Not while I'm alive, he ain't - Part 1
Presented by Brian Walden
Broadcast on The Westminster Hour, Sunday March 31 2002
One of the first lessons a young politician learns is that while the other parties may be your opponents, you should always look among your own side to find your true enemies. And relations with hostile colleagues can often be a defining force in a political career. What's more, these political rivalries are more than personal tales - they have extensive political consequences. In this series I will be exploring some of the most intriguing political rivalries of the twentieth century. Let's start with the long-running feud between two great figures in Labour party history, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, which provides us with our title. The story goes that someone once remarked of Morrison that he was his own worst enemy, and Bevin immediately butted in to say "Not while I'm alive, he ain't". Perhaps it's too good to be true, but without doubt it accurately represents Bevin's hatred towards his Labour colleague.
Both men were political giants. Bevin was the trade union boss who became Minister of Labour during the second world war and then a great foreign secretary in Attlee's post-war Labour government. Morrison progressed from being the leader of London county council to wartime Home Secretary and then Attlee's deputy prime minister. Both, too, were working class in origin and on the right of the Labour party. Otherwise they had little in common, as Denis Healey, who was a party official during the Attlee government, recalls.
Herbert was Ernie's opposite in almost every way you can imagine. He was a party man. Ernie was a trade union man. Herbert was interested in votes. Ernie was much more interested in the status of the working people of the country. Herbert believed in going for the middle class vote. Ernie believed in building on the union element in the party and the working class.
And these are differences which still resonate today, in the view of Morrison's grandson, who happens to be Peter Mandelson.
My grandfather was a moderniser, he was a Blairite in the broadest and truest sense of the term. My grandfather passionately believed that, while the Labour party was rooted in certain values, to gain power, to do anything about those values it had to be a truly national party that operated in the broadest national and public interest.
The fundamental difference of approach between Bevin and Morrison was at work right from the start of their mutual hostility, when Bevin was the leader of the Transport and General Workers' Union, the T and G, while Morrison was the Minister for Transport in the 1929-31 Labour government. Professor George Jones has written a sympathetic biography of Morrison.
It began in the 1920s when Bevin came into conflict with Morrison over the organisation of London Transport, the buses, the tubes, and the trams. To Morrison it was important to put the running of these public services in the hands of elected representatives of the public. This brought him into direct confrontation with Bevin who wanted the trade unions to be deeply involved, to be sitting on boards as full members with the rights to decide. Morrison objected fiercely to this and said these unions would represent only the union interest, a sectional interest, and this was a running sore for decades between Bevin and Morrison.
For many trade unionists Morrison's attitude was a betrayal. Bevin's supporters included Jack Jones, later one of his successors as general secretary of the transport union, but then a local union activist.
Bevin was a trade union leader anxious to get something from the government. Morrison was well known as a politician per se, he was entirely brought up and developed within the Labour party and was a machine man. The fact that he was Minister for Transport, one would have hoped and certainly Bevin hoped that he would be on our side, but he clearly wasn't very much on our side, didn't want to know.
And from then on it never really seemed as if Bevin and Morrison were on the same side, certainly not if Bevin could help it. Bevin was a powerful and aggressive union leader used to getting his own way, both in the union he ran and in the Labour party on which it was a major influence. And when he didn't, he bore grudges. He turned to scheming against Morrison.
Bevin was very good at that, and of course it was very undermining of my grandfather and very destabilising.
Peter Mandelson, a man who knows a thing or two about political machinations.
It's a trick in politics, if you want to do somebody in, to exaggerate or magnify or invent what they are doing, and you go around whispering around, and before you know where you are these whispers have become facts, and the target is duly done down. I have to say this is not the first or the last time in Labour politics that that has been the case but we won't go into that.
Morrison said that he was determined not to be in the pocket of Bevin and the unions generally. He came to regard Bevin as a jealous bully, given to sarcasm and sneering. But Morrison too liked getting his own way, and there were those, including Bevin, who felt that Morrison had his own characteristic methods which were open to criticism. Professor George Jones.
Bevin argued that Morrison was not to be trusted, he was as artful as a barrow load of monkeys. Morrison was a practitioner of the political arts, he was a cajoler, a persuader, arm round the shoulder. He was forever seeking ways around issues.
Bevin also regarded Morrison as driven by personal ambition, and this he determined to frustrate. Following the 1935 general election Morrison challenged Clement Attlee for the Labour leadership. Bevin used his influence with the many MPs sponsored by his union to get them to back Attlee, who won. In 1943 Morrison stood for the post of Labour Party treasurer. Bevin threw his union's support behind an alternative candidate Arthur Greenwood, by then an alcoholic hardly suited to the position. The massive block vote of the T and G helped give the job to Greenwood.
Although by now the second world war meant the suspension of normal party politics and the formation of a coalition government, these two leading Labour figures seemed to find it impossible to be at peace with each other. Professor George Jones again.
During the war both Bevin as Minister of Labour and Morrison as Home Secretary were in Churchill's war cabinet occupying very crucial positions on the domestic field, and it is said that at war cabinet meetings whenever Morrison spoke Bevin would be muttering jibes and sneering and generally trying to disrupt Morrison.
