on 18 August 2002
Clement Attlee was leader of the Labour Party for 20 years. During that time he was Deputy Prime Minister for most of World War II and was subsequently Prime Minister for 6 years.
During his time as PM he oversaw the introduction of the National Health Service, The Independence of India, the attempted settlement of the Palestine question, the early stages of Britain's Atomic programme, the ending of the Marshall Aid plan and subsequent devaluing of the pound, not to mention countless internal power struggles within the Labour Party. Yet despite all this he remains a rather unknown figure among 20th Century Prime Ministers. This fact is emphasised by the absence of any photographs in the book.
A mere cursory glance at the number of books available on other such PM's: Churchill, Lloyd George & Thatcher being the most notable; compared to the few on Attlee demonstrates how little information on the man and his career is in the public domain.
On reading this well-written biography it becomes apparent that one of the main reasons for this is the man himself, in that he never sought the limelight at any stage. He seemed to regard himself as being in the position of having to be leader of the Labour Party in order to ensure that others didn't do damage to the Party and the causes he held dear, rather than any overwhelming desire to be the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Ultimately this natural modesty comes across in Harris's book. The impression of a hard-working, decent, family-loving man is also portrayed very strongly. Clearly Harris is a fan, and is writing from the perspective of an acquaintance of Attlee's, but nevertheless you are left with the impression that the subject is one who had nothing but the soundest of motives and the strongest of values at heart. His clear dislike of some of Churchill's policies and statements, yet his total admiration for Churchill as a man and politician shows a respect and dignity which not many subsequently successful politicians have come close to matching.
If you want to learn more about a man who helped to shape the way Britain was governed (and to some degree still is) in the post-war period then this book will go a long way to help.
Often overshadowed by the massive historical figure of Winston Churchill, with whom he both served and faced across the dispatch box, Clement Attlee was one of the most important figures in twentieth century British political history. Leader of the Labour Party for twenty years, he took it from its nadir in the early 1930s to electoral triumph a decade later, and successfully managed the talented and fractious group that realized Britain's postwar embrace of socialism. Understanding how this was accomplished is one of Kenneth Harris's many achievements in this biography, which illuminates Attlee's personality while chronicling his role in transforming his country.
Born in 1883, Attlee enjoyed an almost impossibly idealistic childhood. The son of a diligent, prosperous solicitor, he grew up in a comfortable and loving household. Some of this may have been reflected in his education; his time at both Haileybury and Oxford was undistinguished academically, as Attlee focused more on social pursuits than on his studies. Though he followed his father into a career in the law, Attlee found legal work tedious, and was drifting through life when he accepted an invitation from his elder brother Lawrence to visit the Haileybury Club in Stepney, a social and educational organization run along military lines. The visit was to prove to be the turning point of his life, as Attlee soon agreed to participate in the running of the club. The commitment inaugurated his new career as a social worker and led to his embrace of socialism.
After service in the Army during the First World War - a period Harris covers only briefly - Attlee returned to the East End and began his career in politics, first as a councilman from Limestone, then (in 1922) as a member of the House of Commons. His rise in the parliamentary party was swift, taking place during some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the Labour Party. Harris does an excellent job of describing the political crisis of 1931, which tore the party apart. Though the subsequent election devastated the ranks of the party in the Commons, the resulting political vacuum provided Attlee with the greatest opportunity of his political career. As one of the few surviving members with ministerial experience, Attlee rose in prominence, becoming first deputy leader, then assuming the leadership of the party in 1935.
Almost nobody expected Attlee to last as the head of the Parliamentary Labour Party; instead, he became the longest-serving leader in its history. That he was Harris attributes to his personal qualities, most notably his hard work, his ability to moderate ideological conflicts within the Labour Party, his skill in presenting Socialist views in terms that appealed to the party rank-and-file, and his ability to manage the fractious egos in the party leadership. It was the last of these that Harris sees as the greatest test of Attlee's abilities, as he worked with a number of gifted and ambitious colleagues who thought that they could do a better job of leading the party (and later the country) than he could. Attlee was helped by the mutual jealousies of each of these plotters, which often checked the efforts of any one of them to supplant Attlee, and by the unstinting loyalty of Ernest Bevin, with whom Attlee developed the closest friendship he enjoyed in politics.
