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World War Two

After the war came to Britain in 1940, Bevin became the more important public figure as Minister of Labour and National Service. Citrine wanted it that way and it was on his advice that Bevin was taken into the War Cabinet. But Chamberlain and Greenwood wanted to dump him for breaching government policy by bumping up the rail and agricultural workers' pay, 'off his own bat' (71). What is less known is that Citrine was also offered a Ministerial post by Churchill when the coalition was first being formed. However, he decided that he could be far more effective at the TUC. (72) Instead, he was made a Privy Counsellor so that he would have direct access to all Ministers, not just the Ministry of Labour, and especially to the Prime Minister, on behalf of the unions. This gave Citrine immense influence throughout the war years. Consistent with his long-stated policy, he did not wish for TUC influence to be confined to narrow labour issues.

(71) Citrine, Two Careers, 50-2.

(72) Robert Taylor, The TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000), 76-91. Chapter 2, Ernest Bevin, Walter Citrine and the TUC’s War, 1939-1945.

Together Citrine and Bevin helped mobilise the unions for the war effort through the Ministry of Labour and the TUC/production unions. They addressed the General Council at Bournemouth on 12th May 1940, just as the army was being lifted from the Dunkirk beaches against the background of the threat of imminent Nazi invasion. In this dangerous situation they got the unions to accept draconian emergency legislation, written mainly by Bevin, replacing strikes by compulsory arbitration, introducing labour direction and many other unprecedented relaxations of traditional union restrictive practices. In return, the unions were made central players in the war production effort. This was through consultative structures at every level on various joint committees. It resulted in workers getting improved conditions like canteens, holidays and status. They also came to find the arbitration boards suited the skills of their officials, so much so that they did not complain after the war when they were retained until 1951.

Citrine had frequent 'one to one' meetings with Churchill, and a personal rapport that was envied by some Ministers, including Bevin. He recalled his visits during the 'Blitz' and later representations about issues such as factory and public raid warnings and the impact of the flying bombs ('doodlebugs ') on London, in terms of the workers' morale. He and Churchill often kept each other's spirits up during the darkest London Blitz nights reciting patriotic poetry, remembered vividly from their childhoods. (73) Citrine's importance owed much to what Churchill saw as his international standing as IFTU President. It was Citrine who went to the United States in 1941 to persuade the American unions to back Roosevelt against the strong isolationist mood among the workers there. Churchill sent a personal note to Roosevelt urging him to meet Citrine, which he did. It was Citrine who argued for aid to the Soviet Union after the invasion by Hitler in June 1941 and who visited with a TUC delegation to reinforce the new British-Soviet alliance with the Russian unions.

(73) ibid., 198-9.

Unfortunately, this very high national standing of Citrine with the Prime Minister seems to have been resented by Bevin. There are adverse references in his papers which suggest that he began to view Citrine as a rival, once remarking that 'he wants to be Foreign Secretary'. He was also critical of Citrine's absences abroad from his TUC job - his deputy Vincent Tewson regularly stood in for him - but that was hardly fair. In fact, this bad feeling between them seems to have crystallised around one incident in 1941, which almost caused a rupture between the two. Bevin had promised that the autocratic powers he had been given as Minister of Labour would be exercised in close consultation with the unions. In practice, things didn't always work so smoothly, as his officials' or at least Bevin's idea of 'consultation' was not what the unions, or even employers, were always happy with. Bevin's 'Napoleonic' tendencies came to the fore in his considerable efforts to direct manpower policy across all departments, often 'riding roughshod' over fellow Ministers, trade union officials and employers. (74)

(74) Citrine, Two Careers, 125-8, 132, 137-8.

As TUC General Secretary, it was often Citrine's lot to raise awkward decisions on behalf of union colleagues and employers, in 'one to one' meetings with the Minister. He was one of the few who could stand up to 'Ernie'. (75) However, their relationship deteriorated from 1941 onwards, when Bevin publicly denounced the TUC-owned Daily Herald editor, and, by implication, Citrine as a key Director. Bevin claimed the paper was 'carrying on a Quisling policy' because of their 'opposition to his commandeering of skilled labour'. (76) It became so heated that the Evening Standard described it as 'open, if undeclared war'. Attlee, as Deputy Prime Minister, was asked by Churchill to intervene, and wrote to both officially in these terms: 'I have for some time been distressed to observe what appears to me to be a growing friction between you and Bevin'. He told them both to cool it. They exchanged conciliatory, but by no means warm, letters. (77) Citrine was deeply upset by this attack - to be called a Quisling i.e., traitor, was the worst thing anybody could be accused of at that time (Bevin claimed he had been misreported). He later referred to 'a certain side of Ernest's character', (78), but allowed for his former union colleagues' sensitivities better than most, because of his recognition of Bevin's enormous qualities and vital role.

