Mighty Mouse

Review: John Bew, 'Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain'

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee / AP

There are three stories by which an American familiar with the career of Winston Churchill, Britain's savior, could become familiar quickly with that of Clement Attlee, its transformer. The first occurs in Stepney, East London, in January 1911. The remnant of a band of Latvian robbers is besieged by the authorities at 100 Sidney Street. The police are outmatched, the army is called in, and Churchill is on the scene. Attlee, a 28-year-old social worker and activist who had adopted the working class neighborhood as his own, is an onlooker in the crowd. This is the first time he lays eyes on the young Churchill, who is playing perfectly to type by sending in troops to impose order amidst the slums.

The second story is likely apocryphal, sadly, and is traced by John Bew, Attlee's latest biographer, to Dean Acheson. It is 1944 in the Cabinet War Rooms. Churchill and Attlee, now the ranking Labour minister in Churchill's coalition war government, enter the men's room at the same time. In Bew's telling:

Lest there be any awkwardness, Churchill went to the far end of the urinal, leaving Attlee plenty of space in the middle. "Isn't this unusual modesty for you, Winston?" quipped Attlee." "Not at all," replied Churchill, "I'm just suspicious of you socialists."

The third story is very much true. The following year, after Churchill's stunning defeat in the general election, he walks onto the floor of Parliament and is greeted by Conservative members singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." Labour backbenchers respond immediately with a round of "The Red Flag," the party's semi-official and, to moderates, somewhat awkward anthem. It begins:

The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold.

Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Beneath its shade we'll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We'll keep the red flag flying here.

An independent member wrote at the time that the song was "very bad tactics, doing no good and calculated to frighten all the retired Colonels in Cheltenham and Leamington Spa." Among those who appeared to react with embarrassment, according to Bew, was the new prime minister, Clement Attlee, who "was not so comfortable with a display of such naked tribalism under the scrutiny of the public eye."

Such concern with appearances was to be expected from a man who had spent the previous five years prosecuting a "country first, party second" strategy as Labour's leader, maintaining the coalition with Churchill until forced by his party's membership to break it up before the final end of hostilities—a move Attlee opposed as premature. It would not have been as easy to predict if one knew only the younger Attlee, who was at ease in the complex world of British socialism, maintaining good relations with radical intellectuals and trade unionists alike. Bew, who has produced a fascinating book about this mild-mannered, self-effacing, and moderate man (often good qualities, but rough on a biographer) succeeds in part because he uses his subject as an opportunity to delve into the intellectual background of the British labor movement as a whole.

John Ruskin, H.G. Wells, William Morris, Jack London (whose People of the Abyss dealt with the slums of London), Robert Tressell, Patrick MacGill, Edward Bellamy, and more besides are accounted for here. The same applies to organizations within the fractious institutional landscape of the British left at the turn of the century: the ILP and SDF, the Socialist League, the Fabian Society, the various trade unions, charitable establishments like Toynbee Hall, and publications like Commonwealth Magazine.

At the time Attlee began his career in Stepney, the notion that the Labour Party, founded in 1900, would one day lead the country would have seemed astonishing. It may also have seemed astonishing, at least from a distance, that the suburban and upper middle class Attlee—a product of Haileybury ("more Etonian than Eton itself, though a bit cheaper") and Oxford—should be accepted so completely by East London's working class. But as a sort of youth counselor drawn to the slum because his school had founded a modest society for good works there, Attlee's honesty and lack of condescension impressed the locals, as did his commitment—enough that no one minded his continental vacations (he fell in love with his wife Violet on a trip to Italy.)

The balance between proletarians and left-wing activists and intellectuals from wealthier backgrounds was to be an important part of the labor movement's story: of the Labour members of Parliament who mocked the Tories with their rendition of the Red Flag in 1945, only 38 percent came from a working class background. It was also to be an enormous problem, as the best and brightest planners, with the most noble intentions, often ignored the modest and non-ideological desires of the actual British working man during the Attlee government, a dynamic expertly chronicled by David Kynaston.

Of Stepney's "Clem" himself, Bew is generally admiring. Following distinguished service in the war, Major Attlee returned to London, became a borough mayor, then a member of Parliament, and then began a gradual rise through the ranks, admired more for his efficiency than his brilliance. (Bew is not above the occasional arch remark to this effect, noting of Attlee's appointment to the London School of Economics that he was "not an obvious candidate to explore the full intellectual parameters of socialism"; elsewhere he writes disconcertingly that "Attlee never much understood economics.") The source of much heartache for his party's radicals, he became much concerned with making Labour respectable. This was not merely a tactical position, but also because, despite his investment in socialist policies and early flirtations with more extreme measures, Attlee was reliably liberal in many respects, opposed to totalitarianism and a believer in democracy, constitutionalism, and the monarchy. As his power increased, it became clear that his foreign views were fundamentally Western-oriented; suspicious of Stalin, he was an admirer of FDR and of America more generally. He enjoyed reading Kipling to the end.

Anathema as all this was to the hard left, it took such a man to put Labour in a position where it could do some real work—or some real damage. This is the core of Bew's argument: that Attlee has been "underappreciated" by his critics, mostly and ironically on the left, as a kind of bystander, when in fact his strategic decisions as leader and a quiet, steely commitment to a few core principles were essential to the left's progress. National Insurance, the NHS, the nationalization of key industries, and radical new public housing policies were all instituted under his watch, and the British Empire, strapped for cash and held together largely by the force of Winston Churchill's will, was closed down on an accelerated timeline. Bew points out quite reasonably that, Attlee's ideological opposition to empire notwithstanding, it is unclear how Britain's expensive possessions could have been maintained by any leader. That said, he goes awfully easily on Attlee throughout the assessment of his government's policies. To select only one example: the partition of India in 1947, in which something like a half-million people died, is described as having left an "ugly legacy" and accorded about a paragraph of discussion. If I were responsible for such a tragedy, even only in part, I suppose I might be grateful to have about that much space devoted to it.

Attlee the man is easy to like; his legacy is more complicated, to say the very least. But Bew's main point is that a man variously described by critics as a "little mouse," a "poor little rabbit," and a "sheep in sheep's clothing," was not only a highly proximate onlooker for one of the most radical transformations of a western democracy, but essential to the whole affair. And radical it all was—to suggest otherwise is ridiculous. Consider the centuries of privilege and practice upended in the course of this quiet little anecdote from the summer of '45, courtesy of Kynaston's Austerity Britain:

"My man," called out a blazered, straw-hatted 14-year-old public schoolboy, John Rae, as he stood on Bishop's Stortford station with his trunk that late July.

"No," came the porter's quiet but firm reply. "That sort of thing is all over now."