The greatest Briton: Ernest Bevin

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Ernest Bevin

By Brendan Barber, general secretary elect of the TUC

Ernest Bevin deserves the accolade of the Greatest Briton in Management and
Leadership on three separate counts.

First, for his role in the creation and leadership of the Transport &
General Workers Union, which became the world’s largest union for unskilled and
semi-skilled workers. The union delivered better living standards for millions
of the nation’s poor and gave dignity to a class that until that time had known
little other than oppression and exploitation.

Second, as Minister of Labour and National Service in the Cabinet, during
the Second World War, he not only played a leading role in the victory over
Nazi Germany, but showed that a free country that maintained civilised labour
standards in even the most difficult circumstances could defeat a state whose economy
was based on slavery and forced labour.

Finally, he was quite simply the greatest Foreign Secretary of the 20th
century and, arguably, of all time.

But, for me, what makes Ernest Bevin the Greatest Briton is that despite
being born in a country where your class has such a massive impact on what you
can do in life, he achieved all that he did as the illegitimate seventh child
of an impoverished domestic worker.

He lived in the rural South West, and was orphaned at the age of eight. He
left school at 11, and earned his living through manual labour up until the age
of 30.

In the Greatest Briton race, Bevin has to be the runner who started off
carrying the heaviest handicap yet, for my money, he’s still the odds-on

He had great personal qualities that would have shone through in any age,
and was a big man in every sense of the word. American union leader Samuel
Gompers once described Bevin’s hands as ‘bunches of bananas’, and in later life
they were as much used for thumping international conference tables as they had
been for humping crates around the streets of Bristol in his earlier days.

But he had the brains to match the brawn, and his ability to grasp and
articulate an argument was second to none.

He first came to prominence making the dockers’ case for fair pay before a
public inquiry in 1920. According to contemporary reports his 11-hour
introductory speech never suffered from repetition, deviation or hesitation.
But more than that, he showed a flair for public relations way ahead of his
time, cooking and placing before the inquiry insubstantial meals, whose
ingredients he had bought for the amount the employers’ representative had
argued was all a docker needed to feed his family and sustain himself during a week’s
arduous labour.

This meant they did not have to hear his arguments, they could see and even
taste them. As a result he was soon dubbed ‘the dockers’ kings counsellor’.

Bevin was never at a loss for bright ideas – many way ahead of their time –
and quite a few of them came to him while cleaning his boots. This was a habit
he never gave up despite Winston Churchill’s wartime efforts to provide his
Cabinet colleague with a ‘batman’ to undertake domestic tasks.

He was always clear about what needed to be done – an essential quality in
any leader – and never at a loss for a telling phrase. When told that a Labour
Minister was ‘his own worst enemy,’ his response was to say: "Not while
I’m alive he’s not." And to a civil servant: "You very bright people
have just given me 20 reasons why I can’t do this. Now go away and come back
with 20 reasons why I can do it."

However, it was the trade union movement, which provided the means by which
these qualities could shine.

Appointed to a local union post in his 30th year, Bevin became national
organiser of the Dockers’ Union within two years. He was soon nominated as the
Trades Union Congress delegate to visit the US unions – a trip during which he
picked up many ideas which he later applied in this country, not least the
creation of a union building that became Transport House and of the best-known
political addresses of the 20th century.

By the age of 41 he was general secretary of the newly created Transport
& General Workers Union.

But if the union made ‘Ernie’ strong, then his greatest quality was an
ability to make ordinary people stronger, whether he did it through the union,
through ministerial office or through the international gatherings that helped
to create the post-Second World War settlement that led to the UK’s withdrawal
from Empire.

Even the Greatest Briton can have one weakness, however, and Bevin supported
Chelsea when it is clear that Everton were and are the greater football team.

But he was a great man and we are all the greater for his achievements.

Bevin’s CV

1881 – Born 7 March

1889 – Orphaned when his mother died, taken in by his half

1892 – Started work as farm labourer Moved to Bristol as manual

1911 – Full-time official of Dockers’ Union

1922 – First General Secretary of the Transport & General
Workers Union

1936 – President of the TUC

1940 – MP and Minister of Labour and National Service in the
War Cabinet

1945 – Foreign Secretary

1951 – Lord Privy Seal

1951 – Died 14 April aged 70

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