The Second World War dramatically altered the Labour Party's role in government. Rejecting Neville Chamberlain's offers of a coalition, Attlee supported Churchill's ascent to the premiership in May 1940 and served in the War Cabinet for the remainder of the conflict with Germany. Harris gives considerable credit for the success of the coalition to Attlee, who took over many of the domestic aspects of governing while Churchill focused on the management of the war. This included planning for postwar construction, which evidenced many socialist ideas and approaches and would serve as a blueprint for much of what Labour would accomplish after the war.
Though Attlee wished to remain in the coalition after the defeat of Germany, the Labour Party's insistence on an October election led Churchill to dissolve Parliament in May, 1945. The resulting Labour landslide defied nearly everyone's expectations, including Attlee's, and made him prime minister of a government committed to the longstanding Labour agenda of nationalization and expanded social welfare policies. Harris' coverage of Attlee's premiership is thematic; he divides his chapters into sections analyzing Attlee's foreign policy, economic policy, and his approach towards burgeoning decolonization. While useful in defining Attlee's underlying ideas and attitudes, it fails to convey the full complexities of the job he faced as prime minister during some of the most challenging years Britain faced.
These challenges gradually wore down the Labour government, leaving Attlee in charge of an exhausted and ailing group at the end of his term. The party's reduced majority in the election of 1950 made another election in the near future inevitable, and when it came in 1951 the Conservatives emerged with a small majority. Attlee continued on as leader for four more years, primarily to rescue it from the growing divide between right-wingers and the Bevanites, until retiring after the 1955 election as a beloved figure and a respected elder statesman.
Harris' book is rooted in the author's familiarity with his subject; he knew Attlee for years and conducted several interviews with him. This familiarity doesn't prevent Harris from rendering critical judgments, though. While a staunch promoter of Attlee, he doesn't hesitate to condemn the prime minister when condemnation is warranted, such as with Attlee's handling of the Palestine problem. Is it this mixture of insight and criticism which makes this book an essential resource for anybody interested in the prime minister and his achievements, one unlikely to be surpassed in its account of Attlee the person.
on 2 April 2014
‘Attlee’(1982) by Kenneth Harris is an excellent biography of a man who’s long been been an enigma to me. How could an apparently innocuous individual manage such a diverse cabinet which transformed British society in five years? This book supplies the answer.
Clement Attlee was born (1893) into a highly integrated middle-class family and being slightly-built early on learned how to negotiate and compromise. Family-life was structured around hard-work, loyalty and, apart from Clement, religious faith. An unspectacular childhood culminated at eighteen with his headmaster’s assessment was: ‘He thinks about things and forms opinions – a very good thing..... I believe him a sound character and think he will do well in life (P.9). But his brother, Lawrence, recalled: his aim was ‘not merely to give you his own views but to take yours to pieces.... really quite an argumentative boy’ (P. 11). At Oxford Attlee achieved a Second Class in History and later trained for the Bar but soon drifted into ‘social work’ in London’s East End, joining the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1908. Public self-confidence grew with responsibility for others but his ambition didn’t as he said ‘I had no idea of anything more than working as a member of the rank-and-file and perhaps getting on to the local council’ (P.33). The man had been ALMOST made.
