There is an old Pathé News clip of Attlee being interviewed on the stump in 1950. He has so little to say that the interviewer, in some desperation, asks, ‘Have you anything to add, prime minister?’ to which Attlee replies: ‘No, I don’t think so.’ The idea of a modern politician turning down such a soundbite opportunity makes one sigh.
Similarly, Michael Jago reproduces part of an interview with Honor Balfour in 1967:
Balfour: What was the greatest achievement of the Labour government?
Attlee: Indian independence.
Balfour: What was the greatest problem you faced?
Balfour: What was the West’s most important operation in the face of that problem?
Attlee: The Berlin airlift.
There you have it – the whole story in six words. There are many other glimpses of the Attlee style: when asked ‘Why, Clem, why?’ by a distraught and sacked cabinet member, Attlee replying: ‘Not up to it’; Attlee telling Harold Laski that ‘a period of silence from you would be welcome’; Earl Attlee travelling to the Lords by third-class rail and Tube; Attlee allowing himself to be canvassed in 1966 by Labour students who didn’t recognise him, just nodding and saying, ‘Already a member’ – and so on. Given that he was fated to preside over six years (1945-51) of stringent austerity, this wondrous economy of style seems appropriate but it’s hardly surprising that his contemporaries often found it difficult to believe that he could be Labour leader, let alone prime minister. Hugh Dalton called him ‘a little mouse’, and Herbert Morrison endlessly intrigued to displace him. As for Attlee himself, he was always extremely modest about his talents. Of the times he was forced to stand in for Churchill during the war he would write: ‘It is no use trying to stretch the bow of Ulysses’ and ‘It is obviously futile to try to put on Saul’s armour,’ the classical allusions of a Victorian gentleman.
Which is just what he was. He had a great deal of nostalgia for Sherlock Holmes’s London, the horsedrawn carriages, the smell of manure in the streets. He loved the monarchy and had a particular attachment to George VI. When he travelled to America he would take Wisden to read on the plane. He carried on reading (only) the Times right throughout the 1940s when it was vitriolically anti-Labour, saying that he found its political opinions so predictable they were ‘restful’ and that anyway the main thing was its cricket coverage. When the First World War broke out he immediately volunteered and, despite the fact that the brother to whom he felt closest was a conscientious objector who had been jailed, repeatedly agitated to be returned to the front since this was the only ‘decent’ thing to do. He was a proud Haileyburian and happily recorded that the Labour front bench had included seven Old Etonians, five from Haileybury, four from Winchester – and so on. ‘The old school tie counted even more in Labour than in Conservative circles,’ John Colville observed.
Despite the book’s title, he was anything but ‘the inevitable prime minister’. It isn’t just a matter of his undoubted conservatism on the matters listed above. After Oxford he had started to train as a lawyer but got distracted by his old school’s boys’ club in Limehouse, to which he gradually devoted all his time, becoming extremely knowledgeable about the social ills of East London. He became a full-time social worker before there were any social workers and this led to his wholehearted conversion to Christian Socialism. He must have seemed a rather odd figure: single into his late thirties, totally devoted to his boys’ club and the obscure municipal affairs of Limehouse, a man without any apparent ambition who might have made a good curate. As if this doesn’t make his career seem accidental enough, one has to add the fact that throughout the war he kept getting sick or wounded on the eve of great battles that decimated his regiment, and rose to the Labour leadership because most of the obvious contenders had lost their seats in the National Government landslide of 1931. Apart from sheer luck, what changed matters was his ascension to the rank of major in the war and the postwar Labour tide that carried him first to mayor of Stepney and then to MP for Limehouse. It just so happened that Haileybury had situated its boys’ club in what was to become one of the safest Labour seats in Britain, thus guaranteeing Attlee’s survival through all later political storms. The first Oxford graduate to become a Labour MP, he must have seemed almost a freak – but he was only the first of many.
I don’t think Jago is right to suggest that Attlee would have defected to the SDP in 1981 had he still been alive. This is to underestimate his lifelong commitment to Labour and to overlook his repeated insistence that Christian decency meant one had to be a socialist. This was a creed he subscribed to in all his speeches and writings in a career stretching over half a century, and his own choice of successor for many years was Aneurin Bevan because he believed Labour was best led from the left. For his generation, the greatest sin of all was ‘MacDonaldism’ – a leader’s betrayal of Labour. It is far more probable that he would have seen the SDP that way. Perhaps the clinching detail is his admiration for Oliver Cromwell: there was no Roundhead quality to the SDP.
