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4.3 out of 5 stars
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4.3 out of 5 stars


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on 9 May 2017
Fascinating study of a long and busy life in politics, developing social change, coping with world war 2, unmooring India, developing nationolisation, propelling the NHS, getting on eith the US while being surrounded by disputatious colleagues.
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on 19 November 2015
Clement Attlee was one of the most legendary Prime Ministers Britain has ever had, and the first one to introduce a true Socialist vision that gave us the N.H.S., the welfare state and trade union rights, so any biography of him should be worth a read. Unfortunately however, the author is hyper-critical (and his Jewish bias is blatant when talking about middle-east issues), meaning Attlee's great achievements aren't fully appreciated. Considering the author is a Labour M.P., I would have thought that he'd be less negative, but his criticisms of Attlee get more unbelievable and manipulative of history as the book goes on (at one point Attlee seems to be blamed for Bevan splitting the Labour party!). Of course all governments and Prime Ministers have some failings, but don't ever forget that Attlee's government - whilst under a lot of financial pressure after President Truman disgracefully stopped the Lend-Lease agreement - turned this country around after World War 2 and gave us a Britain to be proud of.
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on 21 March 2011
What I like about Mr Thomas-Symonds' book is his selection of material. Too often biographies are immense, dull, tedious works (particularly those multi-volumed ones), the reading of which becomes an exercise akin to wading for miles through thick treacle before one collapses exhausted barely a third of the way through, very enlightened on the exact experiences Sir X had in the spring term of his year 9 history lessons but none the lighter for the meaty stuff later on. A life in politics avoids these issues, first and foremost, because Mr Thomas-Symonds is a very good writer. He is concise, the structure is excellent, and he sticks to what is necessary and what is interesting. Attlee was a fascinating man and this is an immensely enjoyable book. I am very much looking forward to seeing more of this writer's work.
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on 1 August 2010
Having seen the review of this work by Roy Hattersley in Saturday's Guardian, I felt moved to add my own, admittedly much smaller voice. Mr Hattersley's criticism of Thomas-Symonds is unrelenting, but it seems to proceed on the false assumption that A Life in Politics is another revisionist attempt to 'patronize' Attlee and belittle both his political talent his achievements. For myself, I found the work to be both meticulously researched and politically aware. The most serious accusation that Mr Hattersley levels in his review, which is that Thomas-Symonds apparently believes that 'dumping' Attlee would have made Labour more likely to be 'the natural party of government', appears to have no basis within the text whatsoever. It is simply not a claim that I picked up from reading the work.

Perhaps, from his position as, for want of a better phrase, a 'Labour grandee' concerned quite rightly with protecting the legacy of the postwar movement, Mr Hattersley assumes that any of the new breed of left-leaning academics who are in any way critical must in fact be seeking to destroy that legacy. That was clearly the very opposite of Thomas-Symonds' inetntion. While the book does point out his subject's limitations, this is obviously a work which makes a positive case supporting Attlee's billing as Britain's greatest post-war Prime Minister, without reading like a sycophantic tribute piece.

The picture presented of Attlee is nuanced, perceptive, and above all detailed. Where Thomas-Symonds makes judgements, they appear to be sound (for example, his criticism on the delay in identifying the Indian partition must surely be right, and his critique of Attlee's handling of the Bevan-Gaitskill split is all the more sound because Thomas-Symonds ascribes it to a failure of Attlee to deploy what was perhaps his best skill, that is, to form a compromise).

The work is notable for its attention to detail. The reader learns of Attlee's comfortable, middle-class, public school and Christian upbringing; of his enduring affection for Haileybury, his early days doing social work in the East End following his abandonment of a career at the Bar, then the formation of his political ambitions. In an attempt to portray the man as well as his deeds, Thomas-Symonds draws heavily on letters from Attlee to his brother Tom, which give a revealing picture of his views on both his work and his colleagues. Similarly, through quotations from Hansard we learn of Attlee's public stances and significantly the kinds of issues he chose to address in his days as a young Parliamentarian. In fact, Mr Hattersley quotes the example of Attlee's directive on the disassembly of telephones for cleaning as evidence of Thomas-Symonds' apparently 'patronising' approach, calling his 'emphasis on the Pooterish prelude to greatness'... 'irritating'.

