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Was patriotic reformer Clement Attlee on the Labour Party’s left or right?

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Issue 2523
Clement Attlee (left) looks thrilled to meet King George VI
Clement Attlee (left) looks thrilled to meet King George VI (Pic: Imperial War Museum)
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Clement Attlee is often seen as a hero of the left. His 1945-51 Labour government created the welfare state and nationalised key industries.

But Attlee also secretly developed nuclear weapons, backed wars and attacked workers. That’s why some on the right also hold him up as the ideal Labour leader.

For them, Attlee is a respectable moderate who could win elections and push through real changes.

This is certainly the thrust of historian John Bew’s new biography, Citizen Clem.

The book is partly a rebuttal to left wing critics of Attlee.

But it’s also an attempt to snatch Attlee back from those on the left who want to claim him.

For Bew, patriotism is at the heart of Attlee’s socialism. He claims this is “the glue that bound together so much of what Attlee did”.

What Bew means is that Attlee believed that everybody in Britain—no matter what their class—shared a common national interest.

And if everyone could unite for the good of the nation, the nation would come good for them.

Bew is enthusiastic about this type of “social patriotism”, writing with the kind of gushing sentimentality normally reserved for the birth of a royal baby.

He explains how Attlee “believed that love of country could be a noble and unifying thing”.

Solidarity doesn’t mean unity between workers, we’re told, but “solidarity with your fellow countryman”.

It’s stirring stuff. Bew insists that this patriotism has nothing to do with “uncritical chauvinistic jingoism or imperialism”.

But this assertion rings a little hollow after the First World War adventure story that opens the first chapter.

The tale of brave captain Attlee leading his men into Iraq reads like a colonial fantasy.

Attlee is reassured by the sight of the union flag flying over the bazaar and thinks of Blighty as he leads the charge against “the Turks”.

Stomach churning though it is, Attlee’s “social patriotism” tells us something about the Labour Party.

The mixing together of class and nation is a contradiction that goes right to the heart of what Labour is all about.

The party claims to give a political voice to the working class.

Its links to workers, via the trade union leaders, mean it can do this in a distorted way.

But Labour’s focus is on an institution—parliament—that supposedly ignores the existence of class.

Instead, MPs are supposed to represent all of their constituents, no matter what class they’re part of.

The idea of a “national interest” shared by workers and bosses—despite the conflict in the workplace—is key to helping Labour overcome this.

So Labour promises to govern in the national interest, which means trying to manage the system in the interests of everybody.

But because the health of the system depends on bosses’ ability to make profits at the expense of workers, the national interest often involves attacking the working class.

A poster from Labours 1945 election campaign

A poster from Labour’s 1945 election campaign

Attlee’s 1945 government is a good example. Bew accurately accuses Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45 of “cherrypicking” aspects of this government.

Loach celebrates the NHS and the welfare state, but skips over Attlee’s role in secretly developing the nuclear bomb and setting up Nato.

Unlike Loach, Bew wants us to celebrate all of Attlee’s “achievements”—not just the NHS, but nukes and Nato too.

The formation of the National Health Service and the creation of the welfare state with the National Insurance Bill helped huge numbers of workers.

Labour also began nationalising industries such as coal, gas, electricity, rail and even the Bank of England.

It was able to do this not just because the system allowed it—but because the system demanded it.

The British economy needed to be “reconstructed” after the Second World War—and capitalists couldn’t be sure of making a profit from these industries.

They were more than happy to let the British state do the work for them.

Yet when the economy began to stumble into crisis in 1947, the Attlee government set about making workers pay.

It did this with wage freezes, ration cuts and other austerity measures.

It co-opted the unions into working with bosses to make workers work harder—and justified it all in the national interest.

Bew gives us some telling examples. For instance when dockers in east London struck against the wage freeze, Attlee demanded they return to work—appealing, as Bew puts it, “to a sense of patriotic duty”.

“In the current conditions in the country, this was a strike, ‘against your mates, a strike against the housewife, a strike against the ordinary common people’”.

For Bew, Attlee’s assault on workers “was social patriotism in its purist form”.

This feels a long way from the start of the book, where “social patriotism” meant making sure workers got a better deal.

Now it’s all about cajoling workers into accepting Labour’s austerity.

In fact, patriotism and the national interest is apparently behind everything that Attlee ever did—such as secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Bew describes the devastating effect of the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Yet he tells us that Attlee’s “instinctive and immediate” response that “Britain must have this weapon for itself”, was a “brutally realistic assessment”.

The weapon was crucial to making sure Britain could keep some degree of independence from the US as its empire collapsed.

So in the words of Attlee’s foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, “We’ve got to have this thing over here whatever it costs.

“We’ve got to have the Union Jack on top of it.”

It was patriotism that convinced Attlee to back Labour’s support for the First World War.

He claimed that socialists, “recognised not only solidarity with their fellow countrymen, but also the need for preserving intact the field on which they fought their particular battles”.

He was apparently pleased that Labour’s leaders Arthur Henderson and Robert Smillie were “socialist pro-war, like himself”.

As mayor of Stepney Borough council in the 1920s, Attlee worked hard to contain a wave of unrest and radicalism that spread across Britain in the aftermath of the war.

His work, Bew approvingly writes, “Was the perfect rebuttal to the idea that Labour was irresponsible or revolutionary.”

And as Labour leader in 1940 Attlee joined Winston Churchill’s Tories in a coalition government that lasted throughout the Second World War.

During this time he backed the government’s Emergency Powers Defence Bill which gave it “dictatorial powers for the foreseeable future”.

He was personally responsible for imprisoning Indian national liberation leader Mahatma Gandhi for the duration of the war.

And he backed Greece’s royalist government against Communist-led resistance because it threatened Britain’s hold on the area.

Yet he refused to give in to demands from the left inside his own party to push for more reforms while in government.

Even when Labour was seriously divided, Attlee was more concerned about, “Looking like a responsible party of government, with a truly national spirit”.

For Bew, this was far more important than giving in to what he dismisses as the constant “hounding” of Attlee from the Labour left.

Without any evidence at all he insists that it was “the Labour Party’s patriotism” that won it a landslide in the 1945 general election.

It’s hard to miss the subtext.

At the very beginning of the book Bew argues that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is “a distinct break from the political tradition in which Attlee stood”. He wants us to agree that Labour has to ditch Corbyn to become electable—and replace him with someone more “respectable”.

But if there’s anything we can learn from Citizen Clem it’s that being “respectable” and governing in the national interest means attacking the people Labour claims to represent.

Most of Attlee’s achievements that Bew wants us to celebrate are ones we should really condemn.

If the right want ownership of Attlee’s “social patriotism”, let them have it.

Citizen Clem—A Biography of Attlee by John Bew is out now

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