ATTLEE by Kenneth Harris
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The 1930s generation of Labour Party leaders--Morrison, Bevin, Cripps, Dalton--were a group of colorful, vigorous men. Yet solid and steady, ""mousey"" Clement Attlee (1883-1967) emerged as first among them: party leader (1935 onward); deputy to Churchill in the WW II coalition government; the postwar prime minister who managed Britain's economic and social transformation, and its withdrawal from India. ""Underwhelming, yet greatly achieving,"" in the words of an Economist photo-caption. British journalist/editor Harris, Attlee's choice as his official biographer, writes of him with a fitting mixture of scrupulosity and respect; he makes it known that Attlee was never troubled by others' opinions--a major source of his strength--and he does not hesitate to pronounce Attlee wrong. In boyhood, Attlee put the family religious faith behind him--but ""his parents' sense of moral and social responsibility"" became the basis of his socialism. In an East End boys' club, he ""found the security in which he could unbend""; acquaintance with the poor, and reading Ruskin and Morris, convinced him of the need for drastic reform; the middle-class Fabians provided a bridge to the working-class Independent Labour Party, socialist component of the coalescing Labourites (1908). As Stepney's one member with spare time, he was called upon to organize and, in a pinch, to mount a soapbox. Buoyed by his first effort (and rather enjoying the verbal combat), he was further propelled into politics by his father's death, which provided him with a small income (and removed an objector). In time--after seven bedrock years in Stepney (""always the servant,"" always to value rank-and-file service and neighborly compassion), an outstanding WW I combat record (chiefly at Gallipoli), long, diligent years on the London Country Council and in Parliament, a latish marriage to a devoted, dependent younger woman--Attlee benefited from a second, historical set of circumstances: the downfall of Ramsay MacDonald, epitome of charismatic Labour leadership; the defeat, in the 1931 Labour rout, of Morrison, Dalton, and virtually all the other front-runners; the development, by 1933, of the doctrinal and temperamental differences among them that would thereafter bar any single one from leadership. Attlee, ""to be in charge for nine months,"" remained in charge--always willing to be voted out by the party, never willing to give way to his colleagues' ambitions. The second theme, implicitly, is the also-historical difference it made for Britain to have just such a conciliatory-yet-firm Labour Party leader in tandem with the volatile Churchill and, postwar, in charge of a restive parliamentary majority and a cabinet of squabbling prima donnas. Episodes are closely chronicled, to demonstrate Attlee's behind-the-scenes roles, highlight his parliamentary performance, or explicitly amend the record. (Like others, Harris rates Attlee highest as a WW II unifier/expediter and for his decisiveness on India--the outcome notwithstanding.) Telling quotes--from letters and other private communiquÉs, as well as from conversations--are used to put across Attlee's style of leadership, in particular. The book is responsible, crisp, literate--at 600 close-packed pages, not perhaps casual reading for Americans, but illuminating for Americans too in its counterthrust to the overwhelming Churchill impact during and after the war.

Pub Date: Aug. 15th, 1983
Publisher: Norton