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Mr Ernest Bevin (Tributes)

Volume 486: debated on Monday 16 April 1951

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Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I am sure that it would be the wish of the House in all quarters that tribute should be paid to the memory of the late Lord Privy Seal, Mr. Ernest Bevin. We all received the news of his passing with a deep sense of loss and of shock, and I am sure that everybody much regrets his death and would wish to convey to Mrs. Bevin and to the family our deepest sympathy and condolences. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Ernest Bevin was essentially a big man, and to whatever office he was called it was bound to be the case that he handled the affairs in question in a big way. His first public office was as Minister of Labour in the War Cabinet of the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). He did a great work there and played a great part in the organisation of the war effort, which I think can be summed up under a few headings. First of all, mobilisation, in which he mobilised the labour force and saw that it was used in the wisest and most successful fashion. It was not an easy task because it meant requiring people to do things that otherwise they would not have done. It meant moving people from job to job, and indeed sometimes from place to place. That is not an easy thing to do with the freedom-loving British people, but he did it with the minimum of friction and the maximum of good will, and he carried the people and the trade union movement with him in what was one of the major operations of the war.

Then, correspondingly, demobilisation faced him with similar problems. I do not think it is too much to say that the scheme of demobilisation which was adopted with the good will of the then Prime Minister and his colleagues in the War Cabinet came from the brain of Ernest Bevin, and that that scheme of demobilisation worked with a sense of justice among the people and with a high degree of smoothness. All of us know that demobilisation after a great war can involve friction, difficulties and complications, but it went through as a whole without these problems arising. Therefore, this second great operation stands to the credit of this great organiser and administrator.

He elevated also at the Ministry of Labour a high public-spirited partnership between the Government, employers and workpeople. He brought together a high degree of co-operation between Government Departments, employers' organisations, the Trades Union Congress and the various trade union organisations for the successful prosecution of the war, and I think that that partnership has borne permanent fruit in the organisation of the Ministry of Labour, for it is still the case that my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Labour presides over such a three-party combination in the shape of the advisory council representing Government, employers and workers.

Not to exhaust his record at the Ministry of Labour, I would refer in conclusion to the great work that was done in respect of the Disabled Persons Employment Act. The Act was led up to by work done by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education, who was then Parliamentary Secretary, and who presided over a committee of inquiry into the matter. That did mean that a new line was taken whereby, instead of assuming that disabled persons could not do as much as was formerly thought, Mr. Bevin assumed that there must be no limit to what he must aim at, in enabling disabled persons to render full and adequate service to the community, not only for its own sake but in order that they might keep their own self-respect; and great work was done in that way.

I have said that my right hon. Friend was a big man, and certainly it can be said that at the Foreign Office he handled foreign affairs in a big way. The House will remember the impression made by his speeches in the early days after the war. It was a powerful voice, a new kind of voice speaking for Britain. It is always open to dispute, but perhaps it is not inappropriate that "The Times" this morning spoke of him and of Palmerston in the same breath. Speaking in this House in August, 1945, Mr. Bevin said:
"It is our duty, after these six years, to try to ensure that the policies which we and the world follow, do not lead us back to war."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd August, 1945; Vol. 413, c. 945.]
Whatever criticisms or applause there may be for the policy he pursued, I am perfectly certain, as a colleague of his in the Cabinet, and as one who watched his foreign policy very closely, that he kept that objective—the avoidance of war and the preservation of peace—patiently before his eyes for the following five and a half years.

He made great efforts in the first stages of the United Nations and the Council of Foreign Ministers, asserting and assuming the right of our country to play its part in the world scene, and as an international figure himself he did his best to build a new world order on the shattered foundations of the old. He was always a builder. His instinct for constructive effort was always strong. He was a mighty organiser in his trade union days, and so he remained in his conduct of foreign policy.

He had long sought friendship with the people of the new Russia. He had perhaps an exceptionally strong will at times for friendship with the people of the Soviet Union, and although the action may have been controversial—personally I was associated with it—he certainly demonstrated his wish for friendship and a good chance for the Soviet Union. Back in the days of the beginning of the Bolshevist Revolution, the dockers refused, on his advice, to load the "Jolly George" with arms against the people of the Soviet Union. But after the last war he still worked patiently for friendship with Russia.

I think that his patience was extended and outstanding. But at last the time came when he felt that he had to recognise the realities of Russian policy, and he had to shape his country's actions accordingly. He was forced to accept the facts. He was still ready to hold out the hand of friendship and to offer Russia every chance of co-operation, and even when he led the response to Mr. Marshall's historic offer of Marshall Aid—and he was quick to accept that offer and quick to act upon it for the economic good of Europe and the pacification of Western civilisation—it was even then to Russia he turned in an attempt to bring together all Europe in a joint effort of economic co-operation and recovery. However his vision in that respect unhappily was not to be.

Ernest Bevin will be remembered as a man who built up a unity of purpose in the Western world. First, his Dunkirk Treaty with France, in the preparation of which he was associated with M. Blum and M. Bidault. Then the Western Alliance and the Brussels Treaty sprang from his brain, and through it all he held to the vision of an Atlantic community which received its first expression in the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty just over two years ago.

Whilst the dangers seemed greatest in Europe, he did not forget the rest of the world. He had a great concern with the social and economic well-being of the peoples of the Middle East and of Asia. That was second only to his sincere concern for the welfare of our own British people. He believed that economic progress and social upliftment was an essential condition for political advance towards the peace of the world.

