Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Clement Attlee Detested Faddish Radicalism-You Couldn't Say That Jeremy Corbyn Is His Heir

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Clement Attlee Detested Faddish Radicalism-You Couldn't Say That Jeremy Corbyn Is His Heir

Article excerpt

It is 70 years since Clement Attlee formed his landmark Labour government after winning a 146-seat majority in July 1945. How distant such success seems to today's party. These days, associating oneself with Attlee has become the equivalent of evoking God in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. God means different things to different people, however.

Jeremy Corbyn's supporters see in Attlee both the victorious outsider and the embodiment of Ken Loach's "spirit of' 45"--the moment when the British public showed it had just been waiting for a truly socialist agenda. Such comforting myths, recently recycled by Owen Jones, Billy Bragg and Clare Short, are not new. When Attlee's majority was reduced to five seats in February 1950, despite Labour having won an even higher portion of the popular vote than in 1945, Richard Crossman consoled himself that 13 million people had voted for pure socialism. Forget the loss of more than a hundred seats--this was progress!

For the modernisers, Attlee's success tells a different story: a victory dependent on its appeal to Middle England, which kept the "silly left" in its box, or on the back benches. The very persona of Attlee--his service in two wars, as a volunteer solider in the First World War, and as deputy to Churchill in wartime coalition--was a guarantee that the "New Jerusalem" was "not something exotic", as Attlee put it, "but a natural evolution of the British desire for freedom". The country defined itself against the crass popularism and extreme mood swings that had led its European neighbours to disaster.

Special pleading was anathema to the Attlee project. Everyone would benefit from a transformation of the relationship between state and society; but everyone would have to share the pain, too.

Two things are often forgotten about that government. The first is that it was notorious for price controls, rationing and austerity. The second is that the TUC--which used to think it was better to have a Labour government in power than a cowed party in permanent opposition--agreed to a freeze on wages for most of the government's existence. "There is a limit to what any government can do," Attlee also said in 1946. "We seek to set up the conditions in which fine lives can be lived, but the fineness of those lives depends on the ideals and conceptions of those people themselves."

Most of the senior figures in Attlee's first cabinet were in their mid-sixties. It was composed of men (Ellen Wilkinson, as minister of education, was the only woman in a senior role) who had spent their lives in the struggle, and had lived through two world wars (many serving, in some capacity, in both). For those such as Ernest Bevin, his chief lieutenant and foreign secretary, this was not a parlour game. Political power was hard won; elaborate self-definition and ideological purism could be left to malcontents on the back benches or in the universities. …

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