Aware that the life of the post-1945 Labour leader and prime minister has been done before, Bew’s biography attempts to give new angles on Attlee’s life. He isn’t successful and the search for new perspectives ends up recounting endless Cabinet intrigues, Attlee’s relationship with Churchill, and countless opinions on Attlee from everybody and their uncle.
There is so much trivia in these pages that an alternative title might be Everything you never needed to know about Clement Attlee but couldn’t be arsed to ask. For example he spends some time, looking at what Attlee read and how that might have influenced him. This is all very well and good, but it seems a risky proposition that you can gain a piercing, revelatory insight into someone’s life and political/philosophical views by surveying what is on their bookshelves.
The two books, Bew mentions most frequently, apparently much-loved by Attlee, are the utopian socialist fiction of William Morris’s News From Nowhere and the American Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards. Clement Attlee may be many things to many people — and Bew is clearly asking the reader to look anew at a man widely thought of as a plodding bore — but a utopian socialist is not one of them.
In fact Bew is so focussed on the minutiae of Attlee’s life that the context of the battles of the 1930s and Labour’s victory in 1945 and what it subsequently did (or didn’t do as the case may be) is often lost or glossed over. The General Strike of 1926 and the Spanish Civil War and Labour’s attitude to them aren’t given the depth of treatment they deserves.
The left Labour MP Aneurin Bevan is depicted as a squawking whiner. Marxism, we are bluntly told, doesn’t exist in Britain! While we are told that Attlee visited the USSR in 1937 and he thought that “...its sum total justifies the revolution itself”, there is no elaboration. The reader is not informed whether Attlee knew of the Moscow Show Trials, which had started the year before. It would seem incredible that he didn’t know, but if he did he would hardly be the first British social democrat to look the other way. The book just leaves a blank space.
But Attlee is depicted, rightly I think, as a complex man who despite his self effacing modesty and his complete lack of charisma, did have ability. His ability, however, lay in his talent for manoeuvre co-joined to the mindset of a committee man. Ultimately, Attlee was a quiet, behind-the-scenes “fixer”.
When faced with a dilemma or a problem he almost always compromised. Compromise, in and of itself is nothing bad, but it is a question of what kind of compromise you are talking about. Attlee’s compromises were often based on the line of least resistance rather than any consideration of principle.
This is perhaps no more starkly illustrated than in Attlee’s faith in the utterly ineffective League of Nations, which lead to one disappointment after another. Although he was clearly sympathetic to the plight of the Spanish Republic. Official Labour Party policy on Spain was non-intervention, exactly mirroring that of the British and French governments’ national policy. During and after World War Two Labour and Conservative international policies were virtually identical, something which has changed little over the years.
Independence for India (achieved in 1947) was the major point of difference between the two parties although for a long time Attlee favoured only Dominion status for India. He later embraced the idea of full independence, but not before he had Indian nationalists leaders imprisoned in 1942. Compromise and contradiction, not for the first time, often go together.
Time and again, it is impossible not to reflect on the lost opportunities of the post-1945 Labour governments, particularly given the crushing majority enjoyed by Labour. The disappointments and limitations of the nationalisation programme, particularly the failure to nationalise the steel industry (of which Bew says little). The utter failure to reassess Britain’s place in the world. The willing acceptance of puppet status with the Americans. The idiocy of the decision to develop a nuclear bomb. The reluctance, particularly strong on Attlee’s part, to abolish or even reform the private fee-paying schools (of which he was a beneficiary). The failure to develop a coherent and workable policy on land and land ownership.
There were some successes, the establishment of the welfare state and especially the NHS, real achievements which should never be underestimated, but, again, there were so many lost opportunities. There is a sloppiness about facts in this book. According to the blurb, John Bew is one of Britain’s leading historians. He is the son of Paul Bew, a revolutionary socialist in the 1960s who is now a Lord. Both Bews are associates of the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society.
John Bew appears not to know that what led up to the General Strike of 1926 was the mineowners’ attempt to add an hour on to the working day and reduce the wages of the miners. Instead he says that the mineowners wanted to add an extra day onto the working week. No doubt they would have loved this but it simply didn’t happen. There are better books to read on Attlee and the Labour Party.
Although many readers of Solidarity will no doubt disagree with Ralph Miliband’s conclusions, his Parliamentary Socialism has stood the test of time and is a much superior analysis on Labour than the one on offer from John Bew.