Clement Attlee

Summary

Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee, born January 3, 1883 in London and died October 8, 1967 in the same city, was a British statesman, leader of the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955 and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951.

He was also the country”s first Deputy Prime Minister, serving in Winston Churchill”s wartime coalition government from 1940 to 1945, before leading his party to electoral victory at the end of the war. He was the first Labour Prime Minister to serve an entire Parliament, the first Labour Prime Minister to lead a Labour parliamentary majority, and the first Labour Prime Minister to lead the Labour Party for so long.

The government he led implemented the post-war consensus, based on the assumption that full employment would be maintained through Keynesian economic policy and that a social security system would be created – aspirations summarized in the Beveridge Report released in November 1942.

In the same context, his government undertook the nationalization of service providers – such as the National Health Service – and industries vital to the country”s economy. After initial opposition to Keynesian fiscal policy from the Conservative Party, this agreement was broadly respected by all parties for 30 years until Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979.

His government also promoted the decolonization of much of the British Empire by granting independence to India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Jordan. The British mandate in Palestine ended with the creation of the State of Israel on the day of the British withdrawal.

He has been particularly well regarded by political historiography, being considered by a Leeds University poll as “the best British Prime Minister” of the 20th century after 1945.

Attlee was born in Putney, London, and was the seventh of eight children. His father was the solicitor Henry Attlee (1841-1908), his mother was Ellen Bravery Watson (1847-1920). He first attended Northaw School, an elementary school for boys near Pluckley in Kent. He then studied at Haileybury College and University College Oxford, where he graduated in 1904 with honors in Modern History. At the same time, Attlee played for the Fleet Town F.C. soccer team. Attlee then practiced law and was sworn in as a barrister in 1906.

From 1906 to 1909, Attlee worked as manager of Haileybury House, a charity for working-class boys established in Stepney in London”s East End at the initiative of his former school. At first, his political beliefs were conservative. However, he was struck by the poverty and deprivation of disadvantaged children. He concluded that private charity would not be sufficient to eliminate poverty, but that only the redistribution of wealth at the level and with the intervention of the state would be an effective measure. This required a whole process of political maturation. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908 and became an active London member.

In 1909, he was for a short time secretary to Beatrice Webb. From 1909 to 1910, he worked as a secretary at Toynbee Hall. In 1911 he got a government job as “official commentator”, traveling the country to publicize David Lloyd George”s National Insurance Act. Throughout the summer of 1911, he cycled through Essex and Somerset explaining the scope of the Act to the public at public rallies.

Attlee became a teacher at the London School of Economics in 1912, but soon applied for officer training in the army after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.

During World War I, Attlee was commissioned as a captain in the British Army and fought with the South Lancashire Regiment in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. After fighting for some time, he contracted dysentery and was sent to a hospital in Malta to convalesce. While he was in hospital, many of his fellow soldiers were killed at the Battle of Sari Bair. Later, when he returned to the front, he was informed that his company would be the last to hold Gallipoli during the evacuation. He was the second last man to leave Suvla Bay, the last being General Frederick Stanley Maude.

Later, he took part in the Mesopotamia campaign in Iraq where, at the battle of El Hannah, he was severely wounded in the lower limbs by shrapnel while assaulting an enemy trench. He was sent to England for revalidation where he devoted himself to the training of the soldiers of the class of 1917. He was promoted to the rank of major. He became known as “Major Attlee” during the interwar period, after being sent to the Western Front in France in June 1918, the last months of the First World War.

The disastrous Gallipoli campaign had been conceived by Winston Churchill. Attlee thought it was a bold strategy that might have succeeded if it had been better implemented. He had a certain admiration for Churchill as a military strategist, which seriously improved their relationship in the following years.

His decision to fight in the war caused a rift between him and his older brother Tom Attlee, who spent much of the war imprisoned as a pacifist and conscientious objector.

After the war, he taught at the London School of Economics until 1923.

Attlee met Violet Millar on a trip to Italy in 1921. Engaged a few weeks after their return, they were married at Christ Church in Hampstead on January 10, 1922. They formed a solid couple until death separated them in 1964. They had four children:

Local politics

Attlee returned to local politics in the immediate post-war period, becoming mayor of the former London borough of Stepney in 1919, one of the poorest areas in Greater London. During his tenure, the council took action against landlords who collected slum rents and refused to spend money on decent housing for their tenants. The city issued bylaws requiring landlords to rehabilitate their properties. He sent paramedics and sanitary inspectors to them, thus reducing the infant mortality rate.

During his tenure in 1920, he wrote his first book, The Social Worker, which set out many of the principles expressed in his political convictions and outlined the program of his government a few years later. The book promotes the idea that caring for the poor should not be a private initiative. He wrote, “Charity is a cold, grey thing, devoid of love. If the rich man wishes to help the poor, he must be glad to pay taxes and not distribute his money piecemeal at his whim.”

