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

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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