Book review: Citizen Clem – A Biography of Attlee by John Bew


Published by Riverrun

Uncharismatic, underwhelming and a bit posh, Clement Attlee might seem an unlikely hero. But he’s certainly one of my heroes. And he should probably be one of yours too.
He came from a privileged background, the sort of background many on the Right see as inappropriate for someone on the Left. In fact, Attlee’s origins are very typical of many on the Left: Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Hugh Dalton, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell and many others. But Attlee, unlike most right wingers was intelligent enough to recognise the realities of poverty and sought to rectify them, rather than either seeking to blame the poor for their own misfortunes or obsessing about the social background of those attempting to alleviate poverty as the Right tend to do.
Attlee retained a certain conservatism. He never moved against the royal family or the House of Lords. He never attacked public schools either, having enjoyed his own schooldays.

His relationship with Winston Churchill, the other political giant of his era is fascinating. As a young man, Attlee watched the top hatted Home Secretary as he attended the 1911 Sidney Street Siege. He didn’t blame Churchill for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landings even though he took part in them himself. He served loyally as Churchill’s wartime deputy. He trounced Churchill in the 1945 General Election.
As John Bew’s extremely well researched and thorough Orwell award winning book reminds us, Attlee probably did more than any other 20th century British Prime Minister to transform Britain for the better. This is a great book about a great man.

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Great political myths of our time

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  1. “The chief problem with MPs today, is that too few of them have held a job outside politics”.

Saying this sort of thing is an easy way to get a big applause on BBC’s ‘Question Time’. But is it really such a problem? Anyone who wants to get on in politics is surely well-advised to start pursuing their ambitions early. Even in the past, many of those who did pursue other careers first (Margaret Thatcher was briefly a chemist, Tony Benn was a pilot and worked for the BBC) ultimately seem to have been biding their time until they got into parliament anyway, just like David “PR exec” Cameron and Tony “lawyer” Blair. But why is it assumed that MPs who have done other jobs first are necessarily of better quality? Remember: for every Winston Churchill or Paddy Ashdown, there’s a Jeffery Archer, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Neil Hamilton (an ex-teacher), a Robert Maxwell or an Iain Duncan Smith. All of these last five had other careers before politics. None seem to have been better MPs as a result.

2. “The Labour Party today has been taken over by the middle classes who have moved it to the right.”

Again, this isn’t the problem. Labour has always had lots of poshos in it from Clement Attlee to Hugh Gaitskell to Shirley Williams. It’s wrong to assume people from wealthier backgrounds are necessarily more conservative anyway. Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Michael Foot, after all came from better off families and they were hardly pseudo-Tories. Nor were James Callaghan or David Blunkett, exactly rampant lefties despite being of working class stock.

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3. “Labour is obsessed with class”.

Actually, if you look at the tabloid press, it is clear the Right are far more intent on class war, attacking anyone on benefits as a “scroungers” and anyone not to their political liking with money as “hypocrites” or “champagne socialists”. Ignore them!

4. “Rupert Murdoch is nor right wing: he just likes to back a winner.”

Wrong! Murdoch will only back those who share his own right wing outlook. Hence why he backed losers like John McCain and Mitt Romney in the US and still backed the Tories even as they appeared to be heading for defeat in May 2015. Remember this, next time you pick up The Times!

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