Detailed, philosophical biography of the unprepossessing, longtime leader of the British Labour Party, who laid out a “new deal” for the postwar Britons and cut imperial ties.
Winning control of the British government from 1945 to 1951, in what became known as the “post-war consensus,” Clement Attlee (1883-1967) and his Labour Party engineered the much-lauded National Health Service, propelled the United Nations and NATO, and granted independence to India, Burma, and Ceylon, as well as letting loose Palestine and Persia. In this thoughtful new appraisal, Bew (History and Foreign Policy, War Studies Department, King’s Coll., London; Castlereagh: The Biography of a Statesman, 2012, etc.) delves into a richly complicated postwar British society and politics to show how this once-underestimated politician can lend valuable lessons to the new generation of Labour, crushed in the election defeat of 2015. Rather incredibly, Attlee was able to beat the previous prime minister, his former ally Winston Churchill, in 1945, and preside over “a radical government in an age of austerity.” A 30-something captain during the Mesopotamian Campaign of World War I who had taken part in the Gallipoli landings, Attlee was wounded in the buttocks. A slight Victorian gentleman of the upper classes, he had studied classics at Oxford and converted to socialism after discovering the work of William Morris, John Ruskin’s disciple and author of the influential News from Nowhere. Attlee championed the rights of the working classes, abandoning his legal studies for full-time work for the socialist cause in ethnically diverse East London. Bew gradually pursues Attlee’s embrace of national politics as he gained traction as a “reliable foot soldier” under Britain’s first Labour Party PM Ramsay MacDonald, then bided his time as leader of Labour during the next decade’s setbacks and acted as Churchill’s deputy in government during World War II. Labour’s “jaw-dropping” victory of 1945 ensured that Attlee was not just “a passenger of history,” but a major protagonist.
The “invisible man” gets his well-deserved due in this thorough new biography.