Clement Attlee remains the enigma of British 20th-century history. In 2004, a group of academics rated him the greatest prime minister of the century. His government is acclaimed as the success story of postwar Britain. Yet there is a discrepancy between the monumental change that the Attlee government introduced and the apparently minuscule stature of the man who presided over that change. "A little mouse shall lead them," complained Hugh Dalton when Attlee became leader of the Labour Party in 1935. "He looked and spoke like an insignificant elderly clerk," Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary in 1940, "without distinction in the voice, manner or substance of his discourse. To realise that this little nonentity is the Parliamentary Leader of the Labour Party - and presumably the future Prime Minister - is pitiable." Later that year, the newspaper magnate Cecil King described him as a man "of very limited intelligence and no personality. If one heard he was getting £6 a week in the service of the East Ham Corporation, one would be surprised he was earning so much." Was Attlee a nonentity? Or were there hidden depths to his taciturn personality?
There are a few fine books on the Attlee government, the best being the one by the Labour peer Kenneth Morgan. There are also biographies of him, though none of them has much scholarly depth. Perhaps the best account is a short essay, again by Kenneth Morgan, in his book Labour People. He is more critical than most. He blames Attlee's ignorance of economics for the convertibility crisis of 1947, the devaluation crisis of 1949 and also the crisis in which selected National Health Service charges were introduced to cover the cost of rearmament, leading to the resignation in 1951 of two cabinet ministers - Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson - a split that helped put Labour in opposition for 13 years.
Indeed, Attlee's mishandling of Bevan was in large part responsible for the 1951 catastrophe. Having failed to make him either chancellor or foreign secretary, Attlee refused the Welsh firebrand's request to make him colonial secretary on the grounds that he was racially prejudiced - that is to say, too hostile to the white minorities in South Africa and Rhodesia. In addition, Attlee misjudged the election dates of 1950 and 1951, so putting Labour in opposition, perhaps unnecessarily. Like most men who pride themselves on their good judgement, he made some terrible blunders. Perhaps his taciturnity was an advantage. If you remain silent, Morgan suggests, you are thought a philosopher.
This new biography by an Oxford lecturer, Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, takes a different approach, and goes a long way towards explaining the Attlee enigma. Although based on work in the archives and containing some original material, its main value lies in interpretation. It is perhaps the most thoughtful of the various biographies of the Labour leader.
To Thomas-Symonds, Attlee's strength lay in the very lack of charismatic qualities - for charismatic leadership was the last thing Labour wanted after its experience of Ramsay MacDonald. Attlee saw himself not as a leader, but as the mouthpiece of the party, telling the annual conference in 1953, "I am only here to carry out your will." "His public speeches," Thomas-Symonds argues, "were designed not to affect government policy or persuade reluctant colleagues to accept his point of view, but to speak for the agreed policy or strategy. He saw himself more as a facilitator than a positive force in the decision-making process." Attlee himself summed up "the essential quality of the prime minister" as being "a good chairman able to get others to work". "I would sum up the essence of the premiership by saying that there must be someone to take a decision. The decision that he must take is not that a certain course should be followed but that a decision must be come to."
Such a conception of leadership is no doubt unheroic, but it met the demands of holding together a fissiparous party containing comrades such as Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell, who cordially detested each other. Wilson's skills in the 1960s and 1970s were similarly unheroic, though he lacked Attlee's moral authority. MacDonald and Gaitskell were heroic leaders, but split the party. Attlee's government, by contrast with other Labour administrations - whether led by MacDonald, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair or Brown - was remarkably cohesive until the health service charges crisis.
Yet Attlee was not quite as unheroic as he pretended. On a few crucial issues, as Peter Hennessy and other historians have shown, he played a critically important role - the independence of India, the decision that Britain should become an atomic power and nationalisation of the hospitals. His weakness was that he could not inspire. As the Times said in its obituary, "Much of what he did was memorable; very little of what he said." Perhaps that did not matter too much. After all, ironically, in 1951, the year Labour lost the election, it gained a higher number of votes than in 1945; indeed, the highest popular vote in its history, and the highest vote ever won by any British political party with the single exception of John Major - another unheroic leader - in 1992.
Attlee's career carries a crucial lesson for the Labour Party of today. He was able to act as a mouthpiece for Labour and lead so cohesive a government because the party itself was confident in what it believed. Its beliefs can be summed up in an early remark of his which could almost have been designed as a riposte to Margaret Thatcher's later, much-quoted (if much-misunderstood) comment that "There is no such thing as society". "I do not think," Attlee insisted, "that we can obviate ourselves of responsibility for the sins of the community."
Today the Labour Party finds itself wandering, searching not only for a programme but for something to believe in. In Attlee's time, by contrast, Labour, in the celebrated words of Oliver Cromwell, knew what it was fighting for and loved what it knew.
Attlee: a Life in Politics
I B Tauris, 344pp, £25
Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University. His books include “The New British Constitution" (Hart, £17.95)