Attlee, Clement (1883–1967)
ATTLEE, CLEMENT (1883–1967)EARLY CAREER
British politician and statesman.
Clement Richard Attlee was born on 3 January 1883 in Putney, London. Raised in a loving, conventional family, the small, shy Clem was taught at home by his mother until he was nine years old. He then went to preparatory school and thereafter, aged thirteen, to Haileybury College. From there he went to University College, Oxford, in October 1901 to read history, graduating with a good second-class degree in the summer of 1904. He began training that autumn to be a barrister, passed his bar exams in the summer of 1905, and then joined his father in the family firm of city solicitors. He was called to the bar in March 1906.
Up to this point, Attlee was no different than many upper-middle-class British men. Until he left Oxford there was nothing to suggest that his was to be an exceptional life, let alone that he would become the longest-serving (twenty years) leader of a political party in twentieth-century Britain and the first Labour prime minister to form a government with a substantial majority. What provoked the turning of a conventional life into an exceptional one was a chance visit to the Haileybury Club in the poor Stepney borough of dockland London. Like many public schools, Haileybury had established a club to give poor London boys an opportunity to pursue activities that were not provided in their own state schools. Accompanying his brother Laurence to the club in October 1905, Attlee began a deep involvement with the club, becoming its manager in 1907, and living on the premises for seven years and for fourteen years in the East End of London.
Sharing his parents' sense of moral and social responsibility, but not their Christian beliefs, Attlee became increasingly interested in social and economic reform so as to address the causes rather than the symptoms of the poverty and inequality of opportunity that he saw all around him. This preference for making practical improvements to people's lives rather than engaging in the more excitable aspects of political theorizing was to characterize his political career. This he began by joining the Stepney branch of the Independent Labour Party, and when a small inheritance from his father in 1908 ironically enabled him to finally turn his back on a paternally approved legal career at the bar, he became a full-time, if yet unpaid, politician. In 1909 he stood unsuccessfully as the ILP candidate for the Stepney Borough Council.
Too old at thirty-one to join the army on the outbreak of World War I in 1914, he secured a position as lieutenant to the Sixth Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment. Promoted captain in February 1915, he sailed with the "South Lancs" for Gallipoli in June 1915. This tragically muddled, but potentially important effort to provide an alternative field of conflict to that of the deadlocked western front was to leave Winston Churchill (1874–1965) with many critics for the rest of his life, but Attlee was never among them. Landing in Gallipoli in June 1915, Attlee suffered dysentery and was taken to hospital, missing an assault in which two-thirds of the men in his company were killed. Recovered, he returned to the front line for two months, until the soldiers were evacuated and redirected to the fighting in Mesopotamia, where Attlee was shot in the thigh and sent back to England. In December 1916, now promoted major, he began tank training in Dorset and, seeing action in August 1918 on the front line before Lille, he was injured again. It was not until 16 January 1919 that Attlee was discharged from Wandsworth Hospital.
Back in civilian life, Attlee recommenced his political career. Appointed mayor of Stepney at the age of thirty-six, in the general election of 15 November 1922, Attlee became MP for Limehouse with a slim majority of 1,899. He increased his majority to 6,185 in the December 1923 general election, and in the minority Labour government (1924) of James Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937), he served as undersecretary for war. In November 1927 he was appointed to what became the Simon Committee to examine developments in India since the Government of India Act of 1919 and thereby began a lifetime of increasing familiarity with the complexities of Indian life and politics. He contributed heavily to the writing of the 1930 Simon Commission's report, which favored moves toward a central government embracing the interests of Muslims, Hindus, and the provincial princes under Dominion status. Appointed to succeed Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896–1980) as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in the spring of 1930, and then transferred to become postmaster-general, Attlee was well out of the firing line as MacDonald embarked on what Attlee regarded as his "betrayal" of the Labour Party and the British working class.
In the 1931 general election, Attlee held his seat with a narrow majority of 551, but many of his former colleagues did not. The pacifist George Lansbury (1859–1940) was elected as party leader, but he was uneasy in the face of the aggressive fascism of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and Benito Mussolini (1883–1945). When Lansbury resigned in October 1935, Baldwin called a snap election, and the Labour Party elected Attlee as a temporary leader. As party leader Attlee refused to support the distrusted government of Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940), and in the subsequent wartime coalition, only Attlee, as deputy prime minister, and Churchill served in the war cabinet for the entire period.
As prime minister from July 1945, Attlee presided over a formidable legislative program, in which the bases for the postwar welfare state were laid and major industries were taken into public ownership. Internationally, probably his greatest contribution was his realization that India should be given its independence as quickly as possible, his appointment of Louis Mountbatten (1900–1979) to effect this, and his reluctant acceptance of the need for a separate Muslim state, Pakistan. Domestically, apart from the legislative program, he performed the difficult task of holding the talented but disparate personalities in government together, aided by his understated but firm insistence on working toward a fairer society, his suspicion of ideological enthusiasts, his mastery of technical detail, and his ability to steer committee meetings toward agreement. Breaches only began to become publicly evident as the younger Aneurin Bevan (1897–1960) and Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell (1906–1963) fought for the future leadership of the party, and the older generation fell ill or died. In the 1950 general election, the government's majority was cut to five and then lost the following year. Yet throughout, Attlee remained high in public affection, recognized as an ethical man with a preference for substance over form. Married at the age of thirty-nine to the twenty-two-year-old Violet Millar, Attlee enjoyed a happy and fruitful marriage. Violet predeceased him in 1964; Attlee died on 8 October 1967.
Attlee, Clement Richard. As It Happened. London, 1954.
Harris, Kenneth. Attlee. London, 1982.