One of the oddities of Jago’s book is that it leaves out what was surely Attlee’s most important speech, after Chamberlain, deserted by ninety of his own MPs in May 1940, appealed to Attlee to join him in a national government. Attlee’s reply (‘Prime minister, our party won’t have you and I think I am right in saying that the country won’t have you either’) was what made Churchill prime minister – as fateful an act as any in the 20th century. And since Labour, when it did join Churchill’s national government, had resolved to have nothing to do with further overtures to Hitler, this also put paid to the last desperate moves in that direction by Halifax.
Attlee and Churchill liked one another and worked together perfectly, with Attlee taking charge of the home front. As Jago points out, he managed the difficult job of being loyal both to Churchill and to the Labour Party by being absolutely straight with both, saying that complete unity was necessary while the war lasted but that even in the course of the war Britain was moving towards a more equal society and that once peace came Labour would finish the job. He had to fend off the leadership bids that came from Morrison and Cripps at every opportune moment, something he could always do thanks to the support of Ernest Bevin, although the Labour manifesto of 1945 was very much Attlee’s work. It is striking that, in common with the whole Labour leadership, he was wholly unaware that the war had seen a sea change in public opinion, and expected the Tories to win by eighty seats in 1945. Jago says that ‘the relatively new science of polling obscured … judgment’ but this is quite untrue. From the time polls resumed in 1943 they showed a huge Labour lead, and though it had narrowed considerably by election day, it nevertheless produced an overall Labour majority of 146.
No peacetime British prime minister has ever faced so bleak a prospect as Attlee did then: a bankrupt, half-ruined country, unable to feed itself, hugely in debt, with vast overseas commitments it couldn’t afford. (When Churchill went to make his ‘iron curtain’ speech at Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 he did so on an allowance of £10 a day: no exceptions from that Spartan rule could be made for anyone.) On top of that, Attlee faced a difficult new American president, Harry Truman, who relished his own reputation for straight-talking, tough-dealing and shooting from the hip, a man wholly without Roosevelt’s sentimental attachment to Britain and all too determined to show where the buck stopped.
An initial problem was that in the Quebec Agreement the UK, US and Canada had agreed to share all nuclear information – and, indeed, the US had bound itself not to use atomic weapons without UK consent. Both Truman and the Republicans had other ideas and the result was the 1946 Atomic Energy Act, which forbade the sharing of nuclear information with any other power. Attlee was justifiably annoyed and argued that all Anglo-American relations had to be on the basis of absolute equality. Truman, for his part, saw himself as the lone sheriff facing various bad hombres at high noon and was in no mood to have mere members of his posse make such demands. So Attlee decided that Britain should build its own bomb.
He later inaugurated the British tradition of boasting about the way Britain had voluntarily decided to transform an empire into a commonwealth. As Jago shows, this is hardly a truthful depiction of the way Britain decolonised either India or Palestine. In both cases Britain found itself in a situation in which its own earlier promises had created intractable difficulties. In the case of Palestine Attlee’s position was made more difficult by overwhelming pressure from Truman to allow in large numbers of extra Jewish refugees. Truman was personally a Zionist, having long since been convinced of the cause by a Jewish fellow haberdasher, but he also desperately needed Jewish votes in New York, Illinois and California in order to be re-elected in 1948. (Dewey, as a former governor, took New York, but Truman won the other two – which settled the election.) American policy combined brutal pressure on Attlee, even threatening to cut off Marshall Aid, with anodyne statements about the need for all communities to be happy and consulted. Attlee must often have reflected that once the Balfour Declaration had been made, no happy ending was possible. As the British departed, the whole area erupted into a war which goes on to this day.
India saw something very similar. Here British (and especially Labour) politicians had been completely taken in by Gandhi’s mystical talk about ‘Mother India’ and his repeated insistence that Hindu-Muslim differences did not run deep enough to justify Jinnah’s talk of partition. Nehru echoed Gandhi and, with a Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge background, got on far better with Attlee and Mountbatten. In fact this was all dangerous nationalist claptrap. (I remember being similarly told by Luís Cabral that talk of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde being separate states was just Portuguese propaganda. Yet Guinea and Cape Verde achieved independence as separate countries, which they remain.) It’s quite odd for Labour to be so proud of Indian independence, for it was a botched job. The refusal to listen to Jinnah cost more than a million lives. As the violence erupted Gandhi tried to suggest that this was all due to British divide and rule. There too the conflict throbs on seventy years later.
