John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee has been greeted with almost universal acclaim: enthusiastic reviews, usually with an eye to the book’s contemporary significance, appeared in the Financial Times, the lrb, the Spectator, the Times and the Observer, and Citizen Clem went on to claim the Elizabeth Longford Prize for historical biography and the 2017 Orwell Prize. Born in Northern Ireland, the son of historian-turned-Unionist peer Paul Bew, the book’s author now teaches at King’s College, London. Bew’s first books concentrated on his home region: a study of nineteenth-century Belfast unionism, and Talking to Terrorists, which purported to distil the lessons of the Northern Irish and Basque peace processes. These works were followed in 2011 by an admiring biography of Castlereagh, intended to rehabilitate the butcher of Peterloo, and in 2016 by Realpolitik: A History. Bew also built up a record of political engagement as a stalwart of the hawkish, Atlanticist Henry Jackson Society from its foundation in 2005, before moving on to another right-leaning think-tank, Policy Exchange. He writes regularly for the New Statesman, specializing in international affairs.
Bew set out his stall for the Attlee biography in a 2013 New Statesman essay, putting forward two lines of argument that were later picked up by his admiring reviewers. The domestic reforms of the 1945–51 Labour government were made possible by a unique post-war conjuncture and could not be extended or even preserved in contemporary Britain—so much for the ‘Spirit of ’45’. But the other side of Attlee’s record, his anti-Soviet foreign policy and commitment to nato, was timeless and should be maintained at all costs. In his journalistic output, Bew has been especially concerned to defend Labour’s tradition of playing loyal lieutenant to the us—something he calls ‘Labour internationalism’—and to brand all critics of that tradition as stooges of Putin, isis and Saddam Hussein. Writing when Ed Miliband was leader of the British Labour Party, he reluctantly conceded that ‘the disavowal of Blairism is inevitable, perhaps, for the time being at least.’ The priority would be to salvage Labour’s Atlanticist commitment from the wreckage of Iraq and prevent any lurch into ‘isolationism’. Hitting the shelves soon after Miliband was replaced by Jeremy Corbyn, a man whose record Bew detested, Citizen Clem clearly spoke to those who opposed the left capture of Labour’s leadership with similar vehemence.
Born in 1883, the son of a successful barrister, Attlee’s background lay in suburban Putney, and his first contact with the labour movement came when he was already in his twenties. As Bew notes, the public school Attlee attended, Haileybury, had a longstanding connection with the East India Company. The future Labour leader progressed to Oxford and a short-lived legal career with ‘essentially Conservative—and most decidedly imperialist—political convictions’. His concern with the plight of the poor had its origins in the Boer War, when the proportion of working-class men rejected by the Army as medically unfit was seen as a serious problem. Attlee was concerned that ‘the health of the working class was now directly connected to the health of empire’, and became active in the Haileybury Club in London’s East End, supervising the activities of working-class youths. He gravitated towards the Independent Labour Party (ilp) during the pre-war upsurge of labour unrest, although there is no evidence of him actively supporting the great struggles of those tumultuous years.
Attlee was a keen supporter of the war that began in 1914—going ‘out of his way to serve’, according to Bew—and fought for the Empire at Gallipoli, in the Middle East and on the western front. His brother Tom, also an ilp member, was jailed as a conscientious objector. Bew quotes from a letter of Attlee’s to Tom, describing his refusal to serve as a form of ‘anarchic individualism’, and comparing it to Edward Carson’s threat of violent resistance to Irish Home Rule before the war. (In an irony that Bew will certainly be well aware of, but chooses not to mention, Carson was rewarded for this act of treachery with a Cabinet seat, while Tom Attlee was consigned to Wormwood Scrubs.) He also cites an unpublished reflection of Attlee’s on the collapse of the Second International, in which he attributed the ditching of anti-war pledges by British, French and German socialists to ‘solidarity with their fellow countrymen, but also the need for preserving intact the field on which they fought their particular battles’. This attitude remained unshaken after four years of unprecedented slaughter: ‘It was not until the Great War that I fully understood the strength of the ties that bind men to the land of their birth.’ Such feelings were to be accommodated, not challenged: in Bew’s words, Attlee saw Labour’s unhesitating support for the war as ‘an important advance in its efforts to appear as a truly national party’.
