Clement Attlee

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Clement Attlee
Term of office
1945 - 1951
Political party Labour Party
Preceded by Winston Churchill
Succeeded by Winston Churchill
Born January 3, 1883
Died October 8, 1967 (aged 84)
Religion Anglican

Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee, KG, OM, CH (1883 - 1967), was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951. He was leader of the Labour Party, and is remembered as the leader of the socialist government that was elected in the aftermath of World War II and which nationalized British industry, gave independence to India, opposed Communism in the Cold War, and was wracked with economic hardships. During the war, he served as Winston Churchill's Deputy Prime Minister. He made Britain a junior partner of the United States in the Cold War—and indeed pushed the U.S. away from supporting Stalin's Communism.

His voice was quiet and thoughtful rather than frenzied and bombastic; he loved reasoned debate, even as opponents ridiculed his modesty. His party was weakened in the 1950 elections and defeated in 1951, as Churchill and the Conservatives returned to power.


Attlee, the son of a prosperous solicitor (lawyer), was born in Putney, a middle-class London suburb. Educated at Haileybury (an upper class private school) and elite University College, Oxford, he was admitted to the bar in 1905 and practised law briefly. An intellectual, he was converted to socialism by reading the works of John Ruskin and William Morris. From 1907 to 1922 he lived in a settlement house in the impoverished East End of London. In 1907 he joined the Fabian Society and in 1908 the Independent Labour Party. In 1913-1923 he taught social science at the London School of Economics. He served in World War I as a major in the Tank Corps; he was badly wounded and recovered. His political career began in 1919 with election as mayor of Stepney.


Attlee was a born parliamentarian, paying close attention to rules and procedures. He held a large number of secondary and major posts before becoming Prime Minister in 1951.

He was elected to Parliament in 1922 as Labour Party member for Stepney and in 1924 he was made Undersecretary of State for War. In 1927 Attlee was a member of the Indian Statutory Commission under the chairmanship of Sir John Simon, and since he supported self-government for India he dissented from the report of the Joint Select Committee in 1933.


He joined Ramsay MacDonald's Labour cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1929-1931 (that is, he was minister without portfolio and did not run a department). His advice on strong action to counter the Great Depression was ignored. He became Postmaster General in 1931; this provided the only executive experience he had before the war, and shielded him for blame for the worsening economic crisis. It also taught him the folly of having politicians run business operations—a lesson he applied when Labour nationalized major industries after 1945 and turned them over to independent managers. Along with most Labour MP's, he broke with Ramsay MacDonald when the Macdonald joined with the Conservatives to form the National Coalition government in 1931.

Attlee was one of the mere 46 Labour MPs to save his seat in the 1931 Conservative landslide; most of the top men had gone, so Attlee was left and he became deputy leader of the Labour party under George Lansbury. In 1935 Lansbury and Stafford Cripps both resigned rather that support League of Nations sanctions against Italy, and Attlee was left standing and became leader of the opposition. The party gained 100 seats in 1935, but was still heavily outnumbered.

Attlee opposed the policy of neutrality in the Spanish Civil War because he wanted Britain to help the left-wing side and defeat Franco. He visited the Communist-controlled International Brigades in Spain in 1937 to show his solidarity, though he generally opposed the Communists at home. He opposed appeasement of Germany and Italy and supported military rearmament.

As the Second World War opened in 1939 and turned against Britain in 1940, Conservative Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940 and Attlee—who opposed any compromise with Hitler—joined Churchill's wartime coalition cabinet in the #2 role. He continued as Labour leader in Parliament.[1] Attlee played a role in all the major foreign and domestic policies of the war; he handled the nitty gritty while Churchill made speeches. Attlee left military matters to Churchill. When the war ended in a great victory, the world was astonished to see Attlee defeat Churchill and the Conservatives in the general election of July 1945. In a great landslide labour won 393 seats against only 189 for the Conservatives; Liberals had 12 and minor groups elected 46. That is, with 50% of the popular vote Labour elected 61% of the MPs.

Prime Minister

Iconic 1945 election poster

In the 1945 General Election Attlee led the Labour Party to its greatest and least expected triumph at the polls. The nation seemed ready for utopia, and Labour promised a utopian welfare state that would bring equality and prosperity to all. With Ernest Bevin the Foreign Minister as #2, and Hugh Dalton as Chancellor handling the nation's finances. Attlee assembled a powerful cabinet, and as a highly efficient committee chair he achieved unity and results. The perfect referee, he played no favourites and indulged in no back-biting, yet all the while kept Churchill and the Conservatives at bay.

Attlee explained his policies in 1947, noting that the chief challenge which faced Britain was the need for a transition from a war to a peace economy, and for a transition from capitalism to socialism. However the nation had been impoverished by the war and was unable to hold its increasingly expensive and restive British Empire. Attlee's solutions were to make India independent, to pull out of Palestine, to nationalize major industries and begin socialized medicine, and to turn to the sympathetic liberal government of President Harry Truman to pay for it all.


The guiding principle in nationalization was that industry would be operated just like a private business using "public corporations" and not directly by government departments. The old management remained in place. The old owners received treasury bonds covering the full market value of their holdings. The role of labour was unchanged; collective bargaining remained the basis of negotiation with management and the right to strike was unaffected. The justification at the time was the need for modernization and efficiency, goals that appealed to the middle class.

Nationalization was voted by Parliament for 20% of the economy, including the Bank of England, coal mining, hospitals, the steel industry, communications, gas and electricity production, aviation, trucking, and railways. The owners were compensated. He began a comprehensive system of social security in 1948 with the National Insurance Act; the Industrial Injuries Act; the National Assistance Act (ending the old Poor Law); and the National Health Service Act, which provided free medical care for all. Public housing was also part of the new welfare state package.

At the time there was little controversy on most of the measures;[2] by 1987, however, the British realized that the argument for nationalization in terms of better efficiency had proven fallacious, and had privatized most industries, except for medicine and health.

Against the strong opposition of Labourites who disdained education as a frill, he pushed through a law to raise the school-leaving age to 15.

It was an exciting time to expand government operations and controls in all directions, even as the drabness of daily life continued, there were few luxuries, the middle class took a hit, and for the working class bread had to be rationed for the first time.

Foreign and defense policy


Cutting loose India (and Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma) in 1947 meant independence for 450 million colonials, and the end of a heavy drain on the British Treasury. The colonies were always money-losers, and with the upsurge in communal violence there was no honor to be saved by holding on any longer.

Cold War

Attlee vigorously opposed the Soviet Union and sought a strong alliance with the United States. He overcame a small pro-Soviet element in his party and a much larger "neutralist" element. To handle the dissidents he kept close personal control of the party machinery at the national, regional and local levels.[3]

American aid

The sudden, unexpected cutoff of Lend Lease in September, 1945, was a hard blow to the treasury. Washington, however, was friendly and provided a huge low interest loan of $3.75 billion in 1946, followed by Marshall Plan ("European Recovery Program") grants of $3 billion. The money was essential,[4] and the Marshall plan in addition encouraged the rapid modernization of British industry and business practises.

By November 1948 the Marhsall Plan funding from Washington had helped to close the gap between imports and exports and to balance Britain's dollar account. Attlee could boast that Britain was making a substantial contribution to the restoration of the European economy under the inter-European payments scheme. He was a leading advocate of closer ties to Europe.

National defense

In terms of national defense, Attlee realized that the financial crisis limited his options. Britain could no longer subsidize the Greeks in their civil war against Communists, so Attlee convinced the Americans to take over this role, whist Truman did when he announced the Truman Plan in 1947. However he could and did build a strong military by passing the National Service Act of 1947 which for the first time in British history called for peacetime conscription to man the army. In 1947 Attlee, against strong opposition, decided to build an atomic bomb, giving Britain its own deterrence and a louder voice in world affairs.

Political ideology

Unexpectedly, Attlee found most of his trouble on the left. He took a hard line on industrial unrest, especially the numerous unofficial dock strikes defying the Transport and General Workers' Union formerly headed by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. The strikes were led by Communists loyal to the Soviet Union which vehemently opposed Attlee's Cold War policies.

Although he beat down the far left, and did fulfill all the party's grandiose promises of a welfare state, the unrelenting economic hardships and crises wore down the people, and deflated expectations, as the dream of a golden socialist utopia kept mysteriously receding.

The postwar Labour Party's democratic socialist ideology was expressed in its 1945 election manifesto and its 1949 policy statement, "Labour Believes in Britain." There was consensus both in the Labour party's national executive committee and at party conferences on a definition of socialism emphasizing moral as well as material improvement. Despite the Attlee government's daunting economic problems, he remained committed to rebuilding British society as an ethical commonwealth, using public ownership and controls to abolish extremes of wealth and poverty. Labour ideology and policies contrasted sharply with the contemporary Conservative Party's defense of individualism and inequality and its exploitation of public discontent with bureaucratic interference.[5]

Attlee sought consensus and could never be a dictator. Deeply held political values prevented his socialism from turning into tyranny. The Labour Party was committed to parliamentary sovereignty, consensual "tripartism" (government, employers and unions), free collective bargaining over wages, and use of public corporations that were not directly controlled by the government or the unions.[6]

Losses mount

Labour was stung when middle class housewives began to organize against its policies. The "tripartite" system of power sharing among government, business and unions left the consumer in the cold, and they increasingly resented it. The British Housewives' League (BHL) was effective in speaking for consumers and thereby helped shift the terms of the debate and set up the Labour party defeat in 1951. BHL women protested continuing rationing during 1946-47. Their uniqueness as a political group was in making domesticity into an ideology to combat what they perceived as Labour totalitarianism and the Conservatives who appeased it.[7]

Labour lost many seats in the 1950 election, retaining a narrow majority. Two top leaders Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson resigned in protest from Attlee's government when he introduced small fees in the previously free health system. Labour lost power in 1951 as the Conservatives won and Churchill returned to power. Attlee stayed on as leader until the next defeat in 1955. Churchill made him an Earl and he was active in the House of Lords until his death.


Attlee was a quiet, shy intellectual who seemed out of place in a world of tyrants, charismatic leaders and bullying union bosses. The ridicule came from left and right Nye Bevan on the left dubbed him 'a desiccated calculating machine.' Others compared him to 'a little mouse', 'a poor little rabbit', or as George Orwell put it, "a recently dead fish, before it has had time to stiffen'. King George VI joked that the taciturn little man should be called Clam, not Clem, Attlee. The American press said he was `the dullest man in English politics'. Churchill put it best: Attlee was not only a modest man with plenty to be modest about, but 'a sheep in sheep's clothing'.

The story was told of an empty taxi arriving at 10 Downing Street, out of which stepped Mr Attlee. Britons liked him better than his oarty or its policies, but he failed to develop the sort of public relations campaign needed to convince Britons of the need for his nationalisation program. The materials his fgvernment issued were too full of statistics and numbing detail. His timing was clumsy when calling the elections in 1950 and 1951.

Historians have also joined the chorus, concluding Attlee was `underwhelming' rather than overwhelming and that he possessed all the charisma of a gerbil.

Yet Attlee was clearheaded and determined, and outworked everyone else. Although he came to power by default, he maneuvered so that his enemies knocked each other out, with Attlee always left standing. His formidable powers of concentration and analysis stood him in good stead when it came time to formulate the major laws that characterised his government.

Further reading


  • Brookshire, Jerry H. Clement Attlee. (1996). 257 pp.
  • Burridge, Trevor. Clement Attlee: A Political Biography. (1986). 401 pp.
  • Harris, Kenneth. Attlee. (1983). 630 pp.
  • Howell, David. Attlee (British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century) (2006), good brief biography excerpt and text search
  • Radice, Giles. The Tortoise and the Hares: Attlee, Bevin, Cripps, Dalton, Morrison (2008)
  • Swift, John. Labour in Crisis: Clement Attlee and the Labour Party in Opposition, 1931-1940 (2001)

Party and national studies

  • Brooke, Stephen. Labour's War: The Labour Party during the Second World War (1992)
  • Davies, Andrew. To Build a New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair (1996)
  • Fyrth, Jim, ed. Labour's High Noon: The Government and the Economy 1945-51 (1993),
  • Hennessy, Peter. Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 (2nd ed 2006), 560pp; detailed social history
  • Kynaston, David. Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 (2008), 704pp; highly detailed, well-written social history
  • Mercer, Helen. Labour Governments and Private Industry: The Experience of 1945-1951 (1992)
  • Moore, R. J. Escape from Empire: The Attlee Government and the Indian Problem (1983),
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. Morgan's Labour in Power 1945-51 (1984)
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. Britain since 1945: The People's Peace (2001)
  • Pelling, Henry. The Labour Government 1945-51 (1984),
  • Worley, Matthew. Labour inside the Gate: A History of the British Labour Party between the Wars (2005),


  1. He was at various times Lord Privy Seal, secretary of state for the dominions, deputy prime minister, and Lord President of the Council.
  2. Socialized medicine was controversial at the time, as physicians were appalled at become salaried staffers and losing the status of independent professionals. A compromise was reached that alloed them to have private patients.
  3. Morgan, Labour in Power (1984), pp 63, 70
  4. Morgan concludes, "It is inconceivable that the economic and social policies of the Attlee government could have survived without this massive platform." Morgan, Labour in Power p. 272
  5. Martin Francis, "Economics and Ethics: The Nature of Labour's Socialism, 1945-1951," Twentieth Century British History 1995 6(2): 220-243.
  6. J. D. Tomlinson, "The Iron Quadrilateral: Political Obstacles to Economic Reform under the Attlee Government," Journal Of British Studies 1995 34(1): 90-111.
  7. James Hinton, "Militant Housewives: The British Housewives' League and the Attlee Government," History Workshop Journal 1994 (38): 128-156.

External links