[review] Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee, by John Bew

Clement Attlee was a man whose life was shaped by world events dwarfing those of our own time, World Wars 1 and 2 and their aftermath, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression. And, in his own quiet, methodical way, he also helped shaped them. Shy, privately-schooled, cricket-loving, he put himself into the public eye to fulfil a Victorian sense of patriotism and selfless public duty which seem foreign today. His mission all began by living and working in London’s hard up East End. He was a spitting image for Lenin, though he rejecting bolshevism in favour of the separate stream of British socialism. He was, with his homegrown creed, able to work effectively alongside the aristocratic and bombastic Winston Churchill in the national government of World War 2, only to trounce him with a radical plan to create the welfare state once it was over. And yet the two remained on good terms. His natural reticence and his role in unifying a fractious Labour party perhaps mean he is, as a man and as a politician, destined to remain frustratingly elusive. But this portrait of a life lived on the front line in tumultuous times, from being shot in the bum in the Mesopotamia campaign to facing the threat of the nuclear age, while providing universal healthcare and homes for heroes and starting the dismantling of the British Empire, is no less breathtaking for it. ■