Clement Attlee

Clement (later Earl) Attlee shared with Churchill the centre of government through the eventful years of the 1940s. This decade saw the passing of the British empire as the price extracted by others for Britain's standing 'alone' against Hitler, a heightened awareness of the evil of tyranny and the virtue of freedom, and the emergence within British society of a communal ideal derived from the people's everyday experiences of war and peace. Attlee's socialism, like this famous electoral triumph in 1945, belonged to the mood of victory, applying to the home front a corrective to war's destructiveness. The nation was committed with exceptional unanimity to building and re-building economic institutions and social life. Nationalisation of large industries (railways, gas, electricity, coal, road transport, iron and steel) was complemented by new standards of health, housing and education provided from the cradle to the grave. The new government which Attlee headed was the agent of change ' organising, rationalising and humanising the purposes of the state in a manner reminiscent of the civic pride which flourished among Italian Renaissance states.

It was the quattrocento which Thomas Mann had in mind when he visited Britain in 1947en route to take up permanent residence in the United States. Impressed by what was happening in Britain, he told Harold Nicolson that only this country could establish a 'humanistic socialism'. Quite by accident the great writer touched on one of the sources of Attlee's idealism. Studying history at Oxford at the turn of the century, the young Attlee first acquired a 'sneaking affection' to enter politics. His special subject was the Italian Renaissance and he came to admire the 'strong, ruthless leaders'. A book which made a profound influence on him was J.A. Symonds' four-volumed The Italian Renaissance in Italy (published in 1888). Romantically inclined to imagine himself within the subject of his studies, Attlee was moved by Symonds' lyrical definition of the Renaissance as the spirit of the modern world emancipating mankind by the application of reason: 'diversity controlled and harmonised by an ideal rhythm of progressive movement'.

The undergraduate Attlee doubted his suitability to play the role of a Renaissance prince, 'too diffident to imagine that I could really be prominent however much in day dreams I pictured myself doing impossibly brilliant things'. These youthful reservations were often shared by later critics.

Throughout a very long political life running from 1907 when he helped found the Stepney Independent Labour Party to his retirement from active politics in 1955, Attlee regularly suffered the adverse judgements of the press, opponents and even colleagues about his suitability for prominence. For the Stepney Borough Council elections in 1912, for example, an election no socialist had any likelihood of winning because of the workings of the pre-1918 franchise, Attlee was allowed to be the Labour candidate, though with little enthusiasm. 'I simply cannot find anyone suitable for Limehouse', wrote the ILP organiser, 'and if we are going to import anyone without any special claim, then Attlee is entitled to first chance.'

In an age which expected leaders to command and inspire the awakened masses of modern democracy Attlee offered only a number of dated, unglamorous, and over-private qualities. Even as Churchill's deputy during the Second World War he was judged no more than a decent, harmless person, 'no one dislikes him, but it is easy to forget all about him'. Because of his small size, chipmunk-like features and hurried gait, he was frequently portrayed as a small and vulnerable creature inscrutably out of his habitat in the corridors of power. Orwell likened him to a recently dead fish before it had time to stiffen; Hugh Dalton to a little rabbit, and Lord Beaverbrook, his most implacable enemy, to a sparrow ' presumably flitting from place to place and easily frightened away.

Though well-educated he made no contribution to the theory of socialism; he had no childhood memories of cruel poverty or exploitive work to dramatise the plight of the workers in an unjust society. His most popular book, The Labour Party in Perspective , published in 1937, reads like a car manual applied to a Labour Party branch meeting. To someone turning to it to look up how Labour was to win the next general election, he would find this advice:

The deciding factor will not be the leadership or the exact theories which are held to be orthodox socialism. The thing which will secure the triumph of Labour will be the demonstration by Socialists in their lives that they have a high ideal and live up to it.

For him individual character and moral integrity, not the inevitable force of economic and historical determinism, made the difference between success and failure. In this respect he was unashamedly Victorian.

The American Ambassador, John Winant, with New World daring, once asked the Labour leader if he would give a sketch of his life. Attlee proffered this sparse neo-classical self-portrait:

I went to East London forty years ago. Ran a Boys' Club for nine years before the First World War. Lived there for fifteen years. Was Mayor of Stepney in 1919 and an alderman for seven years. Elected to Parliament for Limehouse Division in 1922 and six times since without a break.

