This year marks a hundred years since Clement Attlee was first elected to parliament in 1922. By 1935 he had risen to the party’s leadership in Westminster. Yet none of his contemporaries (or probably even himself) ever expected him to one day serve as Deputy Prime Minister during a world war or lead Labour’s first-ever majority government after the landslide of 1945. His government transformed post-war Britain and altered the relationship between the citizen and the state with the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state. His legacies also include the independent nuclear deterrent and helping to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the last having recently become particularly topical, for tragic reasons.
But can Clement Attlee offer any lessons for today’s Labour Party? The modest man that he was (and there seems to be a historical consensus on his modesty) would have found the idea of being a role model from beyond the grave absurd or even laughable. And for his modesty, he was often underestimated by his contemporaries. Such a quiet and unpretentious man was seemingly overshadowed by some big personalities like Ernest Bevin, Nye Bevan and Herbert Morrison, each of whom would have at points felt themselves more suitable than Attlee ‘for the job’. But Attlee’s effectiveness as a leader and as Prime Minister was precisely due to his palpable absence of ego. He was a man driven by an almost paternalistic sense of public service.
Just to get a sense of his modesty, we may look at the fact that he housed a Jewish child refugee in his family home during the war, something which was consciously concealed from anybody outside his family until discovered years later. You may compare that attitude with our current political culture where politicians pose for photos when they donate tins of food to their local food banks and post them on social media.
Attlee came from a comfortably establishment background, as a product of Victorian ‘public schooling’. Indeed as an undergraduate at Oxford, he is said to have been somewhat of a young Tory with a romantic view of the British Empire. So it can be seen as a strange twist of fate that he rose to become the Labour Prime Minister who helped to dismantle the British Empire after the second world war, having previously forced Churchill to…