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review 2020-08-08 22:56
The master of Britain's manpower
The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume Two: Minister of Labour, 1940-1945 - Alan Bullock

Of the many editorial cartoons drawn by David Low during the Second World War, perhaps the most famous was the one he penned in May 1940 after Winston Churchill formed the coalition government that he would lead as prime minister. Entitled “All Behind You, Winston,” it depicts Churchill at the phalanx of a group of determined men, all of whom are rolling up their sleeves in preparation for the fight ahead. Standing next to the prime minister is Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party and a natural choice that reflected the politically united nature of the coalition. On Attlee’s other side, however, is another large figure, one who almost seems to be crowding past Attlee to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Churchill. That figure is Ernest Bevin.

 

On the face of it, Bevin’s inclusion in the front rank is a curious one, as Bevin had just been named minister to what was regarded as a second-rank department and who would not even win a seat in the House of Commons for another month. Yet Alan Bullock makes it clear in his second volume about Bevin’s life and times that such a position was more than warranted, as in his role as Minister of Labour and National Service Bevin played an utterly indispensable role in addressing one of the greatest challenged Britain faced in the war: the mobilization of the nation’s manpower for the drawn-out struggle against the Axis powers.

 

To have been charged with this responsibility in the coalition government was both unusual and completely understandable. Given that Bevin had never even served in Parliament before, his sudden promotion to ministerial office was nothing short of extraordinary. As the longtime head of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), however, Bevin was an ideal choice for the post, especially after the years of poor relations between the labor movement and the British state. Bevin brought instant credibility to his new post, as well as enormous energy and a wealth of new ideas.

 

First among them was the need to strengthen his position. From the start Bevin insisted on centralizing within his ministry authority over the nation’s manpower. Though he would never gain total control, Bullock shows how Bevin won this fight in the Cabinet. This put him in a prime position to address the competing challenges facing the allocation of manpower from an early stage. Here the core problem was in resolving the competing demands of industry and the military, which often complicated the government’s efforts to run as efficient a system as possible. Bullock’s coverage of this throughout the book illustrates that this was a challenge that was never fully resolved, and could only be managed to the best of his ability. Added to this was Bevin’s reluctance to impose coercion, as he believed firmly that such efforts reduced workers’ efficiency rather than aided it.

 

Bevin’s views about doing what was best for the worker were a hallmark of how he approached labor problems throughout his time in office. With a career spent fighting alongside as well as for workers, Bevin based all of his positions on his appreciation for their qualities and his assumption of their commitment to the nation’s wartime goals. His efforts to improve conditions for workers earned him considerable goodwill, making it easier (though far from easy) to work out the numerous compromises necessary for maintaining the war effort. Second only to this, though, was Bevin’s interest in ensuring that the British worker was fighting for a better future, and as the immediate crisis ebbed he spent an increasing amount of time concerned with the issues of postwar reconstruction. It was a testament to his stature as a minister that as the coalition came to an end he was approached about succeeding Attlee as the party’s leader – an offer that Bevin firmly declined.

 

Bullock’s book is so much more than an account of Bevin’s tenure as Minister of Labour. It also describes Bevin’s transition from labor to parliamentary politics, as well as his growing involvement in questions of foreign policy. Though dense with details of wartime initiatives and parliamentary battles, Bullock provides wonderfully clear descriptions of Bevin’s policies and how they worked within the context of the war effort. It makes for a magnificent work that can be read with profit not just by those interested in Bevin’s life or his contributions to the war as Minister of Labour, but by anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of Churchill’s wartime government.

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review 2020-07-08 21:54
The ceaseless labors of a trade union leader
The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, Volume One: Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940 - Alan Bullock

When he died in 1951 Ernest Bevin was eulogized by many for his decade-long service as a cabinet minister. As Minister of Labour in Winston Churchill’s wartime government, he presided over the mobilization of the British workforce for the war effort, while as Foreign Secretary in the postwar Labour government he worked for the reconstruction of Europe and shaped the West’s response to the challenge posed by the newly-dominant Soviet Union. Yet this remarkable period came after a long career as a labor organizer, during which he played a pivotal role in the growth of British unions during the first half of the 20th century.

 

It is this period of Bevin’s life that is the focus of the first book in Alan Bullock’s three-volume account of his life and achievements. An academic best known for writing the first complete biography of Adolf Hitler, Bullock was invited by Arthur Deakin, Bevin’s successor as the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGUW), to chronicle Bevin’s multifarious achievements. Bullock rose to this challenge by authoring one of the great works of modern political biography, one that details Bevin’s lifelong efforts on behalf of the workers and the nation he held so dear.

 

As Bullock details, Bevin’s life of labor began at an early age. Growing up in rural Somerset, Bevin was forced at a young age to quit school and seek work as an agricultural laborer. After moving to Bristol, Bevin was employed in a number of different jobs before finding his calling as a labor organizer for the Dockers’ Union. Bullock shows how Bevin’s work as a labor leader was not just a career but a passion, one in which he invested an enormous amount of his time and energy, often to the point of exhaustion.

