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
Religion Anglican

The Right Honorable Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (3 January 1883 - 8 October 1967) was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951. He was a member of the Labour Party, and is remembered as the leader of the strongly socialist government that was elected in the aftermath of World War II. During the war, he served as Winston Churchill's Deputy Prime Minister.


Attlee, the son of a prosperous lawyer, was born in Putney, a middle-class London suburb, in 1883. Educated at 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 the First World War 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.


Attless 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). He became Postmaster General in 1931. 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 few Labour MPs to save his seat in the 1931 Conservative landslide; he became deputy leader of the Labour party under George Lansbury. In 1935 Lansbury retired and Attlee became leader of the opposition.

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 denounced the Hoare-Laval Pact.

As the Second World War opened in 1939 and turned against Britain in 1940, Conservative Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940 and Attlee joined Churchill's wartime coalition cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, and continued as Labour leader in Parliament. In 1942 he became secretary of state for the dominions and deputy prime minister. Attlee became Lord President of the Council in 1943. To the astonishment of the world, Churchill and the Conservatives were defeated in the elections of July 1945.

Prime Minister

In the 1945 General Election Attlee led the Labour Party to its largest victory at the polls. He 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 governerment of Preasident Harry Truman to pay for it all.

Nationalization was voted by Parliament for the Bank of England, the coal mining industry, hospitals, the iron and steel industry, communications, gas and electricity production, and transportation. 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.

In November 1948 Attlee stated that the European Recovery Program had helped to close the gap between imports and exports and to balance Great Britain's dollar account. He added that Great Britain was making a substantial contribution to the restoration of the European economy under the inter-European payments scheme.

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.

Further reading