Books: Labour's biographee

Clem Attlee: A Biography by Francis Beckett Richard Cohen Books pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Attlee's position as Labour's most successful Prime Minister remains secure for at least a few more years. He is also the one who has so far had the longest continuous period of office, a not unconnected fact, and in addition he is one of the few politicians whose reputation went up after he left the top office: Arthur Balfour, President Truman and very few others are his companions in this select group.

He is therefore an important subject for biographers, and those he has attracted have been a heterogeneous collection. The first, most oddly, was in 1946 a now-defunct American called Cyril Clemens, whose main occupation was running the Mark Twain Society from St Louis, Missouri, and who approached Attlee rather as though he were a junior version of his chosen hero Twain. The resulting slim volume, The Man from Limehouse, was, not surprisingly in the circumstances, a distinctly odd book.

Two years later, in the middle of Attlee's premiership, I at the age of 27 produced in Mr Attlee: An Interim Biography the second attempt at the subject. As a piece of juvenilia, a cool and obviously "interim" account of the career and characteristics of a cool man, it was not bad, and I am not ashamed of the content of the book. I am, however, slightly ashamed of having written it. I have since come to believe that it is in general undesirable to write books about the living and in particular about those with whom one is in a client relationship, as I most assuredly was with Attlee at the time. Not only was he a close family friend (proposer of the toast at our wedding, godfather to our first child), but when I was writing the book my most lively political desire was to become a member of his party in Parliament. Per contra, I should record that he offered much less interference than the surviving relations of most of the dead biographical subjects I have tackled, the main exception being the Gladstones, but perhaps that is not only because of their hereditary self-confidence, but also because of the longer passage of time.

In 1949 (still within Attlee's premiership) a taxi-cab biographer (Vincent Broome) produced Clement Attlee, which was stronger on pictures than on text. Then, out of office but still leader of the Labour Party, Attlee in 1954 was the subject of his own very cautious and therefore disappointing autobiography, As It Happened, about which the best thing was the appropriately laconic title, which perfectly represented the throwaway half of his own view of how his career had casually evolved. (Perhaps lurking behind this, as Francis Beckett argues, was a more purposeful and even self-regarding view of his own achievements.)

Then in 1961 Francis Williams, a notable journalist who had survived six years in the unrewarding role (because of endemic absence of co-operation from the principal) of being Attlee's public relations spokesman, endeavoured to compensate for the jejuneness of As it Happened with A Prime Minister Remembers, based on interviews with Attlee. The surface was more enticingly polished but the content remained almost equally reticent.

There was then for 20 years, in the course of which, in 1967, Attlee died at the full age of 84, a silence broken first by Kenneth Harris' substantial and authorised Attlee in 1982 and then by Trevor Burridge's Clement Attlee in 1985. Harris, a journalist from the greater days of the Observer but one who preferred faithful service to conflict and iconoclasm, did a very thorough and informative job. Burridge, a Canadian academic, also wrote a serious book, but one so geared to policy analysis rather than to personal insight that he did not even mention the unexpected death of the wife to whom the extremely uxorious Attlee was devoted.

There matters rested until Francis Beckett came along. He, with Harris, is the only serious competitor in the Attlee concours. Harris is the more compendious and the more comprehensively informative, although as with a lot of big books it sometimes requires patience to discover the particular facts which are sought. Beckett is the more opinionated and the more anxious to stand between Attlee and the reader, rather than to act as a skilful butler of Attlee's view of him-self, which was Harris's forte. He has some new sources of information, including a cache of letters which Attlee wrote over the last 16 years of his life to a young (originally at least) American female journalist who later became a British-based bookseller. (Who would have suspected Attlee having his own, typically mild version of Asquith's Venetia Stanley?)

Beckett in my view gets near to the essence of Attlee, and does so in an easy, flowing narrative, which is on the whole well-written. Over the period covered by my 1948 book I respect his accuracy and endorse most of his judgements. After that he tends to see things through slightly more Bevanite spectacles than is my Gaitskellite habit. But as Attlee, with his natural tendency to seek a balance and to eschew joining any Labour Party tribe, was undoubtedly neither wholly Gaitskellite nor wholly Bevanite (although he voted for Gaitskell in the election following his own 1955 resignation as leader) that is hardly in the context a major sin. A possible criticism of Beckett is that his explanations of Attlee's thoughts are sometimes a little jumpy. He describes Attlee's mind as moving one way, and then records a sharp decision the other way. But this was very much the way in which his subject's mind did move, with the great virtue lying not in the quality of the analysis but in the sharpness of the decision.

In this respect Attlee was like Truman, but not in many others. Truman was a Kansas City haberdasher who came through the murk of machine politics to be a nearly great President. Attlee was a very established member of the upper-middle classes, who in almost every aspect other than politics respected the values of that class. Mutatis mutandis he was in this way like Gladstone and Asquith. Perhaps, paradoxically, it is, on the form, the best recipe for being a major reforming Prime Minister .