Manus O’Riordan and Ernest Bevin

Manus O’Riordan and Ernest Bevin 

By Dave Alvey

A Note on Manus O’Riordan

Manus O’Riordan was an Irish trade unionist and socialist who had many friends in the British labour movement. Following his sudden death on 26 September 2021, and reflecting his popularity across the multivarious strands of the political and trade union worlds, his funeral was attended by the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, Government Ministers, past and present, current members of the Irish parliament and a large contingent of the Irish Left.

O’Riordan held the position of head of research with Ireland’s largest union, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (now SIPTU) for nearly forty years. A strong advocate of industrial democracy, his influence on the 21-year ‘social partnership’ between unions, employers and the Irish Government has been recognised as seminal. Outside of politics he participated actively in politics being at different times a member of the Connolly Youth Movement, the British and Irish Communist Organisation and the Democratic Socialist Party.

His father was the long-term Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. While father and son differed on some issues, Manus helped to run the Friends of the International Brigades in Ireland and was Irish secretary of the International Brigade Memorial Trust. It was through these organisations that O’Riordan had many friends in Britain, including Jack Jones and Jeremy Corbyn.

Over many years he contributed a steady stream of thoughtful articles to publications in the Athol Books stable like Irish Political Review and Irish Foreign Affairs. He was a subscriber to Labour Affairs.

***

In an article on the wake and funeral of Manus O’Riordan in the November 2021 edition of Irish Political Review, I referred to a story told at the funeral by Mick O’Reilly, a retired official of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union and a well-known figure on the Irish Left. Given that humour is almost always welcome in social settings, and that Mick was at the funeral to show his respects, absolutely no offence was taken by the story. Mick was, however, making a political point and answering it affords an opportunity to say something about Manus’s views on the British labour movement.

Since the focus of attention is the influence exerted by Ernest Bevin on a Labour Government, the challenge currently facing Sinn Fein on what it would do in Government must be a background consideration. In my November article Mick O’Reilly is listed among a group of individuals from the worlds of Trade Unionism and politics who were at the funeral. The ensuing paragraph reads: 

“Mick, who is the father of Sinn Fein TD and Shadow Spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly, made an interesting comment about Manus. Hearing that he was a member of a group called the Ernest Bevin Society in London many years ago, he and a group of colleagues asked Jack Jones, then Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union in Britain, for his view on Bevin. The reply from Jones, who incidentally was also a friend of Manus’s and whom he stoutly defended when Jones was slandered in the British press, was that “Bevin never had a left-wing thought in his life”. It was a friendly and decent gesture on Mick’s part to attend the funeral and his presence underlined how Manus kept on good terms with all strands of trade union opinion. He can rest assured that an explanation of Bevin’s contribution to the socialist advance achieved in Britain by the post-war Labour Government, with which he is free to disagree, will be offered in Irish Political Review in due course.”

The first points to be acknowledged are that, on the surface of things, it is certainly out of the ordinary that a group participating on the left of British Labour politics should call itself after Ernest Bevin, and strange also that Manus, the son of the most well-known General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland and, despite differences, someone who continued a fraternal relationship with that party, should wish to be associated with that group. In his time, Bevin was known, not only as a staunch opponent of communist influence in the Trade Unions, but also as a Union leader who was opposed and resented by socialist MPs and intellectuals from the 1930s onwards, including Nye Bevan. When Foreign Secretary, Bevin was accused of being anti-Semitic, simply because he spoke up for Palestinians, while Manus grew up in a Jewish district in Dublin, had many life-long Jewish friends, and was known for his outspoken support of the Jewish contribution to socialist and communist movements throughout the world.

The statement from Jack Jones about Bevin never having a left-wing thought is what one would expect of Jones if he were simply a Union leader aligned with the Left. It’s quite possible that he made that statement as some stage in his long career. Yet Jones was not a typical leftist Union leader. He was General Secretary of Bevin’s Union between 1968 and 1978, a critical time, and was a firm supporter, unlike most of the Left, of Industrial Democracy and of the Bullock proposals for having workers on the Boards of all large enterprises on a 50-50 basis with share holders.

Jones, having participated in the Spanish Civil War, knew Manus through the International Brigade Memorial Trust.

