"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, December 17, 2018

Politicians Who Aren't Loathsome: A Long-Lost Species

I have been reading biographies of, books by, books about, and books written by people somehow connected to, Winston Churchill for two decades now. Even before that, when I was quite young, my Glaswegian grandmother got me interested in him and in the war by telling me harrowing tales of her surviving the Blitz and Battle of Britain: her father worked in the shipyards on the River Clyde around Port Glasgow, and these were of course the subject of special attention from the Luftwaffe. She also mentioned the unity felt by the country as a result of his Churchill's famously stirring speeches, a unity she claimed was lost after the 1945 election. (Andrew Sullivan also indulges more recently in some Churchill nostalgia here, asking if we will have another today. I think the better question, after the turmoil of Trump, is whether we can have an Attlee instead.)

She put me off Churchill's successor, Clement Attlee, and the post-war Labour government, through for reasons that were never clear until recently reflecting on it more than a decade after her death. I think hers was the unreflecting prejudice of the family she married into in 1942: my grandfather's family were small-business owners who fell for Tory propaganda about Labour somehow being against them. As a result of all this, I never bestirred myself to look closely into these questions until early in 2017 I went back and read Alasdair MacIntyre's many "lost" essays from the postwar period in which he was actively involved in the politics of the British left. Those essays are found in an indispensable collection. I will soon read that collection alongside John Gregson's forthcoming study, which looks most fascinating: Marxism, Ethics and Politics: The Work of Alasdair MacIntyre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 224pp.

So as a child and then adult who adored his grandmother and her often fiercely expressed opinions, I never realized what an utterly compelling life Clement Attlee led until I just finished reading John Bew's new and splendid biography of him, Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain (Oxford UP, 2017), 688pp. To my mind, it is a mark of a good biography that one is a little sad at coming to the end of it, and immediately files it away to be read again down the road, as I shall do with this one. For those with any interest in biography, wartime Britain, and the politics of the British left, this is a must-read.

Attlee, of course, was compulsively reticent and an almost sadistically taciturn man. I knew that much of him (and have often quoted his apparent response to Harold Laski's endless and prolix agitations: "a period of silence from you would be most welcome"), but not how far he carried that until reading Bew's biography. Once, a BBC interviewer had prepared 28 questions for what was to be a half-hour broadcast with Attlee, who answered all her questions in 5 minutes flat and then stared at her with his pipe as both wondered what to do next.

Attlee emerges as a thoroughly admirable character who seems never to have sought office, honours, or glory for himself. But he was certainly no pushover, no pious pacifist afraid of a fight. (Even though initially turned down as too old at the age of 31, he was eventually enlisted and fought in the Great War, including at Gallipoli, and was twice invalided out but kept wanting to get back into action as soon as possible.) He could be withering when needed, and saw off many attempts on his job as Labour leader (1935-55), which he usually managed to rebuff without scruple.

He didn't have much truck with explicit forms of Christian faith, but he had many virtues nonetheless, perhaps none so clear as his genuine desire to help the poor of the slums of London (and the Welsh coal-miners from whom key Labour ministers like Aneurin Bevan came), among whom he began to work as a social worker at the end of the Victorian era. Unlike some with such motivations, he seems never to have been condescending about it, and never to have thought himself above such people, or the working classes and trade unionists on whom he and his party depended so much. Almost until the end of his parliamentary career in the mid-1950s, he took the tube by himself to Westminster quietly reading the paper, and would often be asked by people "Has anyone ever told you you bear a striking resemblance to Clement Attlee?" to which he would reply "Yes, often" and leave it at that.

Having some time back read David McCullough's fascinating biography Truman, there are, I think, certain parallels between him and his contemporary, Attlee: both thrust most unexpectedly into office within weeks of each other in 1945 (almost everyone thought the Churchill Tories would be returned with a modest majority: nobody, least of all Attlee himself, thought Labour would win the largest landslide in its history), and both replacing wartime leaders who were then, and have remained since, giants on the global stage partly for their compelling ability to communicate with their followers--whether in FDR's fireside chats, or Churchill's speeches on the BBC and in Parliament. Both Truman and Attlee were moderately of the left, and both came after larger-than-life leaders and presented a welcome contrast of much more contained, direct, business-like and modest leadership without flashy rhetoric or fiery oratory. Both did not appear over-much to enjoy the perks of power or especially the limelight, and both gratefully retired to very modest surroundings in the 1950s.

When his memoirs, As It Happened, were published, the New York Times review said that Attlee had the maddening habit in every chapter of leading readers up to a cliff's edge and having them sit there, so drained was the text of all drama and so heavily downplayed the many major events and personages he was involved with. Bew retails many amusing instances of this, and it drove some people like Aneurin Bevan to distraction. Bevan, of course, was the fiery Welshman who brought in the National Health Service in 1948, and was always pushing Attlee from the left to do more and faster. But Bevan could not always restrain himself and often overshot.

Attlee, no violent firebrand or revolutionary he, much preferred the slow and incremental approach. In doing so, he strikes me as a quintessential character of his generation of the type well-understood by his contemporaries the Scottish psychoanalyst W.R.D. Fairbairn (whose rather interesting biography by John Sutherland I also recently read) and his English counter-part D.W. Winnicott: the "good enough" leader not overly concerned with ideological orthodoxy whose schizoid aloofness allowed him to survive much political turmoil and intra-Labour intrigue, and in doing so managed to accomplish a very great deal of good without going too far. In the end, he outlived almost all of the 1945 government, including those who would have gladly replaced him--Nye Bevan, Stafford Cripps, Ernie Bevin and others--and died full of honours: ennobled as an earl, and made Knight of the Garter, Companion of Honour, and Order of Merit. In typical fashion, he mocked this gently in a bit of doggrel he composed looking back on his improbable life:

Few thought he was even a starter.
There were many in life who were smarter.
But he finished PM,
A CH, an OM,
An earl and a Knight of the Garter. 

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