Darling Clem

Paul Addison

  • Clement Attlee by Trevor Burridge
    Cape, 401 pp, £20.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 224 02318 7
  • The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton 1940-1945 edited by Ben Pimlott
    Cape in association with the London School of Economics, 913 pp, £40.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 224 02065 X
  • Loyalists and Loners by Michael Foot
    Collins, 315 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 00 217583 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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