Walter Citrine

Walter Citrine:Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress

by Dr Jim Moher (JGM Books, from March 2021), £24.99 

This is the first biography of a trade union leader who was a leading figure in the Labour movement when the trade unions were a powerful influence in British society. It is also a study of his times for what it tells us about why unions were so important for working people and society and how they could be again. 

Walter Citrine is known today, if at all, for his classic guide to the conduct of union and party meetings, The ABC of Chairmanship, (known simply as ‘Citrine’ in union circles).  He is   remembered on the left as an authoritarian figure from the pre-war era. This was the period when they were drawn to extreme socialist and pacifist policies which the trade union leadership that he served, no longer identified with, after the experience of the General Strike and the rise of fascism. Ironically, Citrine was also seen by senior Labour politicians as someone who ‘laid down the law’ to them and the Labour Party became known to cynics as ‘the General Council party’. In fact, the 1930s were the most productive period of interactive policymaking by the two wings of the Labour movement. The fact that this liaison committee, the National Council of Labour, shaped the post-war programme of the most successful Labour government ever, from 1945, is best proof of this. Could it be that the unions, led single-mindedly by Citrine (and Bevin), got it about right, steering between the Scylla of the utopian left and the Charbydis of a weak parliamentary Labour leadership? Certainly, under TUC leadership, the unions came to be regarded as a vital part of the ‘body politic’, respected and listened to by politicians of all parties. This authority was vested especially in the person of Sir Walter Citrine, an honour which recognised the standing of the trade unions in 1935.

So, it is most surprising that the history books, even those written by many labour historians, have made so little of Citrine’s role.  

Citrine was not a ‘right-winger,’ nor simply a union baron, but a national leader from a strong union and socialist background. In his early days on Merseyside, he was a decidedly left-wing militant and he never lost that respect for union militancy, when justified. He was first smitten by the ‘industrial unionism’ (or syndicalism), which engulfed Liverpool from around 1911. The young Citrine, a skilled electrical worker, joined the small but pivotal group of electrical workers as that new power technology spread. By 1914, he was part of  the ETU leadership in the north west, elected as their first full-time Merseyside District Secretary. In that capacity, he dealt with all the key issues of the war – conscription, wage arbitration, dilution of skills and the odd unofficial short strike, in a manner attuned to his electrical members, despite the union leadership’s strong support for the war. But what brought him to prominence more than his own industrial activities, was his high-profile role in supporting the national police strike of 1919, which led to the Liverpool police authority describing him as ‘dangerous’.

In 1920, aged 33, Citrine was elected as a national officer based at the ETU’s headquarters in Manchester, during the biggest trade depression ever. Citrine made a name for himself through his mastery of the ETU’s finances, which stemmed their haemorrhaging of revenue previously controlled at branch level. It was this strong regional union and socialist background which brought him to national attention and prepared him for the job of Assistant General Secretary of the TUC from 1924.  

Although labelled ‘austere’ and ‘puritanical’ (his Presbyterian background was an influence on his strict disciplined approach), Citrine had good family and health reasons for adopting a strict non-smoking and mild social drinking life-style – a family curse of TB and his father’s alcohol habit, which left his large family very poor. But in 1914, the Liverpool Echo has him ‘with a really good tenor voice warbling sentimental and ragtime melodies’ to keep up the spirits of ‘a large party of cheerful strikers gathered round a piano.’ Throughout his time at the TUC, Citrine impressed his audiences by his meticulously marshalled and forensically presented arguments, with many flashes of humour and friendly engagement with opposing speakers, and always addressing the key points of the debate in his reply.  His General Council and Trades Union Congress speeches in the course of the next thirty years still read well. In many cases they were prescient about the big issues of the day which would face the unions, the Labour movement and the country. Over time, it was this substance which gained him respect and a formidable authority, which purely bureaucratic dictation could not have done.  

Citrine’s socialist emotions were very real from his first induction into the very left-wing Wallasey branch of the Independent Labour Party. He stood for Parliament for Labour in the 1918 general election for Wallasey on a very left-wing programme. He was greatly influenced by the writings of contemporary ILP leaders and especially, the then very radical socialist books and the Clarion newspaper of Robert Blatchford (Merry England and Britain for the British). The now forgotten Clarion movement radicalised much of the north of England in the decades before the First World War. His future TUC boss, Fred Bramley, toured the north for five years in one of their socialist propagandising caravans. Citrine was also conversant with and influenced by Marxist literature from his Social Democratic Federation workmate, Tom Brett, though he was never convinced by their class war or dictatorship of the proletariat dogmas.   

Leaf through the index of most historical accounts of this period in your local bookshop and you will not be detained long on the entries for Citrine. Yet, as his books (he published fifteen in all), diaries, correspondence, Trades Union Congress, IFTU and National Council of Labour (NCL) reports, show, he was involved prominently in most of the major events of that period. The book explores how the traumatic events of the General Strike and its aftermath were the turning point for Citrine, Bevin and most of the General Council. He was also involved deeply with the fortunes of the second Labour Governments of 1929-31, after which he contributed significantly to Labour’s recovery with enhanced union say. His international activities as TUC General Secretary and President of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) from 1928 to 1945, are less well known and not fully appreciated by many parliamentary-focussed historians. This international perspective on the turbulent inter-war events, which greatly informed TUC and Labour agendas, made him one of the most authoritative union (and national) figures of that time.  His IFTU Executive Council met in Berlin from 1931 to 1933, from where he reported to the General Council and Congress as Hitler was snuffing out the once-mighty German Labour movement. His speeches were also hugely influential in alerting people far beyond the Labour movement in Britain, Europe and America, about the threat posed to their liberties from fascism. In 1934, he set up (and chaired) the Anti-Fascist Council in New York and London, with prominent party and other opinion-formers, such as Churchill, addressing their large Albert Hall-size audiences. They countered the widespread anti-communist sympathy for Hitler amongst the British middle and upper classes, with the dangers of fascism.

Citrine had, in fact, a far more complex attitude to the Soviet Union and its rulers, than his reputation as an anti-communist suggests. He was originally a great fan of the Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, fondly calling the Soviet Union, Lenin’s Electric Republic. He saw that ‘new, clean power’ as having the potential to harness the Soviet Union’s vast undeveloped, hydroelectric resources so that they would get ‘the advantages of a planned economy and the blessings of modern civilisation’ there.[1] On his second visit in 1935, he still left a glowing testament in the visitors’ book at the Kirov Works: ‘We write with a sense of pride and honour not only for the privilege of viewing the great constructive work of the Revolution inspired and led by Lenin, but as apparently the first Britishers to record their views in this historic book.’ He published a remarkably balanced assessment of progress there, from his diaries called,  I Search for Truth in Russia, despite his by then disillusionment with the Soviet communist regime.  The wholesale execution of former revolutionaries after the world-wide sensation of the Moscow Trials of 1936-8, (Tomsky committed suicide rather than face arrest and trial), the invasion of Finland in 1939-40 and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1941, all alienated Citrine and most socialists in the west. Yet, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union later in 1941, Citrine was one of the first to call for an Anglo-Soviet alliance, going there again to cement it with a new joint Trade Union Committee.  The book tracks the unfolding of this ambivalent relationship.  

Citrine always made a distinction between communists tackling the gigantic task of transforming semi-feudal Russia and communists in the advanced capitalist democracies trying to take over the trade unions to lead the workers into confrontation with those states. He also distinguished between communists such as Harry Pollitt and Arthur Horner, as individuals, whom he had much respect for and in their capacity as agents of the Communist International or leaders of unofficial caucuses within unions.  Citrine always sought to expose and minimise this influence. ‘Look for the caucus’ was his advice in considering the character of the myriad of front movements which communists were behind. This account explores those complex distinctions through Citrine’s eyes.

In response to the Communist International’s attacks on the TUC for ‘betraying’ the General Strike and the communist-front Minority Movement’s attempt to supplant the constitutional leadership of the unions, Citrine articulated the General Council and union leaders’ case. He did this in a series of influential articles, which the TUC published as a booklet in 1928, entitled, Democracy or Disruption? – An Examination of Communist Influences in the Trade Unions. This documented the disruption caused by the activities of communist caucuses in the unions and it led to their isolation in all the major unions. From there on in, he was on the receiving end of a concerted personalised campaign of the most scurrilous kind of distortion and libellous articles imaginable. Though it was the communists who became isolated, some of the mud thrown stuck. Citrine was no longer there to defend himself after 1946, and so the alliance of the Bevanite left with the CPGB in the post-war period, generated an image of an authoritarian and bureaucratic TUC, which was far from reality (though with Bevin and Citrine’s departure, a vacuum did occur, as the large union leaders no longer deferred to Tewson’s weaker authority as General Secretary). 

Citrine accumulated more than his fair share of negative sniping from lesser men. Aneurin Bevan’s famous jibe, ‘Citrine has files’, (a pun on ‘piles’), was a sneering reference to his important modernisation of the TUC’s administrative system. He had engaged and motivated a team with many of the best brains in the movement to administer their small office as a civil service, which could deal on equal terms with governments of all hues.  In places that mattered, the TUC became acknowledged as a formidable champion of the union movement, whose ethos and commitment served it well over decades. These included, Vincent Tewson, Herbert Tracey, Walter Milne-Bailey, George Woodcock and Victor Feather, to name but the better-known TUC officials. It became a valuable resource serving the General Council and Congress, to become the single union centre which other nations’ movements were in awe of.  His dealings with the Socialist League (Sir Stafford Cripps, Clement Attlee et al), are also explored. In highlighting Citrine’s formidable influence in that Labour movement, his frailties and mistakes are not glossed over.

The Bevin-Citrine relationship

We examine Citrine’s tempestuous relationship with Bevin more closely. Their ‘involuntary partnership’ has long been appreciated, (Bullock) but it is less known that their relationship broke down badly during the war. The recent appearance of a new biography of Bevin by Lord Andrew Adonis, which lauds Bevin as ‘Labour’s Churchill’, makes it necessary to reveal a fuller picture. [2]

Their very different backgrounds, personalities and styles did not lend themselves to a close friendship, despite their agreement on all the key issues before the General Council since the General Strike. So, a more in-depth assessment of the secret of their success is called for. Undoubtedly, their complementary skills were a key factor, as Lord Bullock concluded. Citrine at the TUC, the voice of all the unions, speaking to governments (of all hues), as well as to employers’ organisations, with authority on behalf of a united union movement. Then Bevin for the T&GWU and the General Council, one of those transmitting the TUC consensus to Labour Party Conferences. Nor was it just a case of wielding the union ‘block vote’, they also won an amazing number of the big arguments.  

The various episodes in which they took prominent roles since the first Labour Government of 1924 are examined. This builds a picture of their relationship during the TUC years to 1940. The TUC’s role in the fall of the 1931 Labour government, is not dodged and a novel interpretation is advanced as to Bevin and Citrine’s roles for the General Council. As joint Secretary of the TUC/Labour Party liaison policy committee, the National Council of Labour on behalf of the General Council from 1931, Citrine was one of those instrumental in bringing about the sea-change of policy away from pacifism and for rearmament. Bevin’s biographers have claimed almost total credit for this and other achievements, but the record will show that Citrine was, at least, as responsible, if not the most significant, TUC figure. Finally, it is not appreciated by many historians that as Privy Councillor, (as Churchill made him when he declined an offer to be in the government), Citrine had access to all Ministers and their departments articulating the unions’ perspective. This was especially so with the Prime Minister, with whom Citrine had a close personal relationship since their Anti-Fascist Council days from 1936. He was able to use his good offices as TUC and IFTU leader to perform many diplomatic roles in Europe, the US and the USSR

But Citrine’s relations with Bevin as Minister of Labour and National Service, was not so good after the initial period during the threat of invasion, when they had worked closely to establish a system of close consultation. As the war wore on, however, relations became fraught and in fact, had broken down by 1942. Bevin publicly abused Citrine and The Daily Herald as ‘Quislings’, over a disagreement on skilled manpower call-up in 1941, which showed the tensions and stresses generated by the war. It was all downhill from there on as Citrine cooled on his erstwhile partner. It would culminate in Bevin’s manoeuvres to undermine Citrine’s TUC and IFTU attempts to establish a global union dimension to the United Nations Charter. At the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, the coalition Cabinet snubbed the TUC delegation, refusing their participation, for which Citrine held Bevin and Attlee mainly responsible. These high-level rows were never aired at home due to the landslide victory which installed the first majority Labour government in 1945. More pressing issues arose and then Bevin became Foreign Secretary and Citrine left the TUC for the National Coal Board. The book sheds light on these tensions between the two outstanding union and Labour leaders of the time.


So, is this all just a belated ramble over long-dead issues, of interest only to historians? There would be little appetite for such exercises generally in the British Labour movement. But given the paths that have been taken since Citrine’s time and the current weaker position of the trade unions and Labour Party, there should be lessons to be gained from Citrine’s vast experience in so many capacities. It has been truly said that Walter Citrine helped take the Labour movement ‘from Trafalgar Square to the corridors of power’.  Of course, it was a different time, and the unions of those days reflected an entirely different working class, whose solidarity and loyalty to their unions was legendary.  The main lesson for today, from the successful union movement that Citrine and Bevin led, is that after the slaughter of 1931 they devised an open and strong relationship which led to the radical programme of the 1945 Labour government. Citrine’s proposal to institutionalise open liaison and proper consultation in the National Council of Labour was key. Labour needs again to respect union strengths if it’s ever going to crack the ‘Red Wall’. It needs to see unions still as an important voice of working people, not just loyal financial bankrollers and voting fodder. That would require open and honest dealing. But the unions have to earn that role again, by building unity and a strong TUC rather than separate union fiefdoms. They need to show to the Labour leadership, through the force of their counsel, as Citrine did, that unions speak for working people in today’s world of work and society and that such counsel is informed by a wider social and not just a sectional perspective. A new Council of Labour to build confidence and respect, might be a good start.

Meantime let’s put Citrine back in the Pantheon of Labour leaders so that his insights and prescient judgements are restored to a new generation of leaders. His beautifully written two volume autobiography, Men and Work and Two Careers should be reprinted and made essential reading in all Labour movement courses.

Dr Jim Moher 

[1] Walter Citrine’s autobiography, vol 1, Men and Work, p.88. See my previous articles in Labour ReviewDecember 2017-March 2018, British Trade Unionists and the Soviet Union – the visit of Walter Citrine in 1925.  

[2] Andrew Adonis, Ernest Bevin, Labour’s Churchill (Biteback Publications 2020). This was reviewed by the writer for Labour Affairs, September 2020 issue. See also, my Leaders in the heyday of Britain’s unions: Walter Citrine and Ernest Bevin in Labour Affairs, February & March 2017.


Zoom meeting to launch Jim Moher’s book

Wednesday 24 March 6.30 pm

Please email the author to take part:

See ad ‘Zoom meeting’ at top of page

The book is now up for sale at Waterstone’s, Blackwell’s and the Book Depository, Amazon and all on-line bookseller sites

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