Clement Attlee

Labour's victory in this year's general election inevitably brought about comparisons with the similar 'landslide' of 1945. (The present government won an overall majority of 179 seats, while in 1945 the margin of victory stood at 146. A 10 per cent swing to Labour in 1997 was exceeded by a 12 per cent swing, while Labour's total of 44 per cent of all votes cast compares with almost 48 per cent in 1945. The honours are about even, and the parallels endless.) Yet no one bothered to compare the party's leaders, Tony Blair and Clement Attlee. Two more dissimilar characters, it seemed, would be hard to imagine. Whereas the 1997 result is perceived as a personal victory for Blair, many in 1945 believed that Labour had won in spite of Attlee. Blair is said to have a presidential style of rule, whereas Attlee seemed to have no style at all. Some thought him a nonentity. There was even a last-minute move to replace him as leader, before he could be appointed prime minister, by a bigger, more charismatic personality.

Contemporaries delighted in criticising Attlee and in making jokes at his expense. Nye Bevan dubbed him 'a desiccated calculating machine'. Others compared him to animals, though not any marauding king of the jungle: he was 'a little mouse', 'a poor little rabbit', 'a cowardly cur', 'a black snail' or, as George Orwell put it, 'a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen'. Others called him an insect, and sometimes only a buzz. King George VI decided that the taciturn little man should be called Clam, not Clem, Attlee. But it was Churchill who put it best. Attlee was not only a modest man with plenty to be modest about, but 'a sheep in sheep's clothing'. To others, however, he was simply a hole in the air. The story was told of an empty taxi arriving at 10 Downing Street, out of which stepped Mr Attlee. Historians have also joined the chorus. We are informed that Attlee was 'underwhelming' rather than overwhelming and that he possessed all the charisma of a gerbil. He was a 'real-life Captain Mainwaring' (from TV's Dad's Army). Yet two questions prompt themselves. How could such a one have become Labour leader and then prime minister, and how well did he perform as premier?

The rise to the leadership
There is little doubt that Attlee's election as leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in 1935 was due in part to the luck of there being so few alternatives. In 1931, when the National Government was formed, Labour lost its three biggest names, MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas. The most dominant member of the younger generation of MPs, Sir Oswald Mosley, had left the previous year. Yet if these defections depleted the leadership of the party, the 1931 general election saw a positive massacre. The PLP was reduced to a mere rump of an opposition, with only 46 seats. Even the new leader, Arthur Henderson, was defeated. (Labour's electoral successes of 1945 and 1997 seem puny compared with the National Government's victory in October 1931, with 67 per cent of the votes and a massive 90 per cent of the seats.) Crucially, Attlee hung on to his Limehouse seat by a mere 551 votes.

Attlee was one of only three surviving Labour MPs - along with George Lansbury and Stafford Cripps - with any ministerial experience, having held minor posts in the first two Labour governments. While the 72-year old George Lansbury took over as leader, Attlee became his deputy. He became acting leader in December 1933 when Lansbury broke a hip. Cripps might have stepped into the breach but did not want to disrupt his thriving legal career for the sake of a leadership lasting no more than a few months. Yet in fact Lansbury was out of action for eight months, far longer than expected, enabling Attlee to gain valuable experience. Then in 1935, when Lansbury and Cripps both resigned rather than support League of Nations sanctions against Italy, Attlee was the obvious choice as caretaker leader when Baldwin called a snap election.

Labour did about as well as could be expected in 1935. The National Government was returned with a reduced, but still massive, majority of almost 250 seats. Labour's strength stood at just over 150 MPs, and it was this group which had the job of choosing a new leader. Arthur Greenwood stood against Attlee but had a reputation as a heavy drinker: Hugh Dalton wrote in his diary that he was 'rarely sober' and even Winston Churchill, well known for his own intake, told jokes about his inebriation. The other candidate was Herbert Morrison, a former minister of transport and the man who had led Labour to victory in the London County Council election of 1934. He was in many ways a formidable candidate. Yet Morrison never made it clear whether, if elected, he would resign as leader of the LCC. He was also considered by some to be too nakedly ambitious. More significantly, Morrison had an implacable enemy in Ernest Bevin, the trade union boss who, though not an MP himself, wielded immense influence in the party. Bevin had no great respect for Attlee but thought him preferable to Morrison. When Greenwood dropped out after the first ballot, his supporters - marshalled by Bevin - switched to Attlee.

