LEADERSHIP HAS BEEN A HOT LABOUR topic in 2016, and we all know why. It’s a good moment to reappraise another leader who in his time was despised, calumnied and perpetually intrigued against, especially after he became Prime Minister of the most substantial Labour government. John Bew, Oxford historian and author of this new life of Clement Attlee, carefully distinguishes his subject from You Know Who, even though the parallels are striking. Bew is no labour specialist, suggesting the Tolpuddle Martyrs were hanged and conflating the Popular Front with the United Front. His Attlee – when radical or tough – lapses regrettably, only being true to character when moderate. But for all these New Labour solecisms Citizen Clem is an instructive tale.
Attlee’s career falls neatly into three parts. Do-gooding in the East End on outreach from his minor public school draws him into early socialist politics. War and serious injury intervene but he resumes and leads Labour to power in Stepney taking the mayoralty himself and becoming MP for Limehouse soon after.
Then, as PPS to Ramsay MacDonald, ‘Major Attlee’ rises unnoticed (a Bew trope) and is the unassuming Cabinet replacement for the dynamic Oswald Mosley on the latter’s impulsive resignation in 1930. Because the 1931 cataclysm leaves only 46 Labour MPs, Attlee almost by accident emerges as George Lansbury’s deputy. When Lansbury is bullied out, Attlee steps up – temporarily, it is assumed. Then comes the familiar sequence. He leads Labour for 20 years: as Opposition leader (1935-40), Deputy Prime Minister to Churchill (1940- 45), Prime Minister and author of the ‘post-war settlement’ that changed Britain (1945-51).
Bew illustrates (though does not write) that Attlee was the most plotted-against Labour leader before Jeremy Corbyn. He was sneered at or conspired against in 1930, 1935, 1940 and 1945 – and those were just the principal occasions. He was a poor speaker, a famously brusque conversationalist, had not the ‘hinterland’ Denis Healey yearned for in politicians.
He seemed to lack all ambition. Yet no one ever questioned his sincere commitment to social change and he proved it in practice. In just one year his Labour government nationalised four of the promised six industries and demobilised 2.5 million while keeping unemployment below 2%. They did this and much more despite the sudden withdrawal of Lend- Lease. Attlee knew why he was there: could last year’s leader contenders say the same?
He certainly had limitations. Even Bew admits he “never intended a cultural revolution nor a purging of the Establishment” after 1945 (it revived, as we know). Nor does he disguise Attlee’s reluctance to split from Churchill as the War ended. Palestine and India, crudely and hurriedly partitioned, cost countless lives though here Labour was clearing up the mess left by others. Worst of all was his fateful and secret decision to develop a ‘British’ bomb. Like NATO, another ugly survivor, it tarnishes the record.
But post-war impoverishment was the harsh context of social change. Bread rationing was actually stricter after the war and 1947 the harshest winter in a century. However, this Labour government had ambition and carried the people with it. It didn’t lose a single by-election seat and left office seven years later with a higher share of votes than when it started (memo to New Labour readers: Blair lost 8% in eight years). Bew shows us a charisma-free Attlee inspiring genuine affection as he campaigned across the country in an ancient battered Hillman, driven erratically by Vi, with a policeman and the Cabinet Secretary on the back seat. He could make clunking errors, like replacing Cripps as Chancellor with the stiff-necked Gaitskell who demanded unnecessary welfare cuts to fund the Korean War, driving Bevan out. But he excelled in pulling Labour’s talented generation of leaders together: Bevan, Bevin, Cripps, Dalton and Morrison. With the exception of Morrison – who did not know his own limitations – they were generally loyal.