Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee, KG, OM, CH, PC (3 January 1883 – 8 October 1967) was a British politician, who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951, and leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955. He served as Deputy Prime Minister under Winston Churchill in the wartime coalition government, before leading the Labour Party to a landslide election victory over Churchill at the 1945 general election. He was the first Labour Prime Minister to serve a full Parliamentary term and the first to have a majority in Parliament.
The government he led put in place the post-war consensus, based upon the assumption that full employment would be maintained by Keynesian policies, and that a greatly enlarged system of social services would be created -- aspirations that had been outlined in the wartime Beveridge Report. Within this context, his government undertook the nationalisation of major industries and public utilities as well as the creation of the National Health Service. After initial Conservative opposition, this settlement was by and large accepted by all parties until Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in the 1970s.
His government also presided over the decolonisation of a large part of the British Empire, a process by which India and the countries that are now Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, and Israel obtained independence.
From 1906 to 1909, Attlee worked as manager of Haileybury House, a club for working class boys in Limehouse in the East End of London run by his old school. Prior to this, Attlee's political views had been conservative. However, he was shocked by the poverty and deprivation he saw while working with slum children, and this caused him to convert to socialism. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908, and became active in London local politics.
In 1909 he worked briefly as secretary for Beatrice Webb, and from 1909 to 1910 he worked as secretary for Toynbee Hall. In 1911 he took up a government job as an 'official explainer'; touring the country to explain David Lloyd George's National Insurance Act. He spent the summer of that year touring Essex and Somerset on a bicycle, explaining the Act to public meetings.
During World War I, Attlee was given the rank of captain and served with the South Lancashire Regiment in the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey. After a while of fighting in the heat, sand, and flies he became ill with dysentery and was sent to hospital in Malta to recover. This probably saved his life, as while he was in hospital he missed the Battle of Sari Bair in which many of his comrades were killed.
Attlee had gained a reputation among his superiors as being a competent leader. When he returned to the front, he was informed that his company had been chosen to hold the final lines when Gallipoli was evacuated. He was the last but one man to be evacuated from Suvla Bay (the last being General F.S. Maude).
The Gallipoli campaign had been masterminded by Winston Churchill. Attlee believed that it was a bold strategy, which could have been successful if it had been better implemented. This gave him an admiration of Churchill as a military strategist, which improved their working relationship in later years. He later served in the Mesopotamian Campaign in Iraq, where he was badly wounded at El Hannah after being hit in the leg by shrapnel from an exploding shell whilst taking enemy trenches. He was sent back to England to recover, and spent most of 1917 training soldiers. He was sent to France in June 1918 to serve on the Western Front for the last months of the war.
His decision to fight in the war caused a rift between him and his older brother Tom Attlee, who as a pacifist and a conscientious objector spent much of the war in prison. After the war, he returned to teaching at the London School of Economics until 1923.
Attlee met Violet Millar on a trip to Italy in 1921. Within a few weeks of their return they became engaged and were married at Christ Church, Hampstead on 10 January 1922. Theirs would be a devoted marriage until her death in 1964. Their four children were Lady Janet Helen (b. 1923), Lady Felicity Ann (1925-2007), Martin Richard (1927-1991) and Lady Alison Elizabeth (b. 1930).
In 1920, whilst he was mayor, he wrote his first book "The Social Worker" which set out many of the principles which underlay his political philosophy, and which underlay the actions of his government in latter years. The book attacked the idea that looking after the poor could be left to voluntary action. He wrote that:
'Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim'.He went on to write:
'In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways - they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice’.
His first taste of ministerial office came in 1924, when he served as Under-Secretary of State for War in the short-lived first Labour government, led by MacDonald.
Attlee opposed the 1926 General Strike, believing that strike action should not be used as a political weapon. However, when it happened he did not attempt to undermine it. At the time of the strike he was chairman of the Stepney Borough Electricity Committee. He negotiated a deal with the Electrical Trade Union that they would continue to supply power to hospitals, but would end supplies to factories. One firm, Scammell and Nephew Ltd took a civil action against Attlee and the other Labour members of the committee (although not against the Conservative members who had also supported this). The court found against Attlee and his fellow councillors and they were ordered to pay £300 damages. The decision was later reversed on appeal, but the financial problems caused by the episode almost forced Attlee from politics.
In 1927, he was appointed a member of the multi-party Simon Commission, a Royal Commission set up to examine the possibility of granting self-rule to India. As a result of the time he needed to devote to the commission, and contrary to a promise made to Attlee by MacDonald to induce him to serve on the commission, he was not initially offered a ministerial post in the Second Labour Government. Ironically, though, his unsought service on the Commission was to equip Attlee (who was later to have to decide the future of India as Prime Minister) with a thorough exposure to India and many of its political leaders.