 

Such commitment was necessary given the challenges facing the labor movement in Britain at that time. One of the many strengths of Bullock’s book is in how he sets Bevin’s life in the context of an era, one in which unions struggled against numerous challenges to their existence. He credits Bevin with much of their success during their period, thanks to such achievements as his contributions to the postwar Shaw Inquiry and his key role in the formation in 1922 of the TGWU, his position in which cemented Bevin’s place at the forefront of Britain’s labor leadership.

 

While Bullock spends the bulk of the book describing Bevin’s many activities, he also draws from them a deeper understanding of his views and motivations. Though Bevin was a committed socialist from an early age, Bullock notes his longstanding ambivalence towards the Labour Party and particularly towards the intellectuals who shaped much of its ideology. In his view, their ideas all too often lacked a grounding in the realities facing the British working class. These Bevin was all too familiar with, as his duties as general secretary often took him across the length and breadth of the country and brought him into direct contact with the circumstances workers faced. Informed by such experiences, Bevin often found the political party claiming to be working on their behalf to be far too detached from problems they sought to address.

 

Nevertheless, Bevin became more invested in political solutions to these problems over the course of his career. As Bullock shows, this was a consequence of the setbacks facing the labor movement in the interwar era. With Britain’s global economic dominance eroding, workers often experienced the effects of this in the form of reduced wages and high unemployment. Despite his success in organizing workers, Bevin emerged from the famous General Strike of 1926 with a painfully-earned lesson in the limits of direct action. In its aftermath, he increased his involvement in politics, participating in Labour’s victory in the 1929 general election and helping to rebuild the party after their setbacks two years later. Though Bevin was periodically offered opportunities to stand for Parliament during the interwar era, he preferred to work from outside as a union leader, and it was only the demands of war in 1940 that compelled him to abandon his longstanding reluctance to serve in government and accept Winston Churchill’s offer to become Minister of Labour.

 

By the end of the book, Bullock has left his readers with a thorough grasp of Bevin’s accomplishments as a labor leader. Had he retired as general secretary in 1941 as he intended Bevin still would have lived a life deserving to be written about. As a prelude to his even more noteworthy achievements, though, it is even more worthy of study. Though clearly an admirer of Bevin’s, Bullock is critical enough to draw out key insights that provide a better appreciation of his subject’s views and motivations. His immersion in it results in a text that is often dense with details, but no less readable for it. It’s a book that is absolutely indispensable for anyone seeking an in-depth understanding of one of the greatest figures in modern British history, and it stands as a monument to his lifetime of ceaseless effort.

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review 2020-03-18 17:02
A stimulating interpretation of British strategy in the First World War
British Strategy & War Aims, 1914-1916 - David French

Discussions of British strategy during the First World War usually frame it in terms of a debate between “Westerners,” or the politicians and generals who wanted to focus British military efforts on the fighting in France and Belgium, and “Easterners,” or the ones who sought to open up fronts elsewhere in the hope of breaking the grinding stalemate. In this book, the first of two volumes he wrote examining the development of British war aims and the ways British leaders sought to achieve them, David French rejects this framing as a distorted product of postwar memoirs from the major figures involved. Instead he frames the debates as less a matter of “where” and more a question of “how”: namely, how the British could best accomplish their goals of maintaining the Entente and defeating Germany while ensuring that Britain would emerge from the war as the strongest of the belligerents. The hope was that by achieving these aims, Britain would maintain be in a position to dictate the terms of the peace and maintain their position as the dominant power in the world.

 

To argue his case, French begins his book by examining prewar British policy and the main people involved in making it. Here his focus is on the Liberal government of H. H. Asquith, though he also notes the important role played by the civil servants in the Foreign Office in influencing what were at times sharp disagreements on how best to advance British interests in an increasingly polarized international environment. These debates were unresolved when the war broke out in August 1914, forcing policymakers to take decisions based more on the course of events. Here the figure of Lord Kitchener looms large, as French sees his advocacy of the New Armies as key. Not only did this undermine the “business as usual” approach involving a war waged with the Royal Navy and financial subsidies that was favored by many politicians, but with the British army only reaching its maximum strength by early 1917 it would, Kitchener believed, leave Britain in a decisive position to dictate terms to the exhausted participants on both sides of the struggle. Until then, it was a matter of playing for time to achieve this position.

 

After establishing Britain’s underlying approach to the war, French then examines the response of policymakers to events as they unfolded over the next two years. Here his focus is predominantly on the high politics and the strategic views of the major actors, addressing their interpretation of developments from the standpoint of British interests and their overall goals in the war. What emerges in these chapters is the gradual shift away from prewar strategies and assumptions, which were driven by the demands of a war increasingly different from the one the British expected to fight. Yet for all the numerous ad hoc adjustments, policy deviations, and failed efforts that the British undertook during this period, their strategic goals remained the same, serving as the lodestar guiding British decisions throughout the early years of the conflict.

