A revolutionary way with words

Observations on anniversary

Sixty years ago, Violet Attlee drove her little family saloon to Buckingham Palace. There she sat in the car while her shy and understated husband, Clement, was escorted into the presence of the equally shy and understated King George VI. "I've won the election," said Attlee, and the king said: "I know, I heard it on the six o'clock news." After Attlee left, the king confided to his diary: "I gather they call the new prime minister Clem. 'Clam' would be more appropriate."

Thus began the most extraordinary six years in British political history, when a Labour government changed the way we live. My grandmother kept coins in a button tin against the day she must call the doctor to her children. Others had nothing in their tins and so, on the vest- ing day of the National Health Service in 1948, doctors' surgeries were almost overwhelmed by women with prolapsed organs which had been like that for years, and by men with hernias and lung diseases that had never been examined. Before the Second World War illiteracy was rife; today we worry that a very few children still struggle to read when they go to secondary school.

Attlee believed that you could best carry through a revolutionary policy if you sounded conventional. And he was far more revolutionary than those who talk about blue-skies thinking, and thinking outside the box, and all the rest of the apocalyptic management claptrap enthusiastically embraced by new Labour.

The political journalist James Margach recalled an Attlee press conference that looked as though it was dead after just ten minutes, the prime minister having met all questions with replies such as: "Nothing in that" and "You're off beam again". At last someone asked about a clue in that morning's Times crossword, and he did not stop talking for ten minutes.

Shown an especially vicious attack on his policies in the press, Attlee observed: "Suppose they've got to write something. Circulation slipping, you think?" His spin-doctor Francis Williams wanted a telex machine in Downing Street, to see what the news agencies were writing, but the only way he could sell the idea to the prime minister was by promising it would keep him up to date with the scores at Lord's. Attlee eventually noticed that it also reported cabinet decisions, and inquired of Williams how "my cricket machine" could do that. Williams explained that he routinely briefed the lobby, an activity about which the prime minister knew nothing and cared less.

Francis Beckett's Clem Attlee is published by Politico's

This article first appeared in the 01 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain is great