In any case, Earnest Bevin was and is reviled by the British Left to the point that his contribution is all but forgotten. It was left to a mainstream academic, Alan Bullock, to chronicle his leadering role at a critical time in British history. Bullock spent twenty years writing a well-regarded three volume biography of Bevin.

On a less important note, Bevin was, in 1922, the co-founder and first General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union in Britain (hereafter referred to as the T&G). He must have had a role in choosing the Union’s name. It might be said that the choice of name displayed an arrogant attitude towards Irish Trade Unionism, given that the largest Irish union at the time was the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). In any case, the T&G had members in Ireland, especially in the North, so the similarity between the two names was likely to become a source of confusion. Discussions took place and the agreed compromise was that in Ireland the T&G would be known as the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union. That relatively unimportant piece of history provides another reason why Manus, a leading official of the ITGWU (now SIPTU), very familiar with its history, might not be well disposed towards Ernest Bevin.

Labour Affairs is the journal of the Ernest Bevin Society. In researching this article, I have drawn from four articles on the Labour Affairs website: ‘Bevin Society’, a summary of the aims of the Society (https://labouraffairs.com/bevin-society/) ‘How the Bevin Society came about’, an explanation of how a group of Irish communists in the 1960s, then called the Irish Communist Organisation, recognised the career of Ernest Bevin up until 1945 as the high point in working class power (https://labouraffairs.com/how-the-bevin-society-came-about/), and two articles by Brendan Clifford, ‘Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis’, a review of what appears to be a dreadful biography of Bevin by a Blairite member of the House of Lords (https://labouraffairs.com/2021/04/02/ernest-bevin-labours-churchill-by-andrew-adonis/) and ‘Bevin, The Anti-Semite’, a lucid investigation and refutation of the various claims that Bevin harboured a prejudice against Jews (https://labouraffairs.com/2021/05/01/bevin-the-anti-semite/) . (These articles can be accessed by using Google or by navigating the labouraffairs.com website).

I’ve also used articles from labouraffairsmagazine.com, a website holding old articles from predecessor magazines to Labour Affairs: Labour and Trade Union Review and The Communist. An interesting page on that site, entitled ‘Ernest Bevin’s Lost Labour Heritage’, comprises seven editorials written for The Communist in 1981 mainly by the late Conor Lynch (https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ernest-bevins-lost-labour-heritage/). In addition to a summary of the relevant labour history, these contain useful quotations from the Bullock biography, as well as extracts from speeches made by Bevin in the House of Commons, retrieved from Hansard.

On the same site I was surprised to come across a speech given by Jack Jones to a Labour Party fringe meeting in 1991 with the title, ‘What Ernest Bevin did for Trade Unionism’ (https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ernest-bevins-lost-labour-heritage/). The meeting was organised by the Ernest Bevin Society!

In the course of the Address, Jones stated, “And Bevin was a socialist, make no mistake about that; he advocated socialism all through his life”. Jack Lane tells me that he doesn’t recollect the details of the meeting but reckons that Manus must have been instrumental in Jones making that Address. The Address to the Bevin Society and Jones’s statement about Bevin’s socialism really answers Mick O’Reilly’s story. However, more needs to be said.

What Bevin Stood For

That Manus was willing to lend his support to a London-based group called the Bevin Society, and his having such an association should be regarded as bizarre by a representative of the Irish Left, is a difference of opinion that can be taken at different levels. At one level it represents a disagreement regarding British labour history between two Irish Trade Unionists who share a common commitment to Socialism, at another it is an unresolved core issue for both European Social Democracy and for the European Left, and it is a crucial issue for Sinn Fein as it strategises to win sufficient electoral support to participate in Government.

Conor Lynch put what Bevin stood for in a nutshell when he said: “Ernest Bevin made democratic politics effective in bringing about substantial social changes, and, in order to make it effective, took it out of wonderland”. On the other hand, Bevin’s leftist critics clung to the dogma that Socialism could only be achieved in some Marxist variation of the model established by the Bolshevik Revolution. It is hard to credit but that dogma still underpins a great deal of left-wing thinking.

