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R.W. Johnson

  • Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister by Michael Jago
    Biteback, 390 pp, £25.00, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 84954 683 6

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?

Attlee: Russia.

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.

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