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Clement Attlee was the Labour prime minister who presided over Britain's radical postwar government, delivering the end of the Empire in India, the foundation of the NHS and Britain's place in NATO. Called 'a sheep in sheep's clothing', his reputation has long been that of an unassuming character in the shadow of Churchill. But as John Bew's revelatory biography shows, Att Clement Attlee was the Labour prime minister who presided over Britain's radical postwar government, delivering the end of the Empire in India, the foundation of the NHS and Britain's place in NATO. Called 'a sheep in sheep's clothing', his reputation has long been that of an unassuming character in the shadow of Churchill. But as John Bew's revelatory biography shows, Attlee was not only a hero of his age, but an emblem of it; and his life tells the story of how Britain changed over the twentieth century. Here, Bew pierces Attlee's reticence to examine the intellect and beliefs of Britain's greatest - and least appreciated - peacetime prime minister.


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Clement Attlee was the Labour prime minister who presided over Britain's radical postwar government, delivering the end of the Empire in India, the foundation of the NHS and Britain's place in NATO. Called 'a sheep in sheep's clothing', his reputation has long been that of an unassuming character in the shadow of Churchill. But as John Bew's revelatory biography shows, Att Clement Attlee was the Labour prime minister who presided over Britain's radical postwar government, delivering the end of the Empire in India, the foundation of the NHS and Britain's place in NATO. Called 'a sheep in sheep's clothing', his reputation has long been that of an unassuming character in the shadow of Churchill. But as John Bew's revelatory biography shows, Attlee was not only a hero of his age, but an emblem of it; and his life tells the story of how Britain changed over the twentieth century. Here, Bew pierces Attlee's reticence to examine the intellect and beliefs of Britain's greatest - and least appreciated - peacetime prime minister.

30 review for Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Citizen Clem – The Sheep that Roared Clement Attlee over the years, not only since his death in 1967, but also throughout his life time has been underappreciated, even by his own biographers, who either damned him with faint praise, or attacked his record, or the person ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. The Labour Party itself has always had an ambiguous relationship with Attlee, despite the great electoral and legislative successes he presided over. Frank Field MP rightly stated in 2009 that the p Citizen Clem – The Sheep that Roared Clement Attlee over the years, not only since his death in 1967, but also throughout his life time has been underappreciated, even by his own biographers, who either damned him with faint praise, or attacked his record, or the person ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. The Labour Party itself has always had an ambiguous relationship with Attlee, despite the great electoral and legislative successes he presided over. Frank Field MP rightly stated in 2009 that the political class in Britain ‘have a too limited an appreciation of Attlee’s values’. John Bew shows why he is not only a highly regarded professor of history and an award winning writer with Citizen Clem. Unlike previous biographies Clem, Bew does not just focus on Attlee the politician but also Attlee the man and has not be held prisoner to view him via the prism of 1945. Bew shows that Attlee was one of the Labour Party’s formative pilgrims, who from a position of privilege, used that to fight for the people of the East End, whom he lived and served amongst from 1906. Bew also shows that the attack that usually came from the left that used to say Attlee had no hidden depths, had no intellectual substance or serious political thought and that he was nothing but an empty vessel, were vacuous. Through excellent scholarship he consciously gets to the depths of Attlee the person which were the foundation of Attlee the politician, and shows the depths of Attlee others either ignore or never bothered to investigate. Before Attlee even entered Parliament he came to recognise that there needed to be two principles that guided the Labour Party, patience and tolerance, something the Party has always had problems with. Rather Attlee found that Kier Hardie’s approach to achieving socialism was far more appealing than that of utopianism or intellectualism. Having worked with the Webbs, he came to understand that the Fabian approach to politics showed the inherent limitations of intellectualism. Attlee also found that a mistake socialist intellectuals made (and still make e.g. Brexit) was assuming that something they found distasteful would be equally so to others. Bew shows that not only being a soldier in the First World War, as well as being a social worker in Stepney and the east end, deeply affected everything that Attlee did in later years. Bew shows that from his work in the east end the recognition that improving conditions for workers, such as wages and work hours, insurance and healthcare was the first battle the labour movement and the Party not only needed to fight and win, ran deep within Attlee. Bew also reminds us that Attlee began his career as Ramsey McDonalds PPS and supported him in 1924, even in the General Strike in 1926, it was MacDonald’s betrayal of the Party in 1931 which was one of the bitterest blows for Attlee. But Attlee remained a loyal Party man, whereas people forget that Herbert Morrison was offered a job in the National Government as was that great left-winger who joined the Labour Party in 1930, Stafford Cripps, both prevaricated for a week, before finally turning MacDonald down. When Attlee became leader in 1935 Bew reminds us that at no time had he ever lobbied for the position, and even the Daily Mail struggled to paint the Labour Party as dangerous. What must be remembered that it was Attlee that led the attacks on appeasement and that it was Attlee who would later place Churchill in Downing Street. Even when war came not only did Attlee have to lead the Party he still had to fight his own MPs! Citizen Clem reminds us that we still live in a world that is heavily influenced by the works of Attlee, and that the post-war consensus with both the United Nations and Nato came about through his work and determination after the war. But in Britain when we look what was created under Attlee’s guidance, the National Health Service, the Welfare State, National Insurance. We are reminded that no British Government since Attlee led, has been as active in terms of legislation passed, especially when it came to changing the relationship between the state on society. One thing that is clear from this excellent biography is that Attlee was very adept in the arts of modern elections, probably more so than many of his critics, and that he was always held in high esteem by the public. One thing Attlee did fear, and this was in 1955, that the political leaders were less in touch with the man in the street than they were 50 years prior, despite the populism of mass media and broadcasting, somethings do not change clearly. John Bew makes it clear that throughout his life Attlee never saw himself as a hero, never claimed credit, for what others did within his government. What comes through is that something that Attlee was proud of was the fulfilment of three main strands in politics; one to atone for the betrayal of those who sacrificed themselves in World War One. It was a mission fulfilled that the promises made to those in World War Two were kept in 1945; secondly, that his government had fulfilled its mission on social legislation; finally, mission fulfilled was to bring an end to Queen Victoria’s British Empire and turn it in to the Commonwealth. The story of the Labour Party in the 20th Century, is not defined by what Tony Blair, Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan did, but by pioneers such as Attlee. Much of what we British hold dear about our society a quiet, somewhat shy and unassuming man got on with the job and proved that a sheep can roar, and that roar has left its mark on British politics today. The number of books on Churchill has created an imbalance in many people’s understanding of the twentieth century, its wars and its governments. It was in a debate with Attlee that Churchill declared that history would be kind to him, because he intended to write it. Attlee was an equal to Churchill, who has delivered a lasting change for the many, rather than the few. John Bew has written one of the best political and historical biographies, that deals with all aspects of Clement Attlee’s life, good and bad. This is one of the most honest, and balanced accounts of Attlee’s life that I have read and uses a wide range of sources to give plenty of colour to a Prime Minister often over looked. As the Labour Party fights amongst itself once again, as Morrison referred to it as a suicide club, Attlee knew that the Labour Party needed to compromise and that the purism of Morris and Marx was incompatible with delivering a better Britain. Simply a stunning and brilliant biography of Clement Attlee, a socialist who delivered for the people of Britain.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    We have had some great politicians and Prime Ministers over the years and, how should I put this, some less than great ones too. Especially recently… Go back a few years though and you will find most political leaders of our country were also great statesmen too, working for the greater good of the country regardless of their particular hue of party. Several politicians spring to mind, but one that doesn't often is Clement Richard Attlee. Born in 1883 in Putney to Henry Attlee and Ellen nee Wats We have had some great politicians and Prime Ministers over the years and, how should I put this, some less than great ones too. Especially recently… Go back a few years though and you will find most political leaders of our country were also great statesmen too, working for the greater good of the country regardless of their particular hue of party. Several politicians spring to mind, but one that doesn't often is Clement Richard Attlee. Born in 1883 in Putney to Henry Attlee and Ellen nee Watson, he was the seventh of eight children. He was educated at Northaw School, then Haileybury College; and before getting a degree in modern history from University College, Oxford. From there he trained as a barrister and worked at his father's company and was called to the bar in 1906.  He served in The Great War, whilst his brother Tom was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector but was fortunate twice to escape heavy action that saw a lot of his regiment perish. The law was not where his passion lay though, having seen the poverty in the East End of London it inspired him to become politically active and he was first elected to the House of Commons in 1922 as the MP for Limehouse. Two years later he became a junior minister and a few years after that became a cabinet minister for the first time. Shortly after in 1931, the Labour Party were defeated in a general election, but Attlee held his seat. Four years later he was to become the leader of that party. As tensions rose in Europe in the 1930s, he preferred pacifism and opposed rearmament, but was later to reverse his position. He became a strong critic of Chamberlain's attempts to appease Hitler and Mussolini and after war broke out joined the war coalition serving under Churchill as Deputy Prime Minister. In 1945 after the end of the war in Europe the, coalition fractured and a general election was called.  Churchill expected to win, but he didn't, and Attlee had a landslide victory.  His time as Prime Minister would prove to be the most progressive of all that held that position that century. Bew has studied his subject in almost intimate detail and not just the written about the time that he spent as Prime Minister. The thorough research goes into the background that drove this fairly unassuming man to the political stance and outlook that he took consistently all his life. There are snippets and anecdotes that fill in the gaps from the official stories as well as lots of details from the life that he lived outside politics. It also goes some way to disproving the claim from those that opposed him that he had no intellectual or political footing, instead it shows a man of strong principles and rigour. For anyone with an interest in political history, this is a balanced and objective view of a man who should be considered the most radical PM of the 20th century.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    "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." Clement Attlee's autobiographical limerick summarizes well the course of his remarkable political career. From his early years as a social worker in London's East End and his service in the First World War he entered the House of Commons, where he rose steadily until the fracturing of Labour Party with the formation of the National government in 1931 and "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." Clement Attlee's autobiographical limerick summarizes well the course of his remarkable political career. From his early years as a social worker in London's East End and his service in the First World War he entered the House of Commons, where he rose steadily until the fracturing of Labour Party with the formation of the National government in 1931 and the subsequent general election wiped out nearly all of the party's parliamentary leadership. Having weathered the crisis as one of the few remaining former cabinet ministers still in Parliament, Attlee became the party's leader in 1935, where he enjoyed a remarkable twenty-year tenure that saw him lead the party into coalition with the Conservatives during the Second World War, then to a massive electoral victory in 1945 that made possible the establishment of Britain's postwar welfare state. John Bew is not the first historian to write about Attlee's life, but his biography is easily one of the best. It is in many ways an intellectual portrait of the man, charting the development of his socialist views and patriotic attitudes and showing how they shaped his career. The title itself hints at his overall argument, which is that Attlee's patriotism and sense of duty is key to understanding his popularity and political success. It shows just how remarkable of a figure he was, one who, for all his modest, unassuming nature, dominated so many of the political titans of his age.

