British history is very English: written mainly by the English and about England. But Trevor Burridge is a Welshman by birth and a citizen of Canada. He teaches at the French-speaking University of Montreal. One might expect, therefore, that he would bring to English history an outsider’s sense of disbelief, or the cheeky irreverence of an iconoclast. But not so: he is hooked on Clement Attlee.
Burridge first became interested in Attlee while researching a book on the Labour Party and the Second World War. Suspecting that Attlee had been underrated, he embarked on a biography. The more he discovered of that enigmatic character, the more favourable the opinion he formed of him. The thesis running through his book is that Attlee was a great and good influence in the affairs both of his party and of his country. He possessed, writes Burridge, ‘many of the finer English virtues – genuine modesty, social consciousness, personal responsibility, a profoundly pragmatic and practical mind that owed much of its strength to a suppressed romanticism, and a keen, if dry sense of humour’.
Though conceived and written on the other side of the Atlantic, Burridge’s interpretation chimes happily with the conventional wisdom in this country. In recent years Attlee’s reputation in Britain has risen from near rock bottom to dizzy heights. As leader of the Labour Party for twenty years, Churchill’s deputy during the Second World War, and Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, Attlee had many claims to fame. But in his lifetime he was written off by the Westminster mafia of politicians and journalists as a mediocrity: a decent little man who got to the top by accident and stayed there because the Labour Party was governed by the laws of inertia. The Labour Party, it was said, would have put up with a chimpanzee as leader, provided he accepted the decisions of the National Executive.
Once he was dead, in 1967, Attlee began to be missed and appreciated. As the Labour Party ran slowly downhill under Wilson, Callaghan and Foot, Attlee shuffled uphill to join the immortals. Comparisons between past and present told heavily in Attlee’s favour, and the golden age of 1945 took its place in Labour mythology. Both Left and Right of the Party looked back to 1945 and claimed to inherit its legacy. But the homage paid to Attlee in person derived mainly from the reformist wing of the Party. Attlee was built up as the embodiment of mainstream tradition: a champion of Nato and the welfare state. The notion that Attlee represented a good old Labour Party, long since wrecked by loonies, was taken up with glee by Social Democrats and Tories. All the safe radicals – people strongly in favour of the reforms of yesteryear – gathered to pay their respects at the graveside of Major Attlee. What a fine old Edwardian he was! How moving the plight of the poor in those marvellous old sepia photos!
A second factor which enhanced Attlee’s standing was historical research. Scholars, too, were affected by nostalgia, but there was more to it than that. As the public records were opened, Attlee’s secret administrative life was revealed. To British historians there is nothing more exciting than the discovery of a new committee. And as the files proved, Attlee had taken the chair at numerous ministerial committees of which little or nothing had previously been known. The time was obviously ripe for a new Attlee to be placed before the public.
Attlee was officially recognised as a great man with the publication of Kenneth Harris’s biography in 1982. Harris enlarged Attlee’s stature in two different respects. It had always been suspected that Attlee, though something of a dark horse, was a wholly sane and balanced human being of absolute moral integrity. Harris confirmed this, and brought to life the private, family man in all his upright, suburban glory. Other politicians were disfigured by egotism and unsavoury appetites: but Attlee was a true public servant, indifferent to money and fame. Against the backcloth of the 1980s his lonely moral stature was more impressive than ever.
Harris also staked out large claims for Attlee as a great man in the more orthodox sense: as a dominating personality who stamped his influence on lesser mortals. In Attlee’s case, it had to be admitted that his influence was unobtrusive and exercised mainly as a chairman of committees behind the scenes. No matter: Attlee was a master of consensus politics and briskly decisive in the making of policy. Better still, he was a tower of strength in a crisis, as when he appointed Mountbatten Viceroy of India with instructions to transfer power within eighteen months.
