by Kenneth Harris.
Weidenfeld, 630 pp., £14.95, September 1982, 0 297 77993 1
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What, we may ask, is greatness anyway? Who in the West this century has shown it? Does it only flourish when nurtured by the ecstatic opiates of war? Greatness, in this context, is what people recognise as greatness: manifest success on a national rather than a purely partisan scale. Losing both wars hasn’t helped Germany’s candidates: Clemenceau eclipses both Hindenburg and Ludendorff. De Gaulle has it, but Léon Blum, holding too long to his prissy belief that he couldn’t take office till the moment came when society was ready to leap into socialism, does not. Churchill, obviously, needed the war; perhaps Roosevelt did not, despite the fact that his economic policies were rescued only by that same war – as Kitchener was a magnificent poster, so Roosevelt was a magnificent voice.

An undersized runt who, as a child, wore his younger brother’s cast-off clothing, Attlee spoke in the thin and unimpressive accents of a highly educated, but thoroughly pedantic Englishman. Studying not too seriously for the Bar, he was a gentleman about town when he became an officer, then the manager, of the Haileybury Club in Stepney: Haileybury was Attlee’s old school, and the club was a company in the Territorial Army. A strict disciplinarian, Attlee revelled in the military atmosphere of the club; at the same time, the social evils all around him pushed him out of his Tory imperialism towards a form of socialism. Together with his brother Tom, he joined the Fabian Society in October 1907; then in January 1908 – a much more crucial step – he joined the Stepney ILP. The 16 branch members were all trade-unionists, so Attlee himself joined the National Union of Clerks. For seven years, up to the outbreak of war, he led a massively active life in local politics, earning great admiration and respect for his willingness to turn his hand to any job that needed doing, however humble. He worked briefly at Toynbee Hall, which he disliked as too ‘bourgeois’, then was appointed to a lectureship at LSE. While brother Tom became a conscientious objector when war broke out, Attlee volunteered for active service. With commendable restraint in a very full and rich book, Kenneth Harris passes quickly over Attlee’s distinguished war service in the Dardanelles, which took him to the rank of major. At the war’s end, Attlee achieved considerable local prominence as both prospective Parliamentary candidate for Limehouse and, in effect, campaign manager for the Stepney Labour Party in its bid to win power in the borough elections. The local fixer, Oscar Tobin, had made a fine assessment of Attlee’s qualifications: ‘He was neither Irish nor Jewish, but respected by both; he was ILP but not a pacifist; he had an excellent war record, an East End record of social service, and a private income which would give him leisure for political activities.’

In the local elections of 1919 there was a nationwide swing to Labour: Attlee, at 36, became the first Labour mayor of Stepney. The mayoral year might have brought only transient glory, but just before it ended Attlee was elected an alderman. His local base thus more solidly established, Attlee was duly elected to Parliament in 1922, and among his fellow middle-class Labour MPs, Harris notes, ‘Attlee was in a sense a veteran.’ He became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Labour’s new leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and then, in the first Labour Government, Under-Secretary at the War Office. In the later Twenties he was nominated by MacDonald to the Simon Commission on India; because of his involvement with this commission he did not immediately achieve office on the return of the second Labour Government, but became Postmaster-General in February 1931. With George Lansbury, Attlee survived the debacle of 1931, all other major Labour figures being defeated. Lansbury was elected leader, Attlee his deputy. When Lansbury fell seriously ill in December 1933, Attlee took over the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party for a full nine months. Lansbury returned to the leadership, only to run into Ernest Bevin’s violent attack on him at the 1935 Party Conference. Lansbury tendered his resignation to the Parliamentary Labour Party, Baldwin announced a general election, and Attlee, supported by the miners’ MPs, carried on as stop-gap Labour leader throughout the election campaign. The senior Labour leaders returned to Parliament, and there was a contest for the leadership between Herbert Morrison, Arthur Greenwood and Attlee himself. On the first ballot, Attlee was only four votes ahead of Morrison, but in the second ballot he took most of Greenwood’s votes. Morrison refused to run for the Deputy Leadership, telling the Party that he was too busy on the LCC. As Deputy Leader, Greenwood, widely reputed to be too fond of the bottle, was no threat to Attlee. Of Attlee’s leadership in this period, Harris writes that ‘though he inspired little enthusiasm’, he ‘presented the Party’s case with vigour and clarity’. While there was much muttering, and some conspiracy, no other candidate carried quite enough support to oust him. When the great military and political crisis of May 1940 arrived Attlee acted with finesse and firmness. He made it possible for the Tory dissidents to vote against Chamberlain, and he made it clear to Chamberlain himself that he must go.

There followed Attlee’s participation, as Labour’s leader, in the Churchill coalition.

For the five years between the formation of the coalition and the end of the war in Europe, Attlee alone of Churchill’s colleagues remained continuously a member of the War Cabinet. His principal task was to keep the coalition together: to make political sense of Churchill’s dictum: ‘Everything for the war, whether controversial or not, and nothing controversial that is not bona fide needed for the war.’ He had to conciliate Conservative backbenchers, reassure Labour, mediate between Labour and Conservative ministers and even between quarrelling Labour ministers, and manage Churchill’s political and personal idiosyncrasies. These were enormous burdens, borne largely in private; in the public eye he was overshadowed by Churchill, Morrison (as Home Secretary) and Bevin (Minister of Labour).

Overshadowed or not, Attlee was manifestly Labour’s leader in the victorious 1945 election campaign: Morrison’s attempt to challenge him once the results were known and the King had commissioned him to form a government, did not simply defy constitutional propriety, it defied all common sense. Attlee had not yet achieved greatness: but he was now Labour’s first ever prime minister to have a secure majority behind him. He rode high in 1945 and 1946, a commanding figure in a government which was clearly seen to be action-packed, passing the National Health Service Act, the National Insurance Act, the Town and Country Planning Act, and nationalising the coal mines and the Bank of England. Crisis and domestic doldrums followed in 1947, yet that was also the year of the achievement of Indian independence. By 1950, the picture looked good: an embattled leader, who had shown skill and strength in his relations with President Truman, toughly facing the sectarian challenge of the Tories. How nice it would have been – for our comfort today – if the austerity of that age had been even more severe, if gratification had been still longer deferred, and if an unwavering emphasis had been placed on productive investment: if, in sum, Attlee’s Government had done as did the Continentals, with their more lowly expectations and more highly-educated bureaucracies. Churchill got it partly right when he perceived the true depths of our economic plight; but his old-fashioned insights were blotted out by his imperialist obscurantism. Today we think we can see what went wrong in the Forties, but practically nobody then saw it that way; and even if Attlee had done so, and even if he had been able to do anything about it, any achievements would almost certainly have been dissipated by the Tories in the Fifties. So, returning to the conventional perspective, we need not dissent from Harris’s measured conclusion: when Attlee ‘came to power in 1945 he assembled and managed a team of ministers which carried out a programme of legislation so massive and so radical that, however controversial, it entitles him to be regarded as a great prime minister.’

Immediately there follows the qualification that Attlee was only great ‘seen in the context of his time and events’: in another context, ‘the assessment might have been different.’ What this means, I’m not sure: can a man be judged outside of the context of his time? Certainly Attlee had much luck, and Harris is meticulous in stressing the points at which Attlee conspicuously found fortune’s favour: the right combination of interest groups creating him alderman at the right moment, his position as Postmaster-General keeping him clear of the manifest failures of that Labour government, his survival in the succeeding election jumping him up the leadership queue by many places. Even more certainly Attlee was the product of a particular era and a particular social background – yet he did also reveal some distinctive personal qualities. His family belonged to that sector of the old middle class which, by the later 19th century, had, effectively, become a lower part of the upper class. Henry Attlee was a gentlemanly solicitor, friend of Bryce and Haldane: his son Clement was brought up in a world of old boys and bourgeoisie oblige. It was a very particular Late Victorian notion of social service which took Attlee into the East End in the first place; it was the private income which enabled him to take on his many political roles. Yet, by the early Thirties when he was deputising as leader for Lansbury, Attlee almost gave up that role because, although an abstemious man who lived without many of the luxuries which the humblest Labour MP would take for granted today, he felt unable to support his family without undertaking extensive freelance journalism: as it happened, he was bailed out by the wealthy Sir Stafford Cripps, shortly to become the leading spirit in attempts to deny Attlee the party leadership. As success followed upon success, Attlee began to evince the prevision of ambition. Before joining the Simon Commission he demanded an undertaking from MacDonald that this would not preclude him from a government post immediately on Labour’s return to office (characteristically, MacDonald did not observe the undertaking, nor even offer any explanation). But, far more important, he had dedication to duty as he saw it, a passion for seeing practical tasks carried out, and a boundless capacity for hard work. If he did not impress as an orator, at least he did not unload endless sentences of specious waffle: in fact, from the earliest years he steadily built up a reputation as a man who knew what he was talking about, and could put over what he was talking about with precision and clarity. He was clearly the most effective chairman among all prime ministers this century: he prepared himself thoroughly in advance, and he kept his colleagues to the point.

