Jeremy Black: This crisis will require a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention

1 Mar

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

Real people fear, suffer and die. That is the nature of war. Conflict is also intensely political, not just because war is waged in order to enforce policies and determine decisions, but also because observers recalibrate their world, its hopes, fears, opportunities and nightmares. What yesterday appeared of great consequence is rendered redundant and new contexts provide the basis for judgment.

The Ukraine conflict will not end las the Falklands invasion did with the fall of the aggressive government and a situation that can be readily policed. Instead, whatever the short-term outcome and resulting position, this situation will fester, which will pose major challenges for statecraft, and for the stability both of Ukraine and of surrounding areas.

Russia has taken on a huge task, one that ultimately depends on installing a pliant government. Ukraine (233,031 square miles) compares to such previous areas of intervention as the Korean Peninsula’s 85,232, Vietnam’s 128,066 and Czechoslovakia’s 78,871.

Moreover, whereas the Soviets invaded Manchuria (390,625) in 1945 with two million troops, Vladimir Putin, who cannot draw on the same land forces as Stalin, has deployed fewer than 200,000.

Moreover, Russia cannot draw on the support of the Warsaw Pact allies as the Soviet Union did when invading Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, modern missiles offer little for the control of over 40 million people, and you cannot have a secret policeman at everyone’s elbow.

So, due to arrogance and stupidity, Putin, with his unprovoked, illegal, and totally unnecessary aggression, has put Russia in a very difficult position. Yet, however badly it goes, it is hard to see any Russian government letting Ukraine become a member of NATO because, although neither is a threat to Russia, that is not how they are considered by the paranoid Russian leadership.

On the mega-strategic level, this Russian attitude to Ukraine is made more difficult because of the range of other crises in which Russia could play a more or less hostile role, from East to South-West Asia and the Balkans to the Caribbean. A hostile Russia could make such issues as Iranian aggression, Chinese expansionism, and North Korean volatility far more difficult, and could further empower dictatorial allies or would-be allies, a list by no means limited to Belarus, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, none of which offer a pleasant prospect for Ukraine.

Western policymakers are going to have to consider the knock-on impact of the specific crisis, and the need to recalibrate tripwires elsewhere, both diplomatic and military.

The ability of the West to act with unity in this crisis will require continual care which means the need for real skill on the part of the Foreign Office and its ministers, and a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention.

There is also the political wake within Britain. Covid costs and attention hit hard at this government, forcing the jettisoning of projects, such as the Yorkshire spur of HS2, and, more seriously, weakening its attention and energy. Differently, the same is the case with the Ukraine crisis, which, with Putin’s talk about nuclear alert, makes the relative inconsequence of the Covid pandemic more apparent.

Domestic governance will be harder as projects are cancelled and hopes brought low, and, aside from resulting problems, it would be unrealistic not to assume that Russia will meddle in domestic politics, not least by continuing to support separatist movements.

This situation ensures a need for maturity and judgment in the short term, but also consideration of the degree to which our democratic system is undermined from within by anti-democratic forces. The Soviet Union did so with some success during the Cold War, not least through providing assistance via allies to the Provisional IRA and the National Union of Miners, and it is naïve to expect that the same will not recur. This provides a particular need for government to consider how best to monitor, assess and, if necessary, counter dangerous, if not treasonable, domestic opposition.

As with the Cold War, this is a task that ranges widely, to include intellectual division. Indeed, there is a clear context in terms of culture wars, which the Left repeatedly appears to be winning, not least in the universities. Many who denounce a long past of the British empire and of the Atlantic slave trade appear all-too-oblivious about Russian imperialism and about the enslavement of the Ukrainians. What might appear a troubling absence of values is in fact a commitment against our country.

Sarah Ingham: Social inequality cannot be fixed by erasing Britain’s history

15 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Along with Jon Bon Govey, thanks to the Prime Minister another hero burst into our collective consciousness last week: Hereward the Woke.

