What Would Clem Make of It All?
What would Attlee make of politics today?
ANNE GLOSSOP was a fifteen year old schoolgirl in 1951 when she wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee. The Government’s recent education reforms meant that Ms Glossop, who had expected to sit her final exams in only a few months, would have to wait a full year before taking her school-leaving certificate. Attlee’s love of poetry was well known and well exploited by Ms Glossop.
From Anne Glossop
Would you explain, dear Clement
Just why it has to be
That Certificates of Education
Are barred to such as me?
I’ve worked through thirteen papers
But my swot is all in vain
Because at this time next year
I must do them all again.
Please have pity, Clement
And tell the others too
Remove the silly age limit
It wasn’t there for you.
The Prime Minister’s poetic response was marked ‘Secret,’ and would remain so for half a century. From Clement Attlee, Prime Minister
I received with real pleasure
Your verses my dear Anne
Although I’ve not much leisure
I’ll reply as best I can.
I’ve not the least idea why
They have this curious rule,
Condemning you to sit and sigh
Another year at school.
You’ll understand that my excuse
For lack of detailed knowledge
Is that school Certs were not in use
When I attended college.
George Tomlinson1 is ill, but I
Have asked him to explain
And when I get the reason why
I’ll write to you again.
Sadly for Anne, Clem lost office shortly thereafter, her problem left unsolved.
However, the poetic correspondence serves as a reminder, as Denis Healy once intoned, that all politicians need a hinterland. For Healey it was photography. For Alec Douglas Home it was flower arranging. Ted Heath, yachting. John Major, cricket. And for Clement Attlee it was poetry, in which he took an ‘intense pleasure.’
Commenting on the the Berlin bombing raids during World War II, he invoked Milton’s Samson Agonistes: ‘With winged expedition / Swift as the lightning glance he executes / His errands on the wicked.’
There is a story told of a junior member of the Attlee Government submitting his slim volume of poetry to the PM for permission to publish. In those days members of the government required such sanction, primarily to prevent leaks. However there was little reason to expect any issues with a volume of verse. Somewhat unexpectedly Attlee declined permission, declaring tersely: ‘Can’t publish. Don’t rhyme. Don’t scan’.
What would Attlee make of politics today?
There is little doubt that he would have expressed a certain quiet satisfaction that the NHS, conceived and delivered during his term of office, remains free for all. He would have abhorred spin, of that there can be no doubt, and would have struggled with the concept of the 24 hour news cycle. I doubt he would have had a Twitter account or a Facebook page, despite his laconic style. He was a strong advocate of NATO. He would be a strong supporter of the minimum wage, although he would likely have expressed surprise it took so long to arrive. The product of a Grammar School, it is likely Clem would have seen these schools for what they can be, an opportunity for excellence.
However, it is his views on the EU that would be most interesting. He had little time for the European Economic Community. During the early membership negotiations, he noted that,
“the propaganda for entering the Common Market has been largely based on defeatism. We are told that unless we do it we are going to have a terrible time. That is no way to go into a negotiation. You ought to go into a negotiation on the basis that they have need of you, not just you of them”.
Words those tasked with negotiating our exit would do well to take to heart. As it happens, his final speech was also on the European Union. Let me quote it in full:
“The Common Market.
The so-called Common Market of six nations.
Know them all well.
Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of 'em from attacks by the other two.”
Attlee was a great Briton and one of the finest Prime Minsters this country has ever known. He changed the country for good. He was also a self-effacing politician, something of a rarity, even then. As Attlee himself wrote:
Few thought he was even a starter.
There were many who thought themselves smarter.
But he finished PM,
CH and OM,
An earl and a Knight of the Garter.
1 George Tomlinson, Education Minister 1947-51