Ernest Bevin

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The Right Honourable
Ernest Bevin
Ernest Bevin cph.3b17494.jpg
Lord Privy Seal
In office
9 March 1951 – 14 April 1951
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Christopher Addison
Succeeded by Richard Stokes
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
27 July 1945 – 9 March 1951
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Anthony Eden
Succeeded by Herbert Morrison
Minister of Labour and National Service
In office
13 May 1940 – 23 May 1945
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by Ernest Brown
Succeeded by Rab Butler
Member of Parliament
for Woolwich East
In office
23 February 1950 – 14 April 1951
Preceded by George Hicks
Succeeded by Christopher Mayhew
Member of Parliament
for Wandsworth Central
In office
22 June 1940 – 23 February 1950
Preceded by Harry Nathan
Succeeded by Richard Adams
General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union
In office
1 January 1922 – 27 July 1945
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by Arthur Deakin
Personal details
Born 9 March 1881
Winsford, Somerset, England
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
London, England
Nationality British
Political party Labour
Religion Baptist

Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a British statesman, trade union leader, and Labour politician. He co-founded and served as general secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union from 1922 to 1940, and as Minister of Labour in the war-time coalition government. He succeeded in maximizing the British labour supply, for both the armed services and domestic industrial production, with a minimum of strikes and disruption. His most important role came as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour Government, 1945–51. He gained American financial support, strongly opposed Communism, and aided in the creation of NATO. Bevin's tenure also saw the end of the Mandate of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel.

According to his biographer, Alan Bullock, Bevin:

stands as the last of the line of foreign secretaries in the tradition created by Castlereagh, Canning and Palmerston in the first half of the 19th century, with Salisbury, Grey and Austen Chamberlain as his predecessors in the 20th century, and (thanks to the reduction in British power) with no successors.[1]

Early life

Bevin was born in the village of Winsford in Somerset, England, to Diana Bevin who, since 1877, had described herself as a widow. His father is unknown. After his mother's death in 1889, the young Bevin lived with his half-sister's family, moving to Morchard Bishop in Devon. He had little formal education, having briefly attended two village schools and then Hayward's School, Crediton, starting in 1890 and leaving in 1892.[2] He later recalled being asked as a child to read the newspaper aloud for the benefit of adults in his family who were illiterate. At the age of eleven, he went to work as a labourer, then as a lorry driver in Bristol, where he joined the Bristol Socialist Society. In 1910 he became secretary of the Bristol branch of the Dockers' Union, and in 1914 he became a national organiser for the union.

Bevin was a physically huge man, strong and by the time of his political prominence very heavy. He spoke with a strong West Country accent, so much so that on one occasion listeners at Cabinet had difficulty in deciding whether he was talking about "Hugh and Nye (Gaitskell and Bevan)" or "you and I". He had developed his oratorical skills from his time as a Baptist laypreacher, which he had given up as a profession to become a full-time labour activist.

Bevin was married and had a daughter.

Transport and General Workers Union

In 1922 Bevin was one of the founding leaders of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), which soon became Britain's largest trade union. Upon his election as the union's general secretary, he became one of country's leading labour leaders, and their strongest advocate within the Labour Party. Politically, he was on the right-wing of the Labour Party, strongly opposed to communism and direct action—allegedly partly due to anti-Semitic paranoia and seeing communism as a "Jewish plot" against Britain.[3] He took part in the British General Strike in 1926, but without enthusiasm.

Bevin had no great faith in parliamentary politics, but had nevertheless been a member of the Labour Party from the time of its formation, and unsuccessfully fought Bristol Central at the 1918 General Election, being defeated by the Coalition Conservative Thomas Inskip. He had poor relations with the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and was not surprised when MacDonald formed a National Government with the Conservatives during the economic crisis of 1931, for which MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party. At the 1931 general election, Bevin was persuaded by the remaining leaders of the Labour Party to contest Gateshead, on the understanding that if successful he would remain as general secretary of the TGWU. The National Government landslide resulted in Gateshead being lost by a large margin to the Liberal National Thomas Magnay.[4]

Bevin was a trade unionist who believed in getting material benefits for his members through direct negotiations, with strike action to be used as a last resort. During the late Thirties, for instance, Bevin helped to instigate a successful campaign by the TUC to extend paid holidays to a wider proportion of the workforce.[5] This culminated in the Holidays with Pay Act of 1938, which extended entitlement to paid holidays to about 11 million workers by June 1939.[6]

Foreign policy interests

During the 1930s, with the Labour Party split and weakened, Bevin co-operated with the Conservative-dominated government on practical issues. But during this period he became increasingly involved in foreign policy. He was a firm opponent of fascism and of British appeasement of the fascist powers. In 1935, arguing that Italy should be punished by sanctions for her recent invasion of Abyssinia, he made a blistering attack on the pacifists in the Labour Party, accusing the Labour leader George Lansbury at the Party Conference of "hawking his conscience around" asking to be told what to do with it.