This was hardly a conclusive victory, and there were several plots to unseat Attlee over the next years, especially in 1939 when Bevin was often heard to complain that 'The Party's got no leadership'. But who should replace him? Bevin would still not countenance Morrison, while Morrison's supporters would not accept Greenwood. In the summer of 1939, when a plot began in earnest, Attlee was in hospital and so won a certain amount of sympathy. The best bet for the anti-Attlee brigade was that Labour would lose a second general election under his leadership. Could he sustain another general election defeat, in 1939 or 1940, and still remain leader of the party? Probably not. But at this point war against Germany began and normal party politics were suspended for five years. In May 1940 Attlee entered Churchill's war cabinet. He did so not because of any personal achievements, but simply because he was Labour's leader. Events had undoubtedly been kind to him; and, equally clearly, he still had a reputation to make.

Attlee's abilities
Attlee was so dull, quiet and unimpressive that he was often seemed to disappear altogether. He was in fact an extremely shy man. It was said that he had to screw himself up to say 'Good Morning', and certainly he was a poor public speaker, who often visibly shook on the platform. When a junior colleague admitted to feeling nervous before a speech, Attlee said 'Don't worry; I'm always nervous.' Beneath Attlee's mild and diffident surface, there was an even milder and more diffident man struggling to hide himself. As a result he was, in many ways, an outsider in British politics. This is reflected in his choice of career. Before the Great War, as well as writing rather sentimental poetry about the plight of the poor, he was a social worker in London's East End.

Yet in other ways Attlee was quite typical of the upper middle class. The son of a solicitor, he was educated at Haileybury and Oxford; and such early social conditioning undoubtedly made itself felt. In the First World War, where he fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, he was a very successful officer, rising to the rank of Major. His lack of social self-confidence should not be confused with any lack of intellectual self-confidence. There was even a streak of arrogance in him. Beneath the meek and mild outer crust, there was a dominant and assertive Clement Attlee struggling to get out. Certainly he took it for granted that people like himself constituted the natural rulers of Britain. He also worked extremely hard and was undoubtedly ambitious, even though few realised it. His self-effacement meant that he was often overlooked by his seemingly more able, and certainly more flamboyantly ambitious, colleagues. Attlee was a man fatally easy to underestimate.

There was probably a measure of calculation in Attlee's persona as the humble servant of his party. Certainly he was at pains to emphasise, again and again, that he was the complete opposite of the charismatic Ramsay MacDonald, who became a hate-figure in Labour ranks after the 1931 electoral debacle. Attlee insisted that he would always toe the party line. In his book The Labour Party in Perspective (1937) he insisted that he was not prepared 'to arrogate to myself a superiority to the rest of the movement. I am prepared to submit to their will, even if I disagree. ... I shall fall into line, for I have great faith in the wisdom of the rank and file.' There was a beguiling - but potentially misleading - modesty here. He paraded the virtue of humility until it became a political weapon. The result was that it was impossible to isolate him on any issue. It was Dalton and Bevin who spearheaded the call for Labour to accept rearmament in 1935-37: Attlee nimbly stepped into line only when a majority supported their views. As a result, he was an invisible target to his enemies. It requires superhuman skill to chop off the head of someone who so meekly but resolutely refuses to stick his neck out.

Attlee's War
Attlee undoubtedly had a good war. His impact was felt almost immediately when, towards the end of May 1940, he opposed the possibility of a compromise peace, championed by Chamberlain and Halifax, and threw his weight behind Churchill's call to fight on. In many ways he was the linchpin keeping the coalition together. To the cabinet he pressed Labour policies, sometimes to the disgust of right-wing colleagues; and to the Labour party he put the coalition point of view, earning the ire of left-wingers like Nye Bevan and Harold Laski. Conservatives thought he was too socialist, and socialists thought he was too conservative; but the result of his mediation was constructive compromise. Certainly Bevin approved: henceforth he was Attlee's staunchest supporter. Attlee also managed to take Labour into and, five years later, out of the coalition without splitting or even splintering the party. He considered this his greatest achievement.

