The Prime Ministers: Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee, Prime Minister 1945-1951

Clement Attlee was born on January 3rd, 1883, to a middle class family. He was educated as a lawyer, and worked as a manager for a charity from 1906-1909. In that job, he witnessed the desperate poverty of the poor of London, and came to believe that only heavy state intervention could alleviate the situation. He joined the Labour party as a result in 1908. In the First World War, he served as an officer in the South Lancashire Division in Gallipoli, where he was the penultimate man back aboard the boats in the evacuation. Attlee later served in the Mesopotamian Campaign, where he was badly wounded, and sent back to Britain. He returned to the Western Front for the last few months of the war, and when it ended, became a local politician in London, eventually standing for Parliament for the first time as member for Limehouse in 1922. Spending most of the 1920s as a low-level Labour MP, he was finally appointed to a ministerial position in 1930, when Oswald Mosley left the Party and the Government, leaving the post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster open. He politically survived the crisis of 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald split the party, but became a strong opponent of the leader.


As most of the leaders of the Labour Party had been unseated in 1931, Attlee was one of the few left who had governmental experience; he was accordingly awarded the position of deputy leader of the Labour Party. George Lansbury, the full leader resigned in 1935 over the decision to impose sanctions on Italy over its invasion of Abyssinia, leaving Attlee at the head of the party. Labour policy during the period of opposition was of opposition to re-armament. Labour’s view was that the age of arms races had to end, and that if the world wished to avoid more bloodshed, it had to embrace disarmament, collective security, and the League of Nations. In addition, military spending took away from the budgets of the social programmes which Labour supported so strongly. However, by 1937, German aggression had made it clear that this position was not credible, and so Attlee and Labour did a U-turn, supporting re-armament and denouncing the Munich Agreement.

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When war came in 1939, Attlee remained Leader of the Opposition to the Chamberlain Ministry. When it fell following the Norway Campaign, and Churchill took the helm of a coalition government, he effectively became Churchill’s right-hand man, serving as his deputy in the War Cabinet and Defence Committee, and heading the Lord President’s Committee himself. He was also Britain’s first ever Deputy Prime Minister, and Dominions Secretary, Lord President of the Council and Lord Privy Seal. Attlee served the government loyally until 1945, when the war came to an end. Although both Churchill and Attlee made it clear that they would prefer to remain in the coalition until the defeat of Japan, the Labour rank-and-file made it equally clear that this was not acceptable. Churchill resigned, and an election was called, which he lost badly. The 1942 Beveridge Report had awoken in the people a desire for comprehensive social reform, and Attlee and Labour were seen as the men to do it.

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The Attlee Ministry became one of the most active, reforming administrations in British history. In Domestic Policy, it presided over the creation of the Post-War Consensus, a political base adhered to by both parties until Thatcher which held that Keynesian policies, Socialism and strong labour unions could provide full employment and prosperity for all. In keeping with this, Attlee, established the NHS (Britain’s system of public healthcare), the so-called “cradle to grave” welfare state which included increases in pensions, welfare payments, and various other benefits, public housing reform, hugely strengthening the power of the Unions, and nationalisation of several industries, from railways, steel and coal to telecommunications, the Bank of England, and electricity. This effort to fight poverty was massively successful; poverty had been drastically reduced in only 5 years by the time of the 1950 election. In foreign policy, Attlee strongly supported alignment with the United States and NATO, against the Soviet Union. After meeting Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, he was fairly mild with the USSR, until suddenly reversing position in 1947 to come closer to the views of his military establishment. Attlee’s Ministry helped promote the Marshall Plan to the states of Europe and began work on nuclear weapons, although the first successful test would not be completed until 1952; it also began the process of decolonisation, awarding independence to India, Burma, Ceylon, and the Mandate of Palestine.


When the election of 1950 came, Labour was returned with a majority of only 5 seats, preventing further strong measures which would have caused back-bench revolt. Attlee, dissatisfied with the situation, called a snap election in 1951, which backfired, victory instead going to the Conservative Party. His second time as Leader of the Opposition were uneventful and largely unsuccessful, and he was elevated to the Lords as the Earl Attlee in 1955. He died at age 84 of pneumonia in London on October 8th, 1967.

Attlee stands almost peerless in terms of simply the number of things he managed to do in office; in a mere 6 years, he passed a torrent of reforming legislation, totally transformed British political culture, and created a modern welfare state almost from scratch; although many of his measures were undone by Thatcher, many, such as the NHS, still exist. His wartime service was also exemplary, as he effectively managed the domestic affairs of the nations while Churchill was busy being a war leader. His position as second to Churchill within the War Cabinet parallels that of his standing among Prime Ministers of the 20th century in general.



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