It was deeply unfortunate that the ‘leftist’ politics of figures like Nye Bevan, Manny Shinwell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn etc. won out over the politics that Bevin established—and not just for the British Labour Party. The success of the post-War Labour Government in Britain set an example for Social Democrats in Europe and further afield, so patterns set in Britain tended to be followed elsewhere: witness how the triumph of Blair was emulated by other Social Democratic parties as they caved in to, or embraced, the liberal economics that eventually led to the international banking crisis. The socialist politics represented by Bevin, and the opposition he faced at every turn from leftist MPs, especially Nye Bevan, Manny Shinwell, James Maxton and Willie Gallacher, are well described in Conor Lynch’s articles. In one he quotes Alan Bullock as follows:

“Bevin knew that because of what he represented he was one of the great powers in the land. On joining the Churchill government in May 1940, he called a meeting of all the trade union executives in the country and come to an agreement with them as to how the war economy was to be run. Then, knowing where the power lay, he advised them:

‘I don’t want you to get too worried about every individual that may be in the Government. We could not stop to have an election… But this I am convinced of: if our Movement and our class rise with all their energy now and save the people of this country from disaster, the country will always turn with confidence to the people who saved them. They will pay more attention to an act of that kind than to the theoretical arguments or any particular philosophy’…” (Life and Times of Ernest Bevin by Alan Bullock, Vol 2, p. 20) 

Bevin was able to take charge of the war economy partly because of low morale in the Tory Party following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister, but some Tory representatives were affronted by the idea of a Trade Union leader wielding State power. Lynch describes how Lord Beaverbrook, enjoying the favour of Churchill and owning a number of newspapers, resented the authority that Bevin quickly attained as Minister for Labour. He began to obstruct Bevin, eventually forcing a showdown, but it was the newspaper baron that was forced to resign while the Minister for Labour consolidated his position.

Bevin’s strategy regarding the war economy was straightforward. The supply of materials like coal and steel needed to be guaranteed so strikes needed to be prohibited or at least kept to a minimum. He introduced strict regulations setting down that all workplace grievances were to be resolved through arbitration. Strike instigators were to be given jail terms but he chose to use such provisions as sparingly as possible.

In response to MP Manny Shinwell’s demand that military discipline be enforced on workers, Bevin stated he wished to be a leader, not a dictator. He considered managerial standards in industry to be weak. He said that conferring military authority on company directors would undermine the atmosphere of national solidarity necessary to the war effort.

Nye Bevan strenuously objected to Bevin’s preference for working out agreements between Unions and Employers before bringing proposals to Parliament. He considered Bevin wrong to operate the war-time regulations in close cooperation with the Unions, thus ignoring the millions of workers who were not Union members. In the course of a long oratorical speech to the Commons on 28th April 1944, he concentrated his fire on “the logic behind the Minister of Labour’s policy throughout the war”. He stated: “This regulation is the enfranchisement of the corporate society and the disfranchisement of the individual. It gives status to the organised body, and destroys the status of the individual citizens.”

This antipathy to corporatism is a recurring theme of the British Left. Structured negotiations between Unions and Employers, under that way of thinking, run close to being class collaboration. The approach jars with the Marxist concept of class war—a conflict always destined to end in defeat, from that perspective. And, of course, from that perspective, meaningful corporatist arrangements cannot but lead down a slippery slope to Fascism.

But the leftist MPs in the Labour Party, exemplified by Nye Bevan, along with the Independent Labour Party represented by Maxton and Shinwell, and the Communist Party of Great Britain represented by Gallagher, were quite unable to address the needs of the situation in the common-sense manner offered by Bevin. In retrospect, their snapping at his heels comes across as opposition for its own sake—indeed the Speaker of the Commons ruled early in the War that they should be denied the status of Official Opposition, meaning that they did not represent an alternative governing force.

Bevin answered Bevan on the question of Corporatism by defending the consulting of Unions regarding the war-time regulations. He charged that

“when the first Regulation was made [in 1940] there was no protest from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale [Bevan] against consulting the TUC, things were more dangerous then, and silence reigned over a great part of the country that is now vociferous”.

Bevan had attacked one of the regulations on the grounds that it protected what was said in Trade Union branch meetings but these protections did not extend to individuals who were not Union members and therefore not in Union Branches. Bevin’s reply on that point captures some of the spirit of what he stood for.

