SHARING ATTLEE’S DNA
… to meet the significant economic and social challenge we face…requires a government with the sort of progressive reforming zeal typified, albeit in very different ways, by Clement Attlee or Tony Blair.
Observer Editorial.April 9 2017i
To which David Murray responded:
… your editorial (“May must focus on deep-seated structural ills, not just Brexit”) last week mentions Clement Attlee and Tony Blair in the same breath: leading, progressive, reforming governments with zeal, “albeit in very different ways”. Not half.
Before his government, though bankrupt, founded the National Health Service and built more than a million homes, Attlee, who was voted the greatest prime minister of the 20th century, became and called himself a socialist.
Thus, Attlee is not an easy figure for New Labour or an Observer editorial to appropriate.
On the other hand, Blair’s toxic legacy was to prolong Thatcherism…
The implied comparison between Jeremy Corbyn, Blair and Attlee is invalid, though, because Blair was not trying to return a belief system to its roots, which Corbyn is, those roots being closer to the socialism of Attlee than the New Labour of Blair.
No doubt Mr. Murray could have gone into much greater detail to dismiss the Observer’s false equivalence between a great British Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, and a despicable one, Tony Blair, as could I, but I won’t waste my time or yours on so tedious a subject.
Instead, for anyone who cares for the future of the country and of the Labour Party, exploring the parallels between Clem Attlee and Jeremy Corbyn is a much more fruitful endeavour.
I have become fascinated by the parallels between Corbyn and Attlee since devouring John Bew’s excellent 700 page biography (Citizen Clem: Riverrun 2016) after Christmas.
Excellent though it is, I doubt whether many of Labour’s 500,000 members or the 20,000 members of Momentum will plough through Bew’s tome. So I am taking it upon myself to offer some thoughts on how Jeremy Corbyn and the hundreds of thousands of Labour members who have placed their trust in him can be inspired by Attlee’s life, career and achievements.
Britain’s Most Radical and Reforming Government
Naturally, when discussing Attlee, our attention is focussed on the great achievements of the government he led from 1945–1951. And they are well worthy of our admiration. They explain why a majority of political analysts and scholars rate Attlee — not Churchill or Wilson or Thatcher — as Britain’s greatest Prime Minister of the 20th. Century.
When the Labour Party won a huge victory in the general election of 1945, Britain was still at war with Japan and, as David Murray says, economically bankrupt. Every penny and asset we had and huge dollar loans had gone into waging the war against Fascism. Inevitably, after the Japanese surrendered, the new Labour government faced a huge backlog of underinvestment in our industries and services — manufacturing, mining, road, rail and air transport, education, welfare, health and housing (especially) — which meant that they were all in a state of semi-collapse.
With the socialist Attlee as our Prime Minister instead of the arch-conservative Churchill, the capitalist USA foreclosed on the loans that it had made to help us wage the war against fascism, thus creating endless financial difficulties for the management of the British economy.
And yet, within five years, Attlee and his Ministers had created ‘an entirely new relationship between the citizen and the state’, mainly by implementing the Beverage Report of 1942.
Though writing when the end of the war was still years away, Sir William Beveridge recommended that at the end of hostilities, a welfare state should be created to provide security ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
In the welfare state that Attlee’s government created, all taxpayers contributed to social insurance, and everyone in the country was covered by it. Levels of benefits were standardised. The retirement pension was open to all and could now be claimed at the age of sixty-five rather than seventy. Weekly Family Allowances were given to all parents for every child except the first one.
In addition, they
- introduced National Assistance and National Insurance,
- passed laws to compensate workers for industrial injuries,
- nationalised the gas, electricity, civil aviation, cable an radio communications, road and rail transport, coal, steel industries, and most importantly, the Bank of England.
- created the National Health Service over the semi-hysterical opposition of the British Medical Association.
- provided over a million new council homes for rent in the most deprived parts of the country.
It had helped that in 1945 the British economy had been under almost total government control since the outbreak of war in 1939, but, even so, this was an incredible achievement.
