On Clem Attlee and patriotic socialism

FOR A BOOK REVIEW, I’ve been plunging into John Bew’s excellent 600-page biography of Clement Attlee, now out in paperback. The book, with its cover depicting a jaunty-looking Attlee in a trilby has induced some shrugged shoulders and puzzled looks in the cafés and pubs of Stroud. For my younger reader, Attlee was prime minister of this country from 1945 to 1951, and his Labour government set up the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, nationalised the railways, the coal and steel industries and the Bank of England, and granted independence to India. Attlee was also deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition government, alongside the rather better-known Winston Churchill.

Attlee’s government is revered on the left and many Labour activists see it as the only really radical Labour administration (I would argue that Harold Wilson and Tony Blair’s governments achieved more than they are given credit for – but that’s an argument for another day). But Attlee himself is less well known. He was an uncharismatic politician, a mediocre speaker and was easily overshadowed by the bigger personalities in his cabinet, most notably Aneurin Bevan, the “founder” of the NHS. Attlee isn’t seen as a great thinker either – his government may have been hugely influential in both shaping the Britain we know today and the British idea of democratic socialism, but no one ever talks about Attleeism.

But with Jeremy Corbyn looking to lead Labour (and Britain) in a more left-wing direction, Attlee himself deserves more attention – because of both his thinking about democratic socialism and his way of doing politics. Quite simply, Attlee got things done. His achievement was to take a lot of ideas about what socialism is and how it could work, discard the silly, the overly-romantic, the impractical and the unpopular, and mix it up with his own ideas about what Britishness meant. (Although upper-middle class himself, Attlee’s many years of living and working in London’s East End, first as social worker and then as MP for Limehouse, kept him much more in touch with working class people than middle class colleagues like Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrisson). He then set to work implementing as much as he could, in characteristically brisk and businesslike style.

One of the interesting things about Attlee was the natural association he made between socialism and patriotism. Attlee had no truck with the idea that being a socialist meant being anti-British. How could it be when socialism meant being on the side of working people who were the very backbone of the country? Equally, “he believed that love of country could be a noble and unifying thing”, Bew writes, and that loving your country meant being a good citizen – accepting your responsibilities as well as enjoying your rights. In Attlee’s mind, a socialist – a democratic one at least – was a patriot by definition.

In his book, Bew describes Attlee as a “social patriot”, whose patriotism “meant not fidelity to caste or cohort, but to the commonwealth” (‘commonwealth’ here means the general good of the community, rather than the countries of the former British Empire). “We live in a society where the vast majority live stunted lives – we endevour to give them a freer life,” Attlee wrote to his brother Tom in 1918. Yes, freedom – that old rallying cry of the right. To Attlee, freedom meant real freedom for real people to live better lives – not just licence for the rich and powerful to do as they pleased.

If you think about it, this is obvious. Britian isn’t a flag, a monarch, or the aristocracy: It’s 60-odd million people, most of whom aren’t wealthy, powerful or connected; people whose greatest need (in Attlee’s time) was decent food, decent healthcare, decent housing and a bit of decent education (add in decent broadband and you can see our needs haven’t changed that much). For Attlee, if you weren’t interested in serving those needs, you had no right calling yourself a patriot.

That Britain did have a flag and a monarch was something Attlee was quite comfortable with. He liked the King personally and had little time for republicanism. He knew working class people weren’t interested in it and that getting rid of King George VI wouldn’t put one hot meal on the table or make the setting up of the NHS any easier.

I’m a republican by conviction, but it’s never occurred to me that the survival or otherwise of Elizabeth Windsor as a titular head of state is something working socialists should bother spending much time on. A lot of working class people like the monarchy, both because people generally like tradition and because of the sense of identity it gives by connecting us to a thousand-odd years of British history. The miniscule cost in national terms doesn’t seem worth worrying about. Yes, it probably does reinforce a sense of hierarchy and deference, but things like employment relations, race and class discrimination, economic power, unequal access to law and plain old snobbery are much more significant in that respect. Like Attlee, I don’t see why the monarchy should be a barrier to tackling any of those things.

Even in the 1930s, Attlee was making the bold claim that Labour was the most patriotic of the three main parties. Attlee believed Labour should be quite belligerant if the cause was right. He strongly supported the republican side in the Spanish Civil War (and got into trouble in the press for giving the clenched fist salute when inspecting republican troops in Spain), was an early supporter of rearmament in the face of the fascist threat, and bitterly opposed the appeasement of both Hitler and Mussolini by Neville Chamberlain’s government. After he retired, he said his proudest achievement was not setting up the NHS, but taking Labour into the wartime coalition with Churchill.

He didn’t have this all his own way. The Labour party in which Attlee rose to prominence in the 1930s contained many pacifists – such as his predecessor as leader, George Lansbury, and Cripps, who was later Attlee’s chancellor – who were deeply suspicious of any expression of patriotism. His own brother, Tom, was a conscientious objector in World War I. Attlee sympathised with their consciences, but thought them wrong-headed. He was quite blunt about why. He saw pacifism as a “hedonistic dislike of taking responsibility” and told Tom that he had seen “no evidence that life in Britain, or the rest of Europe, would be freer, or better, under German domination”. When war broke out in 1914, “I thought it my duty to fight,” Attlee wrote.

Cobynistas may feel just as uncomfortable with some of this as Lansbury’s followers did in the 1930s. If so, they should at least be clear about why. Being pragmatic and patriotic doesn’t stop you being a proper socialist. Attlee’s government was the most successful left-wing government we’ve ever had, and his 1945 programme was far more radical than Jeremy Corbyn’s 2017 one. To work, socialism needs a very broad appeal. To borrow a phrase from Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernie Bevin, “sticking a bloody great union jack on top of it” could be Labour’s smartest next move.

Picture: Attlee arrives in Berlin for the Potsdam conference in July 1945. © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.


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