The only member of the coalition, besides Churchill, to serve in the war cabinet from beginning to end, Attlee was concerned with the full range of government activity, foreign as well as domestic policy. Often he had to deputise as prime minister when Churchill was out of the country. When he did so, most civil servants and cabinet ministers noticed a definite improvement. Attlee was far better organised than Churchill, and business was despatched much more promptly. Winston insisted on holding meetings at inconvenient times, generally very late at night, where he would treat those assembled to brilliant but interminable monologues. 'All I wanted', he later recalled, 'was compliance with my wishes after reasonable discussion' - and he was prepared to do all the discussing himself. Attlee had to remind him that a monologue was not the same as a cabinet decision. Under Attlee, in sharp contrast, ministers stuck to the agenda, made decisions quickly and left early. In effect, Attlee received the perfect training for the premiership.

Yet whereas Churchill's reputation soared during the war (and is only now returning to earth), Attlee received very little credit. All his work was behind the scenes and he had no talent for courting publicity. Churchill's golden orations, in the words of the American commentator Ed Murrow, 'mobilized the English language and sent it into battle'. Attlee's staccato monosyllables, however, passed unnoticed. No one seemed less heroic. At the height of the battle of Britain, for instance, when the safety of the realm was endangered as never before, he went home after work to read a new book on the poet Coleridge. Whenever possible, he would go to bed early with a Trollope or Jane Austen. The American press dubbed him 'the dullest man in English politics'. Small wonder that it was widely anticipated in Labour ranks that, once the 1945 election had been lost, a new leader would be elected.

Attlee as premier
Unexpected victory in the election cemented Attlee's position. The party could hardly jettison the man who had led them to victory, despite Morrison's last-minute attempt to hold a leadership contest. Yet the following years did see a fair number of behind-the-scenes intrigues, culminating in 1947. Morrison, Dalton, Cripps and Bevan all had ambitions to replace Attlee as prime minister. Perhaps, if the plotters could have agreed on a single replacement, they might have had more success. As it was, they tended to cancel each other out. So was Attlee simply lucky, or were there more substantial reasons for his survival? What successes stand to his credit?

First, it is generally agreed that Attlee picked an able team of ministers. His choice of Nye Bevan as Minister of Health, for instance, was inspired. Few thought that the inexperienced, fiery Welshman would be a success; and since Bevan had branded Attlee during the war as a latter-day MacDonald, betraying the interests of the party, he had good personal reasons for denying him a post. But Attlee was remarkably objective and thick-skinned. It is also widely admitted that he was an excellent chairman of the cabinet, with an enviable ability to silence over-talkative colleagues and to get through an agenda. Attlee knew that, although democracy means government by discussion, it can easily degenerate into discussion without government. It was partly due to his efficiency that the 1945-50 government was able to pass a grand total of 347 Acts of Parliament. In the Commons too, Attlee did well. He was no orator, of course, but he was by now an experienced and accomplished performer. Certainly he often got the better of Churchill. One journalist compared their parliamentary duels to a bullfight: Attlee was the small and nimble toreador 'teasing and infuriating his magnificent opponent with his sudden barbs'. Others decided that Attlee was still an insect, but one capable of delivering a particularly sharp sting.

There is also a consensus among historians that no one but Attlee could have welded his talented but temperamental ministerial colleagues into an effective team. When someone said of Bevan that he was his own worst enemy, Bevin immediately retorted: 'Not while I'm alive he ain't!' Or was it Morrison who made the retort, or did Bevin say it of Morrison or Shinwell of Dalton? In fact, almost any combination is possible, so long as Attlee is omitted. He seemed above the political fray. He had no favourites and indulged in no political back-biting. Hence he was the perfect referee. The cartoonist David Low depicted the diminutive Attlee as a 'Tough Lamb', able to keep his overmighty colleagues in order. Many considered him a man of complete integrity. In 1950 The Observer described him as 'a great headmaster, controlled, efficient, and above all, good'. And who better than Attlee, the model of a respectability that verged on dullness, to head a radical government? With his respect for tradition and his rather sentimental devotion to the monarchy, he embodied the perfect response to the Conservative charge that Labour was irresponsible and revolutionary.

To some extent, Attlee was a consensus politician. To his mind, reforms would only work if they were popular enough. Hence he pragmatically accepted that, despite its imperfections, the constitution of the Labour party could not be altered. He made no attempt to change the commitment to nationalisation, in Clause Four, despite being averse to left-wing dogmas. Similarly he wished to foster policies which would command the long-term assent of the nation, including the Conservative party, which, he realised, would sooner or later be back in government with the power to revoke Labour legislation. Hence he was not afraid of compromises or partial solutions. He was a realist.

