Clement Attlee was the British Labour Party leader for 20 years, and presided over the 1945-1951 Labour government. His administration is often considered the greatest in British history, introducing the National Health Service, nationalising one fifth of the British economy, and granting independence to India.
Attlee was born in Putney, London, United Kingdom, into a middle-class family, the seventh of eight children. His father was Henry Attlee (1841–1908), a solicitor, and his mother was Ellen Bravery Watson (1847–1920). He was educated at Northaw School, Haileybury and University College, Oxford, where he graduated with a Second Class Honours BA in Modern History in 1904. Attlee then trained as a lawyer, and was called to the Bar in 1906.
He had a comfortable middle class life, conservative views, and there wasn't much in his background to suggest he would lead a leftist party. He became a Socialist after witnessing the poverty in London's East End as well as his own personal readings.
During World War One he served in the armed forces. He was given the rank of Captain and later Major.
Attlee returned to local politics in the immediate post-war period, becoming mayor of the metropolitan borough of Stepney in 1919, one of London's poorest inner-city boroughs. During his time as mayor, the council undertook action to tackle slum landlords who charged high rents but refused to spend money on keeping their property in habitable condition. The council served and enforced legal orders on house owners to repair their property. It also appointed health visitors and sanitary inspectors, and reduced the infant mortality rate.
In 1920, whilst he was mayor, he wrote his first book "The Social Worker" which set out many of the principles which underlay his political philosophy, and which underlay the actions of his government in latter years. The book attacked the idea that looking after the poor could be left to voluntary action.
Attlee was later a member of Parliament and the opposition. He remained seated even when many Labour Party members(over 200 in Parliament) where vote off. At first he opposed rearmament but as Nazi Germany rose and the League of Nations did nothing the Labour party decided to favor rearmament and opposed Neville Chamberlin's appeasement policy. He had actually made a personal gain even with the ousting of many Labour party members in Parliament, because it meant he was one of the few Labour Party members with power in the government as well as experience and thus he went up the parties ranks.
During WW2 Liberals and Labour party members joined with Churchill to fight Nazi Germany. In the World War II coalition government, three interconnected committees ran the war. Churchill chaired the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee. Attlee was his regular deputy in these committees, and answered for the government in parliament when Churchill was absent. Attlee chaired the third body, the Lord President's Committee, which ran the civil side of the war. As Churchill was most concerned with executing the war, the arrangement suited both men.
Only he and Churchill remained in the war cabinet from the formation of the Government of National Unity to the 1945 election. Attlee was Lord Privy Seal (1940–42), Deputy Prime Minister (1942–45), Dominions Secretary (1942–43), and Lord President of the Council (1943–45). Attlee supported Churchill in his continuation of Britain's resistance after the French capitulation in 1940, and proved a loyal ally to Churchill throughout the conflict.
Following the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Attlee and Churchill wanted the coalition government to last until Japan had been defeated. However after the Labour Executive Committee did not accept this a election was called for.
Most Labour party members did not expect to win given Churchill's hero status. The result of the election when they were announced on 26 July, came as a surprise to almost everyone, including Attlee: Labour had been swept to power on a landslide, winning just under 50% of the vote, to the Conservatives 36%. Labour won 393 seats, giving them a majority of 146.
Prime Minster Attlee
Even before he took power there where some who wished to stop him, namely left wing intellectual Harold Laski. Laski argued that Attlee should wait for the Labour parties MPs before forming the government.
The most significant problem remained the economy; the war effort had left Britain nearly bankrupt. The war had cost Britain about a quarter of its national wealth. Overseas investments had been wound up to pay for the war. The transition to a peacetime economy, and the maintaining of strategic military commitments abroad led to continuous and severe problems with the balance of trade. This meant that strict rationing of food and other essential goods were continued in the post war period, to force a reduction in consumption in an effort to limit imports, boost exports and stabilize the Pound Sterling so that Britain could trade its way out of its crisis.
In domestic policy, the party had clear aims. Attlee's first Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, fought against the general disapproval of the medical establishment in creating the British National Health Service. Although there are often disputes about its organisation and funding, British parties to this day must still voice their general support for the NHS in order to remain electable.
Attlee's government also carried out their manifesto commitment for nationalisation of basic industries and public utillities. The Bank of England and civil aviation were nationalised in 1946. Coal mining, the railways, road haulage, canals and cable and wireless were nationalised in 1947, electricity and gas followed in 1948. The steel industry was finally nationalised in 1951. By 1951 about 20% of the British economy had been taken into public ownership.
In foreign affairs, Attlee's cabinet was concerned with four issues: postwar Europe, the onset of the cold war, the establishment of the United Nations, and decolonisation. The first two were closely related, and Attlee was assisted in these matters by Ernest Bevin. Attlee attended the later stages of the Potsdam Conference in the company of Truman and Stalin.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Government faced the challenge of managing relations with Britain's former war-time ally, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. Attlee's Foreign Secretary, the former trade union leader Ernest Bevin, was passionately anti-communist, based largely on his experience of fighting communist influence in the trades union movement. Bevin's initial approach to the USSR as Foreign Secretary has been described by historian Kenneth O. Morgan as "wary and suspicious, but not automatically hostile".
In 1950 American president Harry S. Truman said that atomic weapons may be used in the Korean War. Attlee became concerned with the power America possessed and therefore called a meeting of some foreign affairs ministers in order to discuss the issue that had evolved.
Attlee also presided over decolonization of several areas such as Israel and India.
The Labour Party was returned to power in the general election of 1950, albeit with a much reduced majority in the first past the post voting system; it was at this time that a degree of Conservative opposition recovered at the expense of the dying Liberal Party.
By 1951, the Attlee government was looking increasingly exhausted, with several of its most important ministers having died or ailing. The party split in 1951 over the austerity budget brought in by Hugh Gaitskell to pay for the cost of Britain's participation in the Korean War: Aneurin Bevan, architect of the National Health Service (NHS), resigned to protest against the new charges for "teeth and spectacles" introduced by the budget, and was joined in this action by the later prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Labour lost the general election of 1951 to Churchill's renewed Conservatives, despite polling more votes than in the 1945 election and indeed more votes nationwide than the Conservative Party. And indeed, the most votes Labour had ever won.
Clement Attlee resigned as leader of the Labour Party in 1955. Clement Attlee died of pneumonia at the age of 84 at Westminster Hospital on 8 October 1967.
His greatest achievement, surpassing many of these, was, perhaps, the establishment of a political and economic consensus about the governance of Britain that all parties, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal subscribed to for three decades, fixing the arena of political discourse until the later 1970s.
Many people in Britain consider him one of the nation's greatest Prime Ministers, alongside Winston Churchill.