Clement Attlee: the Inevitable Prime Minister
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)