“I regard the trade union branch jealously as a place of assembly, where no one but those entitled to attend can he present. Whatever is said in that branch is as sacrosanct to me as what a man says in his own home and I am against detectives, police or anybody having the right to go into a branch and use anything that is said, however wise or however foolish, in a police court as evidence against a man.”

Bevin was a life-long socialist who picked up ideas from his Baptist upbringing and from time he spent in the early Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, yet he approached politics and Trade Unionism pragmatically and thoughtfully. In that same parliamentary debate on 28th April 1944, he said:

“I am not going to elaborate this too much, but I have fought more unofficial strikes than any other man in this country and won, and I have got the largest union in the world to-day, one of the most effective and one of the most efficient, whatever may be said.”

Speaking to dockers in February 1942, he made a proposal which shows how he could develop original ideas that could be used in advancing workers’ interests, despite war-time pressures.

“You have all got your books of rules, you have all got your past customs and practices, and I propose to register them en bloc…; and when the time comes for us to restore them they can be put back without question. I said in the House of Commons the other day that those things are property rights. It has taken years to get them—I have spent a few years getting them myself…” (Bullock, Vol 2, p. 208).

Laying Foundations of Post-War Government

The viewpoint originating on the left that the united front with employers and participation in the war-time Coalition with Churchill would end badly for Labour could not have been more wrong. The Labour Party won a famous landslide victory in 1945. An important element in the success of that Government was the preparatory work done during the war, and Bevin was to the fore in that work. In one of the 1981 editorials, Full Employment, Conor Lynch wrote about the importance of a White Paper on employment that Bevin introduced in 1944. He wrote:

“…Bevin had by this time already taken steps to make the maintenance of full employment in the post-war period the first priority which all parties would have to subscribe to, and had proposed measures for achieving it. The Beveridge Report, produced under his auspices, was a detailed development of an approach which he had had in mind since about 1930, and on June 21, 1944 he introduced a White Paper on employment policy based on the Beveridge Report. The object of the White Paper was the maintenance of a ‘high and stable level of employment without sacrificing the essential liberties of a free society’…” (http://hansard_millbanksystems.com/commons/1944.ju/21/ employment-policy).

In the course of his speech on the White Paper, Bevin related an anecdote

“‘I had an opportunity of visiting one of our ports and seeing the men, of the 5th Division… going aboard ship… They were going off to face this terrific battle… The one question they put to me … was, “Ernie, when we have done this job for you, are we going back to the dole?””

On that occasion Churchill was present alongside Bevin. Both leaders answered the question by saying no. In other words, Bevin had the support of a section of the Tory leadership in proposing that Full Employment should be the centre point of economic policy. The following extract from Bevin’s White Paper speech shows how well he understood the meaning of socialism, but also how well he grasped a key dynamic of British history. 

“The main purpose of the White Paper, and the Motion, is to declare war on unemployment, and to indicate how our resources should be harnessed for that purpose. Our monetary system, our commercial agreements, our industrial practices, indeed, the whole of our national economy, will have applied to them the acid test—Do they produce employment or unemployment? Under the system which governed our economic life from the industrial revolution onwards, unemployment and deflation were regarded, in the main, as automatic correctives for the lack of equilibrium in our financial and economic position. Incidentally, it was just 100 years ago, after the passing of the Corn Law Act and the Bank Act, that that automatic control was introduced. This meant that industry and human beings had to adapt themselves to the working of the financial system, instead of the system being adapted to the needs of the individual.”

In the debate on the White Paper, Maxton, Shinwell and Bevan, probably suspecting that the employment policy would be implemented by a post-war coalition, greeted the proposal with their customary vociferous opposition. Churchill wanted the war-time Coalition to continue after the war but did not get his way on that and, as they say, the rest is history. A fatal mistake of the Labour Government, arguably, was to appoint Bevin as Foreign Secretary rather than Chancellor of the Exchequer. In any event he died in April 1951 when Clement Atlee’s recently installed second Government was already in trouble. A topic worthy of investigation by historians of European social democracy is why the most successful Labour Government in British history was unable to deliver a second term.

