Clement Attlee lacked most of the qualities that make for success in politics. He was almost cripplingly shy and self-effacing. His appearance was unimpressive, his speeches uninspiring, his lack of charisma cruelly highlighted during the war by the gaudy exhibitionism of Churchill. His idea of a public relations coup was to invite a press photographer to picture him at home having tea with his family. Journalists were baffled by the brevity of his answers to questions and it was said of him that he never used one syllable where none would do. Time and again, he was written off as a nonentity, but in the end he turned the tables on his critics. He led the Labour Party for twenty years and presided, as prime minister from 1945 to 1951, over the most radical and effective of all Labour governments.
How on earth did he manage it? Like others before him, John Bew acknowledges that it was partly a matter of luck. In youth he enjoyed an independent income that enabled him to devote himself to social work and politics. He fought bravely in the First World War but suffered wounds that twice prevented him from taking part in bloodbaths in which he might well have perished. In the catastrophic general election of 1931, when Labour was reduced to fifty-two seats in the Commons, he survived a tsunami that swept his rivals away. He was a democratic socialist in a country where democracy and socialism were hard to reconcile in practice, but ‘war socialism’ resolved the difficulty. In 1945 there was no need for an incoming Labour government to introduce dictatorial powers over industry and finance: they already existed.
The notion that Attlee was a mediocrity, accidentally promoted far beyond his merits, was commonplace during his life and persisted for some time after his death. More recently, opinion has swung round to the view that he was a politician of considerable skill and exceptional moral integrity and one of the architects of postwar Britain. In the course of a very full and detailed analysis of his record, Bew comes to similar conclusions, but he also digs more deeply into the nature of his subject. Any biographer of Attlee has to meet the challenge of scrutinising the inscrutable. Bew has found a way into a region of Attlee’s mind we scarcely knew existed: his imaginative world. His technique is to explore the authors he read, admired and quoted from, and draw out the connections between his literary enthusiasms and his politics. Milton, Blake, Shelley, Bellamy and Kipling all feature prominently, as does Attlee’s own modest contribution to literature, the poetry he wrote in his youth. The technique works, revealing the repressed romantic who chaired so many tedious committee meetings and delivered so many platitudinous speeches. This is a wonderfully fresh, vivid and compelling biography, written with great but not uncritical admiration for its subject.
So little did Attlee reveal of himself that contemporaries failed to perceive the inner strengths that compensated for outer drabness. One of the mainsprings of his staying power in public life was the sincerity of his convictions. It sounds a pious thing to say of any politician, but he sought fulfilment through service to others. Deficient in ego, he was motivated by a sense of duty towards his school, his regiment, his party, his country and the poor, whom he first got to know as a social worker in Stepney before the First World War. Socialism can be an intolerant, purist creed. Attlee’s socialism was grounded (despite his agnosticism) in the Christian ethics of his parental home. He believed that most people, Tories included, were good at heart, a conviction reinforced by his experiences as a social worker and a junior officer in the First World War. Democratic socialism must be tolerant of opposition and appeal to the better nature of human beings; Soviet communism, on the other hand, was a monstrous, tyrannical perversion. With hindsight, the two defining features of the postwar Labour government, the founding of the welfare state and the prosecution of the Cold War, can both be seen as expressions of the kind of socialism Attlee stood for.
Attlee was deeply and patriotically English. Lord’s cricket ground was his spiritual home, and he only consented to the installation of a ticker-tape machine at 10 Downing Street when it was pointed out to him that it would keep him up to date with the latest score in the test match. Patriotism, however, also demanded that English liberties be defended by force if necessary. Inside Mr Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party, the soul of Major Attlee, a veteran of Gallipoli and Salonika, went marching on. In the 1930s he nudged his party away from pacifism and towards rearmament. After 1945 he and Ernest Bevin played an active role in the foundation of NATO and in the secret development of a British atomic bomb. His Euroscepticism ran deep. His socialism, as Bew rightly stresses, was not only democratic but also patriotic in character. In defence and foreign policy, it could be argued, the Tories are now the custodians of his legacy while Labour is lukewarm or hostile to what he stood for.
Attlee was a shrewd judge of personalities, starting with himself. While recognising the abilities of others, he also understood their vanities and weak points. There is something comical in the way in which, like a boy with a whoopee cushion, he deflated the pretensions of the overbearing egotists around him. Even Churchill, whom he revered, was dumbfounded to receive a severe ticking-off at his hands. Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps were all taken down a peg or two, but, like a good team captain, Attlee made sure they continued to play for the side. The only big beast to storm out of the Cabinet was Aneurin Bevan, but by the time he did so the Attlee governments were effectively over and their legacy was firmly in place. With the exception of one or two major issues, such as India and the atomic bomb, it is hard to disentangle his own contribution from the record of his administration as a whole. In some ways he was ineffective: he was out of his depth in economic policy and incapable of inspirational leadership, and he clung to office too long. Perhaps we have got to the point where he has indeed become overrated, but never mind – he deserves to be.