One of the first great political broadcasters: Clement Attlee in 1950. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Clement Attlee, the original Ed Miliband

Attlee had an image. A wise man, he made his image rather like the real thing – quiet, cricket-loving, terse, a suburban bank manager – and it resonated with the times.

Clement Attlee: the Inevitable Prime Minister
Michael Jago
Biteback, 400pp, £25

Does anyone still need to be convinced that Clement Attlee was not “a modest little man with plenty to be modest about”? The phrase is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill, but Churchill knew a formidable politician when he saw one: it was actually coined by the left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn.

If there is anyone left who holds that view, Michael Jago’s new book powerfully refutes it. It also conclusively jettisons the idea that he became prime minister by accident, that the job was supposed to go to someone larger and noisier – Herbert Morrison or Hugh Dalton or Ernest Bevin – but fell into Little Clem’s hands by mistake. His premiership was much less accidental than that of Harold Wilson or Tony Blair, who probably would never have made it to Downing Street without the early and unexpected death of their predecessors as Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith.

Today, neither of these views has much of a following. You now hear them only in the most dedicated Blairite circles, where contempt for Attlee is still mandatory. A more commonly held view today is that the achievements of the 1945 Labour government were really down to the large personalities surrounding Attlee. Jago has little time for that, either. He shows that none of the other possible leaders – Bevin, Dalton, Morrison, Stafford Cripps – could have led as successful a government as Attlee led.

Three out of four isn’t bad, but I wish Jago had nailed the one myth that still has wide currency. He falls for the current conventional wisdom that Attlee, modest, shy in company, lacking in charisma, deeply private, could never be prime minister in today’s savage political environment.

But why not? Because they need an image? Prime ministers have needed an image at least since universal suffrage: think of the calm, reassuring, pipe-smoking Stanley Baldwin, or the unflappable, patrician Harold Macmillan. Attlee had an image. A wise man, he made his image rather like the real thing – quiet, cricket-loving, terse, a suburban bank manager – and it resonated with the times.

Because prime ministers need to be good broadcasters? Attlee was one of the first great political broadcasters, as Jago shows. He had a radio manner as well suited for the first years of peace as Churchill’s was for the desperate years of war. Because they need to understand the media? Prime ministers employ people to do that. Attlee employed Francis Williams and wisely let him get on with it, refusing to obsess about the viciously hostile press coverage he inevitably got. Williams understood the media so that his employer didn’t have to. As a 21st-century PM Attlee would have had to learn a few different tricks, of course, but he could have coped.

The question matters if you think, as I do, that Ed Miliband is a potential Clement Attlee figure. He, too, is physically not large and looks commonplace and a little geeky. And he, like Attlee, is a quiet, private man with a decision-making process like a steel trap, which is why we and the Americans are not bombing Syria and why the bosses at News International are sticking pins into a wax model of him.

Jago, like all previous Attlee biographers (including myself), has struggled with this privacy of Attlee’s. The man seems to have felt no need to unburden himself. There are two collections of private letters: a lifelong correspondence with his elder brother Tom and those written late in life to his American friend Patricia Beck. Tom and Patricia kept the letters they received; Clem burned their replies. Within an hour of the sudden and early death of his wife, Violet, he burned all the letters he had sent her. He was determined to starve Jago and me of our natural sustenance.

Jago has nonetheless produced a thoughtful and readable biography, and has made his own contribution to the Attlee canon with new research and insights. His chapter on the Second World War gives Attlee, perhaps for the first time, his proper role as the essential partner to Churchill, and the Labour leader who used the war to pave the way for a peacetime Labour government.

He is also very good on Prime Minister Attlee’s relationship with the security services (Jago’s previous book is a life of “Jack” Bingham, the spy who was John le Carré’s model for George Smiley) though it is odd that a chapter entitled “From Lord Haw-Haw to Burgess and Maclean” contains not a single mention of Lord Haw-Haw. He offers a detailed account of how India attained independence, as well as excellent descriptions of the twists and turns of Attlee’s relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union and Palestine.

However, he seems to have much less interest in the creation of the welfare state, covering it in a few paragraphs tacked on as an afterthought. As most people consider that to be the great achievement of the Attlee government, it makes for a curiously unbalanced book. The slaying of Beveridge’s five giant evils by building the National Health Service and the benefits system, and implementing the Education Act 1944, is surely at the heart of Attlee’s life and legacy.

Francis Beckett’s most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution