Labour’s Ernest Bevin and European Union

I’ve posted several pieces pointing out that the idea of a united Europe, or a European parliament, ultimately goes back to the Quaker William Penn in the 17th and 18th century philosophers and idealists, such as Immanuel Kant. In his essay, On Perpetual Peace, Kant advocated the creation of a federal European state as a way of preventing further European wars. The great Italian patriot and revolutionary, Mazzini, also believed in a federation of European nation states, dedicated to peace.

In the 20th century, one of the great advocates for European economic union in the Labour movement was Ernest Bevin. Bevin was one of the founders, with Harry Gosling, of the TGWU and the foreign minister in Atlee’s government after the War. At the TUC Congress in 1926, Bevin urged in the name of his union that a formal resolution should be passed

That notwithstanding the political divisions of Europe, this Congress instructs the General Council to further, through the international organisations, a policy having for its object the creation of a European public opinion in favour of Europe becoming an economic unity.
(Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin: Portrait of a Great Englishman (London: Hutchinson 1952, p. 149).

Bevin was a frequent visitor to the International Labour Office in Geneva, and helped to reform the International Transport Workers’ Federation after the War. His biographer, Francis Williams, considered that his experience of the profound economic links between workers in various countries right across Europe helped shape his internationalism and support for European economic union. Williams writes of his 1927 speech in favour of economic union for Europe

“Anyone who has had to follow the transport trades of the world”, he said, “realizes that while you may satisfy political ambitions by the establishment of boundaries the economic development of the world is often in total conflict with national aspirations. I recognise and my union recognises that national aspirations and national boundaries are bound to be a great handicap to us … but we also believe that if we are to develop nationally we have got to show our people unionism in terms of raw materials, in terms of harvests, cycles of trade and exchange…”

“We have,” he continued, “debated all this week as if Britain had no industrial problem to solve. But Britain has got a problem and it is no use attacking unemployment unless we try at least to make a contribution towards its solution and one of the complications throughout Europe has been the creation of a greater number of national boundaries as a result of the Versailles Treaty… The Labour Movement should carry on a great educational work in promoting the development of all forms of national culture even to the extent of political divisions and yet at the same time to inculcate the spirit of a United States of Europe on an economic basis… Cast your eye over Europe,” he went on, “with its millions of underfed, with its millions of people with a wretchedly low standard of living. We can have mass production, we can have intensified production, but we must, in order to absorb that mass production direct consuming power ot the millions of people in Europe whose standard of living is not far removed from the animal…. When we meet our international friends (let us) talk of the real problems of Europe in terms of materials, in terms of goods, in terms of the productive capacity of the peasantry, in terms of exchange, and drive along the line of endeavouring to create a feeling of interdependence between the production of the peasantry from the land of the craftsmanship of the workshop…”

Although in 1927 Bevin no doubt underestimated the political difficulties in the way of European Economic Union and was somewhat too facile in his belief in a United States of Europe this speech is interesting not only for its evidence of the widening of his own view of the duty of the trade unions but because the premises on which it was based remained all his life fundamental to his view of international affairs. They later deeply influenced his policy as Foreign Secretary, not least in his response some twenty years later to Mr. Marshall’s Harvard speech on European economic dislocation the full significance of which, as the Annual Register at the time commented, “was not realised on either side of the Atlantic” until Bevin “grasped with both hands” the opportunity it offered of American aid in initiating European co-operation and thus brought into being the Marshall Plan.

In 1927 he was thinking aloud, dreaming a little as he said because “to be a dreamer is sometimes necessary”, and his thoughts brought many angry responses from other delegates to the Congress. Some of them opposed him because they considered that it was the T.U.C.’s business to deal with practical matters and not waste its time on large visions of this kind, others because the idea of European union seemed to them to run counter to the old socialist ideal of an all-embracing international. To this latter argument Bevin replied belligerently that he was not less an internationalist because he was also a realist. It was fine to talk about a world-wide international. but that was far away. meanwhile trade barriers to Europe were keeping living standards low and big employers were developing cartels to safeguard their own interests at the expense of the community. His resolution was carried in the end by 2,258,000 votes to 1,464,000 although both the miners and the railwaymen opposed him. (pp. 151-2).

Williams also says of his idea for a united Europe that

In the past he had been preoccupied with the need to develop trade union power in order to establish a counter-weight to the organised power of employers. Now he saw the solution to many of the world’s economic problems in somewhat similar terms, preaching the need for Britain to develop, either through participation in an economic United States of Europe “spreading from the borders of Russia right to the borders of France”, or in a Commonwealth and European bloc or both, a counter-weight to the economic power of the United States and the potential economic power of Russia. (p. 153).

This was one of the reasons the EEC, the EU’s precursor was founded – so that through an economic union European trade and industry could compete with the US and Soviet blocs. Moreover, the Social Charter in the EU safeguards some basic workers’ rights, rights that are severely threatened by the Brexit campaign.

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