Citizen Clem review – the unparalleled achievement of Labour under Attlee

There is much disingenuous myth-making around Attlee today, argues John Bew, but there has been nothing like his government, before or since

The members’ lobby of the House of Commons is dominated by larger than life statues of four great British prime ministers. When entertaining younger visitors I would usually pause and invite them to identify the figures. Everyone recognised Churchill and Thatcher. Many, after a bit of head scratching, got Lloyd George. Rarely, however, could anyone put a name to the fourth figure, despite his having a fair claim to being the most successful peacetime prime minister of the 20th century. It is, of course, Clement Attlee.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Attlee was a modest man, lacking in charisma, an unimpressive public speaker, underestimated by friend and foe alike. Goodness knows how he would have survived on today’s frenzied political scene (even at the time he was much criticised for his apparent lack of dynamism). Yet he presided for six years over a government whose legacy endures to this day.

Everything about Attlee suggested a small-c conservative. Born in the late Victorian era, the son of a prosperous lawyer, educated at a leading public school (to which he remained attached for the rest of his life), a patriot with a distinguished war record, he could so easily have ended up on the other side. Destined to follow his father into the law, he opted instead to run a boys’ club in the east London docklands and this was the experience that shaped his politics.

One has to pinch oneself to recall that until little more than 100 years ago unemployment and old age often meant hunger, malnutrition and destitution. Destitution meant the workhouse and the dreaded means test. Death by starvation was not unknown in the early years of the 20th century. In the 1890s, when Attlee was growing up, only one child in 270 went into secondary education. In the pit villages of Yorkshire, the infant mortality rate was 250 in every thousand – and this in what was then the richest and most powerful country in the world. Add to that the destruction and misery wreaked by the first world war and it’s evident what propelled Attlee into politics.

His rise was not at all predictable. Elected as the MP for Limehouse in 1922, he was a junior minister in the first Labour governments. As with most successful politicians, luck played a part. He might never have become leader but for the Labour split of 1931, which meant that, even four years later, competition for the top job was not as stiff as it might have been. Even then he might not have survived but for the outbreak of war and formation of a coalition in which he became deputy prime minister.

Come the end of the war, he went on to lead a government which, in the teeth of almost insurmountable difficulties, established a comprehensive system of social insurance, providing unemployment pay, sickness benefit, maternity leave, widow’s benefit, family allowances (child benefit) and a one-off death grant to help with funeral costs. It established the National Health Service, raised the school leaving age, and took into public ownership the coal industry, the railways, gas, electricity and the communications firm Cable and Wireless. In addition, it successfully demobilised more than 2 million men from the armed forces and began the dissolution of the empire. The government played a leading part in the foundation of Nato and the United Nations and even found time to set up the first national parks. All this was achieved against a background of a global economic crisis, confrontation with Stalin’s Russia and a renewed outbreak of war in Korea. There has been nothing like it before or since.

In this monumental biography, John Bew sets out to explore, not just the scale of the achievement (which others before him have done), but to discover what made Attlee tick – no easy task given the extraordinary reticence of his subject. He has looked at a vast array of sources, but one original feature is his use of the politician’s correspondence (mainly with his brother) to discover what he was reading at any given time, and then to explore this material to get a sense of his mind.

As a result many chapters include excursions into Attlee’s reading habits, ranging from Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and William Morris’s News from Nowhere to Kipling, Trollope and Gibbon (Attlee found time during his premiership to read all six volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He even tried his hand at writing a satirical novel – incomplete and unpublished. This is a good book about a remarkable man, but I remain unconvinced that Attlee’s reading or writing habits tell us much that we don’t already know. His beliefs were shaped by his work among the impoverished of the East End and the events through which he lived (two world wars and a great depression). He was a practical man, not a great thinker (many of the observations recorded in his letters to his brother are banal). To be sure, he was a patriot, but his was not the patriotism in which scoundrels take refuge: “Attlee’s patriotism meant not fidelity to caste or cohort, but to the commonwealth.” He believed, too, that citizenship involved responsibilities as well as rights.

These days, all sides in the fractious Labour party claim to be heirs of Attlee but, as the author points out, there is “a convenient element of amnesia in the exhumation of Attlee for modern political purposes”. He faced no fewer than four attempts to force him out of the leadership and almost incessant criticism from within his own party, from both right and left. “The extent of the hostility shown towards him,” Bew writes, “should caution us against the disingenuous myth-making around him today.”

For all his inscrutability, Attlee was not without a sense of humour. Witness the epitaph that he wrote for himself: “Few thought he was even a starter, / There were many who thought themselves smarter. / Yet he ended PM, / CH and OM, / An earl and a Knight of the Garter.” What matters more than the honours showered on him in retirement, of course, is the vastly more civilised world that he bequeathed to future generations.

• Chris Mullin is a former Labour minister. His memoir, Hinterland, is out this month from Profile. Citizen Clem is published by Riverrun. To order a copy for £24 (RRP £30) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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