No use, of course, being the most hardworking individual and the most perfect chairman if you have no ideas and principles to implement. Which takes us to the heart of an important historiographical controversy. Many years ago, Ralph Milliband, from the far left, suggested in Parliamentary Socialism that the Labour Party never really had been socialist; much more recently, Ben Pimlott, in Labour and the Left in the 1930s, has argued that attacks on Labour for abandoning its socialism are misplaced, since the original and basic purpose of the Party was simply to get working men into Parliament. In essence, Pimlott is right. Yet throughout the history of the Labour Party, at all levels, organisers, orators, mayors, Members of Parliament spoke passionately of their faith in socialism. Tom Forrester, in his The Labour Party and the Working Class, has suggested that it is mainly a matter of fashion: regularly used by Attlee, ‘socialism’ was avoided like the plague by Wilson, which did not necessarily mean that the political philosophies of the two men were very different. Others have contrasted the ‘utopian’ socialism of Attlee and his generation, whose inadequacies, it is said, were fully revealed when the massive nationalisation programme of Attlee’s own government failed to change the disposition of power within British society, with‘scientific’ or ‘class-war’ socialism – it is, one may note in passing, the crass arrogance of the first of these labels, rather than the historical naivety of the second, which condemns the militant Left of today to the dustbin of politics. Clement Attlee, at any rate, converted in the 1900s to what he boldly and confidently called ‘socialism’ because he unequivocally attributed the squalor, sweating and child labour which he saw round him in the East End to a capitalist system in which bosses concerned themselves only with profits – and he genuinely preferred the company of working men to that of well-heeled do-gooders and affluent Fabians. He was also a patriot and an individualist; at the insistence of the well-bred wife whom he deeply loved, he set up a home well outside of his East End constituency, all the more bourgeois for being run on lines of virtuous austerity. Till his death, Attlee supported Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution with its commitment to common ownership. Near the end he wrote: ‘I hope young people realise that we have only gone a few steps towards the kind of society of which we Socialists dream.’ In a radio broadcast in the Thirties, referring to the rise of Hitlerism he had said:

The Labour Party owes its inspiration not to some economic doctrine or to some theory of class domination. It has always based its propaganda on ethical principles. We believe that every individual should be afforded the fullest opportunity for developing his or her personality. The founder of our Party, Keir Hardie, always made his appeal on moral grounds. He believed that the evils of our society were due to the failure to put into practice the principles of the brotherhood of man.

In the last year of the Second World War he recognised that

whether the post-war government is Conservative or Labour it will inevitably have to work in a mixed economy. If it is a Labour government it will be a mixed economy developing towards socialism. If a Conservative government it will be an economy seeking to retain as much as possible of private enterprise. But both governments will have to work with the world and the country as it exists.

A Laodicean socialism perhaps, but we misunderstand an essential feature of the history of the Labour Party if we do not understand how real, as a cultural phenomenon, socialism was to most adherents – even if the word meant little more than the principles of the brotherhood of man as achievable through nationalisation and social welfare.

These are issues not gone into deeply in this biography which is ‘written for the general reader more than for the scholar’. Kenneth Harris reminds me of a big bumbling schoolboy, always eager to please and disarmingly sure that he always does please. (Permit me to repeat my mot at a colloque in Paris on the British Welfare State. Harris: ‘I’m surprised that Arthur disagrees with me.’ Marwick: ‘But, Kenneth, you’re always surprised when anyone disagrees with you.’) Parts of his book read like painstaking answers to a traditional exam paper. There is always that judicious sense of balance beloved of the English Establishment: Attlee was sincere in his early socialism, but lucky to have his father’s cash; his legislation was ‘controversial’ but still a great achievement; he was right on India, but disastrously wrong on Palestine; his reputation suffered in the Fifties, but he soldiered on out of a sense of duty. The Thatcherlike meanness in the citation of precise references is often irritating; and there are places where the general reader might have been helped if the historical background had been established in a more systematic and scholarly way. But these are carping criticisms: this biography has been much needed, and eagerly awaited; it will surely provide invaluable material for those who agonise over the present plight of the Labour Party and its recurring problems of leadership.

Attlee has often been blamed for the tribulations of the Labour Party after the fall from office in 1951. But the fact that no absolutely clear successor emerged, a pointer in itself to Attlee’s own unique qualities, was scarcely Attlee’s fault. It was he, after all, who had first enabled Nye Bevan to display his considerable constructive talents by making him – the surprise choice of the day – Minister of Health in 1945. The well-known quotation may not be strictly authentic, but it undoubtedly expressed Attlee’s views: ‘Nye had the leadership on a plate. I always wanted him to have it. But, you know, he wants to be two things simultaneously, a rebel and an official leader, and you can’t be both.’ Since then, the Labour Party has had ups as well as downs. The current catastrophic slide is of quite recent origin; and can no more be blamed solely on poor leadership than the achievements of the third Labour Government can be solely attributed to Attlee’s toughness, tenacity, clarity and good chairmanship. Attlee, like Foot, achieved the leadership through a fortuitous concatenation of random circumstances. But the Labour Party of Attlee’s time, despite all the conspiracies and crises, had the sense to hold on to a good leader once they had got one. The Labour Party of today does not have the sense or the will to get rid of an inadequate one. But then the Labour Party, which aims to change society, has never been much good at changing its own leadership.

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