The PM’s Conference speech might have skirted around the many challenges facing the United Kingdom, but he was clear whose side he was on in the country’s culture wars, highlighting a key battleground: history.

Hereward the Wake (or Watchful) led a five-year insurgency against William I’s all-conquering Normans around 1070. They were fighting in what by then was recognisably England, even if it seemed more like Game of Thrones’ Westeros. The frequent descriptions of the legendary Hereward as one of the ‘greatest Englishmen’ might, however, be pushing it: the resistance leader could well have been as much Danish as Anglo-Saxon.

If only there were more 11th century texts to view through the post-modernist lens of critical theory, Hereward might be the subject of numerous academic papers on identity and colonisation. Wake or Woke; structure or agency.

Voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll in which more than one million took part, it is Winston Churchill rather than Hereward who has come to embody the current cultural conflict within history – and indeed within wider society.

As the author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples, our most illustrious Prime Minister also joins the fight as participant, as well as prize, in today’s history wars. His style is less the drums and trumpets school and more Land of Hope and Glory: ‘… on that little Anglo-Saxon island there was kindled the flame of freedom and equality for the individual … This idea grew and was spread over the earth by the English-speaking peoples, and has now brought democracy to the whole free world …’

If Prime Ministers Johnson and Churchill are battling for history in the metaphorical blue corner, in the red is the seemingly self-hating Churchill College, Cambridge. In July, it announced it was disbanding its Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group.

This follows a panel discussion ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ – still available on YouTube – in which various publicity-hungry academics denounce the British Empire, which is given moral equivalence with Nazi Germany, while among other howlers, apparently mixing up Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Historical accuracy; so yesterday, right?

Last week’s report from the Office for Students stated that universities were ignoring poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. ‘To achieve or promote inclusivity’ some institutions are turning a blind eye to the rules of basic written English. Not only is this jaw-droppingly patronising, but harming students’ career prospects. But who cares about the future of £9,250 a year fee fodder, when there is decolonising the curriculum to get stuck into?

‘They Kant be Serious’ was The Daily Mail’s Johnson-esque response to reports that students at School of Oriental and African Studies wanted to side-line various philosophers, including Plato, as part of its Decolonising Our Minds campaign. Across Britain, universities are following suit, treating the canon by dead white men as if it were radioactive.

Exeter University’s History Department declares that it is ‘working to decolonise the way we teach, research and work with one another’. Its counterpart in Durham is not only committed to decolonisation but to creating an ‘all-inclusive culture and environment’.

With about one-third of their students privately educated, Exeter and Durham aren’t too far off the top of the posh list. Are we quite sure that this current fad for new narratives, which was given fresh momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement, is nothing more than Britain’s academic leaders appeasing their noisier students? After all, they are happy to pander to student-led, mind-closing gestures like no-platforming.

It is ironic that so many of the country’s higher education institutions are making a virtue of decolonisation while structural inequality is obvious in many lecture theatres. It must be questioned how far the cause of social justice is served by ensuring Josh and Jemima, whose schooling cost £40,000 + a year, have more non-white radicals on their reading list than Frantz Fanon.

Last week the Prime Minister warned that our national story is being rewritten. Just as Trotsky came to be air-brushed out of the Stalin-era Soviet picture, whole periods of our collective past are being re-interpreted to fit in with today’s orthodoxies. Statues must fall, links – however tenuous – with the slave trade denounced, street names changed. Supposed guardians of Britain’s history, including the Church of England, art galleries, museums and the National Trust, pander to present mood of iconoclasm.

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyam province, smashing 2,000 years of history. A decade later, not content with burning alive or beheading opponents, ISIS obliterated artifacts and ruins of the Greek and Roman empires across an arc from Libya to Iraq. In trying to wipe out any trace of a pre-Islamic past, these cultural nihilists decimated a common global heritage for future generations. They could not, however, change the immutable past.