Yet as John Bew says
The gallons of ink spilled on Winston Churchill — and the huge appetite for books about him — have created something of an imbalance in our understanding of twentieth-century Britain. Not only does Clement Attlee’s life deserve to have a rightful place alongside the Churchill legend, it is also more emblematic, and more representative, of Britain in his time.
Surely, now that we have a ten part TV biography of Einstein, and an endless stream of films and TV programmes about J.F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Hitler, Eisenhower, Churchill himself of course, and his wife, Clementine, its high time we had a ten part TV series that could begin to establish Attlee’s ‘rightful place’ in the history of the land he loved so much.
For now, however, some brief notes will have to suffice.
1906 — 1909. From ‘posh-boy’ to Street-Corner Socialist
In mid-1907Attlee was 24. He used to leave his flat in Stepney every morning at 8am. In a tail-coat, a shiny top-hat, and with a cane he would take the Tube to work as a junior barrister in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
He was born ‘posh’. He had been to Haileybury, a public school, and Oxford University and in most ways seemed content to follow the comfortable path that his barrister father had planned for him.
But, if that were true, why was he living in. the heart of the East End? In 1907 Stepney was a foul slum, notorious for poverty, squalor, prostitution, disease, crime and social unrest. Certainly not the kind of place that a young gentleman destined for a life at the Bar should choose to live.
The Haileybury Club
In those days, public schools set up educational and sporting clubs for boys and girls living in the East End. They were staffed by volunteers from their old-boys and their female relatives. In late 1905, Attlee, his brother Laurence and his sister Mary became volunteers at the Haileybury Club in Stepney and the life-time love affair between Attlee and the people of the East End began.
Bew tells us that,
He was deeply impressed above all by the sense of fellowship and solidarity that he encountered in the children at the club and the families of the area that he came to know. He was struck by the generosity he saw within working class communities where families rally in support of others in times of hardship or unemployment.
He described how the rather rather noisy crowd of boys on bicycles and with long quiffs… whom he had always regarded as bounders became human beings to him and he appreciated their high spirits and overlooked what he would formerly have called their vulgarity.
There was something about their independence of spirit, the banter and unfiltered honesty that captivated him.
By mid-1907, Attlee had become the resident manager of the Haileybury Club and for the rest of his life, the East End was to be his intellectual, political and, in some ways, his spiritual, home.
From ‘cynical young Tory’ to ‘street-corner Socialist’
At that time the East End was also the home of a bewildering variety of left-liberal, socialist, revolutionary and anarchist movements. Attlee found their ideas interesting but not interesting enough to join any of them. However, when Attlee read Keir Hardies’ book ‘From Serfdom to Socialism’, and met the man himself, from being, as he said later, ‘a rather cynical young Tory’, he started describing himself as ‘a socialist’.
In that same year, Attlee’s father died, bequeathing £70,000 to his wife and children. Secure financially from his share of the estate, Attlee didn’t stint himself materially but once he had joined Hardie’s Independent Labour Party, (ILP) he spent many hours a week handing out leaflets on street corners and outside the gates of factories and the docks. He also cured his shyness by forcing himself to make Socialist speeches from a soapbox.
Within a couple of years, Attlee had become a valued friend and colleague to many of the leading socialists, campaigners and reformers of the day: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Lansbury, Keir Hardie of course, and many others whose names are now largely forgotten, such as the Welsh dockworker, Tommy Williams. In 1909 he stood as a candidate for the ILP for Stepney Borough Council, and had embarked on his political career in spite of polling a meagre 69 votes.
Citizenship vs Class Conflict
As he made his way as a politician, and a propagandist for welfare reform, his commitment to socialism was combined with a passion for ‘citizenship’, and a loathing of the Marxian gospel of class conflict. From his own experience, he could see that a commitment to citizenship could transcend boundaries of class in the acceptance of measures for the public good. Whether socialist, liberal or conservative, men and women had also to be fully-functioning citizens, active in the community, politically engaged, respectful of need, of difference and diversity. It was a credo that he propounded in one form or another, for the rest of his life.
Forty years later, as Prime Minister, he saw the ideal of citizenship as the foundation of his government’s radical programme of social, industrial, economic and cultural innovation and reform.