He saw the world as a whole. He knew that Britain's fortunes were bound up with no single region. He considered every problem in its world setting. He thought deeply and long about international problems. Before taking decisions, he reviewed their probable effects in every sphere. He satisfied himself not only that the decisions themselves were right but also that the timing was right—a matter upon which there is always possible room for differences of opinion.

Whilst always ready to seize any opportunity of advancement, he also held firmly to the development of a consistent policy, and once he had made up his mind that a course was in the national interest, that it was morally right, he held to that course. I think that it will be said by the representatives of other countries that once Ernest Bevin gave his word he adhered to it and did not break away, which is a great quality in the office he held. Moreover, he brought them in the movement together as a team in co-operation, mutual understanding and loyalty once a decision had been reached; no doubt a tradition which had come to him from his long and eminent trade union experience.

He retained a wide and well-remembered experience of negotiations of international contracts dating back to his trade union days. He was able to throw the light of experience on to the problems of foreign policy and to bring his own broad, human sympathies to bear upon them. A broad humanity was one of his great characteristics. He took a deep interest in the welfare and conditions of service of all those who worked for him. His relations with the staff and employees of the Foreign Office were of the best. I know that when I speak at this Box the Foreign Office and the Foreign Service would like me to say how much they also deplore his passing. His work at the Foreign Office brought him into contact with members of Governments, diplomatists and different officials and workers in international organisations. But I believe his greatest joy was to feel that through them he was able to work for the good of the ordinary people everywhere in the world.

Mr. Speaker, may I be permitted to say just one word, of his work for the trade union movement, for organised labour and for the party with which I am associated. He built a great trade union organisation of massive size and of carefully planned organisation. He introduced what he regarded as a new and more effective method of organisation into the British trade union movement and, following on the work of other men like Ben Tillet, John Burns, Will Thorne and Tom Mann in the 1880's, be made his contribution to elevating the dignity of labour, including the so-called unskilled labour which rose to new heights.

He took a leading part in the reorganisation of the British Trades Union Congress. He helped to develop it from its former very loose and modest organisation into a highly-organised influence in our public affairs and in the affairs of the trade union movement. He was Chairman of the Trades Union Congress in 1937, and, undoubtedly, the new model of the T.U.C. owes an enormous debt to his experience and to his leadership. He spent his life, did Mr. Bevin, in seeking to raise the standard of living and the dignity of the workpeople and getting a square deal for the common man everywhere in the civilised world.

Sir, we have lost as a Government a valued and important colleague. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—indeed it was manifest from his broadcast last night—would wish to be associated with the tribute that I have paid and others will pay this afternoon. We have lost a valued and a powerful colleague. The country has lost a great servant. The Labour movement has lost a great advocate. I ask the House to join with me in paying a tribute to the memory of a truly great man.

In the unavoidable absence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I rise to associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side of the House with the message of sincere sympathy to Mrs. Bevin and to the family in their time of deep sorrow. I suppose that there are not many hon. Members in all parts of the House who do not feel a deep sense of personal loss at the death of Ernest Bevin. The right hon. Gentleman has given an account of his career through a long and varied life—an account which I would not for one moment attempt to follow or to emulate.

There are for most of us, I think, certain characteristics of the man which will linger always in our thoughts—his massive strength; his integrity, once his conviction was reached; his sense of loyalty to colleagues in good times and in bad, as my colleagues in the War Cabinet will remember very well; the courage we all know; and perhaps, by no means least, the conjunction made up of these many qualities which aroused deep personal affection towards him of men in so many and such varied walks of life. It was a rare gift he had that the men he could attract to real friendship were men perhaps whose training in early life had no connection with his but who felt almost at once friendship which might always last.

I was glad the right hon. Gentleman referred not only to his period as Foreign Secretary but also to the War Cabinet years. I think all my colleagues of that date would certainly add this, that the harsher the times—and there were some hard times—the more stalwart was the spirit of resistance Ernest Bevin brought to our Councils.

I have seen tributes in the papers and tributes delivered by many. Naturally they say, and rightly say, that Ernest Bevin's name will live in history. Yet it was perhaps one of the most lovable characteristics of the man that I doubt very much whether that thought ever troubled him at his work, because he lived for what he was doing and thought that he would do it to the best that within him lay. We desire to be associated with this tribute and to salute the memory of a man who unselfishly and loyally served his times, his country and the Empire to which we all belong.

There is today a gap in our public life, a gap which will not be filled in our time. Ernest Bevin was massive, massive in personality and massive in character and intellect. He was endowed with those qualities which make for leadership and for greatness, and with those qualities which made him not only respected and admired but also greatly loved. He was the true realist, for he was the visionary who trod firmly and unflinchingly the path he saw and believed led to the desired goal. The sufferings, hardships and disappointments from his earlier years did not embitter him, but rather did he use them as a school of experience where he learned tolerance and understanding, and where he learned to meet harshness with kindness.

He was an implacable enemy of tyrants and tyranny, a formidable and dauntless fighter for the cause in which he had such deep faith. He was never unfair. He was a foe who commanded respect, and a friend who inspired warm and sincere affection. We mourn the passing of a great Foreign Secretary, a wise statesman, an outstanding trade unionist and trade union leader, but above all a man of the people who unceasingly worked for the people, for their well-being and especially for peace and goodwill among all men.