Clement Attlee has long been my political hero, so when a friend recommended this book, I was keen to read it. It’s brilliant and deserves all the prizes it’s won. I won’t try to write a review, since I can’t imagine that many people who visit here will want to read nearly 600 pages of political history. So I’ll just flag up some of the interesting things about Attlee’s life.
First, you have to remember that he was born in 1883 and always recalled watching the parade for Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897. He was a Victorian, yet was Prime Minister when I was born. His upbringing was conventional: a happy family life, Haileybury and Oxford; not the background you expect for a revolutionary. It was working in the East End of London which converted him to socialism and he devoted his life to improving the lot of the poor. Already thirty-one when the First World War broke out, old by the standards for new recruits, he volunteered anyway because of his strong patriotic feelings. He fought bravely throughout the war, ending it as Major Attlee. This stood him in good stead in his later political career, as no one could doubt his courage.
Courage is a word appearing frequently in this biography, together with integrity. Even his worst enemies (many of whom were within his own party), credited him with an ethical approach to all he did. Margaret Thatcher admired – guess what? - his integrity. I hadn’t realised before just how well Attlee and Churchill knew each other even before the Second World War. During the war, Churchill depended on him completely to run the country while he himself was off on diplomatic missions. Their relationship is interesting. Attlee disagreed with him on many subjects but still said, ‘What a man!’ When Churchill lost the election in 1945 he said, ‘I felt sorry for the old boy’ and when he turned nasty in opposition, Attlee merely remarked to the king that ‘the old man was rather naughty in the House yesterday’. While Churchill attacked Attlee, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to. Bew has a story of how a visitor to Chartwell belittled Attlee and was savagely put down by Churchill, who said, ‘Mr Attlee is a great patriot’ and that anyone making such remarks would not be invited again. When both men had retired, they enjoyed long discussions about the novels of Anthony Trollope.
Novels and poetry meant a great deal to Attlee, who always had an appropriate quote to hand. Kipling, Shelley, Blake and Milton were his favourites; ‘my head is full of poetry’. He considered that what he called ‘rank and file’ novels offered a better insight into public opinion than the classics did. Here’s a nice snippet for you; he thought Angela Thirkell’s novels ‘uncommonly good’ and read them aloud to his wife as they sheltered from the Blitz.
‘Good old Clem’ was popular in the country at large yet many people were still surprised that such a diffident, modest man, so lacking in Churchillian charisma, could be Prime Minister. On a visit to the States in 1945, a journalist remarked, ‘Say, he ain’t a politician – he’s a saint’ Appearances were deceptive as he proved a tough leader, holding together a cabinet of giant egos and never afraid to sack someone he thought not up to the job. By the end of the war, he must have been as tired as everyone else, yet he embarked on the long-promised programme of social reform, the greatest ever in this country. He was always clear that rights implied duties and responsibilities:
It is the greatest task which lies ahead of us all in the Labour and Socialist movement to see to it that the citizen’s sense of obligation to the community keeps pace with the changes effected in the structure of society. We need to stress duties as well as rights.
A favourite newsreel clip of mine shows Attlee heading for Number 10 pursued by journalists.
Journalist, waving a microphone: ‘Have you anything to say, Prime Minister?’
Mr Attlee: ‘No’.
What a man! And how different from today’s politicians.