He also writes: “In a civilized Society, though it may be composed of interdependent individuals, there will always be a few who are unable to cope at certain times in their lives, and their plight may have three outcomes: either they are left to their own devices, or they may be entitled to protection within the framework of an organization of the Society, or they are left to the goodwill of individuals in the Society. The first solution is intolerable, while the third is only possible, without loss of dignity, between equal individuals. A right created by a law, such as an old-age pension, is less humiliating than an allowance granted by a rich man to a poor man, depending on his opinion of the poor man”s merit and left to his own discretion.

He strongly supported the Poplar rates protest led by George Lansbury in 1921. This put him at odds with many leaders of the London section of the Labour Party, including Herbert Morrison.

Member of the House of Commons

In the 1922 general election, Attlee was elected to the House of Commons for the Limehouse constituency in the Stepney district. By this time he was an ardent admirer of Ramsay MacDonald and helped him in his run for the presidency of the Labour Party in the 1922 election: a decision he later regretted. He was engaged as Parliamentary Secretary to Ramsay MacDonald for a brief period. He got a taste of ministerial office in 1924, when he became Under-Secretary of State for War during the short MacDonald government, which was also the first Labour government.

Attlee was opposed to the general strike of 1926, believing that the strike should not be used as a political weapon. Nevertheless, when it broke out, he did not try to sabotage it. At the time of the strike he was chairman of the Stepney District Electricity Supply Committee. He made an agreement with the electrical workers” union that they would not interrupt the supply of electricity to the hospitals while they stopped supplying the factories. A firm, Scammell and Nephew Ltd., took legal action against Attlee and the other Labour members of the committee (but not against the Conservative members who had also signed the agreement). The court indicted Attlee and his fellow advisers and they were ordered to pay £300 in damages. This conviction was later overturned on appeal, but the financial problems created by this setback almost put Attlee out of politics.

In 1927, he joined the seven-member, cross-party Simon Commission, the Royal Commission charged with examining the possibility of self-determination for India. Because of the time required to serve on the Commission and contrary to MacDonald”s promise, he was not offered a cabinet position at the beginning of the second Labour government. His unsolicited participation in the work of the Commission gave him a deep knowledge of India and many of its political figures, which he later used as Prime Minister to lead India to self-determination.

In 1930, Oswald Mosley left the Labour Party after his protectionist measures to solve British underemployment were rejected. Attlee inherited the office of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, vacated by Oswald Mosley. He was Postmaster General of the United Kingdom at the time of the 1931 crisis, during which most of the heads of the Labour party lost their seats. During the second Labour government, Attlee became increasingly disillusioned with Ramsay MacDonald, whom he came to regard as vain and incompetent, later writing vitriolic remarks about him in his autobiography.

Vice President of the Labour Party

After the fall of the second Labour government in 1931, a new election was held, which was a disaster for the Labour Party, losing over 200 seats. Most of the old party figures lost their seats, including party leader Arthur Henderson. George Lansbury and Attlee were among the few Labour survivors from the defunct government. As a result, Lansbury became party president and Attlee vice-president.

Attlee served as president in office for nine months from December 1933, after Lansbury accidentally broke his femur. In this capacity, his public profile rose. During this period, Attlee”s financial problems prompted him to give up politics, as his wife was ill and he was not receiving a salary supplement as leader of the opposition. He was persuaded to stay on by Stafford Cripps, a wealthy socialist who agreed to pay him a salary supplement.

Leader of the Opposition

George Lansbury, a staunch pacifist, resigned as chairman of the Labour Party convention in 1935 after the party voted to impose sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Abyssinia. Lansbury vigorously opposed this repressive attitude. With a general election looming, the Labour Party appointed Attlee as interim president, on condition that a presidential election be held after the general election.

Attlee led the Labour Party in the 1935 general election, which saw the party partially recover over one hundred seats from the disastrous results of 1931. In November 1935, in the race for the Labour Party presidency after the general election, Attlee ran against Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Morrison was favoured by many members, but was viewed with suspicion by many sections, especially on the left. Arthur Greenwood”s bid for the presidency was hampered by his drinking problems. Attlee won both elections and subsequently retained the presidency, a position he held until 1955.

Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the Labour Party”s policy line, as espoused by Attlee, was to oppose rearmament and to encourage internationalism and collective security under the League of Nations. At the 1934 Labour Party Congress in Southport, Attlee declared that “we have quite abandoned any idea of loyalty to the nation. We have deliberately preferred a world order to loyalty to our own country. We say that we wish to see written into the constitution something which will make our people citizens of the world rather than citizens of this country. A year later, during a debate on defense, Attlee said, “It says in the White Paper that there is a danger against which we must guard. We don”t think you can guard against it by our national defense alone. We believe that you can only do so by moving towards a new world, a world of law, the abolition of national armaments, with a world armed force and a world economic order. I will be told that this is impossible.

On May 21, 1935, Adolf Hitler gave a speech in which he proclaimed that German rearmament was not a threat to world peace. The next day, Attlee responded in a debate on the assessment that Hitler”s speech contained unfavourable references to the Soviet Union, but that “we see here the opportunity for an invitation to stop the arms race… We do not think that our answer to Herr Hitler should be only rearmament. We are living in a period of rearmament, but as for us, we cannot accept this attitude”.

