White Paper is. Every worker knows that the reason he is idle is because he has not enough money to buy things. …. The fact of the matter is that the White Paper is shallow, empty and superficial and bears all the stigmata of its Coalition origin. It runs away from every major social problem…’

Bevan was followed by Sir Herbert Williams, a Tory backwoodsman, who expressed agreement with his conclusions about the White Paper, declaring: ‘This is a miserable document.’

The gist of Bevan’s attack was that Bevin had sold the pass.  He had given the Tories a policy for winning the post-war election.  Could Aneurin Bevan undo the damage at the 11th hour? Could he dismantle Bevinite hegemony over the Tories, and persuade the Tories to become Thatcherites, in time to secure a Labour victory in 1945?

Of course Bevan failed to overthrow Bevinism, and because he failed the Labour Party won its most famous electoral victory. Bevin’s success in imposing Labour political priorities on the Tories had the reverse effect of that anticipated by Bevan. Instead of giving the Tories policies to win the election with, it convinced the electorate that the Labour Party was the party most fit to govern in the post war period.

Here is how Michael Foot deals with the incident, in a chapter entitled, ‘the Fight Against Coalition:

‘Among what Bevan called ‘the tired, turgid and tepid documents flowing from the muddy waters of the Coalition’ was one sponsored by Ernest Bevin and hailed in many quarters as a state paper of historic importance— the White Paper on ‘Employment Policy’ issued in May 1944. Churchill undoubtedly regarded this document as the cornerstone of his post war policy, the means for fulfilling the hope he had expressed in his broadcast of March 1943 that the best men of all parties would stay together after the war to carry through a four year plan. Ernest Bevin looked upon it with pride as an acceptance by all parties of the expansionist economic policies he had sought to urge on the governments in the thirties. In view of the uninhibited blast with which he blew his own trumpet, it was not fanciful to fear but that the Labour leaders had still not made up their minds to end the Coalition. If Churchill and Bevin had agreed on a common policy to secure the all-important objective of full employment, why should they suddenly choose to go separate ways? Or if the Labour ministers did eventually make the breach would they not leave Churchill with the claim that he had an employment policy which Bevin had blessed? Bevan attempted to tear up the employment White Paper…

‘The Employment White Paper was a tentative, aridly oversimplified essay in Keynesian economics. Its chief practical proposal amounted to little more than the suggestion that public works programmes should be available to be turned on and off as the signs of slump appeared or disappeared. But it did contain the admission that private enterprise left to itself would produce unemployment and an acknowledgment that it was the duty of the state to sustain a high and stable level of employment. These were the innovations in government thinking which Ernest Bevin wished to see hailed as revolutionary strides forward. Aneurin Bevan was more shocked than angered by such naiveties (Bevan, Volume 1, p. 474-5).

The White Paper gave monopolies and cartels no more than a warning scold and then remained silent on the main body of principles which had identified the Labour Party since its inception— the demand that the main industries and services of the nation must be national property. Could Ernest Bevin really regard the concealment or disparagement of this great argument as a victory? ‘Soon’, said Bevan ‘there will be no escape from the grim alternatives looming up before the Labour Party. It will have to abandon either its principles or its leaders’.

Bevan’s belief at the time was that with some reluctance throughout 1944 the Labour leaders were making up their minds to reject the Churchill proposal for a post war coalition. Today all concerned who are still able to do so would doubtless condemn as quite on warranted his suspicion that they had ever contemplated the idea at all. The claim may be correct, although no evidence has been adduced to prove it. What is incontestable is that well into 1945 Churchill still thought his project feasible. Attlee and Bevin, it seems, did not take the precaution of warning him privately in a contrary sense’ (p. 474-6).

Why on earth should Attlee and Bevin have felt it necessary to convince Churchill privately that they meant what they were saying publicly? Bevin had said repeatedly that the Coalition was a wartime arrangement. If Churchill could not believe that he meant what he said , despite the pains which he always took to make his position clear and his long record of abiding by what he said, it certainly wasn’t Bevin’s business to have private dealings with Churchill to convince him of it. Bevan’s fears and Churchill’s hopes were both grounded in the past, and because of that neither of them could see what was happening in the present. It would have been no more possible to persuade Bevan than to persuade Churchill late in 1944 that what was happening before their eyes was actually happening. History told them that Labour politicians were made use of in wartime Coalitions to arouse the enthusiasm of the workers, and that at the end of the war they were either sold out or were discarded. It had never happened that Labour politicians pulled their weight in a Coalition, and ended it on terms favourable to the Labour movement , so how could it possibly happen that Labour politicians would dominate the Coalition and determine the nature of post-war arrangements? Bevan knew his history, and therefore knew that what was happening wasn’t happening. So did Churchill, his great Parliamentary enemy and friend. Bevin, who was using his power to arrange for the unprecedented to happen, wasted none of his time and energy in trying to make them think otherwise.

Bevin’s speech introducing the White Paper was one of the epoch making speeches of British political history. It reviewed the economic process in a way that had never previously been done by a government politician outside the Soviet Union, it established a framework of priorities which every party striving for political power has ever since had to accept, and it established a political responsibility for economic affairs which even Thatcherism is being compelled to acknowledge.

And for all Foot’s sneers about ‘an aridly oversimplified essay in Keynesian economics’ (imagine! arid Keynesianism in 1944!!)  it was a far more complex and realistic review of economic history and economic possibilities than any that Foot has ever undertaken, or that he is likely to undertake 40 years later if he becomes Prime Minister. Foot and Benn have still not moved beyond the perspectives which Bevin established— indeed they have hardly caught up with them.