Few thought he was even a starter
There were those who thought themselves smarter
But he ended PM
CH and OM
An earl and a knight of the Garter
The wry limerick with which Clement Attlee summed up his own career has sometimes aided the caricature of the “little mouse” whom happenstance catapulted into Labour’s leadership in 1935, and who subsequently as Britain’s prime minister would preside over greater lights after 1945’s electoral landslide produced a radical post-war government.
In the hands of historian John Bew, though, it is a point of entry to a man of perseverance and passion. Bew reveals not a one-off versifier but an Attlee who at critical moments wrote poetry illustrating his moral compass – from his political awakening as a volunteer in the slums of London’s East End to his patriotic duty as an army officer in the First World War.
Attlee as a “man of war” – a commander wounded in battle with experience of Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Western Front – is for Bew a crucial element. It would help Attlee to get elected in 1922 as MP for Limehouse, and bolstered his fledgling leadership when he visited the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. It gave him leverage to change Labour’s foreign policy, with his Commons attack on Neville Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler at Munich, and paved the way to take Labour as a patriotic party behind Winston Churchill into a wartime coalition.
Bew is particularly good on the dynamics of his close relationship with Churchill as strategist, which brought Attlee the deputy prime ministership and prominence in all key decision-making bodies. That strong ministerial experience for him and Labour colleagues also authenticated Labour’s “And now – win the peace” message in 1945, which neutralised much of Churchill’s war leader appeal.
Attlee’s wartime experience also honed his brilliant skills of chairmanship, allowing him to use his ministers’ talents to maximum advantage. There was no edge to him, beyond the dry wit and one-liners. The modesty and reticence were real. Sometimes that produced a tinniness of tone in Parliament that more flamboyant colleagues – Herbert Morrison and Aneurin Bevan among them – exploited. But Attlee’s unshowy citizenship and ethical purpose played to key elements of the national psyche, and it was a social contract that kept his rivals reined in the tent, not outside it.
The suburban “Pinner Man” Bew describes was indeed Attlee’s inner man. But he was also the great go-between, able to reach out to East Enders, Lancashire miners and the young servicemen and women whose votes helped him to victory in 1945.
Bew stresses that there was no golden age of Attlee adulation. His narrative of the plotting and scheming and conflicts between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the national executive committee reminds us that there was no golden age in Labour’s history, either. But Attlee got all the big calls right – his opposition to totalitarianism, Right or Left, his attachment to Atlantic democracy and the balance between individual autonomy and communal achievement.
Attlee’s 25-year apprenticeship from local government activist to prime minister was a long and winding road. But he acquired a set of skills uniquely attuned to the hopes of an exhausted nation emerging from world war, and to producing a welfare state consensus that endured until Thatcherism.
Bew’s revelatory biography explains that achievement. But it also brings us a 3D, flesh and blood Citizen Clem, and boy, does he make him shine!
Gordon Marsden is MP for Blackpool South, shadow minister for higher and further education and skills, and a former editor of History Today.
Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee
By John Bew
Riverrun, 688pp, £30.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9781780879895 and 9925
Published 1 September 2016