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Clement Attlee: Nothing was allowed to take the place of work, meticulously despatched (©Bettmann/Getty Images)


Clement Attlee led an exemplary life and ought to be better known. He came from a family which had been established in England since Norman times and had been well to do for generations, first in trade, latterly in the law. In Clem’s day they had a roomy villa in Putney, three indoor servants and a full-time gardener. The smallest and shyest of his brothers, he was sent to Haileybury aged 13, and in some ways it marked him for life. His headmaster described it as “more Etonian than Eton but a bit cheaper”. Closely linked to the old East India Company, it was marginally more conservative and imperialist than most public schools. Attlee was one of 72 boys caned for making a row on Ladysmith Night, but this was his only black mark. Like his brothers he got into Oxford without difficulty and took a second in History. John Bew recounts all this and much more with clarity and brio in this admirable biography.

The key moment in Attlee’s life was his decision to become involved in the Haileybury East End mission, also connected to the Territorial Army. This linked three elements in his mind: fervent patriotism, discipline and a passionate and growing concern for the poor. He liked to tell the story of how he said to the girl he was working with in the mission, “Well, I’m going home to tea now,” and she replied, “I’m going home to see if there is any tea.” Contact with the East End poor made Attlee a socialist and Labour Party member, but like everything else in his life it was deliberate and thoughtful, and he carefully measured up the moral arguments. It took the best part of a decade to accomplish, during which he also became and remained an agnostic. When war broke out he had already been drilling in the TA for ten years, and his war service, though characteristically unspectacular, was arduous, took in Gallipoli, the Western Front and Mesopotamia, and involved being wounded twice. He ended up a major.

At various stages in his life, especially after he moved to the Left, Attlee found himself obliged to take on what he called duties of citizenship. He never put himself forward. But he always agreed to serve. Thus he found himself Mayor of Stepney and running the board of guardians, looking after London orphans and fulfilling many humble but necessary tasks, each an education in itself. No Labour leader, particularly the flashier sort like MacDonald or Blair, has ever occupied such a wide and taxing range of jobs, without a murmur of complaint or the least breath of scandal. Attlee was in full-time political employment as a local official, MP and Minister for the best part of 40 years, during which he was constantly belittled by rivals. But no one, at any stage or in any respect, ever questioned his integrity. This record must be unique, and it stands at the heart of his survival, and ultimate success.

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Arnold Ward
October 24th, 2016
10:10 AM
The Bodlean has copies of correspondence between Attlee and his brother revealing a deep strain of anti-semitism. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

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