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Clement Attlee
1883 - 1967
British; Prime Minister 1945 – 1951
 

 

Earl Clement Attlee's government is widely regarded as Labour's most successful government. The administration decisively shaped post-war Britain, establishing the policies for full employment, the welfare state, mixed economy, and passage from the British Empire to Commonwealth.

Attlee was born into a comfortable middle-class family and there was little in his background to suggest that he would lead a party of the left. His father was a city solicitor, able to send him to Haileybury. Attlee graduated from Oxford University and qualified as a barrister. His shock at witnessing poverty in London's East End, reinforced by his reading, made him into a socialist.

The East End was to be his political base for the next fifty years. In 1907 he began to manage a Boys' Club in Stepney and eventually combined this with lecturing in social administration at the London School of Economics. His distinguished record in the 1914 – 18 war earned him the title "Major Attlee" in the 1920s. He became mayor of Stepney in 1919 and was elected as Labour MP for Limehouse in 1922. With a private income from his parents he was able to become a full-time politician. He was a middle-class university graduate in a party still recruited largely from the working class.

Attlee held junior office in the first Labour government in 1924. Between 1927 and 1929 he served as one of two Labour members on the Simon Commission on India. In the second Labour government (1929 – 31) he replaced Oswald Mosley as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when the latter resigned in 1930, and the following year he became Postmaster-General. When the minority government collapsed in 1931, and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald went off to lead the National Government, Attlee had no doubts about staying in the Labour Party. He regarded MacDonald's act as a betrayal.

Attlee gained from the devastation of the Labour Party in the 1931 general election. Just fifty Labour MPs were returned and only a handful had any ministerial experience. He was elected deputy leader and found himself necessarily speaking on a great variety of subjects in the House of Commons. When the leader George Lansbury resigned shortly before the 1935 election, Attlee was elected as his successor — obviously, so people thought, as an interim leader. In the new parliament over 150 Labour MPs were returned and in a leadership election Attlee beat the more fancied Herbert Morrison and held the post for the next twenty years, the longest spell in the party's history. Attlee's election was helped by the fact that he was the man in post. But he was also seen as the antithesis of MacDonald. His modest demeanour and his willingness to subordinate himself to the views of the majority in the party were qualities Labour MPs were looking for.

In the late 1930s Labour was increasingly divided over foreign policy and what to do about the rising menace of Nazism in Germany. The party had a strong pacifist group and was opposed to rearmament. In 1940 Attlee led Labour into Churchill's wartime coalition. He became Lord President of the Council, Deputy Prime Minister 1942 – 5, and was a member of the five-man War Cabinet. He chaired a number of Cabinet committees, including an important one on post-war reconstruction. As members of the coalition government, Labour ministers demonstrated both their competence and patriotism.

When Labour won the 1945 general election, unsuccessful moves were made to stop him becoming Prime Minister. The left-wing intellectual Harold Laski was a supporter of the claims of Herbert Morrison, and asked Attlee to wait on the approval of Labour MPs before accepting the King's request to form a government. Attlee ignored the request. In another letter, Laski informed Attlee that he lacked "the peculiar personal qualities" of a great leader and should step down. Attlee's memorable reply was:

"Dear Laski

Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.

C R Attlee"

As Prime Minister of the 1945 government, Attlee led an experienced team. The massive majority in the House of Commons ensured the speedy passage of radical legislation including major measures of nationalization of the Bank of England, railways, coal, gas, electricity, and steel. Other measures extended welfare provision and established the National Health Service. The government also speeded up the end of the empire and granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947. The government had to cope with severe economic difficulties consequent on the shift to a peacetime economy and the ending of American lend-lease. It also began the production of Britain's atomic bomb.

As Prime Minister, Attlee kept his talented colleagues together by acting as a broker between different factions and delegated responsibility to key ministers. His style in Cabinet was to wait for a majority view to emerge; he rarely took an independent stand or a prominent part in the growing left-right controversies. He was in hospital when Bevan and other ministers resigned over Gaitskell's 1951 budget.

