Book Review: Clement Attlee
by John Bew
Oxford University Press, 2017
Any 21st century biographer of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee works against at least three muddy slog-obstacles: first, Attlee has already had a first-rate modern biography in Kenneth Harris’ 1982 book Attlee; second, posthumously as during his life, Attlee tends to get lost in the shadows of all the far more charismatic personalities of his own day; and third, Attlee himself was a boring milksop, which tends to be a brake on a 600-page doorstop of a biography. How do you keep your readers interested for such a long haul in the life and deeds of the man Malcolm Muggeridge famously quipped was “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”?
Historian John Bew is a veteran of the long haul biography. His 2012 brick-sized biography of Castlereagh was quietly brilliant and was met with universal critical praise. That universal critical praise has sounded again in reaction to the appearance of this big book in the UK, where it’s titled Citizen Clem. And much like the Castelreagh book, this new study has revisionist aims at its heart: Bew wants to insist that history has underestimated Attlee’s complexity and subtlety. The book very effectively dramatizes the enormous electoral victory Attlee won for the Labor Party in 1945, and it offers as smooth and readable an account of Attlee’s surprisingly adroit maneuverings at the height of British politics for two decades and his laying of the groundwork for his country’s social welfare state. But the whole time, the narrative is working against the soupy inertia of its own hero, an element of ballast Bew is the first to acknowledge:
After he led Labour to victory in 1945, Attlee was subject to more scrutiny than ever before. For American observers, who had grown used to Churchill during the war, the new prime minister seemed a particularly strange creature in the democratic age. Here was a man who saw no need for the science of public relations, nor showed much willingness to adapt to the requirements of mass media. The Washington Post compared him to Caspar Milquetoast, an American cartoon character famed for his safe choices and boring personality – always having the bland dish of milk and toast for every meal. More favourably, he also earned comparisons with the level-headed midwesterner, Harry Truman, who never quite escaped the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt, but showed himself to be a leader of steely resolve. These two men’s lives were to converge in some of the most pressing issues of the age, including the atomic bomb, the early cold war, and the Korean War.
In a gesture of the same scholarly generosity that characterized Castlereagh, Bew quotes historian R. J. Cruikshank tossing off one succulent quip after another:
He was the Englishman’s ideal type, with his stiff upper lip reinforced by its neat moustache. Who else could have so successfully presided over the great social revolution that began in 1945 but Attlee, ‘elected dictator of a turbulent and rebellious party’? Attlee’s revolution was ‘not only bloodless but almost painless’. The British people had been hypnotised by ‘the most successful political dentist in history.’
Revisionist clarion-call biographies are always inherently less balanced than their counterparts chronicling the lives of the universally acclaimed; there will always be an element of pub-table argument-picking in a biography of Clement Attlee that’s missing from any life of, say, his famous boss (and kinda-sorta friend) Winston Churchill. Bew holds that Attlee is not only underestimated but in his way great, in his way greater even than Churchill. It’s difficult to perceive the muscle of this claim when its object is so singularly devoid of the leadership, the charisma, that’s a very active component of great leadership, but almost by way of compensation, the thing Bew does brilliantly throughout this book is something like the opposite of this aim: he gives readers a wonderfully three-dimensional and often quite touching portrait of Attlee as a human being. Better than any previous biographer, Bew delineates Attlee the patient gardener, Attlee the adoring parent, Attlee the dispenser of excellent sardonic under-the-breath zingers – Attlee the private man, that is, which is oddly more important with this particular prime minister than with most public servants, since Attlee was steadfastly indifferent to forging a public persona.
Bew largely resists the urge to draw contemporary lessons from all the electoral and parliamentary drama he relates, which is merciful, considering the fact that British politics, like all politics in the 21st century, isn’t exactly populated by selfless titans of public service. Attlee’s professional colleagues may have numbered the occasional scoundrel (Lord Beaverbrook, as always, takes a bow at this point), but neither he nor they would have been encouraged by the pack of baying, half-mad, trimming, posturing jackals filling Westminster in 2017. As Bew ringingly cautions, “Those who go searching through the weeds of Attlee’s government for practical lessons on how to run a government in the twenty-first century are engaging in a fruitless act of technocratic archaeology.”
The technocratic archaeology performed in the pages of Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain is far more useful – and far more benign. If it’s true that the book’s scattered attempts to make Eumaeus the hero of the Odyssey mostly fail, maybe it’s also true that every charitable bureaucrat deserves his own epic.