 

Though French’s book covers ground that has long been trod upon by other scholars, the author succeeds in providing a provocatively fresh interpretation as to how British policymakers approached the war. While it suffers to a degree from a too-rigid exclusion of consideration of domestic considerations, such as home-front politics and morale, it’s easy to see why his book and his follow-up volume have become the starting point for anyone seeking to understand the development of British strategy in the First World War. Even if one disagrees with some of French’s conclusions, it’s a book no one interested in the subject can afford to ignore.

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review 2019-08-13 23:55
Don't blame the Treasury!
British Rearmament and the Treasury, 1932-1939 - G. C. Peden

In the eight decades since the start of the Second World War, there has been an unending search of scapegoats to hold responsible for failing to prevent the greatest war in human history. For the British, one of the most persistent of these was the Treasury, whose "dead hand" has long been cited as a key factor holding back Britain's ability to adequately prepare for the threat posed by Nazi Germany. Were it not for the penny-pinching Treasury mandarins, the argument goes, His Majesty's army, navy, and air forces would have been in a better position to stop Germany, possibly even deterring the outbreak of war in Europe in the first place.

 

George Peden takes issue with this argument. In this dense but well-argued book, he makes the case that, contrary to the legend, the Treasury played a positive role in the rearmament of Britain in the 1930s. Drawing upon a range of documents from the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, and the service ministries (many of which had only been recently declassified at the time he wrote the book) he detailed the process of rearmament form the perspective of the Treasury, setting it in the context of contemporary perspectives and concerns. As he notes, throughout the 1930s the British were still grappling with the problems of the Great Depression, and while the economy was recovering steadily throughout the period it was of paramount importance to both politicians and civil servants to do nothing to jeopardize this. A major consideration in this respect was the argument of finance as the "fourth arm" of the British military effort, and the ongoing need to recover not just from the Depression but from the depletions of British finance caused by the First World War. Given these concerns, any rearmament efforts had to be measured ones.

 

Within those constraints, however, Peden sees the Treasury as playing a vital role in shaping rearmament efforts. Much of his book is about the role the Treasury played in this process, both in terms of policy formulation and in its implementation. Not only did the Treasury exert considerable influence in determining the amount of money budgeted for the military, they also played a role in determining on what that money would be spent. As Peden shows, much of this was done consultatively, taking into consideration the views of the respective service departments and the military professionals who headed the three branches. This forced the officials involved to determine their priorities in light of means, which, Peden concludes, "ensured that essential elements in Britain's defences were completed first", leaving the country better prepared for the long war that came about than it otherwise would have been.

 

By shedding light on the sometimes opaque process of fiscal policy formulation and implementation, Peden provides readers with a valuable study of how Britain readied for war in the 1930s. In the process, he makes a convincing case for a more nuanced judgment of the Treasury’s role, one that gives it due credit for its efforts to prepare the armed services and the national finances for the conflict that followed. Though some of his related judgments can be harsh (his treatment of Stanley Baldwin is a little cold-blooded), his book is necessary reading for anyone interested in learning about a vital aspect of British rearmament in the years before the Second World War, one that is no less important for how little attention it receives.

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review 2019-07-31 17:16
An efficient examination of Henderson's political career
Arthur Henderson - F.M. Leventhal

I have long wanted to read a biography of Arthur Henderson, yet the options are few: apart from Mary Agnes Hamilton's dated official "Life" of this longtime Labour politician and Nobel laureate there is just a puff-piece written at the peak of Henderson's career and Fred Leventhal's short contribution to Manchester University Press's "Lives of the Left" series. Though this is unfortunate, Leventhal makes it clear how much of the explanation for this is attributable to Henderson himself: while a renowned organizer and efficient party manager, he was not a great writer or speaker and left little in the way of revealing correspondence. Perhaps just as important a factor, though, was his personality, which Leventhal characterizes as "[a]uthoritarian, stubborn, [and] plodding," inspiring respect rather than affection from those closest to him.

 

One of the effects of this dearth of biographical studies is that it elevates the importance of Leventhal's book. In it he provides a concise, efficient overview of Henderson's career, tracing it from his early years as an ironworker and union leader to his role in building the Labour Party. Leventhal gives Henderson considerable credit for developing the party from a narrowly-focused union-dominated organization into one that had a national electoral presence. And while Leventhal does not discount Henderson's ambitions, he stresses his subject's commitment to his party over his personal career, a commitment that the author sees as the constant defining the key political decisions he made throughout his career. It's an argument that helps to explain why he was so admired by many of his peers, and underscores his pivotal role in the party's history as well as why Henderson deserves a more complete study of Henderson's life than Leventhal provides. Until he receives that readers will have to rely upon Leventhal's book, which provides the essentials about Henderson's political career efficiently and with insight.

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