Old Labour's heroic age

<strong>The Tortoise and the Hares: Attlee, Bevin, Cripps, Dalton, Morrison</strong>

<em>Giles Ra

Half a dozen years ago Lord Radice, then freshly recruited from the Commons to the Lords, published a book entitled simply Friends and Rivals. In it he chronicled, compared and contrasted the political careers of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Anthony Crosland. As a biographical device, it worked pretty well and certainly won its author, if not great sales, then at least generally admiring notices.

There is little surprise, therefore, that Radice should have resolved to try the same formula again, though on this occasion the subjects of a second collective biography belong to an almost archaeological period of Labour history. If the trick does not quite come off the second time around, it must be partly because, on this latest outing, the author is writing not from direct personal knowledge of his characters, but instead is entirely dependent on what others have already written about them. The result is a formidable feat of exhaustive research but hardly a vivid or vital example of the biographer's art.

There is also something contrived, reflected in the title, about the whole selection. Clement Attlee is cast as "the tortoise" while his most prominent cabinet colleagues are portrayed as "the hares" - a not entirely convincing piece of characterisation, as at least one of them, Herbert Morrison, enjoyed a political career every bit as long as Attlee's own and - at least in the early years - was senior to him (being, for example, a full departmental minister in 1929 when Attlee was not even an under-secretary). That did not, of course, stop Attlee from coming from behind to win the race, which he did by being elected leader of the party in November 1935, defeating Morrison by two to one, and then, remarkably, holding on to the job for the next 20 years.

There is more to being a successful politician than cutting a dash. Attlee has always been admired

Perhaps surprisingly, given his generally moderate stance - he ran Healey's campaign for the deputy leadership against Tony Benn in 1981 - Radice tends to be more critical of Attlee than most previous biographers have been. He dwells, possibly excessively, on the former PM's conventional limitations and argues that he was less obviously talented than his leading cabinet colleagues. In terms of extrovert, show-off qualities, that was probably true, but there is more to being a successful politician than cutting a dash or making a splash. Attlee has always been very much admired within the bipartisan politicians' trade union - one of his greatest fans was Harold Macmillan - and the main ground for that professional respect has always been his total lack of showmanship.

Morrison, by contrast, tried very hard to develop a populist's reputation, rejoicing in the frequent depiction of himself as a cheeky, chappie cockney. Yet he was never fully trusted by his colleagues - "not straight", was Attlee's early damning verdict upon him - and his political career ended in humiliation when he scraped together just 40 votes in the 1955 ballot for the leadership he had coveted for so long. His contemporaries' parliamentary judgement is not one with which Radice seems inclined to disagree and, if there is a casualty in this collective biographical exercise, then it has to be the man whom not just Attlee but Churchill, too, always cordially disliked. (Morrison was Peter Mandelson's grandfather.)

The character who probably comes out best is Ernest Bevin, admired by Churchill and Attlee alike. He comes across in Radice's pages as what he was, a larger-than-life, rock-quarried individual, capable of arousing great affection and loyalty even from the most highly polished of Foreign Office mandarins. It was Hugh Dalton's fate, on the other hand, always to arouse suspicion, though his path in the People's Party as an Old Etonian was bound to be harder than that of any of the others, including Sir Stafford Cripps as a Wykehamist (from an intellectual public school in favour of which allowances had always been made). Radice, who went to Winchester himself, is at his least forthcoming about Cripps, partly because he refuses to acknowledge the influence exercised on her husband's career by Dame Isobel Cripps. A formidable heiress (to the Eno's Fruit Salt fortune) she would take tea at the Ritz most Fridays with the political correspondent of the Observer in order to fill him in on the week's events and to make sure that the chancellor got fair treatment in that Sunday's newspaper.

Perhaps the only person not in awe of Cripps's exceptional brainpower was Attlee, who cheerfully referred to him as "a political goose". It was this fundamental reliance on common sense that allowed "the little man" (Bevin's own phrase) to survive - combined, no doubt, with a ruthless streak to which Radice does not always do justice. (It was Attlee, after all, who sacked Bevin from the FO just six weeks before the latter's death.) In old age, the author tells us, Attlee used to like to describe himself as "a museum piece" but, as this book perhaps unconsciously demonstrates, Labour's greatest prime minister was - not least when compared with his cabinet colleagues - always much more than that.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess