Atlee’s Great Contemporaries, Edited by Frank Field, Continuum, 2009.
Review by Nick Matthews
In his review, in the Daily Telegraph, Brian MacArthur suggests that this would be a good summer read for Labour MP’s. Using the character of Clem Atlee as a stick to beat the contemporary Parliamentary Labour Party with would I think be a popular sport. Certainly a greater modesty in character and lifestyle would do them good.
This is a delightful collection of articles published between 1951 and 1966 mainly in the Observer and written in the style of Atlee the statesman, ‘terse, telling and to the point’, as Peter Hennesey puts it in the epilogue. There are three threads running through them Atlee’s relationships with Churchill, the USA and the Labour Party. One should not be fooled by the austere image of Atlee it is just that, an image, no less than the self propagated more flamboyant image of Churchill.
Today we are well aware that a politician’s character and public image can be far apart an increasing gap which has contributed to the public distrust of the whole political class. The editor, Frank Field, suggests that in politics character is all and asks us to compare the character of Atlee and Churchill the books title coming from one of Churchill’s books, ‘Great Contemporaries’ (Implying in Churchill’s case presumably that I am great and these are my contemporaries).
The subtitle is the ‘politics of character’. Field’s thesis, expressed in an introductory essay, is that the key to successful political leadership is character. He quotes Atlee approvingly: “there are many men who find it impossible to believe that men lead men other than by example of moral and physical courage: sympathy, self-discipline, altruism, and superior capacity for hard work”.
Field argues that Atlee drew his sense of “duty, loyalty and responsibility” from his being bought up in the Anglican Church and his belief in Christian ethics. Yet as Kenneth Harris points out in his biography of Atlee one thing he learned at Haileybury was that he did not believe in God: “So far as I was concerned it was mumbo-jumbo.”
So where do Atlee’s ethics come from? Morgan charts Atlee’s intellectual conversion from a young conservative into a socialist, via Carlyle’s study of Chartism, Ruskin’s Unto this Last, and the writings of William Morris. Indeed Atlee’s favourite passage came from A Dream of John Ball,
“Forsooth, brothers. Fellowship is heaven and lack of fellowship is hell, fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds you do upon this earth it is for fellowships sake ye do them.”
Atlee was a great lover of literature and poetry in particular. One of the most telling pieces, and a great insight into Atlee’s ‘character’, is The Pleasure of Books, in which he describes his library and how much his books, like a collection of old friends, mean to him. He was of the generation that not only enjoyed Morris’s prose but also his poetry which most of us today find hard going. He had few rare books or first editions, for him books were for reading not collecting, but he did have three Morris Kelmscotts, “the gift of some kind friends in the socialist movement, who knew where my love abided.”
One of the reasons Atlee wrote these pieces was because he needed the money to house his library. Atlee had given up his home in 1945 in moving into No 10 because of the housing shortage. Yet sensing his political mortality and looking forward only to a modest pension, as Field puts it, he and Vi sought a new home. “Whatever else this house needed, a primary purpose for Atlee was to house his books”.
Atlee was a complex personality who had risen to be Prime Minister yet in his early political life he could not even get elected to Stepney Borough Council he had certainly done the hard yards as a street corner orator. Discovering in the process the people he most admired, “those who did the tedious jobs, collecting our exiguous subscriptions, trying to sell literature, and carrying the impoverished platform from one street corner to another. They got no glamour. They did not expect to see victory, but uncomplainingly, they worked to try and help the cause.” Maybe he sounds so passionate about the foot soldiers in the movement having been one of them.
He called himself a socialist but of what kind? His ‘socialism’ was as he points out in his autobiography when writing about the ILP, “a way of life rather than an economic dogma”. He believed, like Keir Hardie, that a party formed on the simple object of getting Labour representatives into parliament was “bound in time to become socialist”.
The most telling contributions in this collection which include a large range of pieces are those on Churchill, the wartime generals which reveal his views of the United States and those on Labour figures.
The relationship with Churchill is a theme and certainly he has the measure of him, “He was always looking around for ‘finest hours’ and if one was not immediately available, his impulse was to manufacture one.”(p.161)
In his reviews of the memoirs of Generals Allenbroke, Montgomery and Marshall he lets us know of his views of the USA, he feels they were so obsessed with the British Empire they missed out on the growing Russian one, “The Americans were indeed innocents abroad. It is ironical to reflect when one considers their present attitude to the Communist peril, how much they contributed to its extension westward.”
When it comes to labour there are excellent portraits of Hardie, Lansbury and Bevan but the most telling are the ones about Ernest Bevin. They were a formidable team. Bevin was for Atlee the embodiment of a “Labour representative in parliament”.
In, A Man of Power, in this collection he points out that , “The main thing that Bevin did for the Labour movement was to create and harness power for it, and by constantly stating the trades unions point of view keep the Labour Party’s feet on the ground.” It makes one wonder what the point is of the modern Labour Party and on what exactly its feet are placed.
We should not be fooled by Attlee’s apparent modesty he was well aware of his worth and intelligence. As Christopher Hollis observed, “In a world in which so many people pretend to be more important than they are, the British people has, I think, shown its wisdom and generosity in taking to its heart a man who spends his time pretending to be less important than he his.”
 Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982,p10
 Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982, p33.
 As It Happened, C.R.Atlee, William Heinemann, 1954 p33&34.
 Atlee, Kenneth Harris, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982, p553.