Magazine article The Spectator

Attlee and Driberg, the Good and Bad Sides of the Old Labour Coin

Magazine article The Spectator

Attlee and Driberg, the Good and Bad Sides of the Old Labour Coin

Article excerpt

Perhaps unwittingly, Tom and Clem, the fashionable play about Attlee and Driberg is an elegy for Old Labour. Neither, for different reasons, would have been at home in Tony Blair's party. Each in his own way epitomised why Old Labour failed. The notion that Clem Attlee ran a 'great' government is absurd. It began with high hopes but collapsed in economic impotence in 1947; thereafter it was downhill all the way. Attlee was a good man and he knew how to run a Cabinet - he ran the wartime coalition much better than Churchill when the old boy was away - but he had a blinkered vision. His views were formed in the years just before 1914 when the state was seen as the only doctor for all the ills of society. His belief in the state was strengthened when he helped to direct its successful wartime efforts, 194045. When he led a homogeneous peacetime government he clung to this vision of the omnicompetent and benevolent state. He not only insisted on retaining virtually all the wartime controls but hugely expanded the public sector. It was Attlee who really thought `the gentleman in Whitehall knows best'. He thus burdened post-war Britain with the millstones of the nationalised industries and with a built-in hostility to private enterprise which only the massive willpower of Mrs Thatcher finally destroyed.

This is why it is an error to compare Blair to Attlee. Blair is post-Thatcher and sees the state as, at best, an occasionally necessary evil. What Blair shares with Attlee is temperament. Attlee, as Morley said of Gladstone, was 'a conservative in everything except essentials'. So is Blair indeed, he is conservative in essentials too. Like Attlee, he distrusts grandiose theories and the intellectuals who expound and believe in them. Attlee had a particular contempt for Dick Crossman, whom he had known as a nasty, boastful little boy. Similarly, Blair will not be dismayed to hear that people like Bernard Crick, David Marquand, Martin Jacques and Ben Pimlott distrust him. He has no time for them either. He likes and admires constructive people, who do things, provide jobs, create wealth and invent new benefits and services. Attlee got on best with decent trade unionists, generals, sportsmen, headmasters - that sort of person. Unlike Blair, he was taciturn, even monosyllabic. I once had great difficulty persuading him to inscribe my copy of one of his books. Eventually he agreed to write, 'Attlee'. But he then regaled me with a tuneful selection of Boer War and Flanders marching-songs. The only person he feared was his dreadful wife, notorious for being `the worst driver in the Home Counties'. If Attlee disliked Crossman he loathed and pitied Tom Driberg, whose sins he blamed on Lancing, the high church school: `All that incense and dressing-up.' When Gladstone was drawing up his third Cabinet, he wrote against the name of Charles (`Three-in-a-bed') Dilke: 'Unavailable'. Attlee was even more dismissive of Driberg: 'Unemployable'.

If Attlee stood for the statist weakness of Old Labour, Driberg represented its humbug. Sodomy, which dominated his life, made him antinomian, and hence a socialist. But he had no sympathy for the lower orders, as he called them, except in the role of bum-boys, rough trade to be picked up on one of his 'cottaging' trawls or to be bought outside the barrack-gate. Driberg's religion was largely pose. He was always nagging me to write a book about gnosticism, but when I cross-questioned him on the subject I found him ignorant. …

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