As Cabinet colleagues the pair clashed frequently, from turf wars over which department should run the factory inspectorate to an open dispute over Morrison's controversial decision to release Sir Oswald Mosley from prison, a decision which Bevin bitterly opposed. By the time Labour won its post-war electoral triumph, Bevin was resolute in his determination to block any further attempt by Morrison to supplant Attlee as party leader. Peter Mandelson.
When it came to '45 Morrison tried again, and there were certain people who were prepared to back him. After all my grandfather had been the architect of the '45 victory and he felt that it was his due. Bevin was furious, and it is said, and it is probably true, that as people got together to consider challenging Attlee, Bevin got wind of it, went round to Attlee, said to Attlee "You need to get your skates on, old chap, get round to the palace, get the seals of office before those buggers cause trouble for you", and Attlee promptly got into his little Morris car driven by his wife Vi, who raced up the Mall, saw the king, was asked to form an administration before my grandfather and all the others could get a quorum together to challenge him.
Thus Attlee was installed as prime minister. Relations between Bevin and Morrison did not improve, as Denis Healey witnessed.
Both Ernie and Morrison had what you might call little cliques who would always support them, and it made a very difficult cabinet to run when you had the two senior ministers disliking and distrusting one another.
But it could have been much worse, if it hadn't been for Attlee's way of minimising the difficulties with the two leading personalities of his government, according to Professor George Jones.
Attlee knew of this vicious enmity and that's why in 1945 he kept them apart, because he saw the government would collapse if on the domestic front, dealing with domestic policies, you had Bevin and Morrison. So he put Bevin into the foreign office, and kept Morrison dealing with domestic policy. It was a great success. If they'd been together there would have been disaster.
Morrison himself had recommended to Attlee that Bevin should be Foreign Secretary instead of the post he had expected and hoped for, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Attlee's allocation of jobs had far-reaching consequences. Morrison, as deputy prime minister and leader of the House of Commons, was in charge of Labour's economic and social reforms. This included the nationalisation of major industries - and this followed what became known as the Morrisonian model, with Morrison able to ensure that control went to ministers rather than automatic representation to unions.
Bevin meanwhile ran foreign policy, helping to formulate the Marshall Plan and NATO. He was initially disappointed to be denied the Chancellorship, but it may well have been a blessing in disguise. For many, Bevin was Britain's greatest post-war Foreign Secretary. And he was highly popular with officials in the Foreign Office. Still, even his strongest admirers have to admit that the grudge-bearing side of his character never disappeared. Sir Nicholas Henderson, later Britain's ambassador to Washington, was his assistant private secretary. He had the highest admiration for Bevin, but tells this story from one occasion when he was with him in New York
A whole bevy of Labour MPs had criticised him in the House of Commons. Hector McNeil was then his number 2 in the foreign office, and he rang up and told Bevin this. Bevin said - tell me, who are these people? Hector McNeil said there are a lot of them. Give me their names. So he said, there was so-and-so - I'll break him, Bevin said on the transatlantic line. Next name? - another name - I'll break him. This went on until practically no member of the House of Commons was left unbroken.
One of the left-wing rebels on the receiving end of Bevin's wrath was Barbara Castle, then a young MP. So what did she think of Bevin compared to Morrison?
You had a respect for the man's abilities, and I liked Ernie in many ways, he had his shrewdness of mind, his honesty, his courage. Herbert Morrison was a Tammany hall man, very good at intrigues in his local government field, but not up to the world stage. So it was nothing to do with left and right oddly enough. I'd no use for Morrison at all. If you are going to have anyone in charge of anything let them be a strong character. Ernest Bevin was a strong character.
This strength of character, which so appealed to Castle despite her position on the opposite wing of the Labour party, was not by now matched by a strength of constitution. Bevin was plagued by ill health, and in 1951 Attlee finally replaced him as foreign secretary - with his hated rival, Morrison. Bevin wasn't happy, as his former official Sir Nicholas Henderson recalls
He didn't want to go. His health was very poor, he'd terrible heart trouble. I saw him within hours of him leaving the office and it was apparent to me both that he didn't want to go - he felt he'd been forced out - and that he didn't at all like the idea of his successor occupying that seat.
Unlike Bevin, Morrison was not a success at the Foreign office. For the supporters of Bevin their successive tenures in this post show Bevin as a visionary and imaginative giant compared to Morrison as narrow-minded and ineffective. For Morrison's biographer George Jones, however, while he acknowledges that his subject did not possess the international sweep of his predecessor, there was another factor also at work.
The big issue is - here was Morrison, a very professional politician who always got on well with officials, except the foreign office. What had gone on? Why did this professional politician fail to have the right relationship with his civil service? Because they were all in love with Bevin, they'd absorbed the Bevin view of Morrison. The civil service started out with a prejudice against Morrison.
Bevin died a month after he left the Foreign Office. Morrison's unhappy tenure as Foreign Secretary continued for another six months, until Labour lost the 1951 election. Bevin may have proclaimed that he would be Morrison's greatest enemy for as long as he lived. If George Jones is right, the impact of this enmity lasted after his death. And Herbert Morrison never did become Labour party leader.