In the context of today, Britain’s history is a litany of uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Most of it is problematic, some of it heart-stirringly glorious. The current canyons in social equality in this country are not going be bridged by obsessing over what happened hundreds of years ago.

In the current rush to re-write and re-interpret it, what is overlooked is how little history many know. This mass ignorance was reflected last year, when Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, called for a disclaimer on the Netflix series The Crown. Viewers needed reminding that the events depicted were fiction, not historical fact.

As Black History Month continues, it is apt to reflect on the words of Marcus Garvey: ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Last week, the Prime Minister declared that ‘we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance’.

To the barricades.

David Alton: The horror of this day, Good Friday, is a horror for our times

2 Apr

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer.

Without the certainties of Easter, there would be little cause to describe this day, this Friday, as “Good.” The origins and etymology of the word have been lost in the mists of time, but scholars suggest that its meaning is rooted in the use of good as a representation of holy or pious. In old English it was called “Long Friday” and in the East is sometimes known more graphically as Black Friday.

Whether you believe, or not, the story of this Friday was the story of a bad day for justice: an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity. Mel Gibson left no doubt about the full horror of crucifixion in “The Passion of the Christ”. The harrowing detail is disturbing but undoubtedly accurate. The Romans perfected the art of the slow death and inflicted excruciating pain – intensified by scourging designed to lacerate and expose a man’s wounds.

The crucifixion of an innocent man is an old story, yes, but one that still stirs vast numbers of people. It’s a story with contemporary resonance.

More than two billion people world-wide today identify as Christian and, even in the UK, almost two thirds of the country (33.2 million people) describe themselves as Christian. With 84 per cent of the global population identifying with a religious group – and as the demographics of belief are  weighted in favour of the young  – the world has been getting more religious, not less.

For the non-believer, the religious beliefs of their acquaintances can seem incomprehensible and  threatening. But it cuts both ways.

How we accommodate one another, how we negotiate each other’s beliefs – or lack of them – and how we learn to live alongside each other, with genuine respect for difference, is a defining question for our times. It’s also one our forebears had to address..

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the abject failure to counter a murderous ideology rooted in the hatred of difference, world leaders promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Convention on the Crime of Genocide. As international institutions have fallen into disrepair, the declarations and treaties – and the duties and obligations which flow from them – need urgent renewal and recalibration.

The UDHR was the civilised world’s response to the infamies of the twentieth century—from the Armenian genocide to the depredations of Stalin’s gulags and Hitler’s concentration camps; it emerged from warped ideologies that elevated nation and race. The Declaration’s stated objective was to realise, “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.

The four great murderers of the 20th century—Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot—were united by their hatred of religious faith. It was the bloodiest century in human history with the loss of 100 million lives. And now, in the twenty-first century, often in the name of a religion, millions more have died or been forced to flee their homelands.

Article 18 of the UDHR asserts the right to believe, not to believe,  or to change your belief. It’s a good place to start on a day like this. A defence of the article ought to unite believers and non-believers alike  – and might provide a common platform from which to call out those who violate so many of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR.

In 2019, having read The Times leader writer’s description of our muted response to such anti-Christian persecution as the actions of “spectators at the carnage”, Jeremy Hunt took the well-judged step of commissioning an independent review of the evidence.

The Truro Report concluded that “the level and the nature” of  the persecution of hundreds of millions of Christians was in some regions “arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide.”

Turn a blind eye, pretend you didn’t know, and the persecution leads to atrocity crimes; turn a blind eye, and it becomes open season on believers of all faiths; turn a blind eye, and every one of the other 30 Articles in the UDHR will be breached too.

That we still avert our gaze and have much more to do can be seen in these snapshots from the past few days.

Last weekend, on Palm Sunday, radicals acting, not for the first time, in the name of religion, laid bombs in a church – this time in Makassar in eastern Indonesia, injuring twenty people.

This week, the most important in the Christian calendar, is a favourite target of jihadists. Recall the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Easter murders of church goers in Lahore’s Gulsha-i-Iqbal Park, picnicking after their Service.

