DURING this year's election in Britain, there was much facile talk of Margaret Thatcher's "Churchillian" style. It was often stated, and even more often implied, that this ingredient in her politics put the Labor Party at a crucial psychological disadvantage. But Winston Churchill was never more revered than in the year 1945, when he could fairly be hailed as the hero of the anti-Hitler victory in Europe. In July of that year, the Labor Party turned him out of office with an overall majority of 150 seats in Parliament. Analysis of the vote showed that it was the ballots of the armed forces' rank and file that had tipped the scale.

This historic general election, which showed that the British are well able to distinguish between patriotism and Toryism, brought Clement Attlee to the prime ministership. In the succeeding five years, Labor inaugurated the National Health Service, the first and boldest experiment in socialized medicine. It took into public ownership all the vital (and bankrupted) utilities of the coal, gas, electricity and railway industries. It even nibbled at the fiefdoms and baronies of private steel, air transport and trucking. It negotiated the long overdue independence of India. It did all this, in a country bled white by the World War and subject to all manner of unpopular rationing and controls, without losing a single midterm by-election (a standard not equaled by any government of any party since). And it was returned to office at the end of a crowded term.

Yet Clement Attlee remains one of the most obscure and unsung political leaders of the century. Partly, this was by his own wish. He was, like Calvin Coolidge, almost famous for his self-effacement. There used to be a joke, attributed to Churchill, about "an empty taxi drawing up outside Number 10 Downing Street, and Attlee getting out of it." One of the good things about this meticulous and friendly biography is that it gives the lie, both literally and metaphorically, to that hurtful story. Kenneth Harris demonstrates that Churchill disowned the joke with indignation. He also shows that those who took Attlee's extreme diffidence for weakness or lack of character usually regretted it.

In a sense, Attlee's whole life had been a preparation for those five years of reformist givernment. He was born into a right-thinking middle-class family in 1883, the year that Marx died and Keynes was born. He was educated at a philistine public school, Haileybury, which saw its mission as the training of civil servants to govern India. By the time he left Oxford University he was still an unquestioning conservative, though he had quietly shed his belief in a Christian god. It was a spell of social work in London's East End which suddenly alerted him to the ways in which English life was maimed by class.

Liberals emphasize the contrast between wealth and poverty. Socialists stress the connection between them. Attlee learned this lesson early, and though he mellowed into an earldom in later life, he seems never to have forgotten it. His opponents were often maddened by his calm. Churchill sought to rouse him by accusing socialists of needing a "Gestapo" to enforce their Utopia, a bovine lunge to which Attlee replied with great care and economy. For him, politics was not a passion but a matter of decent and settled conviction.

Not that his life was spent in the harbor of complacency. He was almost the last man off the beach at the rout of Gallipoli, and was later wounded in both the Mesopotamian campaign and the trenches in France. A unit of the International Brigade was named after him during the Spanish Civil War. When photographed at the front giving a clenched fist salute, and attacked for the Bolshevism of the gesture in the British press, he replied mildly but firmly that he abhorred communism but that the greeting was considered good manners in the Spanish Republic. Naturally, his oldest political enemies loved him at his death (if they had had the good fortune to outlive him).

So his formative influences--solidarity with the poor, sympathy for India (of which he made a special study in the '30s), hatred of fascism and suspicion of communism-- came together in the only British Labor government which is remembered with nostalgia. The picture is not all bread and roses--Attlee bungled the Palestine Mandate and broke the British promise to both Arabs and Jews. He agreed, without any public or Parliamentary discussion to build a British nuclear bomb. He tried to run a rather various and difficult country as if it were a school which needed a patient headmaster. (That had its good side; Attlee would personally sack a minister on the least suspicion of misconduct.) In the end, and in a way slightly reminiscent of Aristides the Just, he was eclipsed because his virtues were becoming tiresome. That was a generation ago. The British, we are incessantly told, have now rejected the "nanny state" and regard the social worker as a boring pest. Abroad, they wish to see Churchillian resolve and toughness incarnate. Maybe. But actually it was Attlee, Churchill's deputy prime minister in the War Cabinet, who opposed the demand, in 1942, that Stalin's postwar claims on Eastern Europe be given official recognition. His fiercest antagonist was Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill's friend and a jingo imperialist who admired in Stalin what he adored in himself. Attlee won and Beaverbrook (then a senior minister) lost. Not many years later, Beaverbrook's press would accuse Labor of "appeasing" the Russians. So it goes. But Attlee, unlike some of his successors, never lost his nerve when denounced from that quarter or in that way. Harris has recounted a chapter of British history, and an aspect of British politics, which deserves to be much better known and understood than it is.