Attlee’s Great Contemporaries: The Politics of Character by Frank Field (ed) - review by J W M Thompson

J W M Thompson

Reticence & Rectitude

Attlee’s Great Contemporaries: The Politics of Character


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Brilliant, if presumably accidental, timing has caused this book to appear when our political life has been passing through a period of shameful disorder. The name of Clement Attlee is not much mentioned nowadays. He was Churchill’s Deputy Prime Minister during the Second World War and Prime Minister in the years of Labour government that followed. What gives this collection of his writings an unlikely topicality is the fact that, however fierce the controversies which his politics led him into, he was universally regarded as a model of probity. Any notion that Attlee was ‘on the make’, or slyly enriching himself at taxpayers’ expense, would have been absurd. His standards of public service were high. If a colleague fell short of his expectations he was got rid of without delay. It follows that Attlee’s reflections on political life, and his assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the politicians with whom he worked, have gained a certain resonance today.

The origin of these essays, as explained by Frank Field in his introduction, is also instructive. Field (who has himself had a blameless role in Parliament’s recent travails) tells us that in retirement Attlee, after his long years at the top of the political tree, worried about how

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