But for many the agonies of Good Friday are a daily occurrence.

Think of Northern Nigeria where Leah Sharibu, a young schoolgirl, remains in the hands of Boko Haram, having been abducted, raped, forcibly converted, and married. Since last Easter, more than 3,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria – a country which last year received an average of £800,000 in UK aid every single day.

In Pakistan, another Commonwealth country, Maria Shahbaz is just one of around 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls, aged between 12 and 25, who are abducted annually – with impunity. Ten years ago, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian Minister for Minorities, was assassinated. No one has been brought to justice. During the same period, Pakistan has been in receipt of £3 billion of UK aid, little of which reaches beleaguered minorities.

In Burma, the illegal military junta is stoking the fires of religious nationalism, targeting ethno-religious minorities such as Christian Kachin and Karen, and Muslim Rohingyas.  The appointment of my friend, Dr Sasa, an ethnic Chin, and a Christian, as the international envoy of Burma’s elected Parliamentarians.

Think, too, of the personal Calvaries of China’s religious minorities: the genocide against Uyghur Muslims; the incarceration of Christians in Hong Kong;  Tibet’s suffering Buddhists;  murdered Falun Gong practitioners ; bulldozed churches and arrested pastors – such as Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Church, now serving nine years in prison.

In neighbouring North Korea, another atheistic regime has created  what a UN report describes as “a State without parallel” .  A North Korean escapee from one of the concentration camps was a witness at a hearing I chaired in Westminster. She told us: “They tortured the Christians the most”.

These stories can be replicated in many other jurisdictions, from Sudan to Iran, Eritrea to Iraq – where genocide was the fate of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities.

The man who coined the word “genocide” was the Jewish Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, and his work led to the Genocide Convention. He  argued that “international co-operation” was needed, “to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge”.

As a Treaty signatory we are committed to prevent, protect, and punish. But as Parliament has made clear in recent weeks these promises have been honoured mainly in their breach. William Hague was right to say there is a significant “gap between the commitments States have made and the reality of their actions.”

Both the Genocide Convention and Article 18 of the UDHR  are secular documents.  They could still offer the best hope to the religious and non religious alike. Along with better focused and prioritised practical help, through UK aid programmes, we really could turn the tables.

On a day when we remember an unjust trial, the violent use of torture, the degrading of human dignity, and judicial murder, we  might ask whether we march to such a very different tune, too often acquiescing in the shedding of innocent blood?

Good Friday was a bad day for humanity – but even the most monstrous crimes don’t have to be the final word. Beyond the Cross is an empty tomb, giving reassurance, meaning and perspective to our seemingly endless ability to inflict wounds and suffering on one another.

Greed can have good consequences, generosity bad ones. What counts isn’t the motive. It’s the result.

24 Mar

At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, we will risk the following.  Hitler believed his persecution of the Jewish people was right – morally justified.  That he believed he was doing good does nothing to make the Holocaust less evil.  Ditto Stalin and the Kulaks, Mao and the Rightists.

Now imagine a vaccine producer – to take a topical example – who is driven entirely by greed.  His motive does nothing to lessen his product’s effectiveness.  It doesn’t lop even a single life off the list of those saved.

By the way, it’s unlikely that he would be driven entirely by anything.  Most of us aren’t.  We’re powered by a mass of motives, the mix of which we can’t identify: greed, altruism, fear, compassion, anger, lust, shame, love – and perhaps, above all, by the elemental urge to “keep going”, as the sergeant yells at the shell-shocked First World War soldier in Ted Hughes’ radio play The Wound.

To be clear: greed isn’t good in itself, but its by-products can be.  Generosity, by contrast, is good in itself, but it’s by-products may not be.  What good comes of generously giving the addict money for the fix that will kill him?

Whatever you may say about Boris Johnson, he never fails to give us all something new to talk about – in this case, his half-remark about those vaccine firms yesterday, quickly made and just as quickly withdrawn.  As he sometimes does, he was offending the spirit of the age.