In 1930, Labour MP Oswald Mosley left the party after its rejection of his proposals for solving the unemployment problem. Attlee was given Mosley's post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He was Postmaster General at the time of the 1931 crisis, during which most of the party's leaders lost their seats. During the course of the second Labour government, Attlee had become increasingly disillusioned by Ramsay MacDonald who he came to regard as vain and incompetent, and later wrote scathingly of him in his autobiography.
Attlee served as acting leader for nine months from December 1933, after Lansbury fractured his thigh in an accident. This raised his public profile. During this period, financial problems again almost forced Attlee to quit politics, as his wife was ill, and there was then no separate salary for Leader of the Opposition. He was persuaded to stay on however by Stafford Cripps, a wealthy socialist who agreed to pay him an additional salary.
George Lansbury, a convinced pacifist, resigned as leader at the 1935 Labour Party conference, after the party voted in favour of sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia, a policy which Lansbury fundamentally disagreed with. With a general election looming, the Parliamentary Labour Party then appointed Attlee as interim leader, on the understanding that a leadership election would be held after the general election.
Attlee led Labour through the 1935 general election, which saw the party stage a partial recovery from its disastrous performance in 1931, gaining over one hundred seats. In the post-election leadership contest held in November 1935, Attlee was opposed by Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Morrison was seen as the favourite by many, but was distrusted by many sections of the party, especially the left. Arthur Greenwood's leadership bid was hampered by his alcohol problem. Attlee came first in both the first and second ballots, and subsequently retained the leadership, a post which he would retain until 1955 .
Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the Labour Party's official policy, supported by Attlee, was to oppose rearmament, and support collective security under the League of Nations. However, with the rising threat from Nazi Germany, and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, this policy lost credibility. By 1937, Labour had jettisoned its pacifist position and came to support rearmament, and oppose Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement..
In 1937 Attlee visited Spain and visited the British Battalion of the International Brigades fighting in the Spanish Civil War. One of the companies was named the 'Major Attlee Company' in his honour.
Attlee remained opposition leader when war broke out in September 1939. The disastrous Norwegian campaign resulted in a motion of no confidence in the government. Although Chamberlain survived this, the reputation of his administration was so badly damaged that it was clear that a coalition government was necessary. The crisis coincided with the Labour Party Conference. Even if Attlee had been prepared to serve under Chamberlain (in a "national emergency government"), he would not have been able to carry the party with him. Consequently, Chamberlain tendered his resignation, and Labour and the Liberals entered a coalition government led by Winston Churchill.
In the World War II coalition government, three interconnected committees ran the war. Churchill chaired the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee. Attlee was his regular deputy in these committees, and answered for the government in parliament when Churchill was absent. Attlee chaired the third body, the Lord President's Committee, which ran the civil side of the war. As Churchill was most concerned with executing the war, the arrangement suited both men.
Only he and Churchill remained in the war cabinet from the formation of the Government of National Unity to the 1945 election. Attlee was Lord Privy Seal (1940–1942), Deputy Prime Minister (1942–1945), Dominions Secretary (1942–1943), and Lord President of the Council (1943–1945). Attlee supported Churchill in his continuation of Britain's resistance after the French capitulation in 1940, and proved a loyal ally to Churchill throughout the conflict.
Following the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Attlee and Churchill wanted the coalition government to last until Japan had been defeated. However, Herbert Morrison argued that the party would not accept this, and the Labour National Executive Committee agreed with him. Churchill responded by resigning as coalition Prime Minister and decided to call an election at once.
The war set in motion profound social changes within Britain, and led to a popular desire for social reform. This mood was epitomised in the Beveridge Report. The report assumed that the maintenance of full employment would be the aim of postwar governments, and that this would provide the basis for the welfare state. All major parties were committed to this aim, but perhaps Attlee and Labour were seen by the electorate as the best candidates to follow it through.
Labour campaigned on the theme of \" Let Us Face the Future\" and positioned themselves as the party best placed to rebuild Britain after the war. Whilst the Conservatives campaign centred around Churchill. With the hero status of Churchill, few expected a Labour victory. However Churchill made some errors during the campaign: His suggestion during a radio broadcast, that a Labour government would require \"some form of gestapo\" to implement their socialist policies, was widely seen as being in bad taste, and backfired.
The result of the election when they were announced on 26 July, came as a surprise to almost everyone, including Attlee: Labour had been swept to power on a landslide, winning just under 50% of the vote, to the Conservatives 36%. Labour won 393 seats, giving them a majority of 146.