  4. 5 out of 5

    John Bohnert

    I'm so glad that I read this interesting biography of Clement Attlee.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Domhnall

    "I shall die with lots of poetry in my heart and perhaps on my lips." [p545] “He was one of the last prominent Victorians in public life to pass away” [p543] Attlee, born in 1883 to an affluent family, was educated at a minor public (meaning private, fee paying) school, then Cambridge University, before qualifying to practice law and with a financial legacy to sustain him. His family shared strong commitments to public service and raised no objections when Attlee soon switched from a legal c "I shall die with lots of poetry in my heart and perhaps on my lips." [p545] “He was one of the last prominent Victorians in public life to pass away” [p543] Attlee, born in 1883 to an affluent family, was educated at a minor public (meaning private, fee paying) school, then Cambridge University, before qualifying to practice law and with a financial legacy to sustain him. His family shared strong commitments to public service and raised no objections when Attlee soon switched from a legal career to social work in Limehouse, an impoverished district in East London, where direct personal contact exploded misconceptions about the nature of poverty and instilled a deep admiration for the hard work and social cohesion that made working class life (marginally) possible in the face of intolerable burdens and unfair odds. Attlee soon extended his interest to politics and the account of the formation of the Labour Party and the disparate groups it brought together over several decades is interesting, albeit sketchy. In this way he established the political values which remained central to the rest of his life, founded on practical experience rather than political theory; indeed, he never did master economics as such and his socialism was never based on Marxism, but on local politics and trade-unionism. Attlee served with distinction as a volunteer soldier in the First World War. He only just survived the Gallipoli campaign and emerged with the odd conviction that Churchill was strategically correct in planning this assault, blaming the generals for poor implementation; Bew never points out that this places Attlee in a very small minority, or ever dwells on the evidence that the campaign was a disaster and its location inherently ill conceived, but this did have great significance later when Attlee supported Churchill in the Second World War. Attlee also served in front line positions in Iraq – being wounded in another ill conceived campaign - and in France – fortunately to see victory - and was very lucky to survive. It is impossible to neglect these extraordinary experiences when considering his personality. Attlee formed the conviction that the people of Britain fought this war as citizens regardless of social class and were entitled to feel betrayed when they returned home to slum housing and endemic unemployment. He served the growing Labour Party in local and national politics, before unexpectedly being called on to lead the tiny group of Labour MPs surviving in Parliament after the great betrayal by which Ramsay Macdonald formed a so called National Government and secured an overwhelming parliamentary majority from which to try and fail to lead Britain out of the Great Depression. It was the Conservatives who were able to form the next government, but Attlee’s Labour had restored its fortunes sufficiently to secure a role as full partners in Churchill’s wartime coalition from 1940, with Atlee as effectively deputy PM. Labour’s role in the wartime coalition – and not least their contribution to creating and administering an effective wartime economy – reflected the presence around Attlee of a number of very strong Labour politicians, notably Ernest Bevin, and this provided the necessary platform from which the 1945 Labour Government was given the mandate to restore a peacetime economy that was centrally planned and designed above all to secure full employment and the basis of a welfare state, largely as prescribed by Beveridge. Attlee had worked from the outset to ensure that Britain had clear and ambitious war aims and in the five years after 1945 he was able to deliver everything he had promised and all, indeed that he had aspired to from his early days as a social worker in East London. Any attempt to present Attlee as anything other than a socialist and a radical is just wrong. Attlee also formed the view that international affairs must be transformed. He was instrumental in securing the founding of the United Nations, the introduction of concepts of international law prevailing over national interests, and replacing the British Empire with a Commonwealth of independent, democratic nation states sharing at least some core values. Securing independence for India and Pakistan was probably his major achievement, withdrawal from Palestine while handing over key decisions to the United Nations was possibly the least worst outcome available to him there in the face of US intransigence. He worked hard to ensure that the United States accepted international responsibilities and did not revert to isolationism, but he also worked without scruple to secure an independent atom bomb for Britain, having formed the view that without such a deterrent Britain could be easily and without ceremony wiped out. He accepted as inevitable that Britain must contribute to the Korean War when it broke out, though he was critical of American behaviour in that war and was annoyed by American intransigence over recognising China’s communist regime once it had clearly assumed full control. America’s hatred of communism was capable of leading to irrational and dangerous policies. Britain ended the Second World War effectively bankrupt. Attlee’s Labour government was forced to rely on borrowing from the USA to survive economically, on terms which were extremely onerous and arguably harmful to Britain’s long term interests. External commitments, including those to Germany’s ruined economy, drained resources that could be ill afforded; India’s independence deprived Britain of soldiers who had previously played a crucial role around the globe; the Korean War was another unwelcome and unaffordable demand which could only be met through fresh austerity at home. In any case, a bankrupt Britain could only purchase the food and raw materials it required so long as it earned a sufficient income through exported manufactured goods, and that forced the Labour Government to continue to restrain wages and consumer spending. Despite these constraints, it was still possible to nationalise key infrastructure, to deliver full employment, to institute a range of welfare supports, to invest in education, to build new homes of good quality and in huge numbers, and to announce in 1948 the successful launch of a National Health Service. “Attlee had now led the party into five general elections over twenty years. The first, in 1935, had seen it recover from near annihilation four years earlier; the results in 1945 and 1950 were the best in its history and, even in 1951, despite losing power, Labour had won the largest share of the vote.”[p530] This is an electoral record that any modern politician, certainly any Labour leader, would want to understand and emulate. Even at its best, however, about a third of working class voters were voting Conservative, while middle class voters and others could always be attracted to the Conservatives by the prospect of enjoying their advantages. The impression is that Labour lost power when enough voters grew tired of austerity and saw an opportunity for greater personal reward, regardless of any abstract greater good. It is less complicated to say the Tories won by appealing to greed. Throughout this book there is a theme to the effect that what Attlee did for Labour was to appeal to a middle class vote that was not attracted to socialist policies. This is where the book becomes less about Attlee and more about contemporary political debate, circa 2016. Not enough people appreciate Attlee’s historical achievements and this book does a great job to remedy that failing and set out a clear account of his career. But if it is not clear enough while reading the main text, with its recurring jibes about the failings of the Left in the Labour movement, then the epilogue makes it more clear and the new preface, added in 2017 to comment on the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader, places it beyond doubt. This book about the past is written to influence today’s debates about the future of Labour in Britain. In a telling phrase, Bew writes; “As the ‘old left’ faded in the late 1950s,... there was a complete rejection of the tradition of moderate, reformist, democratic socialism which Attlee had come to embody.” [p599] He refers on the same page to “the type of left-wing intellectuals who sneered at the simplistic patriotism of men like Attlee.” Bew seems to be erecting a sort of golden age in the past when Labour had better leadership than the modern crew of pretenders, as if we could bring back Clem Attlee in all his unique complexity and invite him to resume control of affairs. This is neither rational nor helpful. The past has a rock-solid facticity that is immutable. It is not just that we cannot change the past, but that the past is constituted from a vast series of singular events each of which might have been otherwise. The fact that Attlee acted one way and achieved a given outcome does not demonstrate the merit of trying to repeat the same trick in different – or even in similar circumstances. It also does not demonstrate that a different course of action might not have been better. The fact that Attlee’s leadership was beneficial in the way it was is interesting – it is a statement about what did happen – but it does not demonstrate the implications of an alternative. I am prepared to accept that I do not know if a different course of action might have been better but I am not prepared to simply grant that Attlee (or Bew writing about Attlee) was invariably correct, or that his critics were certainly wrong. There were lots of occasions when Attlee was simply lucky and might not be so lucky again. If we must argue that he made his own luck, which is not a logical proposition as it happens (for many things it is nonsense), then we are at least entitled to suggest that he made his own bad luck too. Take for example his apparent failure to develop a new generation of leaders to succeed himself and his trusted associates, or the extent to which at the end of his administration he seemed to have run out of steam. Was he really surrounded by lesser mortals or was he actually limiting their room to grow? If Bew tries to make Attlee into a fetish, he also tries to make too many others into clowns. To take a single instance, he acknowledges at one point that Aneurin Bevan had successfully brought the NHS into being, a monumental administrative achievement, while Attlee had no administrative achievement to his credit, comparable or otherwise. With this example in mind, and only for the sake of an example, it is one thing to emphasise that Bevan was an utterly different type of political animal to Attlee, quite another thing to insist that Attlee was wise while Bevan was foolish to the point of being a political child. It is all very well to complain that Bevan lacked the gravitas and seriousness that Attlee brought to the task of leading, but he also lacked the appalling social failings and the deplorable communication skills that made Attlee such a surprising choice. The only thing that we can learn from this is that every person specification for a political leader is nonsensical; if Attlee could lead successfully despite lacking the requirements of a leader, why not Bevan? Bew refers to the Left in Labour as “sectarian” as though their opponents were something other than sectarian. He deplores fragmentation in the Labour Party as though somehow politics was a great career choice for people with mild manners and moderate emotions, or Conservatives were a model of team play. He makes great play of Attlee’s lack of Marxist inclinations while conceding that his failure to investigate economics was a significant weakness in a prime minister leading a programme of national economic planning. This reasoning just does not work to my mind. I learned a lot about Attlee and for this I am grateful to Bew, but I decline to draw the implications that Bew does from what I have learned. Look it’s just annoying to see history manipulated to serve sectarian interests. The discussion of Left and Right in Labour history is certainly interesting but should be played out in the open with a proper account of the issues and the competing strands. This excellent history of Attlee’s career is certainly useful background for such a discussion but I cannot evaluate Attlee without a fair and balanced examination of the people around him.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Louise Atkin