Such a 'parliamentary answer', i.e. just enough to satisfy decorum, was a device Attlee frequently used to fend off interlocutors. By omitting large and personal sections of his life he was able to deflect attention away from himself as if he were a man in hiding seeking to preserve the mystery of his identity.

Along with a Victorian reticence to draw attention to oneself, Attlee was acutely uneasy about being born into the wrong class for a socialist. His father, Henry Attlee, founded a prosperous firm of London solicitors in the 1860s. Besides building the large family house in suburban Putney, he purchased in the 1890s a 200-acre estate, 'Comarques', in Essex where the children spent some of their holidays. Educated at Haileybury and Oxford, Clem professed ultra-conservative opinion and described himself as 'shy, bookish, arrogant, and a prig'.

In 1905 he visited an East End boys' club run by his old school and went through what he called a 'conversion to socialism'. By this he meant accepting a sense of guilt for belonging to the class which allowed the suffering of poverty to exist. 'I was willing to do anything for the poor but get off their backs.'

In fact his youthful experiences as a member of the upper middle class had failed to make him self-confident or provide relevant life values, for he always rejected the high Church religiosity which was so forceful a tradition within the close-knit family. Amid the van boys and warehouse helpers whom he met at the Haileybury Club where he lived as a manager, he found the fullest opportunity for self-expression.

I realised the virtues of one class were the vices of another. The thriftiness of the middle class looks like meanness in Limehouse, the wastefulness condemned in the West End blossomed in East London people into generosity. In fact, I found that my whole scale of values were wrong.

Between 1906 and 1914 Attlee helped form the Stepney Independent Labour Party and became a social worker. Shedding the comfort and status of his early years, he acquired a simple determination:

I only required the logic of things to reinforce the burning anger I felt at the wrongs which I could see around me in society... I felt that there was nothing in the world so worth doing as to try to alter conditions.

In 1914 he joined Kitchener's First Hundred Thousand and saw service in Gallipoli, where he was among the very last to leave as he was in charge of his company's evacuation in December 1915. Though known as a 'd-d democractic, socialistic, tub-thumping rascal', he was a model officer and acquired many of his ideas about leadership from his experiences of an officer: brevity, the use of authority derived from status, and an unrelenting pursuit of achievable objectives.

As an officer and a pre-war socialist, an unusual combination for 1919, Attlee was welcomed into the changed politics of East London. He became the first Labour Mayor of Stepney in 1919, and MP for Limehouse, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Liked by Ramsay MacDonald he was made his Parliamentary Private Secretary and Under-Secretary of State for War in 1924, though Attlee had been a keen advocate of unilateral disarmament. MacDonald quietly advanced his political career, selecting him to be one of the two Labour members of the Indian Statutory Cornmission in 1927, and appointing him Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1930, and Post-Master General in 1931.

During the 1931 crisis MacDonald offered Attlee a place in the new National Government. His refusal marked his beginning as one of the party's leaders., though of a dramaticallly reduced Parliamentary Labour Party of forty-six. As one of the three former government ministers to survive the 1931 election, Attlee was made deputy leader to the ageing George Lansbury. Venturing left along with the bulk of the Labour movement, his style of leadership was little more than staying with the majority of the party. Throughout the 1930s he gave the impression that he was not a leader so much as one who was led. Carstairs' cartoon published in Punch in 1936 aptly conveyed the man who was moving in many directions at the same time. Tom Jones, the former deputy secretary to the Cabinet and a seasoned observer of Westminster, thought Attlee gave the impression of a man pushed from behind.

Considering how slight his grasp of power was, why was Attlee able to remain leader for twenty years, longer than any other twentieth-century politician? There were certainly persistent and furtive attempts to oust him, especially in 1939, 1945 and 1947. These failed, however, because his nearest rival, Herbert Morrison, never had the broad support of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Ernest Bevin, the powerful trade union leader, refused to become king or king-maker. On one occasion Bevin silenced opponents of the leader with the remark: 'Who do you think I am, Lloyd George?' In an era when loyalties ran deep, a domestic effect of imperialism, the close working relationship between Attlee and Bevin made all would-be critics hesitant.