The story goes that when Attlee visited King George VI at Buckingham Palace to kiss hands, the notoriously laconic Attlee and the notoriously tongue-tied George VI stood for some minutes in silence, before Attlee finally volunteered the remark \"I've won the election.\" The King replied \"I know. I heard it on the Six O'Clock News.
Now Prime Minister, Attlee appointed Ernest Bevin as Foriegn Secretary; Hugh Dalton was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer (it had widely been expected to be the other way around). Stafford Cripps became President of the Board of Trade, while Herbert Morrison was given the post of Deputy Prime Minister and given overall control of Labour's nationalisation programme. Aneurin Bevan became Minister of Health, whilst Ellen Wilkinson; the only woman to serve in Attlee's government became Minister of Education.
The government set about implementing William Beveridge's plans for the creation of a 'cradle to grave' welfare state, and set in place an entirely new system of social security. Among the most important pieces of legislation was the National Insurance Act 1946, in which, people in work paid a flat rate of national insurance. In return, they (and the wives of male contributers) were eligible for flat-rate pensions, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, and funeral benefit. Various other pieces of legislation provided for child benefit and support for people with no other source of income.
The abrupt ending of the American Lend-Lease program in August 1945 almost caused a crisis. This was mitigated by the Anglo-American loan negotiated in December 1945 by John Maynard Keynes, which provided some respite. The conditions attached to the loan included making the pound fully convertible to the dollar. When this was introduced in July 1947, it led to a currency crisis and convertibility had to be suspended after just five weeks. Britain benefited from the American Marshall Aid program from 1948, and the economic situation improved significantly. However another balance of payments crisis in 1949 forced Chancellor of the Exchequer Stafford Cripps into devaluation of the pound.
Despite these problems. One of the main achievements of Attlee's government was the maintenance of near full employment. The government maintained most of the wartime controls over the economy, including control over the allocation of materials and manpower, and unemployment rarely rose above 500,000, or 3% of the total workforce. In fact labour shortages proved to be more of a problem. One area where the government was not quite as successful was in housing, which was also the responsibility of Bevan. The government had a target to build 400,000 new houses a year to replace those which had been destroyed in the war, but shortages of materials and manpower meant that less than half this number was built.
Relations with the Royal Family, on the other hand, were also strained. A letter from Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother), dated 17 May 1947, showed \"her decided lack of enthusiasm for the socialist government\" and describes the British electorate as \"poor people, so many half-educated and bemused\" for electing Attlee over Winston Churchill, whom she saw as a war hero. That said, according to Lord Wyatt, this was to be expected as the Queen Mother was \"the most right-wing member of the Royal Family.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Government faced the challenge of managing relations with Britain's former war-time ally, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Attlee's Foreign Secretary, the former trade union leader Ernest Bevin, was passionately anti-communist, based largely on his experience of fighting communist influence in the trades union movement. Bevin's initial approach to the USSR as Foreign Secretary has been described by historian Kenneth O. Morgan as \"wary and suspicious, but not automatically hostile\".
In a crucial contribution to the economic stability of post-War Europe, Attlee's cabinet was instrumental in promoting the American Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe.
In an early \"good-will\" gesture that has been criticised more recently, the Attlee government allowed the Soviets access, under the terms of a 1946 UK-USSR Trade Agreement, to several Rolls-Royce Nene jet engines. The Soviets, who at the time were well behind the West in jet technology, reverse-engineered the Nene, and installed their own version in the MiG-15 interceptor, used to good effect against US-UK forces in the subsequent Korean War, as well as in several later MiG models.
After Stalin took political control of most of Eastern Europe and began to subvert other governments in the Balkans, Attlee's and Bevin's worst fears of Soviet intentions were borne out. The Attlee government then became instrumental in the creation of the successful NATO defence alliance to protect Western Europe against any Soviet aggression. Attlee also shepherded Britain's successful development of a nuclear weapon, although the first successful test did not occur until 1952, after he left office.
His government's policies with regard to the other colonies, however, particularly those in Africa, were very different. A major military base was built in Kenya, and the African colonies came under an unprecedented degree of direct control from London, as development schemes were implemented with a view to helping solve Britain's desperate post-war balance of payments crisis, and (perhaps secondarily) raising African living standards. This 'new colonialism' was, however, generally a failure: in some cases, such as a then-infamous Tanganyika groundnut scheme, spectacularly so.
The Labour Party was returned to power in the general election of 1950, albeit with a much reduced majority in the first past the post voting system; it was at this time that a degree of Conservative opposition recovered at the expense of the dying Liberal Party.
