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New edition of Kenneth Harris's classic biography - reissued to coincide with 50th anniversary of the first Attlee government of 1945.



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Often overshadowed by the massive historical figure of Winston Churchill, with whom he both served and faced across the dispatch box, Clement Attlee was one of the most important figures in twentieth century British political history. Leader of the Labour Party for twenty years, he took it from its nadir in the early 1930s to electoral triumph a decade later, and successfully managed the talented and fractious group that realized Britain's postwar embrace of socialism. Understanding how this was accomplished is one of the many goals of Kenneth Harris in this biography, which illuminates Attlee's personality while chronicling his role in transforming his country.

Born in 1883, Attlee enjoyed an almost impossibly idealistic childhood. The son of a diligent, prosperous solicitor, he grew up in a comfortable and loving household. Some of this may have been reflected in his education; his time at both Haileybury and Oxford was undistinguished academically, as Attlee focused more on social pursuits than on his studies. Though he followed his father into a career in the law, Attlee found legal work tedious, and was drifting through life when he accepted an invitation from his elder brother Lawrence to visit the Haileybury Club in Stepney, a social and educational organization run along military lines. The visit was to prove to be the turning point of his life, as Attlee soon agreed to participate in the running of the club. The commitment inaugurated his new career as a social worker and led to his embrace of socialism.

After service in the Army during the First World War - a period Harris covers only briefly - Attlee returned to the East End and began his career in politics, first as a councilman from Limestone, then (in 1922) as a member of the House of Commons. His rise in the parliamentary party was swift, taking place during some of the most tumultuous years in the history of the Labour Party. Harris does an excellent job of describing the political crisis of 1931, which tore the party apart. Though the subsequent election devastated the ranks of the party in the Commons, the resulting political vacuum provided Attlee with the greatest opportunity of his political career. As one of the few surviving members with ministerial experience, Attlee rose in prominence, becoming first deputy leader, then assuming the leadership of the party in 1935.

Almost nobody expected Attlee to last as the head of the Parliamentary Labour Party; instead, he became the longest-serving leader in its history. That he was Harris attributes to his personal qualities, most notably his hard work, his ability to moderate ideological conflicts within the Labour Party, his skill in presenting Socialist views in terms that appealed to the party rank-and-file, and his ability to manage the fractious egos in the party leadership. It was the last of these that Harris sees as the greatest test of Attlee's abilities, as he worked with a number of gifted and ambitious colleagues who thought that they could do a better job of leading the party (and later the country) than he could. Attlee was helped by the mutual jealousies of each of these plotters, which often checked the efforts of any one of them to supplant Attlee, and by the unstinting loyalty of Ernest Bevin, with whom Attlee developed the closest friendship he enjoyed in politics.

The Second World War dramatically altered the Labour Party's role in government. Rejecting Neville Chamberlain's offers of a coalition, Attlee supported Churchill's ascent to the premiership in May 1940 and served in the War Cabinet for the remainder of the conflict with Germany. Harris gives considerable credit for the success of the coalition to Attlee, who took over many of the domestic aspects of governing while Churchill focused on the management of the war. This included planning for postwar construction, which evidenced many socialist ideas and approaches and would serve as a blueprint for much of what Labour would accomplish after the war.

Though Attlee wished to remain in the coalition after the defeat of Germany, the Labour Party's insistence on an October election led Churchill to dissolve Parliament in May, 1945. The resulting Labour landslide defied nearly everyone's expectations, including Attlee's, and made him prime minister of a government committed to the longstanding Labour agenda of nationalization and expanded social welfare policies. Harris' coverage of Attlee's premiership is thematic; he divides his chapters into sections analyzing Attlee's foreign policy, economic policy, and his approach towards burgeoning decolonization. While useful in defining Attlee's underlying ideas and attitudes, it fails to convey the full complexities of the job he faced as prime minister during some of the most challenging years Britain faced.

These challenges gradually wore down the Labour government, leaving Attlee in charge of an exhausted and ailing group at the end of his term. The party's reduced majority in the election of 1950 made another election in the near future inevitable, and when it came in 1951 the Conservatives emerged with a small majority. Attlee continued on as leader for four more years, primarily to rescue it from the growing divide between right-wingers and the Bevanites, until retiring after the 1955 election as a beloved figure and a respected elder statesman.

Harris' book is rooted in the author's familiarity with his subject; he knew Attlee for years and conducted several interviews with him. This familiarity doesn't prevent Harris from rendering critical judgments, though. While a staunch promoter of Attlee, he doesn't hesitate to condemn the prime minister when condemnation is warranted, such as with Attlee's handling of the Palestine problem. Is it this mixture of insight and criticism which makes this book an essential resource for anybody interested in the prime minister and his achievements, one unlikely to be surpassed in its account of Attlee the person. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
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New edition of Kenneth Harris's classic biography - reissued to coincide with 50th anniversary of the first Attlee government of 1945.

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