Attlee’s shadow

  • Themes: Books, Britain, Second World War

Clement Attlee's Labour government rebuilt Britain after the Second World War and left a contested legacy that has been claimed by both major parties ever since.

Clement Attlee, laying the foundation stone of the Royal Festival Hall in London.
Clement Attlee laying the foundation stone of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain, Richard Toye, Bloomsbury, £25

When a Conservative government suffers a heavy general election defeat in Britain, it tends to preface massive social change.

The largest outright loss of seats in the party’s history came in 1906, when the ‘Liberal landslide’ cost the Conservatives 246 seats, plunging them to the party’s lowest-ever total of 156. This opened the door for the domestic reforms upon which the welfare state would be built. Almost a century later, Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ revolution brought the Conservative’s 18 years in power to an end with a loss of 171 seats, triggering over a decade of opposition, soul searching, and the gradual rise of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ conservatism.

Now, Keir Starmer could be on the cusp of his own Labour landslide. As he readies himself for a potentially historic victory, he will not be short of advice. From whom will it be most useful?

Clement Attlee remains a common touchstone for the Labour Party. Richard Toye, professor of history at Exeter University, offers in Age of Hope: Labour, 1945, and the Birth of Modern Britain a zippy, refreshing narrative of Labour’s postwar achievements, which recreates the optimism of the time without overlooking the stark realities of an exhausted people trying to rejuvenate an exhausted country. The book is framed around, and analyses in detail, how Attlee’s legacy has hung over succeeding administrations, regardless of party. Yet, while Toye does not commit the fool’s errand of proclaiming an ‘heir’ to Attlee, the modest lessons he does offer are emblematic of the pitfalls in attempting the ‘applied historical’ approach.

Toye offers a synthesis of the two traditional, contrasting perspectives on Attlee’s premiership: that it underestimated the radical fervour of the people, suggesting a ‘tepid managerialism’ and ‘no fundamental challenge to capitalism’, versus a reality in which people were motivated by a desire for concrete improvements to their everyday life, rather than loyalty to socialist abstractions. Toye transcends both, arguing that Labour needed a framing device to help persuade the masses that they could deliver, which became ‘public’ versus ‘private’ control. By emphasising the behaviour of private monopolies and anti-competitive behaviour, ‘free’ enterprise was undermined, as it cast public regulation as ‘government interference’ on the one hand, while holding out the other hand for subsidies and protective duties.

Where Toye is most successful is in his nuanced character studies, which carefully interweave the intellectual, political and biographical influences on both the key protagonists and those whom history often forgets. Attlee is a main but not central character: Hugh Dalton, Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrison – the ‘Big Five’ with Attlee – come alive on the page. As do those often forgotten by history, such as Ellen Wilkinson and Sir Hartley Shawcross (whose right-wing tendencies in the party earned him the nickname of ‘Sir Shortly Floorcross’), who are given at times poignant appraisal. Meanwhile, the traditional villains of Labour’s story, such as its first prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald, are subject to delicious asides: Macdonald was apparently so intimidated by Labour’s intellectual godparents – Beatrice and Sidney Webb – that on first meeting them, he ‘could not summon the courage to ask where the toilet was and was obliged to relieve himself in a timber yard as he returned home’.

Nuance comes out in discussions of Britain’s foreign relations, not least with Europe. While accepting a level of Germanophobia within the party, let alone the country, and a preference for the Empire-Commonwealth, it was Attlee’s successor to the Labour leadership, Hugh Gaitskell, whose founding of the European Payments Unions ‘helped spark the boom of the 1950s and 60s, laying the foundations for the birth of the Common Market in 1958’. This was built upon a desire, championed by Ernest Bevin, to create a ‘Western Union’ of military, political, economic and cultural cooperation with Western Europe. Bevin had to be persuaded not to condemn the Schuman Plan, which he thought was a ‘Franco-American plot, hatched behind his back, to force the pace on European integration’. Cripps and Morrison, meanwhile, resisted the ‘impractical and overly theoretical ideas of the European federal enthusiasts’. Despite this, the UK did sign the European Convention on Human Rights and became the first country to ratify it. This was a way of channelling and controlling the progress of European unity, Toye argues, rather than attempting to block it.

