Ernest Bevin Andrew Adonis Biteback, £20
With this new biography of Ernest Bevin, Andrew Adonis (former MP and cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) offers a view of the trade union leader and wartime Minister for Labour as a “preeminent leader and statesman”, wishing to restore Bevin to “his rightful place among… Britain’s greatest political leaders”. This work of hagiography is cut straight from the Great Men (or Big Beast) template of history.
What unfolds is not, as Adonis contends, a grand ascent from poverty to power, but the dark descent of a working-class trade unionist to the depths of class collaboration and bloodthirsty imperialism. Bevin is a figure beloved of the right of the Labour Party, and Adonis’ flattering prose broadly details the contours of Bevin’s life and political career, but there are constantly digressions that hammer home Adonis’ political prejudices. It is an arduous task indeed to read a biography in which the biographer is in love with his subject almost as much as they were with themselves. His paternalistic attitude to the working class is in marked contrast to the brutal control he exerted as leader of the Transport & General Workers Union.
Adonis eulogises Bevin as “revolutionary about means, democratic about ends”, but his actions as a union leader from the 1926 General Strike onwards, who “brooked no opposition” and crushed unofficial strikes “with an iron fist” totally contradict this. As Minister for Labour, Bevin implemented anti-strike laws and conscripted thousands of young men as into the mines. Even a celebrated victory for workers when Bevin acted as ‘Docker’s Kings Counsel’ in 1920 is used to demonstrate Bevin’s skill as negotiator, sublimating class struggle into committee rooms and the legal system. In Bevin, Adonis has the perfect stalking horse with which to unleash his vehement anti-left politics. Virtually every major figure on Labour’s left is ferociously attacked, from AJ Cook and George Lansbury to Len McCluskey and Jeremy Corbyn.
That scorched earth approach leaves only Bevin, Clement Atlee — and Winston Churchill — as the only men left standing. Adonis’ hatred of Corbyn takes up so much page space that a separate screed could easily be excised. His persistent antileftism is as wearing as it is cruel. As a historian, Adonis is guilty of many sins of omission, from Malaya to Palestine, from Clause 4 to the Arab Revolt. In a truly reprehensible section, Adonis’ critique of Bevin’s imperial mindset warps into a vain attempt to absolve the Blair/ Bush axis for the disaster of the Iraq War. Adonis also dares to claim that “Indian independence legitimised the Empire”.
Ultimately, a biography intent on reviving Bevin instead fatally condemns him. Bevin was a willing servant to the ruling class and its ruling ideology: empire, monarchy, patriotism, who fulsomely reaped the reward of class obedience, while millions paid with their lives.