This book is, however, truly a study of a life in politics, and that Attlee went on to be the 'statesman... who changed the world', to use Mr Hattersley's phrase, is in no sense whatsoever neglected or diminished in the text. Mr Hattersley did award Thomas-Symonds 'high marks for meticulous accuracy' (before alleging a 'failure of judgment (sic)'), and perhaps it is the 'telephone instrument' analogy which best describes this work. Thomas-Symonds certainly attempted to examine the materials and components that made up a leader who did perhaps more than any other to shape (rather than shatter) the society we live in today, and his judgements in reconstructing Attlee, far from being the 'hatchet job' that Mr Hattersley appears to have assumed in his own, are clearly those of a skilled biographical technician.
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on 17 August 2010
I very much enjoyed reading this well researched, thoughtful analysis of Attlee and his political life. The respect of the author for the subject does not impede an in-depth analysis of his charachter, his decisions and those around him, especially in the post-war Labour Government. Highly recommended reading for students of the period or those with an interest in politics, and an especially aptly timed study of leadership style, as Labour prepares to elect its next one.
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on 9 November 2010
Well researched and thoughtful. Balanced analysis. Very readable. One of the best books on the period. Highly recommended for students, academics, politicians or just a layman reader interested in Attlee in politics, the rise of Labour, the development of the Welfare State etc.
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on 12 February 2017
Workmanlike, but dull.

I should say that I recommend people read this book, despite my title and only 4 stars.
It contains pretty much all that I could have expected it to contain, about Attlee the man and his politics, and what I was particularly interested in, the 1945-1951 governments, and why the 2nd government came to an end quite so prematurely. I had always wondered about that. People say they "ran out of steam", but based on this book, I don't think that's true. Attlee himself could certainly have gone on (he lived until 1967). It's true that they had lost Cripps and Bevin, but they had rising stars like Wilson and I suppose I have to say Gaitskell (although I am not a fan).

It seems inexplicable now that Attlee decided to time his 1951 election based on the whim of the King, but at heart, he was a conservative monarchist, as well as being (at least in certain respects) a radical socialist. If they could have delayed the election by only a year or two, things might have turned out very differently.

I was born within the Attlee government era, just in time to benefit from the new NHS (which probably saved my life as I had meningitis as a baby), and I have always wanted to know more about that period. This book leaves me wanting to know more, but it's a good-ish start.

I managed to read it in several long sittings over 2 days, but a more skillfully written book could probably have been read in a single sitting.

It does leave out some important things, such as the beginnings of the nuclear power programme (which ultimately could have reduced their reliance on coal). I would also like to see an unbiased history that focused on the economic questions, and discussed options that they had but which they did not choose to implement (or just did not think of ). I'm sure there were such options. After all, Japan and Germany were also devastated by war, but eventually both bounced back, and produced economic and industrial booms, much more successfully than we did. What did they do right that we did wrong? (I partially know the answer to that question, but I'd like to know more).
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on 3 December 2010
Attlee by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds is a very good book about one of the great British Prime Ministers. It is well-written, fast-poaced and informative but lacks detail and therefore should be regarded as more of an introduction to Attlee. The Attlee who emerges from this work is a very interesting character who is a most unlikely Labour Prime Minister given his background and his quite reserved personality. However, the work also shows that Attlee was undoubtedly a very effective leader whose government achieved a great deal because of the approach and consensus building of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it also shows that this great strength was also a flaw in certain circumstances and especially in the 1950s. All in all though this is a very good book about a great Prime Minister and although not very detailed is still undoubtedly a very good introduction to the life of this most unlikely leader.
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on 26 May 2012
One of the qualities of Thomas-Symonds biography is its kinship with the subject. The style is Attlee's. Plain prose, no fireworks, yet thoroughly worthwhile. It is hard to enliven the picture of someone so low key. Yet this is done, and done well. One reads on with pleasure.

Attlee was a modest man, as Churchill remarked, and he had much to be modest about. He was at, or near the centre of British politics from 1931 until his resignation as Leader of the Labour Party in 1955. It is interesting to imagine how a biographer might fare, attempting to write a personal rather than, as in this case, a political biography.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 October 2015
Given that the Attlee administration defined the so-called ‘Post-War Consensus’ that lasted till 1979, it’s surprising that there aren’t more biographies of him. However, such a notoriously private and opaque character, with no particular vices or scandal attached to him, makes him a challenge for any biographer.

