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.
His personal journey from upper-middle-class norms to committed socialism was similarly tentative. Indeed, its point of departure was militaristic public school loyalty. In October 1905 Attlee and his brother Laurence – out of a sense of duty to their former school – visited the Haileybury Club in working-class Stepney, where local teenage boys were drilled by Old Haileyburians as part of a cadet battalion. He was soon making regular visits to the club, and in the spring of 1906 became a 2nd lieutenant in the 1st Cadet Battalion of the Territorial Army. In 1907 he made a further dramatic step, moving to the East End to live in the club as its resident manager, though he continued to commute to the Bar in top hat and tailcoat. Boys’ clubs of this sort featured prominently in the range of upper-middle-class ‘settlements’ in working-class London at the time. The most famous was Toynbee Hall, whose secretary Attlee would be for a short period in 1909-10. The paternalistic idea behind the settlement movement was that the urban working class would benefit from having university graduates live among them: they would provide uplifting social, moral and aesthetic leadership of the sort provided in traditional village life by the parson and squire. But the problems of poverty Attlee witnessed at the Haileybury Club required, ultimately, more than volunteering and the good deeds of individuals and clubs; he came to the conclusion that state action was needed. Public school-inspired notions of active citizenship and fair play begat socialism.
In 1908 Attlee joined the Independent Labour Party and threw himself into local politics. Yet he still continued – amid his East End commitments – to lead a very privileged life. In 1907 he had travelled to the United States and Canada, and before the Great War there were further trips to France, Belgium and Italy. Despite his ‘eye-rolling’ response to the posturing of leftist intellectuals, he was reading widely in the literature of socialism and in 1912 was appointed to a lectureship in the new Social Service Department of the London School of Economics. Attlee was a member of the intelligentsia he seemingly despised; Bew draws attention to his book The Social Worker (1920) and to his private world as a poet.
In retrospect Attlee’s pragmatic socialism seems to bear affinities to the New Liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a communitarian project pioneered by the 19th-century Balliol philosopher T.H. Green to nurture the potential of individuals by way of a more proactive state – whether at national level or through energetic local government – than the minimalist nightwatchman regime of laissez-faire doctrine. Social liberalism was developed further by the philosophical school of British Hegelians, among whom was Green’s pupil David George Ritchie, the author of The Principles of State Interference (1891). This was not the only pathway to a more collectivist liberalism. Another leading figure in New Liberal circles, L.T. Hobhouse, promoted a social liberalism which he noisily distanced from the Hegelian theory of the strong state. Nevertheless, he argued that Green’s ideas had given rise both to social liberalism and to its ‘twin’, ethical socialism of the Attlee type. While Attlee adamantly denied that his socialism was an advanced variant of New Liberalism, he would cite favourably his senior colleague at the LSE, E.J. Urwick, a former student of Green’s – and, as Bew notes, ‘another alumnus of Toynbee Hall’ – whose book A Philosophy of Social Progress (1912) was a plea to undo the mistakes associated with laissez-faire. Yet Attlee would also go out of his way to attack the optimistic Whig-Liberal interpretation of the Industrial Revolution promoted by G.M. Trevelyan. Bew writes that Attlee ‘entirely rejected the economic system’ he identified with the Liberals, but made ‘sure to stop short of adopting a narrowly Marxist or determinist version of the past’.
Where did Attlee’s socialism come from? Unlikely as it may seem, Bew argues convincingly that it came from America, from the futuristic utopian fiction of Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward (1887). In Bellamy’s novel a resident of late 19th-century Boston is hypnotised and doesn’t wake up until the year 2000. By then the United States has been transformed into an ultra-modern, urban, mechanised socialist commonwealth. In the late 1950s, the English romantic socialist E.P. Thompson lamented that what he saw as the failures of the Attlee administration could be traced to its neglect of the glorious vision presented by the late-Victorian socialist romantic William Morris, implying – mistakenly – that the unideological Attlee had little idea about Morris or his idyll of agrarian Englishness. Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) – also a utopian fiction – was written as a riposte to Bellamy’s Looking Backward. The pragmatic Attlee knew which vision seemed more plausible. Antiquarianism, aesthetics and hankerings after olde worlde quaintness were all very well for middle-class intellectuals; but might not a modern technocratic state be a better guarantor of heat, light and food on the table for all?
The Great War dented neither Attlee’s socialism nor his conventional patriotism. Although as a socialist he detested the idea of war, he thought it his duty to fight. Others on the left found it much less easy to reconcile socialist principles with the demands of a militaristic state. His brother Tom, a fellow member of the ILP, became a conscientious objector and ended up in Wormwood Scrubs. Attlee too paid a high price for his beliefs, though it might have been higher. Chance, as we know, plays a significant part in any political career, but Attlee was tremendously lucky to survive the Great War in the sort of shape that would allow him to follow a political vocation. A bout of dysentery during the Gallipoli campaign saw him invalided from the action at a crucial moment; he suffered shrapnel wounds at the battle for Kut in Mesopotamia; and he was hit by falling timber near Lille on the Western Front.
