John Bew’s Orwell Prize-winning ‘Citizen Clem’ depicts the life and achievements of former Prime Minister Clement Attlee and it illustrates that British political ideology wasn’t always under the yoke of capitalism, even if today’s media would have us believe the country will never accept ‘socialism’ and tax havens for the super-rich must remain; privatization shall continue while selfish individualism goes on until the planet is utterly destroyed.
But as the most incompetent government of my lifetime struggles on, the past few years have seen Corbyn move from the mistake-ridden hesitancy of the lifelong opposer to having the backing of his party, with Blairites and neoliberals fleeing for centrist alternatives or giving up on their political careers altogether. Whatever the polls say, Labour’s vote share is rising and if they do triumph at the 12th December General Election this will be more down to sensible policies and a highly effective shadow cabinet than any individual.
But as I read ‘Citizen Clem’ it became obvious to me that there are similarities between Attlee and Corbyn. By the post-war years Attlee had been Labour leader for a decade, biding his time while grafting behind the scenes. His approach was characterised by tenacity and patience; Attlee was never a great orator and he wasn’t even a particularly memorable man, described as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” or a “poor little rabbit” by his fellow politicians. He didn’t shout his convictions from the rooftops and this meant many assumed Attlee lacked stature; wasn’t particularly ‘statesmanlike’. The man was terrible at handling the media too; simply didn’t see it as a vital part of the job. Attlee even described himself as “very diffident” and so self-effacing he was insulted as “insignificant”, “inconspicuous” or “dull and puny”.
But the long view has been kind to Attlee who led the most transformative British government of the 20th century, creating the NHS and Welfare State via the National Insurance Act, building vast tracts of social housing, raising the school leaving age to sixteen while moving Britain out of that internationally despised ‘Empire’ and toward the comparatively benign Commonwealth. By the time Winston Churchill ‘went to the country’ in 1945 his opposite number had forged a genuinely positive manifesto. Unfortunately for Churchill, ordinary Brits vividly remembered the betrayal visited on them after the First World War, when a coalition of Liberals and Conservatives were elected promising “a happier country for all” with rehabilitation for those who served in the trenches. It didn’t happen. They lied to win votes – plus ca change
Churchill also screwed up the Conservative campaign, overplaying his hand by alleging state socialism couldn’t exist in Britain “without some form of Gestapo to enforce it”. Yes, Winston denigrated a party that had worked tirelessly to defeat the Nazis by inferring they were actual Nazis. Then he expected the public to believe such nonsense. When Attlee took apart his hyperbole, calmly and rationally, the electorate was left in no doubt who was the honest one; which of these men they could trust.
Wild accusations like these will resonate with anyone who has witnessed the daily establishment attacks on Corbyn. As Bew writes of Attlee, while electioneering: “he was subject to almost daily criticism, some of it verging on the hysterical”. Those familiar with the never-ending smears spread by the supposedly impartial BBC and privately-educated journalists working for billionaire media barons, will spot the similarities.
Like Attlee, the current Labour leader has been repeatedly derided as “weak”. This is an interesting complaint for a man who has withstood attacks across the board and even physical threats. What they mean by “weak” is that Corbyn doesn’t come across as ruthless, overbearing or shouty. Rather his unassuming demeanour is used as a stick to beat him with. But what critics of Corbyn underestimate is his sense of purpose, the dogged consistency, hard-earned wisdom and consistent integrity, the sense he truly stands for something. Without such qualities, he could never have shaped the first genuinely progressive major party in forty years of Westminster politics. Labour now has overwhelmingly popular policies on nationalisation, fighting inequality, halting climate change, ending poverty and homelessness and funding our public services properly with super-fast broadband and dental checks for all. This will be achieved via a concept too taboo to be mentioned during the neoliberal era: taxing the rich. Oh, and more Bank Holidays too. Don’t forget to mention those when the indoctrinated tell you they “could never vote for that Marxist Corbyn”.
In this light his less “colourful” qualities become a badge of authenticity. Over the last few years Corbyn has become a figurehead for a new way of doing things, along with the likes of Jacinda Arden and Bernie Sanders on a global stage. His approach has led the Labour membership to sky-rocket, while the slogan ‘For The Many, Not The Few’ resonates with millions left behind by stagnant wages, soaring utility bills and slash-and-burn profiteering. The result of the 1945 election changed the zeitgeist, registering as a “vote of no confidence in the governing class”. Today the success of anti-establishment candidates internationally (or apparently anti-establishment candidates) continues to send shockwaves around the world.
I don’t hold with that tendency to either sanctify or undermine Corbyn’s party on the basis of his individual qualities or lack thereof. I believe many of his team are equally adept and skilled, if not more so. What I do give Corbyn credit for is the way he has brought progressive politics back onto the British agenda, expanding the ‘Overton Window’ of what can be envisaged. Like Attlee, Corbyn “let himself become a lightning rod for discontent in a way that prevented the rupture of his party”, showing a courageous and humble nature while allowing his shadow cabinet to get on with vital preparations, undistracted by media attack lines. As Conservative leaders come and go he has prevailed, again and again.
As in the post-war years, the UK now finds itself sick of career politicians, tired of the showmanship and privilege that would see the likes of slick Cameron or mendacious Johnson inflict enormous damage through the latter’s hard Brexit. Thoughtful Brits will prefer substance over style when casting their ballot. That this substance should be delivered by a man once dismissed as a joke is testament to the many strengths of Corbyn.
The irony is that Attlee was referred to as a political “pygmy” in his time too, and by reactionaries whose heirs now try to bask in the reflected glory of our NHS, even though the Conservatives voted against Labour’s plans at the time. For me, no one is more straightforwardly comparable with Attlee than Corbyn and, as the Daily Mail (of all places) once wrote: “At first sight Attlee seems insignificant, but from one thing even his enemies – inside the party or out of it – have never even sought to detract [is] his integrity”… [which while] inconspicuous… should not, in fairness, be underrated”.
I hope Corbyn’s most virulent detractors will be forced to acknowledge similar aspects of his character in the years to come.