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Clement Attlee (1883-1967)

One of Britain's Greatest Prime Ministers

Clement Attlee

Clement Richard Attlee led the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, the longest length of time any British political leader in the twentieth century managed to remain at the top of his or her party. He may have lacked charisma, in the modern sense, but his parliamentary career, which began in 1922, was noted for its "consistency, coherence, and staying power." We may wonder how such a diffident and unexpressive man could have achieved this, and the answer lies in his considerable political skill. He also had luck, as for example the fact that he was one of one a small number of Labour MPs who survived the electoral disaster of 1931. Attlee once said that political judgement is "not the same thing as intellectual power, often quite divorced from it. A lot of clever people have got everything except judgement." More than any other British prime minister of the past century, Attlee speaks to us of ethics, patriotism, Britishness, rights and duties. Frank Field has suggested that it was Attlee's background which made him "attach absolute meanings to concepts such as duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage." These no doubt became extremely real for Attlee in the suffering of the First World War, when he was seriously injured on the battlefield. Frank Longford has stated that, in his view, "Attlee was not only the least selfish politician of the first rank... but also the most ethical prime minister in the whole of British history.

A Sketch of His Life and Policies

Clement Attlee was born on 3 January 1883 into a middle-class Anglican family in south-west London. His father was a solicitor and his mother, Ellen, ran the household with the assistance of a cook, a gardener and three servants. Politically, she was a Conservative and she was, for the time, very well educated for a woman. Illness forced Attlee to be educated at home for some years, where he developed a love of cricket and its statistics. He then went to Haileybury public school and in 1901 to University College, Oxford, where he described his views as "ultra Conservative." In 1905, he visited the Haileybury Club in Stepney, along with his brother Lawrence. The club was run by the school to help poor boys in the East End of London, and it was this visit which confronted Attlee with the harsh reality of mass poverty. He gradually become convinced that only collective action by the state could resolve the problem. In 1908, Attlee joined the radical Independent Labour Party and soon became secretary of the Stepney ILP. He was appointed manager of the Haileybury Club, and he lived there for the next seven years. He spoke at many Labour meetings, supported demonstrations, advised workers in various disputes and organised local elections. His skills in organisation and administration came to be clearly seen.

Attlee with King George VI

Clement Attlee fought in World War I, seeing action many times at Gallipoli and in France, and he was eventually promoted to the rank of major. In 1922, Attlee was elected MP in Limehouse, in east London, and in the same year he married Violet Millar. He became a parliamentary secretary to Ramsay MacDonald and in 1924 he became Under Secretary in the War Office. In 1929, Labour became the largest party in parliament and formed a minority government for the second time. Attlee did not accept MacDonald's defection to the Conservative-led National Government, and after Labour's very bad result in the 1931 election, Attlee became one of the two deputy leaders of the Labour Party, with George Lansbury as leader. Some readers may remember his granddaughter, Angela Lansbury. George Lansbury lost the leadership of the Labour Party as a result of his pacifism and opposition to sanctions against Italy, after that country invaded Abyssinia, now Ethiopia. In the leadership election which followed, Attlee was opposed by Herbert Morrison and Anthony Greenwood, and he won. In 1937, the Labour Party published "Labour's Immediate Programme," which called for the nationalisation of the coal industry, power, transport and armaments, policies it was able to turn into reality after World War II. The Labour Party was slow to recognise the need for rearmament, but in May 1940, Labour joined the wartime coalition government and Attlee became Deputy Prime Minister. Attlee and Churchill were the only continuous members of the War Cabinet throughout the war. The General Election of July 1945 saw Labour win a decisive victory, and Attlee saw off an attempt by Morrison to seize the leadership. The Labour Government of 1945-1951 achieved an enormous amount, including Family Allowances, National Insurance, National Assistance, the raising of the school leaving age to 15, the provision of free school milk, the National Health Service and the building, in 1947 alone, of 139,000 council houses. The Labour government nationalised the Bank of England, coal mining, road haulage, railways, gas and electricity, civil aviation and, eventually, the iron and steel industry. The government negotiated a further loan from the United States because of the dire financial state into which the nation had been plunged by the costs of war. The 1950 election saw Labour win a majority of just five seats, and the following year the party went into opposition. When Hugh Gaitskell became leader of the Labour Party in 1955, Attlee went to the House of Lords, and he became a regular attendee in that place, travelling in by train from Essex and reading detective novels on the way. In 1965 he was one of the pallbearers at Winston Churchill's funeral, and, after the service sat on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, exhausted. Clement Attlee died on 8 October 1967, and his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey. 

Clement Attlee was unlike all modern politicians, and had no time for things now considered absolutely essential such as image and public relations. When asked by a journalist if he would like to comment on Labour's general election campaign, he said simply, "No." One of the few things he would talk about with colleagues was cricket. His skills as a chairman were unparalleled. He was always able to see to the heart of a matter and to help ministers devise creative solutions to difficult problems. Usually he was able to steer meetings to the result he desired, and his pipe, as Harold Wilson probably noticed, was a useful political prop: when things got a little tricky, lighting it and taking a puff on it would give him time to think. He was also excellent at managing the Labour Party. The effects of the post-war government's social and economic policies are still, to some extent, in effect today, although Margaret Thatcher did her best to reverse many of them. Attlee was a ruthless proponent of left-wing British patriotism, at home and abroad. This, above all, is his enduring legacy. 

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Clement Attlee (1883-1967)
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