Political parties need a tradition, a line of descent - in a word, heroes. In this respect the Labour Party has always had some difficulty. The obvious candidate would have been the first man to lead Labour to power, but Ramsay MacDonald put himself beyond the pale: indeed, the psychological wound he left as 'the lost leader' was of more lasting significance than anything he achieved in power. Oswald Mosley, the most impressive of the Young Turks to contest MacDonald, lurched into even deeper disgrace, while Arthur Henderson and George Lansbury were simply not memorable. Clement Attlee, the leader for twenty years and the man who led Labour to the new Jerusalem of 1945, was, in the event, the most serviceable hero, but he was never beatified, let alone canonised. Not only did he lack charisma but, as a former army major educated at Haileybury, he was always something of an oddity within the Party, and despite many attempts to suggest the contrary, a dry stick. An old trade-union hack whom Attlee sacked from the Government pleaded his case with passion: 'Why, Clem, for God's sake why?' 'Not up to it,' came the cheerful reply. Throughout his premiership Attlee read only the Times, partly for its cricket coverage but also, he said, because knowing its bitterly anti-Labour views in advance, he always found reading it 'restful'. Attitudes of this sort did not sit well with a party which has always seen itself as a crusading organisation.
LRB 14 November 1996 | PDF Download