Thoughts: Citizen Clem, by John Bew

The conclusion to my Indian independence trilogy!

Some light holiday reading on our month-long trip home, and I read most of this biography of Clement Attlee while breastfeeding and contact napping, though that’s how I read pretty much everything these days. Sadly, he was pre-Queen Elizabeth, so I didn’t get a helpful The Crown crash course in his premiership, and the only thing about him I could remember was, oddly, a very clear memory of writing his name in my history book at school when we were learning about the welfare state.

Bew defends Attlee very strongly in his introduction against those who would dismiss him as boring and milquetoast, and he backs up his points with a huge plethora of sources and citations. It’s hard not to agree with him in the face of all the evidence.

And it’s hard not to admire him in the face of all of the obstacles he faced. Taking over from Churchill directly after WWII, when the country was broke, exhausted and still rationing, and yet even so managing to create the welfare state is no mean feat. And getting sniped at all the way, not least by Churchill himself, who does not cover himself in glory given what it was he kept on trying to sabotage (decolonialisation, the NHS, etc…).

What about Indian independence, then? Sarila, in Shadow of the Great Game, isn’t very impressed by Attlee (and being surrounded by such colourful characters as he was at the time, I can understand it), and I think maybe he’s a little harsh on him. As Sarila himself says, the plan for Partition was set into motion and normalised by the British long before Attlee was elected, and given the post-war landscape that Attlee inherited, he had his hands full with keeping the UK fed and the lights on, as well as the social reforms he wanted to accomplish. Maybe I’m just making excuses – at the end of the day, it’s true that India was part of the British Empire and that means Britain willingly took responsibility for it. That’s the trade-off when you invade a country, isn’t it? If it’s then hard to disentangle yourself, it’s sort of your own fault, for a multi-generational form of “you”. “Me”. “Us”.

What is my judgement? Hnghhh. Like I said before, I feel like the more I read, the less of the whole picture I know. But Bew backs up everything he says with so much evidence, and is so upfront with where he thinks Attlee failed (and the lead-up to Indian independence was absolutely chaotic) that I don’t think any of his failings were due to malice. Again, maybe this is just me wanting to believe the best of people! Ultimately, I’m very grateful that my opinion is totally superfluous to the workings of history.

Citizen Clem is all full of nuance and difficult decisions and making the best with what one has (very few resources, not enough time, ageing ministers). Even Churchill is more than just Attlee’s nemesis – during the war they worked well together and they respected each other very deeply for the rest of their lives. Attlee actually served in WWI in Gallipoli, under Churchill’s own strategy, and though people tend to give that whole thing pretty short shrift, Attlee believed it was a good strategy, only badly handled on the ground. (There’s actually a book about their relationship which I am really tempted by, having had it recommended by a very trusted source.)

It’s ridiculous to look at something like this and think, wow, I can’t imagine a politician saying something nice about another politician like that, but… it’s true. I can’t imagine any politician in my lifetime saying something genuinely positive about a politician in another party without having some sort of ulterior motive, let alone being such a cooperative opposition party as Attlee’s Labour was. Can you imagine a politician whose strength lies in being able to bring out the best in their team? For whom leadership is managing talent rather than taking the spotlight themselves?

I don’t want to be a cynical edgelord about it all, though. I don’t think human nature has changed particularly since the 20th Century. The lesson I’d rather take is that it was possible then and it must be possible again to have humane politicians, responsible politicians. And good mayors too (choosing to carefully look away from the Mayor of Teesside, Brexit fanboy and lover of freeports, and the Oberbürgermeister of Frankfurt, currently being booted out after a small corruption scandal and subsequent losing of the plot).

I suppose on a sort of similarly hopeful note the level of detail the book goes into really evokes the constant obstacles and mess of everything, and yet so much was achieved. Everything feels very messy and full of obstacles right now, but maybe we’ll be able to look back one day and see how much we managed to get done.

Anyway, Clement Attlee deserves better than to be judged by me and held up against the standards of today. This was a dense book (I keep saying that lately but I keep reading dense books, so more fool me I guess) and probably not the best choice to read in my current circumstances (the Germans call it Stilldemenz – breastfeeding dementia – for a reason), but I learned so much from this book.

And as someone who’s a little bit boring themselves, it was very vindicating to see that boringness can be a huge strength!

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