In April 1936, Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain presented a budget that increased the amount allocated to the armed forces. Attlee appeared on a radio program to oppose it, stating that the budget “was not a natural expression of the color of the present government. There was only a small increase allocated to life-enhancing services, education and health. Everything was devoted to promoting the instruments of death. The Chancellor bitterly regretted having to spend so much on armaments, but said it was absolutely necessary and due to the attitude of other nations. To hear him speak, one would think that the government was not responsible for world affairs… The government has now decided to enter the arms race, and the people will have to pay for their mistake of thinking that a policy of peace could be trusted… This is a war budget. We will not see any progress in social legislation in the future. All available resources must be spent on armaments.”

However, with the emergence of the threat of Nazi Germany and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, pacifism lost its credibility. By 1937, the Labour Party abandoned its pacifist attitude and came to promote rearmament, going against the policy of concessions to Hitler. In 1938, Attlee expressed his opposition to the Munich Agreement, which gave Germany the German-speaking territories of the Sudetenland: “We have all felt relief at the removal of the threat of war. Each of us has lived in anxiety for a few days; we cannot consider peace as final, but we have nothing but a truce during the war. We have not been able to lock ourselves into carefree rejoicing. We felt as if we were floating in the midst of tragedy. We were humiliated by it. This was not a victory of common sense and humanism. This was a victory of brute force… The articles of the agreements were not negotiated; they were articles conceded after an ultimatum. Today we have seen a brave, civilized and democratic people betrayed and abandoned in the face of ruthless despotism. And even more serious. We have seen the defeat of the democratic ideal, which we believe is the foundation of civilization and humanism… The events of the last few days are one of the greatest diplomatic defeats ever inflicted on our country and on France. There is no doubt that this is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler. Without firing a single shot, by the mere deployment of his military power, he has acquired a dominant position in Europe which Germany has not been able to achieve after four years of war. He has reversed the balance of power in Europe. He has destroyed the last bastion of democracy blocking his ambitions in Eastern Europe. It has opened up access to the food, oil and resources it needs to consolidate its military power, and it has successfully defeated and reduced to impotence the forces that could still cope with the reign of violence.

In 1937, Attlee visited the Spanish Republic and met British volunteers of the International Brigades. In his honor, a Major Attlee Company was named.

In April 1939, Attlee opposed the government”s introduction of conscription.

Attlee remained leader of the opposition when war broke out in September 1939. The disastrous Norway campaign resulted from the Norway debate and the motion of no confidence in the government. Although Chamberlain survived this setback, his government”s reputation was so compromised that he was forced to form a coalition government. The crisis coincided with the Labour Party Convention. Although Attlee was willing to join Chamberlain”s government (a crisis government), he would not have been able to hold both offices simultaneously. Consequently, Chamberlain resigned and the Labour and Conservative parties formed a coalition government led by Winston Churchill.

In the coalition government of World War II, three committees conducted the war. Churchill chaired the War Cabinet and the National Defence Committee. Attlee was his usual deputy on this Committee and spoke in the House of Commons in Churchill”s absence. Attlee chaired the third committee – the Lord President”s Committee – which directed the civilian side of the war. Since Churchill was more attracted to the military side, this distribution of roles suited both Churchill and Attlee.

Only he and Churchill remained in the War Cabinet from the formation of the Union Government until the 1945 election. Attlee was Lord Privy Seal from 1941 to 1942, Deputy Prime Minister from 1942 to 1945, Secretary of State for the Dominions from 1942 to 1943 and Lord President of the Council from 1943 to 1945. Attlee supported Churchill in the continuation of the British resistance after the surrender of France in 1940 and proved his loyalty to Churchill during the conflict; when the war cabinet asked the question of negotiating peace agreements, Attlee (as well as his Labour colleague Arthur Greenwood) voted in favour of continuing the armed struggle, thus giving Churchill the majority required to continue the war.

1945 General Elections

After the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Attlee and Churchill wanted to maintain the coalition government until the Japanese defeat. However, Herbert Morrison claimed that the party would not accept this, and the Labour party”s national office agreed. Churchill retaliated by resigning as Prime Minister on May 23. However, Churchill agreed to form a transitional government without Labour, while securing the dissolution of the House of Commons and a general election to follow.

The war had brought about a wave of change in England and led to a desire for social reform. This desire was expressed in the Beveridge Report. This report claimed that the maintenance of full employment would be the goal of post-war governments and the basis of the welfare state. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the report were sold immediately after its release. All the major parties were committed to the reforms, but Attlee and the Labour Party were seen as the best candidates to carry them through.

Labour campaigned on the theme of “facing the future” and presented itself as the party best able to rebuild Britain after the war, while the Conservative Party campaign focused on Churchill. With Churchill”s hero status, few expected Labour to win. But Churchill made some mistakes during his campaign. Among them was the suggestion on a radio broadcast that a Labour government would need “some form of Gestapo” to implement its socialist policies: this was seen as a tasteless statement that backfired.

