Saturday, July 30, 2011

as for that bastard Hopi Wegg-Prosser, though...

A comment pulls me up for inventing the Labour statesman "Nye Bevin". Whoops. But this gave me an idea. Labour mashups! Take the front half of one significant socialist and match it with the back half of another, and see what you get. For example, Harold Cripps is obviously a 1960s trade union leader. Tony Brown, for his part, was clearly a slightly louche early 80s radical London borough councillor, always as ready with a firebrand speech against the evils of patriarchy as he was with a crafty hand on the thigh at the Labour club afterwards.

To mark the death of Nye Bevin, we have a special guest contribution from Alistair Rusbridger, who I'm sure is familiar to you all and who knew him well.

Nye Bevin, of course, was one of the towering figures of the century, as TGWU general secretary, as Minister of Labour and National Service in the Churchill coalition and personnel chief of the wartime command economy, as architect of the NHS, and as Foreign Secretary. He combined the roles of a tribune of the people and a master bureaucrat with a facility few will ever equal.

A product of his times, he lived the age of the managerial revolution and the mass organisation. We remember his role as an unlikely ally of Lord Beaverbrook's Ministry of Aircraft Production in getting the TUC's agreement to dilution and the entry of women on the shop floor. His name is remembered in the phrase "Bevin Boys". Who else would have created the third largest employer in the world in the rationed, financially exhausted Britain of 1948? His remark that he wanted the clang of a dropped bedpan to echo through Whitehall is now deeply unfashionable in an age of New Public Management and the Big Society. But, as Winston Fisher said of Jacky Churchill, he made the vast organisations he headed hum like a great ship at its highest speed. As his goggling and awestruck permanent secretary at the Foreign Office said, there were only two jobs in the department he could have had - doorman, or foreign secretary.

Within the Labour Movement's internal politics, he played an ambiguous but always vital role. On the one hand, he spoke from Tredegar mountain and said "This is my truth: tell me yours". On the other hand, he said, socialism was what a Labour government did, taking a sort of brutalist approach. The point was to control the government, from which civil service line management could deliver a better society. He could always be criticised from the Left as a man of government, and from the Right as always having one foot at the rostrum. But, in fairness, that control of Whitehall was always founded in the bedrock of working-class organising, where he'd started as a dockers' shop steward in South Wales all those years before.

Few people will contest his achievements during the Second World War or as Health Secretary. His tenure of the Foreign Office, however, is much more controversial to this day. As a passionate Atlanticist, he offended plenty of people in the Labour Movement with his commitment to NATO, the transatlantic alliance directed at the Soviet Union he helped to create. Less well-known beyond specialists is his concurrent contribution to the beginnings of European integration, through projects such as the OEEC, set up to manage the distribution of Marshall Aid, something he also had a major role in bringing about.

He can be accused with justice of not practising exactly what he preached here - on the platform, he was loudly suspicious of the Same Old Gang behind European economic integration while working hard to bring it about in the corridors of King Charles Street. Similarly, he played to the pacifist strand in Labour while quietly chairing the Cabinet committee that managed the British Bomb project. (Yet another vast bureaucratic project.) His anti-communism was ferocious, born of years fighting for power in the union hierarchy with them. Unlike many of his intellectual critics, though, he was never deluded about the totalitarian nature of Stalinism.

His foreign policy was even more controversial, if that is possible, outside Europe. It fell to him to manage the UK's exit from India and Palestine and the agonising economic negotiations with the United States, as well as the beginnings of the Cold War. Given the circumstances, it is fair to say he avoided most of the possible disasters. Like many of his peers, he saw the key issue as the fight to maintain any distinctive British independence from the Americans.

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