Why Bevin matters

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Atlanticists seem to have largely forgotten about the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and the role he played in the creation of NATO – for example, few of my former colleagues at the German Marshall Fund seemed to have even heard of him. As NATO approaches its 70thanniversary, which it will celebrate at a summit in London in December amid much uncertainty about its future, it seems like a good time to remember Bevin. But it is not just Atlanticists that seem to have forgotten him. It’s also the British left. With the Labour Party divided between centre-left Blairites and far-left Corybnistas, it seems to me that Bevin matters because he reminds us that a left-wing economic policy and a realistic, robust foreign policy can go together.

Bevin grew up in Devon, left school at the age of 11 and became a carter and trade union organizer in Bristol. In 1922 he became the first general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which by the time World War II broke out was the largest and probably the most powerful trade union in the world. In Never Again, a history of Britain in the immediate post-war period, Peter Hennessy describes Bevin was “the incarnation of the Labour Movement”. As Minister for Labour and National Service in Churchill’s war cabinet, Bevin “achieved more real gains for working class people – ‘my people’ as Ernie invariably called them – in terms of welfare and life chances than had ever been won before”. When Clement Attlee was elected as prime minister in July 1945, Bevin became foreign secretary.

Bevin played a crucial role in what became the Marshall Plan. When George C. Marshall gave his famous commencement speech at Harvard in June 1947, he had no clear idea of what American assistance to Europe might look like – within the State Department the plan was described as a “flying saucer”. Bevin seized on a single sentence of the Harvard speech – “the initiative, I think, must come from Europe” – and, as Alan Bullock puts in his biography of him, “threw all his energy into conjuring up a European response of sufficient weight and urgency to give substance to Marshall’s implied offer of American support”. It was, Bullock writes, “Bevin’s imagination in seeing what could be made of it and his boldness in taking the initiative which gave Marshall’s remarks the resonance they needed to become effective”.

Bevin was to play an even more decisive role in what became the alliance that provided the security on which economic recovery in Europe depended. In many ways, NATO was his idea. In a speech in the House of Commons in January 1948, as the Marshall Plan was still making its way through Congress, Bevin called for a “Western union”. Over the next 14 months, he turned this vision into a reality. The first step was the commitment to the security of France and the Benelux countries that Britain made by signing the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, which created the Western European Union. The second step was the commitment to the security of Europe that the United States made by signing the North Atlantic Treaty in April 1949, which created NATO. Without Bevin, it is doubtful whether it would have happened.

Since then, Bevin’s kind of leftism seems to have disappeared. After the electoral defeats of the 1980s, the British centre left shifted to the right on economic policy, while remaining committed to Atlanticism and in particular to NATO – a version of left-wing politics that was embodied by Tony Blair. Meanwhile the far left remained committed to a more left-wing economic policy, but also opposed Atlanticism and membership of NATO – a version of left-wing politics that is embodied by Jeremy Corbyn, whose passion has always been foreign policy. In other words, for anyone on the left, there seems to be a kind of binary choice between a Blairite economic and foreign policy or a Corbynite economic and foreign policy. The importance of Bevin is that he illustrates that this is a false choice.

It seems to me that it is now clear that Blairite economic policy was flawed. It remained trapped within the neoliberal parameters set by Margaret Thatcher and was too indifferent to the dramatic rise in inequality that began in the 1980s. As Stewart Wood has argued, the centre left was also too fatalistic about globalization (Blair famously compared debating globalization to debating “whether autumn should follow summer”). Moreover, since around the time of the financial crisis in 2008, the centre in British politics seems to have shifted to the left – at least on economic policy. Thus what that previously seemed unrealistic now seems possible. In short, Labour needed to move to the left on economic policy. The economic policy programme in the party’s 2017 election manifesto seems to me to make a lot of sense.

Yet shifting to the left on economic policy does not necessarily mean adopting Corbyn’s views on foreign policy and in particular his reflexive opposition to American power and uncritical solidarity with authoritarian movements and states. It is his foreign policy views, rather than the Labour Party’s economic policy agenda under his leadership, that I have a problem with. Bevin’s politics illustrate that you can be on the left in terms of economic policy – the economic policy of the Labour government in which he was a leading figure was actually way to the left of that of Labour under Corbyn – and still be in favour of a robust British foreign policy based on an understanding of the realities of international politics rather than naive idealism. In short, it seems to me that the British left needs less Corbynism and more Bevinism.

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One thought on “Why Bevin matters

  1. Well argued Hans. Agree with everything you’ve written here. Bevin is indeed, sadly forgotten and his ideas unheeded, among the left today.

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