Attlee: A Life in Politics

September 30, 2010

A biographer of Clement Attlee faces the problem that his subject may, as Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds concedes, have had "no significant personality at all". Most contemporaries seem to have agreed that Attlee was a colourless character and, although Winston Churchill may never have made the quip that "an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out", it summed up the political world's view. His colleague, Hugh Dalton, called him a "little mouse".

Thomas-Symonds faces the problem squarely and turns it to his advantage by making the theme of his book the question of how a man with no charisma, little physical presence and without a gift for public relations or ability as an orator became Labour leader and prime minister.

Relatively inconspicuous and seemingly unambitious people often get ahead because rivals underestimate their relentless determination and, while the hares challenge each other, they ignore the purposeful tortoise; so it was with Attlee. This grey man seemed no threat to Dalton, Sir Richard Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin or Herbert Morrison; he might do as a stopgap leader.

Even in the tough world of London's East End politics, Attlee found his position as an unobtrusive outsider an advantage. Like so many public school boys and graduates of his time, he had obeyed a charitable urge and worked in Toynbee Hall and Stepney Boys' Club. After the Great War, in which he served honourably, Major Attlee, as he was known, was drawn into Labour Party politics, and, slipping between the opposed Jewish and Irish factions which dominated the party in the East End, emerged as the MP for Limehouse.

When the overwhelming defeat of the Labour Party at the 1932 election saw the "big beasts" of the party lose their seats, Attlee scraped home and became, faute de mieux, deputy leader to George Lansbury and, after Lansbury's resignation in 1935, leader. He remained, however, very much the provisional head of a party that had little chance of forming a government until the Second World War changed the parameters of British politics and, in 1945, Labour gained a massive majority. Even then it was not certain that Attlee would become prime minister, for Morrison staged a last-minute coup, which failed only because Bevin preferred to see Attlee go to the Palace rather than his hated rival, Morrison.

It seems unlikely that British voters in 1945 were voting for Attlee, but if Labour rather than its leader won the election, it was, in great part, Attlee who made the new government a success. Historians' views on the postwar Labour government and its "New Jerusalem" range widely, but what cannot be denied is that it was an effective government that transformed Britain, and that Attlee played the key role in ensuring that Labour's manifesto got on to the statute book.

He did not provide leadership like a Churchill or a Margaret Thatcher, but he got the best out of his ministers and was a brilliant chairman, who searched for a consensus and usually structured the debate so that the outcome suited him. His achievements between 1945 and 1948, which included the establishment of the NHS and the National Insurance system, and laying the foundations of the close postwar relationship with the US, were substantial, even if they owed much to the support of that underestimated figure, Bevin.

Thomas-Symonds is able to demonstrate how his subject survived and triumphed in political life, but does not discover what motivated him. Attlee kept his life in compartments, as is demonstrated by his contented marriage to a lifelong Conservative, and, as his arch-rival Morrison put it, "it was quite impossible to approach near enough to get inside his mind".

What is certain, Thomas-Symonds concludes, is that this leading politician and statesman of the mid-20th century would not have succeeded as a leader in today's image-dominated politics.

Attlee: A Life in Politics

By Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds I.B. Tauris, 344pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781845117795. Published 30 July 2010

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