This is a good time to return to the extraordinary story of Clement Attlee’s rise to the leadership of the Labour Party, his twenty-year long period as leader (1935-1955), Deputy Prime Minister (1940-1945) and Prime Minister (1945-1951). Attlee won two General Elections, saved the Party from the electoral wipe-out of 1931, and governed during Labour’s almost mythical post-war period in office when the Welfare State was brought to fruition.
It is timely because the legacy and spirit of the Labour Party is once again the focus for political debate in the UK. It is possible that the party’s much better than expected performance at the 2017 General Election will have quietened that debate for the time being, but few imagine that this will not break out time and again while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader.
Rigidly chronological in structure, this biography charts Attlee’s rise to senior positions within the Labour Party, without his ever really expressing much interest in doing so – he seems to have had an amazing knack of being in the right place at the right time, never more so when he became Deputy Leader after the whitewash of 1931, when the party was reduced to fewer than 50 MPs. After a careful narrative charting Attlee’s childhood, early military career, and his discovery of his social conscience, Bew focuses on the post war Government which delivered such an amazing legacy of legislation and reform. while at the same time falling short of many of the aspirations generated by such as resounding win.
Despite having made my way through over 500 pages of this biography, Attlee remains something of any enigma. I can’t honestly say I know the man. You could fill a short book alone with the collected insults offered to him. Nye Bevan is said to have called him ‘a desiccated calculating machine.’ Others compared him to ‘a little mouse’, ‘a poor little rabbit’, or as George Orwell put it, “a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen’. American press said he was `the dullest man in English politics’. Churchill famously said that Attlee was not only a modest man with plenty to be modest about, but ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Even when people tried to say something supportive or positive about him, they almost always prefaced their comments with another veiled insult about his reserved nature, his modest talents, his poor grasp of economics, and so on.
Bew gives us little of Attlee’s personal life, leaving the reader to conclude that it was as dull as outer appearances suggest. He draws heavily on Attlee’s letters to brother Tom which are referenced every few pages – as if they provide some unique and previously unknown insights into Attlee’s inner thoughts, when almost always they tell us what we already know and indeed have already been told.
This book won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2017. I have a sneaking suspicion that the author had half an eye on the prize when writing – the number of shoe-horned in references to Orwell’s work pile up, for example when comparing Attlee to Boxer, the shore horse eventually sent to the knackers yard. Boxer represents the ordinary Russian worker who continues to recite party slogans long after they lose all meaning, his faith in the Party unaffected by reality – in other words not at all like Attlee, who was a party faithful all his life but can hardly be described as a mindless functionary. The comparison just doesn’t work, and should have been cut – but the author obviously needed to keep every possible Orwell namecheck to keep the book in the prize judges’ eyeline.
I can’t comment on whether this is the definitive Attlee biography, but I am glad I read it – I knew shockingly little about his background as a Major at Gallipoli and in France in World War one, for example, or the collapse of the second Labour Government 1929-1931, although his role in the second World War and the post war Government were naturally more familiar. I did have a couple of quibbles with the book that I can’t let slide.
First, it could have done with a closer edit. Over 500 pages there are always going to be mistake, but this is not the first edition, and allowing sentences such as (page 144) “For the moment, he shared the view that the obstacles to self government in India were, for the moment, insurmountable” is unforgivable. Second, there are some moment of lazy writing. Can you spot what’s wrong with the following paragraph, for example?
(page 147) “The biggest challenge facing the second Labour Government was unemployment. Their task became extremely difficult because of events outside its control. In the last week of October (1929) the bottom fell out of the international economy, beginning with a monumental panic on the New York Stock Exchange that saw traders leap from windows in despair.”
Yes, it’s the cliched way of describing the Wall Street crash featuring those leaping traders. Five minutes on Google will tell you that it didn’t happen – suicides rates actually went down during the period of the crash. But even if they didn’t, and they did, why describe the crash in this way? Is the reader supposed to think “Oh that Wall Street crash in October 1929, the one which led directly to the rise of fascism and the resurgence of the National Socialist Party in Germany , I wasn’t sure which one you meant”. If the author can’t be relied on to get simple facts like this right, how reliable is the rest of his narrative?