One of the readers of this blog has wanted me to do Clem Attlee, and as I have yet to mention any of my favourite British Prime Ministers I thought, why not!
One of the great pionners of political social reform of the 20th century and the first Labour leader to bring the party to a full working majority in the House of Commons, Clement Attlee was born in 1883 to a middle class family and educated at Haileybury and at University College, Oxford. He then trained as a lawyer and offered to do some work helping slum children in London. What Attlee saw there, horrified him enough to join the Independent Labour Party and dedicated most of his spare time in helping to make practical moves to alleviate the suffering that he saw.
He then became a lecturer at the London School of Economics before being enlisted during the First World War. He was badly wounded at Mesopatamia, but recovered sufficently to be involved in the fighting in France when the armistice was declared in 1918, by which time he had reached the rank of Major.
Attlee then returned to lecturing at the LSE and being involved in local politics. He was elected as Labour MP for Stepney in the 1922 General Election and was briefly the Parliamentary Private Secretary for Ramsay MacDonald, the then Labour leader.
Attlee then served as an Under Secretary at the War Office during the first Labour government in 1924, after their brief period of office, Attlee supported the General Strike of 1926 and was a member of the Simon Commission , an inter-Parliamentary group which looked at constitutional reform for India.
Attlee's first prominent ministerial post came in 1930, when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Sir Oswald Mosley, attacked the governments favouring of Keynesian economics and resigned. Of course it should be noted that Mosley was later Britain's premier fascist and theoretical traitor, but that said, his resignation gave Attlee the move he needed and by the time the Labour government collapsed in 1931, Attlee was Postmaster General, one of the most senior government posts outside the Cabinet. This stood him in good stead when in the ensuing general election, Attlee was the third most senior Labour Parliamentarian to have kept his seat, he subsequently became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. He then became leader in 1935 when George Lansbury (grandfater of Angela, believe it or not) resigned. Initally for an interim period, then for a more permanent period of time. He ended up being leader of the Labour Party for twenty years. Far longer than anyone within the Party before or since.
During the War, when there was a colaition government, Attlee was Churchill's Deputy and basically ran the government on the civil side of things, whilst Churchill had his eye on events abroad. Temperementally different, fierce critics of each other, both developed a mutual respect for each others talents which lasted for the rest of their lives. That said, there was an acerbic, although occasionally humourous, banter between them when they disgareed. Attlee once siad to Churchill that "A monologue is not a decision" (Attlee was very businesslike in the way he conducted meetings and hated waffle and hyperbole), whilst Churchill (after the war when both clashed fiecrely with each other in the Commons over another industry being nationalised by Attlee's govt..) saw Attlee enter the Commons toilets whilst he was at the communial urinal. He then moved right to the far end, away from Attlee as much as possible. "Feeling standoffish Winston!" asked Attlee, "Well you socialists want to nationalise everything!" growled Churchill in reply.
Isn't it amazing what war does to people!
Attlee's finest hour came after the War in 1945, when in the ensuing general election, the Labour Party was elected to office with a majority of 145 seats. Labour had proven that they could work responsibly in government, albeit with the Tories and Liberals, during the War and now they were entrusted with peacetime government. A widespread period of nationalisation was started and a period of economic postwar consensus began, albeit with Keynesian economic orthodoxy, which lasted until the overwhelming dominant power of the millitant unions in the 1970s and the monetarist policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. During this time, many important social reforms were put through, such as the forming of a National Health Service, the founding of the Welfare State and the withdrawal of British governance in India and Palestine. However, after becoming emroiled in the Korean conflict and having a commons maj whittled down to just five in 1950, Attlee's government was defeated in the 1951 General Election. Although Attlee remained leader for another four years and ened up with a seat in the House of Lords as Earl Attlee, essentially his political career was over.
Conservative in his morality and attitudes, reticent in his style and delivery. He would not have done well in todays television soundbite age (He only had the early equivalent of a fax machine brought into Downing Street when he was told he could therefore find out a.s.a.p. the lastest cricket test match scores). That said, he was unstintingly radical in his politics and that was triggered by his genuine concern for the underpriviliged in society. There are few such Attlee's in today's society who have moral reticence coupled with social radicalism, and whilst times have moved on we need an equivalent of Attlee that can fit into today's society with the same original passion and committment.