Citizen Clem by John Bew review – exemplary biography

An absorbing new life of Clement Attlee shows how a quiet man from the suburbs became Labour’s unlikely postwar hero

He was “a modest little man, with plenty to be modest about”. So said Winston Churchill of the politician who was at his side throughout the war and then crushed him at the ballot box immediately afterwards.

Clement Attlee is, as John Bew explains in his exemplary biography, Labour’s unlikeliest of heroes. He was remarkably unremarkable. He hailed from the suburbs and returned to the suburbs; the young man from the minor public school was, like John Major, obsessive about cricket. His most memorable moment as a schoolboy was Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, one of the great celebrations of empire. As he wrote towards the end of his life in 1960: “Most of us boys at that time were imperialists with an immense pride in the achievements of our race.”

So how did a man who was the object of so much private derision by his peers come to preside over Labour’s greatest (some might say only) radical government? Bew puts the question at the core of his story. He answers it convincingly by mixing arresting narrative with a thorough study of the people and policies of the Labour movement at a time of hardship interspersed by war and fierce ideological difference.

Attlee was elected mayor of Stepney in 1919, a year to the day after the Armistice, having begun his intellectual inquiry into the problem of poverty in the East End working for the Haileybury Boys Club. He was the unthreatening figure who could get the job done. Throughout his career he was surrounded by larger personalities. His trick was to appear as the family solicitor “advising the old lady very sagely on her investments”. Was this most unspun of political leaders really that guileless, or was it part of the game plan to rise without trace?

It was Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer of the Labour party, who gave Attlee his big break. Oswald Mosley had resigned from the cabinet. MacDonald looked around him and chose “the most uninteresting, unimaginative but most reliable among his backbenchers to replace the fallen angel”.

MacDonald’s decision to form a national government resulted in the closest thing modern Britain has produced to a one-party state. In the election that followed, Labour ended up with only 46 MPs. One of the few left was Attlee, who in 1935 took over as leader. The Daily Mail struggled to do a proper hatchet job on him, resorting to observing that he had a similar-shaped head to that of Lenin.

Clement Attlee in the garden of 10 Downing Street, London, in August 1945
Clement Attlee in the garden of 10 Downing Street, London, in August 1945. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

When war came, Attlee threw in his lot with Churchill. While the prime minister focused on the military effort, his deputy made sure the country still functioned on the domestic front. Introducing the emergency powers defence bill, Attlee told the nation the government was assuming full control over all persons and property. Britain suddenly entered an era of state planning. William Beveridge’s drily entitled report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, may have been radical in content, but it was in keeping with the time. Bew includes the intriguing observation that a copy of the report was found in Hitler’s bunker.

For an exhausted electorate, Attlee’s modesty at the 1945 election was a welcome contrast to Churchill’s bombast. The six years of that government were remarkable not just for the huge social agenda – the formation of the NHS and welfare state – but also for foreign policy challenges that put the present Brexit fiasco into perspective. On any given day Attlee was dealing with demobilisation, the withdrawal of the US-provided Lend-Lease financing that almost bankrupted the UK, the withdrawal from India and Palestine, the increasing threat of Soviet Russia and the nuclear bomb.

As the Manchester Guardian wrote: “We walk in the shadow of economic catastrophe and live month to month.” Attlee exhorted the people to work harder, to keep those belts tightened. One of the many huge billboards around the country declared: “An all-out effort will increase our production by the 10% we need to turn the tide.” This was 1948, the year George Orwell completed 1984.

And yet this was a government led by a man who shunned publicity, who enjoyed tending the garden and whose wife, Violet, would drive him around, frequently crashing the car. (Clem, she reported, was “always an absolute dear” about these scrapes.) The book is replete with amusing vignettes. In February 1933, Nye Bevan was due to debate Mosley at the Cambridge Union, but had to pull out at the last minute with the flu. Attlee volunteered to do it. He rushed off with Frank Owen, a former MP turned Daily Express journalist, braving ice-covered roads in their hats, scarves and goggles in Owen’s open-top car. “In the course of the three-hour drive they twice came off the road and hit a ditch,” writes Bew. The author also recounts how, when Bevan first outlined his vision for a national health service in October 1945, Attlee expressed delight that his minister had done well “on a pretty sticky wicket”.

Clement Attlee addresses a political rally in July 1938
Clement Attlee addresses a political rally in July 1938. Photograph: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL via Getty Images

How best to categorise Attlee? Bew describes him as a social patriot. His was a very British New Deal, a new contract between state and citizen. He was no revolutionary; he did not see it as his mission to purge the establishment. “It was not that their privileges were taken away; what was taken away was the ethos of hierarchy that made sense of those privileges,” writes Bew.

This book will become required reading for the present-day Labour party as it tears itself apart in a desperate attempt to redefine a credible socialism for the 21st century. Attlee has long since become lionised across the left and beyond. The contrast could not have been greater in his lifetime.

Another sneering one-liner doing the rounds was: an empty taxi drove up to No 10 and Clement Attlee got out. It was attributed to Churchill, but in this case it wasn’t him. It spoke for many, however.

Citizen Clem is published by Quercus (£30). Click here to buy it for £24


John Kampfner

The GuardianTramp

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