BEVERLEY BAXTER'S LONDON LETTER

This Man Called Attlee

September 1 1948
BEVERLEY BAXTER'S LONDON LETTER

This Man Called Attlee

September 1 1948

This Man Called Attlee

THE DOCK STRIKE had assumed an ugly turn. Not only were 19,000 men out in London but the strike was spreading to other ports. Belatedly troops had been sent to unload essential food supplies and there were convoys of military lorries moving through the streets. The trade union leaders were l>eing howled down and the extremists were in full command.

Whereupon the Prime Minister went to the BBC and sat down at the microphone. His patience was exhausted and he was very cross. He spoke as if the listening audience consisted only of dock workers, almost, in fact, as if it were a single dock worker. He sounded like a parent who had given his unruly son every chance and was now determined to have a showdown. In effect, if not in actual words, the broadcast sounded something like this:

“What is the matter with you? Have you gone mad? You are injuring the export drive and threatening to starve the community. Aren’t you part of the community, you chuckleheaded idiots? Look back on the days before w'e gave you the Dockers’ Charter, when casual labor meant low wages or no work at all. Now you have a guaranteed wage whether there is work or not. There is machinery to deal with your complaints, but you choose to ignore it and you strike instead. You make me very, very angry. For two {jennies I’d give you the biggest caning you ever had in your lives. You are a discredit to the cause of labor.” Unconsciously he had mastered, perhaps for the first and last time, the true art of broadcasting, which is to sjjeak to one or two persons and not to a million. Whatever it was, his broadcast broke the strike.

Without waiting for orders the strikers streamed back in their thousands and the troops were withdrawn. That afternoon in the House of Commons Mr. Attlee had to present to the Sfjeaker a gracious message from His Majesty, agreeing to the Government’s Emergency Decrees which were now no longer necessary.

So the strange little man took his place at the Bar of the House and proceeded to march toward the Clerk’s Table but forgot to bow. Amidst friendly laughter he went back and remedied his omission. He looked shy, but for once he was sustained by i he warm approval of the whole House.

A Tory M.P., moved by this warmth, wrote a note to Mr. Attlee congratulating him on his broadcast. Next day he received a reply in the Prime Minister’s tiny, meticulous handwriting which thanked the Tory for his kindness. Then he added: “My broadcast owed much to the valuable suggestions made by my colleagues.”

And there you have the real Clement Attlee, the man who will go down to history as a significant figure in the long story of British politics, the first Socialist Prime Minister to hold office with power. By comparison Churchill is a giant, but somehow I cannot see him writing a letter in just those terms. At any rate he would not have taken any suggestions from his colleagues, but then why should Niagara ask for water from a pool?

Power and Freedom

HOW STRANGE is the destiny that brings the premiership to a man who outwardly lacks all qualifications for the task and denies it to those who from boyhood seemed divinely appointed for it. Who and what is Mr. Attlee? What were the currents and crosscurrents that set him in the stream that led to political fortune?

There was certainly nothing in his family background to suggest that he would some day become the political leader of labor, although admittedly in all revolutions the intelligentsia play their part. Clement Attlee was born on Jan. 3, 1883, being the fourth son and seventh child of Henry Attlee, who was senior partner in a respect able, successful and long-established firm of city solicitors. Queen Victoria was on the throne and India was the proudest jewel in her crown. The British Navy patrolled the seven seas and the Bank of England controlled the currencies of the world, seeing to it that any time, any where, currencies were interchangeable at fixed rates.

Never was Britain so powerful as then, never were the rich so rich and, paradoxically, never was there greater freedom of expression. A lanky young Irishman named Bernard Shaw was 1amuooning every tradition which the British held dear, Oscar Wilde was satirizing the foibles of society, the Fabians were preaching “revolution b\, gradualness,” the passionate reforming zeal of Charles Dickens burned

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This Man Called Attlee

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fiercely although the hand that had held the torch was gone.

Little Clement Attlee was unaware of all this as he toddled about the big ugly Victorian house which had all the massive solidity and lack of sunshine which appealed so strongly to the well-to-do middle class of those days.

The hou.se was at Putney, and the journey to the centre of London was long and tedious. Rut seven children make a community in themselves and little Clement in his boyish Eton collar played croquet on the lawn, went inside for tea and got very bored with the long daily religious observances in the household. Naturally the family belonged to the Church of England, for the Attlees were substantial people and knew it.

Fleeing From Winston

Clem, like David Copperfield and Colonel “Bertie” McCormick, was sent away to a boarding “prep” school at a tender age but there is no evidence that he wept tears. He was probably sorry to leave the family, but certainly he was even more sorry to leave his

governess, a kindly but strong-minde woman who had aged prematurely an sought sanctuary with the Attic family, after being governess to th son of Lord Randolph Churchill. Th child’s name was Winston and sh took a dim view of his future. Sh was a woman of great self-contro but even her decorum might have bee broken down if anyone had suggeste that Clem would some day succee Winston as Prime Minister.

All men, no matter how they ma pretend to be their own architects, aí the product of those old partner heredity and environment. Thus Clei went to a prep school in North Londo which was run by two clergymen wh knew a lot about games, a good del about divinity and almost nothir about general knowledge, except math* ma tics. Clem showed little aptitud for such scraps of knowledge as wei offered him, but he became an enthus astic cricketer. Even today he stea away when he can to watch the statel game at Lords or the Oval.

