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“The principal lesson I had learned was that the trade union movement must exert its influence in an ever-widening sphere and not be contained within the traditional walls of trade union policy ... We must try to expand the activities of the TUC until we could establish an efficient system whereby the TUC would be regularly and naturally consulted by whatever government was in power on any subject of direct concern to the unions.”
Walter Citrine


Walter Citrine (1887-1983) is largely forgotten today, apart from for his indispensable guide to the conduct of meetings, the ABC of Chairmanship. Yet, along with Ernest Bevin, he was a towering figure in the Trades Union Congress and Labour Party at the height of their twentieth century power and influence in British society. The contrast with the position of today's TUC and Labour Party is stark, so it may be useful to learn how they did it.

Bevin is remembered as a giant but Citrine has gone completely out of favour. There are a number of reasons for this but the main one seems to be that he was caricatured by opponents as a 'grey, predictable, apparatchik figure', 'the super-bureaucrat'. Aneurin Bevan's sneer about Citrine, 'poor man, he suffers from files ', was typical of the way in which he and others, like Michael Foot, sought to belittle someone whose vision and role was different from theirs. (1)

(1) Michael Foot’s adulatory two volume biography of Aneurin Bevan (1962), especially volume 1, 178, 287 and 298-306, is full of such jibes.

After the war, Citrine retired from the TUC, whereas Bevin held high Cabinet office as Foreign Secretary from 1945 until 1951. Bevin's achievements were deservedly but uncritically lauded by no less than three biographers soon after his death. (2) His close relationship with Clement Attlee ensured that he was given most of the credit for the unions' sterling role in the war effort. Though more 'right-wing' than Citrine, Bevin's prominence and achievements made him simply too big a target for 'the Left' to take on. Citrine's equally major contribution to government during the war as TUC General Secretary, Privy Counsellor and world wide Plenipotentiary (which we will see), soon faded in the public mind and he had no one to sing his praises once he left the Labour scene. Worse still, when the unions shifted leftwards from the late 1950s, it was Citrine who became 'fair- game' for those who thought they knew much better.

(2) Trevor Evans: Ernest Bevin, (1946); Francis Williams: Ernest Bevin, Portrait of a Great Englishman, (1952) and Lord Alan Bullock: The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, vol.1 Trade Union Leader 1881-1940, (1960).

There have been recent attempts to redress the balance with valuable reassessments of Citrine's life and times. (3) In revisiting Citrine's achievement in a chapter of a forthcoming book, (4) the writer recalls his and Bevin's significant achievement in taking the trade unions (and the Labour Party) 'from Trafalgar Square to Downing Street'.

(3) Robert Taylor’s The TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism (2000),20-91 and N. Riddell: 'Walter Citrine and the British Labour Movement 1925-1935', History journal, April 2000, 298-306.

(4) Alternatives to State-Socialism in Britain – Other Worlds of Labour in the Twentieth Century (edited by Peter Ackers & Alastair J. Reid), 2017, Palgrave.

Early life

Walter McLennan Citrine (1887- 1983) was born in Wallasey, on Wirral, Merseyside, into a seafaring family. He left school aged twelve in 1899 for dusty and heavy work in a local flourmill. In 1901, his father, a ship's rigger and pilot on the River Mersey, got him an apprenticeship as an electrician. He qualified in 1906 working round the Mersey and south Lancashire. An autodidact from his early days, he acquired 'the dictionary habit' early on by studying and memorising the meaning of words.

He took night classes in economics and accounting, and taught himself shorthand - a skill that would stand him in good stead throughout his life. He also became deeply interested in 'electrical theory' (the cutting edge of technology then). This ability to reason in such abstract matters and to write lucidly, marked Citrine out as a new type of professional when he got involved in union affairs. (5) When Beatrice Webb visited him in 1927 she told him, 'you are the first intellectual who has held such a responsible position in the trade union movement'. Though he didn't take the 'intellectual ' tag as a compliment, having a poor opinion of many of those in and around the Labour movement at the time. (6) Nonetheless, it was his analytical and very rational mind which marked him out throughout his union life and it may well explain why Bevin and he were never close, though hugely complementary in their partnership at the head of the unions.

(5) Although there is no biography of Citrine, he has left us a marvelous two volume memoir based on his contemporary short-hand notes - Men and Work (1964) and Two Careers (1967).

(6) Citrine, Men and Work, 270.

Formative influences

Although his father was an active Merseyside Conservative Unionist, the young Walter was more influenced by his socialist workmates and he imbibed the classic Marxist texts, including Value Price and Profit, and Capital at an early age. These seem to have had some impact, though he was never a communist. It was the 'street socialism' of the time, especially Robert Blatchford's Merrie England and The Clarion that got him involved in the left-wing Independent Labour Party from the early 1900s. He was soon giving talks to fellow union and ILP members in Wallasey, where he stood unsuccessfully for Labour in the 1918 general election.

However, Citrine's ambitions were soon channelled into more occupational pursuits. He joined the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) in 1911 and soon became a leading local official. Although that union had a distinctly craft bias, Citrine, with his strong socialist outlook, developed a much broader industrial philosophy. He was attracted to some of the ideas of the popular syndicalism (industrial unionism and 'direct action') of the time. By 1914, as chair of the District Committee, he had led the entire Merseyside membership in a nationwide ETU strike. He was elected as their first full-time district official soon after, and was exempted from war service. Although he doesn't say much about it, he was probably opposed to the war, like most of the ILP. Although not his and other industrial unions.

The ' A.B.C. of Chairmanship'

His famous handbook grew from notes he produced as a guide to procedures at meetings for his Merseyside activists. In 1914 the ETU adopted it nationally in their rule-book. An expanded version for all other unions called 'The Labour Chairman' would later become the ABC of Chairmanship. Many generations of union activists and leaders owe a lot to that little Citrine 'bible', as Alan Johnson MP has recently confirmed. (7)

(7) Alan Johnson: Please Mr Postman, (2014), 152-3, 245-6 and again in The Long and Winding Road, (2016), 193-4.

The ETU grew significantly during the First World War, (from 3,000 to almost 60,000 by 1920), through organizing the semi-skilled grades flooding into the war-time factories. Before the war the union had a tough time in being recognized for bargaining purposes. Citrine, who was re-elected District Secretary unopposed in 1917, was part of this advance, both as an organizer and negotiator with many of the electrical contracting employers around the Mersey. He also became Secretary and President of the Federation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Trades (FEST), and so was a well- known figure in the wider trade union movement. He says that he learned a lot from negotiating with some of the large Merseyside employers, such as Cammel Laird and Port Sunlight, developing a less aggressive approach than the traditional 'platform style of delivery' then common. He found that developing 'continuing relationships' was the best means of extending the process of collective bargaining, 'based on good faith on both sides'. (8)

(8) Citrine, Men and Work, 51.

In 1920, he was elected Assistant General Secretary of the ETU, then based in Manchester, and held this post until 1923, both as a negotiator and administrator. One of his key achievements was to reform the notoriously inefficient, and occasionally corrupt, lay branch officer administration and financial system, by centralizing the collection and disbursement of contributions and expenses. The ETU President, at the time, Jack Ball, said that with his system of centralized finance, Citrine 'saved the union'. He was encouraged to apply for the vacant position of Assistant General Secretary of the TUC in 1923 and from hundreds of applicants he emerged successful, to start in 1924.

This solid union background outline is important to counter the sneer that Citrine was merely some backroom TUC bureaucrat. He was a 'civil servant' of the General Council, but because of his all-round 'brilliant' skills was given considerable responsibility for a wide range of policy as well as administrative matters. This was the secret of the authority he came to command.