Burridge’s technique is different from Harris’s. Subtitling his book ‘A Political Biography’, he leaves out Attlee’s private life after the formative years of childhood, Haileybury and Oxford. Whereas Harris wrote mainly for that legendary beast, the general reader, Burridge’s treatment is more academic, with Attlee’s career planted firmly in the context of the most recent scholarly research, and the sources footnoted to excess.
The highlight of the book is the discussion of Attlee’s contribution to defence and foreign policy. Perhaps there are Canadian insights here. At any rate, Burridge shows how Attlee struggled to reconcile national and international purposes, and the requirements of defence with the cause of world peace. When he took over the leadership of the Labour Party in 1935, its mood was pacifist. But Attlee, the old soldier of Gallipoli, was careful to stress the military implications of collective security. Churchill, it is interesting to discover, picked up Attlee’s meaning at once and began very discreetly to put out feelers towards the leader of the Opposition. But Churchill believed ruggedly in the national interest and the balance of power: Attlee regarded them as temporary expedients which might be forced on governments but were no guarantee of peace and stability.
After the war Attlee took the very secret decision to manufacture a British atom bomb, and gave wholehearted support to Bevin in the setting up of Nato. But as Burridge emphasises, Attlee believed that the Cold War would ultimately lead to Armageddon. He devoted the years of retirement to a campaign for world government. This is an aspect of Attlee never recalled by Cold Warriors who celebrate his patriotism. As Burridge remarks in another context, ‘Attlee’s instincts were always left of Centre.’
More than a series of essays but less than a full biography, this is a thoroughly researched and carefully pondered book. But it covers much ground already familiar, and seems to me too loyal to its subject. Burridge maintains that Attlee was a thoroughly effective leader of his party and an outstanding prime minister. Having reacted against Ramsay Mac-Donald, the argument runs, Labour stood in need of a personality who would put party above self, and Attlee fitted the bill. Yet in his quiet fashion he was skilful in managing the Party and holding it together. Hence Labour’s victory in the General Election of 1945, and the historic achievements of postwar reconstruction, were in large measure due to Attlee. We might even discern, our author claims, ‘some heroic elements in the man and his career’.
In assessing Attlee a distinction has to be drawn between his decency as a person and his effectiveness as a politician. Clem was everybody’s ideal neighbour, or colleague at work. We would all bless his name as the headmaster of the local comprehensive. He loved cricket and admired the Church of England in a way that only an agnostic can. But there is a great gulf between the qualities appropriate to a life of provincial virtue and the demands of politics at the highest level. I have still to be convinced that Attlee succeeded in mastering the roles thrust upon him.
Dr Burridge acknowledges that Attlee owed something to luck but much more could be said along these lines. The only reason he led the Party for twenty years was that a remarkable sequence of accidents played into his hands. He happened to become leader just at the point where the trade unions were imposing, through the block vote, a sense of unity and purpose on the Party. But for the war, he would have lost a general election and found his head on the block. Instead, his position as leader of the Labour Party gave him a ticket to ride on Churchill’s coat-tails in the wartime coalition, and the power of patronage over ambitious rivals. There is some evidence to suggest that he was weak and indecisive in wartime committees, but once more fate was on his side. In 1945 an electoral landslide carried him like a cork on a wave into 10 Downing Street.
Attlee grew into a more substantial figure as prime minister, but his achievements can easily be overdone. As before, he relied upon the efforts of colleagues of greater drive and constructive ability than himself: Bevin ran foreign policy, Morrison the nationalisation of industry, Bevan the National Health Service, and so on. In economic affairs he was out of his depth and had to be rescued by Cripps. He should never have allowed the conflict between Bevan and Gaitskell to reach a point where Bevan resigned. By calling two general elections at the wrong time he inflicted first a substantial reverse and then outright defeat on his party. But for Attlee, Labour might have run the country throughout the 1950s.