As Prime Minister, Attlee appointed Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary and Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer (although he had very much hoped for something else). Stafford Cripps became President of the Board of Trade, Herbert Morrison became Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the strict implementation of Labour”s nationalization program, Aneurin Bevan became Minister of Health and Ellen Wilkinson, the only woman in Attlee”s government, became Secretary of State for Education.

Attlee”s government presented itself as a radical reformist administration. In the 1945-46 parliamentary session alone, pensions and other incomes were increased substantially, and between 1945 and 1948 more than 200 laws were passed by parliament, with eight major bills moving from the drafting stage to implementation in 1946.

Domestic Policy

In domestic politics, the Labour Party had clearly defined goals. The first health secretary, Aneurin Bevan, fought against the general disapproval of the medical establishment by creating the British National Health Service, a public health care system offering free care. The NHS provided nearly 8,500,000 dental treatments and 5,000,000 pairs of spectacles in its first year of operation. Doctors benefited from the new system, receiving a salary that gave them a decent standard of living without having to go into private practice. The NHS greatly improved the health of the working class, significantly reducing the number of deaths from diphtheria, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Despite frequent controversies about its organization and funding, to this day British parties must express their support for the NHS if they are to remain eligible.

In health care, funds were allocated to modernization and plans to improve administrative efficiency. Improvements were made to the health care infrastructure to recruit more nurses and reduce the shortage of workers that was causing 60,000 beds to be taken out of service, and efforts were made to reduce the imbalance “between the surplus of fever and tuberculosis beds and the shortage of beds in maternity hospitals. In addition, BCG vaccinations were introduced to protect medical students, midwives and nurses from contact with patients carrying the tuberculosis bacillus, while at the same time a pension scheme was introduced for the newly created NHS employees. Smaller reforms were also introduced, some of them for the benefit of certain sections of British society, the mentally handicapped, the blind…

The government launched the implementation of the Beveridge Doctrine through the creation of a “cradle-to-grave” welfare state, and established an entirely new system of social security. Among the most important elements of the legislation was the National Insurance Act of 1946, under which working people paid a single national insurance rate. In return, contributors (male or female) were eligible for a single amount of pension, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, and funeral benefit. Various other pieces of legislation added child allowance and assistance to people with no other source of income. The New Towns Act of 1946 established corporations to build new towns, while the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 gave county councils responsibility for preparing projects for implementation and gave powers of expropriation. Attlee”s government also extended the powers of local authorities to requisition houses or parts of them and facilitated the acquisition of land. In 1949, local authorities were authorized to provide people in poor health with subsidized public housing. Income from unemployment and sickness or maternity benefits was zero-rated in 1949.

Strict rules were laid down to control land use, and guidance manuals were published, emphasizing the paramount concern of safeguarding farmland. A series of regional offices was set up with its planning ministry to promote a rigid course of action in the development of regional policies.

A series of subsidies introduced in 1948 strengthened the social services provided by the local authorities. Personal social services and welfare services were expanded in 1948, both for individuals and families, with particular emphasis on the mentally retarded, disadvantaged children, the elderly and the disabled. The Attlee government also significantly increased pensions and other replacement incomes, making pensions more than ever a lifetime income.

A major building programme was launched to provide people with healthy homes. A 1946 housing memorandum increased Treasury grants for house building in England and Wales at the initiative of local authorities. Four out of every five houses built under the Labour government were council properties built to a higher specification than before the Second World War, and the subsidies kept social rents low. All of these measures resulted in the development of social housing to an unprecedented level, with low-income earners being the primary beneficiaries. However, the Attlee government was unable to achieve all of its objectives due to economic constraints. More than a million new dwellings were built between 1945 and 1951 (a remarkable achievement in such circumstances), which for the first time provided many low-income families with decent housing at a reasonable cost.

The extension of welfare benefits created by the Attlee government greatly reduced social inequalities. The influence of government reforms in the areas of health and welfare was such that health indicators improved (see statistics provided by school health and dental care providers and health officers), with steady improvements in child survival rates and increased adult longevity. Such was the reduction in poverty following the Attlee government”s social legislation that, according to Kevin Jefferys, in the 1950 election “Labour propaganda could claim that social legislation had wiped out the abject poverty of the 1930s.

A number of reforms were introduced to improve conditions for women and children. In 1946, the General Family Allowance provided financial assistance to households with children. These benefits had been planned the previous year by the Family Allowances Act 1945 and was the first bill presented to Parliament by the Attlee government. The Conservatives would later criticize Labour for being in too much of a hurry to pass family allowances.

