Over the Christmas break I enjoyed “The Tortoise and the Hares“, the enormously readable account by my colleague Lord Giles Radice of the relationship between Clement Attlee and the giants in his 1945-51 Cabinets like Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton, Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell.

The book focuses on the relationship between the quiet, unassuming Attlee and the extraordinary figures around him in the leadership of the Labour Party and the Labour Government.  Attlee’s ability to play off those around him, so that he was always able to head off the frequent challenges to his leadership by one or other of them, but at the same time giving each of them the space to deliver fundamental change in their respective policy areas, was quite remarkable.

However, even more striking is the formidable nature of the individuals making up those Cabinets.  Today, we have become used to Parties led by strong figures with other leading members being clearly several steps behind.  The situation in Attlee’s Cabinet was rather, if taken forward fifty years, as though Tony Blair had had four figures of the calibre and strength of Gordon Brown filling the major offices of state, all seeking ownership of the government’s direction.  The change seems to have occurred after the 1979 General Election when Margaret Thatcher came to completely dominate her Cabinet.  There was something of a reversion under John Major – although none of the figures in the 1990-97 Cabinets could really be described as of huge substance.  Then from 1997 onwards, we again had pre-eminent Prime Ministers.  And in the (unlikely) event of a Conservative Government being elected later this year, it is hard to see any of the present Shadow Cabinet having the stature to affect the authority of David Cameron.

So has the change come about because of the individuals holding the office of Prime Minister?  Or do we no longer have the same supply of dominating figures in the front-rank of politics?  I rather suspect it is the latter – although if few of the present Cabinet are in the mould of the Bevins and Morrisons of the 1940s, they are giants compared with the pygmies on the Tory front-bench.

Of course, politics sixty years ago were very different.  Today, it is hard to envisage a senior Cabinet Minister having to resign, as Hugh Dalton did, for briefing a member of the press before an announcement in the House of Commons.  Nor is it possible to imagine that the wife of a prominent Cabinet member might have tea every Friday afternoon with a Sunday newspaper correspondent and give him near-verbatim accounts of Cabinet discussions (as was the practice of Isobel Cripps) without the source of the leak rapidly becoming known (according to Giles Radice even the security service failed to identify her).

Even more striking is how ill some of the major figures were much of the time.  The book describes the mission to the United States in 1949 to discuss the sterling exchange rate led by Cripps and Bevin.  The two men sailed to the US on the RMS Mauretania, because as the book describes it:

“Both Cripps and Bevin were in poor health: Bevin could not travel by air because of his heart and stayed in bed resting, while Cripps used the boat journey to prolong his convalescence (from acute colitis which had incapacitated him for months).  Curiously the two ministers did not actually meet for the first three or four days.  Cripps rose at 4am, often pacing the deck till dawn, and retired to bed early at around 4 or 5pm.  Meanwhile Bevin did not rise until late afternoon.  It was not until well into the voyage, when Cripps agreed to stay up a little later, that … (the civil servants) … had the opportunity to brief the two statesmen together.”

It is not clear that politicians are allowed to be unwell these days.  (This, of course, was not just a factor for Labour figures – Churchill was frequently indisposed even during the War and his devastating strokes in 1949 and when he was again Prime Minister in 1953 were kept secret for months.)  Attlee, of course, outlived all the hares in the book and Churchill.

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