British Prime Minister (1945-1951),
1st Earl Attlee (1956-1967)
Born 1883 Died 1967
Clement or Clem Attlee as he was commonly known, was the Leader of the Labour Party for twenty years from 1935 until 1955 and British Prime Minister in the years 1945 to 1951. Of course like many former Prime Ministers he received an hereditary peerage on his retirement and became the 1st Earl Attlee and sat in the House of Lords as such, but is much better known under his former name.
Early life and education
Clement Richard Attlee was born on the 3rd January 1883 at the family home at Putney in London, being the seventh of eight children born to Henry Attlee and his wife Ellen Bravery Watson. His grandfather Richard Attlee had made a considerable amount of money from a corn mill in Surrey and was able to provide handsomely for his seven sons. In Henry's case he provided a suitable education that enabled him to become a solicitor and a senior partner in the firm of Druces and Attlee, and later President of the Law Society. Thus the Attlee family were most emphatically upper-middle class; the Attlee home in Putney featured a dedicated billiard room with its own full sized billiard table, and the family employed a cook, a parlour maid, a housemaid and a gardener, with a governess for the children when necessary and the Attlee holiday home on the Essex coast came with two hundred acres of land attached.
It could be said that Clement was the runt of the litter, since he was small and rather physically underdeveloped, and as a result it seems that his parents feared that he might not survive childhood. He was therefore kept at home until he was nine, during which time one of his governesses was a certain Miss Hutchinson, who came on recommendation from the Churchill family where she had performed much the same function in respect of a young Winston Churchill. Of course he eventually needed some formal education and was sent to Northaw Place Preparatory School in Hertfordshire, and then at the age of thirteen went onwards to nearby Haileybury College. At Haileybury he joined the office training corps and was an able but otherwise undistinguished scholar. It was much the same story at University College, Oxford where he read modern history, specialising in the Renaissance, but took no part in the Oxford Union or student political affairs.
He left university with no clear ideas as to his future career, and so naturally drifted into the law. He endured a brief spell at the family firm of Druces and Attlee, before embarking on a career as a barrister and joined the chambers of Philip Gregory at Lincoln's Inn, being later called to the bar by the Inner Temple in March 1906.
His Political Awakening
The key point to appreciate is that in his youth Clement Attlee was anything but a radical. Whilst his father Henry Attlee might have been a Gladstonian Liberal of 'advanced views', Clement took after his mother who was far more conservative in his outlook. As it happened his old school Haileybury College ran a boys' club at Stepney in the East End of London and, more out of a sense of duty to his alma mater rather than anything else, he paid a visit there with his brother Laurence in October 1905. He was subsequently persuaded to spent some evenings working at the club and later obtained a commission in the Territorial Army so that he could fully participate in the club's activities and soon took over the sole management of the club in 1906.
Apart from the fact that it helped him overcome his shyness, his work at the Stepney boys' club taught him a great deal about the scale and nature of poverty in the East End, much of which came as a complete revelation to Clement who up to that point in his life had simply no idea of how bad things really were for a number of people. Under the influence of his brother Thomas (who had become a dedicated Christian Socialist) he was introduced to the works of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin (an early advocate of the welfare state) and William Morris. As a result of this programme of reading, and considering the extent of poverty and deprivation he had witnessed, he came to the conclusion that only state intervention was capable of remedying these ills and became a convinced socialist by the end of 1907.
Having become a socialist there remained the question of what to do about it. Unimpressed by either the Fabian Society or the Social Democratic Federation, he eventually signed up as a member of the the Stepney branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1908. Since he was also required to sign up for a union he also joined the National Union of Clerks, which was more or less the only union that would have him. Later that same year the death of his father left him with a considerable legacy and of sufficient independent means to devote all his time to social work and socialism. He became the branch secretary of the local ILP and in 1909 gave up even the pretence of being a barrister.
He thereafter became a social worker by profession and achieved a recognition of this status in 1912 when he was invited by Sidney Webb to become a lecturer at the infant School of Sociology established at the London School of Economics. Indeed having established a reputation as a serious academic on the subject he was later approached by the publishers George Bell and Sons to edit their Social Service Library series, to which he also added his own contribution The Social Worker.
