Citizen Clem by John Bew

Revisionist history is not always as patriotic as this recent biography. The greatest ever Labour Prime Minister is painted vividly in red, white and blue. The text focuses on foreign policy, war and anti-communism. One cannot escape from the troubling idea that history is being raided in an attempt to influence current politics. Indeed, the prologue is dismissive of modern Labour leaders like Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

John Bew is critical of the economic knowledge of Clement Attlee. However, Bew spends relatively little time on economic questions. Instead of helping the reader get to grips with Keynes or Marx, Bew prefers to make a host of literary references. The result is a colourful work that does not explain in sufficient detail how the welfare state was created. The massive contributions of Aneurin Bevan and William Beveridge are mentioned but they are explored in a  cursory fashion.

The internal politics of the Labour Party do get plenty of space. However, the struggles of similar European parties are somewhat neglected in favour of a concentration on the special relationship with the United States. Clearly, the Marshall Plan is worthy of considerable attention, but the late lecture tours of Attlee are not of huge significance. It is perhaps possible that Attlee would have preferred an understated account of his life. After all, the modest autobiography of Attlee:

“…was painstakingly guarded and inoffensive. There were no revelations or character assassinations.”


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