This excellent book from John Bew gives a comprehensive account of the life of Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee from cradle to grave.
The book charts Attlee’s journey from
a middle class upbringing, going to the public school Haileybury and on to Oxford.
He is set to follow his father into the law but then gets diverted to the east
end, finishing up working for a charitable organisation, linked to his old
public school. It is this experience that leads Attlee from big C conservatism to
Attlee served in the First World War,
taking part in the failed Gallipoli venture and getting badly injured. His war
service though also serves him in good stead for his future life as an MP and
later war leader. He was elected as MP for Limehouse in 1922.
Bew captures the sense of Attlee
being the right man in the right place. A good example being the rout of the
Labour Party in 1931, which saw the party reduced from 288 to 46 MPs. As one of
the few remaining, Attlee was well placed to take over the leadership, when his
friend George Lansbury stood down in 1935.
One fascinating element of this book
is the examination of the relationship between Attlee and Winston Churchill.
Bew reveals the crucial role that Labour played in first opposing appeasement
in the 1930s and then insisting it would not serve in a government with
Chamberlain as PM. There seems to have been a close if at times antagonistic
relationship between Churchill and Attlee, the latter often acting as a
lightening conductor for criticism really intended for the former. .
Attlee was also a visionary, making
preparations very early in the war for the building of a new socialist based society
Bew makes much of how the reforms
brought in by the 1945 Labour government, including the welfare state and NHS,
encompassed Attlee’s radical views going back 40 years.
The author does overplay how much
Attlee’s vision was a continuation of the reforms begun by the Liberal Party in
the early part of the century. The role of nationalisation in laying the
building blocks of what Attlee saw as a socialist future is underplayed.
The fascination of Attlee is that a
man who was himself basically small C conservative all his life oversaw such radical
change. Bew points out how Attlee would use the institutions to bring about
real change in people’s lives, rather than destroying those bodies. He was
foremost a pragmatist and realist, not a dreamer.
Perhaps the best example of Attlee’s
conservatism was his lifelong devotion to public schools, born of his own
childhood at Haileybury. The 1945 Labour government probably had the best
chance of sweeping away the public schools forever but declined to do so. This
was in part due to Attlee, who called for the public schools to “not be killed
Bew also brings out Attlee’s supreme
skill at managing the Labour Party, harnessing the diverse skills of the likes
of Herbert Morrison, Ernie Bevin, Aneuran Bevan, Hugh Dalton and Stafford
Cripps for the common good of the party and country.
The leader had to deal with the
constant left right battles that have marked the Labour Party down the years.
The left led by Bevan was particularly critical of the leadership in the
wartime coalition. The hostilities simmered during time in government, but
Attlee was able to keep the actors together bringing about radical change in
Once Attlee was gone one of the many
civil wars in the party broke out with the right being led by Hugh Gaitskell
facing the left led by Aneurin Bevan.
At the start of the book Bew seeks to
set Attlee in a Labour context, in doing so he dismisses any parallels some
might like to draw with Jeremy Corbyn. At the start, this was off putting,
however by the end it was possible to see that the author was right with his
analysis. Corbyn is no Attlee. Both men share basic socialist principles but Attlee
was a master of managing the party both in and outside Parliament.
Where there maybe a parallel is
Attlee, the quiet man who was pilloried by Labour’s big beasts and the media
generally, but came good. By the post war period, Attlee’s personal ratings
with the public were high, a man who could be trusted and depended upon. He
became Labour biggest electoral asset.
Taking the parallel argument further,
there is possibly more similarity between Attlee’s predecessor as leader,
George Lansbury, and Corbyn but that is another tale.
Bew has done an excellent job in
chronicling the life of one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers. There are
many lessons for the Labour Party today. It must also be hoped that this latest
contribution to the legacy of Attlee and the post war Labour government does
something to further raise that memory in the popular consciousness. There has
been far too little written and broadcast about the amazing story of Attlee and
what the Labour Party achieved during those post war years. The domestic
reforms, as well as granting independence to India and other countries of the
It is a period that needs to become
better known, if for no other reason than that people come to learn what can be
achieved when there is a genuine socialist government in power working for the
common good of all.
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