- - Wednesday, April 5, 2017



By John Bew

Oxford University Press, $39.95, 670 pages, illustrated

It is not easy for any leader of a nation to follow one whose greatness is universally acknowledged and who has a personality to match. In a stunning upset while World War II was still raging in Asia, the British people replaced the Conservative Winston Churchill with a man as unlike him as possible, the Socialist Clement Attlee. But as John Bew, a professor at King’s College London writes, “While Attlee might have suffered from comparisons with Churchill, he did not see it that way. In fact, he reveled in the association with a man whose greatness, and many flaws, he understood better than most.”

Having served as the great man’s deputy prime minister for most of the war, taking care of much of the humdrum but necessary business of government, he had more opportunities than most to observe him — and interact with him. That he was not afraid to challenge arrogance and sloppiness when he saw it says a great deal about the grit and steely quality that made him far from “the sheep in sheep’s clothing,” as Malcolm Muggeridge characterized him.

Such underestimations were inevitable in a man of whom to say he lacked charisma is one of the understatements of all time. One of Mr. Bew’s chapters is titled “The Invisible Man,” which is taken from a satirical poem about Attlee in the Labor periodical Tribune.

One of the most delicious expressions of this quality is an anecdote often attributed to Churchill but which actually comes from a 1949 story titled “The Wrong Set” by Angus Wilson: “An empty taxi drove up to No 10 [Downing Street] and Mr. Attlee got out.” One of the best things about this biography is Mr. Bew’s frequent dives into literature, using his subject’s favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling, and novelist John Galsworthy, among others to illuminate his character, tastes and political evolution from imperialist to Socialist. He also provides a portrait of a family man devoted to his wife and four children who lived a determinedly middle-class life and whose real passion was for cricket.

Attlee’s humdrum appearance and laconic style of speech, with nary an extra word, contributed to his image and although these were genuine lifelong qualities, it is likely that he cultivated them to resonate with voters. He was acutely aware of all the denigration of him from fellow Laborites as well as opponents and penned a limerick for his brother which has more than a hint of triumphalism for a “modest man with much to be modest about”:

“Few thought he was even a starter/There were those that thought themselves smarter/But he ended PM/CH. And OM/An earl and a knight of the garter.”

Mr. Bew is assiduous at mining secondary sources, sometimes to a fault in that it produces too many views of his subject from the outside to the point that the inner man is occasionally eclipsed here. If he had included Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s wife’s published diary, he could have told us that most of these honors coming Attlee’s way on his retirement from the House of Commons were no accident: He demanded them from Churchill’s other successor as a former premier’s due no more and no less. The author also makes too little use of the published diaries of Sir John Colville, who served as private secretary to both prime ministers, on Attlee as head of government.

Mr. Bew can sometimes spoil the material he does quote, omitting the most delicious (anatomical nationalization) part of the men’s room comment by Churchill on the necessity of keeping his distance from Attlee. And he can also be surprisingly sloppy for a historian of such quality:

Attlee could not have walked down the steps of his plane on Nov. 9, 1945 at Dulles Airport, which was not opened until 1962. For a book of this length, it is surprisingly superficial in digging beneath the surface of policies, notably the Attlee government’s hostility to Zionism in its handling of the Palestine Mandate and its ham-fisted termination.

But my main quarrel with this book is not with such minor matters but with Mr. Bew’s overriding thesis expressed in his book’s subtitle. He is correct in pointing to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent and its National Health Service as enduring legacies of Attlee’s administration. But I would argue that much of the modern Britain he made, chiefly in the sphere of nationalization of goods and services, was washed away by some of his Labor successors as well as most notably Margaret Thatcher, who fought her first two — and her only unsuccessful — parliamentary campaigns against his government in the 1950 and 1951 elections. Interestingly enough, although she disagreed robustly with Attlee’s policies, we learn in these pages that she admired his qualities as a person, recognizing sincere conviction and integrity similar to her own. But that did not stop her from erasing so much of his legacy and thus ensuring that today she, more than he, is the maker of modern Britain.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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