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Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

18 September 2009

Another pair of book reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. In the interests of keeping the article intact as written, I’ve left the two book reviews together.

Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett and Alec Douglas-Home by D.R. Thorpe

The “Great Statesmen” series released by Politico’s Publishing has produced new paperback editions of Francis Beckett’s biography of Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe’s biography of Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Both biographies examine career politicians who remain little-known and less-understood figures in post-war British political history, and seek to show why these two men, of all their contemporaries, were amongst the few chosen to hold the office of prime minister.

The Beckett biography of Attlee regrettably falls short of the mark. The first sign of the book’s shortcomings is Beckett’s insistence on referring to Attlee as ‘Clem; throughout — in spite of his own admission that Attlee himself likely would not have approved of such familiarity. This early warning is borne out by Beckett’s tendency towards conjecture and speculation about Attlee’s thoughts and intentions. Statements such as ‘It may have been — almost certainly was — a decision [Attlee] subsequently regretted’ (95) tell the reader very little about Attlee’s way of thinking while revealing rather too much about his biographer’s opinions. And Beckett has no shortage of opinions on Attlee’s fellow politicians, particularly those who at one point or another were not on Attlee’s side—Ramsay MacDonald is a ‘cruel fraud’ (75), Herbert Morrison ‘trusted no-one and loved power’ (121), and Hugh Dalton had ‘neither the glory of being considered above plotting, nor the success which attends effective plotters’ (203). The lack of footnotes makes it all but impossible to test the veracity of Beckett’s opinionated claims, and the bibliography consists solely of a few paragraphs mentioning some of the relevant Public Records Office files and a brief list of memoirs and secondary sources.

Beckett also glosses over several unpleasant aspects of Attlee’s leadership and his tenure as prime minister, such as the chaotic effects of the 1945–51 Labour Government’s policies towards India, Palestine, and Northern Ireland and the vicious infighting over his succession that kept Labour in Opposition for nearly 15 years. Beckett does not even wholly succeed in his attempt to disprove the generally accepted ‘myth of insignificance’ (ix) that surrounds Attlee to this day; without tangible, solid evidence that can be backed up by other scholarship, Attlee still seems much the ‘accidental’ prime minister that Hugh Dalton once claimed he was.

Beckett clearly writes with love for his subject, and the sections of Clem Attlee that focus on Attlee’s domestic life and family relationships are treated with warmth and affection. Attlee’s close relationship with his elder brother Tom, a conscientious objector who went to prison rather than fight in World War I, receives particular care and attention. Even so, the overall effect produced by Clem Attlee is a cross between a hagiography of Saint Attlee of Stepney and collection of fond reminiscences about an eccentric old uncle — neither of which is suitable for a serious biographical study of a prime minister. For a more scholarly and objective examination of Clement Attlee’s life, Politico’s might have done better to reprint either Trevor Burridge’s 1985 biography or Kenneth Harris’s 1995 biography. Either would have been a more fitting choice for the Great Statesmen series.

D.R. Thorpe’s Alec Douglas-Home, by contrast, provides a far less worshipful account of its subject’s life and career. Thorpe is particularly careful with his manner of addressing his subject, if only because keeping track of the many names by which Douglas-Home was known in his lifetime is no small task. Lord Dunglass MP became the Earl of Home upon his father’s death in 1951, then became Sir Alec Douglas-Home MP after disclaiming his peerage in 1963, and then Lord Home of the Hirsel after receiving a life peerage in 1975 — and Thorpe allows the changing names to illustrate the many changes in Douglas-Home’s life over the course of his political career.

Thorpe had unparalleled access to the Home family’s private papers, and the depth and scope of the biography reflect the extensive research and interviews he conducted with Douglas-Home’s colleagues and contemporaries. Alec Douglas-Home was once described as the sort of young man of aristocratic lineage who, in an earlier century, would have been prime minister before the age of 30, and Thorpe does not shy from depicting his subject as a consummate politician who had been raised with the belief that a life in politics was the noblesse oblige of his class. Indeed, the account of the circumstances surrounding Douglas-Home’s selection as Harold Macmillan’s successor shows Douglas-Home’s political acumen, though it is unfortunate that Thorpe does not fully emphasise the sheer calculated ruthlessness by which Douglas-Home outmanoeuvred his rivals for the premiership. Alec Douglas-Home is an enlightening and highly readable work nonetheless, written with sympathetic interest that for the most part remains as objective as one could wish for in a biography. The detailed footnotes and lists of reference materials ensure that Thorpes work will endure as a well-regarded source of information on this particular great statesman.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 2 (May 2008): 221–222.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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