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Attlee’s Life


Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee, Politico’s, 2007, 338 pages, paperback ISBN

9781842751923, £14.99


Francis Beckett’s biography of Clem Attlee was first published in 1997. This new edition is very much to be welcomed. It includes a few revisions made as a result of subsequent interviews conducted by the author. They add to the understanding of Attlee’s role in the evolution of Labour’s policy during his period as Labour leader and as Prime Minister.


Beckett’s book is well written and compels attention from the first page to the last. The material for it was well researched, covering the entire period of Attlee’s association with the labour movement from the time when he first joined the Independent Labour Party in 1907 until his death some 60 years later. It is a sympathetic biography about Attlee’s opinions and actions, but it gives a fair showing to the standpoint of those in the Labour Party who were to his left, notably Aneurin Bevan.


What emerges is a rounded portrait of Attlee as a man with a deep commitment to social justice, a determination to eliminate poverty, deprivation and squalor, and an inclination to the left rather than to the right of the labour movement. He was convinced of the indispensable role of the Labour Party as an instrument of social change within a parliamentary democracy. He was happy with a party structure based fundamentally upon trade union affiliations and individual membership.


Attlee was, nevertheless, influenced by the circumstances of his birth and upbringing. He was born into a well-to-do upper middle class family. His father was a prosperous solicitor who, in 1906, became the President of the Law Society. In politics his father supported the more radical wing of the Liberal Party. Clement Attlee’s childhood was spent in a very comfortable home with the amenities of the time and servants to meet the domestic needs of the family.


Clement Attlee had the education expected by his social origin: attendance at a fashionable public school, Haileybury, followed by admission to and graduation from Oxford University. He became a lawyer, though he had little enthusiasm for legal work.


In 1906 he was introduced to a boys’ club in a slum area in Limehouse in the East End of London. It was known as Haileybury House, and had been established by some former pupils of the Haileybury public school to help clergy, who were also Old Haileyburians, and who were active in the area. This introduction to the poverty and deprivation of the East End was to transform Clement Attlee’s life and thinking. By 1907 he was working and living in the area. From being a young man with not very strong views he became a socialist and joined the ILP. At that time, the Stepney branch of the ILP had about 20 members.


Attlee had his initiation as a very nervous political speaker at a small open-air meeting in a street in Stepney. His audience consisted of a few ILP members and a very small number of passers-by. Shortly afterwards he stood as an ILP candidate for the Stepney Borough Council. He polled 67 votes. By this time, politics was beginning to dominate his life.


When the First World War began in 1914 Attlee volunteered for service almost immediately. Many active ILP members opposed the war and became conscientious objectors. Attlee’s elder brother was a conscientious objector. Attlee’s reasons for enlisting were very unusual. He later wrote that he did not accept the cry of ‘Your King and Country Need You’, nor was he ‘convinced of Germany’s sole guilt’. On the other hand, he said that it appeared wrong to him to let others make a sacrifice whilst he stood by, especially as he was unmarried. He fought in the army at Gallipoli, was wounded fighting near Suez, and was finally posted to the Western Front in Europe. He was promoted to the rank of Major.


After his demobilisation Clement Attlee returned to Stepney and renewed his activity in the labour movement. In November 1919 Labour won a majority in the municipal elections in Stepney, and Attlee was appointed Mayor of the borough. Shortly afterwards he became the chairman of the Association of Labour Mayors in London boroughs. In 1922 he was elected to Parliament for the Stepney constituency of Limehouse. He was re-elected in 1924 and became a junior Minister in the first ever Labour government. He was again elected in 1929 with a substantial majority, and in 1930 was appointed to the government as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In the following year he became Postmaster General.


In the crisis of 1931, which led to the downfall of the Labour Government, Clem Attlee sided with those who refused to accept cuts in unemployment benefit. He supported the expressed opposition of the trade union movement. The Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, together with a number of other MPs, broke away and joined with the Conservatives and a number of Liberals to form a National Government. It secured a huge majority of more than 500 in the succeeding General Election. Labour was reduced to 46 MPs, of whom only three had Front Bench experience: George Lansbury, Stafford Cripps and Clement Attlee.


George Lansbury was elected as Leader of the Parliamentary Party and Attlee as Deputy Leader. Attlee admired Lansbury and loyally served under him. In 1935 Lansbury resigned after being attacked by Ernest Bevin at the Labour Party conference because of his pacifist response to Italy’s attack on Abyssinia. The conference called for sanctions against Italy. This was not supported by either Lansbury or Cripps, but was supported by Attlee.


The 1935 General Election was lost by Labour, though the party increased its representation to 154 MPs. Anew leader had to be elected. On the first ballot there were three candidates: Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Attlee secured the most votes on the first ballot but did not have an absolute majority.  Arthur Greenwood was eliminated. On the second ballot Attlee defeated Morrison by 88 votes to 48.


