Clement Attlee: a short look

Clement Attlee was not, as you may have heard, “a modest little man with plenty to be modest about”. Churchill didn’t say this, like you might think: he knew a formidable politician when he saw one. It was actually coined by the left-wing journalist Claud Cockburn.

Clement Attlee, despite often being heralded in academia as Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister, is not particularly well known to the average Brit. His quite, simple mannerisms have led to him being overlooked in favour of the likes of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. However, these figures are caricatures of politicians, focused more on image than policy. Churchill, despite being an excellent leader during the Second Word War, was known to be awful in peacetime, and was voted out of Parliament by the British public immediately after the war was won. Thatcher is widely known as the Marmite of British politics; loved in the South and hated in the North. And Tony Blair? Despite being from the same party as Attlee, Blair couldn’t have had a more opposite approach to politics. Blair held image above all, making rash decisions that Attlee never would have done, and became more like a children’s performer than a leader of one of the great powers. Attlee’s government was filled with larger than life characters, and some academics philosophise that it was they who held up their government, not Attlee. I disagree; Attlee used the competitive natures of his party members to get the laws he wanted passing passed. The man was a true leader – he didn’t need fancy speeches and to have music played as he walked onto stages, but rather he was able to hold people’s attention with his actual policies, which were logical, well-reasoned and most of which are still held today. Attlee is the reason that India has independence, a move largely seen as the end of the British Empire. This essential change to the Empire is what allowed for the beginning of the Commonwealth. His greatest achievement while in office was the introduction of the National Health Service which gave healthcare universally to the whole United Kingdom. Notably, he was also very successful in the difficult task of moving from a wartime economy to a peacetime one. As the idea of the Cold War began to rear its ugly head, Attlee secured the position of the UK as a loyal ally to the United States of America, in an alliance that has lasted to this day. Attlee put great faith in his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, and together they oversaw Indian independence, American loans and ‘Marshall Aid’ for the rebuilding of Britain and Western Europe, and the commitment of Britain to the United Nations.

Middle-class-raised Attlee’s political views were shaped by the poverty he saw after he left Oxford, when he managed Haileybury House, a charitable youth organisation in Limehouse, east London. He therefore joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908 in order to help the poor. In the First World War, he applied for a Commission and served as a Captain. His reputation as an active, competent and efficient leader got him promoted to the rank of Major, a title that would stay with him after his military life. He took this leadership style with him into Politics; he became Mayor of Stepney in 1919 and MP for Limehouse in 1922. He continued to gain influence within the Labour Party, and was elected its leader in 1935, after George Lansbury resigned. During the Second World War, he was called into the coalition government under Churchill, where he held the title of Deputy Prime Minister from 1942 to 1945. When a general election was called at the ultimate of the war in Europe, Attlee led the Labour Party to a surprising landslide victory, winning 393 seats to the Conservative’s 213, and 48% of the public vote (impressive even with the minor advantage afforded to Labour by the FPTP system).

His leadership style was apparently collective, but once Attlee had let his Cabinet voice their opinions, he would quickly make decisions with military precision. The majority of Labour’s manifesto pledges were therefore implemented under Attlee. Even though the Second World War left Britain essentially bankrupt, he managed to create the National Health Service, the part of the Welfare State that provides us with health care. On top of this, many of Britain’s largest industries – like coal mining, electricity and the railways – were brought under state control, even though there were recurring currency crises and food and resource shortages were so severe that rationing had to be preserved long after the war.

Atlee’s approach to government had manifesto promises being fulfilled quickly and efficiently, which was a key part of his success as a leader. He epitomised a measured retreat from the intensely personal leadership style of the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. His public speeches were not designed to affect government policy or persuade reluctant colleagues to accept his point of view, but to speak for the agreed policy or strategy. He did not see himself as a positive force in the decision-making process, but as an implementer. His job was to find a compromise between his colleagues with the minimum of aggravation. Clement Attlee’s own thoughts on the role of the PM were that “The essential quality of the PM is that he should be a good chairman able to get others to work. He must be able to decide in the last resort between competing policies. He must have the architectonic sense. He must see the whole building not the bricks… I would sum up the essence of the Premiership by saying that there must be someone to take a decision. The decision that he must take is not that a certain course should be followed but that a decision must be come to.”

Attlee had an image. A wise man, he made his image rather like the real thing – quiet, cricket-loving, terse, a suburban bank manager – and it resonated with the times. Attlee was one of the first great political broadcasters. He had a radio manner as well suited for the first years of peace as Churchill’s was for the desperate years of war. Prime ministers employ people to understand the media, so he wouldn’t need that as a skill. Attlee employed Francis Williams and wisely let him get on with it, refusing to obsess about the viciously hostile press coverage he inevitably got. Williams understood the media so that his employer didn’t have to. As a PM in the 21st-century, Attlee would have had to learn a few new things, of course, but he could have dealt. The man seems to have felt no need to unburden himself. Within an hour of the sudden and early death of his wife, Violet, he burned all the letters he had sent her. This was probably a good thing, because goodness knows no one wants a repeat of Warren G. Harding’s Love Letters.

In the 1950 General Election Labour lost its majority, and by the time of its defeat in the general election of 1951, the Labour government had worked itself to near exhaustion. Attlee, however, continued to lead the Labour party until 1955, and died in 1967, aged 84. More than one survey of academics has voted Attlee the most successful British Prime Minister of all time.

PS: Modern politicians’ view of Attlee: During his bid for the party leadership in 2010, Ed Miliband named Clement Attlee as the politician he most admired – something he repeated in an interview in June 2013. His definition of Labour’s “one nation” mantra also contains a nod to the “spirit” of the transformative Attlee government elected in 1945. David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, compared Ed Miliband to the post-War Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who was a “fantastic leader” but “wasn’t the most vibrant” public performer.




3 thoughts on “Clement Attlee: a short look

  1. “His greatest achievement while in office was the introduction of the National Health Service which gave healthcare universally to the whole United Kingdom.”

    The establishment of the NHS, at the end of hostilities, was a wartime coalition policy agreed across parties. The Attlee government put legislation through Parliament establishing the NHS in England & Wales and separately in Scotland. The Unionist government in Northern Ireland put its legislation through Stormont.

    Attlee was a barrister who lived at Haileybury House, which was maintained by his old school, doing community work at the evenings and weekends. Attlee did not retain his military rank after the war.

    Coal mining, electricity and the railways – were not brought under state control, but by the mechanism of nationalisation remained under state control as they had been during the war.

    Attlee’s job was not to find a compromise between his colleagues, but to facilitate agreement around the cabinet table. As the quote you cite makes clear it is only in the last resort that a PM should be deciding between competing policies.

    1. Thank you for reading! If you’re taking issue with me giving Attlee the credit for the NHS then I’m sorry, I thought he did introduce it to the whole UK, my mistake! As you can probably see by my blog, I’m not a politician/historian – just a teenager with a creative writing blog.
      I’m very impressed by your dedication to facts – I’ll leave this comment up as a mark of where my facts might be incorrect. But I think the point I was trying to make still stands: Attlee was definitely one of the better UK PMs, and should be more widely recognised than he is. Thanks, though 🙂

      1. You are absolutely spot on re ‘suburban bank manager’ image. It served Attlee well.
        His talent as broadcaster is best exemplified in the ‘New Social Services’ broadcast of 4 July 1948
        A measured even tone, carefully chosen words. Clearly speaking as Prime Minister rather than as party leader.

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