Yet Attlee was not just a competent administrator and consensus politician. He could act decisively. It was he who took the lead in the decision to build Britain's own Atomic bomb; and it was he who dominated policy towards India, dismissing Wavell as viceroy, appointing Mountbatten and insisting that there should be a binding withdrawal date. He also had very strong feelings. Certainly he was determined that his government should make a difference and should improve life for the mass of British citizens. Despite enormous economic and financial difficulties, which might have tempted many a prime minister to scrap expensive reforms, Attlee was determined to press on and implement the programme outlined in Labour's 1945 manifesto. Hence he was a conviction politician. He threw his weight behind Bevan's scheme to nationalise all the hospitals, despite objections from Morrison; and in 1947, in the teeth of opposition from Morrison, Dalton and Cripps, he supported the proposal to raise the school-leaving age to 15. As well as being a realist, Attlee was also an idealist. He was indeed one of the most idealistic and realistic of modern political leaders. Power was never an end in itself to him: it had to be used for positive ends. A moralist who believed in plain living and high thinking, Attlee consistently appealed not to human selfishness but to the motive of service.

His faults
Attlee was not the perfect prime minister. He was, for example, extremely bad at public relations, once remarking that he was 'allergic to the press'. Also, he undoubtedly made mistakes. His timing of the elections in 1950 and 1951 was poor. In addition, he was too much the impartial umpire of his cabinet and not enough its captain. Generally his aloofness was a virtue, allowing him to mediate, but at times it was a vice. When a row blew up in 1951 over expenditure cuts between Gaitskell and Bevan, Attlee made no constructive proposals. He knew so little of his colleagues' feelings that he had no inkling that Bevan coveted the position of foreign secretary, assigning him instead to the Ministry of Labour. In short, he had the defects of his virtues.
Attlee proved his critics wrong. Opinion polls showed that by 1950 he was more popular than the party he led. Labour was defeated in 1951, but there was no call for him to resign as leader. No doubt this was partly due to Labour's performance in the election, where they won more votes, though fewer seats, than the Conservatives. (Indeed the defeated Labour party under Attlee in 1951 won a significantly higher proportion of the vote, at almost 49 per cent, than the triumphant party under Blair in 1997!) His continuance as leader also reflected a new appreciation of his abilities. At last the caretaker had been accepted, and he remained leader until he decided to resign and accept an Earldom in 1955.

Despite his frail, unimpressive appearance, Attlee undoubtedly had staying power, stemming to some extent from his enviable ability to switch off and relax. While prime minister he read the whole of Gibbon at Chequers; and he also found Wisden, the cricketer's bible, 'always good for settling the mind'. How his ambitious, and seemingly more able colleague, Hugh Dalton - a martyr at times of stress to painful boils and constipation - must have envied his temperament. But Attlee had other fine qualities as well. He was able to learn from experience, growing in stature almost until the end of his career; he was shrewd; he had a patent sincerity; and he got things done with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of efficiency. He did not strut or fret: he spent his hour on the stage most constructively.

By the end of his career, he had even become a 'personality'. His very lack of colour made him into a character. Once, after a Welsh MP treated the PLP to a lengthy oration of great passion, in which he detailed the gruesome consequences of nuclear war, with the untold horrors that would be reaped by generations yet unborn, Clem removed his pipe and agreed: 'Yes, we must watch it. Next business.' Atlee was often described as ordinary, to put it another way, he was so amazingly ordinary as to be positively extraordinary. There is no doubt that he has a unique niche in our history. Perhaps he was not the greatest British prime minister, but he was certainly one of the best this century. And undoubtedly he was the most constructive and impressive Labour prime minister - so far.

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee Portrait
by William Golant
Further Reading
Clem Attlee
by Francis Beckett

Clement Attlee: A Political Biography
by Trevor Burridge

by Kenneth Harris

Prime Minister Box Set: Attlee (20th Century PM)
by David Howell

Attlee's Labour Governments 1945-51 (Lancaster Pamphlets)
by Robert Pearce

Attlee: A Life in Politics
by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds

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