Clement Attlee: None Smarter

In 1955, stroke Churchill and his Conservative crew hoped to take advantage of infighting in stroke Clement Attlee’s Labour crew.

7 April 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch Labours on.

On 4 April, the British Labour Party elected a new leader, Sir Keir Starmer. While it is an amusing contradiction that Britain’s traditional party of the left is now led by a Knight, there is an even greater irony in the fact that the ruling Conservative Government, elected only three months ago with a large majority and with a right-of-centre agenda, has, due to the coronavirus outbreak, brought in a level of socialist style state intervention unknown in the UK in peacetime.

The current British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, pictured in 2011 when, as Mayor of London, he spoke at that year’s Boat Race weigh-in and crew announcement at City Hall.

The new Labour leader faces a huge task as the party’s performance at the 2019 General Election was its worst since 1935. Some attribute Labour’s election failure to its move to the left, distancing itself from the party’s social democratic stance adopted under Tony Blair. However, there was at least one notable period when Labour benefited from adopting a radical programme – the post war years.

The 1945 Labour Government, unexpectedly defeating Churchill, the great wartime leader, inherited a Britain exhausted by the war and hidebound by rationing, the bombed streets full of rubble, the shops empty and the Treasury coffers bare. However, the end of the war produced a ‘peace dividend’ which Labour boldly and most famously used to create the welfare state and the National Health Service. Imperfect as its accomplishments were, in a period of austerity the new government took the tough economic decisions that laid the foundations for the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. It established the governing model of post-war British politics until Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979.

Modest: Clement Attlee, Labour Prime Minister 1945 – 1951, at home. Today, this would have been a set-up ‘photo opportunity’ but Attlee was indifferent to public relations and it is probable that this was a genuine picture.

The man who lead the Labour Government in these tremendous years was an unlikely radical, the least prepossessing of our modern Prime Ministers, the modest and unassuming Clement Attlee. ‘Clem’ was an uncharismatic, short, balding man with a pipe, neat little moustache and the bearing of a bank manager. However, unlike many of today’s professional politicians, he was rounded, decent and life-experienced. How many of our current leaders could say that they never felt alone because they could reach into their memory for verses of Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne?

On the world stage: Attlee, Truman and Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in 1945.

There are several famous quotes about Attlee’s personality, most of them are probably apocryphal and most are commonly attributed to Churchill.

A modest man with much to be modest about.

An empty taxi drew up and Attlee got out.

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

One story claims that, when Attlee went to Buckingham Palace after winning his 1945 landslide victory, he and the similarly taciturn George VI made small talk interspersed with long silences. Eventually, Attlee remarked: ‘I’ve won the election.’ ‘I know,’ said the King. ‘I heard it on the news.’

Attlee had some unlikely fans:

Of Clement Attlee… I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government.

Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power (1995).

Attlee on holiday. Typically, he had a very understated approach to his annual break. He would retire with his family to the sleepy seaside town of Nefyn in Wales, spending his days rowing hire boats and reading on the beach.

The most famous repost to the criticisms of Attlee’s personality was a nice little limerick, often attributed to Clem himself, though I think this unlikely from such a self-effacing man.

There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter

Attlee experienced the full horrors of war in Gallipoli in 1915 (where he was among the last to be evacuated from Suvla Bay) and in the Mesopotamian Campaign in 1916. He was badly wounded and stoically wrote home: ‘I still can’t move my legs at all. Something wrong with the transmitting apparatus, I suppose. It’s most absurd’. His brother, Tom, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector. Their mother said that she was proud of them both.

Clement Attlee’s inclusion in the HTBS Hall of Fame is merited by the fact that he was a lifelong supporter of the Boat Race and of Oxford rowing in particular (the only other Prime Minister who was also very keen on the sport was his predecessor but one as Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin).

Attlee (centre, with pipe) on a launch following the 1954 Boat Race.

Attlee was born into a wealthy Putney family in 1883. In Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister (2014), Michael Jango wrote:

Among Clement’s early memories were Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee of 1887…. and the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. It is a half-mile walk from (the family home) to Putney Bridge… and Clement recalled that ‘Any visitor to our house was at once asked, “Are you Oxford or Cambridge?” Our general view was that the Universities existed solely for the purpose of this race.’ The Cambridge Crew used to stay in the house next door to the Attlees and Clement ‘always hoped that one day the crews would meet in the street, when, if they followed our example, there would be a fight’. 