    This was a really informative and relevant biography to read. I started it after the December 2019 election because I needed some socialist discourse in my life and read it fairly slowly since then and through the first months of this year. I didn't really find this got interesting until Attlee became Prime Minister. His background and life growing up was good to know and I did like to see how he was first introduced to socialist politics. But all of the stuff in-between was pretty average. I wou This was a really informative and relevant biography to read. I started it after the December 2019 election because I needed some socialist discourse in my life and read it fairly slowly since then and through the first months of this year. I didn't really find this got interesting until Attlee became Prime Minister. His background and life growing up was good to know and I did like to see how he was first introduced to socialist politics. But all of the stuff in-between was pretty average. I would've loved to read a lot more in depth about his time as PM because I felt as though this was only a short section of the book as it had to deal with so many years before and after. There was also way too much Churchill in this for me - I know he was a large part of Attlee's life but a lot of this book seemed to discuss them as a duo and I can't be arsed reading about that Tory boy. It did make me feel kind of sad as Bew makes the argument that we've never ever seen a politician like Attlee since. I agree in that Attlee had a strange way of appealing to the working class without seeming too radical, yet the ideas he introduced came from the very heart of his socialist values and leanings. The NHS and Welfare State were absolutely life-changing for some people and if it wasn't for Thatcher I think the legacy of his socialist policies would be a lot stronger today and there would perhaps be less hatred towards the left from the working class. A good biography for people interested in this sort of thing although like I said there were some parts a lot more less interesting than others.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jonny Thomson

    Well, that was a beast! Alongside the Hitler biography I read earlier this year, I suspect this might be one of the longest single books I've read, and yet I never felt it was turgid, slow or filling space. The life of Clement Attlee, of course, bridges some of the most volitile, transitory and fascinating moments in British, and world, history. The end of empire, two world wars, tectonic global changes, the rise of America and the USSR and characters like Churchill, FDR, Hitler, Stalin... What Well, that was a beast! Alongside the Hitler biography I read earlier this year, I suspect this might be one of the longest single books I've read, and yet I never felt it was turgid, slow or filling space. The life of Clement Attlee, of course, bridges some of the most volitile, transitory and fascinating moments in British, and world, history. The end of empire, two world wars, tectonic global changes, the rise of America and the USSR and characters like Churchill, FDR, Hitler, Stalin... What a background! The sections on his earlier life I found remarkable in the outline of the man who I was surprised to note how gentrified and middle-class his upbringing and life was; a lawyer father, Haileybury private school, Oxford, and then the Bar - he would have seemed to have "Tory" written all over him. It's amazing, really, how his entire political philosophy, and that which would go on to motivate his premiership between 45-51, was essentially a Damascene moment of helping out in Stepney at his Old Boys charity. From there, he was essentially an educated socialist of the parliamentary/democratic Morris and Ruskin mould rather than Marx or Lenin's more militant revolutionary ideology. His rise to political power was down to, predominantly, a combination of being a respected work horse, an educated but pragmatic socialist but, most crucially, a rather beige consensus figure that could be equally agreeable to all the polarised aspects of the highly multifarious Labour party (as an aside, it is interesting to note throughout all the parrallels between then and today - the more things change, the more things stay the same). The WW2 years were well written - artfully weaving the wartime events and their effect on Attlee. It was interesting how big a role Attlee himself played but also it was principally the Labour ministers who were left to choreograph much of the 'home front' economy e.g. labour, factories and food production. Attlee comes over well in this period as one who is happy to let Winston Churchill take the limelight, but never one to shirk from responsibility if it's due e.g. his arresting of Indian nationalists. As to his triumphant post-war win, I knew the names Bevan, Bevin and Attlee before, but I was largely ignorant of the other huge players in the huge 190+ majority government of 1945: Morrison (who comes over as rather a snake at times, but ultimately hard working and assiduous), Cripps (the more academic socialist in a Revolutionary Marxist mould), Dalton, Addison, and Lawson. All had massive briefs, and all were given freedom and responsibility, and all mostly rose to the task (in fact, it only seems as if Shinwell of all the cabinet - in charge of fuel and power - had a nightmare leading to the fuel shortages in 48). Their challenges and their successes were legion: nuclear weapons, rebuilding houses, the NHS, reforming the welfare system to national insurance, Palestine, India, Loans from America/dollar convertibility, food shortages, nascent bolshie USSR, disarmament/demobilisation, free state education and ultimately Suez/Korea/Iran. I mean it really puts modern governments tribulations into perspective. It was dark and tragically telling how much the war and all this took their toll by 49/50. There is one passage which lists how Bevin had a heart condition (dying in 51), Attlee had stomach ulcers and prostate issues, Cripps' stomach cancer, and Dalton was addicted to prescription drugs. The government wasn't so much ousted by the Tories in 51, it simply keeled over. There are two reasons that the book loses a star for me: 1) It never really goes into the minutae of the greatest successes of the Labour government - i.e. the state school system, the NHS and National Insurance. This may have been a blessing if it proved to be byzantine and dull but I can't help but come away feeling as if there was a gaping hole. 2) This really ought to be subtitled "a political biography" as probably only 5% of the book is given to Attlee's private life, his interests and his character. This may be because he was so closed and possibly dull that there isn't anything there, but I never felt I got a real flavour for who he is. I didn't even know his siblings had died until a throw away line or two near the end! So...A really nice book that taught me a lot, revised a lot, and opened a few debates. I'm not sure I agree with John Bew's assessment that Attlee alone was the reason for Labour's success - I do feel the scale of the victory and the shifts in British society would have made any Labour leader win, but I do feel as if Attlee is an overlooked, underappreciated and misunderstood character. It is probably fair to say that he was not a Strong Leader in the mould of today, but given Britain had just seen off the 'fuhrer ideology' and given that Labour's last 'strong leader' proved to be a disaster in Ramsey MacDonald, I suspect he was just the right man for the job and the right time.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Will