(75) ibid., 45-55. The chapter is entitled, This Man Bevin!

(76) Daily Herald, 29th September 1941. Citrine Papers BLPES, 10/3.

(77) Citrine Papers, BLPES, 10/3.

(78) ibid., 10/2. Letter to Beaverbrook 12th November 1952.

However, their relationship, never close personally, did not improve. Nonetheless, by 1942, Citrine could justifiably say: "The influence of the trade unions has been enormously strengthened during the war and at no period in British history has the contribution which the organised workers have made to the success of their country been more widely or readily recognised." (79)

(79) Citrine, Two Careers.

That owed much to the efforts of these two great union leaders and, of course, to the entire trade union movement-led working class. After the war, Bevin became Foreign Secretary and so their paths rarely crossed. However, they seem to have met occasionally at events in a more relaxed atmosphere. Sadly, Bevin had to resign as Foreign Secretary due to ill health in 1951 and died soon afterwards. Citrine was one of the first to convey his sincere condolences to Bevin's wife.

In 1946, Citrine decided to step down from his arduous, but not well-paid job. He was offered a safety and training role as a member of the new National Coal Board and he was active in this role until in 1947 Attlee offered him, now Baron Citrine of Wembley, a dream post, as a former electrician, to be Chair of the new British Electricity Authority. This was a role he performed with relish for another decade, and part-time until 1960. He retired finally in 1960 to his home in Wembley Park, and started to attend the Lords more frequently and take part in some debates, where his contributions were always keenly listened to. His wife Doris died in 1973 and he moved to Devon where he died in 1983, aged ninety five.


How are we to view this labour partnership today? The events and years, national and international, during which they preeminently strode the union and Labour stage, make their careers of immense interest. Though Bevin is the best remembered, Citrine must surely be seen as of comparable standing. However, because of the serious fall-out during the war, and lacking the personal rapport to repair fences, their partnership seems to have faded. Bevin became Attlee's staunch ally, whereas Citrine was more friendly with another of Bevin's bêtes noirs, Herbert Morrison, who unsuccessfully challenged Attlee in 1945. This falling apart would have grave consequences for the trade unions and Labour, as they would lose both of them: one to high office, the other to the Central Electricity Authority.

This study recalls the heyday of the organised British Labour movement. Citrine's contribution sheds new light on the key turning points of that century, and not just its industrial history. Two points immediately occur. First, Citrine as the architect of the new TUC made it an independent force in British society, which it held long after Citrine had departed. Not for nothing was it regarded as another 'estate of the realm'. Secondly, after the catastrophic defeat of 1931, Citrine and Bevin helped the Labour Party to become a far more substantial social democratic party with a progressive alternative programme for government after 1945. Since then, with the left/right divisions of the unions impacting upon it, Labour leaderships in government have been a pale shadow of that 1945-51 administration. Finally, Citrine's role as an international union figure and statesman, his anti-fascist and anti-appeasement/pro-rearmament contribution, was a crucial ingredient of that Labour substance, which ironically, Tories like Baldwin and Churchill recognized far more than Attlee. Ernest Bevin appreciated it fully before the war, but unfortunately the immense pressures and strains of that global conflict drove them apart. Walter Citrine must rank as one of the British trade unions' finest products, which the unions today and wider society should recognise more fully. A better appreciation of his contributions, might also stir a more favourable reconsideration of the role of trade unions in society today.

Ernest Bevin's reputation as a union and Labour leader, has endured. From a union perspective, his finest achievement was undoubtedly the creation of the mighty Transport & General Workers Union (now UNITE). In the T&G, he bequeathed a powerful organisation to his successors and generations of ordinary workers. Through it, in partnership with Walter Citrine, he also played a leading role in the TUC and Labour Party from the General Strike to the Second World War, culminating in his vital role as Minister of Labour during that conflict. He used that influence to strengthen the role of trade unions and to improve the conditions and status of ordinary workers. As Foreign Secretary 1945-51, he was part of the most radically reforming post-war Labour Government that Britain has had, though it was also the era of the Cold War. His achievement of that high position is testimony to the qualities both personal and of that union movement which took him from that of a carter to the pinnacle of political life in the British Empire.