John Bew: Clement Attlee, the quiet radical with hidden strengths

Clement Attlee speaking at the Durham Miners' Gala in 1938.
Clement Attlee speaking at the Durham Miners' Gala in 1938.
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DEPENDING on one’s perspective, Britain has been blessed, or cursed, with an abundance of public school socialists. In one sense, Clement Attlee might be seen as the most successful of them all.

In another, he could not have been more different from the prototype. He did not recoil, or react with disgust, from his background or his schooling. At the Haileybury Club, his mission was to teach the discipline and order instilled in him in the Rifle Corps.

Unlike many public school socialists, he was not repulsed by ‘suburban values’ or the country of his birth. Even as he came to see British imperialism as flawed and wrong-headed, he did not condemn Rudyard Kipling, so much as come to a more mature appreciation of his work. Even as he gave up on Christianity, he was not ashamed to acknowledge that it contained certain ethical principles that guided his conduct.

The Victorian values inculcated in him by Richard and Ellen Attlee, his parents, were the ones which he took with him in his early career as a social worker. Attlee was uneasy about many aspects of British politics and society and felt that much needed to be corrected, improved, and reformed. But at no stage did he repudiate the world from which he came; or try to overcompensate for it by adopting fashionable positions to gain him the approval of ‘Bloomsbury highbrows’, or the dinner party set.

The first thing to understand about Clement Attlee is that, for all his shyness, he was at ease with himself. The second is that he was tolerant of others who did not agree with him, in a way that many public school socialists were not.

It was a combination of these qualities that helped Attlee lead a fractious and often self-destructive political party for over 20 years, to its finest hour in 1945, and beyond. It was a position for which no one thought he was a natural fit, and yet who else could have held it together in this way over more than two decades?

It was through small acts over the course of a long career – more than half a century in the Labour movement – that Attlee’s reputation was built.

A perfect example was the story told by the journalist Frank Owen about Attlee’s dash through the snow to the Cambridge University Union to take on Oswald Mosley in February 1933. A month after Adolf Hitler came to power, the MP for Limehouse thought that those who sought to mimic Hitler ought to be answered.

Attlee’s outstanding quality, Owen reflected many years later, was that none of his qualities were outstanding. He was not a deadly debater, even though he had bested Mosley. His tone was ‘metallic’ and his sentences overly precise. Loquaciousness was not one of his characteristics. With his tinny voice, he did not sound like a great statesman in the mould of Winston Churchill or Ramsay MacDonald.

No legend was attached to him; nor did he have any of the attributes that the public expect from their ‘great men’. He was ‘not discernibly ambitious, egotistic, ruthless, exciting, or even superficially charming’. But he had hidden depths, which shone in times of crisis.

Above all, he had a firm conviction in his own beliefs. These were genuine and therefore unshakeable. To understand Attlee one had to understand that he did not follow the fashion of the moment. He had not converted to socialism on the basis of sudden emotion, or passion, ‘for these are not the springs from which Attlee draws his strength’. Nor had he swallowed Karl Marx’s theory ‘as an intellectual diet, which deranges some folks’ political digestions for years to come.

Even before the leadership election of 1935, there were elements of personal and political fortune in Attlee’s story. From the two major battles he missed on the battlefield in the First World War – having been carried off the front line at Gallipoli with dysentery before the August 1915 offensive at Sari Bair, and then wounded in Mesopotomia in April 1916, the day before many of his good friends were killed at Kut – he was blessed with a certain degree of luck. It seemed strangely appropriate too, that his worst injuries were from friendly fire.

Nonetheless, while history favoured him at various points, his solidity and integrity did indeed turn into massiveness when he was asked take Labour into the wartime coalition in 1940, and in 1945 as the beneficiary of an unprecedented Labour landslide.

It is only when Attlee’s life is seen in the long view that one appreciates just how remarkable the story was. This was a man born into the governing class of the British Empire and expected to serve it, but who instead chose to embed himself in the East End of London to study and alleviate poverty, later confronting communists, anarchists and fascists on the streets. This was a young officer of the Territorial Army who became disgusted at British imperialism but took great pride in fighting for his country in the First World War; who could admire the convictions of his pacifist elder brother, but still tell him that he thought he was badly wrong.

Like many others in the Labour Party, Attlee was a personal loser in the General Strike of 1926, and, given his loyalty to the leader, more personally hurt by the betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald than perhaps anyone else.

To take Attlee as emblematic of the average Briton is to push the case too far. In his later years, when once travelling in a third-class carriage to Westminster, Attlee was stopped by a commuter who asked him ‘if anyone had ever said he looked just Mr Attlee’. ‘Frequently’, came the reply.

On his retirement in 1955, one American journalist reflected on the oft-made comment that he ‘went about his business looking just like the sort of man who would vote for Attlee’.

There were many Britons who looked liked him, shared his shyness, his dislike of pomposity. However, to describe Attlee ‘simply as a self-portrait of the English voter’ is to ‘write him off too cheap’. That he was unthreatening and unexotic did not mean that he was not bold, courageous, and sometimes radical.

■ John Bew is a historian and author of Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee published by riverrrun, price £30.