    Another 500+ page political biography - staying on brand. A great read, telling the story of one of the most consequential political leaders in British history. I've spoken about this book to people while & since reading it, or they've seen me reading it and looked at the blurb, and they're shocked by the range of accomplishments to his name (founding the NHS, helping start NATO, starting the end of Empire, Deputy PM during WW2, etc.). Lots of them have never heard of him, or only vaguely recollec Another 500+ page political biography - staying on brand. A great read, telling the story of one of the most consequential political leaders in British history. I've spoken about this book to people while & since reading it, or they've seen me reading it and looked at the blurb, and they're shocked by the range of accomplishments to his name (founding the NHS, helping start NATO, starting the end of Empire, Deputy PM during WW2, etc.). Lots of them have never heard of him, or only vaguely recollect the name. Contrast this with his great political friend and adversary, Churchill, and it's even more of a ludicrous oversight by popular culture. I can see how it happens, too. In 'The Crown', Attlee barely gets a mention even when he's PM, and the casual references to him are mostly belittling. It fits the general mould of Attlee coverage - mostly a) ignored, or b) seen as unimpressive and his achievements mostly the product of others' (e.g. Bevan, Churchill). So I really enjoyed fully immersing myself in the life of Clem. It's a very personal biography, focusing on Attlee as a character and his attitudes and perspective throughout his long political life (he was Labour leader for 20 years, 1935-55, while Churchill was his counterpart from 1940-55). The book brilliantly brings him to life. You see him clearly as a cricket fan, a highly unorthodox political leader, a genuinely shy and humble character, and a really dedicated public servant. It's pretty impossible not to like him after reading this, which is probably why, although most people don't overly praise him, you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who actually criticises him nowadays. His time in power is pretty extraordinary. He rises through the ranks after Labour's worst ever defeat (1931), a crushing loss after their PM, Macdonald, left the party to set up a coalition with the Tories. He pretty much found himself in charge by chance in 1935, as there was almost no one else left. And there he stayed, for 20 years! He made gains of around 100 in 1935, then a frankly incredible swing of 220+ seats in 1945 against Churchill in the flush of victory. In the meantime, he had toppled Neville Chamberlain and helped install Churchill as PM in 1940, in what proved to be a pretty spot-on call. That's the theme that runs through Attlee's life - his judgement calls were unbelievably good. Backing Churchill both initially and throughout the war (despite much criticism from the left), bringing Bevan into government (despite Bevan's very public hostility to Attlee for the preceding 10 years), backing NATO, and so on. His ability to work with people from genuinely across the entire spectrum, and with those who'd been publicly very rude to him, towards a common good is pretty remarkable. His lack of ego is astonishing. To show just how unegotistic he was, his favourite cartoon was a 1940 Evening Standard picture 'All Behind You, Winston', which shows him rolling up his sleeves behind Churchill at the dawn of the new government, showing an attitude of getting to work to win the war. I simply cannot imagine any modern British party leader going into coalition with their opponents, never mind seeing it as the pinnacle of their achievements (which he did - unbelievably, given what came next), or revelling being second-in-command. Many commentators on the blurb lament that none of our modern leaders are 'like Attlee'; 'we need a new Attlee' etc. To be blunt, we're never going to get another one. The British system and modern politics don't lend themselves towards shy, humble and personally unambitious men like Clem, and it's frankly a bizarre fluke of history that we got one as PM in the first place. My main criticism of the book is that it's overly personality-focused. The elections he fights are often reduced to a couple of pages, with no real analysis of the votes won and lost. It goes into none of the strategy of e.g. Blair's or Mandela's autobiographies. The purpose of the book isn't an electoral analysis, but there was surely room for it given the size. Similarly, the book is pretty light on legislative detail, focusing more on the personalities and outside forces involved than the final bills. I didn't learn much at all about e.g. Labour's post-war housing policies, which was disappointing. But overall it was deeply fascinating, and I could bang on and on about it for ages (as you can see by the length of this review). 4.5 / 5

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lewis Smart

    "Good old Clem" John Bew's portrait of Clement Attlee is a fine work on bringing Great Britain's most transformational politician and statesman into the 21st Century. A man who saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, fought in WW1 and who involved himself in the social work amongst the poverty of the East End of London is the embodiment of Britain's change throughout the first 50 years of the 20th century. Bew documents Attlee's work amongst the early Labour greats such as the Webbs and while "Good old Clem" John Bew's portrait of Clement Attlee is a fine work on bringing Great Britain's most transformational politician and statesman into the 21st Century. A man who saw the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, fought in WW1 and who involved himself in the social work amongst the poverty of the East End of London is the embodiment of Britain's change throughout the first 50 years of the 20th century. Bew documents Attlee's work amongst the early Labour greats such as the Webbs and while Attlees' patriotism is a theme and distinguishing mark throughout, the underlying message, never said explicitly so much, is that Attlee was a revolutionary in terms of his economic and social outlook. While this man was seen as a great mediocrity by people such a Aneuran Bevan, the book is a testament to how extraordinary ordinariness can be when that quality is underlined by courage, thoughtfulness and modesty in effecting change. While Attlee is not remembered as one of the "big three" at Potsdam, arguably it doesnt matter because Attlee's testament is that we, as British people, subconsciously pay homage to him everytime we walk into a hospital for free, receive help whenever we fall on hard times and when we send our kids to school in order to do better than their parents. This is where the book succeeds most. It shows how a bald little man led britain through it's most transformational time after an exhausting war and set the tone of british politics until today in 2020 when both parties fought the recent election over who could be trusted with the NHS. Bew also shows how interesting Clem's political character was and how Attlee managed firebrand characters like Bevan, Morrison and Cripps and outlasted them all, which incidentally serves as a potent lesson for politicians today. If politicians really want to serve their country and effect change, then quiet and solid determination and a touch of modesty can actually go a long way and is potentially a useful personality trait in prolonging ones longevity in politics. Even churchill's gigantic and capable character was only really fully served by the external events of WW2. In this vein, Bew documents well how Churchill's character in peacetime politics led him to appear smaller than when he was at his best during the war. Bew does seem to miss the bottom up pressures of society during Attlee's tenure as Prime Minister. The public and civil society are almost invisible while great change takes place above them but as a biography of one man that can probably be severe by reading books such as "The Five Giants" by Nicholas Timmins. Overall, this book is a great testament to a man who should be in every British textbook and while he is fundamentally of a different time, the Labour Party in 2020 can take vital lessons from him about service, humility and dedication rather than the curre t resentment, jealousies and zealotry which seems to be rife within it today.