Bew insists that Attlee wanted to shield Britain from ‘European-style radicalism and disorder’ after the war, and points to his 1920 book The Social Worker as a crucial source, describing it as ‘the forgotten script of the twentieth-century Labour Party’. The Social Worker was written when Attlee was lecturing at the London School of Economics, and the book’s title gives an accurate sense of its contents. Rather than emancipating themselves through class struggle, the working class was to be improved by piecemeal reform that would disrupt the established order as little as possible. He feared that the 1926 General Strike might ‘damage Labour’s hard-won reputation for constitutional propriety’.
Attlee had been elected to the Commons in 1922, but first achieved prominence when the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald nominated him to serve on a cross-party commission set up by Stanley Baldwin in 1927 to examine India’s future constitutional development. Predictably, the Commission included no Indians among its members, something that even its chairman Sir John Simon regarded as somewhat incongruous. Bew suggests that, when the Commission landed in Bombay, ‘they found themselves boycotted by local politicians’. In fact, when the ship arrived, the docks had to be put under heavy police guard as a city-wide general strike had been called against the Commission and 50,000 people were marching through the streets. Protests continued as the commissioners travelled around the country. In Lahore, police attacked the nationalist leader Lala Lajpat Rai at a demonstration. Rai, who had once placed great hopes in the British Labour Party, died from his injuries a fortnight later. On his return to London, Attlee was greeted at Victoria Station by protesters led by the communist Labour mp Shapurji Saklatvala, and had to escape through a side entrance. All of this goes completely unrecorded in Bew’s account, although he does find space to mention ‘an Old Haileyburian dinner’ that was held in Attlee’s honour in Rawalpindi. No doubt this reflects Attlee’s own sense of priorities. When the Commission produced its report, events had already passed it by, with Ramsay MacDonald, now Prime Minister, resolved to ignore it. For Beatrice Webb, one of Attlee’s early mentors, the report appeared to have been written on the assumption that ‘the British were born to rule and the Indians are born to be ruled’. Indeed, it left Attlee—as his first biographer, Roy Jenkins, conceded—with a reputation as ‘a reactionary on the Indian question’. Under MacDonald’s premiership, Gandhi launched his second great civil disobedience campaign. By the time it was called off, the Labour government had imprisoned more than 60,000 men and women, with an unknown number of fatal shootings by soldiers and police. Some Labour mps objected to this; Attlee was not among them. Again, Bew leaves the episode unmentioned.
Attlee’s progression through Labour ranks was greatly advanced by the defection of MacDonald and his Chancellor Philip Snowden to the Tory camp in 1931. Although he occupied a junior ministerial post at the time, Attlee was not considered important enough to be sounded out by MacDonald for his new cabinet. Narrowly retaining his Limehouse seat when most of his colleagues were trounced by MacDonald’s ersatz ‘National Government’, Attlee was thrust to the front of a greatly diminished Labour parliamentary group, and became leader in 1935. Under the impact of the prolonged economic slump and the rise of fascism in Europe, the rump Labour Party was pulled leftwards, and Bew is forced to admit that ‘Attlee did flirt with radicalism in these years in a way that belied his later image.’ He quotes from a paper drafted by Attlee and Stafford Cripps, which called for decisive anti-capitalist reforms in the opening months of a Labour government: ‘The blow struck must be a fatal one and not merely designed to wound and to turn a sullen and destructive opponent into an active and deadly enemy.’ Cripps published an essay which asked if socialism could be introduced by constitutional methods, arguing that an elected left-wing government would have to abolish the House of Lords and use emergency powers to overcome conservative resistance.