There is no shortage of contemporary analysis about the depressing state of UK politics.
But the best political writing I have read recently has been a biography of a politician who died over 50 years ago. Reading Citizen Clem by John Bew truly inspired me.
Clement Attlee had an incredible career. After growing up in a comfortable middle-class home and studying at Oxford, he threw himself into social work in London’s East End, at The Haileybury Club and later at Toynbee Hall. From 1905 onwards, he saw the limitations of liberal philanthropy and was converted to socialism.
He had a distinguished war record in WW1, rising to the rank of Major and being injured in action three times. After the war, he was elected to be Labour Mayor of Stepney and later became MP for Limehouse.
He became a key figure who helped salvage the Labour Party after Ramsey MacDonald’s infamous betrayal in 1931. He became Labour leader in 1935 and played a important role in supporting the need to fight Hitler.
In the WW2 War Cabinet, he became Churchill’s Deputy Prime Minister and largely oversaw the domestic management of the country during some of its darkest hours.
When party politics resumed in 1945, he shocked the world by winning a stunning landslide election victory over Churchill. Despite the crippling debt and austerity created by the war, he led the most radical government in modern history, establishing the welfare state, the NHS and widespread educational and housing developments.
On top of all this, he played a key role in establishing NATO, overseeing India’s transition to independence and Britain’s Empire into a Commonwealth.
Despite all this, Attlee has been somewhat neglected by history. Many on the left have preferred to celebrate more colourful characters such as Aneurin Bevan.
In character and demeanour, Attlee was very different to archetype of a charismatic leader. In fact, before reading this book, the only quotes I knew about Attlee were both disparaging descriptions attributed to Churchill:
‘A sheep in sheep’s clothing’ ‘A modest little man who has plenty to be modest about’
So what made Clement Attlee such a great politician? These were the 4 key themes I gleaned from this biography:
1) Integrity and lack of ego
Sir John Colville, a senior civil servant who worked closely with Attlee, said that he had ‘no shred of either conceit or vanity’. He was not interested in increasing his profile or grand gestures. At times this exasperated his own supporters but it also secured him a high degree of trust among voters. Even those who disagreed with him tended to think of him as honourable.
Without this reputation and trust, especially among middle-class voters, the radical reforms of the post-war government would never have been secured.
2) Bravery and resilience
Attlee showed an obvious form of bravery in WW1 where he chose to re-enter combat roles even after sustaining serious injury. But throughout his career, he withstood years of intense attacks from within his own party. But instead of simply side-lining those who criticised him, like Bevan, he offered many of these people key roles because he believed in their talents.
Attlee continually challenged what he saw as the narrow dogmatism and cult of marginality that dogged Labour. He wanted Labour to be trusted with power to change things and bring an inclusive form of socialism that would truly improve lives, not just win political purity points among the party faithful.
3) His emphasis on rights and responsibilities
Attlee believed that Britain needed to re-configure its economic structures to make them fundamentally more fair. But his politics never lost its civic and ethical commitments – being a citizen cannot be reduced just to economics. In his own words:
“One of the greatest dangers of civilisation today is that man’s conquests in the realms of science have outstripped his moral progress. It is the greatest task which lies ahead of us all in the Labour and Socialist movement to see to it that the citizen’s sense of obligation to the community keeps pace with the changes effected in the structure of society. We need to stress duties as well as rights.”
4) ‘Social patriotism’
Like George Orwell, Attlee was a socialist who rejected pacifism and took up arms against the forces of fascism. Despite their political differences, he supported Churchill because he knew he was the only leader who could unite the country against Hitler. Once the war was won, he opposed him and beat him.
Attlee was a ‘social patriot’. He rejected nationalistic jingoism but did not want simply to de-construct the country and descend into class war but wanted Britain to be a better version of itself. He saw the injustices of Britain’s Empire but also the opportunity to redeem some good from it. I love this description of his political ambitions:
‘We live is a state of society where the vast majority live stunted lives – we endeavour to give them a freer life.’
Relevance for today
Attlee grappled with some of the deepest and most vexing political challenges in British political history. And he played a decisive and key role in creating the Britain we live in today.
We live in an age where everyone (not just politicians) can be tempted to virtue signal rather graft for authentic change. And social media increases the tendency to care more about style than substance. Many cherish the applause of their own tribe rather than working for deeper forms of unity.
We desperately need political inspiration today. For me, Attlee’s integrity, lack of ego, personal bravery and social patriotism challenge and inspire me. They are all qualities incredibly relevant for today.