The book aims to do two things: the first, to get the measure of the man and account for his electoral success in 1945, the scale of which was not to be repeated for 52 years. The second, to estimate how far his strengths and weaknesses contributed to Labour’s phenomenal success in 1945, and its downfall in 1951. It largely succeeds in doing the first but leaves the second question mostly unaddressed.

Attlee was a man of high-minded principle. If Attlee were alive today, many of us would call him ‘authentic’. It’s true that Attlee was a million miles away from the spin and artifice of the Blair years. Attlee carefully cultivated a public political persona – laconic, aloof and unforthcoming. That’s not to say he was a fake. It’s to say that public personas are edited, with selected characteristics emphasized for effect and other traits toned down. It’s something we all do as social animals and Attlee was no different.

But, getting beyond the appearances, what about the substance of the man? After all, he led the Labour Party for 20 years and for over half of that time he was in government, as Deputy Prime Minister from 1940 to 1945 in the wartime coalition government and as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. Attlee’s leadership style was that of a committee Chairman, who devolved important tasks to deputies and allowed them to get on with the job, intervening to trouble-shoot or fix disputes but very much aloof as a leader. This could not have been more different to the approach Blair took, with No.10 vetting all ministerial speeches before they were delivered.

This style no doubt has its attractions but also its limitations. Attlee could be too remote in a crisis and during especially testing times of his administration, like the coal crisis in the freezing winter of 1947-8. Attlee took a calculated gamble in not explicitly supporting Bevan in his battles with the British Medical Association over the establishment of the National Health Service, something the BMA was fiercely opposed to at the time. It was as well that Bevan was a formidable operator in his own right. Attlee might have seen his administration’s flag ship sunk otherwise. However, he was a great manager of men, and he had some great men – and challenging personalities – in his government, whose energies he was able to direct outwards, and not in self-destructive intrigues.

Attlee was not afraid to talk about social injustice and the poor, and identify the Labour party with the interests of the most disadvantaged. Here again, the contrast between Labour of 1945 and Labour as it was under Blair, is stark. On the other hand, Attlee revered the monarchy, had no desire to abolish private and grammar schools or reform the House of Lords. In the First World War, he volunteered for service, seeing it as his patriotic duty and was proud to have served. And of course, Attlee took the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, striking not only for the fact that he did that, but also for how he did it, in secrecy, conferring only with a select cabal, a notable exception to his otherwise collegial leadership style.

Comparisons have been made between Attlee and Jeremy Corbyn. In my view, if there is a substantial comparison to be made, then undoubtedly its Corbyn’s explicit advocacy of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our country. That however is no guide to whether he will win in 2020. Sincerity and authenticity are not enough. This book can tell us that.

Whatever the attractions or otherwise of Attlee’s personal and leadership styles, there is no reason to think that these alone won Labour power in 1945. Had the Second World War not broken out, the Conservatives would probably have won an election that would have been held in 1940. Labour’s victory in 1945 perhaps owed less to Attlee’s personality and leadership style than to the wider social changes afoot in the midst of the war and its aftermath. Thomas-Symonds’ book does not discuss this context in any depth at all. Therefore, one cannot answer the question, was Labour’s victory because of Attlee’s personality and leadership style or in spite of them? If that is so, then Attlee’s life is a difficult one from which to draw substantive lessons as to how power can be won by Labour now.

But there is something else, what political historian David Marquand has called the ‘Progressive Dilemma’, that is, if Labour is to win power, it has to appeal to the swing vote; but, in doing that, it risks alienating its core vote. It’s not a new dilemma. This was very much Attlee’s own dilemma as it is Corbyn’s. For a while, Attlee squared the circle, as Blair did. Corbyn and his supporters are interested in Attlee’s example, not Blair’s. But this book is not the book to tell them how it can be done in 2020. Britain now is not the same country it was in 1945. And, in the end, politics is not just about personalities. Read this book to learn about Attlee, not whether Corbyn will win in five years’ time.
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