The First World War
As soon as World War I was declared Attlee volunteered for service, although the army wasn't that keen to accept him at the time as he was thirty-one and therefore regarded as being too old. Nevertheless he persisted and obtained a commission as lieutenant in the 6th South Lancashire Regiment, where he was put to work as a drill instructor and promoted to captain in 1915. He was eventually posted with his regiment to the Eastern Front to take part in the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. There he was perhaps fortunate to contract dysentery and therefore missed most of the fighting whilst recuperating in Malta, and only returned to his unit shortly before the decision had been made to withdraw. His unit did however play a crucial role in the evacuation of Suvla Bay and Attlee was in fact the last but one soldier to leave Gallipoli.
By April 1916 he was in Suez and then took part in the Mesopotamian Campaign where he was hit by shrapnel at El Hanna from a British shell and temporarily lost the use of his legs and was invalided back home. He was promoted to major in 1917, and by June 1918 had managed to find his way back to the front line in France, where he contracted piles and was sent home again. He was lying in a hospital in Wandsworth Common when the armistice was signed on the 18th November 1918 and was later discharged from the army on the 16th January 1919.
His early political career
It was therefore as Major Attlee that he returned to Stepney in 1919 to resume his previous life. At the time the East End Labour movement was characterised by a considerable degree of rivalry between Jews and Irish Catholics, and it was to the advantage of the thirty-six year old Major Attlee that he was regarded as belonging to neither of these factions, and led him to a position of some prominence in local politics. Although Attlee failed to get elected to the London County Council, when Labour gained control of Stepney Borough Council he was co-opted as mayor and after his year in office was appointed an alderman by the other borough councillors, which meant a further five years in office.
More significantly he was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for Limehouse in 1919 and was then elected as their Member of Parliament at the General Election held on the 15th November 1922 with a majority of 1,989, being one of 142 Labour MPs returned at that election. He made his maiden speech on the subject of post-war unemployment, and his abilities were such that he was soon promoted to the post of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the party leader, Ramsay MacDonald. At the subsequent General Election of December 1923, the Labour Party increased its representation to 191 seats, and with no single party having a majority Labour was left to form a minority administration in January 1924. Attlee got his first taste of office being appointed as Under-Secretary of State for War, although his time in government was necessarily brief as at the General Election of July 1924 the Conservative Party swept back into power.
Clement spent most of both 1928 and 1929 in India as a member of the Simon Commission. It was with some reluctance that Attlee accepted this duty, and only did so an assurance from Ramsay MacDonald that his acceptance would not jeopordise any future chance of office. As things turned out when Labour duly won 287 seats at the 1929 General Election and was given another chance at government, he was quite overlooked by MacDonald. His opportunity however came with the resignation of Oswald Mosley and on the the 23rd May 1930 Attlee was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster where his duties comprised of assisting with the 1930 Imperial Conference and piloting the Agricultural Marketing Bill through the house. He remained there until the cabinet reshuffle on the 13th March 1931 he became Postmaster-General, and immediately went on a crash course in management courtesy of ICI, in order to able to manage the Post Office for himself, rather than relying on his civil servants.
Of course the minority Labour Government was soon faced with the problem of the Great Depression and found itself struggling with the recommendations of the May Committee Report. Whilst on the 24th August 1931 Ramsay MacDonald agreed to the King's request to head a National Government, Attlee sided with the majority of the Labour Party who refused to join in with MacDonald's coalition. At the resulting General Election the Labour Party was reduced to a mere 46 seats and quite a number of the major figures in the parliamentary Labour Party lost their seats, including the party leader Arthur Henderson, whilst Attlee himself only scraped home with a majority of 551.
The Party Leader
In the aftermath of the General Election George Lansbury became party leader, whilst Attlee became deputy leader almost by default, since there were so few alternatives available. That might well have been the summit of his career, as ever since the year 1925 he had been worried about money as his father's legacy had dwindled under the pressures of raising a family. Indeed he was on the verge of resigning in 1933, and would have done so had not the wealthy Stafford Cripps stepped forward to fund a salary for the deputy leader.