Lansbury resigned and was replaced as leader by his deputy Clement Attlee, who along with Lansbury and Stafford Cripps had been one of only three former Labour Ministers to be re-elected under that party label at the General Election in 1931. After the November 1935 General Election Herbert Morrison, newly returned to Parliament, challenged Attlee for the leadership but was defeated. In later years Bevin gave Attlee (whom he privately referred to as "little Clem") staunch support, especially in 1947 when Herbert Morrison and Stafford Cripps led further intrigue against Attlee.

Wartime Minister of Labour

Sketch of Bevin commissioned by the Ministry of Information in the World War II period

In 1940 Winston Churchill formed an all-party coalition government to run the country during the crisis of World War II. Churchill was impressed by Bevin's opposition to trade-union pacifism and his appetite for work (according to Churchill, Bevin was by 'far the most distinguished man that the Labour Party have thrown up in my time'), and appointed Bevin to the position of Minister for Labour and National Service.[7] As Bevin was not actually an MP at the time, to remove the resulting constitutional anomaly, a parliamentary position was hurriedly found for him and Bevin was elected unopposed to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament (MP) for the London constituency of Wandsworth Central.

The Emergency Powers (Defence) Act gave Bevin complete control over the labour force and the allocation of manpower, and he was determined to use this unprecedented authority not just to help win the war but also to strengthen the bargaining position of trade unions in the postwar future.[8] Bevin once quipped: "They say Gladstone was at the Treasury from 1860 until 1930. I'm going to be at the Ministry of Labour from 1940 until 1990." Given that the industrial settlement he introduced remained largely unaltered by successive postwar administrations until the reforms of Margaret Thatcher's government in the mid-1980s, this was a prescient remark.

During the war Bevin was responsible for diverting nearly 48,000 military conscripts to work in the coal industry (these workers became known as the Bevin Boys) while using his position to secure significant improvements in wages and working conditions for working-class people.[9] He also drew up the demobilisation scheme that ultimately returned millions of military personnel and civilian war workers into the peacetime economy. Bevin remained Minister of Labour until 1945 when Labour left the Coalition government. On VE Day he stood next to Churchill looking down on the crowd on Whitehall.

Foreign Secretary

Ernest Bevin (left) with Clement Attlee in 1945

After the 1945 general election, Attlee had it in mind to appoint Bevin as Chancellor and Hugh Dalton as Foreign Secretary, but ultimately changed his mind and swapped them round. One of the reasons may well have been the poor relations which existed between Bevin and Herbert Morrison, who was scheduled to play a leading role in Labour domestic policy.[10]

At that time diplomats were recruited from public schools, and it was said of Bevin that it was hard to imagine him filling any other job in the Foreign Office except perhaps that of an old and truculent lift attendant. In praise of Bevin, his Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office (Alexander Cadogan) wrote, "He knows a great deal, is prepared to read any amount, seems to take in what he does read, and is capable of making up his own mind and sticking up for his (and our) point of view against anyone."[7] An alternative view is offered by Charmley, who writes that Bevin read and wrote with some difficulty, and that examination of Foreign Office documents shows little sign of the frequent annotations made by Anthony Eden, suggesting that Bevin preferred to reach most of his decisions after oral discussion with his advisers. However, Charmley dismisses the concerns of contemporaries such as Charles Webster and Lord Cecil that Bevin, a man of very strong personality, was “in the hands of his officials”. Charmley argues that much of Bevin's success came because he shared the views of those officials: his earlier career had left him with an intense dislike of communists, whom he regarded as workshy intellectuals whose attempts to infiltrate trade unions were to be resisted. His former Private Secretary Oliver Harvey thought Bevin’s staunchly anti-Soviet policy was what Eden’s would have been had he not been hamstrung, as at Potsdam, by Churchill’s occasional susceptibility to Stalin’s flattery, whilst Cadogan thought Bevin “pretty sound on the whole”.[11]

Bevin became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war and yet was still maintaining a huge air force and conscript army, in an attempt to remain a global power. He played a key role securing a low-interest $3.75 billion loan from the U.S. in December 1945 as the only real alternative to national bankruptcy; he had asked originally for $5 billion.[12] The cost of rebuilding necessitated austerity at home in order to maximise export earnings, while Britain's colonies and other client states were required to keep their reserves in pounds as "sterling balances". Additional funds—that did not have to be repaid—came from the Marshall Plan in 1948-50, which also required Britain to modernize its business practices and remove trade barriers.

