Attlee, Clement R.

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Clement R. Attlee

Born January 3, 1883
Putney, England
Died October 8, 1967
London, England

British prime minister

C lement Attlee was Britain's top leader from 1945 to 1951. Both before and after serving as prime minister, Attlee headed the British Labour Party, from 1935 to 1940 and from 1951 to 1955. The rise of the Labour Party made the British government a two-party system; the second party was the Conservative Party. Attlee substantially changed Britain's economic and political role in the world by dismantling the British Empire and bringing socialism, in the form of a national welfare system, to Britain. Socialism is a system in which the government owns or controls all means of production and all citizens share in the work and products. Operated by the national government, a national welfare system provides financial help and other forms of assistance to poor and needy citizens.

Attlee's tenure as his nation's leader occurred when the Cold War was just beginning. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. During the Cold War, the United States ran a democratic system of government, which consists of several political parties whose members are elected to various government offices by vote of the general population. The United States operates under a capitalist economic system. This means prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government interference. In contrast, the Soviet Union ran a communist governmental system led, in which a single political party, the Communist Party, control almost all aspects of society. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and business is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all. The low-key Attlee had to develop Britain's early Cold War policies and provide leadership to a nation greatly weakened by two world wars.

Dedication to the poor

Clement Richard Attlee was born in January 1883 in Putney, England, the fourth son of a devoutly religious family. His father, Henry Attlee, was a prosperous London lawyer, and his mother, Ellen Watson, was educated as well. Raised in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood, Clement was educated at Haileybury College boarding school and then Oxford University. He studied law at Inner Temple and set up his own law office in 1905. That same year, he began volunteer work for a boys club at a settlement house in London's impoverished East End. Settlement houses were private organizations established in poor neighborhoods in the late nineteenth century to provide assorted social services to nearby residents. Attlee moved into the house in 1907, serving as a house manager.

Greatly influenced by the poverty of London's East End, he developed socialist political beliefs and a commitment to social reform. Attlee joined a socialist organization, the Fabian Society, in 1907, and in 1908 he became politically active in the Independent Labour Party. In 1909, he abandoned his law career for politics and would continue living in the London slums until 1923. During this period, Attlee lectured in social sciences at Ruskin College and Oxford University and later was appointed as a lecturer at the London School of Economics. Attlee was fully dedicated to improving the lives of Britain's working class.

Political career takes off

At the outbreak of World War I (1914–18), Attlee joined the British army and served in France and Africa. He attained the rank of major, a title he would continue to use when his military service was over. After the war, he returned to teach at the London School of Economics. However, his political career soon began. In 1919, he was elected mayor of Stepney of East London and became a member of the London Labour Party's executive committee. In 1922, Attlee won election to Parliament. He also married Violet Millar of Hampstead that year; they would have four children.

Despite his liberal politics, Attlee was very conservative in his lifestyle and mannerisms. He was strongly family-oriented and showed little egotism or flamboyant behavior. Some even regarded him as colorless. Attlee did not have no- table public speaking skills; he was to the point and used few words. However, he was known for his witty one-liners. An excellent administrator, Attlee much preferred working behind the scenes.

Through the 1920s, Attlee moved up in Parliament to undersecretary for war in 1924 and various other cabinet positions through 1930. In 1931, Attlee resigned from Parliament to become deputy leader of the Labour Party. He was elected Labour Party leader in October 1935. The Labour Party rose to prominence in opposition to the well-established Conservative Party, and thus a two-party political system in Britain was born.

Attlee strongly opposed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies toward Nazi Germany. (Appeasement meant giving in to Germany's demands; the Nazi Party was known primarily for its brutal policies of racism.) Attlee proposed taking action against Germany's military expansion in Europe. Chamberlain (1869–1940) was a member of the Conservative Party, which opposed most Labour Party beliefs, but when war broke out in 1939, Chamberlain asked Attlee to be part of a wartime coalition, or partnership. Attlee refused and blocked all Labour Party participation, leading to Chamberlain's resignation in May 1940. Winston Churchill (1874–1965; see entry), also of the Conservative Party, replaced Chamberlain.

Though he belonged to a different political party, Churchill shared Attlee's views regarding Germany. Churchill appointed Attlee to his five-member War Cabinet to perform various duties. By 1942, Attlee was deputy prime minister. While Churchill focused on the war, Attlee took care of the home front. Under Attlee's leadership, the British government took control of every aspect of the economy to support the war effort.

Britain's war effort was successful. With the Allies poised to defeat Germany, Attlee represented Britain at the United Nations organizational meeting in April 1945 in San Francisco, California. Also at that time, Attlee and other Labour Party members pulled out of Churchill's wartime coalition government, forcing a general election for prime minister in July; Attlee and Churchill were the two candidates. With the election votes still being counted, both Attlee and Churchill traveled to the Potsdam Conference in Germany, a postwar meeting of the victorious Big Three war allies: the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. While at the conference, Attlee learned he had won in a landslide, so he then took over for Churchill in the discussions.

