Book Corner – February 2017 (1)
February 1, 2017
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Citizen Clem – John Bew
For those of a certain political persuasion the state of the Labour party is a source of sadness and despair. But it is perhaps salutary to reflect that they have been there before. After the 1931 election triggered by Ramsay McDonald’s defection, they were reduced to just 52 MPs. The timing of John Bew’s magisterial biography of Clement Attlee could not be better and perhaps provides some hope for the future.
Attlee has always suffered from being underappreciated, the archetypal sheep in a sheep’s clothing. Even Bew remarks that his outstanding quality was that he had no outstanding qualities. But his achievements are monumental. He co-operated with Churchill to create the National Government following Chamberlain’s resignation in May 1940 and held the coalition together, concentrating on domestic matters whilst giving Winston the freedom to play on the international stage. The Labour party’s landslide victory in 1940 opened the way for the establishment of institutions that characterise what many people still feel mighty proud of our country today – the National Health Service, the Social Security system, National Insurance, nationalisation of major sources of production and the extension of workers’ employment protections. All this was achieved whilst Britain was on its knees economically, the Cold War had broken out, the Empire was being transformed into a Commonwealth and Attlee was having to fight off challenges to his leadership from the Bevanites. No wonder his statue is one of four great British prime ministers in the members’ lobby of the House of Commons. We are unlikely to see his like again.
Bew traces Attlee’s journey from a conventional, public school educated boy who was mildly jingoistic to what we would now term a social worker in Spitalfields to a political agitator on street corners to an elected MP and then leader of his party. The tale is told chronologically, but with one twist. Bew feels that it is worth exploring Attlee’s reading habits at various stages of his development to see if they shine a light on his thinking and influences. I’m not persuaded by the logic of this – my reading list is pretty catholic and apart from suggesting that I am open to all ideas, I don’t think it tells a lot about me. But we are treated to interesting analyses of William Morris’ Road to Nowhere, Kipling, Gibbon and Trollope, a passion for whom Attlee shared with Churchill. Surely the latter kiboshes Bew’s theory?
That said, the book is well paced and entertaining with enough to keep the general reader interested. The parallels with today are compelling, not least the observation that the weakness, nay absence, of an effective opposition created a vacuum in which the Communist party and the Mosleyite Fascists were allowed to play. Attlee did not help his cause by being inscrutable and writing an autobiography which was not only as dull as ditch water but also painfully self-effacing. He was the perfect chairman who drew the best out of others but underneath there were two shining principles – the desire to transform the lot of the working classes who were denied their land fit for heroes after the First World War and the desire to retreat from jingoistic imperialism and allow the colonies some degree of say in their destiny.
Attlee saw active service in the First World War, in Gallipoli – he was convinced that Churchill’s strategy was right but it was let down by its execution – and in Mesopotamia where he was shot up the arse carrying the red flag of his regiment, a fate we could cheerfully wish on many of our current crop of politicos.
A wonderful book, a timely reminder of what a titan Attlee was and one that offers hope for a resurgence of a social democratic party in years to come.