Attlee can be criticised for some of the actions he took, but his limitations were still more apparent in the actions he did not take. As Churchill had shown, and Lloyd George before him, 10 Downing Street could serve as the headquarters of a revolution in government. 1945 was meant to be the start of a great and lasting experiment in social and economic affairs. It was a moment when a prime minister of the calibre of Dalton or Cripps would have seized the initiative to ensure that the programme worked and the message was put across to the electorate. But Attlee had no initiatives of his own to propose in social and economic policy and did not seek out the company of people with ideas. He did not look for new managerial talent to run the nationalised industries. He did not recruit new brooms into the higher ranks of the Civil Service. He did not inquire into the state of education, science or the arts: cultural change was not in the manifesto. To Attlee social reform was all legislation. He did not grasp that Labour had to mobilise a movement of opinion, or appeal to the enthusiasm of a younger generation. He did not look ahead to the next stage of the ‘social revolution’ but left the party managers to come up with an inexpressibly dreary programme for a second Labour government. He took the least possible interest in the press or publicity. He ran 10 Downing Street in sedentary, Asquithian style when the spirit of Lord George was urgently required.
Among those who generally took a sceptical view of Attlee was Hugh Dalton. A bully, intriguer and relentless self-publicist, Dalton had all the qualities Attlee lacked. Fame and notoriety buzzed around his head, and his claims to gravitas were undermined by a strong whiff of levity and a hint of something very slightly obscene. His eyes had a roguish glint and his shiny bald head was reminiscent of some of the more sinister waxworks at Madame Tussaud’s. Though Dalton subsequently wrote three volumes of memoirs to prove how important he was, they, too, were slightly repulsive in effect. It has taken a long time to reach a true appreciation of the passionate, neurotic and formidable creature inside the shell. That we are now in possession of the real Dr Dalton is due entirely to the labours of Ben Pimlott, whose superlative biography was published last year.
Dalton was a compulsive diarist who started a journal in 1916 and carried on until 1960. Dr Pimlott has been editing it in two volumes, the first of which is devoted entirely to Dalton’s experience as a minister in the Second World War. As the editor explains, this is much the fullest section of the diary and is, besides, the only diary of the war in Whitehall by a senior Labour politician. Dalton held two wartime posts. In 1940 Churchill appointed him Minister of Economic Warfare, in charge of prosecuting the blockade of Nazi Germany. Dalton relished the opportunity of ‘body-line bowling at the Hun’ but the expectation that economic warfare would bring Germany to its knees proved false. In the summer of 1940 Dalton added a second string to his bow. He obtained control of the newly formed Special Operations Executive, a cloak-and-dagger outfit whose existence was concealed from Parliament. The aim of SOE was to organise sabotage and revolt in occupied Europe, with the help of ‘black’ propaganda. Momentarily, perhaps, Dalton saw himself as another Lenin, lighting the touchpaper of an international socialist revolution. But again the results were disappointing. Instead of setting Europe ablaze, Dalton ended up fighting an epic Whitehall battle against the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Information for the control of propaganda. He lost, and was moved in 1942 to the Board of Trade.
When Dalton first took over, the Board of Trade was responsible for the coal industry, a black spot of the war economy. Dalton’s attempt to introduce coal rationing led to a major Tory revolt and nearly cost him his job. The row illustrated the fact that in home affairs party politics were never far below the surface. Dalton became immersed in party political strategy, linking it wherever possible to the post-war thinking of Whitehall economists. Was he shuffling Party cards into the Civil Service pack, or Whitehall aces up the Party’s sleeve for the approaching general election? It was hard to judge, but convinced as he was that Labour would lose a general election against Churchill he was eager to prolong the life of the coalition into the postwar period.
Unlike Harold Nicolson, whom he thought ‘wetter than the wettest sponge’, Dalton had no interest in the diary as a literary form. Nor, though his marriage was on the rocks, did he intend to confide his most private emotions. His diary was a detailed record, dictated at regular intervals, of ministerial and party politics. As Pimlott observes, it served a number of purposes. It was an aide-memoire for a busy minister, and a self-conscious documentation of history in the making. But it also had a therapeutic function. Dalton was an aggressive and over-anxious personality, driven by an unlovely mix of rage, fear, jealousy and contempt. To some extent his diaries were a psychological release. In them, he could be as rude as he liked about his fellow men.
