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Attlee’s War

World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader


Robert Crowcroft


London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Hardcover. x+210 pp. ISBN 978-1848852860. £56.50


Reviewed by Laura Beers

American University, Washington, DC


Crowcroft’s Attlee’s War is one of two books on Clement Attlee’s record as a leader to be published by I.B. Tauris in the past two years. Last year, Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds’ Attlee : A Life in Politics argued that Attlee, although the head of one of British history’s most activist ministries, was himself a flawed leader, whose unwillingness to confront controversial issues not infrequently undermined both his government and his party. Attlee’s War takes a more positive view of the man whom a recent survey of academics named the most successful prime minister of the twentieth century, arguing that

His leadership style—consistently elusive to historians—enabled Labour to dominate party politics between 1939 and 1945. In fact, Attlee’s ascendancy within government and over his own party was possibly the most significant force in shaping the entire direction of wartime politics. [2]

While the second claim in particular is somewhat overblown, the argument that Attlee was a more astute political operative than he has often been given credit for struck me as fair. Clement Attlee was Leader of the Labour party for twenty years, from 1935 to 1955. His tenure was punctuated by multiple attempts to displace him, most of them orchestrated by his longtime colleague and rival Herbert Morrison. The fact that he held on for as long as he did indicates a degree of political prowess underappreciated by previous studies. If Attlee’s War had limited itself to arguing for a reevaluation of Attlee’s leadership, it would have proved a valuable contribution to the literature, and a text that could have been read profitably against Thomas-Symonds by scholars and students interested to reassess the legacy of a man who is certainly amongst, if not “the most poorly understood senior politician of the whole era” [1]. Yet, Crowcroft has set himself a larger project in this book, positioning Attlee’s War as a radical insertion of a much-needed dose of “elite” history into a field that, he claims, has hitherto neglected to take seriously the role of personality and leadership.

In Crowcroft’s assessment, “historians seek inexorably to expand the boundaries of what is deemed ‘politics’ and range ever further into areas like ‘culture’ [and frequently ever further into gibberish masquerading as sophisticated thought]” and, as such, “the case for refocusing attention on the realm of the elite is a powerful one” [235]. He lays out his agenda squarely in his introduction:

The case can be made that the war was perhaps the most significant instance of political strategising and calculated scheming in twentieth-century British politics … Yet, the events considered have never been interpreted from this perspective. [3]

Several pages later, he posits that

The idea that the position the Labour leaders found themselves occupying in 1945 did not just come to them, but had to be made, deserves serious consideration. This book attempts to be the first to transcend the arguments about ‘consensus’ and place emphasis on alternative ideas in explaining politics before 1945. [7]

Crowcroft is the co-editor of a recent festschrift to Maurice Cowling and he clearly sees himself engaged in a project of “rescuing” the importance of leadership and individual agency in twentieth century politics. But, in that he set out to convince readers that high political history should be taken seriously, Attlee’s War has not done much to achieve this end. Rather, through his persistent exaggerated claims, abuse of previous scholars, ignorance of others, and straw-manning and distortion of the work of his predecessors and peers, he succeeds primarily in undercutting the strength of his own arguments.

Take first his critique on the current state of political history. In a footnote to the introduction, he writes that his intent is “not to denigrate studies of political culture per se, merely the faddish language and faux sophistication of much of the work”. However, he goes on to make his feelings on such research clear:


It is a tendency absorbed from cultural studies, and which Roger Scruton bemoans as now constituting ‘the lingua franca of the humanities: gibberish’, and ‘armoured nonsense’ to protect ‘fraudulence’, a ‘gobbledygook’ in which ‘words are cast as spells rather than used as arguments’ resulting only in intellectual disaster.

In the next reference he cites “John Charmley’s glorious statement that ‘I am not much concerned with theories of discourse, masculinities, feminism, or any of the other modish things that have come along in the last twenty-five years’ ” [245]. The so-called cultural turn in political history, like all other historiographical turns, has produced some scholarship that will fail the test of time, but in the case of Second World War studies it has indisputably furthered our understanding of the field in ways which Crowcroft fails to acknowledge. His claim that his book is the first to move beyond the “consensus” approach to studying the World War II politics ignores the important contribution of Steven Fielding’s analysis of the role of apathy in 1940s politics, as well as my own work on the importance of the mediated communication in converting voters to Labour. It also dismisses the contribution of Stephen Brooke’s work on Labour’s wartime policy, which, although principally a history of ideas, pays significant attention to the party-political context in which those ideas were played out.

Crowcroft’s repeated dismissal of Brooke’s work is “admittedly reflective of studying politics in terms of the impact of individual actors instead of ‘policies’, ‘processes’ or ideas’ ” [120]. But, ignoring policies, processes and ideas leaves him in the position of assuming that politics is no more or less than “the struggle between elites to mount the greasy pole” [239]; and, such a perspective cannot capture the subtleties of wartime politics. That both the Labour and Conservative members of the Churchill cabinet engaged in their fair share of “political strategising and calculated scheming” is, contrary to Crowcroft’s assertion, well known to anyone who has studied Second World War politics, or who has ever flipped through a copy of Hugh Dalton’s wartime diaries.

That Morrison strove to manipulate his position as Home Secretary to his own political advantage will also not come as news to most, despite Crowcroft’s assertion that “the rise of Morrison [is] an event neglected altogether by previous historians”. [188] But the intricacies of even Morrison’s scheming cannot be understood outside of the context of ideology and policy. Morrison was undoubtedly one of the most personally ambitious men ever to fail to obtain his party’s leadership, but his actions during the war were not entirely dictated by unseating Clement Attlee. He was also a man who devoted his life to the Labour Party, and who cared deeply about making Labour a national party. So, yes, there was doubtless a part of him that initially wanted to sustain the coalition after the war in order that he personally could remain in government, but it would be foolish to discount the legitimacy of his calculation that, as long as Churchill’s personal popularity appeared to foreclose the possibility of a Labour victory, it was better for his party to keep Labour inside the government than out. Conversely, when in spring 1945 Morrison shifted in favour of a dissolution of the coalition and an early election, a desire to undermine Attlee doubtless played a role. But, Morrison was not a man willing to throw his party under a bus to secure the leadership of the Opposition. For the past several months he had devoted tremendous energy and resources to preparing Labour for an election through his dominance of the National Executive’s election committee, and was clearly increasingly hopeful of Labour chances.

Attlee’s own attitudes towards the coalition similarly cannot be understood solely in terms of a “Machiavellian effort to stay in office” [211], no more than Churchill’s own attitudes towards coalition can be understood in this context—a point that Richard Toye made clear in his study of Lloyd George and Churchill, which paid significant attention to both men’s ideological affinities toward “big man” politics. While Attlee’s War offers some interesting insights into Attlee’s leadership style, it is not a particularly illuminating guide to “elite” Labour politics in wartime Britain.



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