By 1951, the Attlee government was looking increasingly exhausted, with several of its most important ministers having died or ailing. The party split in 1951 over the austerity budget brought in by Hugh Gaitskell to pay for the cost of Britain's participation in the Korean War: Aneurin Bevan, architect of the National Health Service (NHS), resigned to protest against the new charges for \"teeth and spectacles\" introduced by the budget, and was joined in this action by the later prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Labour lost the general election of 1951 to Churchill's renewed Conservatives, despite polling more votes than in the 1945 election and indeed more votes nationwide than the Conservative Party.
Following the defeat in 1951, Attlee continued to lead the party in opposition. His last four years as leader are widely seen as one of the Labour Party's weaker periods. The party became split between its right wing led by Hugh Gaitskell and its left led by Aneurin Bevan. One of his main reasons for staying on as leader was to frustrate the leadership ambitions of Herbert Morrison, whom Attlee disliked for political and personal reasons. Attlee had reportedly at one time favoured Bevan to succeed him as leader, but this became problematic after the latter split the party.
Attlee, now aged 72, contested the 1955 general election against Anthony Eden, which saw the Conservative majority increase. He retired as leader on 7 December 1955, having led the party for over twenty years, and was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell.
He retired from the Commons and was elevated to the peerage to take his seat in the House of Lords as Earl Attlee and Viscount Prestwood on 16 December 1955. He attended Churchill's funeral in January 1965 - elderly and frail by then, he had to remain seated in the freezing cold as the coffin was carried, having tired himself out by standing at the rehearsal the previous day.
He lived to see Labour return to power under Harold Wilson in 1964, but also to see his old constituency of Walthamstow West fall to the Conservatives in a by-election in September 1967. Clement Attlee died of pneumonia at the age of 84 at Westminster Hospital on 8 October 1967.
On his death, the title passed to his son Martin Richard Attlee, 2nd Earl Attlee (1927 - 1991). It is now held by Clement Attlee's grandson John Richard Attlee, 3rd Earl Attlee. The third earl (a member of the Conservative Party) retained his seat in the Lords as one of the hereditary peers to remain under an amendment to Labour's 1999 House of Lords Act.
When Attlee died, his estate was sworn for probate purposes at a value of £7,295, a relatively modest sum for so prominent a figure.
His leadership style of consensual government, acting as a chairman rather than a president, won him much praise from historians and politicians alike. Even Thatcherites confess to admiring him. Christopher Soames, a Cabinet Minister under Thatcher, remarked that "Mrs Thatcher was not really running a team. Every time you have a Prime Minister who wants to make all the decisions, it mainly leads to bad results. Attlee didn't. That's why he was so damn good. Even Thatcher herself wrote in her 1995 memoirs, which charted her beginnings in Grantham to her victory in the 1979 General Election, that she admired Attlee saying: "Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show".
His administration presided over the successful transition from a wartime economy to peacetime, tackling problems of demobilisation, shortages of foreign currency, and adverse deficits in trade balances and government expenditure. Another change he brought about in domestic politics was the establishment of the National Health Service and post-war Welfare State.
In foreign affairs, he did much to assist with the post-war economic recovery of Europe, though this did not lead to a realisation that this was where Britain's future might lie. He proved a loyal ally of America at the onset of the cold war. Because of his style of leadership it was not he but Ernest Bevin who masterminded foreign policy.
It was Attlee's government that decided Britain should have an independent atomic weapons programme, and work began on it in 1947. Bevin, Attlee's Foreign Secretary, famously stated that "We've got to have it and it's got to have a bloody Union Jack on it." However, the first operational British A Bomb was not detonated until October 1952, about one year after Attlee had left office.
Though a socialist, Attlee still believed in the British Empire of his youth, an institution that, on the whole, he thought was a power for good in the world. Nevertheless, he saw that a large part of it needed to be self-governing. Using the Dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as a model, he began the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth.
His greatest achievement, surpassing many of these, was, perhaps, the establishment of a political and economic consensus about the governance of Britain that all parties subscribed to for three decades, fixing the arena of political discourse until the later 1970s.
Clement Attlee published his memoirs, As it Happened, in 1954.
Francis Williams' A Prime Minister Remembers, based on interviews with Attlee, was published in 1961.
Attlee's other publications include:
The Social Worker (1920); The Town Councillor (1925); The Will and the Way to Socialism (1935); The Labour Party in Perspective (1937); Collective Security Under the United Nations (1958); Empire into Commonwealth (1961). Biographies include:
Biographies of Attlee and of his Cabinet can be found in:
The entry on Attlee in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) was prepared by Maurice Shock, who as a Fellow of University College, Oxford (Attlee's alma mater), came to know Attlee personally in his later years.
Accounts of the period include:
Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour in Power 1945-51, Oxford University Press, 1984;
Greg Rosen, Old Labour to New, Politicos Publishing, 2005.
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