A Married Women Act (…) was passed in 1949 “to balance, render inoperative all limitations on the expectation or alienation of the enjoyment of property by women,” while the Married Women (Maintenance) Act of 1949 was enacted to improve the adequacy and duration of financial benefits for married women. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1950 amended the 1885 Act to benefit prostitutes and protect them from degrading treatment. The Criminal Justice Act of 1948 limited the imprisonment of juveniles and improved the structures of probation and pre-trial detention centers, while the passage of the Justices of the Peace Act of 1949 led to significant reforms of the Magistrates” Courts.

In 1946, the government established the National Institute of Household Workers. The Institute aimed to raise housekeeping to the level of a skilled trade through training and examination of those who already had the required qualifications. In the fall of 1946, accredited training standards were established, which led to training centers and an additional nine centers in Wales, Scotland and eventually throughout Great Britain. The National Health Service Act of 1946 specified that domestic help would be provided to households where such help was required “by the presence of a sick or bedridden person, expectant mother, mentally retarded person, elderly person or child not yet of school age. Consequently, “home help” consisted of providing domestic help for the care of people and mothers-to-be, as well as mothers of children under five years of age. By 1952, 20,000 women had been engaged in this service.

Various rules were implemented to improve welfare in the workplace. Sick leave was increased and sick pay schemes were introduced in 1946 for local government workers and in 1948 for various categories of manual workers. Compensation to the worker was significantly improved. The Fair Wages Resolution of 1946 required any contractor working on a public project to apply the recommended wage schedules and employment contracts provided for in the collective agreement. In 1946, the tax on the purchase of kitchen equipment and dishes was abolished, while the rate was reduced on the purchase of various garden items.

The Fire Services Act of 1947 introduced a new firefighters” pension plan, while the Electricity Act of 1947 provided better benefits for retired electric power generation and distribution workers. A Workers” Compensation (Supplementation) Act was passed in 1948 to benefit workers with certain asbestos-related diseases that arose before 1948. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1948 and the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act of 1949 were passed to improve working conditions for seafaring workers. The Shops Act of 1950 strengthened the earlier legislation by stating that no person working in a shop or store could work more than six hours without a break of at least 20 minutes. The legislation also mandated a lunch break of at least 45 minutes for any worker working between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and 1

The Trade Disputes Act of 1927 was repealed, and the Dock Labour Scheme replaced it in 1947 to end the system of temporary employment for dockers. This arrangement gave registered dockworkers the right to a minimum of work under decent conditions. Within the National Dock Labour Board (where unions and employers had equal representation), the unions gained control over hiring and firing. Under this arrangement, registered dockworkers who were dismissed by their employer could either ask to be hired by another employer or were entitled to good compensation.

Police salaries were increased significantly. The 1946 implementation of the Miner”s Charter introduced a five-day week and a standardized daily wage scale for miners, and in 1948 a Colliery Workers Supplementary Scheme was passed, providing supplementary allowances to disabled coal miners and their dependents. In 1948, a pension scheme was introduced for the benefit of employees of the new National Health Service (NHS) and their dependents. Under the Coal Industry Nationalisation (Superannuation) Regulations 1950, a pension scheme was established for the benefit of miners.

Contrary to the hopes of the left, the nationalizations failed to give workers decision-making power in their companies. However, it did give them material gains such as higher wages, shorter working hours and improved working conditions, especially safety. As historian Eric Shaw noted in the years following nationalization, the companies supplying gas and electricity became “impressive models of public enterprise” in efficiency, and the coal industry was even profitable, despite the much improved working conditions of the miners. In the few years of nationalization, a number of progressive measures were implemented that greatly improved the condition of miners, consisting of better wages, the five-day work week, national safety standards applied to all coalfields, the prohibition of underground work before the age of 16, the introduction of apprenticeship for prospective miners before going underground.

Union leaders saw nationalization as a way to gain an advantage in a continuing social struggle, rather than as an opportunity to replace the old spirit of social struggle in enterprise relations. Moreover, most workers in the nationalized sectors had an instrumentist attitude in favor of public ownership that provided job security and improved wage levels, rather than one that promised the development of new social relations in the workplace.

The Attlee government ensured that the provisions of the 1944 Education Act were fully implemented, making secondary education free for the first time. High school fees were abolished and new secondary schools were built. In 1947, compulsory schooling was extended to age 15, an achievement spurred on by initiatives such as the H.O.R.S.A. plan. (Huts Operation for Raising the School-leaving Age) and the S.F.O.R.S.A. school supply plan. More funding was made available to the education sector, particularly for the rehabilitation of buildings that had suffered from neglect or war damage. Prefabricated classrooms were also erected and 928 new elementary school built between 1945 and 1950. The distribution of free school meals was expanded. State scholarships for university education were increased, and the government rounded up the amount to cover the student”s school and maintenance costs. Free milk distribution to school children appeared for the first time. In addition, spending on technical education also increased, and the number of day-care centers for children grew. The salary level of teachers was improved and funds were allocated for the modernization of old schools.