  10. 5 out of 5

    David Highton

    A comprehensive biography of Attlee, a key figure in British politics in the twentieth century, about whom I found I knew very little. The sections about his role as Deputy Prime Minister in the War Cabinet in 1939-45, and as the leader of the post-war Labour government which created the welfare state and the NHS, are particularly good.

  11. 5 out of 5

    David Lowther

    A recent poll of academics identified Clement Attlee as Britain's best Prime Minister since 1900. Reading John Bew's autobiography, it's easy to understand why. This book, however, looks at Clem's career, warts and all. Like the rest of us his faults were numerous and a plethora of charisma was certainly not something you'd level at him. Attlee came from a privileged background; public school and Cambridge educated but, as a young man, relocated to one of East London's poorest districts and soon A recent poll of academics identified Clement Attlee as Britain's best Prime Minister since 1900. Reading John Bew's autobiography, it's easy to understand why. This book, however, looks at Clem's career, warts and all. Like the rest of us his faults were numerous and a plethora of charisma was certainly not something you'd level at him. Attlee came from a privileged background; public school and Cambridge educated but, as a young man, relocated to one of East London's poorest districts and soon became their Member of Parliament and remained so for the rest of his political career. What this biography tells us is that Attlee was the most tolerant of politicians and saw the importance of listening to all points of view before making judgement. Bew emphatically demonstrates that lack of dogma was one of Attlee's greatest assets and the helped him to rescue the Labour Party from oblivion during the 1930s. He became Leader in the mid-thirties after Labour had been virtually wiped out at the 1931 General Election. An improved performance in 1935 eventually led to the Labour landslide of 1945. When commentators talk of the Second World War in GB political terms, their usual approach is to laud Winston Churchill who kept Britain afloat when all seemed lost which, of course, he did. In Citizen Clem we learn of the important role that Attlee played as Deputy Prime Minister in running the country during the PM's frequent absences and bringing the Labour members of parliament into the coalition government which meant that Churchill could govern with a group of men and women from across the class spectrum. Attlee was a great listener and a shrewd judge of character. He recognised talent when he saw it and rewarded it even if his own political views didn't match those of some of his opponents within the party. Attlee's 1945-1951 government achieved more than any before or since. It will be chiefly remembered for establishing the welfare state in the UK but Attlee himself sat alongside Stalin and Truman at Potsdam and conducted, through his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, a positive and aggressive foreign policy. He also oversaw the independence of India and its partition with Pakistan. He has a list of achievements as long as your arm yet never trumpeted these and remained a modest man throughout his life. He was leader of the Labour Party for twenty years. My overriding memory of Attlee after reading this superb book are of a man who brought the best out of those who worked with him. The Labour Party then, as now, had many factions within it but instead of ignoring them he embraced all and preserved party unity. One of the greatest achievements of his government was the founding of the National Health Service. The minister responsible was Aneurin Bevan, a fiery Welshman on the left of the party. Instead of ignoring him, Attlee brought him into the cabinet with spectacular results. Jeremy Corbin would do well to read this book. His opponents in the party are pussycats compared with Attlee's yet he managed them and used their talents for twenty years. David Lowther. Author of The Blue Pencil, Liberating Belsen and Two Families at War, all published by Sacristy Press.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Samuel James

    Fantastic, well-research autobiography on Clement Attlee. I bought this book in September 2017, a few months after Labour's third consecutive election loss. Corbyn's Labour gained over 40% of the popular vote, they gained seats across the country, yet were still the main opposition in government. Far from being wiped out, the party was re-energised by populist socialist ideals. Ideals that have echoes of a time when Clement Attlee was in power. Attlee was Deputy PM during the war, and led Labour Fantastic, well-research autobiography on Clement Attlee. I bought this book in September 2017, a few months after Labour's third consecutive election loss. Corbyn's Labour gained over 40% of the popular vote, they gained seats across the country, yet were still the main opposition in government. Far from being wiped out, the party was re-energised by populist socialist ideals. Ideals that have echoes of a time when Clement Attlee was in power. Attlee was Deputy PM during the war, and led Labour to a landslide election victory in the months that followed WWII. He overcame Winston Churchill. His government nationalised many flailing industries, as well as introduced the NHS in 1948. They oversaw the dismantling of the British #Empire, and the beginnings of the commonwealth. They came to power when #Britain was effectively broke. Attlee was a proponent of the UK, and an old fashioned skeptic of the #EU (or what was to become of it). Attlee's government lasted roughly six years, but many of his ideas are still in place today. Attlee was constantly belittled by his own cabinet and the opposition. He was seen as weak because he wasn't a showman. In cabinet he saw himself as a chairman. He once said of this 'Why bark, when you have a good dog'. He faced constant jostles for his position, but managed to keep his party together. He didn't threaten to delist candidates who didn't agree with him, he managed them, and found their strengths. Citizen Clem made me re-think, and reanalyse my feelings toward Labour's current socialist leader. My stance toward Corbyn has softened. Some of the best things about Britain were implemented under Attlee, why can't we see the same under Corbyn in the future. At the end of the day Labour and socialism appeals to dreamers. I'd always fight for those ideals, than that of the 'Nasty Party'.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sorrento

    John Bew has written a very entertaining book about the life and contribution of Clement Atlee to the service of the British people. I already knew about Atlee’s leadership of the 1945 Labour government which achieved so much that we have to be grateful for such as the NHS and the modern welfare state, improved housing and education. However, by reading John Bew’s book I also learned about Atlee the social worker in London’s East End, Major Atlee the war hero of the first world war, three times John Bew has written a very entertaining book about the life and contribution of Clement Atlee to the service of the British people. I already knew about Atlee’s leadership of the 1945 Labour government which achieved so much that we have to be grateful for such as the NHS and the modern welfare state, improved housing and education. However, by reading John Bew’s book I also learned about Atlee the social worker in London’s East End, Major Atlee the war hero of the first world war, three times carried off the battle field and Atlee the deputy prime minister who together with Churchill in the national government led the country to victory over Nazi Germany and Japan during WW2.Bew also describes Atlee’s contribution to overseeing the end of empire and the bringing into the commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan. In Citizen Clem we learn that Atlee was a committed democratic socialist and patriot who believed in the idea of service to one’s country and that ordinary working people deserved much better support and opportunity to flourish and be protected from adversity. For over twenty years he led an often-fractious Labour Party keeping it united in order to achieve great things. Bew also tells us much about the Atlee’s personality and demeanour. Time and again we hear how Atlee in contrast to the big brash loud characters such as Churchill & Nye Bevan he was a quiet unassuming private man. We also learn that Atlee was a brilliant chairman in Cabinet and was able to debate effectively on the big stage with Churchill and Oswald Mosley, by force of argument alone. The book describes many stories form Atlee’s private life and he comes across as a loving husband, father and brother. There are many anecdotes based on his correspondence with his brother Tom and amusing stories about his wife Violet’s driving escapades. Overall, I found John Bew’s book to be a truly inspirational portrait of one of the giants of British public life.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jonny

    A very well-argued biography, which convincingly portrays Attlee as an underappreciated expert in carrying Labour with him through this leadership, and in successfully governing through WWII and the immediate postwar period. I learned a lot about how Attlee accomplished his goals, although the whole-life nature of the book means you skip over topics including what role Attlee played in the creation of the NHS, and anything reflective on how he saw his Premiership. As Bew notes, Attlee has underg A very well-argued biography, which convincingly portrays Attlee as an underappreciated expert in carrying Labour with him through this leadership, and in successfully governing through WWII and the immediate postwar period. I learned a lot about how Attlee accomplished his goals, although the whole-life nature of the book means you skip over topics including what role Attlee played in the creation of the NHS, and anything reflective on how he saw his Premiership. As Bew notes, Attlee has undergone a Renaissance since 2010 as other past Labour leaders have been seen as politically unacceptable but - even allowing for that - you’re left with an appreciation of the skill and vision shown by Attlee, and how far-reaching the consequences of his Premiership were.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Pratley

