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Clement Attlee

Prime Minister 1945 - 51


Clement Attlee was Labour Party leader for twenty two years, a term almost unrivalled by any leader of any party. Richard Rose writing in The Prime Ministers claims that no particular personal quality seemed to mark Attlee out as a great leader. He was not a great orator or original thinker. Certainly in reading about him you often find that Attlee was an apparently ordinary person who was in the right place at the right time, and seemed to almost effortlessly drift into high office. From other perspectives, however, this idea of Attlee as an ordinary man who just got lucky is an illusion. His biographer Francis Beckett, for example, claims that the idea of Attlee's insignificance was useful, both to himself and his enemies. It suited Attlee because it meant a quiet unassuming fellow could get away with radical policies more easily than someone with the appearance of a fire breathing extremist. It also suited Conservative opponents who could present Attlee as an ineffectual leader who might be pushed around by more forceful and radical members of his party. Finally the insignificance idea also suited ambitious Labour Party rivals like Herbert Morrison, who wanted to succeed Attlee. So perhaps Attlee's ordinariness was partly an image put about by others, and partly a tool used by Attlee himself to get things done. One thing though does seem clear: a combination of the ordinary and the extraordinary is central to his story.


Attlee was born in Putney on 3rd January 1883, into a prosperous middle class Surrey family. His father was a successful solicitor. The firm he worked for, Druces and Attlee - now simply called Druces - can still be found in the City of London today, listed as one of the tenants of Salisbury House at 163/4 London Wall. The Attlees were a very conservative and upright family, more interested in the Church of England than politics. Young Clement showed no sign of rebelling against his family's values. He was a hard working, dutiful boy, educated initially at home by a governess and his well educated mother. Attlee was clearly very bright, soon learning Italian and developing an early interest in Italian Renaissance literature. At age nine Attlee went to a boarding prep school, and then onto Haileybury public school, and finally University College, Oxford. Like his father before him, Attlee qualified as a solicitor, and by the beginning of 1906 was a bored lawyer. This was the year he decided to do the kind of volunteer work his respectable family always encouraged. Haileybury College had a link with a boys' club for youngsters in Stepney, in London's East End, which made the boys club a natural choice. Attlee was a shy young man, but soon overcame his initial awkwardness and became deeply involved with the club. By 1907 Attlee was calling himself a socialist and had rejected the Christianity of his family. But, anticipating the later usefulness of a bland image, he was so polite and unthreatening about this conversion that remarkably his family didn't seem to mind too much. There was no falling out. His legal work diminished as he became more focused on work with the boys' club, as a volunteer school meals supervisor, and secretary of the Stepney Independent Labour Party. He was already forming the views that would dominate his future decisions. Involvement in charity work quickly began to demonstrate the drawbacks of social provision on this basis. Practical experience showed that charity was unpredictable, and that those giving to charity on a caprice could withdraw it again, or make unwise stipulations about where their money went. A few years later Attlee would be writing that the rich should pay tax rather than give to charity, so that the government could properly organise social provision on a sounder basis. These views of course would find their natural culmination in the welfare state Attlee's government would go on to set up from 1945. But all of that was years ahead. For now it was a question of gaining the experience that would inform those later decisions. Attlee settled into a new routine in the East End. This was only to be disrupted by the coming of the First World War. While many of his socialist colleagues, including his brother Tom, insisted on pacifism, Attlee immediately joined the South Lancashire Regiment. He caught dysentery in Gallipoli, was badly wounded in a battle near the Suez Canal in April 1916, but recovered sufficiently to be sent back to France in 1918. Here a hard side to his personality is revealed in the way he pulled a pistol on a weeping junior officer who did not want to go over the top. Attlee did, however, intercede later to stop the officer getting shot after he fainted during the ensuing attack.



Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, where Clause IV was adopted in 1918

