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Clement Attlee: Labour's own Captain Mainwaring

John Bew's new book is a curiously coy biography of a man brought down by his lack of imagination.

I should declare an interest. My father was a member of the Attlee governments of 1945-51, first as the secretary for overseas trade and eventually as Aneurin Bevan’s successor as minister of health. At some point in the early 1950s, I can’t now remember precisely when, Attlee and his wife came to dinner with my parents. Attlee asked me what form I was in at my not particularly distinguished grammar school. I told him that I was in the sixth form. “Ah, he said wistfully, “I never got as far as the sixth form.” Not surprisingly, he won my heart. Even now, getting on for 70 years later, I still treasure the memory of his self-deprecating, unselfconscious charm and the authenticity that underpinned it.

The Attlee who captivated my gawky, adolescent self is the one celebrated in John Bew’s huge and disappointingly bland new biography. The attractions of blandness are easy to understand. Attlee left office 65 years ago. Thirteen years passed before Labour returned to government, with Harold Wilson as prime minister. The Wilson governments of 1964-70 were miserable ­affairs, marked by a paranoid obsession with plots against him, both on his part and on the part of his squalid kitchen cabinet. Much more damaging was the mortally wounding insouciance summed up in his most memorable phrase: “a week is a long time in politics”. Faced with the choice between devaluation and deflation, the government prevaricated, and ended with both.

Worse was to come. The Wilson and Callaghan governments of 1974-79 were not just miserable; they were disgraceful. In the name of a preposterous “social contract” between the government and the trade unions, wage inflation was allowed to soar and sterling to fall; only a mammoth IMF loan, accompanied by humiliating conditions, brought the economy into balance. Thereafter, Labour was out of power for 18 years, a helpless spectator of Margaret Thatcher’s market-fundamentalist counter-revolution and John Major’s lacklustre attempt to soften the Thatcher regime’s rough edges. Then came Tony Blair’s astounding “New Labour” victory of 1997 and a huge sigh of relief on the part of the wide-ranging social coalition that he had mobilised. Tragically, however, the glittering achievements of Blair’s first term – the Human Rights Act; the Belfast Agreement; devolution to elected administrations and legislatures in Scotland and Wales – were smirched for ever by the folly and illegality of the Iraq War.

Victor Hugo, a fierce and unbiddable opponent of Napoleon III, is reported to have said: “In the time of Napoleon the Little, let us dream of the emperor.” Not surprisingly, the left-leaning and bien-pensant of our day have dreamed, in much the same way, of the Attlee government. The Labour Party has been the main anti-Conservative party in the state for almost a century. During that time, Labour governments have held office for 33 years. With the partial exception of the Blair government’s first term, the only one to leave a lasting footprint on its time was Attlee’s. Not surprisingly, the coating of myth that encases it has become ever more effulgent the further it has receded into the past. And because Attlee led it he, too, has become a figure of mythic – or perhaps anti-mythic – significance. Peter Hennessy memorably compared him to Captain Mainwaring of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard in Dad’s Army: honourable, dutiful, unassuming, incorrigibly petit bourgeois and utterly unimaginative. Douglas Jay, who worked in Attlee’s private office at No 10 before entering the Commons, painted essentially the same picture in a more respectful mode. Attlee, he wrote, was “a straightforward Victorian Christian, who believed one should do one’s job and one’s duty, whether as an army officer or member of parliament or prime minister”.

But myths are dangerous as well as comforting – dangerous because they are comforting. The Attlee myth is no exception. Bew has no trouble in showing that the ­Attlee who captivated me as a teenager was also the Attlee who led the Labour Party for 20 years, from 1935-55, and headed the only Labour government so far that has left office with its reputation almost intact and its hold on its core constituency unshaken. But he hasn’t dug down beneath the surface story to uncover the more complicated reality beneath. For instance, his treatment of Attlee’s government is narrowly Anglocentric. He says nothing about the red-tinged wave that spread right across democratic western Europe at the end of the Second World War, and which led the great historian A J P Taylor to opine that belief in private enterprise had become as lost a cause as Jacobitism after 1688.

