It was worse in 1931

Colin Kidd

  • Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee by John Bew
    Riverrun, 668 pp, £30.00, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78087 989 5

It is hard to imagine Clement Attlee, the most effective champion of ordinary working people in Labour’s history, thriving in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Not only was he a conventional public school product – enormously proud of his Haileybury connection – and an unquestioning British patriot of military mien and experience, he had very limited patience for leftist fads and the highbrows who prattled on about them. At a meeting of Edwardian Fabians attended by George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, Attlee whispered to his brother: ‘Do we have to grow a beard to join this show?’ The confident pre-1914 left, he later reflected, had been too rigid in its scientific approach to social problems and altogether ‘too Webby’.

Socialist eggheads remained a source of exasperation into the late 1930s, by which time Attlee was Labour leader. The Oxford intellectual G.D.H. Cole irritated him as a ‘permanent undergraduate’, who had ‘a new idea every year, irrespective of whether the ordinary man was interested in it or not’. Similarly, Cole’s Oxford colleague A.L. Rowse – then on the left – held views that Attlee found ‘infantile’. Dogged pragmatism, gardening and cricket were more his line; Nye Bevan carped that he brought ‘to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match’. The intellectuals have had their revenge, of course, helping to shape the accepted image of Attlee as small-minded, stolid and pedestrian. Isaiah Berlin bemoaned his ‘minor public school morality’, and his capacity to ‘dehydrate’ any topic. Nevertheless, as a leader of the left, he did possess one curious advantage, which nowadays tends to go unnoticed: he looked the part. A bulbous, bald dome, along with some receding black hair and dark moustache, produced a quirky resemblance to Lenin. Although his biographer John Bew finds the likeness ‘somewhat forced’, he notes that contemporary observers as different in their politics as George Orwell and the Daily Mail made sport with the superficial similarity.

The British Lenin might all too easily have become the David Cameron of his generation, blessed with born-to-the-purple public school assumptions and a casual, unimaginative indifference to the everyday struggles of the masses. Not that there was ever any ‘swank’ about Attlee, but at Oxford between 1901 and 1904 he was by his own admission a Conservative imperialist of a conventional cast, and his studies in modern history didn’t lead him towards socialism or anything like it. He wasn’t on the look out for panaceas, and none occurred to him, other than the notion – simplistic even by undergraduate standards – of rule by ‘ruthless strongmen’. In the autumn of 1904 he followed his father into the law, and began training for the Bar.

Despite these layers of unthinking convention there was, as Bew says, a germ of dissent. It seems that Attlee had left Haileybury already an unobtrusive non-believer; to describe him as an atheist seems somewhat too strong for the recessive character of his quiet disengagement from Christianity. On the other hand, Attlee was keenly aware, from his own family background, of Christianity as an ethical calling, and even as a route to socialism. His oldest brother, Bernard, became a clergyman; his oldest sister, Mary, served as a missionary in South Africa; and his brother Tom, a fervent admirer of William Morris, joined the Christian Social Union and volunteered in a boys’ home in Hoxton founded by F.D. Maurice, the pioneering Christian socialist. A high-minded Christianity governed the choices of Attlee’s siblings, and it touched him too. He recognised the role of Christian moral precepts in the life of the Labour movement, and these informed his social conscience. But Christianity never entered the marrow.

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