A Modest Man With A Lot To Be Immodest About

Clement Attlee led an exemplary life, and was the smooth-running machine at heart of the wartime government, but was never remotely vainglorious

Paul Johnson

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.

The collapse of the 1931 government, and the desertion of its leading members, dragged Attlee to the centre, and he became Deputy Leader under Lansbury. There was no one else, and the man who most passionately wanted the job, Herbert Morrison, lost his seat in 1931. It says a lot for the hard work Attlee had always put in that his East London heartland was never threatened, even during the worst times. Moreover, he was elected leader, when illness took Lansbury, quite fairly and robustly, not once but twice, with decisive majorities. The longer he occupied the job, the better his qualities of objectivity, fairness, respect for majority opinion and masterly handling of difficult and varying factions, were appreciated, particularly by the trades union men and, above all, Ernest Bevin. Lacking egoism or conceit of any kind, and plainly motivated by steady impulses of patriotism, loyalty and common sense, Attlee was a leader both of the party in opposition and in the wartime coalition, who slowly but surely built up a capital of trust. There were plenty of plots against him, at all times, but none seriously got off the ground. And it was clear he enjoyed existence, in his modest way.

One reason was that Attlee led a flourishing private life which brought him many consolations. He loved the family in which he grew up, and regularly corresponded with his closest brother, Tom, for over 60 years. Then, in due course, he met and married his wife Violet, and had a family with her which was close, affectionate and interested him. Attlee was in no sense effervescent. But he was not dull. He read on average four books a week, of every kind, including a wide range of fiction, from Trollope to Austen. He read, learned by heart, recited and enormously enjoyed poetry of all kinds but particularly Keats, Tennyson and Kipling. Moreover, throughout his life he wrote verses of his own, and sent them round the family. He tried his hand at fiction, too, and essays, satire and a variety of prose forms. There was even talk of making a movie. He was never bored or at a loss for things to do. But nothing was allowed to take the place of work, which was despatched with meticulous regard for order, regularity, accuracy, foresight and long-term consequences — all the virtues of an upright chancery lawyer.

Indeed, it was Attlee’s qualities as a first-class lawyer which made him the perfect partner of Churchill in their wartime coalition. It was his merit that allowed him to perceive, and accept, the Prime Minister’s moments of greatness, which were at their most intense during key meetings of the Cabinet, and allow them full play. But equally, Attlee perceived when it was necessary to shut the engine off, and for all the Cabinet to get on with essential business. Happily, no one was ever more rigorous or successful in managing business than Attlee, or making sure it was done expeditiously and well. The two men, the uncontrollable genius and the matchless operator of routine, made an inspired duo.

Attlee, then, was a smooth-running human machine at the heart of the Whitehall miracle that Churchill put together in the frenzy of May 1940. Neither could function without the other. But there was one exception to this regularity: Violet Attlee. Long before official cars and drivers were the norm (as late as 1930 MacDonald, as PM, hailed cabs from the entrance of Downing Street), she was essential to getting Attlee around. But at a price. Over six years she had five serious accidents, and another was always impending. When Attlee retired, his regular driver, Penning, passed to Douglas Jay. Penning told me that regular greetings between the two were usually confined to “Good morning, Penning, “Good morning, Mr Attlee, sir.” And, “Good night, Penning,” “Good night, Mr Attlee, sir.” One night, returning to Chequers, even Attlee’s equanimity was shaken when they narrowly escaped being ditched. Attlee yelled: “Who’s that bloody fool?” Penning: “That’s Mrs Attlee, sir.” Profound pause. “Best say no more about it.”

Attlee’s long life, and especially his years as Prime Minister, from 1940 to 1951, were a testament to modesty. I never heard him speak in a way which could be called remotely vainglorious. After he retired, he gave a course of lectures at Harvard, which he called “From Empire to Commonwealth”. A typically slim, not to say skeletal, volume was published afterwards and I was asked to review it for BBC Television. I had only three minutes but knowing Lord Attlee (as he had now become) I had prepared no fewer than 30 questions. The difficulty was not his monosyllabic answers but his flat refusal to give a reply at all. A favourite riposte of his was: “Hmm. What’s your next question?” One way or another, he got through, or rather past, a score of questions in our three minutes. Afterwards I said: “Lord Attlee, would you be kind enough to inscribe my copy of your book?” “Oh, no, no. I’m a person of no importance now. You don’t want me writing in your book.” “Yes I do, Lord Attlee, very much. I’ll consider it a definite slight if you decline!” “Oh, very well.” He then picked up the book, took it into the remotest corner of the room, and wrote in it, for what seemed a very long time. He then snapped it shut, and with all the comings and goings of a BBC hospitality room, I was unable to read what he had written until I was in the privacy of the BBC limo taking me back to London. He had written, in small but perfectly legible writing, one word: “Attlee.”

However, Attlee’s record shows that he was a master of irony, and he was not above self-mocking banter on what he saw as an appropriate occasion, especially in verse. It must have been about the same time that he wrote in a letter to his brother Tom (and published after his death):

Few thought he was even a starter
There were plenty who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.

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