26 August 2018
Someone said of Attlee that he never used one word when none would do. At that rate we should be the more grateful to Professor Bew that he has found the time and energy to produce near-on six hundred pages of text devoted to such a laconic statesman. Attlee was a real epoch-maker in the full sense of that term, so if he, or subsequent historians or both, have left us short of adequate analysis to categorise and evaluate such an important era, that alone makes this book important. In fact Attlee was not as tongue-tied as they used to tell us. He kept up a steady correspondence with his brother that is notable for its candour, and apart from his articulacy he composed some semi-satirical poetry that provides its own sidelights.
For once the very length of the book is a virtue in itself, but its real value comes more from its quality than its volume. Attlee’s early upbringing was of a standard right-wing kind, imperialist and conformist. His conversion to socialism was not sudden or impulsive, but grew on him from his exposure to the social conditions endured by the people of the east end of London, it went deep and it stayed with him. It wasn’t anything to do with Christianity, it seems, and that left him early, never to return to him. His reading naturally influenced his thinking, but it was Morris and not Marx who was the influence. It was all a matter of an Englishman’s sense of duty and sense of fairness, and he embodied the overworked cliché that the new order had to be established through practical action and not through intellectual theory. For all that, he had a straightforward and coherent vision of socialism in Britain. In practice this would involve compromise, whatever the radicals thought or said, but in the end he established the welfare state in the country he loved but he remained an unswerving patriot to the end. That would have been no mean achievement for any radicals or intellectuals. What kind of socialist achievement have they got to show? One could look at the Soviet Union, presumably, but then the right kind of British socialist will look away. For socialism in practice look to Clem Attlee.
As for Attlee’s impact on the world scene, it was the grant of independence to India, Pakistan, Malaya and Singapore that he may have seen as his own main achievement. He saw with rueful clarity how the British Empire was now betraying its own ideals, and he acted, with clear-headed decisiveness, to bring the era of empire to its end, now overdue.
All that is depicted by Bew with a simple clarity that I find worthy of its subject. This narrator has got the hang of this rather shy and awkward personality, I feel. As well as filling in historical blanks, Bew is determined to rehabilitate his subject. He does that without exaggeration or hagiography, and it is the sense of fairness from both of them that makes this long volume a surprisingly easy read. Where Bew is most critical is where I suppose we might expect that, namely in the closing period of WWII and the years immediately thereafter. It’s probably fair to conclude that Attlee and his government were out of their depth with the issue of Palestine. It may even be, as Bew suggests, that the enormity of the Holocaust had not really sunk into their understanding of its impact on Jewish opinion, particularly in America. Again, the tottering post-war economy suffered an early blow when Truman cancelled lend-lease. I have heard Attlee say in an interview that this time it was probably the POTUS who didn’t understand the issue but thought it a routine matter. The government ploughed on, but at the price of having to take on an expensive American loan over and above the continuing American demand for Britain to keep up its high outlay on its armed forces to keep the Russians at bay, apparently.
Bills, bills, austerity, austerity. Rationing seemed likely to go on for ever, (Cripps, now Chancellor, used to talk about ‘coupongs’ which somehow made the rationing seem worse). In particular the winter of 1947 was particularly severe, and I see that Bew is inclined to think that Manny Shinwell, the over-boastful Minister of Fuel and Power, ought to have been sacked over the power cuts. I can’t now remember what my own parents thought about that, but it seems from Bew’s narrative that the public in general were disposed to cut the government in general some slack for a while at least. Interestingly, Bew is of the opinion that it was Attlee’s actual shyness and taciturnity that made him acceptable to his very British electorate. Dull he might have seemed, but lazy he was not, his integrity was total, and he was perceived as being thoughtful and intelligent without being the kind of patronising know-all that intellectual socialists were prone to being. There was a merry-go-round of the intellectuals in government, and Bew recounts the comings and goings of Dalton, Cripps et al with a straight face. Clem’s nearest to a real friend was Ernie Bevin, and I was interested to read that Attlee might have preferred Aneurin Bevan as his own successor, except that Bevan had opened his mouth once or twice too often.
It’s a crowded canvas of people and events, altogether. This is not the place for my own views on the subject of nuclear arms, except perhaps to say that Ernie Bevin was incensed at being shut out of the American project by Secretary Byrnes, while at the same time Attlee was clandestinely developing the bomb. At the same time Clem was firm in his determination to use chemical weapons if he had to. Where that matter stands now, red lines and all, I don’t know, but you would not get that idea past Attlee these days, so there is some little progress somewhere, I hope.