    This is a superb book about a wonderful man. John Bew is seeking, with this book, to get us to appreciate much more the achievements of Clement Attlee. In recent years historians are now describing Attlee as one of the three most influential & important Prime Ministers since 1940. The other two are Mrs Thatcher & Mr Churchill. This book has allowed me to understand the nature of Clement Attlee's achievements & also what made him tick. For many he was an enigmatic figure but I don't think he was This is a superb book about a wonderful man. John Bew is seeking, with this book, to get us to appreciate much more the achievements of Clement Attlee. In recent years historians are now describing Attlee as one of the three most influential & important Prime Ministers since 1940. The other two are Mrs Thatcher & Mr Churchill. This book has allowed me to understand the nature of Clement Attlee's achievements & also what made him tick. For many he was an enigmatic figure but I don't think he was all that difficult to read as a man. What you saw with him is what you got. It appears, for many, he was a man hidden in plain sight because of their lack of insight & imagination. I am glad I have had the chance to read it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jane Walker

    An excellent biography of someone even those of us on the left in politics know far too little about. This is very detailed but always readable. Bew is not uncritical but strives to be fair, and Attlee comes out of it as one of the most decent politicians of his age. One can't help but consider him in the light of contemporary events.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Luke

    Hundreds of pages dedicated to proving over and over and over the central thesis that Attlee was underappreciated in his own time, by allies and foes alike. Somehow this is riveting, especially once the run-up to WW2 starts. He really was misunderestimated, and he really was ultimately a giant of 20th century British history. And he really is an inspiring figure, at least to me. The book is deeply researched and well-told, although certain phrases and words pop up often enough to be a little irr Hundreds of pages dedicated to proving over and over and over the central thesis that Attlee was underappreciated in his own time, by allies and foes alike. Somehow this is riveting, especially once the run-up to WW2 starts. He really was misunderestimated, and he really was ultimately a giant of 20th century British history. And he really is an inspiring figure, at least to me. The book is deeply researched and well-told, although certain phrases and words pop up often enough to be a little irritating. That’s a small gripe though. One thing it leaves me with is a desire to understand better the other side: Attlee had so many detractors. We hear from them many times in this book but almost always in the service of making the point that they were wrong about him, or at least missed the point. But why, for example, did Nye Bevan and the other radical leftists think that a more aggressive socialist push in 1945-47 would work? How did they see the field? Would recommend to anyone looking to read a political biography.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin

    This is, I think, one of the great single-volume political biographies, being comprehensive but not long winded, clearly and fluidly written and giving pretty equal weight to his public achievements and his personality. Additionally, one aspect I particularly liked was the frequent use and discussion of poetry which Attlee was reading at the time. More biographers should analyse their subject's taste in literature and how it's shaped their character and their principles. Anyway. In summary: very This is, I think, one of the great single-volume political biographies, being comprehensive but not long winded, clearly and fluidly written and giving pretty equal weight to his public achievements and his personality. Additionally, one aspect I particularly liked was the frequent use and discussion of poetry which Attlee was reading at the time. More biographers should analyse their subject's taste in literature and how it's shaped their character and their principles. Anyway. In summary: very, very good.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Goldenberg

    "An empty taxi pulled up outside Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out ". "A modest man with much to be modest about ". "A sheep in sheep's clothing ". These are just some of the many disparaging quotes about Clement Attlee and yet, in recent years, there has been many re-evaluations of him, this biography being the most thorough and persuasive. It is fascinating on his early career and his participation in the First World War. Whilst his major achievements will always be the welfare state legislat "An empty taxi pulled up outside Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out ". "A modest man with much to be modest about ". "A sheep in sheep's clothing ". These are just some of the many disparaging quotes about Clement Attlee and yet, in recent years, there has been many re-evaluations of him, this biography being the most thorough and persuasive. It is fascinating on his early career and his participation in the First World War. Whilst his major achievements will always be the welfare state legislation passed by his post-war government, John Bew points out in great detail (maybe too much for some readers) how his personality and political skill held an often divided Labour Party together for 20 years. It also shows what a vital part he played in the wartime government even though Churchill took all the plaudits. At a time when we seem wedded to the need for supposedly charismatic powerful leaders (Trump, Putin?), This study of Attlee's character and achievements might just help us re-evaluate what makes a good leader.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tariq Mahmood

    Very interesting political biography of Attlee, written in the backdrop of WW1, WW2, Independence of colonies and Korean War. Attlee's stoic personality shines like a beacon of light, delivering for the common people who wanted assurance of jobs after the end of WW2. Not only does Attlee deliver but is able to construct a new socialist Britain out of the ashes of the death and destruction, a legacy which remains a reality to this day. Attlee led a very British socialist revolution to transform t Very interesting political biography of Attlee, written in the backdrop of WW1, WW2, Independence of colonies and Korean War. Attlee's stoic personality shines like a beacon of light, delivering for the common people who wanted assurance of jobs after the end of WW2. Not only does Attlee deliver but is able to construct a new socialist Britain out of the ashes of the death and destruction, a legacy which remains a reality to this day. Attlee led a very British socialist revolution to transform the lives of the ordinary British workers to break the centuries old class system reducing the aristocrats to shadows of the society. And Attlee achieved all this change against the rivalry of maybe the most charismatic leader of Britain Churchill, makes the story even more remarkable.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Warren

    This book can be summed up in one word: magesterial.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Antenna

    This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries This prize-winning biography achieves the challenging task of marshalling a mountain of research into an absorbing analytical account of the man who presided over the first majority Labour government in the UK. Criticised, like the Blair period, for failing to seize the opportunity for radical change, Attlee’s pragmatic approach in fact changed a good deal: introduction of the NHS together with national insurance and welfare systems, the more controversial nationalisation of essential industries, and overseas, the dismantling of the British Empire to be replaced by a Commonwealth, with India one of the first to gain independence, sadly with great bloodshed. Clement Attlee was a man of contrasts. Public-school and Oxford educated, he exchanged a career in law for charity work with deprived boys in London’s East End, which led him to join the nascent Labour Party as a means of creating a fairer society. Mocked as an “invisible man”, likened to a rabbit or one of the “three blind mice”, even called “the Arch-Mediocrity” by the sharp-tongued Bevan, Attlee proved a courageous officer in the First World War, and quietly tenacious, chipped away patiently at problems in civilian life, prompting Churchill to describe him as a “lion-hearted limpet”. Although often painfully shy when thrust into the limelight, lacking in ego and refusing to promote himself so that a retirement speech and media interview on his life would be remembered mainly for their brevity, he was in fact at ease with himself, and so able to establish a rapport with both a mineworker’s union leader and King George V1. Ironically, the man who hated pomposity ended up accepting a hereditary earldom. Although it was feared he would be a liability in general elections, with his reedy voice and mechanical delivery of speeches, his authenticity proved popular with the general public, who liked his values, but not his continual reminders of the need to be “good citizens” and restrict consumption so that Britain could meet its obligations. Having been brought up to revere the British Empire, he was one of the first to call for the granting of Independence to India, and was keen to accept “Red China” as a legitimate power before America was prepared to do so. . Despite his vision of achieving a lasting peace through an effective United Nations, with nuclear disarmament, in the end he resorted to developing a nuclear deterrent to protect the country against the threat of Communism. Very questionably, this was done covertly, to avert a violent outcry from the Labour left wing. The history of the Labour movement which forms the background to this fascinating biography reminds us of how many of Labour’s current dilemmas are far from new. It is impossible to avoid making parallels with today as one reads about Attlee under attack from the left wing intellectuals in his party for his failure to attack the establishment, or criticised more widely for accepting huge loans from the US because of the crippling strings attached, or feeling obliged to enter into a costly war the country could not afford because of the need to show solidarity with the US over Korea. Likewise, there was his refusal to cooperate with west European states over the Schumann Plan to share coal and steel (forerunner of the EU) because he judged it incompatible with freedom to plan the UK economy. Another example was his inability to protect the Palestinians, as promised in the Balfour Agreement, because of the American President Truman’s strong support for Jewish migration to the homeland of Israel in response to intense lobbying. With the current all-pervading media hype and obsession with celebrity, it would seem impossible now for such a man as Attlee to gain and retain a leadership role for two decades. He may have been a Victorian at heart, puzzled by his grandchildren’s addiction to television, yet his unassuming dedication, based on a thoughtful vision of the world developed through years of observation, reading and reflection, still evokes admiration after half a century, and a for more leading politicians with his mix of altruistic vision, determination and moderation.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Mills