Attlee was one of the humble water-carriers of postwar Labour politics, and seemed destined by ability and character to rise only so far in national politics. In local government he was a significant presence, and in 1919 became mayor of Stepney. But after his election as MP for Limehouse in the autumn of 1922, he seemed no more than an efficient and conscientious striver, the loyal adjutant to Labour’s generals. In January that year, in the week of his 39th birthday, he married Violet Millar, whom he had met the previous year on holiday in Italy. Domestic contentment followed years of shy loneliness, captured in the yearnings of his poetry: ‘My lamp is burning but in vain, in vain.’ This new partnership did not effect an alchemy in his personality, which remained subdued and uncharismatic, with no hint of leadership potential. He became parliamentary private secretary to the party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and slowly ascended the rungs of minor ministerial office, becoming postmaster-general in March 1931.
What transformed Attlee’s career was the financial crisis of 1931 and the estrangement of the fiscally orthodox MacDonald and his chancellor, Philip Snowden, from the rest of the party. Significantly, while other Labour ministers were wooed by MacDonald, he made no attempt to win over Attlee. In the 1931 general election, the National Government (including MacDonald, Snowden and a few acolytes) took 554 seats out of 615. The Labour Party, which had 288 seats before the election, was reduced to a sad rump of 46 MPs. However dismal the political future appears in the Corbyn era to those who would like to see Labour in government, things were much worse in 1931. This was an electoral calamity beside which another low moment in Labour’s history – the election of 1983, when Michael Foot’s Labour Party was reduced to 209 seats – seems a minor triumph. The electoral massacre of 1931 was the making of Attlee. In the cull of Labour’s big beasts, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Henderson and Herbert Morrison all failed to win seats, but Attlee held on in Limehouse by 551 votes. The 72-year-old George Lansbury became leader of the rump party in Parliament, with Attlee as his unthreatening deputy. As early as December 1933 he found himself acting leader, when the recently widowed Lansbury fractured his thigh. Attlee himself wasn’t ambitious. In a moment which anticipated the notorious Granita conversation of 1994 between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, he told Stafford Cripps that ‘any time you wish it I shall always be ready to retire in your favour.’ As Bew remarks, ‘That conversation hung in the air for a number of years.’ For, when the ailing and assailed Lansbury formally stepped down in 1935, he was replaced by Attlee, who was still seen as a ‘stop gap’.
During the Abdication, Attlee remained foursquare behind the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, and – ‘glacially constitutional’ – refused to make political capital out of the affair. This was a foretaste of his reaction to the international crisis of the late 1930s. He had no intention of flirting with notions of a Popular Front. Rather than seeing the rise of the dictators as a conflict between left and right, he presented it as a threat to Western values more broadly. This reputation for ‘steady patriotism’ meant that when Neville Chamberlain’s position became untenable, Attlee was comfortably able to bring Labour into a new national coalition under Churchill.
His conscience was untroubled by some of the drastic measures that the struggle with Germany invited. The bombing of Germany he regarded as both strategically necessary and morally justifiable. Moreover, the stockpiling of poison gas for use in the event of a German invasion was his personal responsibility. Nor was he a quietly sceptical deputy to Churchill; rather he seems to have had a firm faith – not universally shared in the higher ranks of the administration and armed forces – in Churchill’s capacities as a strategist. Bew contends that ‘taking Labour into government at Britain’s darkest hour’ was Attlee’s ‘proudest act’.
Bizarrely, perhaps, his premiership comes as something of an anticlimax to the reader. Bew proceeds through the postwar Labour administration in a cursory – crisply Attlee-esque – fashion. He canters past the familiar landmarks – the nationalisation of public utilities, the development of social security and the creation of the National Health Service – but his primary interests seem, reasonably enough in a biographer, to lie elsewhere, in Attlee’s ideas, in his elusive personality and in questions of strategy. Just as New Labour’s attempts at redistributive welfare policies co-existed with intervention in Iraq, so Attlee’s unquestioned achievements on the domestic front in the late 1940s were part of a broader package, which included plans for the development of a British atomic bomb, an issue on which – with an uncharacteristic guile – he circumvented full cabinet discussion.
Attlee’s personality remains difficult for the reader to parse. A shy man, he was clearly effective at chairing meetings and at the unrewarding, time-consuming work of reconciling feuding colleagues. His costiveness belongs to a pre-touchy-feely world, but even then his manner stood out for its chilly brusqueness. While one admires his quick dispatch of a BBC interviewer, whose 28 questions to the former prime minister were answered in a mere five minutes, there comes a point when a clipped style turns into a form of deliberate obtuseness. Attlee was decidedly curt with junior ministers as prime minister, and Bew describes his normal conversational manner as like ‘the slamming of a railway carriage door’. Of course, habits of military briskness became ingrained in the cadet corps and service during the Great War. In addition, as an unlikely arrival at the top of the Labour Party, Attlee, for long a permanently contingent leader among noisily ambitious and more glamorous colleagues, knew the value of inscrutable silence. Bew deftly captures the many sides of a supposedly limited personality.
In our current crisis, which is much worse than Suez in 1956, the mind drifts back to 1940, and Attlee’s role in the formation of a cross-party government. After all, there is still – notionally – a clear Remain majority in the current House of Commons. Much as we complain about our sclerotic constitution, it’s our tribal political parties which are no longer adequate. We are confronted by a set of existential issues – our relations with Europe, the multinational composition of the UK – which awkwardly cut across established modes of partisanship. It’s obvious to the layperson that the moderate centre-left of the Parliamentary Labour Party has more in common with Tory Remainers than either group does with its fellow flat-earth extremists, whether Corbynite or Hard Brexiter. Who is brave enough to break the mould? Where are the Churchills and Attlees of Remain?