A changing Britain

After World War II (1939–45), Attlee embarked on a dramatic change of British government policies, both at home in Britain and in foreign relations. He had hoped to transform Britain's government-controlled wartime economy into a peacetime socialist economy. However, because the defeated Germany was no longer a threat, wartime aid from the United States abruptly stopped. This left the British economy in shambles. For many Britons, hardships immediately after the war were worse than they had been during the war. Shortages grew worse: Civilians were restricted from using gasoline, and even potatoes, a staple food, were rationed. In an effort to increase industrial productivity as well as support increased social services, Attlee began to curtail British foreign commitments; this allowed him to reduce the military budget and brought soldiers back into the civilian workforce. In 1945 and 1946, Attlee nationalized, or placed under the control of the national government, basic British industries such as gas, electricity, coal, railways, civil aviation, roads, and the Bank of England. These industries were losing large amounts of money at the time, so opposition to Attlee's plan was minimal. With the British economy near collapse, the United States provided a $937 million loan in 1945, shortly after the surrender of Germany. Even with this help, Attlee had to maintain strict, wartime-like measures, such as banning gasoline for civilian use and rationing potatoes; high taxes; and wage and price controls to boost the British economy. Because of the persistent hardships, Attlee's public support steadily dwindled as the middle class switched allegiance to the Conservative Party.

In 1947, Attlee nationalized more of the economy, including the iron and steel industries. This was an unpopular move with both labor and industry because they were losing ownership of their industries to the state. Attlee also made other major changes in 1947 by greatly expanding social services to Britons. He extended social insurance and established a national health care system called the National Health Service.

A diminished world role

The dramatic changes in domestic policies directly influenced Attlee's foreign policy. In order to increase industrial productivity and to pay for the expanded social services and subsidize, or financially support, the nationalized industries at home, Attlee had to make cuts in foreign commitments. He began to dismantle the British Empire, which included colonies around the world. In its place he established the British Commonwealth of Nations, an alliance of Britain and its former colonies. Attlee granted independence to Jordan in 1946 and gave India its independence in 1947. In recognition of ethnic differences in the region, he created Pakistan from part of British-controlled India. Attlee also ended British control of Egypt and Palestine.

Besides trimming Britain's colonies from the budget, Attlee ended foreign aid to other countries. In February 1947, he ended financial aid to Greece and Turkey. At the time, the Greek government was fighting a communist-supported revolt, and Turkey was under pressure from the Soviet Union to allow the Soviets access to the Mediterranean Sea. Alarmed by Britain's withdrawal from these two countries, the United States quickly decided to replace Britain in the area. On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served

1945–53; see entry) sought economic aid for Greece and Turkey from Congress and announced the Truman Doctrine. The doctrine stated that the United States would provide assistance to countries combating communist aggression.

A major goal of Attlee's foreign policy was to draw the United States into a much greater role in protecting Europe from Soviet Communist expansion. U.S. aid for Greece and Turkey was the first step. Next would come the Marshall Plan in mid-1947, a program that provided long-term economic assistance to Western Europe and Britain, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. NATO was a peacetime alliance of the United States and eleven other nations, and a key factor in the attempt to contain communism. Britain also became more aggressive against Soviet threats of expansion. Attlee approved the development of Britain's own atomic bomb program, and he began rearming Britain by taking money from social programs.

In 1950, Attlee supported a military response to the communist North Korean invasion of South Korea. This conflict soon mushroomed into the Korean War (1950–53). Attlee's decision proved highly unpopular among Britons and led to his final political demise. Postwar economic problems in Britain had gradually eroded his popular support. U.S. loans in 1945 and the Marshall Plan of 1947 were not enough to sustain the British economy or Attlee's popularity. In October 1951, Attlee resigned as prime minister, and Churchill won the position for a second time. In December 1955, after suffering a stroke, Attlee resigned as leader of the Labour Party.

An honored life

Attlee received numerous awards for his dedicated service to Great Britain during difficult times. In 1951, he received the Order of Merit, and in 1955 he was knighted and granted an earldom, an honor that gave him a seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of British parliament. He was one of only four prime ministers in British history to receive these honors. He spent much time writing and giving lectures until he was disabled in 1966 by another stroke. He died in London in October 1967.

For More Information


Attlee, Clement R. As It Happened. London: W. Heinemann, 1954.

Beckett, Francis. Clem Attlee. London: Richard Cohen Books, 1997.

Brookshire, Jerry H. Clement Attlee. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Pearce, Robert D. Attlee. New York: Longman, 1997.

British Atomic Bomb Program

While serving as Great Britain's prime minister, Clement Attlee had to make a key decision: to commit his nation to the nuclear arms race. During World War II, British, Canadian, and U.S. atomic scientists worked together to develop an atomic bomb as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. In 1942, Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, reached a secret agreement with the United States about sharing technical atomic bomb information. Just after replacing Churchill as prime minister in July 1945, Attlee was informed of the atomic bomb project. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, ending World War II. Attlee suddenly had to deal with the nuclear age.

Attempting to avoid a nuclear arms race, Attlee desperately tried to develop agreements with the United States and the Soviet Union to ban atomic bombs. Unsuccessful in his attempts, Attlee gave British scientists the go-ahead in late September 1945 to conduct atomic energy research for civilian use. He still held back on the decision about atomic bomb production. Others, including his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin (1881–1951; see entry), wanted Attlee to push ahead on the bomb.

Attlee was also trying to obtain the previously promised atomic secrets from the United States. However, shortly after World War II, Congress had passed a law prohibiting the United States from sharing scientific information about the bomb. President Harry S. Truman still privately indicated to Attlee that he would honor the earlier agreement. But when Britain formally requested assistance in April 1946, Truman refused to cooperate. It was clear that Britain would have to develop an atomic bomb on its own. By late 1946, unable to achieve any arms control agreements, Attlee knew it was time for Britain to produce its own bomb. He believed Britain needed the bomb to maintain a level of prestige with the United States. In January 1947, he secretly decided to move forward with development of the atomic bomb. Britain conducted its first successful test in 1952, joining the United States and the Soviet Union as one of the world's nuclear powers.

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