The most difficult problem facing Attlee and his ministers was the economy, since the war effort had left the United Kingdom close to bankruptcy. The war had cost the United Kingdom almost a quarter of its national wealth. Foreign investment had been used to pay off wartime expenses. The transition to a peacetime economy and the extension of its strategic military commitments abroad led to serious and persistent difficulties in balancing the balance of trade. As a result, in the post-war period, strict rationing of food and other necessities had to be imposed, consumption had to be reduced by limiting imports and encouraging exports, and the appreciation of the pound sterling had to be stabilized in order to get the United Kingdom out of the financial rut.

The abrupt termination of the U.S. Lend-Lease program in August 1945 nearly caused a crisis. The Anglo-American loan negotiated in December 1945 provided some new money. The obligations attached to this loan included full convertibility of the pound sterling into U.S. dollars. Introduced in July 1947, convertibility was suspended after exactly five weeks, leading to a currency crisis. The United Kingdom also received Marshall Plan assistance in 1948, which significantly improved the economic situation. Another financial crisis, the balance of payments crisis in 1949, prompted Chancellor of the Exchequer Stafford Cripps to devalue the pound sterling.

In the area of housing, for which Aneurin Bevan was responsible, the government was less successful. It had planned to build 400,000 new dwellings a year to replace those destroyed during the war, but shortages of materials and labour meant that less than half of these were built. Nevertheless, a few million people were rehoused as a result of the Attlee government”s housing policy measures. From August 1945 to December 1951, 1,016,349 new homes were completed in England, Scotland and Wales.

The year 1947 proved to be particularly difficult for the Attlee government; an exceptionally cold winter of 1946-47 caused coal production to freeze and then stop, leading to power cuts and food rationing. The Minister of Energy, Emanuel Shinwell, became the scapegoat for the crisis, was widely criticized for not building up strategic coal reserves and was forced to resign. The Conservatives took advantage of the crisis by propagating the slogan “starve with Strachey and shiver with Shinwell” (referring to Minister of Supply John Strachey).

The crisis led to the failed plot by Hugh Dalton to replace Attlee with Ernest Bevin as prime minister. Later, Stafford Cripps tried to persuade Attlee to give up his post to Bevin. These plots failed when Bevin refused to step in. Towards the end of the year, Hugh Dalton resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer after inadvertently leaking details of the budget to a journalist. He was replaced by Cripps.

Foreign Policy

On the foreign affairs front, Attlee”s cabinet was seized with four issues: post-war Europe, the beginning of the Cold War, the creation of the United Nations and decolonization. The first two were followed closely, and Attlee was assisted by Ernest Bevin. Attlee also attended the latter stages of the Potsdam Conference with Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin.

In the immediate post-war period, the government set out to restore the United Kingdom”s relations with its former pre-war ally, Stalin and the Soviet Union. Attlee”s foreign secretary, former trade union leader Ernest Bevin, made no secret of his virulent anti-communism, which was largely motivated by knowledge of the influence of the communist struggle within the trade union movement. His first contact with the USSR as Foreign Secretary was described by historian Kenneth O. Morgan as “cautious and suspicious, but not a priori hostile.

In a premature gesture of goodwill, later much criticized, the Attlee government sold the Soviets several Rolls-Royce Nene aircraft engines under the terms of the 1946 UK-USSR trade agreement. The Soviets, by this time far behind the West in engine technology, reverse engineered these Rolls-Royce Nene engines and installed their own version on their Mikoyan-Gurevitch MiG-15 fighter aircraft, which was used effectively against US-British forces in the Korean War a few years later, as well as on other MiG models built later.

After Stalin had taken political control of much of Eastern Europe and carried out subversive actions in the Balkans, Attlee and Bevin”s worst fears of Soviet intentions were realized. Attlee”s government then successfully contributed to the creation of the defensive NATO alliance to protect Western Europe from Soviet aggression. The Attlee cabinet made a vital contribution to the economic stability of post-war Europe and helped to ensure the success of the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery.

The left wing of the Labour Party, united under the slogan “Keep your left”, urged the government to find a middle ground between the two emerging superpowers and advocated the creation of a “third force” of European powers, standing between the USA and the USSR. However, the deteriorating relations between the USSR and the United Kingdom and the economic dependence on America encouraged him to support America. In January 1947, fear of Soviet and American intentions led to a secret meeting of cabinet ministers, where it was decided to accelerate Britain”s nuclear deterrence program, a decision that later led to a split in the Labour Party. The first successful nuclear test did not take place until 1952, after the end of the left-wing government.

In 1950, the American president Harry S. Truman declared that atomic weapons could be used in the war in Korea. Attlee was concerned about the power held by America and for this reason he called for the meeting of some foreign ministers.

Attlee”s government took responsibility for beginning the decolonization of a significant part of the British Empire in India. Attlee appointed Lord Louis Mountbatten as Viceroy of India and responded favourably to his desire for full powers to negotiate Indian independence. Given the insistent demands of political figures in the Islamic community in British India for a separate Muslim homeland, Lord Mountbatten accepted the notion of two separate nations, Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan (including East Pakistan, which later gained independence as Bangladesh).

