Thomas-Symonds adds to that patronising picture with the bland announcement that the victorious leader of the Labour party had agreed to form a government on “Ernest Bevin’s instruction”. Clearly Thomas-Symonds believes that, at least until he became prime minister, Attlee was, in Churchill’s words, “a modest man with plenty to be modest about” and that it was luck rather than talent that carried him into Downing Street.
There is no doubt that circumstance rather that the admiration of his colleagues made Attlee the Labour leader, and even after he led the party to victory, powerful voices still called for Herbert Morrison to replace him. George Strauss – a minister in the postwar government who had served under Morrison on the London County Council – told me: “If the parliamentary party had been allowed to vote, Clem would have been out.” Then he added: “And we would have made a terrible mistake.” That is not Thomas-Symonds’s view. He believes that dumping the man, described by Hugh Dalton as “a little mouse”, would have improved Labour’s chances of becoming “the natural party of government”. In consequence, although A Life in Politics scores high marks for meticulous accuracy, it is flawed by a failure of judgment.
Thomas-Symonds can argue in his own defence that Attlee himself endorsed – at least in public – a highly limited view of his Downing Street role. He saw himself as a PM, not a proto-president – a man who, as Thomas-Symonds rightly says, would not stand a chance of leading a party in the modern world of celebrity politics. He famously asserted that “the essential quality of the PM is that he should be a good chairman, able to get others to work.” Worse still, in the estimation of commentators who believe in a Promethean style of leadership, he defined his duty as articulating party policy rather than dictating it. But, typically, he underestimated himself. He was not a man for dash and daring, but when it mattered, he imposed his will on the cabinet. He insisted, with admirable determination, that the government press on with plans for Indian independence. Less laudably he made sure that, in Bevin’s phrase, there would be “an atomic bomb with a union jack on it”.
Paradoxically, Thomas-Symonds, while dwelling on the limitations of the “good chairman” definition of Attlee’s premiership, criticises his decisive decision to nominate an early date at which the Raj would end. Yet setting an imminent deadline was essential to getting the job done at all. The man we should remember and revere is the prime minister who replaced Wavell with Mountbatten as viceroy and accepted the hard necessity of partition. The postmaster general who explained that, despite concerns about hygiene, dismantling a “telephone instrument” for cleaning would risk “damage to its delicate parts” grew into a statesman who changed the world. Thomas-Symonds’s emphasis on the Pooterish prelude to greatness is as irritating as are his occasional (“dissociate themselves with”) grammatical lapses.
The description of Attlee as the great conciliator with limited personal aspiration does have the advantage of allowing the story to end with a dramatic denouement. The Labour government fell in 1951 after weeks of bitterness and recrimination which, Thomas-Symonds suggests, should have been avoided by a PM who prided himself on reconciling conflicting ideas and rival personalities. But it was not Aneurin Bevan’s resignation from the government – ostensibly in protest at Hugh Gaitskell’s insistence on introducing health service prescription charges – that dealt the fatal blow. In truth, Labour lost office because, in the phrase of the time, it “ran out of steam”. A better metaphor by which to describe the malaise, and one which points a moral for future Labour leaders, is “lost its way”. The party not only failed to set out a clear and coherent idea of what it proposed to do. It was not even sure about the purpose of its existence.
The clash of personalities – Morrison ambitious, Dalton disruptive and Bevin loyal but impatient – was only the symptom of the underlying problem. What Attlee, in 1937, called “unnecessary personal suspicions and personal attacks” which “play into the hands of our enemies” always surface when Labour has no clear unifying purpose. The lesson of 1951 is not that Attlee failed to massage Bevan’s ego by making him foreign secretary or that he vacillated about the proposal to expel Bevan from the party – neither dismissing the preposterous idea nor endorsing it. Labour lost because, thanks to its distaste for ideology, it surged ahead when the political climate – demands for a free health service, full employment and colonial emancipation – was favourable, but had no idea what to do when the weather changed. Let the next Labour leader take note.