This is my review of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee: Winner of the Orwell Prize by John Bew.
This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain an independence, sadly marred by bloodshed.
Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he traded a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George VI. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with an end to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, in the end he resorted to their development in order to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing.
The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of its current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of a powerful US support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel.
With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem even less likely than before for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain power for so long. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a regret that we do not have more politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination yet moderation.