The delimitation of borders was achieved at the cost of large population displacements and violent bloodshed on both sides. The independence of Burma and Ceylon was also negotiated around this time. Some of the new countries became British dominions, the genesis of the contemporary Commonwealth of Nations.

One of the most pressing issues was the future of the British mandate over Palestine. Locally, British policy was perceived by the Zionist movement and the American Truman administration as pro-Arab and anti-Jewish. Faced with armed revolt by Jewish activist groups and increased violence from the local Arab population, the British proved unable to control the situation. As the British involvement in Palestine became very unpopular among the British population, the evacuation of British troops and the takeover by the UN was widely supported by public opinion.

Government policies were very different with regard to the other colonies, particularly in Africa. A military command was based in Kenya and the African colonies were run from London to an extent never before seen. Development schemes were implemented to solve the UK”s desperate balance of payments crisis and to raise the standard of living of Africans. This “new colonialism” was generally a failure, sometimes spectacularly so, such as the Tanganyika groundnut scheme.

The last days

The 1950 elections in the U.K. gave the Labour Party a very small parliamentary majority, just five seats compared to the three-digit majority of the previous five years, despite an increase in the proletarian vote. This occurred because the first-past-the-post system in the U.K. was largely blamed for post-war austerity, undermining interest in Labour by wealthier voters who thought they would be better off under Conservative rule. It was at this time that the Conservative opposition recovered at the expense of the declining Liberal Party. Although Attlee”s second term was less radical than his first, he still oversaw the passage of a number of reforms relating to issues such as industry in regional development, the rehabilitation of land disfigured by iron ore pollution, and the pollution of river water.

By 1951, the Attlee government appeared increasingly exhausted, with several of the most prominent ministers ill or dead. Attlee himself was briefly hospitalized for duodenal ulcers. Fatally, the party was torn apart in 1951 over an austerity budget introduced by Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell to pay the cheque for Britain”s participation in the Korean War. Aneurin Bevan resigned in protest at the new spending in the budget, and was joined by several ministers, including future Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Finding it impossible to govern successfully, Attlee called an election in 1951, trying to secure an effective majority. However, Labour was again defeated by Churchill”s Conservative Party, although it received more votes than in the 1945 election. Attlee”s short list of Prime Minister”s Resignation Honours in 1951, announced in November 1951, honoured Lord Chancellor William Jowitt as an earl.

With an uninterrupted term of office of 6 years and 92 days, Attlee was the first Labour figure to hold the office of Prime Minister for so long, until Tony Blair”s term of office over 50 years later. However, Harold Wilson held the office for almost eight years, but over two different periods between 1964 and 1976.

After the 1951 election defeat, Attlee retained his leadership of the Labour Party as leader of the opposition. However, his last four years as leader were widely regarded as one of Labour”s weakest periods. The party was torn between its right wing led by Hugh Gaitskell, and its left wing led by Aneurin Bevan. Many Labour members of the government felt that Attlee should have stepped down after the election and given his leadership to a younger man. Bevan bluntly asked him to step down in the summer of 1954. His main reason for staying on as leader was to frustrate the leadership ambitions of Herbert Morrisson, whom Attlee disliked for political and personal reasons. For a time Attlee wanted Aneurin Bevan to succeed him, but this became problematic after Bevan had almost irrevocably split the party.

In an interview with News Chronicle columnist Percy Cudlipp in mid-September 1955, Attlee made clear his own vision and preference for succession to the party leadership, stating “The Labour Party has nothing to gain by looking backwards. Nor can we change British society by adopting a vain leftist bent. I see myself as a man of the centre-left, where the leader of the party should be. It”s no use asking, “What would Keir Hardie have done? We must have men at the top who live in the present age and not, as was my lot, live in the Victorian age.”

At the age of seventy-two, Attlee ran against Anthony Eden in the 1955 election, which saw the Conservative majority increase from seventeen to sixty seats. He stepped down as party leader on November 25, 1955, after twenty years as leader, and was replaced by Hugh Gaitskell.

As a result, he left the House of Commons and was elevated to the peerage to take a seat in the House of Lords as Earl Attlee and Viscount Prestwood on 16 December 1955. In 1958 he was, along with Bertrand Russell, a signatory to the Homosexuality in Private Life Bill. The society campaigned for the decriminalization of homosexual acts in private and between consenting adults, a reform that was passed by Parliament nine years later.

He attended Winston Churchill”s funeral in January 1965. By then he was elderly and in poor health. He had to sit in the freezing cold while the coffin was being carried, having exhausted himself by standing the night before at the rehearsal. After the ceremony, Attlee had to be helped down the steps of St. Paul”s Cathedral by Sir Anthony Eden and an officer of the guards.

An avid pipe and cigarette smoker from a young age, Attlee suffered from respiratory problems in his later years. He lived long enough to see the return of the Labour Party to power in 1964 under Harold Wilson, but also to see his old constituency of Walthamstow West swing to the Conservatives in a by-election in September 1967. He died of pneumonia at the age of 84 in Westminster Hospital on October 8, 1967.