Attlee visited the US only twice, both times in connection with the bomb. The second occasion, in December 1950, came after Truman had refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Korea and had even suggested that the decision to use them would be made by the battlefield commander. This alarmed the British and the Europeans and Attlee hastened to Washington. Jago doesn’t seem to know what the talks were really about: ‘One may reasonably ask just what Attlee’s priorities were in Washington … discussions of the bomb occupied just one meeting between the leaders and a mere two sentences in the joint communiqué.’
I can shed some light here. The late Philip Williams, when researching his massive biography of Gaitskell, an unparalleled picture of the postwar Labour Party, interviewed Norman Brook, the cabinet secretary who accompanied Attlee to Washington. The visit, Williams told me, was all about the bomb and began disastrously with Attlee sharply reminding Truman of the Quebec Agreement and that British troops too were in Korea, so that on both counts no escalation to the use of nuclear weapons could be considered without the consent of the British government. Truman, in equally direct and terse language, made it clear that the final decision would be his. After quarter of an hour complete deadlock had been reached.
At which point Brook, who had done his homework, ventured that it was not often that one found two Allied leaders together who had served in much the same part of the Western Front in the Great War. Truman, though exempt both by age and as a (then) farmer, had volunteered and fought with distinction in the Meuse-Argonne, rising to captain. He had an enormous regard for fellow volunteers and quickly discovered the salient facts of Major Attlee’s equally meritorious career. Before long both men were at the piano, drinking and singing First World War songs. The evening ended in complete amity. Attlee explained that he just needed an assurance that Truman would not use the bomb without his say-so. Truman happily agreed but both men saw that it would be best to say as little as possible about their agreement since it could be damaging to the alliance if Attlee admitted he had had to restrain the president and damaging to Truman if word reached the Republicans that he had given the Brits veto power over the American bomb. Hence the deliberately opaque communiqué. Brook (later Lord Normanbrook) earned his year’s salary that evening.
It’s hard to account for the way Attlee’s premiership ended. First, the Labour government agreed to a redistribution of seats that was decidedly friendly to the Tories. Then Attlee wanted to hold an election in June 1950 but Cripps, as chancellor, argued that it would be immoral to present a budget just before an election (!). Attlee conceded and despite concerns that the date would hurt Labour’s turnout, held the election in February. The new seat distribution was so skewed that, ridiculously, Labour’s 2.6 per cent lead over the Tories produced an overall majority of just five. Then he scheduled another election for October 1951 in order to fit in with a royal tour to Australasia. When the tour was cancelled owing to the king’s ill-health, he didn’t postpone the election to 1952, which would have been more advantageous. In the event Labour got its biggest vote ever, surpassing the Tories by 230,000 votes, but won 26 fewer seats thanks to the redistribution. Any doctor would have given a verdict of suicide.
Attlee stayed on as leader for another four years partly in an effort to hold the party together despite the Bevan-Gaitskell feud, and partly in order to block Morrison – dull, pompous and boring, a dead hand if ever there was one – from succeeding. In the course of these battles he slowly but certainly lost his regard for Bevan, who wanted to be both the school’s naughty boy and its headmaster. By that stage Attlee had been watching the way Labour politicians disported themselves for nearly fifty years. He seems never to have been tempted by Marxism and always to have found communism offensive; at Potsdam he observed that Stalin had two answers, Yes or No, but you could only take him seriously when he said No. He was never remotely tempted to follow MacDonald into the National Government. He was that slightly boring figure, someone who has decided early on that social democracy is the best bet in a bad world and was not to be swayed from it. He had no patience with crypto-communists like Konni Zilliacus or with people like Bevan, who wanted it both ways. He now seems part of an Ealing Studios Britain – you can imagine him in a film with Richard Wattis – but his virtues shine out in our age of self-indulgence, celebrity and spin. Jago records how, on the way to the Lords in later life, Attlee was accosted by a fellow passenger: ‘Good Lord! Do people ever tell you that you are the spitting image of Clement Attlee?’ ‘Frequently,’ Attlee replied.