A review of the new biography “Walter Citrine” by Dr Jim Moher

The subtitle of this book is “Forgotten Statesman of the Trades Union Congress”. Now most books and programmes that use the words ‘forgotten’ or ‘unknown’ in their title are usually something of an exaggeration, but not this one. In spite of over 50 years of Labour movement activism (including half of that time as a national trade union official), I confess that I knew little about Citrine other than his authorship of an “ABC Of Chairmanship” (1939). Moher is, therefore to be congratulated on producing a fascinating and highly-readable account of a remarkable life.

Walter Citrine (1887-1983) was born in Liverpool, a working class man who left school at 12 and became a local and then national official with the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), before spending two decades (1926-1946) as the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). What might have been retirement years for many men were, in Citrine’s case, occupied as Director of Welfare & Training at the National Coal Board, Chair of the British Electricity Authority, and member of the House of Lords. He died aged 95. 

The heart of this narrative is his time at the TUC which encompassed the first Labour Government of 1924, the General Strike of 1926, the second Labour Government of 1929-31, and his role at home and abroad in support of the wartime Coalition Government of 1940-45. We learn a lot about his professionalisation of the TUC and his role in making the trade union movement a genuine partner in the war effort. He never wanted to be wartime minister but, in 1940, Churchill made him a Privy Councillor so that he could easily approach Ministers including the PM himself. I would have liked rather more on the General Strike and a bit less on international trade union affairs, but balancing a biography of such a rich life has ultimately to be a personal choice. 

In the 1930s and 1940s, there was only one other trade union figure who rivalled Citrine in stature and influence and that is Ernest Bevin who was General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union and then wartime Minister of Labour & National Service. A major theme of this biography is the relationship between Citrine and Bevin which was initially close and increasingly became strained. 

Moher writes of “the extraordinary emerging ‘involuntary partnership’ between two remarkable union leaders”. He explains that “Inevitably, they were rivals as well as partners and never close but … they complemented each other’s strengths”. As far as the crucial wartime years are concerned, he writes: “”While it is the case that Bevin had the more public role in raising the labour supply, it was Citrine’s work behind the scenes which was pivotal in the complex and delicate task of persuading unions to suspend hard-won rights”

It is clear that Moher believes that Citrine has been underrated by historians and that in contrast Bevin’s role has been somewhat overstated. Moher even suggests that, in part at least, Citrine’s record was deliberately undermined by Bevin. He writes of Bevin’s “cumulative list of moves to undermine Citrine” and suggests that this “shows a ruthless, devious character, which in others would be condemned, not praised”

While there have been several biographies of Bevin, this is the first of Citrine, although Citrine did produce two volumes of biography (1964 & 1967). Most biographers – including me – are very fond of their subjects and Moher does not disguise his great admiration for Citrine. He highlights “his brilliant intellect, imaginative administrative flair and highly effective forensic skills” and concludes that “Walter Citrine was probably the most powerful figure to have graced the Labour movement in the twentieth century”


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