Upon 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 House of Lords as a hereditary peer in a transitional capacity, according to the amendment to the House of Lords Act 1999, passed under the Labour government.

When Attlee died, his bequest was declared at £7,295, a relatively modest sum for a prominent person. He was cremated and his ashes buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, alongside those of Lord Passfield and Ernest Bevin.

“A modest man, but he had to stay that way,” is a quote about Attlee that is very commonly attributed to Churchill, although Churchill actually denied saying it and appreciated Attlee”s work in the War Cabinet. Attlee”s modesty and calmness concealed much that became apparent on historical review. In terms of the machinery of government, he was among the most professional and effective of prime ministers. Indeed, he was highly praised by his successors, both Labour and Conservative.

Her consensual style of governance in government, acting as a guide rather than a leader, won her much praise from historians and politicians. Christopher Soames, British ambassador to France in Edward Heath”s government and Margaret Thatcher”s chief of staff, remarked that “Mrs. Thatcher didn”t actually coach a team. Every time you have a prime minister who wants to make all the decisions, and that usually leads to bad results. Attlee didn”t do that. That”s why he was so damn good. Even Thatcher wrote in her 1995 memoirs – from her early days in Grantham to her 1979 election victory – that she admired Attlee: “I did admire Clement Attlee, however. He was serious and patriotic. Quite unlike the generation of politicians of the 1990s, he was effective without ostentation.”

Attlee”s administration presided over a successful transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy, dealing with the pitfalls of demobilization, foreign exchange shortages, unfavourable trade balances and government spending deficits. The additional spending that his domestic policy decisions triggered included the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state, which began the reconstruction of post-war Britain. Attlee and his ministers did much to transform the United Kingdom into a more prosperous and egalitarian society during their time in office by reducing poverty and creating economic security for all.

In foreign policy, he did much to accelerate the economic recovery of post-war Europe. He was loyal to the United States at the beginning of the Cold War. In keeping with his style of government, it was not he but Ernest Bevin who directed foreign policy. It was Attlee”s government that decided that the United Kingdom would retain its independence in nuclear weapons and began the bomb-making program in 1947. Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, famously said “We”ve got to have it and it”s got to have a bloody Union Jack on it”. However, the first British operational A-bomb did not explode until October 1952, about a year after Attlee left office.

Although a socialist, Attlee still believed in the British Empire of his youth. He saw it as an institution and a beneficial power in the world. Nevertheless, he saw that a large part of the Empire needed independence. Using the dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand as a model, he began the transformation of the Empire into a Commonwealth.

Perhaps its greatest achievement, above all, was the establishment of a political and economic consensus for the governance of the United Kingdom to which all parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal – subscribed for three decades, shaping the arena of political discourse until the late 1970s.

Several years after his death, a street on a new housing estate in Tividale, West Midlands, was named “Clos Attlee” in his memory. The Birks Holt housing estate in Maltby, South Yorkshire, has streets named after Labour politicians including Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, Hugh Gaitskell and George Lansbury.

On November 30, 1988, a bronze statue of Clement Attlee was unveiled by Harold Wilson (the Labour Prime Minister after Attlee) outside the Limehouse Public Library in his former constituency. Wilson was then the last surviving member of Attlee”s cabinet and the unveiling of the statue was the last public appearance of Wilson, who was then in the first stage of Alzheimer”s disease and died in May 1995 after ten years of failing health. In April 2011, with the Limehouse Library having closed in 2003, Attlee”s statue was unveiled at its new site at Queen Mary University of London. Attlee had been awarded an Honorary Fellowship of Queen Mary College on December 15, 1948. A blue plaque, unveiled in 1979 in Attlee”s memory, was placed at 17 Monkhams Avenue, Woodford Green, in the London borough of Redbridge.

Public image

In 1956, he was painted by the talented Scottish portrait painter Cowan Dobson, who later also painted Harold Wilson.

Although he was cordial in his approach, Clement Attlee was particularly quiet in his dealings with the press, sometimes giving only monosyllabic answers to journalists” questions. He was rarely called by his first name; usually he was referred to as “C.R. Attlee” or “Mr. Attlee.

Although one of his brothers became a clergyman and one of his sisters a missionary, Attlee was considered an agnostic. In one interview, he said he was “incapable of religious feeling,” stating that he believed in “the morality of Christianity” but not in “blah blah blah. When asked if he was agnostic, he replied “I don”t know.

Literature

Attlee composed this poem about himself to show how he was often underestimated:

An alternative version also exists:

Music

Lord Beginner”s General election song was inspired by Attlee”s victory in the 1950 British election.

Sport

In 1981, Attlee re-entered popular culture, listed among the most famous English personalities – with names invoked in mockery – by Norwegian sports commentator Bjorge Lillelien (en), in a now-legendary report, immediately after the Norwegian national soccer team had beaten the British national soccer team in a qualifying match for the 1982 World Cup.

Theater

Sources

  1. Clement Attlee
  2. Clement Attlee