Anthony Sampson: Is there any politician in office today with the qualities of Clement Attlee? Yes, one

Gordon Brown has the same quiet determination to get things done, away from the television screens, and he knows what to do
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The Independent Online

Does a prime minister today really have to say something every day, to have a policy about everything, to keep flying round the world, to appear charismatic always? Wouldn't he be more effective if he said less, and kept in the background?

Does a prime minister today really have to say something every day, to have a policy about everything, to keep flying round the world, to appear charismatic always? Wouldn't he be more effective if he said less, and kept in the background?

My question follows the results of the survey this week by academics at the University of Leeds, who asked 139 historians and political scientists to give marks to the most successful prime ministers over the past century. They reckoned the most important qualities were leadership and sound judgement. But they put the two most obviously charismatic leaders, Churchill and Lloyd George, second and third.

At the top was Clement Attlee, the post-war Labour premier who has always been seen as the most laconic and least charismatic of them all. It might seem ironic that Attlee, the "little man", the "sheep in sheep's clothing" who was the butt of so many of Churchill's insults, should end up more highly rated than Churchill, the heroic victor of war.

Yet there were good reasons, it seems to me, behind the choice of Attlee. The demands of wartime required charismatic leaders like Churchill and Lloyd George, who could inspire with their images and words: when Attlee (who was Churchill's deputy in wartime) was asked how Churchill won the war, he said: "He talked about it."

But peacetime, in many ways, requires more subtle leadership and judgement; and by remarkable good chance, as well as good judgement by the electorate, Britain found the right leaders in both war and peace.

Attlee, for a few years after 1945, successfully kept together a team of powerful but difficult ministers - including Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Ernest Bevin, and Aneurin Bevan - who successfully transformed Britain from a wartime to a peacetime economy, nationalised most public services and set the basis of the post-war settlement.

He understood how to delegate, and leave ministers to themselves. He liked to repeat, particularly about Bevin, "If you have a good dog, don't bark yourself". He never worried about his prima donnas taking the stage, for he was quite able to handle them, or put them down, off stage. He had no cronies, no favourites.

He was very decisive when required. When President Truman refused to share the American atom bomb with Britain, he insisted on Britain developing its own bomb in the strictest secrecy, concealing the cost in the budget. When Herbert Morrison as foreign secretary wanted to use force to protect British oil in Iraq when it was nationalised, he firmly said no.

And he knew how to get things done. John Freeman, the last surviving member of his government - who later became ambassador to Washington and is still very active in London - remembers Attlee as a master of the Whitehall machine, who knew all about paperwork, parliament and, above all, about timing.

He was strict about even the pettiest corruption: he famously sacked a very junior minister, John Belcher, who had accepted a small gift from a crooked businessman. But he was never a moraliser. Freeman recalls how he had to tell Attlee that he was getting divorced, half-expecting to be fired. Attlee just said: "I'm afraid you won't be invited to the garden party. Do you mind?" Freeman: "No." Attlee: "I thought not."

So what relevance has Attlee's remarkable reputation today? The conventional wisdom says that, since the 1950s, television has changed everything. It puts a premium on talk, appearance and slick presentation, which is now called charisma. It demands that prime ministers are constantly seen, to represent the government and the nation.

It may be true that reticent and uncharismatic leaders like Attlee would have looked still more boring in the television age; while later untelegenic prime ministers such as Sir Alec Douglas-Home - who comes second bottom in the Leeds poll - would have lasted longer without the small screen to expose them.

But it did not need television to reveal Churchill's charisma: it came across clearly enough from black-and-white photographs, from speeches in newsprint or over the crackling radio which I heard as a schoolboy in wartime. And Attlee's lack of charisma was evident enough without television to the voters who elected him triumphantly when the war had ended.

John Major is often depicted as a man who failed from lack of television charisma, but his real drawback, apart from the groundswell of distrust of the Tories, was his inability to control - unlike Attlee - the rivals or "bastards" who were conspiring against him.

Tony Blair now appears as the supreme master of television, with his training in showbiz, his skill with interviewers and his telegenic smile and gestures. They have certainly helped him to survive the battering of the past two years; as a war leader, his decisive and passionate image, like Churchill's, has obvious advantages.

But in peacetime, brilliance in presentation can be a distraction more than a help in dealing with the awkward and complicated problems of administration. And as a peacetime leader, Blair shows few of the qualities that put Attlee at the top of the list.

He has been far less effective in getting things done. He has never mastered the Whitehall machine beyond No 10. He has kept switching priorities. And he has found it hard to delegate, as he keeps appropriating other ministers' policies for himself.

Of course, he has a problem which neither Attlee nor Churchill had: a severe lack of competent ministers - which has more to do with the shortcomings of parliament than with his own lack of judgement. And he will face this problem more acutely if he has to sack David Blunkett - for whom there is no obvious replacement - from the Home Office.

But he has succeeded in delegating one very large area of government to a single minister who could take the strain, and who leapt at the chance. The "diarchy" between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor has been the unique feature of the New Labour government.

While the media have become obsessed with the rivalry between Blair and Brown, the more extraordinary fact has been played down: that the two men have worked together for so long, longer than any previous relationship. Much of the social services has now come under the effective rule of the Treasury, with little interference from the Prime Minister. The real successes of New Labour - including the reform of the health service, education and child benefits - are due more to Brown than Blair.

If we are looking for Attlee-like qualities today, they are much more evident in No 11 than No 10. Gordon Brown may lack the deep knowledge of administration of Attlee, but he has the same quiet determination to get things done, away from the television screens, and he knows what he wants to do.

Tony Blair's main achievement, once the excitement of wars has evaporated, may prove to be his ability to keep Gordon Brown in his government. So what will future historians make of that?

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