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.

No peevish scapegoatism here. Exposure to international reality had a strong educative effect on Bevin (it would have been alarming if it had not). But his policies bore the stamp of his personality. There was no sense of a man abandoning his own ideals, or being sucked under by the dictates of expediency. He sought to give a social and economic edge to foreign policy, and his experience in the War Cabinet, and his tradeunion background, meant that he was well placed to do so. Above all, he knew that no foreign policy could work without stable economic underpinning. British policy must be an organic expression of the country’s interests and potential, and not some wispy intellectual schema or moralistic spasm. He knew our strengths and limits, and translated his experience into a concrete vision of world affairs. He saw immediately that the best way to fight Communism in the area between Turkey and Afghanistan, for example, was to raise the living standards of the hundred million people who lived there, and he pressed for the economic development of the Empire.

He was also unsentimental about industrial relations at home. He could tell the miners the truth about the importance of production for the independence of the country, as his putative middle-class-intellectual equivalent could never dare to do. His remarks on economics (‘if you go on merely borrowing money and living in a fool’s paradise you will never get your own economy right’), and allied subjects make him sound like a cross between Cobbett and Mrs Thatcher. The pragmatic nature of his idealism is nicely illustrated in his touching and prophetic concern for the educative effect of travel. Time and again, he harked back to his early connection with the Workers’ Travel Association.

Bevin might not like to have been thought of as a barefoot philosopher, but in a way he was. He would have been surprised to learn that he was merely restating Kant’s optimism when he said that ‘there has never been a war yet which, if the facts had been put calmly before the ordinary folk, might not have been prevented.’ But his optimism never got out of step with his realism, notably on the United Nations. Heidegger once remarked that ‘nationalism is not overcome by mere internationalism; it is rather expanded and elevated thereby into a system.’ Bevin’s scepticism about the UN was more down to earth: ‘it seems vital to me not to deceive the people of the world by leading them to believe that we are creating a United Nations Organisation which is going to protect them from future wars, in which we share our secrets, while we know, in fact, that nothing of the kind is happening.’

All of which leads us naturally to Bevin and the bomb. His attitude was just what you might have expected – a mixture of healthy moral impulse, tempered by common sense. He seized immediately on the key point: ‘War is not caused by the invention of weapons. It is policy which makes war.’ His first reaction to a suggestion that the West should give the bomb to the Russians was positive. Today that sounds slightly batty. But it would at least have made some sort of sense, in both idealistic and pragmatic terms, to have given the Russians the means of creating a nuclear balance. That is more than can be said for the notion of sacrificing our own bomb today and thereby upsetting a working balance. Within a week, Bevin’s shrewdness got the better of him. The Russians, he decided, were likely to receive the offering with more suspicion than gratitude, and see it as a sign of weakness. The paradox of nuclear weapons dawned quickly on the Labour government of the time. Attlee rejected a suggestion that international control of nuclear weapons could be made effective by a threat of collective nuclear retaliation against the culprit: ‘What British government would accept an obligation to embark on atomic warfare when this might mean the destruction of London?’

But there is another paradox too. The reason Bevin thought it indispensable for Britain to have atomic weapons had less to do with deterrence than with his reluctance to leave the Americans in sole control: ‘We could not afford to acquiesce in an American monopoly of this new development.’

This book illustrates the remarkable permanence of our foreign policy concerns. On the Middle East, ‘Bevin never got over his indignation at the willingness of the President (and Congress) to let the Jewish vote and Jewish contributions to party funds influence their policy on Palestine – ignoring the complexities of the situation.’ There was also a lurking fear of a Soviet/United States deal over the heads of Europe, especially with American diplomacy in the hands of Ambassador Byrnes in the early post-war years. And above all, Britain was preoccupied then, as now, with the strains of the defence budget: ‘What shall it profit Britain to have even 1½ million men in the forces and supply, and to be spending nearly £1,000 million a year on them, if we come an economic and financial cropper two years hence?’ In fact, the Government came a cropper over dollars within two weeks.

Professor Bullock reminds us how slow in coming was the confrontation between East and West. Bevin did nothing to hasten it. The detailed reconstruction of this period which is provided in the book reminds us, too, just how thin is the case of the post-Vietnam revisionists who accuse the West of responsibility for the Cold War. If one thing stands out from Bullock’s account, it is the lengths to which the British and Americans went to try to make a go of it with Stalin. Indeed, their efforts were almost culpably persistent and sincere. At the first meeting in London in September 1945 of the Council of Foreign Ministers set up in Potsdam nothing at all had been done to concert a Western position. Another detail speaks volumes: two-thirds of UNRRA supplies after the war went to Eastern and Central Europe – including the Soviet Union and Byelorussia – without discrimination. Ninety-four per cent of the funds came from the UK, the US and Canada, at a time when Britain was introducing bread rationing.

