Clement Attlee was the first British Labour Prime Minister to have an overall majority in the House of Commons. His two governments, from 1945 to 1951, saw the creation of the National Health Service and major strides forward in the creation of the welfare state.
His early life
Clement Richard Attlee was born on 3rd August 1883 in Putney, London, the seventh of eight children born to solicitor Henry Attlee and his wife Ellen. It is somewhat ironic that the future leader of Britain’s most left-wing government should have come from a prosperous middle-class family that offered no hint of deprivation, but that was indeed the case.
He was educated at Haileybury College and moved on to University College Oxford in 1901, leaving in 1904 with a second-class degree in history.
He had no firm conviction about a career, but entered a law firm and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1906. He had no real enthusiasm for the law, or indeed for anything else, and might have continued in this way had he not become involved with an East End boys’ club in October 1905.
This experience appealed to his latent militarism and he took a commission in the Territorial Army so that he could lead the boys in drilling and camping, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He was also brought into contact with people from a completely different social stratum and was thus introduced to the social and economic problems faced by huge numbers of Londoners.
The death of his father in 1908 meant that Attlee no longer felt himself to be under an obligation to pursue a legal career, and he gave up practice at the bar in 1909, turning instead to lecturing as a way of earning an income. In 1912 he was appointed to a post in the Social Services department of the London School of Economics.
A political career
He realised that the only way to make a real difference in improving the lives of deprived people was through politics and he therefore joined the Stepney branch of the Independent Labour Party. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 he had made a name for himself in left-wing politics.
Attlee had a distinguished and action-packed career in the Army during the War, rising to the rank of major and being wounded twice. Although he hated the war and the miseries it caused, it gave him some valuable leadership insights.
After the war Attlee was co-opted as mayor of Stepney in 1919, after which he continued as an alderman for a further five years. He was elected to the House of Commons, for the Limehouse constituency, in November 1922 and he was to hold this seat until February 1950.
Attlee became parliamentary private secretary to the Labour leader, Ramsay Macdonald, and subsequently Under-Secretary of State for War during the minority Labour government of January to November 1924.
He was appointed to the cross-party Simon Commission in 1927 that travelled to India to investigate how its constitution could be reformed. This work, which lasted until 1930, kept Attlee out of front-line Labour politics and ministerial office, to which he only returned in the spring of 1930 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
The general election of October 1931 was a disaster for Labour, whose MPs were reduced from 287 to 46. Many able MPs lost their seats, including the party leader Arthur Henderson, but Attlee clung on in Limehouse and found himself as virtual leader alongside George Lansbury and Stafford Cripps.
In opposition, Attlee set about “preaching the word” by advancing the cause of Socialism, his basic ideas being published in 1937 in his book “The Labour Party in Perspective”. At the heart of his philosophy was the need for widespread nationalization to keep the worst excesses of capitalism at bay and produce social justice.
Although George Lansbury was Labour’s official leader, he suffered from poor health and Attlee deputised for him in 1933-4. When Lansbury resigned in October 1935 Attlee was elected to replace him, his main rival being Herbert Morrison.
During the coalition government that ruled during most of World War II, Attlee served as Winston Churchill’s deputy (from 1942 to 1945) and held other important posts that supported the war effort by maintaining the civil side of things on the home front.
Attlee was never a charismatic figure, in obvious contrast to Churchill, and there were fears among senior Labour figures that his lacklustre performance in Parliament and the country would hand the post-war general election to the Conservatives on a plate.
However, to the surprise of many people, himself included, the Labour Party under Attlee swept to power in the July 1945 election with a majority of 147 seats. Doubtless this was helped by Churchill’s over-reliance on believing that a grateful nation would want him to lead the peace as well as the war. However, the mood in the country was for rebuilding and reform along socialist lines.
Attlee was greatly supported, during the war and afterwards, by Ernest Bevin, who provided the dynamism that Attlee lacked, but who appreciated the value of having an utterly trustworthy figure as the party’s leader. As Foreign Secretary in the new government, Bevin was able to promote Britain’s interests far more forcefully than Attlee could. As the latter famously said, “If you’ve got a good dog, you don’t bark yourself”.
Attlee’s government was beset throughout by the aftermath of the war in terms of austerity and rationing of basic items. The country was nearly bankrupt and dependent on loans and aid from the United States to keep going. Even so, financial pressures during this period led to the pound sterling having to be devalued in 1949.
Despite these pressures, Attlee was able to lead a hard-working and talented team of ministers to introduce major changes, not least the birth of the National Health Service, guaranteeing free medical care for all at the point of delivery, in 1948. This was coupled with a scheme for national insurance (the Act was passed in 1946) to ensure that everyone could obtain a flat-rate pension and benefits to cover sickness and unemployment, in exchange for modest regular payments deducted from income. These were the two pillars of Britain’s “cradle to grave” welfare state.
The Attlee government nationalized large areas of British industry, including the mines, railways, steel, electricity and gas. About 20% of the British economy was in public hands by 1951.
A massive house-building programme was introduced, and the reforms of the 1944 Education Act were enforced, with free secondary education becoming a right for all.
However, by 1950 all this work was taking its toll on the government and many of its leading figures suffered from poor health or felt that they could no longer continue in office. At the 1950 general election Labour’s majority was reduced to five, and Attlee’s second government was greatly hampered as a result.
Defeat and retirement
Following major resignations in April 1951, notably of Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, Attlee sought a fresh mandate in October 1951 but lost to the Conservatives, who would then stay in power until 1964.
Attlee continued as party leader in opposition, but a further Labour defeat in May 1955 led to him stepping down in December of that year. He accepted a peerage, as Earl Attlee, and moved to the House of Lords.
In his retirement he wrote articles and reviews, travelled extensively, and continued to support the Labour Party, by whom he was always highly respected. His wife Violet, who, despite not sharing his political views, had supported him tirelessly throughout his career, not least by acting as his driver during election campaigns, died suddenly in June 1964.
Lord Attlee died of pneumonia on 8th October 1967, at the age of 84, and his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey.
Winston Churchill is often misquoted as having said that Clement Attlee was a modest man who had much to be modest about. Only the first part of this statement is true, as Churchill had a huge amount of respect for his wartime deputy. He was certainly a quiet man who was uncertain in company and preferred the society of close friends to that of large gatherings.
What he did have in large measure, though, was a profound sense of self-belief, based on careful introspection. Everything he did was thought out in detail and, when he knew that his proposed actions were the right ones, he would proceed to see them through with quiet determination and complete trust in his judgment. He was once asked how he coped under such a heavy workload. His reply was:
“By not worrying. Clearing off every day's job before the end of the day. You take a decision and have done with it. No good keeping on asking yourself if you've done the right thing. It gets you nowhere.”
© John Welford