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on 29 December 2014
Well done, my daughter, for getting me this for my Christmas! Clement Attlee is my favourite Prime Minister, and remains so after reading this latest biography of the unpretentious little man who changed life in Britain to a far greater extent that any other Prime Minister. I was born in 1948, and feel that, almost 70 years later, I owe everything to Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan.
My one gripe is that not enough time is spent on his greatest achievement - the National Health Service. It was of course the Welsh wizard Nye Bevan who did the nitty gritty, but he was well supported by his Prime Minister who, I was slightly surprised to learn, was being groomed as Clem's successor.
The author tends to a certain extent to fall into the trap of implying that the late 1940s were a time of misery for working people. In fact, they were considerably better off that they had been before the War. It was the middle classes who were squealing because this was a government determined to improve the lot of the common people, economic crisis or not!
Jago is good on Attlee's background, his first world war career and his brilliant running of the Government in the second world war when Churchill was not there, and even when Churchill was! Churchill was the inspiration, full of bluster and bombast, whereas Attlee was the quiet, efficient administrator. Both were equally necessary to save Europe from barbarism and slavery.
Famously laconic himself, Attlee's running of Cabinet meetings was exemplary, with an agreeable determination not to let anyone talk too much! Indeed his greatest strength was his ability to co-ordinate disparate and difficult, but brilliant characters like Bevin, Cripps, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison and bring out the best in them even those whom he did not like - Morrison and Dalton, for example.
The author gives him a great deal of credit (deservedly) for what he did in India, but is more damning with faint praise for Attlee's determination to extricate Britain from Palestine - a place where they could not possibly win. I often think that the withdrawal from the Middle East is a lesson that his successors might have learned and applied a little sooner to places like Rhodesia and Northern Ireland.
We could have done with a little more on Attlee's love of cricket - although he did arrive one day in Eastern Europe and was disappointed to find that no-one knew the cricket scores! And we might have got the story of his attendance at the England v Scotland game at Wembley in 1947. It was a 1-1 draw, and Attlee's summing up was a masterpiece of brevity and diplomacy (for he was an Englishman for whom Scotsmen voted in their droves) "Both sides played well"!
An excellent biography from Mr Jago! As for Clement Attlee, I just keep loving that man!
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on 10 July 2014
Few great political leaders have been so frequently underestimated as Clement Richard Attlee. In his early years, he showed little sign of becoming anything special or indeed of developing a socialist outlook. As Jago explains, for a Victorian boy of Attlee’s background born in 1883, there was simply no means of becoming a socialist. The teenage Attlee once argued that the working classes could not be expected to appreciate museums and art galleries in a school debating society. Attlee would later be embarrassed by these views, although as a lifelong champion of both the monarchy and the public school system, a conservative strain to Attlee’s thinking always remained.

Attlee seemed set for a fairly unpromising legal career until a period of voluntary work which started before the First World War transformed his outlook and which in the 1920s launched him towards politics. He continued to be underestimated, however. The first ever Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, his rise to the leadership in 1935 surprised many. Most assumed he would be a temporary stop gap leader. In fact, he would be the longest serving Labour leader there has ever been, lasting twenty years until 1955 (Ed Miliband will need to last until 2030 to do as well! )

Churchill underestimated him too describing him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” despite witnessing his competence working alongside him in the wartime coalition in which Attlee eventually became the first ever Deputy Prime Minister. Churchill invited him to the first half of the critical post-war Yalta Conference on the off chance that Attlee might win the 1945 election and thus need to attend the rest as Prime Minister. But this was a formality. Churchill didn’t expect him to win. Neither did Stalin or his foreign minister Molotov, who, apparently not quite grasping how democracy works, had expected Churchill to fix the result.

Labour’s spectacular 1945 General Election victory gave them their first ever majority. It was also a huge one: 146. Only Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001 has won bigger victories since. The new intake of Labour MPs included most of the key Labour figures of the next forty years: Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, George Brown, Denis Healey, Michael Foot with Tony Benn and James Callaghan soon to follow.

Attlee’s government did so well that every government since has been disappointing in comparison. Despite walking an economic tightrope throughout, Attlee ensured the return of full employment, a house building boom, the establishment of the post-Cold War foreign policy, independence for India, the nationalisation programme and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.

Even now, nearly fifty years after his death in 1967, Attlee remains a somewhat underappreciated figure; his success often attributed more to his hugely talented cabinet (Cripps, Bevin, Bevan, Dalton and Morrison) than to the man himself. Jago’s excellent biography contains a couple of errors (a chapter entitled From Lord Haw Haw to Burgess and Maclean does not actually mention Lord Haw Haw aka William Joyce once) but is a masterly piece of work and goes some way to redressing the balance.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher shamelessly savaged Attlee’s cherished post-war legacy, it remains a shame that there is no one of Attlee’s stature around in Britain today.
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on 24 March 2016
Clement Attlee was one of the greatest Prime Ministers that Britain has ever had. After World War II, the British population recognised that, as magnificent a wartime P.M. as Winston Churchill had been, he was not cut out for overseeing the massive post-War rebuilding project. For this, socialism and the Labour Party were required. Attlee was not only an excellent socialist, but also a great compromising leader. His calm, negotiating style was able to sufficiently reconcile the (sometimes extreme) left and right wings of Labour, so that egalitarian policies could be implemented for all people, and thereby avoid going back to the pre-War deep social inequalities. Nationalisation created jobs for life, the welfare state created a financial safety net for those in need, house building was vastly increased, and of course the National Health Service was created to give people free and equal healthcare for the very first time.
This biography provides an adequate assessment of Attlee’s achievements (including foreign affairs such as India), but I do, however, have two significant criticisms. First, President Truman is shown far too much generosity by the author. Truman disgracefully stopped Lend-Lease, thereby reducing Britain to financial peril (unpopular bread rationing was as a result of American economics); and in the Middle East, Truman’s insistence on relocating 100,000 Jews exacerbated conflict in the region, against Attlee’s more composed and pragmatic thoughts on the matter. Second, not nearly enough is made of the benefits of the welfare state that Attlee’s government implemented: extension of old age pensions, sickness and unemployment benefits, etc. That financial safety net which people had not had before should never be taken for granted.
Nonetheless, this is easily the best Attlee biography on the market at the moment (some of them are awful!), so it’s definitely worth a read. Attlee wasn’t perfect, of course – his biggest mistake was calling an early election in 1951 – but politics nowadays would certainly be better if we had more principled politicians like him.
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on 30 May 2016
A most interesting biography of a PM about whom I knew very little. The book is written in a clear sequence which makes Attlee's actions understandable (even if one does not necessarily have sympathy with the wholesale nationalisation of his government). Am important historic figure and this book is a very helpful introduction to his life and work. Recommended.
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on 13 November 2014
Excellent and well researched biography of Britain's last principled Prime Minister.
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on 18 February 2015
On reading this excellent biography it was good to get to know Clement Attlee better as a person and it may be that there are or were some honest politicians who held to good principles after all! Also it was very revealing to see the difficult years of the first half of the 20th century through Clement's eyes, it changed my opinions about several key issues that are still effecting us today.
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on 17 October 2014
Easy to read. He was a fascinating character who was Prime Minister at a time when many changes were taking place.
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on 10 September 2014
.This is how to write a biography
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on 3 July 2014
This short book is a brief, thumbnail sketch. Easy to read but does not do the subject justice.
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