World War Two: Winston Churchill's unlikeliest ally

If that disastrous eventuality occurred, he planned to set up a committee of public safety to lead the resistance, comprising just himself and two other members. One was Lord Beaverbrook, Aircraft Production Minister and the owner of the Daily Express, Britain’s most popular newspaper. The choice of the Canadian-born press tycoon was perhaps inevitable, given Beaverbrook was a close ally of Churchill, and a Conservative politician.

But the other member was far more incongruous. In the final battle for national survival, Churchill wanted by his side Ernest Bevin, the trade union leader and Minister for Labour.

At first glance, Bevin seemed an unlikely comrade. Not only was he a committed socialist, a creed Churchill had ferociously opposed throughout his career, but he had little experience of Parliament, having only been elected a Labour MP at a by-election in June 1940. 

Nor was Churchill sympathetic to the trade union movement, the cause which had brought Bevin to the forefront of British politics.

Clement Attlee Ministry of And their personal backgrounds had nothing in common. Churchill was born into privilege at Blenheim Palace, the son of an aristocrat, whereas Bevin was born into poverty in a remote Somerset village, the son of a single mother. Churchill’s first job was as a cavalry officer, Bevin’s as a farm labourer.

Yet, as the Labour peer Andrew Adonis shows in his superb and highly readable new biography, Churchill recognised that Bevin could be a formidable asset in a crisis.

winston churchill

Winston Churchill lead a resistance during the war (Image: Getty)

A genuine heavyweight in both authority and physique, he was a magnificent organiser who had built the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) into a dominant force in British civic life. 

His faith in socialism was also accompanied by deep patriotism, personal loyalty, and instinctive pragmatism. 

“He helped to bring its feet to the ground,” Clement Attlee, his long-serving party leader said of Bevin’s influence on the Labour movement. 

He was as attached to the British Empire as he was to democracy. A magnetic speaker and quick thinker, he possessed a phenomenal work ethic, often rising at 4am to embark on his colossal range of duties.

Fortunately, Churchill’s safety committee was never needed as the Nazi dreams of conquest were thwarted by the Battle of Britain. But confidence in Bevin was heroically fulfilled throughout the rest of the war by his performance as Minister for Labour, when he took charge of the entire national workforce.


Winston, pictured with his dog, never used his safety committee (Image: Getty)

Indeed, no other politician in British history has ever exerted such control on the domestic front. Under a command economy, he set wage rates, resolved disputes, and directed labour where it was needed.

On his orders, 48,000 young men were conscripted to work in the coal mines, becoming known as “Bevin Boys”.

His intimate knowledge of industrial relations, gleaned from his long decades as a trade unionist, always astonished his civil servants. 

No aspect of workplace life escaped his searching attention, from the provision of entertainment in factories to the quality of canteens. 

His mastery could be a source of humour: “Bevin wants 100,000 women,” ran a headline in a London newspaper, prompting him to roar with laughter. 

In fact, true to his nature, he remained faithfully devoted to his wife Florence, whom he met at the Bristol Socialist Society and married in 1909, when he was 28.


Churchill with the War Cabinet in 1941 (Image: Getty)

Despite his political prominence, the couple led a modest life.

Though he enjoyed good food and drink – “he uses alcohol like a car uses petrol” sneered one contemporary – he was interested in neither wealth nor titles, turning down a peerage in 1930 and rejected Churchill’s offer of the Order of Merit in 1945.

“His currency was power, not possessions,” writes Adonis in a typically pithy phrase. That power was wielded in epic style on behalf of the nation in the early 1940s.

He was the only member of Churchill’s all party wartime Coalition who remained in the same post throughout its duration, another tribute to his effectiveness. He could also be relied on to crush rumblings of dissent in Labour’s ranks against Churchill’s government.

“He is a great leader, tireless in his endeavour,” Bevin publicly declared of the Prime Minister.

After the Coalition broke up in 1945 at the end of the war in Europe, Labour under Attlee gained a landslide victory in the subsequent general election, winning over voters with a promise of national renewal. 


Ernest Bevin canvassing female factory workers in Gateshead in 1931 (Image: Getty)

In rising the new government, Bevin became Foreign Secretary, largely because Attlee wanted a bulwark against the Soviets in the east. Throughout his career, Bevin had loathed communism, which he regarded as a similar totalitarian force as fascism.

And Now, in his new role at the Foreign Office, he behaved as the iciest of Cold War warriors. 

His bristling defiance of Stalin led him to play an instrumental role in the creation of Nato, the establishment of West Germany, and the Berlin airlift of 1948, which broke the Soviet siege of the city. 

He was also determined that Britain should have its own independent nuclear deterrent, brow-beating his Labour colleagues with his characteristic forthright, earthy language: “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs. 