    A worthy winner of the 2017 Orwell Prize for political writing, "Citizen Clem" is a brisk and highly readable account of the man who remains the greatest leader the Labour Party has ever had, and who Bew argues (successfully in my view) has been misunderstood and underappreciated, not least by the intellectual left of the Labour movement, to whom the author, like his subject, gives short shrift. Bew makes the case that it was the qualities for which others in British politics held him in disdain A worthy winner of the 2017 Orwell Prize for political writing, "Citizen Clem" is a brisk and highly readable account of the man who remains the greatest leader the Labour Party has ever had, and who Bew argues (successfully in my view) has been misunderstood and underappreciated, not least by the intellectual left of the Labour movement, to whom the author, like his subject, gives short shrift. Bew makes the case that it was the qualities for which others in British politics held him in disdain - his quiet, intuitive patriotism, his unfussy and direct manner, his pragmatism and affection for ordinary people, especially the people of east London whom he served for many years as a social worker, councillor and MP before becoming Prime Minister - that enabled the Labour Party under Clement Attlee to negotiate the choppy political waters between the Wars, and to serve successfully as part of the wartime coalition government before achieving an extraordinary victory in 1945 that led to the founding of the NHS, independence for India, the introduction of national insurance and the end of the era of the hated means tests and Poor Law that had scarred so many people's lives. Attlee the quiet patriot was also instrumental in helping to found the UN and NATO, and in ensuring Britain had its own nuclear deterrent in a post-WWII world where at first there were no guarantees that the US would be Europe's bulwark against Stalin's Soviet Union. Attlee's socialism was one where, as he said, "We need to stress duties as well as rights", and Bew mourns the fact that, since his death, "the citizenship ideal that defined Attlee's career was lost". In his preface to the new paperback edition, the author comments - re the 2017 UK general election - "One suspects [Attlee] would have performed very well" had he been Labour leader. In a world where we are increasingly retreating into tribal groupings, insulated from one another by virtual and often physical geography, and where the tolerance for views other than our own - tolerance which is the bedrock of democracy, and on which it depends to survive - is fast receding, arguably we need the quiet, sensible dedication of an Attlee - that intuitively understands the British people's sensible patriotism, as well as their desire for a solid commitment to the common weal - more than ever. Alas for us that it seems so lacking.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Reza Amiri Praramadhan

    “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” - Malcolm Mudgeridge on Clement Attlee “A modest man, with much to be modest about.” - Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee “(Attlee was) . . . bringing to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match.” - Aneurin Bevan on Clement Attlee Those three above are only some examples of disparaging remarks about Clement Attlee made by his contemporaries. This showed how underestimated Attlee was in the eyes of other people “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.” - Malcolm Mudgeridge on Clement Attlee “A modest man, with much to be modest about.” - Winston Churchill on Clement Attlee “(Attlee was) . . . bringing to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match.” - Aneurin Bevan on Clement Attlee Those three above are only some examples of disparaging remarks about Clement Attlee made by his contemporaries. This showed how underestimated Attlee was in the eyes of other people. Even today, Attlee seemed to be rather forgotten, in the shadow of the likes of Churchill, Thatcher or even Blair. In fact, Attlee presided over one of the greatest changes of the British society, that is, the establishment of British Welfare State, which catered to its citizens from their cradles to their graves (let’s face the fact, besides winning the second world war, Churchill did nothing else). Even in this aspect, there are some people who credited it to Aneurin Bevan. Attlee government set the foundation for the ‘great consensus’ in British politics, a pattern broken only by the government of Thatcher. Putting aside his government’s achievements, it is his personality that fascinates me the most, which is unlikely for politicians. Quiet, unassuming, shy, poetic, and loves his books. Attlee was a rare breed in socialist world, that is, a patriotic socialist. Born into a upper middle class family, Attlee watched Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee celebration and liked Rudyard Kipling’s poems. He went to a public school and fought in Gallipoli. Unlike other socialists who abhorred the legacy of British imperialism, he embraced it. Yet, he refused to be trapped to its glory. Taking over the Labour Party in its darkest times after the treachery of Ramsay MacDonald. He reined over the party from veering towards communism, and indeed, an important factor which prevented British’s move to extremism. He was decisive in the making of Churchill’s wartime coalition by refusing to serve under Chamberlain’s government. He led the Labour Party to its largest victory in history, by defeating Churchill. He also presided over the transition of Britain from an empire to a commonwealth. Looking at Labour Party today, I can see that, sadly, it has changed so much from what Attlee built, or what he hoped to be.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Chaston Kome

    John Bew’s book comes at a time when the center-left is re-examining itself and its past at a time after a series of failures both politically and intellectually across the Western world (and beyond) have led to a rise of far-right nationalists, most clearly in Britain and the United States. I count myself a part of the center-left, I am not sure if I found this book, or this book found me; in many parts, Bew’s interpretation of Attlee’s actions is preaching to the choir. I will have to say that John Bew’s book comes at a time when the center-left is re-examining itself and its past at a time after a series of failures both politically and intellectually across the Western world (and beyond) have led to a rise of far-right nationalists, most clearly in Britain and the United States. I count myself a part of the center-left, I am not sure if I found this book, or this book found me; in many parts, Bew’s interpretation of Attlee’s actions is preaching to the choir. I will have to say that at times, I found this book a bit of a bore – perhaps not unlike some of Attlee’s compatriots found him. I think I stopped and read three other books in the course of getting through this one. Biographies as a genre seem to have made an encouraging move toward a more nuanced examination of their subject, highlighting strengths and weaknesses without coming down hard on an individual being either good or bad. In this case, Bew highlights over and over again Attlee’s practicality, humanity, patriotism, common-sense in why he was a successful leader, but when acknowledging that Attlee possessed some weaknesses, he doesn’t seem to go much farther than that: acknowledgment. Bew mentions naivety regarding India and a lack of understanding of economics without elaborating exactly what those were, other than saying that Keynes couldn’t really seem to get Attlee to understand economics as the Cambridge intellectual saw them. That being said, there was a lot to really like about this book. If I ever found myself in office, this would be a book that I would want to read, and re-read. Even out of office, being a good citizen is a political act in an era when popular and political currents are slowly streaming towards autocracy and hyper-individuality. Bew really does convince you of the character of Attlee, his administration, and his worldview. In his epilogue, Bew sets out what he thinks are Attlee’s strengths, and where 21st century liberalism seems to have gone wrong (at least it would be wrong it Attlee’s view). The left has gone focused increasingly on individual rights, while ignoring the originally liberal idea (that I would argue has its modern origins in Hobbes’ Commonwealth) that citizens have a responsibility to assist each other: the balance of rights and responsibilities. Indeed, looking at the modern left, the language used is of securing rights, without much examination of what a citizen’s duties and responsibilities are to their country in return. That is not to say that there is no place for advocacy for citizen’s rights – the American Democratic party seems to be the only party interested in advocating that those not straight, white, or male deserve any rights – but that Attlee’s concern that citizenship was only for taking from a society or government without any sort of duty in return would lead to a malaise in enthusiasm, participation, and interest in participating in civil society. This concern seems to have been borne out. This failure to engage in the duties of citizenship leads to another place where Attlee would feel the modern left was wrong in its outlook, and which arguably was very responsible for Attlee’s surprise landslide victory in 1945: the left seems to have found patriotism passé, if not completely pointless. It is not hard to put some blame of that on the right, which regularly engages in performative patriotism to cloak insincere, or even harmful, beliefs and practices. Attlee saw a purpose in nationalism to rally a country to work for each other, to guarantee one another’s rights and welfare, to “give us decent feeling about ourselves and pride in our own show”. If the left continues to disdain or disregard nationalism, and continues to believe that “nationalism [is a] artificial movement engineered by a handful of agitators” it will continuously fail to engage the breadth of a country in believing in something greater than hope in a charismatic, optimistic leader (see Obama, Barack). If I had to read it again, I think I would try reading one chapter at a time, letting that sink in for a couple days, then pushing on to the next chapter in one sitting. I think my pace of reading several chapters at one point, then inching through the next, did a disservice to getting into the flow of the book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Richard

