Citizen Clem

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The 1945-50 government of Clement Attlee is seen as the Labour Party’s golden age — a period that brought about not only the creation of the NHS, national insurance and public assistance (the three pillars of the welfare state) but the nationalisation of coal, railways, electricity, gas, road transport and the Bank of England, and an improved education system.

In Citizen Clem, author John Bew provides material that not only explains the conditions that helped Attlee’s government bring about these changes, but more importantly why — given its 145-seat majority — it achieved so little.

Bew — by his own admission, not a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn — explains how much of the 1945-50 legislation met with little opposition mainly because the war economy had already seen the effective centralisation of major infrastructure, the Treasury had assumed the functions of the Bank, and there was a “patriotic compromise” that major social changes, such as the welfare state, were needed.

The book doesn’t delve far into the effect of the legislation, although one quote tells of a miner complaining, just six months after the collieries were nationalised, of how work discipline had become harder: “There used to be one inspector, now there are two.”

Bew instead concentrates on Attlee’s progression from public-school liberal to welfare rights activist in London’s East End, where he joined Labour, and on into the 1930s where, following Ramsay MacDonald’s treachery in 1931, he became one the leaders of what remained of Labour. Throughout, Attlee carried all the imperialist, right wing baggage that has infected the party ever since its inception.

These came to the fore not only during the war, when he was deputy prime minister to Churchill, but particularly at the end. His response to Hiroshima, for example, was not so much horror at the appalling loss of life but rather how important it was for the UK to possess its own atomic bomb. Bew describes the route Attlee took towards acquiring US know-how and, upon failing, secretly establishing Britain’s own atomic bomb programme — at great cost, particularly given the state of the UK economy at the time, and with only two other ministers’ knowledge.

Bew also provides inside accounts of Attlee’s response to: the crisis in Palestine, the creation of Israel and Britain’s subsequent withdrawal; the crisis over independence for India; the UK government’s response to Russia’s encroachment of Eastern Europe and perceived threat to Greece; its initial response to Mohammad Mossadeq’s nationalisation of Persia’s British oil fields; and Gamal Nasser’s seizure and nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

From Attlee’s advice to the UK’s viceroy to India in 1946, Archibald Wavell, that one needed “infinite patience in dealing with Indians”, to his understanding the desire to “teach Mossadeq a lesson”, Bew illuminates a critical truth about the Labour Party. For the bulk of its history it has been led by a bourgeoisie as much imbued with British imperialism as the Tories. It is a truth that makes Corbyn’s leadership very much in need of defending.