Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

No modest man

Greg Rosen reflects on Francis Beckett’s reissued biography of Clem Attlee

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Clem Attlee
Francis Beckett
Politico’s, 352pp, £14.99

At the heart of Beckett’s stimulating biography is the contention that far from Attlee being a ‘modest little man, with plenty to be modest about’ and an ‘accidental’ prime minister, a view adhered to even by Attlee’s official biographer Kenneth Harris, he was ‘a subtle and skilful political operator’ and the ‘guiding intellect’ of the 1945-51 government.

Attlee was a public school Tory drawn to socialism by the living conditions he found in London’s East End when as a young barrister, just down from Oxford, he visited his old school settlement in Stepney: ‘Clem, still in his silk hat and tail-coat, walked gingerly through the disgusting uncleaned streets… and looked up at Haileybury House. The sight of the Haileybury school crest seemed incongruous…’ That was in 1906. After war wounds (from ‘friendly fire’), Major Attlee became secretary of Toynbee Hall, mayor and then MP (1922) for Stepney, Under-Secretary for War in the first Labour government (1924) and postmaster general in the second.

Labour’s 1931 electoral debacle left Attlee the only former minister with a seat, apart from the aged George Lansbury and the maverick Stafford Cripps. Lansbury became leader and Attlee deputy. When the pacifist Lansbury resigned in 1935, unable to face up to the threat from the dictators, neither Herbert Morrison nor Arthur Greenwood had sufficient votes to block Attlee winning the leadership.

Other histories, certainly prior to the original publication of this biography in 1997, portrayed Attlee as being from Labour’s centre-right, contrasting him with the Bennite left. Beckett, writing in the aftermath of John Smith’s death, seeks to harness Attlee for Labour’s radical conscience. Alluding to contemporary discussions, Beckett suggests Attlee’s instincts were not wholly as out of date as the ‘year zero’ Blairites were then suggesting.

In particular he challenges the idea that Attlee was insufficiently image-conscious: ‘images are not a recent invention… Baldwin… MacDonald… Churchill – they all had an image and so did Clem…. he ensured that his ‘image’ was always close to the reality, avoiding Neil Kinnock’s attempt to create an entirely new persona’. It’s a lesson that arguably holds true today.

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Greg Rosen

is author of Old Labour to New, chair of the Labour History Group and a political columnist for the Scotsman

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