Citizen Clem: 'extraordinary biography' of Clement Attlee wins Orwell prize

John Bew’s life of the self-effacing founder of the NHS praised by judges as a ‘monument to the greatest leader the Labour party has ever had’

“A model of the biographer’s art”, which pulls back the curtain on one of the most significant but least recognised political figures of the last century, has won Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. John Bew’s Citizen Clem, about Clement Attlee, the founder of the NHS, was named winner of the £3,000 2017 Orwell prize for books at a ceremony in London on Thursday night.

Prize judge and journalist Erica Wagner said: “For all [the judges], it really stood out as not just an extraordinary biography, but because this is a prize that celebrates great writing and, though all the books shortlisted were remarkable, Citizen Clem was a model of the biographer’s art.”

The award, named after the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, is awarded annually by the Orwell Foundation to a book that comes closest to the George Orwell’s ambition “to make political writing into an art”.

In Citizen Clem, Bew examines the intellectual foundations and core beliefs of Attlee, who served as prime minister of the Labour government that took office in the aftermath of the second world war. He oversaw socio-economic reforms that shaped the modern welfare state, including the introduction of the NHS. Bew, who teaches history and foreign policy at King’s College London, argues that, despite being one of the most significant politicians of the 20th century, “Clem”, as he was popularly known, remains under-appreciated.

Wagner said the former prime minister’s story “deserved to be much more widely known”. She added: “The name ‘Clement Attlee’ is bandied about a lot now, but who the man really was is much less well-known and this book brings this extraordinarily modest but enormously significant figure to light.”

Fellow judge Jonathan Derbyshire, of the Financial Times, agreed that the book was both “a magnificent renewal of the art of political biography” and a “monument to the greatest leader the Labour party has ever had”. He added: “It presents us with a man whose socialism was learned, not acquired. Attlee’s career, in John Bew’s telling, is a tribute not to sham consistency or inviolable purity of principle, but to the primacy of politics – what [Max] Weber called the ‘slow boring of hard boards’.”

Bew’s book was chosen from a shortlist of six that included Tim Shipman’s post-Brexit analysis All Out War; Ruth Dudley Edwards’s The Seven, about the founding fathers of the Irish Free State; and Adrian Tempany’s account of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, And the Sun Shines Now.

Wagner said that the shortlist showed political writing in the UK was “in great shape” across a wide spectrum of subjects that had relevance to readers throughout the world. “Great writing is absolutely of the moment and also endures. And all these books are books that readers will return to year after year,” she said. She was joined in the judging by playwright and author Bonnie Greer, and writer and broadcaster Mark Lawson.

As well as celebrating the most compelling political writing in a year, the 2017 prize coincides with a resurgence in the popularity of Orwell’s work thanks to interest in “fake news” and concepts such as post-truth and alternative facts, popularised by the US hard right and reminiscent of “Newspeak”, the lingua franca of the political classes in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It also comes at a time when the NHS is under threat from successive government policies, Greer said: “The political battle in the UK since 1948 has always boiled down to one simple fact: the upholding or the whittling away of what Clem Attlee built.” She added that the book would go “a long way towards re-balancing the Churchillian narrative that currently dominates us”.

The winners of the Orwell prize for journalism and the Orwell prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils were also announced on Thursday. Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times took the journalism award for his commentary on the ramifications of Brexit, while the Guardian’s Felicity Lawrence won the Orwell prize for exposing social evils with her long read and accompanying podcast that revealed how criminal gangs were forcing migrants to work for them in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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