Thus began the final ascent to the future return of a majority Labour Government with Attlee as leader. In 1945 he became Prime Minister after a General Election in which Labour secured an overall majority of 146. It was a memorable and sensational victory. The Conservatives were led by Winston Churchill. Labour’s election manifesto called for economic planning, the extension of social ownership, a radical programme of social welfare and the building of affordable houses.


What is the evidence to justify the view – or to contradict the view – that Attlee preferred to lead from the left of centre rather than from the right of centre of the labour movement? There can be no doubt of his very strong views about social security. He became Prime Minister at a time of great economic difficulty at the end of the Second World War, but he was totally committed to bringing about improvements in social welfare. He carried out Labour’s programme.


The National Insurance Act, the Industrial Injuries Act, the National Assistance Act, the housing programme and, above all, the introduction of the National Health Service, justified the claim that, in comparison with anything that had existed before, Labour was in the process of establishing a ‘welfare state’. This could not have been done without the dedication of the Prime Minister. Moreover, he appointed and supported Aneurin Bevan, the principal figure on the left of the Party, to lead the thrust on health and housing.


One of the principal figures on the right of the Parliamentary Party, and perhaps the principal figure, was Herbert Morrison. It was more than a difference of personality that led Attlee to be wary of him. There were differences of political approach. One of the earliest differences centred on the imprisonment of George

Lansbury, the then leader of Poplar Council, who, following the First World War, joined with other Labour councillors in refusing to pay the borough’s precepts to the London County Council, then under Conservative control. The Poplar councillors wanted to use the money to help the unemployed. Attlee supported Lansbury. Morrison, the leader of the neighbouring Hackney Council, denounced Lansbury.


In the second half of the 1930s, Attlee was firm in his support for the Popular Front Government of Spain in its resistance to the revolt of General Franco and the armed assistance given to Franco by the fascist dictators of Italy and Germany.  Attlee denounced the British Government for its one-sided policy of so called non-intervention, which made it ‘an accessory to the attempt to murder democracy in Spain’.


Up to the year 1936 the constituency representatives on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party were elected by the whole of the annual conference. This meant, in effect, that the big unions had the predominant influence. Attlee was among those who pressed that the constituencies should elect their own representatives on the NEC. In 1937 this right was granted. For years afterwards – indeed to the present time – this change has ensured the presence of left-wingers on the NEC.


Attlee played a key role in the decision of the 1945 Labour Government to recognise the right of Indian independence. Power was transferred without political or military resistance from Britain. It was an historic step forward. Attlee’s influence was also important, indeed decisive, in preventing the expulsion of Aneurin Bevan from the Labour Party in 1954 after Bevan had led 62 Labour MPs in opposition to the Government’s support for nuclear weapons. Arthur Deakin, the then leader of the TGWU, was frustrated in his attempt to exclude Aneurin Bevan.


After these many indications of the left-of-centre influence of Attlee, how was it then, it might be asked, that the Labour Government under the leadership of Attlee committed itself to US leadership in the initial stages of the Cold War? The consequences of this decision – a heavy rearmament programme, a stringent wages policy at a time of rising profits and prices, the introduction of a two-year period of conscription to the armed forces, charges for certain NHS services, brakes on the housing programme and support for German rearmament – led eventually to a strong movement of dissent within the labour movement. It culminated in the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman from the Labour Government.


The answer to this question is that in 1945 Attlee did not begin his premiership with the intention of being a partisan in a Cold War. Francis Beckett provides evidence in his book that at the beginning of the Cold War Attlee was less responsive to US pressure than the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. He changed in 1947. He was undoubtedly influenced by Ernest Bevin, whom he admired.  Bevin had stood by the Labour Party in 1931-32, and his example influenced the trade union movement. Francis Beckett suggests that from that period Attlee and Bevin were ‘soulmates’.


Secondly, Attlee was certainly influenced by Britain’s very difficult economic situation in the post-war period. The economic pressure of the US Government under Truman, and the possible dire consequences for the British economy if the British Government failed to support the US in the ‘Cold War’ were, no doubt, very much in his mind.


Thirdly, by 1947 it was becoming clear that within Eastern Europe the Soviet Union was determined to consolidate its grip, even to the point of purging communist leaders who did not ‘toe the line’ on every issue. Other political leaders who were not communists had little or no opportunity for democratic dissent. For those of us who remain proud of so many of the achievements of the 1945 Labour Government and of the role of Attlee, it is necessary to acknowledge that in the controversies symbolised by the Bevanite movement of dissent, ‘Keep Left’, it was the dissenters who were right in warning of the dangers of the alignment of Britain with many aspects of US foreign policy.


It is worth adding an important footnote in relation to the attitude of Attlee. According to evidence available to Francis Beckett, Attlee would have preferred Aneurin Bevan to Hugh Gaitskell as Leader of the Party, though he believed it was not possible at the time for Bevan to secure the leadership. Francis Beckett also reveals that Attlee preferred Harold Wilson to Hugh Gaitskell.









































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