His big opportunity later came when Lansbury was ill during the period from December 1933 to June 1934, and Attlee was obliged to deputise as leader of the Labour Party, which helped raise his profile and got him elected to the party's National Executive Committee for the first time in the following year. When Lansbury then resigned the leadership in October 1935 with a General Election in the offing, Attlee was chosen simply as the interim leader for the coming election. In the immediately aftermath of the General Election of November 1935 his position was challenged by both Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood who was now back in Parliament, but the bulk of the parliamentary party were happy to stick with the status quo.
One of the central issues of the time was the emergence of Nazi Germany and the threat that posed to European peace. Attlee had a particularly difficult job in dealing with this as the Labour Party of the time was heavily influenced by the ideals of pacifism. The former leader Lansbury was himself a pacifist and there were some elements of the party who rejected the notion of war in any circumstances whatsoever. He was therefore obliged until June 1937 to instruct the party to vote against the estimates for defence expenditure, no matter what might have been his personal views on the matter.
Deputy Prime Minister
Despite his best efforts to avoid just such an outcome, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to declare war on Germany in September 1939. He nevertheless continued in office until the Norway Debate of May 1940, when Attlee made it clear that Labour would not serve in a government headed by Chamberlain and helped precipitate the sequence of events that led to Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister.
With the emergence of the new wartime coalition Attlee was appointed Lord Privy Seal on the 11th May 1940 and joined the War Cabinet. In fact, almost from the beginning Attlee was effectively the Deputy Prime Minister, although it was not until the 19th February 1942 that he was formally appointed to that position, at which point he combined those duties with those of Secretary of State for the Dominions until the 24th September 1943 when he became Lord President of the Council. However despite his formally being second in command, in many ways Attlee had something of a quiet war being overshadowed by the more public achievements of Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.
With victory over Germany achieved in May 1945, the Labour Party decided to withdraw from the coalition thereby precipitating a General Election in July of that year. Attlee seemed to have expected that the election would produce a hung parliament and that he would be forced into a coalition with the Liberal Party, but much to his surprise and delight the Labour Party won a landslide victory and was able to form its first majority government. Strangely enough for a moment it was touch and go as to whether Attlee would actually make it to Downing Street, as Herbert Morrison believed that the parliamentary party should now hold a new leadership election and naturally believed that he should be chosen as leader. As it happens, Attlee decided to ignore Morrison's views on the subject and simply presented himself at Buckingham Palace, taking office as Prime Minister on the 26th July 1945, and presented Morrisson and his supporters with a fait accompli.
But despite Morrison's plotting Attlee nevertheless appointed Morrison as Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council with the job of overseeing economic planning and the government's nationalisation programme, although he was obliged to make Hugh Dalton Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than Foreign Secretary, so that Ernest Bevin could go to the Foreign Office and therefore avoid any contact with Morrison, as the two loathed each other with a passion. Attlee also raised a few eyebrows by bringing two notable left-wingers into the government, namely Aneurin Bevan as Minister for Heath and Ellen Wilkinson as Minister for Education.
The Attlee government came to be regarded as one of the most revolutionary governments in British history. For one thing it introduced a programme of nationalisation where both the coal and steel industries were taken into public ownership, together with the Bank of England, all the providers of electricity, gas and water, civil aviation, railways and even the entire road haulage system. Something like twenty per cent of the economy was therefore placed in public ownership, and largely established what became known as the mixed economy. His government also established a National Health Service, together with a system of public welfare based on the universal provision of benefits for the unemployed and the sick, and an extended and much improved old age pension.
Many of these achievements were pretty remarkable given that the nation was essentially bankrupt after the war and survival depended on securing a loan from the United States of America. It was John Maynard Keynes who managed this particular feat, despite the widespread misgivings in Congress, many of whom were reluctant to lend money to what they saw as a foreign socialist government. Indeed the reason why the Americans were persuaded to accede to the request was that it was Attlee who established the principle of pro-Americanism, which became one of the cornerstones of British foreign policy.