Yet in 1945 the communists were running the largest party in France; they joined a tripartite coalition with the socialists and Christian Democrats which laid the foundations of one of the most generous welfare states in Europe as well as the most successful form of economic planning. In the first elections in postwar Italy, the socialist PSI and the communist PCI, together on the left, easily outpolled the Christian Democrats, a catch-all party with a strong left wing.

Does Bew not know this? Or does he know, but think it irrelevant? Whatever the answers to these questions, he has missed the real significance of the Attlee government: that it was midwife to the British version of the managed welfare capitalism that procured the longest period of growth and social peace in European history.

How far this was Attlee’s doing is moot. Prime ministers get blamed when their governments do badly; there is something to be said for giving them the credit when they do well. Bew clearly thinks so. Attlee, to him, was “one of the most important figures in 20th-century British history”. But “one of” are weasel words; they sound impressive, but they empty the rest of the phrase of meaning. Attlee was certainly important in some ways. In the 1930s he managed to keep his fractious party together – bridging the chasm of mentality and beliefs that divided Sir Stafford Cripps, then the sea-green incorruptible of the marxisant far left, from Hugh Dalton, later Attlee’s first chancellor, and even more from Ernest Bevin, a founder and leader of that mighty behemoth, the Transport and General Workers’ Union. As a key member of Winston Churchill’s war cabinet, Attlee was a highly competent committee chairman; as Dalton put it in a distinctly double-edged comment, he was “a very good” general staff officer, Grade I.

But he was overshadowed by the two towering Labour members of the wartime coalition, Bevin and Herbert Morrison. Bevin, as minister of labour, was the architect and director of the wartime economy, a powerhouse in which manpower rather than money was the main resource and control over manpower mattered far more than control over money. As the leader of the London County Council in the 1930s, Morrison had built the most effective municipal political machine since Joseph Chamberlain’s
in Birmingham in the late 19th century; as home secretary and minister of home security in the war years, he controlled a swath of public services, notably civil defence and the police. Bevin, not Attlee, transformed the unions from suppliants for ministerial favour into an estate of the realm. Morrison, not Attlee, was the chief organiser of Lab­our’s landslide victory in 1945.

In a strange, roundabout way Churchill also played a part in it. In one of his greatest speeches in the terrible and glorious summer of 1940, he had insisted that Britain would fight “to the end”. Doing this entailed total war; and total war entailed a form of war socialism: a command economy, run on egalitarian lines. The wartime state allocated raw materials, rationed most items of consumer expenditure, controlled prices, fixed profit margins, subsidised food, conscripted women and evacuated children. Public expenditure soared. By 1943 it accounted for 54 per cent of GDP, against 24 per cent in 1938. Post-tax incomes were distributed more equally than ever before or since. War socialism also transformed the public culture. Pre-war heresies came in from the cold; proposals that would have been ruled out of court in the age of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain were ­absorbed into the conventional wisdom.

William Beveridge’s 1942 report, proposing a co-ordinated attack on the five “giant evils” of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness through a comprehensive and compulsory system of social insurance and a universal health service, sold more than 600,000 copies. A white paper on employment policy, heavily influenced by John Maynard Keynes and Keynesian Young Turks in the economic section of the Cabinet Office, followed in 1944. It signalled a sharper break from past orthodoxies than did the Beveridge report. Resoundingly, the white paper committed the government to maintain “a high and stable level of employment” after the war and to manage demand in order to do so.