Meanwhile the First World War was acting to dramatically improve Labour's fortunes. The "pulling together" ethic, and large scale organisation of labour necessary for war, was bringing British society much closer to a Labour Party outlook. February 1916 saw the formulation of Labour's famous Clause IV, the commitment to the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Here again we see the power of circumstance. The Labour Party needed war to bring society round to its way of thinking. The efforts of individuals are pointless if they don't follow the way the current of history was running anyway. Historical currents were running with Labour, which took over from the Liberals as Britain's second most powerful party. Attlee's career benefitted accordingly. Attlee himself was the right man in the right place at the right time. He had taken a job as part time lecturer at the London School of Economics, and in 1919 was made mayor of Stepney. At this point the powerful East End Labour leader Oscar Tobin picked Attlee out as the man he would groom as a potential MP for Stepney. Tobin knew that to win in Stepney Labour needed to combine the Jewish and Irish votes. Attlee was neither Irish nor Jewish, and so would be acceptable to both groups. He had been out of the East End for five years in the army, and so had no enemies. The fact that Attlee had been in the army was a bonus - Tobin knew that Stepney's voters would prefer a former soldier to the usual Labour pacifists, who struggled to win general approval. And yet, in the long tradition of politicians trying to have their cake and eat it, Attlee could also easily be sold to the important Labour pacifist constituency. His brother Tom had been a staunch Labour pacifist, and had been jailed as a conscientious objector during the war. This association with Tom, and the fact that Attlee was now an active member of the No More War movement, made Tobin's protege acceptable to the large pacifist Labour constituency. This was a perfect fit. Even the fact that Attlee was clearly privileged in his background suited the necessary profile: Tobin knew that the workers were more comfortable "voting for a man who spoke in the accent of the ruling class" (Clem Attlee by Francis Beckett P59). Finally Attlee had a private income thanks to an inheritance from his father, and only worked part time as a lecturer at the London School of Economics. This left time for political work. Tobin was right in his assessment. The quiet unassuming chap who came to see him above the pharmacy he ran in Stepney did go on to be elected as MP for Stepney's Limehouse constituency at the 1922 election. Labour's fortunes then improved enough for Labour to win an unprecedented 191 seats in the subsequent general election of 1923, and briefly form a minority government led by James Ramsay Macdonald. Circumstance had brought Labour, and Attlee to this point, and Attlee himself sometimes seemed to see things in a fatalistic light. He was relaxed enough to let events take their course, and had little patience with Ramsay Macdonald's habit of always trying "to impress on you that the whole burden of the world is on him". Attlee simply wasn't that self centred. Attlee's toughness came less by fighting and struggling and more by relaxing. He never seemed to worry, or get agitated, or lose sleep. He went with the flow, and this unusual ability made him strong enough to keep going when others broke down. The 1926 General Strike was a difficult time for him. He did not support the strike, and negotiated an agreement with the electricity supplier in Stepney to continue supplying hospitals even if power was cut to local industry. After the strike Attlee was sued by the owners of the businesses which had been denied power, with the decision of an investigation initially going against him. For a while financial ruin and the end of any political career seemed a real possibility. Fortunately the initial finding of the investigation was overturned on appeal. Resiliance was required to get through this. The same quality was also required in dealing with the disappointment of being promised an important governmental role by Ramsay Macdonald, in exchange for going to India with the Simon Commission to decide on the future of that country. The promised reward was not forthcoming, and with the war years boost for Labour falling into history, fortune was not now favouring the Labour Party generally. But Attlee kept going steadily on, and following the 1931 election, disastrous for Labour as a party, Attlee became Labour leader. The conventional view is that Attlee took over as Labour leader in 1931 simply because following 1931's election defeat, very few candidates were left for the leadership. But this ability to be in the right place at the right time did depend on Attlee's personal attributes, his ability to let things happen, and not allow worries to get on top of him.


Museum In Docklands - a good place to explore the history of the part of London which Attlee represented


Attlee was now Labour leader, but the prevailing mood in Britain was not with Labour at this time. Attlee simply hung on and waited for things to change. And once again it was the coming of war which brought change. As war began to look likely in the late 1930s Attlee knew his opportunity was coming. In a private document he wrote: "Once war has broken out there is a military necessity for the closest regimentation of the whole of the nation... It affords the opportunity for fundamental change of the economic system" (quoted Becket P133). The coming of war brought society back towards Labour, and at the same time moved Labour away from its traditional pacifist position. By November 1937 Attlee was regularly pressing the government on its defence plans. Labour support for the Spanish government in its struggle with rebels led by General Franco also helped break Labour's pacifist position. At the end of 1937 Attlee led a group of Labour politicians to Spain where he visited loyalist territory and met British members of the International Brigade fighting for the Spanish government against their German and Italian supported enemy. An International Brigade company named itself the Major Attlee Company in honour of the visit. Even though Conservative governments had spent as much money as the economy would allow on rearmament, there had also been unfortunate attempts at negotiation with Hitler and Mussolini. This meant that as war drew closer it was, remarkably, the Labour Party who were associated with strong defence, while the Conservatives were associated with appeasement. By the time war began in 1939 Labour was in an ever strengthening position. They had lost their pacifist image, and were in step with the large scale social organisation needed in war time. Attlee got his natural reward when Winston Churchill created the wartime coalition government in May 1940. A number of Labour politicians were given prominent roles, with Attlee being made Lord Privy Seal, an ornate title for what amounted to the position of deputy prime minister. During the war Attlee played a vital role in government. He was quiet, but extremely tough. While some senior politicians, Lord Halifax for example, were willing to consider a negotiated peace with Germany, Attlee was as determined as Churchill that this would not happen. Labour figures such as his friend Jimmy Maxton were severely reprimanded when they argued for negotiation. Later in the war Attlee gave no indication that he disapproved of controversial bombing of cities - though he expressed unease after the war. At the end of the war a memorandum advised colleagues that German soldiers "should not have the status of prisoners of war, because this would put pressure on food supplies" (quoted Francis Beckett P181). This means that Attlee seemed to advocate denying food necessary to keep German soldiers alive. This did not happen, but it indicates the toughness that lay behind the apparently mild exterior.

Following World War Two the same social trends that boosted Labour's fortunes after the First World War came into play once again. Even though Winston Churchill had led Britain to victory, it was the Labour Party which won a landslide victory in the 1945 general election. A writer like Francis Beckett then makes much of Attlee's personal contribution to changing Britain, but always there is that sense that Attlee had the ability to go with the way things were going anyway. It was not the fickleness of someone who simply follows the latest trend. Instead it was the calm resolve of someone who has the ability to quietly wait for the right moment, and be there when it came. Britain after six years of war was ready for the vision of Labour, where industry was organised centrally in the hope of greater efficiency, and people tended to place their own interests second to that of society in general. In the two years following the war when these historical trends reached their peak, Attlee, and his health minister Aneurin Bevan, were able to set up the National Health Service. This government also saw the passing of the Representation of the People's Act which established the principle of "one man one vote," reduced delaying powers of the House of Lords, and nationalised Britain's coal, gas, and railway industries. Meanwhile foreign secretary Ernest Bevin oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan, coordinated the British operation in the Berlin airlift, and directed Britain's part in founding Nato and establishing the Marshall Plan for reconstruction in Europe. This perfect Labour moment, however, was not to last long. Britain had been supported by America during the war, providing a free supply of war materials, under an agreement known as Lease Lend. As soon as the war ended, the Americans made it clear that payment now had to be made. The only way repayment could begin was to negotiate a loan from America on harsh terms. The Americans, after all, did not want to be seen as subsidising Britain's new welfare state. Then there was the brutal winter of 1947 which caused great damage to an already struggling economy. As the war receded social attitudes also began to change, people beginning to resent the "fair shares" that Chancellor Stafford Cripps saw in continued rationing. The social innovations of those couple of years after the war are still with us today - the National Health Service is still the main provider of healthcare in Britain - but the trends that Attlee had waited for inevitably moved away again. Even though Labour won the 1950 election they did so with a reduced majority. Then the Korean War, and the huge budget it required, split the cabinet, contributing to the Attlee government's final decline and defeat in 1951.


St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, where the Order of the Garter is awarded


Attlee quickly retired, and spent a number of years lecturing and writing, with the aim of providing his wife Vi with a good pension. Sadly Vi died before him in June 1964. Attlee lived on, his colleagues falling by the wayside, before he finally died in October 1967. Richard Rose has written of Attlee: "If fortune or events had taken a different turn at any number of points in his political career, Attlee's name would be little more familiar to us than the names of his Stepney comrades, or of his comrades in the pathetic battles in opposition in the early 1930s" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P326). Reading about Attlee you can see how this was said. Francis Beckett who wants to present Attlee as a great man can't help but show him in the right place and right time over and over again. And yet, there is always that sense of an extraordinary resilience, the ability to let things happen and be there when it mattered. In many ways the Labour Party has been defined as a crusading party, and Attlee was a man who wanted to change things. But he was also the most grounded of realists who realised that things could only be made to happen when they were ready to happen. It was Attlee's quality of steely patience that allowed him to wait quietly for these moments, while others exhausted themselves with a lot of jumping up and down. Aneurin Bevan said of foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, that he was "a big bumble bee caught in a web and he thinks he's the spider" (quoted Beckett P221). Attlee, sitting more comfortably in his own web of circumstance knew he was not the spider and had a more realistic outlook as a result. We see his strength in a good night's sleep after a row with colleagues, or in being on the golf course on 1st September 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, or reading Greenmantle to his children on the night that war was declared, and not giving any sign that anything was on his mind. Somehow he could keep life ordinary and stable even in the most extreme of times, and it was this ordinariness that made him special. Ordinariness endures while extraordinary things by their very nature are fleeting. He wrote about the unexpected success of an ordinary man in a little limerick he composed towards the end of his life in a letter to his brother Tom. It was inspired by his receiving the Knight of the Garter:


Few thought he was even a starter

There were many who thought themselves smarter

But he ended PM

CH and OM

An Earl and a Knight of the Garter