Already a Member
- 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?
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 36 No. 18 · 25 September 2014
It was important to be reminded by R.W. Johnson that Clement Attlee – executive midwife of the National Health Service, Town and Country Planning, as well as the nationalisation of coal, the railways and canals, iron and steel, the Bank of England and civil aviation – should have regarded ‘Indian independence’ as his administration’s ‘greatest achievement’ (LRB, 11 September). That he should say this reminds us of the international preoccupations of administrations now mostly memorialised in domestic terms, but also of significant party-political differences over decolonisation, which notions of postwar bipartisan ‘Butskellism’ have largely obscured. Posterity has sometimes treated decolonisation as an inevitable process largely independent of the tenancy of Downing Street, but it can’t be happenstance that Labour was in office when the landmark postwar decolonisations of India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma took place. Keir Hardie had visited India in 1907, and Ramsay MacDonald in 1910 before publishing The Awakening of India. Attlee served on the Simon Commission on constitutional reform in India (1927-30); MacDonald called the Round Table Conferences on Indian self-government (1930-32); Stafford Cripps was sent there in 1942 to try to secure Indian support for the war effort in return effectively for postwar independence. It’s hard to imagine how the process would have been transacted under the fire-breathing imperialists on the Conservative benches, led by Churchill, who famously remarked, ‘I hate Indians … They are a beastly people,’ and said that Gandhi ‘ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back’. Less speculatively, Churchill’s return to office in 1951 marked the beginning of what David Cannadine has called the Empire Strikes Back phase of British imperial policy, sustained most obviously in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. No colony gained independence (with the exception of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1956) until Suez changed everything, generating Macmillan’s ‘wind of change’ rhetoric and the flurry of decolonisations in Gold Coast/ Ghana and Malaya in 1957. It’s instructive to note that the major parties weren’t always so close in their attitudes to territorial secession.
R.W. Johnson refers to Attlee as ‘a man without any apparent ambition’, as well as to ‘his style’ and the brevity of his speech. All the above is best expressed in a limerick included in a letter that Attlee wrote to his brother Tom in 1956:
Few thought he was even a starter
There were many who thought themselves smarter
But he ended PM
CH and OM
An earl and a knight of the garter.
Vol. 36 No. 20 · 23 October 2014
R.W. Johnson is in error when he says that ‘Truman was personally a Zionist’ (LRB, 11 September). As John Judis demonstrates in his recent book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, Truman was a firm believer in the separation of church and state and personally would have preferred a federated or even bi-national state in what had been British Mandate Palestine. However, he was under enormous pressure from the American Jewish community, including the Zionist Organisation of America and prominent liberals such as Felix Frankfurter, to assent to the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel.