Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain
Oxford University Press, 2017, 688 pp., $39.95
In the acclaimed Netflix series, The Crown, Clement Attlee appears in the familiar cameo role that history has so often allotted to him: that of stooge to the superior wit and political skill of Winston Churchill. “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street,” Churchill (played by John Lithgow) quips to the Queen before outfoxing his political rival, “and when the door was opened Attlee got out.”
The real Churchill always denied making the remark, and in fact the two men enjoyed a close relationship. But the sense has always remained that Clement Attlee, Churchill’s deputy during the war and then Labour Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, was a bit player compared to Winston—notwithstanding the general consensus that the postwar government Attlee headed was one of the most consequential ever to hold power in Britain. Somehow it seemed not to bear his imprint. “Things happened to him,” Attlee’s cabinet colleague Aneurin Bevan carped. “He never did anything.”
John Bew, a professor at King’s College London and a noted author of several well-received books, offers a corrective to that unflattering view in an outstanding new biography.1 Attlee has been underappreciated, he argues. “He did not change the direction of British history through a single act,” Bew writes, “but he coaxed it in a certain direction, with more skill, and more idealism, than he has been given credit for.”
Contemporary critics in his own party such as Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison threw two brickbats at Attlee: that he was lucky and that he was shallow. Certainly Attlee enjoyed a fair amount of good fortune throughout his life. Part of the “lost generation” of the World War, he survived both the horror of the bloody Gallipoli campaign and the fragility of life on the Western Front. In 1916 he narrowly avoided death after being wounded while going over the top in Mesopotamia, bravely carrying the flag of his regiment. Later, as a Labour MP in the 1930s, he was one of the few to survive an electoral wipeout that took out the top cadre of talent in the party, leaving him in pole position to become its next leader. When Churchill needed Attlee to form a wartime coalition in 1940, it catapulted the Labour man, in effect, into the position of Deputy Prime Minister. And in 1945 Attlee swept to power on the back of public clamor to implement the Beveridge Report—not initially a Labour proposal at all, but a radical blueprint for the welfare state drawn up by a progressive civil servant during the war.
Attlee’s taciturn, intensely private character fed the idea that he was not just lucky but also a man with no intellectual depth or reserves of passion. He once famously answered 28 questions in five minutes during a BBC interview, leaving the questioner helpless. He was, spat the critic Malcolm Muggeridge (not Churchill as is often thought), “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.” Bew deals with this point cleverly throughout the biography by showing us what Attlee was reading at various points in his life and how it informed his thinking. His first love was poetry, particularly Milton, Blake, Shelley, and Kipling, all of whom he could quote at length by heart. But he also read widely in history, philosophy, economics, and literature. Every MP knew that the best place to catch him for a word was outside the door to the House of Commons Library. In 1954, Attlee estimated that he owned around three thousand books.
Bew soft-pedals the matter of Attlee’s books, arguing that they are suggestive of the man’s state of mind at a particular moment rather than some kind of secret road map. But the results are genuinely illuminating, as when, for example, we find Attlee reading Thucydides and six volumes of Gibbon in the midst of dismantling the British Empire in the late 1940s. “The Downing Street press office was quick to play down the significance,” Bew notes laconically, but the “echoes of this [reading] in Attlee’s approach” to questions of empire and citizenship are intriguing.
If Attlee was lucky, it was often because he had made his own good fortune through ruthless and skillful political action. In 1940, he eviscerated Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons during the famous Narvik debate and then coldly informed the Prime Minister that he would serve in a coalition under anyone but him. When that coalition government was formed under Churchill, Attlee moved into offices in Downing Street and quietly took over the running of the country while the PM ran the war. That began the social revolution formalized when Labour came to power in 1945. “No British government of the twentieth century,” Bew writes, “was as active, in terms of legislation passed, as the Attlee administration of 1945-1951, particularly when it came to changing the relationship between state and society.” It was a good example of Attlee’s coaxing approach, creating a consensus around ideas that he had been promoting in parliament since the early 1930s, but which then, in his own words, had been “rejected with scorn.”
Attlee’s understated but steely personality proved ideal for dealing with the collection of prima donnas who made up his cabinet. The likes of Bevan, Morrison, and Dalton preened and carped, often threatening to overthrow him. Attlee was lucky again in having one important ally in Ernest Bevin—architect of NATO and arguably Britain’s greatest postwar Foreign Secretary. Bevin always stuck by “little Clem” when others sought to oust him, recognizing perhaps that Attlee provided a necessary moral compass for his own arch-realism. “Better get Clem’s agreement,” became a mantra for Bevin. Attlee in turn knew that his combustible Foreign Secretary, who had left school aged 11, had a spontaneity and originality of mind that he himself lacked. “With the exception of Winston,” Attlee wrote, he had “never met a man in politics with as much imagination.”
John Bew, someone whose fine diplomatic histories have consistently sought the elusive “higher realism”—a stony pragmatism joined to idealist ends—brilliantly navigates the still-controversial terrain of postwar Britain.2 He adroitly charts the various debates about the welfare state, a changing British world role, and the end of empire. He writes with elegance and penetrating analytical force, skillfully rounding out Attlee both as a man and a quiet revolutionary. He does not, as a less adept historian may have been tempted to do, try to claim that Attlee was greater than Churchill, “a claim,” he writes, “that would have caused Attlee to guffaw.” Instead, he patiently and convincingly makes the case that Attlee was a man of luck and skill, taciturnity and depth, who made profound changes to Britain that survive to this day.
As for the old man himself, he would not hear a word said against Attlee. “Mr. Attlee is a great patriot,” Churchill said, turning on a guest at his country house. “Don’t you call him ‘silly old Attlee’ at Chartwell or you won’t be invited again.”
1Among his most recent are Castlereagh: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Realpolitik: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015).
2See Bew, “Pax Anglo-Saxonica,” The American Interest (May/June 2015).