As the Labour Party is trying to tear itself apart rather than pick a new leader, it seemed like a good time to read up on their greatest Prime Minister*.
At times, this book felt like it was a satire on the current state of British politics, dressed up as the biography of an unjustly forgotten politician. There’s the tyranny of charity- the way the ‘Big Society’ could never work because the donor gets to decide who the deserving poor are, and punishes anyone not behaving the way they are expected to. Inequality propped up by the system (and Tory support for that system). Other Labour PMs who were more interested in having the post on their CV than doing anything useful with it. The big egos with talents that don’t match up, who think they should be running the party rather than the quiet little man who’s a little too far to the Left for their liking. (They failed, and the little man oversaw the creation of the NHS, welfare state and much more.) Trouble with the unions and even, after losing the 1951 election, a vote from the membership that had the Party establishment crying that there had been a (non-existent) Communist infiltration.
Clement Attlee was a son of an upper middle class family who seemed destined for dissatisfied normality, until he started doing charitable work in the East End. Appalled by the inequality he saw there, he shifted, gradually, to socialism and, eventually, membership of the Labour Party. Never the greatest public speaker, he nevertheless garnered respect for his organisational abilities, commitment and fairness.
Attlee quietly worked his way to leadership, outmanoeuvring the more flamboyant candidates who believed they had an automatic right to the post. He acted as deputy to Churchill in the Second World War, and surprised many by becoming Prime Minister in 1945. His one full term in power (the second saw a vastly reduced majority and the Government fell apart due to party infighting) changed the nation drastically. Despite terrible finances- exacerbated by the behaviour of the USA- the NHS and welfare state were created, and key industries nationalised. Everything the Tories have been trying to destroy ever since was created between 1945 and 1948.
After defeat in the 1951 election, Attlee stayed at the head of the Labour Party, something that would never happen nowadays. He remained in place until he could be sure that his role would go to someone on the Left of the party, understanding how bad a drift toward the Tories would be in the long run. In retirement, he quietly faded away, so that most of us, nowadays, know very little about him.
Attlee himself didn’t help much in preserving his memory, either. He kept no diary, and wasn’t given to long winded explanations of his stances. As portrayed in this book, you could almost think of him as the biggest of egos in a profession full of big egos. Unlike the others, however, this ego wasn’t tied to an insecurity that needed everyone to know how great he was. Attlee was always confident of his own decisions, and rarely felt the need to explain them. He comes across as a man so confident that he barely cared what others said of him.
The introduction of the book says it was written in 1997. Still, it managed to get in some barbed comments about the Blair style of leadership, even at that early stage. But if it was a sly satire written about the state of the nation in 2015, the message would be fairly obvious. It’s the little man, with the unfashionable ideas and poor presentation skills, who could be the one Labour really needs if it is to survive and prosper**.
*Sure, Blair was PM for much longer, and did achieve some good, but he didn’t change the country as drastically and positively as Attlee. And let’s not get started on all the negatives tied to Blair’s time in power.
** I’m a member of the Green Party. I’m most interested in Labour as the party we’re replacing, ideologically, as it slides to the Right and makes itself irrelevant as any sort of opposition.