    Citizen Clem by John Bew is a cradle to grave biography of Clement Attlee, prime minster of the UK from 1945-51. The length that it dedicates to each portion of his life is more proportional to the length of time rather than the magnitude of importance. For instance, in many biographies the portion of being prime minister would take up the majority of the book but that is not the case here. Instead, equal weight is given to his time before entering parliament and his conversion to socialism, his Citizen Clem by John Bew is a cradle to grave biography of Clement Attlee, prime minster of the UK from 1945-51. The length that it dedicates to each portion of his life is more proportional to the length of time rather than the magnitude of importance. For instance, in many biographies the portion of being prime minister would take up the majority of the book but that is not the case here. Instead, equal weight is given to his time before entering parliament and his conversion to socialism, his time as a Labour member and a charing of the progress of the Labour movement during the 20's and 30's, and also his time as leader of the opposition including his membership in the war cabinet. The book is more a history of the times in which he took part and his place in them rather than a blow by blow account of what happened day after day and his emotional reaction to them. Consequently, I never felt I got a measure of Attlee the person, or if I did, it really was that he was a man with a great deal of self assurance in doing the right thing, service to others, but he wasn't so needy in having to show it to everyone. Perhaps doing this is much harder than it appears. To control your emotions and take the effective route (and not the self indulgent route) is rather difficult. The book, for me, didn't make enough of the difference that his character made in contrast to how others might have reacted in the same situation. There is an issue with the book. The chapters are divided into sections by roman numerals, but these are often incorrect. For instance, III will be followed by V, or there will be two section IV's. I have no idea why this wasn't caught during copy editing. However, everything else in the book seems well researched enough and is clearly presented.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Pablo Argote

    Clement Attlee served as prime minister of the UK between 1945 and 1951. He was the second labor prime minister in history after Ramsay McDonald. Before his term, he served as a deputy prime minister of the coalition government that put Churchill in power during World War II. This remarkable biography does a fine job demonstrating that Attlee is one of the most underrated politicians in the XXth century, probably because of his humbleness and lack of charisma. His first big accomplishment was th Clement Attlee served as prime minister of the UK between 1945 and 1951. He was the second labor prime minister in history after Ramsay McDonald. Before his term, he served as a deputy prime minister of the coalition government that put Churchill in power during World War II. This remarkable biography does a fine job demonstrating that Attlee is one of the most underrated politicians in the XXth century, probably because of his humbleness and lack of charisma. His first big accomplishment was the way in which he united the Labor party after its disastrous performance in the early 1930s. However, his finest hour was World War II. After the fall of France, he convinced his party to join Churchill in a coalition government, putting the country before party politics, a principle that he held in his entire career. This is probably the best part of the book, as it shows how Attlee, behind the scenes and without pomp, was in charge of some crucial functions of the wartime government. Indeed, some of the war generals preferred the pragmatism and efficiency of Attlee to the grandiloquence of Churchill. The other highlight is the story of the stunning Labor victory in 1945, which allowed Attlee to assume as prime minister. Despite being constantly challenged by the leftist faction of the party, and mocked by the Tories (Churchill called him "a sheep in a sheep's clothing"), his legacy is quite remarkable: the National Health Service, the National Insurance Act, and several other policies that shaped the modern welfare state. In this sense, this biography does justice to this down-to-earth and shy politician, whose perseverance, pragmatism, and steady temperament lead him to become one of the most progressive prime ministers in the UK's history.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jim Bowen

    It's weird, every so often you read a book and wonder what people ever saw in it. Part of me wonders if this was one of those books, which follows the life of the first truely successful British Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, as the party moves from a fringe party repesenting a certain type of work-class community to being the party of government after World War II. There are a number of things that strike me about this book. One is how similar the sort of backgrounds Attlee, and the other It's weird, every so often you read a book and wonder what people ever saw in it. Part of me wonders if this was one of those books, which follows the life of the first truely successful British Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee, as the party moves from a fringe party repesenting a certain type of work-class community to being the party of government after World War II. There are a number of things that strike me about this book. One is how similar the sort of backgrounds Attlee, and the other really successful Labour leader had (inasmuch as the didn't fit any typical socialist mould). People might try and imply they were different, but no, no they weren't. They both had really middle classed ubringingd. The second is that I think Bew really wanted to like Attlee, and as a result was uncritical of a number of his failings (for example not challenging his lack of knowledge of economics for example, when Attlee was quite drastically changing Britain). My third criticism is that I didn't really get a sense of the issues of the time, especially when he was finally Prime Minister. Maybe it was because he had such a huge majority, but there was no discussion of why it was necessary to nationalise coal, or steel, or the NHS, or thr railways. Sure he did it, but why did he do it? What did people think? Were there discussions in the party? In the country? We got non of that. It was simply stated that the government felt these things were done, and did them, which irked some. Maybe I've just been spoiled in the previous biographies that I've read lately, but I instictively doubt it, I don't feel that lucky.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Phil Cain

    Clement Attlee was a man whose life was shaped by world events dwarfing those of our own time, World Wars 1 and 2 and their aftermath, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression. And, in his own quiet, methodical way, he also helped shaped them. Shy, privately-schooled, cricket-loving, he put himself into the public eye to fulfil a Victorian sense of patriotism and selfless public duty which seem foreign today. His mission all began by living and working in London's hard up East End. He was Clement Attlee was a man whose life was shaped by world events dwarfing those of our own time, World Wars 1 and 2 and their aftermath, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression. And, in his own quiet, methodical way, he also helped shaped them. Shy, privately-schooled, cricket-loving, he put himself into the public eye to fulfil a Victorian sense of patriotism and selfless public duty which seem foreign today. His mission all began by living and working in London's hard up East End. He was a spitting image for Lenin, though he rejecting bolshevism in favour of the separate stream of British socialism. He was, with his homegrown creed, able to work effectively alongside the aristocratic and bombastic Winston Churchill in the national government of World War 2, only to trounce him with a radical plan to create the welfare state once it was over. And yet the two remained on good terms. His natural reticence and his role in unifying a fractious Labour party perhaps mean he, as a man and as a politician, is destined to remain frustratingly ambiguous. But this portrait of a life lived on the front line in tumultuous times, from being shot in the bum in Mesopotamia to facing the threat of the nuclear age, while providing universal healthcare and homes for heroes and starting the dismantling of the British Empire, is no less breathtaking for it. ■

  30. 4 out of 5

    Koit

    I had barely no impression of Mr Attlee before I started this book -- neither did I know much about Mr John Bew though his biography of Castlereagh has been in my "To Read" list since perhaps mid-2012. What I can say after finishing this biography is that Mr Attlee probably ranks amongst the top PMs to have ever governed in the United Kingdom while Mr Bew's style of biography is superb, with just enough humanity to make the people live the pages they are written on. What I most appreciated in the I had barely no impression of Mr Attlee before I started this book -- neither did I know much about Mr John Bew though his biography of Castlereagh has been in my "To Read" list since perhaps mid-2012. What I can say after finishing this biography is that Mr Attlee probably ranks amongst the top PMs to have ever governed in the United Kingdom while Mr Bew's style of biography is superb, with just enough humanity to make the people live the pages they are written on. What I most appreciated in the makeup of this book is the window that the author draws into the subject by starting every chapter with a relevant literary quotation that we know Mr Attlee enjoyed at that particular time. It is clear that for an avid reader like Mr Attlee, literature provided a pillar of his world views -- and it was delightful to see the various chapters in his life opened in such a way. Other aspects of the PM are also characterised with quite some insight -- I was surprised by how little space was devoted to the early, non-formative years, with useful descriptions into periods when something noteworthy happened. Instead, Mr Bew preferred to highlight specific instances of early activity where this was relevant in later chapters. -This methodology allowed Mr Attlee to be fleshed out while keeping in mind his prime achievements -- for the general populace, the creation of the welfare state, and for Labourists, the skillful leadership of a fractured party for two decades -- and on focussing the relevant characteristics which would play a role later on even in the early years. Overall, this is a splendid biography but perhaps more importantly it also re-introduces the concept of a politician not acting primarily in their own self-interest -- as well as one who is willing to listen and lead. This review was originally posted on my blog.

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