At the same time Attlee's gentlemanly and innocuous style of leadership, characterised by the praise he often received for being a good committee chairman, removed him from the centre of many wrangles. Mr Attlee, 'the dullest Englishman in politics', listened to the disputes taking place around him and usually felt no obligation to exercise an heroic discipline. Labour was free to be itself, an idea which conformed to his own definition: 'The Labour Party is what its members make it'.

Yet he also contributed to the changing image of Labour. Led by him it was a more complex party, less easily stereotyped as composed of malcontents and have-nots seeking revenge. The modest, respectable, and undramatic leader projected a classless and broadly national movement, one capable of representing every part of the nation.

The Second World War was the making of Attlee and the modern Labour Party. Accepting office in May 1940 after several times refusing to serve under Neville Chamberlain, Attlee became an indispensible member of the War Cabinet, the only minister along with Churchill to serve throughout the coalition. As deputy prime minister he chaired meetings when the prime minister was away or ill and mastered the machinery of government. Without much public recognition, because of the very nature of his administrative responsibilities, Attlee nevertheless, earned a high reputation among his colleagues; he was called upon to intercede with Churchill, expedite business, and offer constructive advice over a wide variety of issues.

As a result of these five years in government the psychology of the Labour Party changed. No longer looking backwards towards its ideologically confused past when politics were synonymous with propaganda, the new Labour Party for which Attlee now seemed the appropriate head, became constructive, determined and unphilosophical. Some credit for this is due to Churchill. Though Attlee regarded the war leader as an absolute aristocrat, more a child than a grown man, with the skin of a rhinoceros, who needed some one to say, 'Winston, don't be a damned ass', the Labour ministers took care not to arouse Churchill's simmering antipathy to socialism. Forced to design projects without doctrinal purity, reform was conceived as a rational necessity in the interest of the majority achievable without divisive rancour.

Achieving power in 1945, what was the purpose of having it ' a question worthy of Machiavelli. The prime minister had the clearest understanding among those in the Cabinet of the government's priorities. As a life-long student of history he appreciated that significant changes were taking place in the post-war world and that these would require a new flexibility. He wrote to General Smuts in August 1945: 'The coming of the atomic bomb means we have got to consider from a new angle most of the problems of foreign policy and defence and that many principles 'hitherto accepted as axiomatic will have to be amended or discarded'. In practice this meant committing Britain to becoming an atomic power and to large defence expenditure. While fostering the American alliance Britain had to be prepared to rescue a still de-stabilised Europe and play a part in the opposition to a dangerously assertive Soviet communism.

The transformation of the empire into commonwealth was seen as the application of democratic principles to Britain's former dependencies and the fulfilment of what was constructive in the imperial relationship. The transfer of power to India and Pakistan in 1947 was the first and most important step of this transformation. The creation of the Commonwealth, combined with a nagging suspicion of Europe's instability, disinclined the Labour government to participate as equal partners in the development of European co-operation.

The programmes of social reform and welfare introduced in the immediate post-war years were experiments in the re-organisation of British society. They represented not just government's capacity to formulate schemes but also a consensus on the pace and extent of change acceptable to society as a whole. Taking satisfaction in the fact that Labour lost no by elections from 1945 to 1951, Attlee believed that the quantity of his government's legislative programme was proof of socialism's practicality. But it was also only a phase 'in the endless campaign for freeing the human spirit and for extending the right to every individual to have status and dignity in the community'.

Socialist or social democrat? By the tenets of current socialist orthodoxy Attlee has many marks against him: he sent his son to a private school, accepted an earldom, and was treated by Harley Street doctors. Yet, whatever the fate of the Labour Party, Attlee's life suggests an essential feature of its history: the cause of social justice is a realisable ideal.

by William Golant

Clement Attlee
Back to Clement Attlee
Further Reading
Clem Attlee
by Francis Beckett

Clement Attlee: A Political Biography
by Trevor Burridge

by Kenneth Harris

Prime Minister Box Set: Attlee (20th Century PM)
by David Howell

Attlee's Labour Governments 1945-51 (Lancaster Pamphlets)
by Robert Pearce

Attlee: A Life in Politics
by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds

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