Bew hasn’t made this colourless, dour, uncharismatic and secretive man interesting, which is disappointing with 564 pages to read. Endless remarks about Attlee’s shyness, “He was painfully shy and modest and kept up his guard at all times, ‘lest strange eyes pierce his shell’”. (p11) aren’t interesting beyond the first time. Bew quotes this sort of remark with evangelical enthusiasm throughout the book. Dalton’s comment immediately after Attlee resigned from the Labour Party leadership was, “The ‘rabbit’ or the ‘little man’ was now referred to as ‘Clem’” (p513). Attlee had little contact with his own life behaving in a dessicated way. This isn’t a biography of ‘Attlee the man’ nor is it a full bloodied political biography.
The grey man slides into leadership- everyone’s third choice? Yes. But how did he stay there for 20 years? Bew offers half-baked critiques of Labour Party political giants of the period but simply doesn’t know. And the war? Attlee was pivotal as Churchill’s deputy for virtually the entire period. The grey man working in tandem with the drunken, abusive, charismatic over-blown Churchill, surely there could have been some human anecdotes for Bew to get his teeth into. Apparently not.
“Not for the first time, Attlee’s inability to convey drama took away from what otherwise was a moment of vindication for him, for his steadfast support of Churchill, ‘He is so dull and puny,’ complained Harold Nicholson’”. (p299)
And historical assessment? Chapter 8 begins with a gruesome attempt by Attlee at writing an allegory about the National Government of 1931. A kinder biographer wouldn’t have disinterred it or quoted at length. Bew’s tin ear turns the seismic Marshall Plan into a working example of Labour Party internal politics. (pp461-2). Incredibly ungracious to the Americans who rescued Britain and helped facilitate Attlee’s golden legacy.
Perhaps Bew found Attlee just too hard to write about and his editors should have put a calming hand on his fevered brow.
Why you should read this book: You like long biographies
Why you shouldn’t read this book: You know the period.
As this biography won prizes and this is less than flattering you might want to read an alternative review for balance, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/04/citizen-clem-biography-of-attlee-john-bew-exemplary