Which crowns virtue signalling as the ultimate virtue.  What matters isn’t what you do, but what you say – the signal you send.  It shows that you have the right motive, and everything else follows.  Except, as we’ve seen, that it doesn’t.

If you want societies that seek to impose virtue by force, leave the rest of us to muddled old Britain, and try Jim Jones’ Jonestown, with its murders and mass suicides, or Mao, Stalin, Hitler – and so on.  Compared to the lot of them, a greedy capitalist is a study of morality.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.

Bevin, the working-class John Bull who stood up to Stalin and has no successors in today’s Labour Party

11 Jul

Ernest Bevin: Labour’s Churchill by Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis has chosen a magnificent subject. Ernest Bevin was recognised by everyone he met in the 30 years before his death in 1951 as a tremendous figure, a man of power who invigorated any transaction in which he took part, “a working-class John Bull”, as Winston Churchill put it, who did not allow anyone, Stalin included, to push him around.

From 1945-51 Bevin served as one of the great Foreign Secretaries. The brilliant young men who worked for him at the Foreign Office respected and adored him.

This book carries a photograph, which one could wish had been reproduced larger, of the last of his private secretaries, Roddy Barclay – tall, thin, alert, languid, deferential, wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, a grave demeanour and a moustache, “a clever man who chose not to seem clever” as his obituarist in The Independent put it – holding a paper for the Foreign Secretary and indicating on it some matter of importance.

Bevin is sitting at an ornate desk, a massive figure, head on one side, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, pen held, as Adonis points out, like a chisel, giving the paper his undivided attention and probably about to deliver a brutally funny retort.

In Adonis’s best chapter, entitled “Ernie”, we get Bevin at the height of his powers, with Barclay and Nico Henderson preserving some of the best things they heard him say:

“If you open that Pandora’s Box you never know what Trojan ‘orses will jump out.”

Or of a speech by Nye Bevan:

“It sounded as if he’d swallowed a dictionary. ‘E used a lot of words but ‘e didn’t know what they all meant.”

One of the reasons why Bevin has faded from the public mind is that his name is so similar to Bevan, who eclipsed all others to carry off the glory of founding the National Health Service.

Unless one is an expert, one has to make an effort to remember which Labour politician is which, and although Bevin was a big figure for a longer period, and had greater achievements to his name, none of those achievements is so easy to explain or to approve of as the NHS.

He was born into rural poverty in Winsford, a remote village in Somerset where another Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was to spend part of his childhood.

Bevin’s mother, Mercy, whose photograph he kept all his life on his desk, was single, and died when he was eight. He left school at the age of 11 and became a farm labourer, which he called “a form of slavery”. His favourite poem was “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

At the age of 13, Bevin managed to join two of his older brothers in Bristol, where he became a drayman, a Baptist preacher, a socialist and a trade union organiser, and before the First World War made common cause between the Bristol carters and dockers.

He was an organiser and negotiator of genius and in 1922 founded the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which he built into the biggest union in the world, all the time fighting off attempts by Communists to take control.

This was his school of politics. He saw that Churchill’s decision to go back on the gold standard in 1925 had “pushed us over the cliff” and was a disaster for wages, which would have to be cut if British industries were to survive.

Hence the General Strike of 1926, precipitated by proposed cuts in miners’ wages. It is good to be reminded of the remark by Lord Birkenhead, who as F.E.Smith had won a name as one of the most brilliant Conservatives of that or any other generation:

“It would be possible to say without exaggeration of the miners’ leaders that they were the stupidest men in England if we had not had frequent occasion to meet the owners.”

Adonis calls F.E.Smith “the Boris Johnson-esque Tory extrovert of the day”. One sees what he means, but the description isn’t quite right. Smith was harsher than Johnson, and had a more cutting wit.

If Bevin had been able to take charge of the union side of the talks with the Government, the General Strike might have been averted. He was not dominant enough at the start of the crisis to do that, but had emerged by the end of it as a “leader of leaders”.

