Capability Bevin

George Walden

  • Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary 1945-1951 by Alan Bullock
    Heinemann, 896 pp, £30.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 434 09452 8

One of the more dismal scenes in English literature comes in Gissing’s Henry Rycroft (itself a pretty depressing book), where a labourer on a spree is driven out of a restaurant because he is intimidated by the formalities which go with the food. He ends by wrapping the lot in a newspaper and bolting.

Bevin completely lacked class-consciousness – in the crabbed sense of the term, though he took a natural pride in his humble origins. He once told his Private Secretary’s wife that he used to collect washing from her mother’s house. Nobody dreamt of disapproving of him, and the idea of patronising a man like Bevin did not arise. Only the Russians, with their old-world, Marxist preconceptions, found him not quite the thing: ‘Eden is a gentleman, Bevin is not,’ said the thoroughly ungentlemanly Molotov in a successful attempt to provoke him.

He seems to have been quite unflustered by the dignified element of office: the bold pinstriped suit, the morning coat and evening dress, were obviously just the togs of the trade to him. Bevin was uncomplexed as well as uncomplicated, and his instincts were as sound as a Bow bell. He could not find it in himself to dislike the upper classes: ‘They may be an abuse, but they are often as like as not intelligent and amusing.’ But he couldn’t stand the middle classes.

This clarity of definition surrounds the man and his policies, as well as the challenges which faced him, and the West, at the time. Imagine for a moment the opposite. Think what it would have been like to have a post-war British Foreign Secretary who was a well-born, class-conscious, leftish intellectual, complete with inverted sartorial snobbery. Think how anxious he would have been for Left to talk unto Left, to see the best in Stalin, to put his faith in the frail infant of the United Nations and resist the ‘return to power politics’, while Russia secured herself in Eastern Europe and prepared for the next moves. Think of the effects on Europe, on the United States and on the Soviet Union of this specifically British form of social self-indulgence – and thank God for Bevin, and for Nato.

The expansiveness of the real Bevin is exhilarating, even in print. There is no trace here of foetid introversion. He saw foreigners as he did social classes: some of them were really all right, despite their origins – though he seems to have had the same problem about Jews as he did about the middle class. Inevitably it was said that he had been stifled by the embrace of the Foreign Office. The notion of Bevin being stifled by anyone is rather like that of his being patronised.

It is said that these men do not carry out my policies. I deny that ... What the Civil Service likes is a minister who knows his mind and tells the officials what to do. They will then do it. If it is wrong, the minister must take responsibility and not blame the Civil Service.

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