Toye deftly navigates the debates over Attlee’s legacy and the extent of a postwar ‘consensus’, where the differences in emphasis were as real on the right as they were on the left. Margaret Thatcher’s shadow cabinet debated the postwar consensus ‘rigorously’, disagreeing on its ‘nature, extent and desirability’, for example. Indeed, once in power, Thatcher was commendable about some of Attlee’s achievements, not least regarding nuclear weapons and the creation of NATO (Attlee’s successors were easier targets of derision).

As Harold Wilson’s final term developed, the debates over ‘consensus’ took place in a context of intra-party disputes over the extension of public ownership, and Wilson’s desire to continue what he viewed as ‘a modernised version of Keynesian doctrine’. That Wilson was defending this approach had as much to do with ideological obstinacy from his left as from his right, as Tony Benn attempted a ‘grass-roots insurgency’. Both could lean on Attlee if they wanted to defend their claims – Benn went as far as quoting the former Labour leader directly, saying that ‘public ownership was the only solution for the evils of capitalism’.

Despite offering something new, the dilemmas facing Tony Blair spoke to the fundamental crises of identity that Labour had faced throughout its existence: between radicalism and pragmatism, socialism and social democracy, individualism and community. Again, given Blair’s successes in regenerating the party’s fortunes, the continuity is often lost. Toye teases all this out, showing that Blair was keen to reconnect with the everyday needs and desires of the people on their own terms first, with the more ideological aspects coming second. In political terms, building a ‘big tent’ left-of-centre coalition meant freeing Labour from the ‘inconvenient baggage of the past… playing up the contribution of famous Liberals’ like Keynes and Beveridge… wrapping themselves in the warm glow of the 1945 victory’, while ‘subtly downplaying that of Attlee and Bevan’.

The fundamental questions facing all administrations of the 20th and 21st centuries have been those regarding the nature and trajectory of international interdependence. Toye implicitly articulates this at one point: ‘The question of capitalism versus socialism was intimately connected to the foreign policy issues that dominated the decade.’ While quick not to negate ‘the importance of ideology or political will’, Toye sees in both the postwar period and today an environment that is potentially ‘congenial to the pursuit of economic justice’. This may be true; however Toye doesn’t engage with the intellectual architecture of that assertion, and how it maps onto the present.

Toye’s descriptions of the diverse and complex intellectual tributaries – Liberalism Fabianism, Christianity, Marxism – that flowed through the Labour Party’s early history are often overlooked today. Labour’s varied membership was motivated and ultimately united by a belief in ‘justice and progress and the idea that social problems, having human origins, could be remedied through purposive action’. While this ‘crusading essence’ is seen in contemporary Labour activism, the party’s multifaceted identity is often ignored, with ‘socialism’ monopolised above all else.

Toye notes that ‘think-tanks and outside experts, including academic economists and City figures, played a key role’ in the early 1930s as Attlee became leader. Indeed, much of the intellectual heft came from within the party, with figures such as Hugh Dalton, G.D.H. Cole and Harold Laski all providing grist to the policy mill. Yet the landmark ‘Welfare State’ reforms came from a Liberal, William Beveridge, appointed from outside government to lead a one-off review of social insurance in 1942. Could such a thing happen today? Where is the intellectual centre of gravity within the Labour movement? In 2024, when the question facing Starmer is not ‘capitalism or socialism’ but how the realities and logics of international economic interdependence can be wrangled in a national context to reduce socioeconomic inequality, teasing out the more abstract, analytical analogies for today always has utility.

Ultimately, it is not Toye’s job, or the goal of his book, to answer these questions. In a discussion of the ‘appalling racial attitudes’ held in the postwar era, Toye offers a model for historical inquiry that should be kept in mind by anyone attempting to learn from the past: ‘Rather than reduce the story to one of condemnation or exculpation, we should recognise these facts as part of its complexity. We need to understand the contradictions, rather than pretending that they did not exist.’


Nick Kaderbhai