Few thought he was even a starter.
There were those who thought themselves smarter.
Yet, he ended PM
C.H, and O.M,
and a Knight of the Garter.
Hello! Today, we’re talking about Citizen Clem, a biography of Clement Attlee, written by John Bew. If you don’t know much about Clement Attlee – which is entirely possible – then he was the Prime Minister of the first majority Labour government, from 1945-1951, and was Deputy Prime Minister under Winston Churchill during WW2. Quite important, basically.
It’s a book which earned an awful lot of praise when it came out – not unfairly, I’ll add, because I really enjoyed reading this.
When it comes to Clement Attlee and the post-war Labour government, Britain tends to forget. We remember Churchill, and Thatcher, and Blair – but not Attlee. We remember the NHS was created, as was the welfare state, and India was granted independence – but not Attlee. Even though he was so important to the Labour Party, to winning the war, to rebuilding the country after the war, and, perhaps, rebuilding the world, we don’t remember. Why?
That’s what Bew is very much aware of, and the reason why Citizen Clem exists – to shine a light on the man the public has forgotten. He covers the entire span of Attlee’s life, from birth to death, in excruciating detail. Seriously, this is a fat book, but Bew somehow manages to keep it engaging. I was reading this on the tube once and I was so engrossed I missed my stop.
For such an important politician, you’d expect his biography to have this real sense of history charging through it – of theatre, of change, of drama. But the actual events themselves are kinda glossed over, which is both a good and bad quality of the book. Instead, Bew focuses on who Attlee was. The political events only feel important to the extent that they relate to him. There are times, though, when it could have used a bit more rhetoric. For example, much emphasis is placed on how Attlee wanted to set up the United Nations as far back as the 1930’s. This was his big thing. He really wanted this new stage of international co-operation. Then, much later on, it’s casually mentioned that the UN exists, and it’s like… did Attlee have nothing to say about this?
But that’s a minor gripe because the approach of focusing on the people behind the events – their relationships, their power dynamics – is so much more interesting than what you’d expect from a typical book like this. It transforms Citizen Clem beyond just a biography of Attlee, into a story of the origins of British socialism and the origins of the Labour Party.
Labour is different from other political parties in that it fights for a higher purpose than just holding public office, which is both to its credit and to its detriment. You feel this when you’re reading pages upon pages of people standing on street corners with picket signs, of squabbling over party policy, of mass protest, of being thrust into government with absolutely no preparation – you feel that Labour truly rose from nothing, and was catapulted to the highest seat in the land by the forces of history.
You particularly feel that sense of history with Attlee, who started out in life as an old-fashioned imperialist conservative. Socialism barely even registered for him. It wasn’t until he moved to the East End of London and became a social worker that he saw the way the country was being run wasn’t… good. He realised that it wasn’t super fair that your entire life could be pre-determined from birth, by circumstances outside of your control – a value we see as normal now, but was still radical less than 100 years ago. It was very important that this is how Attlee’s conversion to socialism started: in people, rather than reading Karl Marx in his bedroom, because it imbued his socialism with a personal touch that was evidently key to the electoral success which Labour enjoyed.
True socialism, Attlee argued, ‘must be built in the minds and hearts of men and women,’ for it was not just an economic theory, but a way of life.
I think there are many nowadays who would do well to remember that.
So, if Attlee was so important, and if there are 500-odd pages to be written about him, then why does the public not revere him in the halls of history? If Attlee hadn’t upped sticks to the East End we would have no NHS, no welfare state, India may well have achieved independence far later, and Labour itself could well have died out in the 1930’s.
Really, it’s just because he was boring. Well, because he appeared boring. He didn’t have the oratory skills of Churchill, nor his sense of personal destiny and self-obsession, shared by Thatcher and Blair after him. He was a “sheep in sheep’s clothing,” as described by the press. The quintessential Englishman: calm, quiet, white, sipping his tea in the corner of the room. He didn’t want to be leader. He ended up Deputy Leader in 1931 because there wasn’t really anyone else, then the leader resigned in 1935, so Attlee became ‘interim leader’ and had to fight an election, and then kinda ended up staying, for like… 20 years.
He’s something of an anomaly in political leadership. We place so much emphasis on rhetoric and image and being confident and all that mumbo-jumbo, and it’s generally agreed that if you want to be a successful politician then you must have some charisma. But, save for a few instances, Attlee really shied from all that stuff. He hated the limelight. He often didn’t grasp why people would think of him as some kind of hero. Yet, somehow, people fell in love with him, and the great success of this book is it makes you do too.
Citizen Clem is essential reading for anyone who calls themselves a Labour supporter, and anyone who’s into British politics. It’s a really comprehensive, fascinating exploration of British history and the history of socialism in Britain, as well as this really neat insight into the man we tend to overlook. He ended PM, after all.