Clement Attlee

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Clement Attlee
Atlee.JPG
Term of office
1945 - 1951
Political party Labour Party
Preceded by Winston Churchill
Succeeded by Winston Churchill
Born January 3, 1883
Putney
Died October 8, 1967
Religion Anglican

Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (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 oppononents ridiculed his modesty. His party was weakened in the 1950 elections and defeated in 1951, as Churchill and the Conservatives returned to power.


Career

Attlee, the son of a prosperous solicitor (lawyer), was born in Putney, a middle-class London suburb, in 1883. 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 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.

Parliament

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.

Attlee1.jpg

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 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 oppposed any compromisewith Hitler--joined Churchill's wartime coalition cabinet in the #2 role as Lord Privy Seal. He continued as Labour leader in Parliament and in 1942 he became secretary of state for the dominions and deputy prime minister. He became Lord President of the Council in 1943. Atlee played a role in all the major foreign and domestic policies of the war, but left military matters to Churchill. To the astonishment of the world, Attlee defeated Churchill and the Conservatives in the general election of July 1945.

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. 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.

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. 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.

Foreign policy

The National Service Act of 1947 for the first time in British history called for peacetime conscription to man the army. In 1947 Attlee decided to build an atomic bomb, giving Britain its own deterrence and a louder voice in world affairs.

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.

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.[1]

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 of public corporations that were not directly controlled by the government or the unions.[2]

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.[3]

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.

Personality

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. He was better liked than his program or his policies, and indeed failed to develop a public relations campaign needed to convince Britons of the need for his nationalisation program. 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

Biographical

  • 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),


References

  1. Martin Francis, "Economics and Ethics: The Nature of Labour's Socialism, 1945-1951," Twentieth Century British History 1995 6(2): 220-243.
  2. J. D. Tomlinson, "The Iron Quadrilateral: Political Obstacles to Economic Reform under the Attlee Government," Journal Of British Studies 1995 34(1): 90-111.
  3. James Hinton, "Militant Housewives: The British Housewives' League and the Attlee Government," History Workshop Journal 1994 (38): 128-156.