It took a shy man with conservative instincts to reset British society in the 1940s. Labour is now crying out for another Clement Attleeby Tristram Hunt / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee by John Bew (riverrun, £30)
On 3rd August 1945 at 10.45am, newly victorious Labour MPs assembled in Westminster to take their oath of allegiance. Clement Attlee, the new prime minister whose party had just won by a landslide, gave his fellow MPs three pieces of advice: do not talk in the lobby of the House of Commons; do not loiter or dine in West End restaurants; and never converse with William “Max” Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). As to himself: “I am a very diffident man,” he explained. “I find it very hard to carry on conversation. But if any of you come to see me, I will welcome you. I will receive you and I will discuss your problems with you.”
This is the Attlee we know: straightforward, decent, conservative, even a little dull in the face of epochal events. John Bew’s new account serves up an altogether more compelling story of Attlee—the wartime deputy prime minister inspired by John Milton; the political lion who bested Winston Churchill in the Chamber; the Atlanticist who shaped US President Harry S Truman’s geopolitics; and, all the while, a Labour leader who remained true to his radical, socialist creed.
As such Citizen Clem comprises a great work of personal biography, social history, political philosophy, international relations and ferrets-in-a-sack Labour Party infighting. As the do-or-die 2016 Labour Party Conference opens and Britain stands at its most internationally exposed since the Suez crisis, this 500-page doorstopper could not have landed at a more timely moment. Attlee himself, in a manner which would have instantly labelled him a “red Tory” by today’s Momentum activists, was always delighted to talk up his conservative pedigree. In his stunningly dull autobiography As It Happened, published in 1954, he writes lovingly of weekends spent at his grandfather’s house, The Gables, on Wandsworth Common. “Aunt Jane’s room was very jolly—it had a hob grate with Dutch tiles, deep window seats and a shining mahogany wardrobe,” he recalled. “There were little closets giving off it, used for washing and pervaded by a general smell of Pears soap.”