Bevin looked for ways to bring western Europe together in a military alliance. One early attempt was the Dunkirk Treaty with France in 1947.[13] His commitment to the West European security system, made him eager to sign the Brussels Pact in 1948. It drew Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg into an arrangement for collective security, opening the way for the formation of NATO in 1949. NATO was primarily aimed as a defensive measure against Soviet expansion, but it also helped bring its members closer together and enabled them to modernize their forces along parallel lines, and encourage arms purchases from Britain.[14]

Britain was still closely allied to France and both countries continued to be treated as major partners at international summits alongside the USA and USSR until 1960. Broadly speaking, all this remained Britain's foreign policy until the late 1950s, when the humiliation of the 1956 Suez Crisis and the economic revival of continental Europe, now united as the "Common Market", caused a reappraisal.

Bevin was unsentimental about the British Empire in places where the growth of nationalism had made direct rule no longer practical, and was part of the Cabinet which approved a speedy British withdrawal from India in 1947, and from neighbouring colonies. Yet at this stage Britain still maintained a network of client states in the Middle East (Egypt until the early 1950s, Iraq and Jordan until the late 1950s), major bases in such places as Cyprus and Suez (until 1956) and expected to remain in control of parts of Africa for many more decades, Bevin approving the construction of a huge new base in East Africa. Bevin wrote “we have the material resources in the Colonial Empire, if we develop them … which will show clearly that we are not subservient to the United States … or to the Soviet Union”. In this era colonial exports earned $150m a year, mostly Malaysian rubber, West African cocoa, and sugar and sisal from the West Indies. By the end of 1948 colonial exports were 50% higher than before the war, whilst in the first half of 1948 colonial exports accounted for 10.4% of Britain’s imports. After the war Britain helped France and the Netherlands recover their Far Eastern empires, hopeful that this could lead towards the formation of a third superpower bloc. Bevin agreed with Duff Cooper (British Ambassador in Paris) that the Dunkirk Treaty would be a step in this direction and thought that Eden’s objection – in 1944 when Cooper first proposed it – that such moves might alienate the Soviets no longer applied.[15]

In December 1947 Bevin hoped (in vain) that the USA would support Britain’s “strategic, political and economic position in the Middle East”. In May 1950 Bevin told the London meeting of foreign ministers that “the United States authorities had recently seemed disposed to press us to adopt a greater measure of economic integration with Europe than we thought wise” (he was referring to the Schuman Plan to set up the European Coal and Steel Community). In May 1950 he said that because of links with USA and the Commonwealth Britain was “different in character from other European nations and fundamentally incapable of wholehearted integration with them”. [16]

Bevin remained a determined anti-Communist, and critic of the Soviet Union. In 1946 during a conference, the Soviet foreign minister Molotov repeatedly attacked British proposals whilst defending Soviet policies, and in total frustration Bevin stood and lurched towards the minister whilst shouting "I've had enough of this I 'ave!' before being restrained by security.[17] He was a strong supporter of American foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War and a leading advocate for British involvement in the Korean War. Two of the key institutions of the post-war world, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Marshall Plan for aid to post-war Europe, were in considerable part the result of Bevin's efforts during these years. This policy, little different from that of the Conservatives ("Hasn't Anthony Eden grown fat?" as wags had it), was a source of frustration to some backbench Labour MPs, who early in the 1945 Parliament formed a "Keep Left" group to push for a more Left-Wing foreign policy.

In 1945, Bevin advocated the creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, saying in the House of Commons that "There should be a study of a house directly elected by the people of the world to whom the nations are accountable."

Atomic bomb

Attlee and Bevin worked together on the decision to produce a British atomic bomb, despite intense opposition from pro-Soviet elements of the Labour Party, a group Bevin detested. The decision was taken in secret by a small Cabinet committee. Bevin told the committee in October 1946, that 'We've got to have this thing over here whatever it costs … We've got to have the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it.' It was a matter of both prestige and national security. Those ministers who would have opposed the bomb on grounds of cost, Hugh Dalton and Sir Stafford Cripps, were excluded from the meeting in January 1947 at which the final decision was taken.[18][19][20]

Palestine and Israel

The security zone in Jerusalem was dubbed "Bevingrad" during Bevin's term in the Foreign Office

Bevin was Foreign Secretary during the period when the Mandate of Palestine ended and the State of Israel was created. Bevin failed to secure the stated British objectives in this area of foreign policy, which included a peaceful settlement of the situation and the avoidance of involuntary population transfers.