And when the blocs were born, solidarity in the West came gift-wrapped from Moscow. The Russians did everything they could to drive us together. And yet there had been no lack of dialogue. It is awe-inspiring today, when the lines of communication have gone dead, to think just how many hours, days and weeks of talking went on between the Russians and the West. It could be argued that it was to little avail. But then it could equally be argued that the risk of war might have been even greater without the talk. There seems to have been none of the contemporary moral squeamishness about sitting down at the same table with those unappetising men, though enough was known or suspected about Stalin. Molotov was an exceedingly unpleasant customer too, as well as being a harsh negotiator. I wonder how Bevin would have reacted had he known that the hand that shook his own on many occasions, and signed the United Nations Charter at San Francisco for the USSR, was in the habit of adding obscene comments (according to Roy Medvedev) against the names of those condemned to die in Stalin’s purges?

Fortunately for us, Bevin seems to have approached the Russians without idealistic urges or evangelical zeal. In his hyper-empirical way, he was always ready to learn by experience, most of which was pretty bitter. One of the most persuasive passages of this wise book is the author’s characterisation of Bevin’s beliefs during the Berlin blockade: ‘What sustained Bevin’s confidence was the conviction, by no means common at the time, that if the Western powers could get through the immediate future without suffering a collapse of nerve, history would prove to be on their side, and not on the Russians’. And this, in turn, derived from his belief that in the USA there was available the basis of power necessary to restore sufficient sense of security to release the European peoples’ own talents and energies.

The dual debt to both Bevin and the Americans is still there today. We have inherited a landscape moulded in good part by the energetic foresight of Capability Bevin. We tend to take the exertions of former generations for granted, as we do our public parks or Georgian houses. Living on past capital is a national disease, as is the luxury of self-criticism. It is easy to find fault with what we have inherited, and the expense of the upkeep is appalling. But few can think of anything better.

The author tackles head-on the major criticism of Bevin and his generation. Why did they fail to foresee the necessity of Europe? Many of us have felt a retrospective sense of lost opportunities. But Professor Bullock induces, on this subject, a healthier sobriety. It was easy for Churchill to exercise in opposition his visionary talents. Indeed, it was his role. But the inspired rhetoric should be measured against his own conservatism when he was back in power. It is easy to accuse Bevin of plodding caution and lack of vision. But if his eyes had been straining too far beyond the immediate future, he might have stumbled over the more insistent practical priorities of defence – the Brussels Pact and Nato – without which there would have been no security, and ultimately no Europe. It is like accusing a gardener of preparing the soil, but failing to plant the roses. Better rich soil than dead roses.

Britain played an active role in the European Payments Union and OEEC. But, as Professor Bullock points out, the fact that Europe became synonymous with instant federalism and the end of sovereignty was a serious drawback. The Coal and Steel Community sounds now like a natural British stepping stone to Europe. But it didn’t look like that then, for good reasons. ‘The question was whether the British were ready to set themselves as an immediate aim the pooling of their coal and steel production and the institution of a new high authority with binding decision-making powers.’ It is difficult to dissent from the realpolitik verdict of Morrison: ‘It’s no good, we can’t do it, the Durham miners won’t wear it.’ Professor Bullock might indeed have made more of the spectacle offered to Britain at the time by France and Germany. We would not have been throwing in our lot with mature democracies, as we did later, and it was asking too much of us – given, in particular, the inheritance of Empire – to take the lead.

In foreign affairs we need less ideology and pure mathematics, and more rumbustious humanity: more Falstaff and less Faust. In international relations, as in art, we are living through a period of mannered decadence. This is as true of the tired and expensive imitators of Dada as of the fancier nuclear theorists. We cannot afford it to be true of today’s Nato or of the Atlantic partnership. The groundwork of our security was laid by intelligent, workmanlike hands. Look back at the quality of the men in question – not only Bevin himself, but Acheson, Kennan and Marshall.

We have enjoyed this security for a third of a century: Nato and Berlin are still here, and so are we. The danger now is of running to fat, and to excitable extremes. The importation of UHT milk is, we are told, the end of Europe. The slightest tremor of dissent in the Atlantic Alliance is the end of Nato. We permit ourselves delicious frissons of nuclear neurosis. A bit of bullish Bevin diplomacy might prevent our overwrought imagination getting the better of common sense. Reading about him is an energising experience. After the unrelenting erosion of national self-confidence, and all those revelations in the Sunday papers, it is good to be reminded by the present book that while Blunt was working for his strong-man, Stalin, Bevin was working for Britain.