qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

What would Clement do?

Book Review: Attlee - A Life in Politics, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds
I had something of an itch to scratch since encountering background noise among Corbynistas, comparing their man to Clement Attlee, so this was a Christmas present very much in the style of Lord Reith. It feels like a thorough work, dealing briefly with Attlee's comfortable late Victorian upbringing - not unlike that described in Eric Coates' autobiography - before he "discovered" Socialism while doing voluntary work in the East End. He served in the First World War, attaining the rank of Major, and this was deemed to give him a good background for contesting a parliamentary seat for Labour in 1922. The party's fortunes were unfavourable, to put it mildly, for much of the 1920s and 1930s, especially for one such as Attlee who did not subscribe to pacifist views, although he survived the worst of it and climbed the party and ministerial ladder somewhat by default, though also gaining a reputation for fairness, consensus, and efficient administration, and entered into the coalition government of the Second Word War in 1940.

The 1945 General Election marks the half-way point in the book, and most of the second half is on Attlee's six or so years as Prime Minister. Achievements in setting up the NHS, nationalising electricity, gas and railways, are set alongside more mixed results such as the independence of India and Pakistan, and more difficult areas such as economic management and party in-fighting. Attlee retained the Prime Ministership not so much because of his popularity (generally respected, but too reticent really to be considered popular) but because no other candidate would have commanded majority support. Even after electoral defeat in 1951, Attlee remained party leader until 1955.

On the basis of this book, then, how do I judge the comparison with Corbyn? Admittedly, there is some common ground in the areas of being more of a non-executive chairman than a chief executive, in personal reticence with the media, and in absence of economic rigour. Politically, however, they are miles apart - much of Attlee's party management effort was spent taming Bevan and the left while trying to tolerate it.
Tags: books, history, politics
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