Clement Attlee would appear to be having something of a revival in public view at the moment. He even appears on a series of T-shirts with the phrase "what would Clement do?" alongside an image of himself. What indeed? Attlee has become something of an unknown quantity for students. Less charismatic than his prime ministerial predecessor (Churchill) he led the British post war Labour government that changed the structure of British society and welfare arguably more than any other before or after. Michael Jago's biography begins to flesh out who Attlee was.
Michael Jago's narrative soon makes clear what he was not. He was not from a poor background. He attended a good public school and joined the legal profession before the 1914 war broke out. He was not a radical socialist from the Trades Union wing of the left. He was modest, not extrovert, pushing himself to the front or that ambitious that he trampled on rivals to get ahead.
However it is clear from early on he was a respected leader able to win confidence from those he led. World War I saw him serve at Gallipoli and in France with honour and an officer who cared for his men. He had a social conscience, albeit initially rooted in the upper class concept of helping the poor and needy in a "lady bountiful" way but one which led him directly into social work in the East End of London and through that into Labour Party politics as the only way he could see to change the lot of those in need. He identified with his constituents. Initially not only did he live amongst them, his East End home was partly given over to party usage.
As he rose up through the Labour Party in the interwar period to eventually lead the party Jago portrays Attlee as principled (he came to resent what he saw as MacDonalds hypocrisy and opportunism) as well as hard-working and quietly efficient. Jago raises the question of whether the party leadership came to him through luck to be in the right place at the right time rather than ability. He then tends to leave this question hanging until the final chapters when he disregards it. Always quietly efficient and hardworking, but most of all generally trustworthy towards colleagues seems to explain his success.
Most enlightening to the café is Jago's portrayal of Attlee as Deputy PM to Churchill in the wartime coalition. He is shown as a loyal supporter of the PM, softening his harsher exclamations and working very publicly to keep support up. Touring the country, giving talks in factories, shipyards as well as in town halls Attlee became the face of the government, looking forward to a better future. This had been agreed by both main parties, but Attlee came over as the confident, well organised, hard working member of the top duo. The safer pair of hands for the peace.... His profile thus raised, this made the 1945 Labour victory more easily explained.
The post 1945 period is perhaps the less satisfying part of Jago's book. It is clear the Foreign Policy saw Attlee at his weakest. India and Palestine especially were disasters whose repercussions remain today. Equally it is clear that Attlee played the Atlantic relationship poorly. Truman was too easily ignored. He lacked Churchills ability to cajole, to compliment or simply to invest the time in maintaining close personal relations with the US leadership. Whilst Jago shows this well, the café would have liked to see more focus on the personal mechanics and relationships that drove through the post war welfare state. After all it is this that would seem to have been Attlees' real strength.
Overall however a work to be recommended. Attlee needs wider study as well as recognition. It is as if he has been able to maintain his own modesty over historians in the near 50 years after his death in 1967.
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linked casahistoria site: Ideologies of the Left