Clement Attlee bestrides the twentieth-century history of the Labour Party. Its greatest constructive achievements are his government’s achievements. The British welfare state, including the National Health Service, the nationaliz-ations, independence for India, and the Atlanticism of his government’s foreign policy were all central pillars of British politics for many years after his government left office. His government’s great legacy was the so-called ‘postwar consensus’ – the acceptance of the same central policy framework of a mixed economy and maintenance of high employment. His government sits among three peace-time administrations during the twentieth century that unquestionably changed the British political landscape. Alongside the Liberal government of 1905–15, his government represented the high point of pro-gressive reform; only Margaret Thatcher’s government of 1979–90 could argue from the right that it had truly changed society. In doing so, it reintroduced what Attlee’s government had sought to minimize the effect of – the profit motive, through lower taxes and free markets, encompassing privatization and a reduction in trade union power.
Yet – as with all political leaders – Attlee’s leadership style had its limitations as well as its strengths. If his greatness lay in getting the best out of other great men, the presumption is that there were many other great men within his cabinet. His management of Bevan in his negotiations with the British Medical Association showed him at his best; his trust in Shinwell over the advice of his civil servants on coal provision in the autumn of 1946 showed the weakness. His ‘chairmanship’ style of leaving matters in the hands of senior colleagues (or, at times, officials) was followed to the letter, even in times of crisis. Keynes was sent to Washington to negotiate the American loan in 1945; Wilfred Eady went in 1947 to suspend convertibility; and Cripps and Bevin went to deal with devaluation in 1949. His failure to meet Truman for five years between December 1945 and December 1950 was a reflection of this approach. It was not that he did not value the ‘special relationship’ but that he did not see it as the prime minister’s role to personalize foreign affairs. His failure to understand the American president – or at times domestic American politics – was a major factor in failing to capitalize on the American involvement in Palestine that would surely have followed an agreement to allow 100,000 Jews into Palestine when there was an overwhelming moral argument to do so in 1945. In times of crisis, when colleagues looked to the top for leadership, little was forthcoming, which was a key factor in the plot to force him out in September 1947.
As with all political leaders, Attlee sometimes had to accept the inevitable. The general direction of Britain’s post war external relations, in terms of the special relationship with America and decolonization was made almost inevitable by Britain’s financial dependence on the United States. Socialism at home came at a price abroad. Laski’s proclamation of closeness to the Soviet Union in 1945 was a fantasy. However, there were other specific policy failures. The haste with which he left India came at a cost, particularly the decision to hold off the announcement of the Radcliffe partition line until after independence and the fate of Kashmir. It is most difficult to explain why certain issues but not others were chosen for what Philip Williamson terms ‘troubleshooting’. He was, along with Cripps, the leading authority in the government on India, so there is little controversy there. Arguably, the issue of the development of a nuclear deterrent was by its nature top secret, particularly in its embryonic form. When he visited Truman to discuss the Korean War in December 1950, it was forced upon him as Bevin was too ill to fly. There were also political failures. The division in the party between Gaitskell and Bevan in March 1951, Bevan’s resignation from the government, and the internal party strife that followed would seem an ideal dispute for the Attlee consensus – finding skills to work their magic. His failure to do so, which it has to be said was partly due to his being hospitalized during a key period, and to work harder on persuading Hugh Gaitskell to find an alternative in relation to what was an insignificant amount of money, had far-reaching consequences. It was not a failure of his leadership style, but a failure to apply the style that had served him so well in the past: if Bevin and Morrison – or indeed Bevin and Bevan – could survive in government together for so long, why not Bevan and Gaitskell? Attlee’s failure was to choose to make Gaitskell feel as if he was being managed and valued, rather than Bevan. Bevan did not want to resign; it was Gaitskell who offered no compromise. While Attlee cannot be held responsible for Bevan’s behaviour thereafter, he can be held responsible for failing to find a compromise between the two men. In addition, holding a general election in October 1951 demonstrated Attlee’s respect for the king, but was disadvantageous to the Labour Party. A delay – even of a few months – would have helped.
The rest of this editorial will be published at a later time.