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The first citizen of twentieth-century Britain

Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee  - John Bew

Few thought he was even a starter.
There were many in life who were smarter.
But he finished PM,
A CH, an OM,
An earl and a Knight of the Garter.

 

Clement Attlee's autobiographical limerick summarizes well the course of his remarkable political career. From his early career as a social worker in London's East End and service in the First World War he entered the House of Commons, where he rose steadily until the fracturing of Labour Party with the formation of the National government in 1931 and the subsequent general election wiped out nearly all of the party's parliamentary leadership. Having weathered the crisis as one of the few remaining former cabinet ministers still in Parliament, Attlee became the party's leader in 1935, where he enjoyed a remarkable twenty-year tenure that saw him lead the party into coalition with the Conservatives during the Second World War, then to a massive electoral victory in 1945 that made possible the establishment of Britain's postwar welfare state.

 

John Bew is not the first historian to write about Attlee's life, but his biography is easily one of the best. It is in many ways an intellectual portrait of the man, charting the development of his socialist views and patriotic attitudes and showing how they shaped his career. The title itself hints at his overall argument, which is that Attlee's patriotism and sense of duty is key to understanding his popularity and political success. It shows just how remarkable of a figure he was, one who, for all his modest, unassuming nature, dominated so many of the political titans of his age.