The personality of the future Prim Minister begins to take on design. H was desperately shy and small for h> age. Like so many other smalm1 boys, he sought to vindicate himsc1 on the playing field, hoping as a Rugge three-quarter or as a cricketer to

the plaudits of that little audience of 40 boys. The fates, however, never intended him to excel.

After prep school he then went on to Haileybury, one of the best private establishments which are known as public schools.

Although a better scholar than Winston Churchill, who could hardly pass any exams at Harrow, Clement Attlee did not show more than average promise. He read anything and everything in the school library and might have won a scholarship for the varsity if he had not been too much influenced —for or against a subject-—by the personality of the masters. His physical insignificance may have been the cause of this. Perhaps if he had been tall, successful at games, and popular with his fellows he would not have wasted his energies in resenting the peculiarities of individual masters.

Turning from sport, and no doubt influenced by the fact that it was the jubilee of good Queen Victoria, he joined the Junior Volunteer Corps in 1897 and went to camp as a publicschool cadet. Conscription was unthinkable in those days and the sons of the wealthy and privileged, whatever their faults, were determined to be ready if war ever came.

From Haileybury to Oxford. At last Clem Attlee found the atmosphere of real congeniality. Sport did not scoff at scholarship in the cloistered halls, or dominate the talk as undergraduates wandered through the ancient city. This was the “Hamlet” stage of youth and has always been. It is true there are Horatio and Fortinbras and Laertes as well, to say nothing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Hamlet comes into his own at the varsity.

Yet once again there were no honors for Clement Attlee, no Blue, no First, not even an election as a fellow of All Souls. Obviously he would go through life as a man who passed the cup to others more brilliant than himself. Yet, as Roy Jenkins points out in his recent admirable biography, Attlee has never lost his love for Oxford. The great old university did, however, finally recognize him. In 1946 it conferred on him the degree of D.C.L.

Fate Leads to Limehouse

According to the late Professor Leacock, the dons at Oxford just smoke their pipes and look at the undergraduate, hut in this smoking process something invaluable and irreplaceable is achieved. The mind broadens, the pores of the soul are opened, and imagination makes contact with the classics. Certainly Clement Attlee left the university much broadened both in mind and spirit. But Oxford hardly knew he had been there. Shyness had followed him like his shadow.

In 1907 Attlee, as was the custom of the well-to-do families, spent his holiday abroad. He went by ship from Liverpool to Montreal in order to firing back his sister Mary, who had heen visiting in that far-off land. He visited New York and Toronto, hut was never to see them again until 1941. There is no record of what he thought of Toronto or what Toronto thought of him.

Now let the fates take a hand. His °ld school had organized a charitable club called Haileybury House in Limehouse, the very centre of London’s impoverished and crime-ridden East find. One day Clement and his younger brother went there—and the older boy was never to leave it save m 1914 when he went to France as an infantry subaltern.

His sensitive soul was horrified by

the brutality, the vice, the sordidness and the poverty of Limehouse. Here were the dead-end kids of the greatest metropolis in the world, here was the home of Bill Sykes and Nancy, here was the spawn of the river, and drunken rolling sailors from tramp steamers anchored in the fog. Dickens saw in it all a theme for his genius as a writer and his zeal as a reformer. Attlee could not write and was an indifferent speaker, but he dedicated himself like a crusader to rescue the people from poverty.

Attlee went into Limehouse with what he has called “the comfortable Tory faith” and he was not ready yet to embrace the creed of Socialism. So, as a Tory reformer, in the humanitarian sense, he made his life in the Plast End. half embracing the Liberals, clinging with weakening fingers to Conservatism, admiring the spirit of the Fabians but deploring their worship of the State. Like so many men of reforming zeal he could not find the political faith to give it expresson.

He ran for the Borough Council and was rejected each time. Even the little prizes of the East Find eluded him. But soon he was to take the supreme decision of his life.

Success at Last

In 1907, one year after the Liberals had swept the country, he walked into the Fabians’ Society and signed on. He was to make common cause with Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Ramsay, MacDonald, Sydney Webb and Philip Snowden, all of them his seniors in years and all of them with dominating personalities of their own. There is no record that the Fabians drank an extra cup of tea to celebrate the enrollment of the new recruit.

He emerged from the war a major with a good record, having fought in Gallipoli, France and Mesopotamia. But no medals! However, the long drought was over. With the coming of peace he was at last to drink of the waters of success, even if from tiny pools. Returning to Limehouse he became Councilor, then Mayor—and finally its M.P., which he is to this day. His human sympathies had put him on the road to glory.

When I go to the House of Commons this afternoon I shall watch the Prime Minister on the Government Front Bench with his feet on the table and his head so low that it will seem to be held there by the hips of Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison. The shining dome of Dalton will gleam like a virtuous deed and Sir Stafford Cripps will sit rigidly straight like someone particularly well brought up.

Opposite them will be Winston Churchill, the giant deposed by the Socialist David. In the Speaker’s Gallery there will probably be Mrs. Attlee and Mrs. Churchill waiting to see the contest between the heavyweight champion and the flyweight.

Somewhere in the mists the ultimate historian is scratching his head, wondering what he will write about the man who could never win a prize and who never excelled his fellows. Still shy, still lacking in all the trappings of authority, he is the unquestioned master of a Government which is divided within itself, and undisputed leader of a party which sometimes appears to be held together only by its differences.

F’rom that Valhalla where governesses go, a woman no doubt looks down and wonders what it was that made destiny choose that unruly Churchill boy and the shy little boy in Putney to lead Britain through the agony of war and the fateful years of peace. ★