Sunday review: Attlee memorial lecture by Jon Cruddas; The Labour party in perspective by C R Attlee; and Small man: big world by Michael Young

by Anthony Painter

Jon Cruddas has turned the biographical political speech into an art-form. His recent Clement Attlee memorial lecture is no exception. In the last year or so he has tackled three, in many ways forgotten or at least distant, Labour party leaders: Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, and now Clement Attlee. This one on Attlee touched on a fundamental historical divide within Labour in a quite profound way.

Labour is divided between romantics and pragmatists. It’s not about new versus old Labour. It’s not about trade unions versus the party or socialists versus social democrats. There are romantics, who emphasise the ideal, the human, the ethical, the relational and the communitarian. Pragmatists emphasise power, policy, practicality and process.

The former have dominated our emotions as a party; the latter have driven the party’s leadership. As William Morris once said, to that arch-technocrat Sidney Webb, “the world is going your way at present, Webb, but it’s not the right way in the end”. In a single quote that sums up the elegiac history of Labour’s romantic disposition.

Cruddas contrasts the “orthodox Attlee” – dry, taciturn, administrative, statist, functional and colourless – with the “unorthodox Attlee”. This Attlee is romantic, visionary, the fire burns in his soul, he’s humanistic, ethical and the passion is intense though burns within. Which is the true Attlee? Cruddas, in a revision of a previously stated view, argues that it is the “unorthodox” Attlee who is the real man.

The whole Labour wrong turn in 1945 argument – which has been fashionable in some New and blue Labour circles – always seemed a strange one for me. A quick look at Attlee’s biography and writings, as Cruddas does eloquently, suggests a complex life and man.

This is someone involved in community action in the East End of London who eschewed privilege in order to pursue justice. He was a Conservative but responded to the poverty and injustice that he saw by becoming Independent Labour Party. If he thought friendly societies and charities could have slayed misery and poverty he would have pursued that. Instead, once he had hold of the state he used it. He fired the big bazooka – to use the phrase of the moment.

Something else always sat uneasily with the notion of the “orthodox Attlee”. There is a little book, published by the left book club in 1937 and written by Attlee, called The Labour party in perspective. There is a chapter that describes the Labour party’s core aims titled the “social objective”. What is the first aim? Freedom. Attlee writes:

“The wealth of a society is in its variety, not its uniformity. Progress is not towards but away from the herd”.

This section shows a deep discomfort and scepticism with the state (channeling William Morris in some respects.) Alongside aims one would expect such as common ownership, equality, security and democracy appears beauty. This is a deeply sensitive, passionate, and human-spirited man.

So how do we explain the “orthodox Attlee”?  Actually, Cruddas wasn’t wrong in his initial assessment of Attlee as a technocrat. But I think it was incomplete. The “orthodox” and “unorthodox” Attlee are two facets of the same man. He was both a romantic and a technocrat. And that is why he was the greatest prime minister of the twentieth century – if not our entire history.

We revere the romantics in our history: Nye Bevan, Tony Benn, and Michael Foot. Romanticism is Labour’s secret code. But honestly, if it had been them, or men like them, in charge in the 1930s, would there have even been a 1945 government? Attlee, an Abraham Lincoln for these shores, held together a cabinet of egotists and delivered emancipatory change. His inner flame was his drive, but he was ultimately a man of practical delivery. And boy did he deliver. Pragmatism is the how; romanticism is the why. Both inform the “what”.

Labour is at its best when both combine. With Attlee, one man embodied both. The problem comes when we have shallow pragmatism with no soul which becomes meaningless or when we have romanticism without a pragmatic anchor. There is an economy to run, security to be protected, public services to be provided effectively, and, yes, elections to be won. Without this grounding, romanticism tends towards sentimentality. Another figure from the Attlee era, Michael Young, got this about right in his Labour party pamphlet Small man: big world:

“There is no salvation in going back to some misty past in which the small man lived in a small world, no salvation in putting multi-coloured maypoles in every city square or even substituting William Morris for the Morris car”.

The pamphlet is a discussion paper for Labour party members to consider how democracy, which requires smallness, can be combined with efficiency, which often requires bigness. It is about how to democratise the new institutions of the state as it was expanded in the Attlee years. And this sums up the dilemmas faced by that generation. They had come through a great depression and a world war. William Morris had to remain a spirit rather than a programme of government.

As Labour confronts its latest renewal, there is much that can be learnt from Attlee the man. Success will come from a romantic spirit and understanding mixed with a pragmatic leadership. Cruddas’s thinking is a crucial one in this endeavour. So is Clement Attlee’s.

Anthony Painter is a writer and critic.

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5 Responses to “Sunday review: Attlee memorial lecture by Jon Cruddas; The Labour party in perspective by C R Attlee; and Small man: big world by Michael Young”

  1. Diane Hain says:

    Brain versus heart, pragmatic versus romantic. Both together must be better than one on it’s own. To feel as well as do. I like the idea of the romantic and indeed I lean in that direction, but I also acknowledge the need to be able to achieve the ideas and hopes that burn the soul. Because without that, the hopes and aspirations of those who look to the leader will be lost and replaced with disillusionment.

    I care about the Labour Party, I am devoted to it and it’s aims and I trust those who give their lives to the service of all society, not just the upper echelons. I have seen the alternatives and they have been found wanting, working for vested interests with adverse social instincts that pitch one section of society against the other passing judgement on lives they know little about.

    Labour has a long and respected history, good leaders and wealth of service to be proud of. We are advancing slowly to government again. Labour’s made mistakes, as every party does, the party is made up of human beings afer all, but never at the detriment of the people they serve, because Labour advances social justice, fairness and equality, and that’s the achievements that really matters. You can’t say that for the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. Long live Labour ideals, long live pragmatism. Atlee was a great pragmatic romantist.

  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Having seen Cruddas ideas in practice on a Council I can honestly say there is nothing to take note of here.

    Labour in the modern contexct has few pro-democratic process and principle advocates and people who practice it.

  3. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:


    Atlee was awesome, it insults his memory for a tawdry individual like Cruddas to demean it.

    I once felt and thought as you do until I experienced the “grown up politics” (to quote Ed Balls) which has nothing to do with Romance or Intellect. More a kinda brainless bullying and paranoia.

    Labour was once a very great party and we should be proud of what it once was, the apple has fallen far, very far from the tree today however.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Just a eminder:

    Can Jon Cruddas MP (as one example), interesting chap tell Left from Right, anti- or pro-establishment?

    This guy is an “adviser” to the undemocratic think tank that Patricia Hewitt claimed on Channel Four was where businesses could lobby politicians to make policy. Jon shares his adviser role with real Lefties like George Osborne MP the current Chancellor. I know what you are going to say now…that’s the man I would trust to protect public service jobs and the interests of the Unions!

    That’s were policy gets made without bothering with the public, and where banks and other big businesses get to pay for “research”.

    According to Andrew Rawnsley who interviewed Jon Cruddas ( Cruddas likes to share his special moments thinking and talking with Tories when he goes fishing with his good friend Tory MP Charles Walker.

    According to the Daily Mail ( Jon Cruddas has got himself a lovely patch in Notting Hill. He has developed his views towards more open democracy by defying a three line whip and voting with many Tories on Europe as well (

    Establishment? Yep, certainly looks like it. Not sure that’s what Labour voters and radical members were hoping for though and its amazing how Labour initially begun to be radical and about swung after its first term, sounds to me as though they simply realized how much money there was in becoming pro-establishment, pro-capitalism and against modernization and democracy.

  5. You can read the whole of Cruddas’ Attlee lecture on the ILP’s website, here:

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