He was rudest of all about Labour politicians he thought feeble or inadequate. David Grenfell, the minister in charge of the coal industry, was ‘a second-rate, slow-witted sheepshead’. Thomas Kennedy, a veteran Labour MP, was ‘only a walking corpse, with a faint residue of mental trouble’. The Labour peer Lord Faringdon was ‘a pansy pacifist of whose private tendencies it might be slander to speak freely’.
So much for personal spite. On a broader view Dalton’s fears and frustrations mirrored the tensions and conflicts within the Churchill coalition. Herein lies the main value of the diaries. For the personality and policies of Dalton himself there is no need to look further than Pimlott’s biography. But his diaries resemble Crossman’s as a record from the inside of the workings of government. It is amusing to find Crossman himself boswellised in these pages, as in May 1944: ‘Crossman says that he quite understands why so many civil servants, permanent and temporary, despise ministers and are always trying to do things which they think ought to be done, without letting ministers mow, for fear that they might try to stop them.’ Dalton was a good listener and carefully reported what people said. Though kept at arm’s length by Churchill, he saw quite a bit of the Prime Minister in action at Cabinet or ministerial meetings, and adds to the stockpile of Churchilliana. After the Yalta conference in 1945 Churchill told ministers he was sure that as long as Stalin lasted, Anglo-Russian friendship could be maintained. ‘Poor Neville Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler,’ Churchill remarked. ‘He was wrong. But I don’t think I’m wrong about Stalin.’
Apart from Hitler, Churchill was the one unifying force holding the government together. At the lower levels of the administration, as Dalton noted in 1942, ‘we are all fighting each other instead of the enemy.’ There were many strands of conflict. Departments battled for control of administrative empires. The parties jostled for position. Churchill’s private entourage of irregulars fought a series of guerrilla campaigns against other ministers. Bracken and Beaverbrook, the eccentric champions of capitalism, hatched many a plot against Dalton, the socialist planner.
Last but not least was a strand of tension within the Civil Service itself. In wartime the regular Civil Service was supplemented by the appointment of temporaries from outside. SOE, for some obscure reason, was staffed mainly by merchant bankers. Businessmen were roped into ministries dealing with production and supply. Dalton himself, with an eye to party politics, recruited able young socialists like Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay. The diaries reveal the many points of conflict between the career Civil Service and the outsiders. There were quarrels about honours: were the temporaries entitled to them? And there were differences over policy. One of Dalton’s pet ideas at the Board of Trade was to put London out of bounds to new factories, an instalment of his general policy for the location of industry. But his permanent officials were aghast: ‘They think this would kill all sorts of promising new enterprises as well as being politically impossible. I must rely on my intrepid Temporaries to binge up these Palsied Permanents!’
Hereby hangs a tale. Clearly the war shook up party politics and gave the Labour Party its famous victory in 1945. But Whitehall, too, was shaken up: a civil servants’ revolution preceded Attlee’s drive to the Palace, and the keys to Labour’s kingdom were waiting for him on his return. If there is to be another administration as radical as that of 1945, Whitehall will need an infusion of new blood as great as that of the war years.
We may have to wait a while yet for the day of liberation. And as we sit upon the ground rattling our Thatcherite chains, there is always a risk of despondency. Fortunately, a cure for the blues is now to hand. Michael Foot’s collection of biographical essays is a joy to read. From Heinrich Heine to George Orwell, from William Lovett to Jennie Lee, Foot ranges from the prophets of the 19th century to the politicians of his own day. The enemies of promise are routed, the friends of liberty vindicated, and all with a sparkle and wit that none but A.J.P. Taylor can match. In Michael Foot’s world the light of the romantic revolution still shines, and warm-hearted radicals rise up against tyrants and desiccated calculating machines. So infectious is Foot’s writing that after a few pages one is thoroughly convinced: the warm-hearted radicals are bound to win in the end.
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