Leader in all fairness

Clem Attlee - Attlee
January 2, 1998

Clement Attlee was the best postwar British prime minister by almost any measurement. He had courage, imagination and acute political skill, which produced success at the polls and lasting achievement in office. More than any other individual, he was responsible for the creation of the welfare state and the more or less peaceful retreat from imperial territories.

The only area of leadership in which he did not excel was, sadly, the only one that now counts: good public relations. He would rather talk with journalists about The Times crossword puzzle than government policy; he had a television, but solely for the benefit of his manservant; and he was coaxed into installing a telex machine at Downing Street only by the promise that it could give him the cricket scores.

Of two new biographies, Robert Pearce's Attlee, one of the Profiles in Power series, has the sharper focus and is the more acutely observed. Pearce knows that it is winning elections, not social concern or administrative ability, that makes a politician successful. Taking this point of view, it is remarkable quite what a failure as a politician Attlee was in early life: he stood unsuccessfully for Stepney Borough Council (twice); for the Limehouse Board of Guardians and for the London County Council. He was 39 before he assumed his first elected post, as MP for Limehouse, in 1922.

Throughout his life, his colleagues wondered whether this unassuming, rather dull man had what it took to win an election or to run a country. Even after his landslide victory in 1945, the endlessly sly and manipulative Herbert Morrison was trying to cheat Attlee of the leadership -and with some support from parliamentary colleagues.

Unlike Francis Beckett's Clem Attlee, Pearce's book is an academic, referenced work, which puts Attlee's achievement in its political context rather than considering it entirely a matter of personal ability. Attlee had the advantage of enthusiastic consensus in postwar Britain over housing, employment, education and social security. Indian independence was a necessary corollary of half a century of British policy, including that proposed by the Simon commission. Like all of the most successful leaders, Attlee led from the front, but he led in the direction that the people were already taking.

Neither of these writers seems to have comprehended Attlee's relationship to the military. He joined in 1914 despite Labour's opposition to the war; he used the appellation Major Attlee in the inter-war years; he led Labour away from the pacifism it had embraced under George Lansbury; he supported Churchill in 1940 in order that the second world war could be waged effectively. As prime minister, Attlee promoted the secret development of Britain's independent nuclear capability, thus more firmly entrenching Britain's position in the cold war; and he backed Gaitskell's rearmament budget in 1951 even though it split the party.

Churchill had less of a military mind than Attlee: Churchill had been a cavalry officer and war correspondent in his youth before politics called him away. He was in essence an adventurer. Attlee was much more like a career army man, the closest this country came to having a martial prime minister since Wellington. He had the military virtues of strategic thinking, meticulous planning, the ability to take and give orders, taciturnity, and even ruthlessness: he seems not to have suffered any disquiet at sacking colleagues with a few brief words. It was the sort of calmness in the face of unpleasant necessity he showed in the first world war when he threatened to shoot a brother officer for refusing to advance.

Attlee would have liked to have been a poet, but he did not have the skill. Excepting some early anthems of social concern that found their way into Socialist Review, he wisely refrained from printing his plodding doggerel. Beckett does his subject no favours by making a claim for Attlee in this area. This is particularly so when the only verse of merit printed here, "Where are the friends of yesterday / That fawned on Him / And flattered her?I" about the Windsors after the abdication, is wrongly attributed to Attlee by Beckett. In fact, "Rat Week" was written by Osbert Sitwell.

Beckett has great respect and affection for his subject -he considers he can attribute to Attlee's welfare state all the good things in his own life, such as the national health's treatment for his polio as a child; his university education; and the youth revolution of the 1960s, which arose because: "Young people no longer had to give their parents every penny they earned to keep the family from starvation."

Beckett's background in journalism is really too evident, however. He is genuinely interested in speculating (he does so twice) whether Attlee would have won the television quiz game Mastermind had he and it co-existed. Remarks such as "today, in 1997" give no confidence in Beckett's faith that he has written a book that will endure beyond the year.

Despite his obvious sympathy with his subject, Beckett does not get inside the man to understand why a decently minded middle-class professional should have become such a very successful revolutionary, though all the clues are here. Beckett repeatedly mentions with some bemusement Attlee's passion for cricket and his love of his old public school, Haileybury, making these comic peccadillos to be recounted to liven up a dry patch of political reporting. This is a mistake. For Attlee, the values of justice, equal opportunity and fair play that pertained within the closed systems of cricket and Haileybury were an ideal to be cherished. This was no rare view for an Englishman of his generation; but what Attlee did, uniquely -and what set this tiny man head and shoulders above his peers - was to create a structure of society that attempted to make life similarly fair and decent for everyone: that was the welfare state. He wanted to see the values of the best of England available to all, and we are all the poorer because his successors have not shared his simple, noble vision.

Jad Adams is the author of a biography of Tony Benn.

Clem Attlee: A Biography

Author - Francis Beckett
ISBN - 1 86066 101 7
Publisher - Richard Cohen
Price - £20.00
Pages - 338

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