Thursday, 4 January 2018

Attlee: a quiet celebration of a quiet man

It’s far from inappropriate that the anniversary on 3 January passed quietly. It was the anniversary of a quiet man. A modest man, a shy man, but the architect of some of the more remarkable achievements Britain has seen.

There are some things about Clement Attlee that are incontrovertible, a matter of historical record. He was born on 3 January 1883. He led the Labour Party into a wartime coalition with the Tories, under Winston Churchill, in 1940. And, five years later, he led Labour to its first spell in government with a parliamentary majority.

Other issues are more open to interpretation.

It was a key factor in Britain’s war effort that the country was led by a national government – in which Labour played a major role. Indeed, Attlee was described as ‘home front Prime Minister’ since Churchill’s key contribution was on the international scene, above all in securing US support. And yet it must have taken extraordinary courage to join a coalition with the Conservatives just nine years after a previous Labour leader, Ramsay MacDonald, had split the party and reduced its parliamentary strength to just 50 by doing the same thing.

What was a betrayal in 1931 was essential in 1940. Labour’s role as the voice of the downtrodden and of workers had to be laid aside for a while, to ensure the very survival of a country in which that voice could be heard at all. The mood was perfectly captured in a cartoon by David Low, showing Labour having to turn away from its appointed task for a while, to focus on something more urgent – but it would be back.
Labour leading 'our democratic institutions' in the shelter
But only for a time
In 1945, triumphantly, it was.

Again, few would dispute that major reforms were achieved by the 1945 government Attlee led. Indeed, many would argue that it was the greatest reforming government Labour has formed. The welfare state was launched, with both universal social security – independent of means, available to wealthy and poor alike – alongside the NHS were key pillars of the post war consensus. They’ve survived to this day, though they’re increasingly battered now.

He also ensured that India achieved independence, persuaded as he was that it was time. By doing so, he set in train the process by which the British Empire would be dismantled over the next twenty years.

Other aspects of Attlee’s time in office are more controversial. One was the secret drive to build a British Atom bomb, once it became clear that the US was not going to continue the wartime practice of sharing nuclear secrets with the UK. Another was his determination to preserve British colonial power in certain colonies, even through the use of military force, around Africa, for instance, or in Malaya. What he felt about India he didn’t necessarily feel about every part of the Empire.

Is that inconsistency? Or a willingness to compromise? A readiness sometimes to be pragmatic which led him sometimes to do things we might admire, and sometimes to do things that we might not like so much?

Still more controversial is his attitude towards the left of the Party. Before Attlee formed his government, one of his most outspoken critics was Nai Bevan, clarion voice of the Labour left. It is a tribute to Attlee’s breadth of vision that he invited Bevan to join the government and gave him the opportunity to build the NHS. But the differences remained as powerful as ever and, indeed, Bevan eventually resigned from the government in its dying days, an act for which Attlee may never fully have forgiven him.

The tale of his relations with Bevan give a measure of Attlee. He was a conciliator, and that allowed him to able to lead a government which contained both Bevan to the left and Ernest Bevin to the right. It was all the stronger for it.

As well as the left and right of his own party, Attlee could also work with the Conservatives, as he showed in the wartime coalition. Indeed, he could fight the Tories – though not an outstanding public speaker, his powerful response to the vicious attack launched on him by Churchill during the 1945 campaign was a major factor in giving him the victory – but that didn’t stop him cooperating with them when necessary.

I’m not convinced that someone like that would find it easy to forge a career in the present Labour Party. Given the chance, he became arguably Labour’s most successful leader. But would we give him that chance today?

Ah, well. At least I raised a glass to him on his birthday. A quiet celebration in memory – nostalgic memory – of a quiet man who achieved so much.

Far more than many who are a great deal noisier.

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