To many the arrival of the Labour government heralded a new age, but despite the widespread changes introduced in the period 1945 to 1950, Attlee's government appeared to fall short on ideas after completing their first term in office. Part of the reason was that Attlee was himself sixty-two when he became Prime Minister, and indeed all the big guns of the Party - Dalton, Cripps, Bevin, and Morrison - were all of the same generation, and the average age of the Cabinet was over sixty. Many of the leading members of the government simply ran out of steam, with Cripps resigning for health reasons in October 1950 and Bevin following him in March 1951, whilst Attlee was always struggling to maintain the balance between the conflicting pressures from the right and left wings of the party.
There was Herbert Morrison who always believed that he would have made a better Prime Minister than Attlee, and there were similar problems with Hugh Gaitskell as Chancellor of the Exchequer, who clearly had ambitions of his own. Of course part of the problem was that Attlee's pro-American stance effectively committed the country to the Korean War and the resulting large increase in defence expenditure at the expense of domestic commitments at a time when the British public had become weary of the post-war austerity imposed on them by the government. In the end Attlee 'lost' the General Election of 1951, despite receiving a greater share of the vote than the Conservative Party and was forced into opposition.
Attlee continued as party leader despite losing the election and free from the burdens of government wrote his autobiography. Published in 1954, As it Happened is however widely regarded as one of the most uninformative political autobiographies ever written. He remained as Party leader until after Labour's defeat in the general election of May 1955, that he decided to step down in December of that year. It appears to be the case that Attlee wanted Aneurin Bevan to succeed him, but was forced to accept the fact that this was not going to happen, and therefore plumped for Hugh Gaitskell purely on the basis that he wasn't Herbert Morrison.
On retiring to the backbenches he then became concerned that since his Prime Ministerial pension would end on his death, his wife who was thirteen years his junior might struggle to make ends meet. He therefore kept himself busy going on lucrative lecture tours to the United States and became something of a freelance journalist. Sadly his efforts were all in vain as despite her comparative youth, his wife died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in June 1964. Attlee himself lived on for a few more years but eventually succumbed to pneumonia and died at the Westminster Hospital on the 8th October 1967 whilst his ashes were later interred at Westminster Abbey on the 7th November.
The most famous description of Attlee was that he was a "modest little man with plenty to be modest about". This remark is generally attributed to Winston Churchill, almost certainly incorrectly, and was most probably coined for the Daily Worker by Claud Cockburn. As it happens Cockburn wasn't the only one who shared such sentiments about the man, as Hugh Dalton also descibed Attlee as "a small man, with no personality", whilst Aneurin Bevan said of him that "He brings to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match."
There was a certain fragment of truth behind such views since as befitting a man plagued by shyness in his youth, he displayed a quite relaxed, almost laid back attitude towards politics. Indeed he was particularly notable for the fact that (unlike his modern equivalents) he took no notice of the press and what they had to say about either him or his government. (Which was probably just as well as the press were generally hostile to the whole idea of a Labour Government.) As Prime Minister he took The Times each morning, but only for the announcements and the crossword, and the only paper that he ever read was the Daily Herald, and that was only in order to find out what the unions were thinking. Otherwise he paid no heed to what any journalist thought of him or his policies.
Many people misinterpreted these characterisics as weakness. In truth he was suprisingly ruthless, and indeed throughout his years as Prime Minister, would regularly sack those ministers he thought weren't up to the job, and bluntly tell them so. Indeed given the state of intenicine warfare that generally characterised internal Labour Party politics at the time, the fact that he survived as party leader for twenty years was testament to his determination and strength of will.
Oddly enough as befitting someone of unimpeachably upper middle class origins, he never betrayed the slightest hint on republicanism, and despite being a socialist he was very much a monarchist, solidly supported Stanley Baldwin during the abdication crisis of 1937, and never entertained any ideas of constitutional change during his term in office (the House of Lords remained decidedly unreformed for one thing), which is perhaps why he has always been granted a greater deal of respect by his Conservative opponents and even Margaret Thatcher felt obliged to call him "a serious man and a patriot".
- Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (Politico's Publishing, 2000)
- R. C. Whiting, ‘Attlee, Clement Richard, first Earl Attlee (1883–1967)’
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005
- Famous names in the First World War: The Rt Hon Clement Richard Attlee MP
- Clement Richard Attlee 1945-51 Labour
- Clement Attlee (1883 - 1967)