Attlee the undergraduate.

In 1901, Attlee went up to University College, Oxford (‘Univ’). According to Jango:

…the unwritten code of being a ‘Univ man’, involved taking more than a passing interest in sports, especially rowing, and participating in the various activities that collectively represented ‘college life’… Mornings were devoted to academic work, afternoons to physical activity, Sundays to God. Clement fitted easily into this routine…

From Oxford, Attlee took a lifelong love of rowing and of history, using the lessons of the latter in his political life. Once when Prime Minister, he asked for someone’s background. When given it, he said, ‘Thought so. Cambridge man. All statistics. No sense of history’.

The University College Boat Club website records that:

Clement Attlee, Prime Minister from 1945–51, had been at Univ. in Edwardian times, and, although he never rowed himself, he was always proud of Univ.’s great sporting reputation from that period, and he remained a devoted Old Member of the College. The club’s archives… include a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office, thanking the Secretary of the Boat Club for sending Attlee a copy of the Eights’ Week Programme for 1949.

For the 1948 Boat Race, Prime Minister Attlee was a guest at the Hammersmith Terrace riverside home of Sir Alan Herbert (‘APH’), the humorist, novelist and playwright, a campaigner for law reform and the Independent Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1935 to 1950 (when university constituencies were abolished). A magazine photographer and a newsreel cameraman captured the day.

What passed for a candid celebrity photograph in the 1940s.
Herbert and Attlee in APH’s riverside back garden on Boat Race Day 1948. Both were Oxford men, both had worked among the poor of London’s East End, both were veterans of Gallipoli.
Built in about 1770, Hammersmith Terrace backs on to the half-way point of the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race.
Attlee (in hat), no doubt disappointed as Cambridge leads Oxford passing AP Herbert’s garden, going on to win by five lengths.
Attlee (centre) watches part of the race on television. Until 1949, the BBC, the one television channel, was only available in the London area.

The above picture, showing Attlee watching the Boat Race on Sir Alan’s television, is slightly peculiar. BBC television pictures came only from the start and the finish of the 1948 race. The middle fifteen or so minutes were covered solely in sound, using the radio commentary of John Snagge and illustrated in the Alexandra Palace studio using a map of the river with two model boats being moved along it using magnets. It was not until 1949 that the BBC was able to televise the whole race.

An advertisement from the 1951 Boat Race programme. Allowing for inflation, the set costs about £5000 in today’s money; little wonder that only 14% of British homes then possessed a set.

The fact that a literary man like AP Herbert owned a vulgar and very expensive television set in 1948 is a surprise. The fact that he kept it in a bedroom is also a little strange. However, it seems that this was a period when you could invite a serving Prime Minister up to your bedroom to watch magnetic boats being moved along a map on a monochrome 405-line, 15-inch screen. Simpler times – and perhaps better politicians?

3 comments

  1. As one who lived through the ‘foundation of the welfare state and the NHS’ and the nationalisation of just about all the major industries which led to immense union power and also included some foreign policies, for instance, the partition of India, I am not convinced by all that the Attlee government did! Labour in government lasted only until 1951. As mentioned – it took until the time of Margaret Thatcher to undo the worst elements.

  2. Dear Dr Wilson,

    I did include the phrase ‘Imperfect as its accomplishments were’ and I am sure that neither you nor I can think of any government that convinced us of all that they did.

    In the 1951 election, Labour won the popular vote with nearly 49% of votes cast.

    One or two people think that the creation of the NHS was (and is) a good thing. Current events seem to confirm this.

    Nationalisation is regarded as something undesirable now but the Conservative governments of 1951 – 1964 did nothing to undo it or the welfare state.

    The Partition of India was a disaster but I am not sure that any other administration could have done better. Perhaps the lesson was that previous governments should have given up countries that Britain had stolen long before it became unavoidable and rushed. Attlee had supported Indian independence since the 1920s.

    Margaret Thatcher may have undone some of the ‘worst elements’ but possibly she added some new ones?

    History – it’s just one damned thing after another.

    Best wishes,

    Tim.

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