Bevin’s Place in History

The following two paragraphs by Brendan Clifford provide a succinct account of Bevin’s legacy: 

“Bevin was both the strategist and the founder of the welfare state established in the 1940s, which was constructed so securely that it still exists in substance despite all that has been done by Thatcher and Blair to erode it. He was the strategist in the 1920s and 1930s when, as creator and leader of the powerful Transport and General Workers Union, he distanced himself from the socialist ideologues and worked out how to make actual and functional reforms in the working class interest. He laid the foundations of the welfare state between 1941 and 1945, in Coalition with the demoralised Tories, when, as Minister for Labour, he ran the country while Churchill ran the war. In 1945-50 he was Foreign Secretary while the domestic reforms were worked out under Attlee’s direction. 

An evolving Labour movement would have taken the Bevin/Attlee era (1940- 1950) as its historical base area and worked its way forward from it. What actually happened was that Bevin was depicted as a right-wing ogre by the socialist ideologues prior to being removed from political memory, and Attlee was sidelined as a kind of plaster saint. With the passing of Attlee and Bevin, the Labour Party was ‘radicalised’ by Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, etc. In this state of mind it could only enact superficial and fleeting reforms. It could not see where essential reforms, difficult to reverse, were to be made. The last Labour (as distinct from New Labour) Government enacted many reforms, all of which were easily undone by Thatcher. But the radicals had no time for the proposal of a Royal Commission that the workforce in enterprises should be represented on the board of management on equal terms with the shareholders. That reform, if enacted, would have been well-nigh irreversible, and on a par with the 1945 reforms. But it somehow appeared worthless, or even damaging, to the ideology which had developed from a rejection of the Bevin/Attlee approach” (From the review of Labour’s Churchill by Lord Adonis) 

Brendan answers the accusation that Bevin was an anti-Semite by arguing that anyone making that charge would need to provide evidence of it in the years before he became Foreign Secretary—a major task he faced as Foreign Minister was responding to Zionist terrorism in Palestine. He shows that none of the accusers have taken that elementary step. That they have not done so tells its own story.

Sinn Fein Influenced by the Bevan Tradition?

It was fortunate at the funeral that Mick O’Reilly drew attention to Manus’s support for the Bevin Society. It’s an aspect of his involvement in socialist politics that deserves to be remembered, especially now that the possibility of Sinn Fein playing a role in government has become a real prospect. If Manus considered Ernest Bevin a Trade Union leader worth naming a Society after, then some people in the movement might be induced to investigate the matter. That Manus acted as a sort of bridge between diverse elements in Irish politics was plain enough at the funeral. But, in so far as Irish Republicans pay heed to British radicalism, is Sinn Fein influenced by the political tradition that Jeremy Corbyn belongs to? Does the cult of Nye Bevan hold sway with them? On the surface of things, those questions would have to be answered in the affirmative. A book by Eoin O Broin, the Sinn Fein spokesperson on Housing, was published in 2019. Entitled, Home, it addresses the Irish housing crisis and has a chapter with the heading, ‘Nye Bevan’s Vision’. In the book’s Preface, Paul Mason, a socialist writer in Britain, steeped in the Bevanite orientation of the British left, lauds O’Broin and highlights the author’s referencing of Bevan’s conviction that housing should not be seen as a commodity.

In fairness to O Broin, both his chapter on Bevan and the Preface might be described as window dressing or packaging. The book’s main proposals address the core issues of the housing crisis and provide solutions that are practical and politically doable; they are based on years of hard campaigning by Sinn Fein and are superior to the proposals set out in, for example, Rory Hearne’s book, Housing Shock. While some statements in the chapter on Bevan could be disputed, the extract from his speech during the passage of the Housing Bill of 1949 contains a good summary of the socialist case for public housing.

Sinn Fein deserves support for its efforts to tackle the crises in housing and health. However, before placing Nye Bevan on too much of a pedestal that party should take cognisance of the weaknesses of the British Left. The Labour movement in Britain would have met with much greater success, as against the loss of its basic sense of purpose, if it had kept to the path designed for it by Ernest Bevin. Jack Jones and Manus O’Riordan were certainly open to that viewpoint. 

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