Labour gained a narrow victory in the 1950 general election but lost another in October 1951. The party showed signs of running out of steam; the manifestos essentially defended its record in office. There then began a battle over future policy and the succession to Attlee. After leading the party to another election defeat in 1955, Attlee resigned at the age of 72. Supporters of Herbert Morrison claimed that Attlee's refusal to step down earlier was motivated by a determination to block their man. In retirement, Attlee described Morrison's appointment as Foreign Secretary as "The worst appointment I ever made!"

Attlee wrote a brief and unrevealing autobiography, As it Happened, in 1954. His reticence was such that he has been called an unknown Prime Minister. In his retirement, he proved to be a pungent and much quoted commentator on the working of British government.

 

 

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Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967), was prime minister of England from 1945 to 1951. He led the labour government that established the welfare state in Great Britain.

Clement Attlee was born in Putney, near London, on Jan. 23, 1883, the son of Henry Attlee, a successful solicitor, and Ellen Watson Attlee, a cultivated and educated woman. The family was devoutly religious. Attlee attended Haileybury College and then University College, Oxford, where he read modern history and achieved second-class honors in 1904.

Heading for a legal career, Attlee joined the Inner Temple, studied and worked in chambers, was called to the bar in 1906, and set up his own office. After a visit to Haileybury House in east London, a boys' club supported by his old school, he moved to the East End. He continued practicing law, helped evenings in the club, and soon became its manager. He developed a new outlook and a new purpose. By 1908 he was a member of the Fabian Society (a socialist organization) and of the Independent Labour party, and he was a socialist in the practical sense of being committed to improving the lot of the working class.

In 1909 Attlee gave up his law practice and spent a brief period as secretary of Toynbee Hall, the best-known of the university settlements in the East End. Then he lectured at Ruskin College, Oxford, and was appointed tutor and lecturer in social science at the London School of Economics in 1913.

In 1914 he had leanings toward pacifism but concluded that the war was justified. Promptly commissioned, he served in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. He was discharged as a major, a title he continued to use, and returned to the London School of Economics. Still residing in the East End, he became the first labour mayor of Stepney in 1919 and a member of the executive committee of the London Labour party. In 1922 he was returned to Parliament from Limehouse, and that year he married Violet Helen Millar of Hampstead; four children were born to them.

Attlee now devoted full time to Labour politics. Ramsay MacDonald, as leader of the Opposition, appointed Attlee his parliamentary private secretary and then in 1924 in the first Labour government designated him undersecretary of state for war. Though at first excluded from the Labour Cabinet in 1929, Attlee became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in 1930 and a year later postmaster general. In the landslide victory for the National (coalition) government in 1931, Attlee, one of three surviving Labour members with front-bench experience, was made deputy leader of the party. Labour members of Parliament became almost hopelessly divided on armaments and diplomacy; in a tumultuous meeting in October 1935 Attlee was elected party leader, because of his demonstrated parliamentary qualities. It cannot be said that either Attlee or his party had imaginative views for dealing with Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but on the other hand the National government made no moves toward developing common policy. Attlee did reunite his party.

When war came and Winston Churchill formed a true coalition government in May 1940, Attlee joined the War Cabinet of five and in 1942 became deputy prime minister. He attended the San Francisco conference in April 1945, which established the United Nations. At Potsdam, the final wartime conference of the allies, in July 1945, power shifted from Churchill to Attlee after the overwhelming electoral victory of Labour at the polls. Attlee formed a strong government, and in nationalization of basic industries, the extension of social insurance, and the establishment of the National Health Service, he carried out most of his party's pledges. Under his guidance India and Pakistan became independent and England entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Labour was less successful in dealing with economic problems; leadership shifted in 1951 to the Conservatives. Within the party Attlee managed to hold on, despite attacks from the left wing, until 1955, when he suffered a stroke and resigned after 20 years of leadership.

Attlee received the Order of Merit in 1951. In 1955 he was made a knight of the Garter and granted an earldom. For several years he was active in the House of Lords and devoted considerable time to writing and lecturing. He died on Oct. 8, 1967.

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 08 December, 2008