Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee
John Bew 
Riverrun 662pp £30

Clement Attlee, the postwar Labour prime minister who often tops the lists of best British prime ministers of the 20th century, is attracting increasing attention at a time when the Labour Party continues its internal battles over its quality and style of leadership. Adding to the considerable work of Kenneth Harris, Robert Crowcroft and others, Michael Jago recently produced his perceptive book, Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister, emphasising Attlee’s individual talents and leadership above the context of the rising attractions of socialism. John Bew’s biography of Attlee, Citizen Clem, goes in the opposite direction, emphasising the context which allowed Attlee to shape the emergence of the Labour Party into its first two majority governments and the creation of Britain’s modern welfare state. 

To Bew, there was nothing inevitable about Attlee’s rise to power, more a sense that he was in the right place at the right time as British society changed. The underlying belief of this book is that Attlee was driven by his commitment to the need for and responsibilities of citizenship, which emerged from his educational training, including at Haileybury, the imperial-minded public school in Hertford (founded after the closure in 1858 of the East India College on the same site), combined with his committed patriotism. For Attlee, in the emerging new age of democracy, this meant that the only way forward was democratic socialism, whose rallying call became the, now often neglected word, citizenship. This was the vital factor that drove Attlee to help introduce the welfare state in the late 1940s. Even further, in an attempt to broaden that concept, Bew argues that ‘No Briton did more to oversee the transition of the British Empire into a British Commonwealth than Attlee’. He further reflects that ‘Patriotism was the glue that bound together so much of what Attlee did’. 

A single review cannot do full justice to this very lengthy book. Nevertheless, written with an eye towards both the general and the academic reader, Bew reflects that Attlee was shaped by poverty in prewar Britain, the First World War and the unemployment of the interwar years. These events changed British society at a remarkable speed and allowed democratic and social values to extend the rights of citizenship to all. Indeed, Attlee was driven by a sense of duty and moral indignation at the economic and social plight of so many British citizens in both Britain and its Empire.

Raised into a wealthy middle-class family, Attlee, who studied modern history at Oxford, became deeply involved in socialism through the influence of his brother Tom, who was very pro-socialist and anti-war, and was Clem’s life-long confidante. Attlee volunteered in the socially uplifting, middle-class settlement movement in working-class London, particularly at Toynbee Hall, and worked with George Lansbury on the Minority Report of the Poor Law, which suggested that there should be government departments to deal with many of the social problems of the day and which provided a blueprint for Attlee’s later Labour ministeries. 

Attlee was badly wounded in the First World War, in which he rose to the rank of Major, and was returned as Labour MP for Limehouse in 1922. He was projected close to the leadership of the Labour Party by the loss of many older Labour leaders in the disastrous general election of 1931, before replacing George Lansbury as Labour leader in 1935. In 1940 he became a member of Winston Churchill’s wartime Cabinet, eventually defeating him in the general election of 1945. Attlee led two Labour governments between 1945 and 1951.

The vital nub of Citizen Clem is those two terms as Labour prime minister. His governments’ record on health, housing and nationalisation is best known for creating the ‘New Jerusalem’, yet it also gave rise to the creation of the ‘enigma’ of Attlee – presented as a shy, modest man, without vision, who somehow controlled a ministry of talents which created the modern welfare state. Whether he was Hugh Dalton’s ‘little mouse’ or Malcolm Muggeridge’s ‘sheep in sheep’s clothing’, it is clear that he was tremendously resilient, for he was able to defeat Churchill’s Conservative Party on two occasions. As A.J.P. Taylor said ‘Attlee grows on you’ and he was able to marshal the large personalities with whom he surrounded himself, including Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan and Stafford Cripps. 

In the end, according to Bew, Attlee achieved three things: he atoned for the sacrifice of those killed in the First World War; he developed a body of legislation that created a socialistic, universalistic, citizenship in Britain; and he arranged for the Empire to become a more inclusive Commonwealth. Above all, these achievements were embodied in the National Insurance Act of 1946, the creation of the National Health Service and independence for India. He may not have wanted American domination in foreign affairs, but it was he and Ernest Bevin who ensured that NATO was formed. 

Bew has revived the view of Attlee as a product of his time, able to transfer his Victorian and Edwardian upbringing and zeal into a wider, more democratic, world. He faithfully places Attlee within the changing political and economic environment of the early 20th century. A weakness is Bew’s literary introductions to many chapters, meaning that this lengthy book is less distilled and focused than it could have been. Nevertheless, Citizen Clem is an impressive piece of research that does not lose the path and reinterprets what we know about Attlee. It establishes that Attlee was a prime minister who rode the postwar success of the Labour Party as it adapted to changing times. He was in the right place at the right time and produced, within the compass of his background, driven by patriotism, what he saw as the ‘Promised Land’ for all citizens. It suggests that Attlee is not so much ‘underestimated as underappreciated’.

Keith Laybourn is Diamond Jubilee Professor in History at the University of Huddersfield.

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