Labour’s Great Reformer
London: Haus Publishing, 2015
Paperback. xxi+490 p. ISBN 978-1910376058. £11
Reviewed by Laura Beers
University of Birmingham
This is not a book intended for an academic reader, nor does it deserve to be read by one. Historians looking for a comprehensive scholarly biography of Attlee are still best served by Kenneth Harris’s authorised history, first published in 1980. Since its publication, Attlee, arguably Labour’s greatest prime minister, has been graced by numerous studies, including Trevor Burridge’s Clement Attlee : A Political Biography (1985), Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds’ skeptical assessment of the Labour leader, Attlee : A Life in Politics (2010), and Michael Jago’s recent Clement Attlee : The Inevitable Prime Minister (2014), as well as several more niche studies, such as Jonathan Swift’s Labour in Crisis : Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in Opposition, 1931-1940, and Robert Crowcroft’s Attlee’s War : World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader (2011). Attlee also formed the subject of an earlier biography by Beckett, published by Methuen in 2007, which forms the basis for this updated and expanded study.
This new book is significantly longer than Beckett’s 2007 effort, and includes previously unpublished archival material on the Romanian-born Limehouse political operative/fixer Oscar Tobin who helped get Attlee his start in politics and whom Attlee helped to arrange his naturalisation, and slightly more information about the author’s father John Beckett, who worked as Attlee’s first agent in Limehouse. (There is, however, notably little on Beckett’s shift from supporting Labour to supporting Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, nor is there much on the emergence and appeal of the BUF, despite Beckett’s unique opportunity to glean an understanding of the movement from his father.) It also includes references to some recent literature, albeit exclusively books intended for a broader trade audience, including David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-51 (2010) and Peter Hennessy’s Never Again : Britain 1945-51 (2006). Yet, the core of the book remains unchanged. The author’s principal argument is that Attlee was a skilled politician and tactician; that his rise to power was the result of that skill and not a result of the historical “accident” of his being one of the few junior ministers from the 1929-31 government to retain his parliamentary seat following the 1931 general election debacle; that his politics were more consistently radical than his left-wing detractors have appreciated; and that he was personally much more warm-hearted and witty than the public perception of him as a taciturn enigma suggests.
Personally, I like Attlee, and am inclined to endorse a positive reading of his political strengths. However, there were times when Beckett’s biography seemed to verge over into the hagiographic. For example, Beckett’s discussion of why Attlee supported Ramsay MacDonald’s timid legislative programme during the 1929-31 Labour government does not address the nuance of interwar political economy, or take seriously the deep ambivalence of many within the Labour movement about the politics of the possible in a situation of minority government. Instead, MacDonald is painted unproblematically as a vainglorious villain – a “cruel fraud”  – and Attlee is excused for supporting him on the flimsy pretext that, while “he must in his heart have agreed with the ILP [left-wing opponents of the administration]”, he had “decided that rebellion was not going to achieve anything”, and hence decided not to rock the boat [133, 136]. On the question of Attlee’s commitment to living a middle-class lifestyle, including providing his children with a private education, he has even less to say. The most illuminating moment on this subject is when he quotes Attlee’s response to a question from his daughter as to why he sent her and her siblings to private schools if he believed in state education: “The man who lives in the world as though the world is the way he hopes it is going to be is a crank” .
While it is hard not to wish at times that Beckett had trained a more critical eye on his subject, this is not the reason that students and scholars should steer clear of this book. Rather, it is riddled with factual errors of the kind that should not be allowed into even the most loosely edited trade history. Most egregiously, Beckett writes that, following the 1926 general strike, the prime minister Stanley Baldwin, “agreed to ditch a bill which would have severely damaged the Labour Party’s income, sounding as though he were being gracious to a defeated enemy. The bill, which had wide Conservative support, would have required trade union members to ‘opt in’ to paying the political levy instead of ‘opting out’ as formerly” . The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act was in fact passed by the Baldwin government in 1927, and the clause requiring union members to opt in to the political levy cost the party approximately one-third of its subscription income. The act was fiercely resented by the Labour party – its repeal was one of the first acts of the Attlee government (one which, unsurprisingly, is not mentioned in this book). Other errors include the assertion that “Labour’s 1936 conference in Edinburgh condemned non-intervention [in the Spanish Civil War] and demanded that the British government restore to the Spanish government its right to bear arms” . Actually, this did not happen. While several Labour MPs, including Ellen Wilkinson, Philip Noel-Baker and Leah Manning, spoke passionately in favour of the Spanish Republic, the party executive refused to take action in 1936, for fear of a backlash from Catholic trade unionists, and the conference only called for an end to non-intervention in 1937. Attlee ultimately became a vocal supporter of the Republic, and the international brigade christened the Major Attlee Company in his honour. However, he did not initially take a firm lead on Spain. Lord Beaverbrook, the architect of “imperial preference”, or the scheme to create a tariff barrier around the empire, is described as “the most strident and dogmatic free marketer of his time” . Ellen Wilkinson is described as having abandoned her leftwing politics out of “distres[s] at being excluded from MacDonald’s government in 1929” . In fact, she trimmed her political wings between 1929 and 1931 precisely because she was in government, as Susan Lawrence’s PPS at the ministry of health. These and other errors significantly detract from what would otherwise be an entertaining and informative, if at times excessively upbeat, biography.
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