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Clement Attlee: the greatest Prime Minister of 20th century


Journalists admire politicians who make a splash and cut a dash
Anthony Howard Writer
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It’s very hard, isn’t it? I mean, the politicians journalists admire are all those who make a splash and cut a dash. Not necessarily does that make you admired by your own colleagues. I mean, the last person that one would think was in any way glamorous was Mr Attlee, who presided over the Labour government from '45 to '51. Most working politicians, who maybe… there are many of them dead by now, but who knew anything about Attlee would have put him almost top of 20th century Prime Ministers, but that was without any gifts of showmanship or anything like that. But that was the view from within. I think the view from without would always be that Churchill was a much greater Prime Minister than Attlee. I think he was a greater war Prime Minister, I think that’s probably true. Attlee wasn’t a war... he was Deputy Premier in the war, but I think as a peacetime Prime Minister, Attlee left Churchill standing. Churchill wasn’t a very effective peacetime Prime Minister between '51 and '55. He was too old, he ended up being over 80. I mean... ridiculous. But... so I think it’s not just the flashy qualities, but it is, of course, this sense being a politician is being a performer. It is the politician who can make a phrase, deliver a dazzling speech, who attracts attention.

Why do we talk about Nye Bevan? Because he was a wonderful orator. Superb orator, both on the platform and in the House of Commons. Why do people like me, of my age, still sort of remember Iain Macleod? Because he was a wonderful speaker. And... he wasn’t much good on telly, because... see that’s a different technique, but on a public platform, from the frontbench in the House of Commons, he was, you know, far and away the best orator in the Conservative Party. On the other hand, you take someone like Rab Butler, a most faithful servant of the Conservative Party, down 40 years. No, never a great performer, never a tremendous orator. Harold Macmillan, on the other hand, could do it. He was a showman. He knew how to do it.

But it is, I think... to go into politics and not have any of the showman qualities, which is what Attlee did, is taking a very high risk. The day Attlee became leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Dalton, who was a pretty ghastly old brute, an Old Etonian Labour MP, wrote in his diary, 'And a little mouse shall lead them'. And, you know, in a sense, Dalton was right, Attlee did look like a little mouse. But my goodness, that mouse roared and went on to lead the Labour Party for 20 years. 20 years! And be Prime Minister twice. So I think Dalton really got it wrong, but that’s how Attlee was regarded.

And some of the more flashy characters, of course, don’t make it at all. I mean I don’t want to be able to go into private grief, but someone like Jonathan Aitken looks as if he came out of a sort of political novel, but his whole career came to grief. And that has tended to happen with perhaps the more flashy political operators. John Stonehouse, remember too, who went to jug, too. So I think it’s a high-level, high-wire act. And I can’t quite see what’s so attractive to it to someone who wants to be a quiet administrator. And you can do that as a civil servant. Why buy into the public dimension if you’re not very happy with it? And of course, most politicians are, I think, show-offs, and even if they’re not very talented, they think they are, and they think they’re Demosthenes when they’re not. But on the whole, I think you’ve got to have a part of your makeup... there has to be part actor. And it’s quite important, the acting side of politics, I think. And above all, because after all, speech is your trade, that’s what you’re engaged in, I think you’ve got to be a good speaker. And if you can’t, it’s rather pathetic.

I mean, there have been some very, very bad politicians who just couldn’t put one word next to the other. Frank Cousins, who became, sort of, cabinet minister in the Wilson government, absolutely hopeless. People like Fred Mulley, who was a long-serving Labour cabinet minister, hopeless at making speeches. Those who tend to capture the public imagination are people like Barbara Castle. And Barbara Castle was a splendid speaker, really was very, very good. My goodness, she was an actress. She understood all about dress and appearance and all the rest of it, but she was really a performing politician.

In my view, but for Barbara Castle, there would never have been Margaret Thatcher. It was Barbara Castle who blazed the trail. Up to that moment, people had been terribly patronising to women politicians. The gracious lady in her usual charming way, this kind of thing. Barbara put a stop to all that. As far as she was concerned, the age of chivalry was dead, and she’d go after men just as much as any male politician would go after his colleagues. And she was a great performer. She wasn’t a great intellect, unlike Dick Crossman. Intellect doesn’t help you a great deal in politics, I don’t think. The towering intellectuals of the period I knew about, well Dick Crossman certainly, Keith Joseph. Total flop as a politician, really. I mean, a wonderful guru for Margaret Thatcher, but as a departmental head of a ministry, no good at all. Agonised all the time. So I think being an intellectual isn’t a great aid often. I mean, it’s a good thing to have some good brainpower, but not to be a sort of agonised, sort of, monk. The mad monk, they called, I think, old Keith Joseph, and that’s what you run the danger of being if you’re too obviously an intellectual. Even Dick. I mean, Dick, though he was a very good speaker of an expository kind, not a moving kind, wasn’t a terrible success as a minister. Not a great success as a minister, really, because I think he was too… he intellectualised things too much.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Clement Richard Attlee, Nye Bevan, Aneurin Bevan, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, Iain Norman Macleod, Maurice Harold Macmillan, Richard Austen Butler, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, Jonathan William Patrick Aitken, John Thomson Stonehouse, Demosthenes, Frank Cousins, James Harold Wilson, Frederick William Mulley, Barbara Anne Castle, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Richard Howard Stafford Crossman, Dick Crossman, Keith Sinjohn Joseph

Duration: 5 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018