Active service during World War 1 made him ‘one of the prototypes of the desirable candidate: well-to-do middle-class intellectual, committed Socialist, but neither Marxist nor pacifist, involved but disinterested, sober, respectable, trusted’ (P.45) and so he became Mayor of Stepney (1919), alderman (1920) & victorious Labour MP (1922). Rapid progress in Parliament led to roles - Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1930) and Postmaster-General –, saving him from the general censure which split both the Labour Government and the Labour Party; perhaps a ‘lucky break’(P. 89) – one of several, as Harris notes for Attlee’s career and personal life. The 1931 General Election shattered the Labour Party (Labour MPs dropped from 288 to 46), with the only Ministerial survivors being George Lansbury (as Leader), Clement Attlee (as Deputy) and an inexperienced Stafford Cripps. Attlee was the most active (in 1932 taking up more space in ‘Hansard’ than any other MP) in His Majesty’s Opposition against a Government mustering 556/635 MPs.
In 1933 Attlee confided the Party must ‘emphasise we mean to act and not to sit still and just carry on. There is a lot more hard thinking needed’ (P.108). He assumed the leadership (25 October 1935) and immediately faced a General Election while seeing ‘his election as a holding action until the majority of the Labour Party leaders, still seatless after the debacle of 1931, would shortly be returned to the House’ (P.120). But Attlee was to prove the best ( i.e. UNCHARISMATIC) leader for 154 Labour MPs daring to oppose a government dominated by 430 Conservatives. Quietly Attlee patched the Labour Party together – despite the challenge from the ILP, the Socialist League and the Communist Party. Attlee’s approach was simple: ‘avoid debates, and get them working on something they all agree with’ (P. 135).
Attlee became critical of Appeasement and defined Munich as ‘one of the greatest diplomatic defeats that this country and France have ever sustained.’(P. 155). However, illness made him take a back seat in the months leading to war (luck again?). He gradually rejected the inept wartime strategy of Chamberlain and on 7 May 1940 demanded in Parliament ‘to win the war we want different people at the helm from those who have led us into it’ (P. 172). He supported Churchill taking over (17 May), becoming a key figure in all three committees managing the war effort, being Churchill’s deputy in the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee and in charge of the Lord President’s Committee – ‘the engine of government on the home front’(P180).Great power perhaps but Attlee simply said, ‘I am pretty busy carrying the baby while the PM is away....’ when Churchill went off to Washington in December 1941 and did that job on several other occasions. He also controlled the squabbles throughout the system: many Conservatives hated the ‘usurper’ Churchill and most hated sharing power with Labour even more; within Labour, Bevin and Morrison had personal differences, while individuals like Bevan and Cripps demanded more Socialist input to Government programmes; as the ‘expert’ Attlee handled India, disturbed by the competing demands of Gandhi and Jinnah. For the next 30 years there were attempts to replace Attlee as Labour Leader, all failed – usually with the conspirators not knowing why. Some attacks were more personal - for example, Lord Beaverbrook considered Attlee a ‘miserable little man’, but in 1959 Attlee said of him: ‘He was the only evil man I ever met. I could find nothing good to say about him’ (P. 194). Churchill found Attlee irreplaceable during war but his qualities really appeared when he headed one of the most radical governments Britain has ever had.
The 1945 Election showed the difference between the two leaders. Churchill warned of Gestapo tactics as ‘Socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism’. Attlee replied that Churchill wanted electors ‘to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader in war of a united nation and Mr. Churchill, Leader of the Conservatives (P.256). Even so, Labour’s triumph didn’t give them an easy time – the USA was suspicious of a SOCIALIST government implementing policies stemming from the Beveridge Report (1942) and Clause Four of the 1918 Labour Constitution. These take up the greater part of the book but this review will merely list some of them. Those based on the Beveridge Report (1942) included: Family Allowances (1945),National Insurance (1946), National Health Service (1948) and National Assistance (including universal old age pensions)(1948). Add to those, New Towns (1946) and implementing the Butler Education Act (1944). From Clause Four came nationalisation of the Bank of England (1946), Coal (1946), Electricity (1947), Railways and Waterways etc. (1948), Gas (1949) and Iron & steel Production (1951). Harris demonstrates Attlee’s key role in producing this catalogue but also stresses his aim was a ‘mixed economy’ resting on social justice. In addition, his Government replace the Raj by India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma in 1947 (BEFORE most of the inter-communal violence) and extracted Britain from the quagmire of Palestine (1948).