Through citizenship a balance between rights and obligations could be drawn. Citizenship required patience, solidarity and sacrifice. To Attlee, because Socialism is a way of life, not just an economic theory, it demands a higher standard of civic virtue than capitalism. Hence, he always linked rights to obligations.
Attlee the Warrior.
Attlee had been made an officer in the Territorial Army in 1907 so that he could give some basic military training the boys at the Haileybury Club. Now, in spite of being 35 years old, and well past the normal age for enlistment, Attlee went to considerable trouble to sign up as an infantry officer as soon as war was declared in August 1914.
Not surprisingly, his war service made a considerable impact on Attlee’s world-view and his future career. His first taste of combat was in the disastrous and humiliating Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Many professional historians place the blame for the disaster on its designer, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.
Attlee begged to differ. He saw at first hand the strategic misjudgements and tactical blunders of the commanding generals and admirals, and absolved Churchill of the blame He thought the basic concept of an amphibious landing and a lightning campaign to capture Constantinople, the Turkish capital, was sound had it been competently planned and led.
Gallipoli was a hell-hole for the troops. They never managed to break through from the beaches and were under constant attack from the high ground inland. Attlee not only contracted dysentry from living in freezing, filthy dugouts, he was also severely wounded when a mortar exploded near him when leading an attack on Turkish positions. Even so, he recovered sufficiently to be given command of the rearguard that protected the secret, night-time evacuation of the troops as they crept out of their trenches and lined up on the beach to be loaded into Naval craft and taken back to England.
Attlee was wounded twice more before the end of the war. Once in Syria in 1916 and again in France in 1918. He seems to have had a charmed life since his injuries had no lasting impact on his health.
Not surprisingly, as he himself said,
… the strength of the love of the land of my birth was not realised until I was ordered to leave it. My years in the east gave life to that unrecognised affection. The Greek islands are beautiful … but I soon felt the want of the soft greys and greens of England.
Linked to his new understanding of his love of his homeland, was a renewed determination to work for his fellow-citizens, because
We live in a state of society where the vast majority lives stunted lives , and we must endeavour to give them a free life.
Critics of Attlee’s Leadership
After the war, Attlee rose from Mayor of Stepney (1921), to M.P. (1922), to junior Minister (1930), to Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (1933), to Leader (1935 to 1955), to Deputy Prime Minister (1940 to 1945) in Churchill’s wartime coalition, and then Prime Minister (1945 to 1951).
In all of that time, the overlapping notions of citizenship, ethical socialism and patriotism were absolutely integral to his belief system.
It may also seem that his rise was fairly smooth and inevitable. Far from it. Since its foundation the Labour Party has been a coalition of different interest groups, and to this day has not developed a national identity. Throughout Attlee’s political career, the party’s many interest groups had fiercely differing views on priorities, strategy, tactics and economic theory and had difficulty agreeing upon a shared programme. It was his patience, clear-thinking, tolerance and integrity that guided the party through 14 years of constant crises and upheavals to ultimate success.
Perhaps inevitably, once he had emerged as one of the leading members of the party, his character and personality were subject to endless examination, denigration and scarcely suppressed contempt from some of his closest colleagues and what we call today ‘the Metropolitan elite’.
From the start to the end of his career, he failed to meet some mythical standard that was thought to be essential for a genuine leaders. For example:
The leading Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb complained that he had . ‘No personality’ and had ‘Not shown personality of a popular leader .
Aneurin Bevan called him a ‘poor little rabbit’, ‘the arch mediocrity’ and would constantly snipe at his ‘suburban middle-class values’, his ‘tinny voice’ and his ‘lack of‘the attributes of a great Man’..
Stafford Cripps said he was ‘of no account’.
The editor of the New Statesman Kingsley Martin, also said that Attlee ‘Lacked the conspicuous attributes of a leader’. Alongside his rumbuctious Front Benchers, ( Cripps, Dalton, Morrison, Bevin and especially Bevan) he resembled ‘an ineffectual schoolmaster. Watching over boys who are too big to handle’.
Then there was his ‘droning voice’ so that, again according to Beatrice Webb, in his post Munich in 1938, speech, Attlee looked weak,. He spoke ‘Without distinction in voice, manner or the substance of his discourse.’, which was in fact, ‘meaningless’.
Increasingly, as his leadership was questioned, his front-bench colleagues, Cripps, Morrison, Dalton, Bevan and others constantly contemplated a coup against him. However, they all had too many enemies and distrusted and disliked each other too much to gather the support they needed.
By February 1940, attacks on Attlee’s leadership by Labour Party members and officials were so severe that the party hierarchy was forced to issue guidelines demanding that its members uphold a political.
When he took the Labour Party into a Wartime Coalition with Churchill, the City financier. Jack Corrigan said there were ‘many better men available’ and dismissed him as ‘a colourless nonentity’.
In 1946, Harold Nicholson conceded that, in many ways, he was ‘a delightful man but not a pilot in a storm’, and ‘ After Winston he’s like a village fiddler after Paganini’.
However, two years later, after he ended British colonial rule over India, Nicholson praised his ‘Vision, courage and intrepidity’.
As for Attlee himself, he believed that leadership required ‘moral or physical courage, sympathy, self discipline, altruism, and a superior capacity for hard work.’’
He despised those who believed leadership required Machiavellian or self-seeking personalities.
He had his faults, of course. He could make wounding, off-hand comments to young ministers. He had no time for rambling speeches, woolly thinking or poor preparation. One of those young ministers, Edmund Dell believed he was biased against youth and relied too much on the old lags of the 1930s.
Parallels between Attlee and Corbyn
The endless chorus of denigration and slurs that assailed Attlee from those who should have been his most loyal supporters has powerful echoes in the tempest of slander and insults to which Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected since he became the leader of the Labour Party.
And consider the Ten Point vision Corbyn set out last Autumn.
Full. employment and an economy that works for all: based around a £500bn public investment via the planned national investment bank.
Build 1m. new homes in five years, at least half of them council homes.
Stronger. employment rights, an end to zero hours contracts and mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees.
End the privatisation. of the NHS and. social care .
A national. education service that includes universal public childcare, free education, and quality apprenticeships.
Renationalise the rpailways and bringing private bus, leisure and sports facilities back into local government control.
A. progressive tax system where highest earners are “fairly taxed”, shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid.
Keep to the Paris climate agreement, Move to a “low-carbon economy” and green industries.
Act to. combat violence against women, and discrimination based on race, sexuality or disability. Defend the Human Rights Act.
Put conflict. resolution and human rights at the heart of our foreign policy
Looking at Corbyn’s vision, we can see that most of items are updated versions of the programme that Attlee’s government pursued against horrendous odds between 1945 and 1951.
There are other parallels too.
In the catastrophic 1931general election, 225 out of 277 members of the Parliamentary Labour Party lost their seats. Its former leader Ramsay Macdonald, had created a splinter-party and gone into a coalition with the Tories. This traitorous coalition imposed an economic policy of severe cuts in public services, and an economic strategy that was based on what we would today call ‘neoliberal’, free-market principles. This was a betrayal that Attlee never forgave.
When Attlee became Deputy Leader in 1933 there were just 52 Labour M.P.s.
In the 1935 General Election, Attlee’s 52 Labour M.P.s were joined by 102 new members but those 154 M.P.s were still faced by 386 Tory M.P.s and 33 Liberals.
That is how it stayed until Labour’s extraordinary victory of 1945 when 393 Labour M.P.s found themselves facing 189 Tories and 21 Liberals.
On the Labour benches there were 150 manual workers, 39 miners, 44 lawyers, 39 teachers and lecturers, 8 housewives, and sixteen managers and technicians.
Numerically, the situation today seems to be nowhere near as disastrous as it was in 1931 and 1935. However, in spite of the snarkiness of some of his colleagues, Attlee could rely upon the unswerving support of all but a tiny handful of the Labour M.P.s and party officials.
