THE IMAGE of Her Majesty's principal secretary of state for foreign and (lately) commonwealth affairs is a fairly stereotyped one. He is, if not an aristocrat, at least of aristocratic bearing. He sits, splendidly advised and magnificently appointed, in King Charles Street, once the home of the India Office, and reads elegantly phrased cables from former dominions. Not infrequently, these cables contain Latin tags and Greek puns. Outside, in St. James's Park, the pelicans are doing their stuff. A gentleman's club lies within the compass of a leisurely saunter. Only on the eve of a major war will the lights in the office do anything so vulgar as to burn late. After exquisite cogitations, this lofty figure will make a deciion and communicate it to the Palace. The decision will, invariably, be toweringly wrong. The "classical education" at the Foreign Office, it was once said, is "Eton, Oxford, Munich and Suez."

There was, however, once a man who occupied the famous desk under the portrait of George III and who did not fit this pattern. He was a vital broker in the post-Yalta settlement, the founding of NATO and the reconstruction of the Atlantic alliance. He was almost incapable of sounding an "h" at the beginning of a word. He looked and dressed like a burst horse-hair sofa. On page 24 of Dean Acheson's Sketches there is a description of Ernest Bevin communing with his grandee predecessors:

"He read their papers; he talked of them as slightly older people whom he knew with affectionate respect. In listening to him, one felt strongly the continuity and integrity of English history. He conferred a single title on each of them. It was 'old.' 'Last night,' he said to me, 'I was reading some papers of Old Salisbury. Y'know 'e had a lot of sense.' 'Old Palmerston,' too, came in for frequent and sometimes wistful mention . . . With George III he was very companionable. When sherry was brought in, he would twist round to look at the portrait. 'Let's drink to him,' he would say. 'If 'e 'adn't been so stoopid, you wouldn't 'ave been strong enought to come to our rescue in the war, and after it with Marshall aid.'"

Joseph Stalin thought Bevin "no gentleman." (Did he, perhaps, prefer Tories after all?) Molotov accused him of being disrespectful to Soviet envoys. Many Israelis regard him to this day as having been a crude anti-Semite. The British left of the period saw him as an enthusiast for the Cold War. Lord Bullock, one of those irritating people who accept peerages and then continue to use their real names, thinks that Ernest Bevin was a giant in the human and the political senses. He certainly writes to scale; this is the third volume in a trilogy of unusual solemnity and bulk.

Bullock is a chronicler rather than a historian. He gets the facts and the footnotes and the archives in order and only then, if at all, assigns them their weight. In the early days of 1950, he records a very unwell Bevin saying offhand that "he was worried about the position in Korea." Two pages later, he describes how Bevin lobbied against Nehru for recognition of the doomed French puppet Bao Dai in Vietnam. On the basis of the first, slender observation Bullock awards many points for prescience ("a remark that surprised his listeners at the time but was to be remembered"). The second episode is allowed to pass without remark.

Where there is doubt, Bullock always resolves it in Bevin's favor. He depicts him as a man free from racialism or chauvinism; committed to the belief that all men are brothers. Yet elsewhere he quotes him as saying (over the protests of Churchill) that "the Hitler revolution did not change the German character very much. It expressed it." Bevin is defended from charges of anti- Semitism over Palestine, while being invested with amazing powers of patience, tolerance and goodwill. Yet it all comes down, on page 343, to him admitting to Truman that with Palestine:

"The trouble was the British had given conflicting pledges (Truman--'So have we')."

Bullock also believes, in that hallowed British political phrase, that Bevin wanted to rise with his class and not out of it. The evidence here is mixed. Bevin never took to affectation or elocution, those twin traps for the aspiring Labor politician. But he was extremely rough on dissent, whether in his own union power base or from his critics in Parliament and the press. Formed as a union negotiator in the Depression, he never got over the idea that face-to-face bargaining would vindicate his plain man's good sense. His finest hour was not as foreign secretary, but as minister of labor during the war, when he was able to deliver the trade unions to Churchill's war effort. If it had been up to Bevin, as Bullock makes clear in an early chapter, there would never have been a 1945 election, and the cosy partnership of big parties, big unions and employers would have gone on governing Britain for good.

Lord Bullock's book has the merit, which I think is incidental to its purpose, of answering a greatly disputed question. How was it that Britain gave up an empire without undergoing, as did Belgium, France, Portugal and Holland, any great sanguinary trauma? The answer is that the British decided, grudgingly at first but very soon with enthusiasm, to become the ditto and partner of the United States. This was what Churchill called for in the small print of his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri, in February 1946. This was what Bevin, with less bluster, set about confirming. His legacy, then, was a "special relationship," evolved in a period of Democratic and Labor government which has only, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, begun to unravel.