Anne Deighton: ‘The Value Added of Political Life-Writing’

In the third of the Weinrebe lecture series, Professor Anne Deighton spoke about ‘the value added of political life-writing’ with reference to her work on Ernest Bevin. She reminded us about the durability of this genre: there have been so many recent biographies of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair. Former ministers love to write autobiographies as well as publishing their diaries: they are often used to settle scores. These books have two things in common: they are very long, and not many people read them. Professor Deighton spoke of some of the questions facing historians who write biography. Are their private lives really relevant to history? How significant are the lives of individuals? She suggested that there are occasions when the individual perspective really does matter to the broader historical context. For example, with Blair and Iraq, or with Thatcher and the Falklands: these were instances in which individuals were really exercising agency, not solely defined by the structures around them. Professor Deighton is interested in the ways in which ideas are transmitted and the ways in which institutions (for example, the Church, or the Conservative party) channel those ideas. For example, how did the Labour party turn ideas into practical policies in the years after 1945. She suggested that it is harder to shift existing policies in foreign policy, the sphere in which Bevin was operating. Bevin himself represents particular challenges for the biographer: he left no diary, no letters, no memoir; he preferred to deal in conversations with officials and his handwriting is barely legible. This, however, did not prevent an exhaustive three volume work which took eleven years to write, published in the early 1980s. But Professor Deighton argues that there is merit in taking a fresh look at his life. Bevin was a child labourer and always an unskilled worker: without skill, he had little prospect of upward mobility. He was, however, a passionate trade unionist, always more interested in the unions than the Labour party. He was in his 30s before his political career took off as part of the TGWU. He was interested in the international labour movement and aspired to become Secretary General of the ILO: instead he was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime government, working closely with Churchill despite personal antipathy. In 1945 he was unexpectedly appointed Foreign Secretary. The odds were stacked against success: expectations of the socialist government were very high yet the UK was bankrupt. He was came under personal attack for an apparent failure to deliver change and the perception that he had too readily become part of the establishment. But Professor Deighton suggested that change is harder to deliver in foreign policy because there is greater institutional inertia. Bevin believed in Britain’s status as a great power and that possessing an atom bomb was necessary to underlining this. He saw that Britain had leadership obligations but also acknowledged the USA’s unique role in the post-war world. He saw economics as central to diplomacy and prosperity as a pathway to lasting peace. As a union man, he was ambivalent about free trade, and wanted to secure benefits for ‘my people’ – on the other hand, he was a transnationalist who cared about the fate of the working classes across the world. There were issues – China, Palestine and India – where he could have little impact (India, for example, was not in his brief.) But he perhaps had the most significant and lasting impact on foreign policy of any Foreign Secretary in the 20th century. The institutions which he helped shaped – the UN, World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the Council of Europe, to name just a few – continue to play a significant role in the world today. Issues that he grappled with – the ending of imperial regimes, the role of Russia, nuclear power – continue to have echoes into our own day. Bevin wanted to integrate his own experience and background into foreign policy: he believed in bringing people into decision making through democratic engagement. He knew the vulnerability of people at the bottom of the pile because he had once been there himself, and so he understood their inherent conservatism and resistance to change. As a trade union man, he also became a pragmatist and could live with less than ideal outcomes. Bevin was a do-er, not a thinking or an ideas man. He could sometimes blunder and sometimes be a bully. But he wanted to make things happen, and he saw this set of institutions as the most effective way to channel power in the new world order. He recognised the importance of soft power as well as military might. His effectiveness can easily be measured against his successor, Morrison, whose term shows how weak the Foreign Secretary can be. But though active and dynamic in the early years, towards the end of his term, Bevin became increasingly constrained by Foreign Office operations. Attlee sacked Bevin over the phone while at his own birthday party: he died shortly after. Professor Deighton concluded by suggesting that for historians, a chronological life is not enough: the research must speak to the literature in the discipline. Biography is a narrative: history is a judgement.

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