Labour leadership hopefuls are keen to claim the mantle of the past. They would be advised to remember that Attlee was a romantic, as much the poet and prophet of the welfare state as its administratorby Jason Whittaker / January 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
As the Labour leadership contest hots up—Nandy vs Starmer—the question inevitably turns to Labour leaders from the past. Attlee’s name is frequently invoked. Yet while he is a legendary figure on the left he is all too often misunderstood.
When he was elected as leader of the Labour Party in 1935, the Labour MP (and future chancellor of the exchequer) Hugh Dalton mocked Attlee as “a little mouse” who, at best, would serve as an interim figurehead. Ten years later, it was Attlee who led Labour to a landslide victory in the July 1945 election, one of the biggest political upsets of the 20th century, with the party taking 393 seats against 197 for the Conservatives.
Vision is a much-abused term today, so perhaps it is better to talk of the imagination displayed by Attlee and those who surrounded him. For a long time, the tendency was to belittle Attlee as a competent administrator but never a figure with much in the way of imagination. Even now, although he is revered as the architect of the post-war consensus, the slightly-built, bald, pipe-smoking prime minister still tends to be viewed more drily than charismatic firebrands such as Nye Bevan or Herbert Morrison.
The historian Vernon Bogdanor called Attlee “the enigma” of the 20th century yet, as his most recent biographer, John Bew, points out, Citizen Clem was in his own way as much a Romantic as Churchill.
Attlee once said that “my mind is stored with poetry,” with Blake, Shelley, Milton and even Kipling providing what Bew has called the “script for his political life.” Attlee made the mystic hymn “Jerusalem” the anthem of Labour, famously invoking it during his 1951 election manifesto speech at Scarborough when he thundered: “Remember that we are a great crusading body, armed with a fervent spirit for the reign of righteousness on earth. Let us go forward in this fight in the spirit of William Blake.” His 1920 book, The Social Worker, an account of the skills and abilities required in those who wish to participate in social work of any kind, begins not with the role of government and private or religious charities, but the exhortation to mental fight from Blake, the “visionary and prophet,” and the poetry of John Keats, who as a dreamer strove not only to create beauty but also turned…