Even so crisis followed crisis in the ‘Age of Austerity’. Coal shortages (1947), Sterling devaluation (1949) from $4.03 to $2.80 while the Government began undermining its own social changes. The February 1950 General Election cut the overall Labour majority to 5 but they clung on for over a year despite crises at home and abroad until in October 1951 another General Election approached with ‘Bevin dead, Cripps dying in Switzerland, Bevan storming out of the Cabinet, Dalton discredited, Morrison insecure, and the leader ill in hospital: morale was not high’ (P. 479). In defeat Attlee was described as being ‘a quiet triumph of character’ (P. 494).
In opposition Attlee failed to control growing rifts - the 1952 Party Conference was ‘rowdy, convulsive, vulgar, splenetic: threatening at moments to collapse into a irretrievable brawl’(Michael Foot qu. P.504). National politics drifted into ‘Butskellism’ with most fighting becoming internalised (e.g. Bevan vs. Gaitskell). Attlee resigned in 1955, became Earl Attlee. and enjoyed his retirement. He died on 8 October 1967.
There are two chapters which stand out as providing a close-up of Clement Attlee the MAN. ‘Attlee at Home’(PP. 140-48) appears idealised with such sentences as ‘he was so versatile and so good-tempered that the children seemed to think he could make or mend anything for them. He never seemed to say “No” or “Wait till later”’ (P.145). All this while Attlee sat on potential splits in the Labour Party and the gradual drift to war? Even so, Attlee’s siblings had recalled their own happy family life and Attlee (with his wife, Violet Millar) had four children during their marriage (1932-64) and reproduced that atmosphere.
Another chapter, ‘A Man and a Leader’ (PP. 401-419) could be called ‘Attlee at Work’ as it shows, according to ‘The Observer’ (1949) ‘the complete master of his Cabinet.... completely self-sustained... He has successfully ridden every revolt in his party, chiefly by remarkable timing.’ (PP.427-28) As Harris sums up on P.596: Attlee ‘did not interfere, he scrutinised, advised, checked, sometimes stopped, and was quick to disagree, correct and rebuke if the occasion required. He also praised.’ Even so, Harris supplies several examples (e.g. P. 112 & P. 115) of Attlee’s biting wit employed as a weapon vs. incompetence and stupidity.
Clement Attlee spent his entire life being undervalued or ignored. In 1954 he published his autobiography, ‘”As It Happened’; Bevan’s comment was, ‘It’s a good title. Things happened to him. He never did anything’ (P.241). How wrong could he be? In contrast ‘The Observer’ (1944) stated that Attlee ‘is a first-class captain of a first-class cricket side who is not himself a headliner. He makes men work together. He is a political catalyst’ (PP. 232-33). Sometimes, Attlee revealed hidden depths, as in the debate on India (February 1948) the Viceroy’s aide records: ‘This man burns with a hidden fire and is sustained by a certain spiritual integrity which enables him to scale the heights when the great occasion demands’ (qu. P.381). Even so, Attlee’s pragmatism could clash with his beliefs. As regards Palestine, Foreign Secretary Bevin’s attitudes have become notorious but Dalton remarked that Bevin ‘suffered... from an inhibition due to his belief that ..... “the Jews are a religion, not a race nor a nation.” And I heard Attlee several times express the same opinion.’(qu. P.390). The role of both men in events leading up to the creation of Israel is enigmatic.
Kenneth Harris clearly demonstrates how Clement Attlee was one of our greatest prime ministers and the book is easily worth 5 stars. Even so Attlee was very much of a different era as this description of Attlee campaigning in 1951 shows: ‘While his wife drives, Mr. Attlee puts on his glasses...... and does newspaper crossword puzzles.....If their car is held up at a level crossing Mrs. Attlee gets out her knitting – a pair of grey socks.’ (‘Daily Mirror’ qu. P.491).
You wouldn’t see that these days!