Beveridge and Keynes were liberals, not socialists. Beveridge was elected to parliament as a Liberal in 1944 and eventually became the leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords. Keynes was a lifelong liberal with both a big and a small “L”. He inspired David Lloyd George’s reforming election programme in 1929, and excoriated Labour’s obsession with class. As he wrote, “. . . the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie”. Labour’s leaders, he told Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman in January 1939, behaved like “sectaries of an outworn creed mumbling moss-grown demi-semi Fabian Marxism”.

Yet the Beveridge report and the Keynesian employment policy white paper were the lodestars of the Attlee government. In 1946, the newly elected Labour government passed two revolutionary new laws embodying the main provisions of the Beveridge report. The National Insurance Act – carried on to the statute book by James Griffiths, a former president of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – gave legal force to the Beveridgean principle of compulsory and universal social insurance. Benefits would no longer be charitable doles; they would be social citizenship rights, earned by compulsory contributions. The National Health Service Act was fathered by another former Welsh miner, Aneurin Bevan, the greatest leader the Labour Party never had. For most British people, health care ceased to be a commodity. It became a public good, fenced off from market forces and available to all who needed it: an island of solidarity where strangers were bound together by common needs and equal treatment, and where the cash nexus had been abolished.

Bew recognises the Attlee government’s debt to Beveridge, but ignores its debt to Keynes. Even his treatment of Beveridge is curiously coy. He says nothing about Beveridge’s role as a Liberal politician, and glides over the crucial point: that the social policy achievements that earned the government its enduring place in the mythology of the labour movement were liberal in inspiration, not socialist. True, liberalism is a coat of many colours. Lloyd George’s social liberalism was very different from the economic liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and his intellectual progeny. But Beveridge and Keynes were social liberals in the Lloyd George mould. Self-evidently, there was a large overlap between their social liberalism and the democratic socialism of the Attlee administration; but for that, the government would have had nothing but “demi-semi Fabian Marxism” to guide it.

Tragically, however, Attlee, his ­ministers and their backbenchers could not bring ­anyone to accept – neither others nor (more importantly) themselves – that they ate from the same dish as Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Herbert Samuel, John Morley, Charles Masterman and Richard Haldane. That helps to explain two greater tragedies: Labour’s failure to renew itself in office as the Liberals had done between 1906 and 1914; and its failure to keep its hold, not just on its core constituency in the unionised working class and the old industrial regions, but on the much wider social coalition that had swept it into power in 1945.

Attlee was not solely responsible for these failures, but the lion’s share of the blame lies with him. He was loath to bring new blood into the main posts in the cabinet; he failed to see that the costs of the world role that he and Bevin wanted Britain to play were insupportable; he offered the stressed and war-weary British people no vision of hope. Bew entitles his chapter on the government’s social reforms “The British New Deal”. The wording could hardly be less ­apposite. The truth is that Attlee lacked the creativity, imagination and ruthlessness to conceive and carry through a Roosevelt-style New Deal, much as he lacked the charisma and chutzpah that made Roosevelt the most successful vote-winner in 20th-century American history. The point about the Roosevelt administration is that it did renew itself in office, and that the Roosevelt coalition endured until the 1960s, whereas the Attlee government ran out of steam well before the end of its term and alienated large sections of the social coalition that had put it in power.

Could a different Labour leader have been more successful than Attlee? By definition, there can be no certainty about this. Cripps, the erstwhile marxisant rebel, had become the government’s chief apostle of democratic planning but he was still a sea-green incorruptible, with the clearest mind and most forceful will in the top echelons of the government. His roots in the party, however, were too shallow. Bevan was too young, Bevin too earthy. The obvious candidate was Herbert Morrison, and Bew, like ­Attlee, has harsh words for him. There is some justice in that: Morrison knew he would be a better leader than Attlee, and did his maladroit best to replace him.

The fact remains that Morrison assembled a social coalition that gave the London Labour Party municipal hegemony for decades. There is no way of knowing if he could have done so on a national scale if he had had the chance. What is certain is that Captain Mainwaring’s honourable sense of duty and petit-bourgeois lack of imagination were not enough.

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game