Regarding Bevin's handling of the Middle East situation, at least one commentator, David Leitch, has suggested that Bevin lacked diplomatic finesse.[21] Leitch argued that Bevin tended to make a bad situation worse by making ill-chosen abrasive remarks. Bevin was undeniably a plain-spoken man, some of whose remarks struck many as insensitive. Jewish critics have accused him of being anti-Semitic. One remark which caused particular anger was made when President Truman was pressing Britain to immediately admit 100,000 Jewish displaced persons to Palestine after the war. Bevin told a Labour Party meeting that American pressure to admit Jews was being applied because "There has been agitation in the United States, and particularly in New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put in Palestine. I hope I will not be misunderstood in America if I say that this was proposed by the purest of motives. They did not want too many Jews in New York."[22] He was, though, merely restating what he said he had been told by James Byrnes, the United States secretary of state.[7] For refusing to remove limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the aftermath of the war, Bevin earned the hatred of Zionists. According to historian Howard Sachar, his political foe, Richard Crossman, a fellow Labour Party member of parliament and a pro-Zionist member of the post-war Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry into the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, characterised his outlook during the dying days of the Mandate as "corresponding roughly with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion", the notorious forgery which was designed to inflame anti-Semitic prejudice. In Sachar's account, Crossman intimated that "the main points of Bevin's discourse were ... that the Jews had successfully organised a conspiracy against Britain and against him personally."[23][24] However, Bevin's biographer Alan Bullock rejected suggestions that Bevin was motivated by personal anti-Semitism.

Count Folke Bernadotte's funeral September 1948: From left: Sir Alexander Cadogan, Ernest Bevin, George Marshall, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Britain's economic weakness, and its dependence on the financial support of the United States (Britain had received a large American loan in 1946, and mid-1947 was to see the launching of the Marshall Plan), left him little alternative but to yield to American pressure over Palestine policy.

At the reconvened London Conference in January 1947, the Jewish negotiators were only prepared to accept partition and the Arab negotiators only a unitary state (which would automatically have had an Arab majority). Neither would accept limited autonomy under overall British rule. When no agreement could be reached, Bevin threatened to hand the problem over to the United Nations. The threat failed to move either side, the Jewish representatives because they believed that Bevin was bluffing and the Arabs because they believed that their cause would prevail before the General Assembly. Bevin accordingly announced that he would "ask the UN to take the Palestine question into consideration."[25] A week later, the strategic rationale supporting Britain's retaining a presence in Palestine was removed when the intention to withdraw from India in August of that year was announced.[25] The decision to allow the United Nations to determine Palestine's future was formalised by the Attlee government's public declaration in February 1947 that Britain's Mandate in Palestine had become "unworkable." Of the UN partition plan which resulted, Bevin commented: "The majority proposal is so manifestly unjust to the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience."[26] During the remainder of the Mandate, fighting between the Jewish and Arab communities intensified. The end of the Mandate and Britain's final withdrawal from Palestine was marked by the founding of the State of Israel and the start of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when five Arab states intervened in the inter-communal fighting. The Arab armies were led by the state with that position which was most effective, Jordan, whose military forces were trained and led by British officers.[27] The war ended with Israel, in addition to the territory assigned by the UN for the creation of a Jewish state, also in control of much of the Mandate territory which had been assigned by the UN for the creation of an Arab state. The remainder was divided between Jordan and Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of, overwhelmingly Arab, civilians had become displaced.

Bevin was infuriated by attacks on British troops carried out by the more extreme of the Jewish militant groups, the Irgun and Lehi, commonly known as the Stern Gang. The Haganah carried out less direct attacks, until the King David Hotel bombing, after which it restricted itself to illegal immigration activities.[25] According to declassified British intelligence files, the Irgun and Lehi plotted to assassinate Bevin himself in 1946.[28][29][30]

Bevin negotiated the Portsmouth Treaty with Iraq (signed on 15 January 1948), which, according to then-Iraqi foreign minister Muhammad Fadhel al-Jamali, was accompanied by a British undertaking to withdraw from Palestine in such a fashion as to provide for swift Arab occupation of all its territory.[31]

Later life

Bust of Ernest Bevin in Southwark, South London

His health failing, Bevin reluctantly allowed himself to be moved to become Lord Privy Seal in March 1951. "I am neither a Lord, nor a Privy, nor a Seal", he is said to have commented.[32] He died the following month, still holding the key to his red box. His ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey.

When, on Stafford Cripps’s death in 1952, Attlee (by this time Leader of the Opposition) was invited to broadcast a tribute by the BBC, he was looked after by announcer Frank Phillips. After the broadcast, Phillips took Attlee to the hospitality room for a drink and in order to make conversation said:

"I suppose you will miss Sir Stafford, sir."

Attlee fixed him with his eye: "Did you know Ernie Bevin?"

"I have met him, sir," Phillips replied.

"There's the man I miss."

A bust of Bevin has been placed opposite Devon Mansions and the former St Olave's Grammar School in Tooley Street, South London.


Bevin in office showed the same pragmatic stubbornness that had characterised his years as a trade union leader and as one of the integral organisers of the Labour Party. Like Churchill, he was an old-fashioned English (as opposed to British) patriot, which was why the two leaders worked well together. However, he was also an internationalist and a supporter of the American Alliance. He saw clearly that Britain's days of imperial greatness were over, something he did not regret, unlike Churchill, as Bevin believed that the working class had never benefited from the Empire.

For his critics, his most lasting legacy remains the failure of his Palestine policy. For his supporters, his most lasting legacy is probably the European leg of the Atlantic alliance.

See also


  1. Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary 1945–1951 (1983) p75
  2. 'From the hedgerows of Devon to the Foreign Office' - Roger Steer. Devon Life Magazine, July 2002.
  3. Peter Weiler, Ernest Bevin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 170–171
  4. Alan Bullock, Ernest Bevin: Trade Union Leader 1881 - 1940 (1960) pp495-497
  5. Ernest Bevin by Peter Weiler
  6. A Social History of the English Working Classes 1815-1945 by Eric Hopkins
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  8. Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, p. 74, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, IN, 1945.
  9. A History of Work in Britain, 1880-1950 by Arthur McIvor
  10. Charmley 1995, pp184-5
  11. Charmley 1995, pp184-5
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  15. Charmley 1995 pp237-8
  16. Charmley 1995 pp246-8
  17. Walter LaFeber, The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994
  18. Graham Goodlad, "Attlee, Bevin and Britain's Cold War," History Review (2011) Issue 69, pp 1-6 for quote.
  19. Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in Power 1945-1951 (1985) pp 280-4
  20. Peter Hennessy, Cabinets and the Bomb (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 48.
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  22. Text of speech by Ernest Bevin at the Labour Party Conference, Bournemouth, June 12, 1946, General Public Statements, FO 371, 52529/E5546
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  26. British Cabinet Minutes CP47/259 18 September 47, p. 4
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  32. Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (London: Richard Cohen Books, 1997), p. 285

Further reading

  • Alan Bullock's magisterial three-volume biography Life and Times of Ernest Bevin was re-published in a single-volume abridged version by Politicos Publishing in 2002.
  • Denis MacShane contributed an essay on Bevin to the Dictionary of Labour Biography, Greg Rosen (ed), Politicos Publishing, 2001.
  • Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.[Discusses Bevin's policies apropos of Anglo-American relations of the era]
  • Deighton, Anne. "Entente Neo-Coloniale?: Ernest Bevin and the Proposals for an Anglo–French Third World Power, 1945–1949," Diplomacy & Statecraft (2006) 17#4 pp 835–852. Bevin in 1945-49 advocated cooperation with France as the base of a "Third World Power," which would be a third strategic center of power in addition to the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • Goodlad, Graham. "Attlee, Bevin and Britain's Cold War," History Review (2011), Issue 69, pp 1–6
  • Greenwood, Sean. "Bevin, the Ruhr and the Division of Germany: August 1945-December 1946," Historical Journal (1986) 29#1 pp 203–212. Argues that Bevin Bevin saw the Ruhr as the centerpiece of his strategy for the industrial revitalization of Europe. He insisted on keeping the Soviets out, and this position made him one of the principal architects of a divided Germany. in JSTOR
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  • Weiler, Peter. "Britain and the First Cold War: Revisionist Beginnings," Twentieth Century British History (1998) 9#1 pp 127–138 reviews arguments of revisionist historians who downplay Bevin's personal importance in starting the Cold War and instead emphasize British efforts to use the Cold War to perpetuate imperial regional interests, through containment of radical national movements, and to oppose American aggrandizement.
  • Wrigley, Chris. "Bevin, Ernest (1881–1951)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, January 2008 accessed 2 June 2013 doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/31872; brief scholarly biography

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Parliament of the United Kingdom
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