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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 2020-07-24 05:00
When artists were kings
The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society - Caroline Dakers

In the second half of the 19th century, an informal group of artists coalesced in the northwestern London neighborhood of Kensington. Known as the Holland Park Circle, they often had different styles and subject matter but were united by geography and benefited collectively from a growing status of artists in the Victorian era. Thanks to their prosperity they built a series of houses in the neighborhood that both reflected their status and gave them opportunities to mingle with the wealthy and well-connected members of Victorian society, many of whom served as patrons and subjects.

 

Caroline Dakers’s book about the group functions on a number of different levels. In part it serves as a group biography, tracing the lives of such members as George Frederick Watts, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, and others, all of whom were esteemed in their day for their work. In tracing their lives and associations, though, it also serves as a biography of the neighborhood in which they lived. Carved out of the grounds surrounding Holland House, the rapidly developing community served as a crossroads of high Victorian society, where the artists socialized with both titled lords and the newly emergent class of wealthy manufacturers and upper-class professionals. Yet throughout this Dakers never loses sight of the art itself, as she uses the lives and the setting as context for her description of the artists’ works and their reception by their audience. It’s a masterful work that highlights effectively the intersection between art, commerce, and society in the Victorian world, and is rewarding reading for anyone interested in the era.

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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 2020-05-15 01:05
Behemoth, or The Long Parliament
Behemoth, or The Long Parliament - Stephen Holmes,Ferdinand Tönnies,Thomas Hobbes

For supporters of Charles I and his son, the middle of the 17th Century was a hard time and in the aftermath of the Restoration was a time to show they were right.  Behemoth is Thomas Hobbes’ history of the lead up to the English Civil War and the resulting Interregnum.

 

Covering roughly two decades of political, military, cultural, and religious upheaval within the frame of a dialogue, Thomas Hobbes uses the political framework written in Leviathan to analyze the breakdown of political order and how it was restored.  The first and second section of the book concerns how Charles I strong political position was undermined by seven factions acting independently of one another and how the King’s attempts to combat one faction were used by other factions to represent tyranny against their own party eventually leading to a rupture and war between King and Parliament.  The third section covered the civil war itself with neither side getting an advantage until the rise of Oliver Cromwell turned the tide for Parliament that eventually lead to the capture of the King and after political machinations from both sides, Charles is put on trial then executed.  The last section highlights how Parliament had no idea how to replace the King and went from one solution to another all the while Cromwell continued to accumulate power until taking over the place of Charles in all but the title of King.  However, after Cromwell’s death and weakness of his son’s leadership, General Monck uses his army to takeover the political situation and invite Charles II to take the throne.

 

While Hobbes uses the ideas in Leviathan to frame this history, it is essentially a Royalist view of the history of the 1640s and 1650s.  Throughout the book the prime factor that Hobbes saw as being the instigator of Parliament’s position against the King wasn’t taxes, but religion more specifically Presbyterian minister preaching from the pulpit against the King so they could achieve leadership of the nation like John Calvin had done in Geneva.  Though Hobbes did mention several other factors, his obsession on the religious aspect overawed everything else in this history which at times became too much.

 

Behemoth is ultimately a royalist history of events in the mid-17th Century.  Thomas Hobbes shows the breakdown of political order when the sovereign’s position is challenged and usurped by those that have no right to it and the chaos that follows, but through his partisan lens.

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review 2020-05-12 17:15
Review of The Age of Revolution by Winston Churchill
The Age of Revolution: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Volume III (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) - Winston Churchill,Jeffrey B. Webb,Jeffrey Webb

This was the third volume of Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples.  This volume health with the years from the Glorious Revolution to the end of Napoleon.  This book also included a few chapters on America including the Revolution, the first three Presidential Administrations, and the War of 1812.  I enjoy Churchill's writing style and find these survey books interesting to read - they also make me want to find books that are more in-depth on a variety of topics.

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