The revised edition of Clem Attlee: Labour's Great Reformer begins curiously. Rather than a typical biographical introduction - focussing on the subject - Francis Beckett instead explains his personal debt to Labour's greatest leader. Beckett's gratitude to Attlee remains throughout the book. Rather than hiding his position in an attempt to appear objective, Beckett embraces his subjectivity: 'I had my childhood illnesses in NHS hospitals...I attended Rickmansworth Grammar School and Keele University, both of them monuments to the Attlee government.'
This introduction is comfortable reading for Labour supporters. Many of us heard similar stories of personal debt from older generations in our families. My parents, for example, always equated their success in life to Attlee and his band of socialist brothers. Around election time, my dad is fond of reciting the story of his illness at childbirth in a sententious attempt to convince his sons to vote Labour. Without the Labour government, he says, none of us would exist. It is, admittedly, a convincing if slightly hyperbolic argument. My dad constantly reiterates that we owe our lives to the Labour Party and particularly to Aneurin Bevan - my dad's political hero, for Bevan was both the father of the NHS and, perhaps more importantly, a Welshman. Beckett's work evidently seeks to remind his readers, left and right alike, of the debt we as individuals owe to a socialist government led by a quiet, humble man.
Clem Attlee isn't just another prosaic biography of a great political figure. Beckett endeavours to explain not simply the political trajectory of the elusive Attlee, but also the 'man behind the memoranda'. He adopts a comprehensive method to achieve this objective. Beckett interviews Attlee's wider family. He focusses on Attlee's often-terrible poetry. He speaks to those Old Labour figures that hold the greatest respect for Attlee and he listens to those critical of their one-time leader. Finally, Beckett explores Attlee's vast collection of letters and, importantly, he asks the recipients for further clarification.
Beckett, as Roy Jenkins explains, gets 'near to the essence of Attlee'. He does so by utilising the abovementioned sources and synthesising these with the important events of Attlee's life. Beckett demonstrates that Attlee's humility stems from his quiet, yet enjoyable childhood; his socialism was a result of his experience working with the poor; and his contempt for charity stems from early charitable endeavours. The reader follows Attlee from his birth through his childhood, to one War and then another, to the rise and fall of his government, to a quiet life in the background, to an even quieter death. This is Attlee from cradle to grave. It is anything but a modest life for a man that cannot, as Beckett explains, be described as modest.
Anyone interested in British history will enjoy Beckett's book. People often suggest that good books are page-turners. I disagree. The books I most enjoy are those that tempt me to spend time on each page and tempt me to re-read particular passages. This is such a book. Perhaps my prior interest in Attlee's life and my personal allegiance to his political philosophy prompted me to re-read some of those passages. Nonetheless, Beckett's delivery is exciting and, more importantly, alluring. Clem Attlee: Labour's Great Reformer is a slow read in the best possible way.