Men of imagination and intellect – David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes – recognised Bevin as a kindred spirit, more Keynesian than Keynes, someone who saw without needing to work out the theory that one answer to mass unemployment must be to leave the gold standard, while another must be to institute programmes of public works.

Men devoid of imagination – Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative leader, and Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour leader – formed a coalition to uphold economic orthodoxy and keep Lloyd George, who championed Keynes’s ideas, out of power.

In 1935, Bevin was instrumental in getting rid of George Lansbury, described by Adonis as “a 1930s Jeremy Corbyn”, from the Labour leadership. “Bevin hammered Lansbury to death,” as their Labour colleague Hugh Dalton put it. When reproached for brutality, Bevin said,

“Lansbury had been going about dressed in saint’s clothes for years waiting for martyrdom: I set fire to the faggots.”

Bevin supported Clement Attlee as the new leader, and in the years to come upheld him through numerous attempts by Labour colleagues to overthrow him.

In 1940, when Labour joined Churchill’s wartime coalition, Bevin came in as Minister of Labour and a member of the War Cabinet, and with characteristic dynamism set about mobilising the work force.

In 1945, as the new Foreign Secretary, Bevin was plunged at Attlee’s side into hard bargaining with Stalin at the Potsdam Conference, and saw at once – much quicker than the Americans – that here was a Communist who was trying to take control of Western Europe, and must be resisted.

There was no false modesty about Bevin. He knew what he could do. He worked incredibly hard, without showing off about it, and “used alcohol like a car uses petrol”. On the plane back from Potsdam, he told Nico Henderson:

“You see, I’ve had a good deal of experience with foreigners. Before the last war I had to do a good deal of negotiation with ships’ captains of all nationalities. These people, Stalin and Truman, are just the same as all Russians and Americans; and dealing with them over foreign affairs is just the same as trying to come to a settlement about unloading a ship. Oh yes, I can handle them.”

Adonis keeps saying, in a somewhat repetitive way, how crucial Bevin was in resisting Stalin’s attempts to neutralise or take over the whole of occupied Germany.

This is not really why we are interested in Bevin. He is a fascinating political personality. We want to read about Churchill whether or not it can be proved he stopped Hitler, and about Bevin whether or not it can be proved he stopped Stalin.

In each case, the more stridently one advances the claim, the more insecure one is liable to sound.

It is true that the creation of what became West Germany was a triumph of British statecraft for which Bevin deserves credit.

Every so often, when I was a correspondent in Berlin in the 1990s, I was reminded of this, but found it hard to dramatise events which had happened 50 years before.

And after all, the success of West Germany had an awful lot to do with the Germans.

Bevin did not get pious about the postwar settlement. He said of the Germans to General Brian Robertson, Governor of the British zone: “I tries ‘ard, Brian, but I ‘ates them.”

This book is dedicated to Roy Jenkins, “friend, mentor, inspiration”. Unfortunately, the disciple was in too much of a rush to maintain the high standards of eloquence and wit set by his master.

There are sentences in Adonis’s book which are too clumsy ever to have been written, let alone allowed to pass into print, by Jenkins.

But there is also a love of anecdote, and an understanding of the way it can illuminate history, which are worthy of Jenkins.

This book can be recommended to anyone interested in Bevin who lacks the time or will to read Alan Bullock’s three-volume biography, on which Adonis acknowledges his reliance.

Another reason why Bevin has faded from public view is that it is impossible to say who his successors were. The unions became a source of trouble more than of statesmen. Alan Johnson is the last major figure to have come up through one.

The mighty T & G merged in 2007 with Amicus and was renamed Unite the Union, led by Len McCluskey. What a falling off. Adonis concludes of Bevin,

“He was lionised in his day as the first of a new breed of ‘common man’ who would manage the British state in a new democratic era. But Bevin wasn’t the first of a kind: he was the first and last.”