“And we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack thinker, he phenomenal often at flying on top of it.” 


Dictator of Soviet Russia, Joseph Stalin, addresses election in Moscow (Image: Getty)

The same sense of national pride drove his hostility towards the concept of European integration, which he warned Churchill would promote “free movement”. 

Similarly, he regretted the withdrawal from Empire, epitomised by Indian independence and the creation of the state of Israel, the latter a move that also brought out his streak of anti-Semitism. 

“There is no doubt in my mind that Ernest detests Jews,” said Christopher Mayhew, his junior Foreign Office Minister.

Despite such flaws, Bevin is now widely regarded as the greatest of all Foreign Secretaries, admired for his determination to uphold British interests, his detailed grasp of policy and his unpretentious style.

Some of his sayings have gone down in Whitehall legend. “This jam tastes a bit fishy,” he said once after he had been offered some caviar. 

“If you open a Pandora’s Box, you never know what Trojan horses might jump out,” he said on another occasion.


A Churchill poster with the slogan ‘Fight for Freedom’ (Image: Getty)

He could also be harsh. Referring to his Labour rival Herbert Morrison, a figure Bevin pathologically distrusted, one colleague confided in him, “poor old Herbert is his own worst enemy”. 

Quick as a flash came the reply from Bevin, “Not while I’m alive he ain’t.”

Bevin’s rise to the top was remarkable, given his humble origins, but it was a journey that fed his lack of pomposity.

Born in 1881 in the rural Exmoor village of Winsford, where the nearest train station was nine miles away, he was his mother’s seventh child. 

A devout Protestant who had been deserted by her husband, she died of cancer when Ernie was just eight, which meant he had to be brought up by her half-sister and her husband, a railway worker. 

At the age of just 11 Ernie left school to become a farm boy, an occupation he described as “a form of slavery”. 

After two years, he fled to Bristol, where several of his brothers were based. Often in desperate poverty, he took any work he could find, from tram conductor to restaurant waiter. 

But eventually he found steady employment as a driver of horse-drawn wagons carrying mineral water.

Throughout his 20s, Bevin was on a mission of self-improvement. He not only supplemented his rudimentary education with night classes and lectures given by the Workers Educational Association in Bristol, but he was also active in his local Baptist church, where he revealed a gift for public speaking.

The Labour MP Dick Crossman once described how Bevin’s oratory “mixed brutal hammer blows with sentimental appeal”.

It was an approach that owed much to his early days as a preacher in the Bethesda Baptist chapel.

Labour MP Dick Crossman

Labour MP Dick Crossman described Bevin’s oratory as ‘brutal hammer blows’ (Image: Getty)

Increasingly confident, Bevin grew involved in the Labour movement, standing in 1909 as a socialist candidate for Bristol City Council.

He failed in that quest for municipal glory, but he had more success when he became an official in the dock workers’ union after 11 years in his job as a mineral water delivery man. 

Immediately, he showed his unique qualities of organisation, persuasion and dedication as he rose up the union hierarchy to become the dock workers’ national organiser by the outbreak of the First World War. 

During the conflict, his charisma brought him to the attention of national politicians, like Lloyd George who remarked in 1919, “He is a powerful fellow, with a bull neck and a huge voice – a born leader.”

“When hour of came, he Labour had duty by under.” That national reputation was cemented in 1920 when Bevin gave a brilliant courtroom speech in support of the dockers’ pay claim.

dockers kc

The man known as the ‘Dockers KC’ with his supporters (Image: Getty)

In an address that lasted 11 hours over three sittings, he took total command, so much so that there was prolonged applause when he finally sat down. 

The Press nicknamed him the “Dockers’ KC” (King’s Counsel). Less than two years later, when the TGWU was created from the amalgamation of several unions, he was the only possible choice for the new General Secretary. 

The new union was the largest in Britain, but its sheer size made it the perfect vehicle for his enormous talents and strong personality.

His leadership helped to guide the Labour movement through two decades of turmoil, epitomised by episodes like the 1926 General Strike, the 1931 economic crisis and the rise of Nazism.


Ernest Bevin, pictured with wife Florence, supported the dockers’ pay claim (Image: Getty)

And when the hour of need came in 1940, he knew that Labour had to do its duty by serving in the Coalition under Churchill. 

“They would say we were not great citizens but cowards,” he warned. 

He was never one to shirk his responsibility. Tellingly, despite failing health, he was still in Cabinet office when he died aged 70 in 1951 – the key to his red box clutched in his hand.

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis (Biteback Publishing, £20) is out on Thursday. 

For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via Delivery may take up to 28 days in current circumstances

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