Attlee, like Corbyn, was fundamentally opposed to the disastrously destructive free-market, ideology and despised Macdonald for his adoption of it. Attlee’s views were shared by every Labour M.P.throughout his tenure as Leader and Prime Minister.
Now, however, )
The Parliamentary Labour Party, most Labour councillors, and the bulk of the party apparatus at both national and local level … are the political agents of the neoliberal counter-revolution.
(They) are engaged in dismantling, at the behest of big capital, the social-democratic achievements of post-war Labour (and even Tory) governments.
That is why, since they lost control of the leadership to the Left, they have turned the Labour Party into a civil war.
Neil Faulkner. The Tories, the General Election, and Neoliberalism’s Second Phase. Left Unity
Consequently, unlike the irritating snarkiness that Attlee had to endure, Corbyn faces something far more dangerous. He and his supporters are locked in an embrace of death with what Attlee would see as hundreds of free-market quislings occupying key positions in the party, nationally and locally.
In a striking image, Neil Faulkner says,
The main fracture line in British politics runs not between parties, but down the middle of the Labour Party. This is the point on the political spectrum where supporters of the rich and corporate power, of austerity, privatisation, and war, meet supporters of a radical alternative based on equality, democracy, peace, and sustainability
The situation is grave, and around that fracture line, the Labour Party is going to go through some very bad times in the years to come, the quizlings will see to that.
But, for the first time in decades, a majority of the members are beginning to be aware of the threats that neoliberalism poses to the future of all that they hold dear, and are determined to take the fight to their enemies, whether without or within.
For the vast majority of members, Corbyn’s great asset is that, like Attlee, he is
motivated by a deep and profound sympathy for the humble men and women who do the ordinary tasks of the world.
Recently he shared the key elements of his personal political philosophy with an audience in Whitechapel, just by Attlee’s old borough of Stepney. In it he said:
each and everyone of us must step up for this country.
we should act together to overturn unfairness and create a better society
in my 35 years in Parliament I haven’t seen any sustained attempt to rid this country of what really holds people back; the rigged economy that favours the few over the many.
it is the job of leadership to hold open the space for dissent and new thinking
insecure leaders want to feel stronger by giving them more power, Strong leaders see their job as equipping you with more power.
I’m in this job because I believe politics is about rejecting the reassurances and simple slogans from government,. Its about sharing ideas and deciding on real and lasting alternatives.
its only through unleashing your talents that this country can succeed.
Clem Attlee would have agreed with every word but would have had some sharp debates on other matters. In some ways, as he himself was well aware, he still retained the world view of an upper-class Victorian schoolboy. To the chagrin of many Labour Party activists, he dismissed out of hand any suggestion of abolishing the public schools. Further, while he never forgot the horrors of World War One, he still believed that fighting a war could serve a just and even noble purpose. Not even the invention of nuclear weapons changed that.
Corbyn, his closest allies, most members of the Labour Party and tens of millions of British people may not share those particular ideas, but, as Corbyn’s speeches and policies show, they do share the political DNA that turned a cynical young Tory into a street-corner socialist and ultimately our greatest Prime Minister.
We must always remember that there was a gap of fourteen years between 1931 and 1945. Only then could Labour form a competent government and deliver on the policies that reflected the shared values and visions of its leader and its members. When he became leader, the party was still in deep crisis due to the betrayal of Ramsay Macdonald and some of his acolytes, just as Corbyn has become leader in the aftermath of the betrayal of Tony Blair and the New-Labour clique.
If the Observer had wanted to make a comparison between Blair and another Labour Prime Minister, it is obvious that the one who is closest to the mark is, of course, Ramsay Macdonald.
Moreover, until Corbyn came along, none of Attlee’s successors have shared his commitment to the obligations of citizenship and a deep and profound sympathy for the humble men and women who do the ordinary tasks of the world.
Now that Corbyn is here, and is passionately supported by the majority of Labour members, we have the chance of co-creating a political party whose achievements in the 21st Century can be justly compared with those of Attlee in the 20th Century.
It is a process that has only just begun, The current General Election, regardless of its outcome, is merely a signpost along the journey to the just and sustainable future that we all want to see.