The Steady but Unremarkable Clement Attlee

Photograph of President Truman in the Oval Office with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, during Attlee's visit to the United States to discuss the Korean crisis, as Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall look on.

Neither patriotism nor pragmatism necessarily mark one out for greatness.

July-August 2017

John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (London: Riverrun, 2016), 668 pp., $30.00.

CLEMENT ATTLEE was blessed by good fortune. Wounded at Gallipoli, he survived the military disaster while many of his comrades never left the battlefield. When an ailing George Lansbury relinquished the leadership of the Labour Party in 1935, Attlee—virtually alone among Labour’s senior front-benchers to survive the electoral wipeout that the party had suffered four years earlier—was easily elected to replace him. When the British public, haunted by visions of the unemployment and homelessness that characterized the aftermath of the Great War, turned away from Winston Churchill and abandoned the Conservatives in the 1945 election, Attlee, still Labour’s leader despite numerous attempts to unseat him, assumed the prime ministership in the great man’s place. And as a prime minister surrounded by an exceedingly talented group of cabinet colleagues, ranging from the hardline Socialists Stafford Cripps and the rabble-rousing Nye Bevan to Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin on Labour’s right, he was able to overhaul Britain’s social system while replacing its empire with a loose collection of its former colonies and dominions, which was termed the British Commonwealth (now called simply “the Commonwealth”). In Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee, John Bew, an acclaimed historian and professor at King’s College London, has produced a biography that would have readers believe that Attlee’s career was more a product of his talent than of good luck. He argues that patriotism and pragmatism, rather than ideology, motivated Attlee throughout his professional life, and led to his success. Neither patriotism nor pragmatism necessarily mark one out for greatness, however, and they certainly did not in Attlee’s case.

Bew’s biography represents his attempt to demonstrate that Attlee was Britain’s “first-ranked citizen.” He does not go so far as to assert that Attlee outranks Churchill in the annals of Britain’s prime ministers. Indeed, Bew acknowledges that such a claim would have “caused Attlee himself to guffaw.” Roy Jenkins, a leading Labour politician and political historian of the first rank, who had previously written biographies of Gladstone and Baldwin, as well as of Attlee, whom he knew as a family friend (Jenkins’s father, Arthur, was Attlee’s wartime parliamentary private secretary) concluded his biography of Churchill with the observation:

When I started writing this book, I thought that Gladstone was, by a narrow margin, the greater man. . . . In the course of writing it, I have changed my mind. . . . I now put Churchill . . . as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.

Bew wisely recognized that to compare Attlee to Churchill would have been nothing short of risible.

What Bew might actually mean by “first-ranked citizen” is not entirely clear, however. Perhaps he considers Attlee to have been a greater man than, say, his talented contemporary, David Lloyd George; or perhaps he is comparing Attlee to other residents of 10 Downing Street, such as Sir Robert Walpole, Pitt the Younger or Disraeli. Still, to rank Attlee in their company, much less Gladstone’s, would call for nothing less than a leap of faith.

Bew argues that Attlee has not so much been underestimated as “underappreciated.” To buttress his case, Bew focuses not only on Attlee’s public career, but also on his private intellectual interests, most notably the books he read and the poetry he wrote, though at times that poetry was little more than doggerel. In any event, Bew’s characterization of Attlee as underappreciated is close to the mark: few of his contemporaries lavished him with praise until late in life, most after he had relinquished his leadership of the Labour Party. All the same, like so many biographers who have fallen in love with those whose lives they chronicle, Bew appears to have overestimated the greatness of his subject. His characterization of Attlee ultimately falls short, because his subject was, at bottom, an unremarkable man, both by his own account and by most of those with whom he served or otherwise interacted.

ATTLEE WAS one of eight children, born to an upper-middle-class family that, according to family lore, traced its ancestry almost to the Norman conquest. He pursued an upper-middle-class education: first at Haileybury, an elite public school a notch or two below Eton and Harrow, and then at Oxford, which all three of his brothers had also attended. And like others of his social class, he received a “generous stipend” from his father. He “embraced the university lifestyle—rowing, reading and socialising.” Needless to say, he did not graduate with first-class honors. His passions were history and cricket; the latter tended to be a gentleman’s sport, as opposed to football (what Americans call soccer), both then and now the favored game of those on Britain’s lower economic rungs.