Attlee’s Great Contemporaries: The Politics of Character, edited by Frank Field
This book consists of a 50-page introduction in which Frank Field, shrewdly though large- ly in eulogistic vein, analyses the character and political principles of Clement Attlee, followed by 28 essays, many of them book reviews or articles first published in the Observer, in which Attlee considers various of his contemporaries, from Lansbury and Keir Hardie to Aneurin Bevan and Montgomery. Field argues that these articles are uniquely revealing of the values which shaped Attlee’s own career and his understanding of ‘the collective nature of leadership in a free, and in particular, a social democratic society’. This claim is, on the whole, well-justified. He also maintains that the essays are ‘a joy to read … a set of literary crown-jewels … I am struck in these miniature portraits by the beauty of Attlee’s language.’ Here one is left wondering whether one has been reading the same material.
Attlee, Field writes, with an eye to contemporary events, ‘held it as a great truth that the revolution he espoused would never change the character of the British nation unless politicians led by living that kind of life themselves’. Attlee himself, as few others, exemplified ‘that kind of life’. He was austere in his habits, dedicated in his responsibilities, totally incorruptible, indifferent to fashion or popular prejudice. It was not unlike the life led by one of his heroes, King George VI. To be a monarch in a modern democratic state, wrote Attlee, does not call for the possession of exceptional ability: indeed ‘to have it might be rather a disadvantage. What is needed is someone of good intelligence, character and judgment, and a high sense of duty.’
He would have said much the same of a prime minister. He knew he was no orator. He accepted with equanimity the fact that certain members of his cabinet were cleverer than he was. He felt no need to shine in society or to hold the table spellbound with his wit or eloquence. He marvelled at Winston Churchill, admired his protean talents, affectionately mocked some of his more idiosyncratic self-indulgences, but believed that he was ‘the greatest leader in war this country has ever known’. He saw too that in peacetime the characteristics needed for such a role were largely irrelevant. The qualities of the ideal cabinet minister, he considered, were ‘judgment, strength of character, experience of affairs, and an understanding of ordinary people’. A fortiori the same was true of a prime minister. In Cabinet he sharply curbed any tendency on the part of a minister to show off or to expatiate on subjects with which he was not well acquainted. Meetings were normally confined to one a week and not allowed to go on for more than two hours. Even in a crisis, an extra meeting, or at the most two, should be enough: ‘If there is a crisis, the less talk the better.’
These essays, therefore, as Field promised, illuminate the unremarkable qualities which made Attlee one of the most remarkable politicians of the 20th century. When it comes to the ‘beauty of Attlee’s language’, however, one looks in vain. ‘Terse, telling and to the point’, as Peter Hennessy describes it in his epilogue, is nearer the mark. Attlee had a gift for sharp one-liners. Hennessy quotes his admirably concise judgment on Halifax: ‘Queer bird, Halifax. Very humorous, all hunting and Holy Communion.’ His comment on the first volume of Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples is equally to the point: ‘Ten pages suffice for a survey of world events including the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the discovery of the New World, just about as much space as is devoted to King Henry the Eighth’s matrimonial adventures.’ His review of Randolph Churchill’s biography of Anthony Eden is memorably ferocious. The book, he writes, is ‘an essay in the art of denigration. It is not in any way a biography, for there is little or no evidence of serious research.’ He details Churchill’s various unfairnesses and inaccuracies and concludes: ‘Readers of this book will not learn much about Sir Anthony Eden, but they should get a full appreciation of Mr Randolph Churchill.’ ‘Appreciation’ is a loaded word, which Attlee uses with well-judged irony.
But his natural form of expression is resolutely humdrum. George VI, he tells us, ‘was called to the Throne in circumstances that must have caused him distress. It is a tribute to him and to Her Gracious Majesty the Queen Mother that they so soon established themselves firmly in the heart of the people.’ Well, yes, but if the reader is to take this as an example of the ‘uniqueness of Attlee’s style’, the prospects are not very encouraging. Montgomery ‘had not the same sure touch in dealing with people of various nationalities as had Alexander and Eisenhower. He did not always realise the effects of his somewhat brusque methods.’ These essays are riddled with such conventional judgments expressed in pedestrian prose. They are sensible, balanced, cogent and lack-lustre — remarkably like their author. The British can count themselves lucky to have had Attlee as their prime minister, but there is no obligation to admire his literary style.