The ‘sheep in sheep’s cloth­ing’ who fol­lowed Churchill

CLE­MENT AT­TLEE: THE MAN WHO MADE MOD­ERN BRI­TAIN By John Bew Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, $39.95, 670 pages, il­lus­trated

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.