The Mouse That Roared

Heirs of W. Eugene Smith/Black Star/LACMA
British Prime Minister Clement Attlee watching election returns, 1950;
photograph by W. Eugene Smith

Was any public figure ever so conspicuous for being inconspicuous? “An empty taxi drove up to Number 10 and Mr. Attlee got out.” I think this was the first political joke I ever laughed at; I must have been nine or ten at the time. It was attributed to Winston Churchill, but it dates back to the nineteenth century when it was applied to Sarah Bernhardt, though for her thinness, not her dimness. “Mr. Attlee is a modest little man with plenty to be modest about.” Churchill did say something along these lines, though in one form or another that too is an ancient insult. A “sheep in sheep’s clothing” was also attributed to Churchill, though in fact it was Malcolm Muggeridge who said it.

Nor were Clement Attlee’s Labour Party colleagues any more complimentary. Hugh Dalton, who was briefly to be his chancellor of the exchequer, recorded in his diary when Attlee became party leader, “And a little mouse shall lead them!”; on other occasions he referred to him as “poor little Rabbit.” There was something about Clem that inspired comparisons from the animal kingdom. As he announced victory in North Africa in 1943, one of the turning points in World War II, Harold Nicolson thought he was “like a little snipe pecking at a wooden cage.” In 1945, after he had been deputy prime minister for three years and was about to become prime minister for the next six, he was lampooned in the leftist weekly Tribune as “The Invisible Man”:

There is no doubt whatever that Attlee exists
(Once head of HM Opposition)
But in Government circles the rumour persists
That Attlee’s a mere apparition.

Only the deeply loyal Ernest Bevin, the trade union leader who became Britain’s most memorable postwar foreign secretary, really respected him. The rest of the vain and envious crew—Hugh Dalton, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan—never thought he was up to the job of leading them, which he did for twenty years, surviving four direct challenges with barely a twitch of his little mouse’s whiskers.

In some of these dismissals there was a barely concealed snobbery. Bevan deplored Attlee’s “suburban middle class values.” Isaiah Berlin did not care for his “minor public school morality.” Beatrice Webb said that “he looked and spoke like an insignificant elderly clerk.” Attlee himself shrugged off these putdowns. He was not in the least ashamed of where he came from or who he was. “I am a very diffident man,” he gladly conceded. “I find it very hard to carry on conversation.” When journalists like Nicolson implored him to build up his public image, he demurred, insisting on his privacy. In any case, “I should be a sad subject for…

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