Obituary: Reginald Bevins

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The Independent Online
Reginald Bevins was one of the early recruits to the post-war army of Conservative MPs who rose to (in his case, relatively) high office, though hailing from social classes somewhat lower than the pre-war party had been accustomed to.

He was a gritty and stubborn man - as he demonstrated on more than one occasion - and, indeed, it was entirely fitting that, having lost his seat at Toxteth in 1964, he declared that he wanted no further truck with Conservatism until the entire upper-class echelon which dominated the party had been swept aside: he had in mind, particularly, Alec Douglas- Home, whose elevation to the leadership in 1963 had particularly angered him.

He could see no future for the Tories in the continuation of the old order of social stratification, and expressed his irritation and resentment in his 1965 book The Greasy Pole, the title referring to Disraeli's remark that getting to the top in politics was like climbing just such an inhospitable object. He was moderately pleased, therefore, with Edward Heath's election to the party leadership in 1965; but by then it was far too late for a political comeback.

Bevins was born and educated in Liverpool, and remained essentially a Liverpool man all his life, having about him that distinctively pugnacious - and often prickly - sense of identity and independence associated with natives of that great city. At the outbreak of the war in 1939 he enlisted in the Royal Artillery: he ended the conflict as a major in the Royal Army Service Corps, and immediately set about finding himself a Conservative parliamentary seat for, while he was often in the future to demonstrate sympathy with the working classes, he never had any time for the socialist doctrines being proclaimed by the supporters of Clement Attlee.

In the 1945 general election Bevins fought in the Conservative interest in West Toxteth and, like many others, went down to defeat in the Tory debacle. He fought and lost Edge Hill in a by-election in 1947, but reached his desired destination when he won Toxteth in the party's recovery general election of 1950; he was to remain an MP for 14 years.

His rise to cabinet office was not exactly spectacular: steady would be a better word to describe it. In the year after his election he was made Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. Two years later he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Works. In 1957 he returned to Housing and Local Government, as Minister. He was greatly helped in the efficient discharge of his duties in these offices by his long service in local government: he had been a Liverpool councillor between 1935 and 1950.

In the aftermath of the 1959 general election, however, came what Bevins quite reasonably saw as his breakthrough: he was elevated to the Cabinet as Postmaster General. (He was the second last holder of that now defunct post, the last being Tony Benn.) The job was important to him personally, for it showed that he had really arrived at - or near - the top in politics. But the job was also held to be a modest one, demanding no more than pertinacity and a gift for detail, both qualities which Bevins possessed in full measure.

Circumstances and his own character, however, conspired to alter all expectations, for Bevins was to become embroiled in three of the most controversial political issues in the years before the 1964 general election.

The most conspicuous was the fallout from the Great Train Robbery of 1963 which was, up to that date, the most lucrative in the history of theft in Britain. A security guard was injured, and some time later died of his injuries. Bevins was blamed for lax security in the transport of mail, though the extraordinary intelligence and daring of the thieves should not have been unfairly laid at his door. He moved speedily to tighter security, though he resisted proposals to arm the guards.

The most acrimonious controversy of this period was the post workers' pay dispute of 1964 when Bevins, recommending a pay increase of 5 per cent, found himself utterly isolated in Cabinet. This was no mere difference of opinion, for his aggressive handling of his side of the case antagonised - in the main permanently - his colleagues. The eventual settlement was 6.5 per cent, and Bevins took the blame for what was widely (and correctly) regarded as a dangerous surge in wage inflation.

But the most important controversy - and one which was to change British culture utterly - was the introduction of commercial television, over which Bevins presided with skill and tact, handling complicated, and often fiery, parliamentary debates with steady firmness and unexpected tact. True, he was greatly helped by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who, under the influence of his old friend, the best-selling novelist Norman Collins (who was to become one of the first of the new television magnates), had come to believe strongly in this new creature of the airwaves, which so many regarded as an un-British monstrosity. Bevins had much help from Collins; but the real burden of the day fell on him alone, and he carried it manfully.

It was a great pity that Bevin's relationship with his party ended in such bitterness. He was a man of stalwart character, ever ready to join battle for a cause he believed in, ever consistent in his beliefs, and ever true to his friends.

Patrick Cosgrave

John Reginald Bevins, politician: born Liverpool 20 August 1908; member, Liverpool City Council 1935-50; MP (Conservative) for Toxteth 1950-64; PPS to the Minister of Housing and Local Government 1951-53; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Works 1953-57, Ministry of Housing and Local Government 1957-59; Postmaster General 1959-64; PC 1959; author of The Greasy Pole 1965; married 1933 Nora Jones (three sons); died Liverpool 16 November 1996.