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Red herring: the real Clement Attlee

He may have looked like Captain Mainwaring but Labour’s ‘great reformer’ was our most revolutionary prime minister, says Francis Beckett

02 July, 2020 — By Francis Beckett

Clement Attlee

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this Sunday, on July 5, 1945, Britain voted for a revolution, and in the next three years Clement Attlee’s Labour government delivered one – a welfare state to look after British citizens “from the cradle to the grave”, a National Health Service, free and compulsory schooling for all children up to the age of 15, decent housing for everyone.

The voters gave Labour a massive 135 seat majority. Even in true blue Hampstead, where at the previous general election in 1935 the Tories had trounced Labour by 28,334 votes to 6,987, the sitting Conservative came within a whisker of losing, eventually scraping home with 19,562 votes to Labour’s 18,294, while Labour’s George House took St Pancras North from the Conservatives, who had held it since 1931.

Labour won against perhaps the most vicious media onslaught ever seen. GESTAPO IN BRITAIN IF SOCIALISTS WIN was one Daily Express headline during the campaign. And in 1945, newspapers were the only way most people had of finding out what was going on in the world.

But there was a mood for change which was stronger than the newspaper proprietors. People felt they had not worked and suffered through the war years, and seen their friends and relatives killed, just to come back to the same unfair society they had known in the 1930s.

The personality of Clement Attlee was an advantage. Attlee, the most revolutionary prime minister Britain has ever had, looked and sounded like a provincial bank manager (in the days when banking was still a respectable profession.)

Take his handling of the “Gestapo” headline. The Express took it from a speech in which Winston Churchill said that Labour would “have to fall back on some sort of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance”. A less accomplished politician than Attlee might have angrily denounced it. Attlee simply said on the radio, calmly and quietly:

“When I listened to the prime minister’s speech last night… I realised at once what was his object. He wanted the electors to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader in war of a united nation” – here he dropped his voice from its grave tone so that he sounded suddenly casual and dismissive – “and Mr Churchill, the party leader of the Conservatives”.

He summed up his message like this: “The Conservative Party believes that the basis of our economic activities must be what they call private enterprise, inspired by the motive of private profit. They seem to hold that if every individual pursues his own interest, somehow or other the interest of all will be served… The country has been run on those principles for years, yet a great number of people in this country have always been badly-housed, badly-clothed, and deprived of the opportunity of work…”

Churchill travelled in a cavalcade and harangued huge audiences. Attlee travelled in the passenger seat of the family Hillman Minx, with his wife Violet at the wheel, an atlas on his knees if they were unsure of the route, The Times crossword when they knew the way. In the cramped back seat sat a security man and the reporter from the Labour-supporting Daily Herald.

The most outwardly modest of political leaders, Attlee knew, as he once said in a letter to a colleague, that he had “neither the personality nor the distinction to tempt me to think that I should have any value apart from to the party which I serve.”

He believed that if Britain had had a presidential system, Churchill would have won in 1945, and he enjoyed telling the story of an old lady in his Limehouse constituency who went to the polling station in order to vote for Mr Churchill, and was put out to find that Mr Churchill’s name was not on her ballot paper. Fortunately, she saw that Mr Attlee’s name was, and he was Mr Churchill’s deputy, so she happily voted for him instead.

Few party leaders construct personal victories around their own personalities rather than their parties, though one or two have been feeble-minded enough to imagine they did. Tony Blair once claimed to have built a link with the people over the head of his party, and I fear our present prime minister may have deluded himself into imagining that Britons have some special affection for him.

The best they can hope for is to be trusted, for if you are trusted, you can change the world, as the Attlee government did. It’s a lesson Keir Starmer seems to have taken to heart, for he has adopted at least that part of the Attlee persona – he is not a great speechmaker, and he manages to sound unthreatening even when he is saying quite radical things.

  • Francis Beckett’s Clem Attlee – Labour’s Great Reformer is published by Haus Publishing.

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