Clement Earl Attlee (3 January 1883 – 8 October 1967) was Britain’s first post-war Prime Minister (1945-51), winning a landslide for Labour, helping to usher in a new era of British Politics. Attlee’s Labour Government introduced sweeping reforms such as nationalisation of major industries, the extension of the Welfare State and the introduction of the National Health Service.
Attlee was born in Putney, Surrey, where he attended local schools, and later Haileybury College in East London. His father was a solicitor and the family respectable middle class. Attlee won a place at University College, Oxford University to study Modern History. He then trained as a lawyer and went to work in London.
Whilst working as a solicitor he also became involved in a local charity, which offered support to working-class boys in Stepney, London. Attlee said this direct experience of poverty changed his political views from conservative to socialist. It also encouraged him to give up his professional career and work full-time as a social worker in London. Politicised by the poverty he saw, Attlee joined the Independent Labour Party and helped to educate the public about Lloyd George’s National Insurance act (an important step in the evolution of the UK welfare state, that Attlee would later extend).
During the First World War, he served a captain in Gallipoli (a campaign oversaw by Winston Churchill). In the intense fighting of Gallipoli, he was invalided and evacuated after contracting dysentery. He later served in Iraq and was severely injured in a bomb blast. After serving in World War I, he successfully became the Mayor of Stepney, and fought to protect tenants facing high rent charges from landlords. In 1920, he wrote a book ‘Social Worker‘ describing poverty in London, and policies which could help.
In 1922, he was elected a Labour MP for Limehouse, Stepney. He held office during Labour’s tenuous periods in government between the wars. He became leader of the Labour party in 1935, and helped to rebuild the party badly shaken by the Great Depression and the National coalition of 1931, which was fronted by Ramsay McDonald, but largely Conservative in composition. Attlee originally had supported McDonald’s bid for Labour leadership in the 1920s, but later wrote critically about McDonald’s personal failing and perceived betrayal of Socialist ideas in 1931. From 1935, Attlee was appointed leader of the opposition. Initially opposed to rearmament, by 1937, Attlee and Labour dropped its opposition to rearmament due to the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. Attlee deeply opposed the fascist ideology of Nazism.
“There is a denial of the value of the individual. Christianity affirms the value of each individual soul. Nazism denies it. The individual is sacrificed to the idol of the German Leader, German State or the German race. The ordinary citizen is allowed to hear and think only as the rulers decree.”
Attlee, Speech (May 1940)
After the fall of Chamberlain in May 1940, Attlee served as deputy prime minister to Winston Churchill’s wartime government. Attlee was a loyal supporter of Churchill during the war, and critically supported Churchill in maintaining the war against Germany in 1940, when some cabinet members sought to seek a deal with Hitler.
1945 Landslide Election for Labour
Although Attlee supported Churchill in the war effort, the Second World War also saw important social change and increased expectations of what was needed. In 1942, William Beveridge published a ground-breaking report ‘The Beveridge Report’ which advocated a universal welfare state and a commitment to full employment.
“Socialism was the only means of freeing the world from war and poverty. Socialism stood as a third alternative to a barbaric Communism and capitalism in a state of decay. Communism was a falsification of the principles of Socialism.”
The Labour party enthusiastically committed to these proposals and in the General Election of July 1945 campaigned on a manifesto “Let Us Face the Future” – which promised to avoid the poverty and difficulties of the 1930s.
Contrary to many people’s expectations the British public voted against the war hero Winston Churchill and elected Labour with a large majority. Clement Attlee’s success can be attributed to the bold manifesto which promised a new Welfare state and full employment. Following on from the misery of the Great Depression, the average soldier didn’t want to return to a country with no jobs and no security.
Despite Britain being nearly bankrupt after the expensive war, the Labour party were largely successful in bringing in a new welfare state, widespread nationalisation and creating the National Health Service. Clement Attlee wasn’t the most memorable Labour politician of the era. However, his steady, moderate approach helped to keep the party united. He tempered the more extreme left wing views of people like Aneurin Bevan, but also presided over a truly radical government, which increased income tax on the wealthy and created a more equal society. It was truly a radical government of reform and considered by historians to be one of the UK’s most successful governments.
In foreign policy, the Attlee government presided over a period of decolonisation, such as Indian independence in 1947. Despite a strong Labour Movement, ‘keep left’ arguing for British independence in foreign policy. Concern over the Soviet Union and the need for American loans for the economy, pushed Britain towards supporting America.
“When we are returned to power we want to put in the statute book an act which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”
C. R. Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (Left Book Club, 1937).
The legacy of the Labour government 1945-52 has to a large extent, formulated a post-war consensus amongst all political parties in support of the Welfare State.
Labour lost the 1951 election, though Attlee continued as party leader; however, after the election defeat, he increasingly struggled to prevent the party from splitting between left and right. After defeat in the 1955 general election, Clement Attlee retired from politics.
Attlee died of pneumonia at the age of 84 at Westminster Hospital on 8 October 1967.
“Few thought him even a starter.There were many who thought themselves smarter. But he ended PM, CH and OM. An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.”
– Clement Attlee on himself.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Clement Attlee Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 7th June 2009. Last updated 8 Jam 2020.
Attlee: A Life in Politics
Attlee: A Life in Politics at Amazon
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