Attlee, Clement, 1st Earl Attlee

views updated May 21 2018

Attlee, Clement, 1st Earl Attlee (1883–1967). Prime minister. The son of a solicitor, Attlee grew up in a comfortably middle-class environment. He was educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford, where he read history. Called to the bar in 1905, he forsook the law for a career in social work after viewing poverty at first hand in London's East End. Meanwhile Attlee became committed to socialism, joining the Fabians in 1907 and the Independent Labour Party in 1908. He volunteered for military service in the First World War, fighting with distinction in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and France. In later years he retained the title of ‘Major’, clearly setting himself apart from the strong anti-militarist strain within the Labour movement.

With the war over Attlee became mayor of Stepney and was elected to Parliament as member for Limehouse in 1922. He immediately became parliamentary private secretary to Ramsay MacDonald and was appointed under-secretary at the War Office in the short-lived Labour government of 1924. Attlee broadened his experience when serving under Sir John Simon on the Statutory Commission on India after 1927. There he revealed those qualities of moderation, diligence, and attention to detail which were to characterize his political life. He became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in November 1930, but was soon promoted to be postmaster-general. When this second Labour government collapsed in the summer of 1931, Attlee refused to follow MacDonald when the latter re-emerged as prime minister of an all-party National Government.

Ironically, Labour's catastrophic performance in the general election of that year worked to Attlee's advantage. So depleted was the party's front bench that Attlee faced no opposition when the pacifist George Lansbury was forced out of the leadership in 1935. Even so, it was widely expected that Attlee would be only a stop-gap leader pending the return of some of the party's senior figures to the House of Commons. After the general election of 1935, however, he successfully retained his position in a contest with Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Few imagined that he would hold on to the leadership—without serious challenge—for the next 20 years.

For many Labour activists Attlee's greatest virtue lay in the fact that he was unlikely to follow MacDonald in abusing the office of party leader. Yet it was always easy to underestimate his qualities. He was no orator. Even his private conversation was clipped and uninformative. But Attlee emerged as a consummate politician and expert party manager, capable of controlling difficult and wilful colleagues. During the 1930s he played his part in curbing the excesses of Labour's left and re-establishing Labour as a viable party of government. Attlee was ill at the outbreak of war in September 1939, but in May 1940, following the debate on the ill-fated Norwegian campaign, he made it clear that Labour would not serve in a government headed by Neville Chamberlain.

Under Winston Churchill Attlee served successively as lord privy seal, dominions secretary, and lord president. From 1942 he was also designated deputy prime minister and was the most powerful figure on the home front. This certainly gave him more opportunity than Churchill enjoyed—or perhaps desired—to think about the challenges of the post-war world. With the resumption of party politics in the general election of 1945 Attlee was the beneficiary of the mood of popular radicalism which had swept through the electorate during the war years. He emerged as the head of the first majority Labour government in British history.

As prime minister 1945–51 Attlee helped shape the development of British politics, in both the domestic and foreign arenas, for the next quarter-century. The administration presided over a substantial extension of the public ownership of British industry, the development of the welfare state including the creation of the National Health Service, and the establishment of Britain's position within the western alliance. Attlee headed a talented, if not always harmonious, group of senior ministers, which included Ernest Bevin, Hugh Dalton, and Herbert Morrison. The overall coherence of the government was testimony to his qualities. Despite considerable difficulties, Labour sustained its public support and never lost a by-election throughout the Parliament.

Though Labour was again victorious in the general election of 1950, its massive majority of 1945 was all but wiped out. Party unity came under severe strain, while the outbreak of the Korean War imposed new difficulties. The government struggled on but its creative energy was largely exhausted. Conservative tactics in the House of Commons made the business of government difficult and Attlee went to the country again in October 1951. Labour was narrowly defeated and the moment was perhaps opportune for Attlee to resign the leadership. Mounting problems within the party, the emergence of a clear left–right split, and the absence of an obvious successor convinced him that he should carry on. But as leader of the opposition Attlee engaged in little more than an exercise in damage limitation, failing to define a new role for the Labour movement. After a further electoral defeat in 1955, Attlee resigned and went to the House of Lords with an earldom.

A modest man by nature, Attlee came to enjoy great respect from the majority of those who worked under him and the electorate at large. Though the ideas of central planning, state intervention, and welfarism, which dominated his government, have been less in vogue over the last two decades, his historical reputation remains high. Attlee's standing as one of the most successful of peacetime prime ministers of the 20th cent. seems beyond challenge.

David Dutton


Harris, K. , Attlee (1985);
Pearce, R. D. , Attlee (1997).

Clement Richard Attlee

views updated May 18 2018

Clement Richard Attlee

Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967), was prime minister of England from 1945 to 1951. He led the labour government that established the welfare state in Great Britain.

Clement Attlee was born in Putney, near London, on Jan. 23, 1883, the son of Henry Attlee, a successful solicitor, and Ellen Watson Attlee, a cultivated and educated woman. The family was devoutly religious. Attlee attended Haileybury College and then University College, Oxford, where he read modern history and achieved second-class honors in 1904.

Heading for a legal career, Attlee joined the Inner Temple, studied and worked in chambers, was called to the bar in 1906, and set up his own office. After a visit to Haileybury House in east London, a boys' club supported by his old school, he moved to the East End. He continued practicing law, helped evenings in the club, and soon became its manager. He developed a new outlook and a new purpose. By 1908 he was a member of the Fabian Society (a socialist organization) and of the Independent Labour party, and he was a socialist in the practical sense of being committed to improving the lot of the working class.

In 1909 Attlee gave up his law practice and spent a brief period as secretary of Toynbee Hall, the best-known of the university settlements in the East End. Then he lectured at Ruskin College, Oxford, and was appointed tutor and lecturer in social science at the London School of Economics in 1913.

In 1914 he had leanings toward pacifism but concluded that the war was justified. Promptly commissioned, he served in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. He was discharged as a major, a title he continued to use, and returned to the London School of Economics. Still residing in the East End, he became the first labour mayor of Stepney in 1919 and a member of the executive committee of the London Labour party. In 1922 he was returned to Parliament from Limehouse, and that year he married Violet Helen Millar of Hampstead; four children were born to them.

Attlee now devoted full time to Labour politics. Ramsay MacDonald, as leader of the Opposition, appointed Attlee his parliamentary private secretary and then in 1924 in the first Labour government designated him undersecretary of state for war. Though at first excluded from the Labour Cabinet in 1929, Attlee became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in 1930 and a year later postmaster general. In the landslide victory for the National (coalition) government in 1931, Attlee, one of three surviving Labour members with front-bench experience, was made deputy leader of the party. Labour members of Parliament became almost hopelessly divided on armaments and diplomacy; in a tumultuous meeting in October 1935 Attlee was elected party leader, because of his demonstrated parliamentary qualities. It cannot be said that either Attlee or his party had imaginative views for dealing with Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but on the other hand the National government made no moves toward developing common policy. Attlee did reunite his party.

When war came and Winston Churchill formed a true coalition government in May 1940, Attlee joined the War Cabinet of five and in 1942 became deputy prime minister. He attended the San Francisco conference in April 1945, which established the United Nations. At Potsdam, the final wartime conference of the allies, in July 1945, power shifted from Churchill to Attlee after the overwhelming electoral victory of Labour at the polls. Attlee formed a strong government, and in nationalization of basic industries, the extension of social insurance, and the establishment of the National Health Service, he carried out most of his party's pledges. Under his guidance India and Pakistan became independent and England entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Labour was less successful in dealing with economic problems; leadership shifted in 1951 to the Conservatives. Within the party Attlee managed to hold on, despite attacks from the left wing, until 1955, when he suffered a stroke and resigned after 20 years of leadership.

Attlee received the Order of Merit in 1951. In 1955 he was made a knight of the Garter and granted an earldom. For several years he was active in the House of Lords and devoted considerable time to writing and lecturing. He died on Oct. 8, 1967.

Further Reading

Roy Jenkins, Mr. Attlee: An Interim Biography (1948), is useful on Attlee's early years but continues only to 1945. Another early biography is Cyril Clemens, The Man from Limehouse: Clement Richard Attlee (1946). Attlee tells his own story to 1953 in As it Happened (1954). Francis Williams records conversations with Lord Attlee concerning the war and postwar periods in A Prime Minister Remembers (1961). Background studies which discuss Attlee include R. T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (1955; 2d ed. 1963); Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party (1961; 2d ed. 1965); D. N. Pritt, The Labour Government, 1945-51 (1963); Francis Boyd, British Politics in Transition, 1945-63 (1964); and Carl F. Brand, The British Labour Party: A Short History (1964). □

Attlee, Clement Richard, 1st Earl

views updated May 23 2018

Attlee, Clement Richard, 1st Earl (1883–1967) British statesman, prime minister (1945–51). Attlee joined the Fabian Society in 1907, and became a Labour member of Parliament in 1922. He joined the Labour government in 1930, but resigned when Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Coalition (1931). Attlee became leader of the Labour Party in 1935. During World War II, he served in Winston Churchill's wartime cabinet, first as Dominions Secretary (1942–43) and then as deputy prime minister (1942–45). Attlee won a landslide victory in the 1945 general election. His administration was notable for the introduction of important social reforms, such as the National Health Service (NHS) and the nationalization of the power industries, the railways and the Bank of England. He also granted independence to India (1947) and Burma (1948). Attlee was re-elected in 1950, but was defeated by Winston Churchill in the 1951 general election. He continued to serve as leader of the opposition until he retired and accepted an earldom in 1955.