Clement Attlee

1945 - 1951

The Attlee (1883-1967) family were richer than the Churchills – the solicitor Henry Attlee left £70,000 in 1908 compared to Lord Randolph Churchill’s £54,000 in 1895.1 Furthermore, the Attlees had much less expensive lifestyles than the Churchills. Thus, after Haileybury and University College, Oxford, Attlee was well able to fund his East End social work and the early years of his political career while enjoying the occasional comfortable Continental vacation. After war service that included Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Western Front, Major Attlee turned his social work and political advocacy into a safe Labour seat in Limehouse, east London from 1922, which survived even the 1931 electoral tsunami.

After 1931 Labour was reduced to only 46 MPs (excluding the Independent Labour Party) and Attlee, one of the few survivors not sponsored by the trades unions, was made deputy leader to the elderly pacifist George Lansbury (1859-1940). When Lansbury resigned shortly before the 1935 election, Attlee became temporary leader, an appointment confirmed after the election, in which Labour’s position improved to 154 MPs.

Attlee gained credibility with the Labour faithful by supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War – the Major Attlee Company, led by the future trade union leader Jack Jones (1913-2009), was part of the 15th International Brigade. Then in 1940, he made one of the leading speeches in the Norway debate that brought down Chamberlain, and became Churchill’s deputy (officially, from early 1942).

Attlee’s record during World War II deserves more attention and respect than it has received. For one thing, he had more experience of the sharp end of modern warfare than Churchill himself, most of whose exploits had involved Imperial show-pieces like the Battle of Omdurman against poorly armed and trained opponents. The two men had usefully complementary talents. Attlee, while a laughably poor interviewee and not a great speaker, was excellent at administration, detail and at quietening and settling clashes between the big personalities in the Cabinet and among the military.

Attlee was also active in pushing Labour’s objectives for post-war reconstruction, seizing on the Beveridge Report when it was published in November 1942 and steering Butler’s 1944 Education Act onto the statute book. Economically, the government, mostly but not entirely through its Labour members, pushed further the “war socialism” of World War I, which (from Attlee’s viewpoint) usefully paved the way for Labour’s post-war policies. As early as May 1945, even the left-wing leader Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) spotted the disadvantage of all the planning: “This island is made of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organizing genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.”2

In July 1945, Attlee’s Labour party won a landslide majority – much to his surprise. The British electorate had been radicalized by years of war socialism and rationing, Attlee’s broadcasts were an effective contrast to Churchill’s “Gestapo” alarmism about Labour, and memories were vivid of the inept transition to peace after World War I – NOT of the 1930s, which were good years in Britain for those not dependent on the Jarrow shipyards.

Attlee’s government came to power with a radical programme, most of which it was able to implement within three years of coming to power, despite the country’s economic difficulties. Socially, it was much less radical; the destruction of Establishment institutions and traditional British attitudes came later, in the 1960s. Attlee, while quite egalitarian, was a strong supporter of traditional institutions such as the Church of England, public schools, the monarchy and the armed forces. Bevan wrote of him in Tribune: “He brings to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match.”3 It was one of his greatest qualities, making him a highly effective leader of a radical government.

Together with his equally patriotic Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin (1881-1951) Attlee remained an unabashed patriot in foreign policy, deciding immediately after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs that Britain needed its own nuclear deterrent, and setting up a program to create one when it became clear that the United States would not share its technology. He also believed in a long-term future for the Empire but sent the ineffably inept Mountbatten to India in 1947 to shepherd through Indian independence, at a cost of 1 million lives. He retreated from Britain’s commitments to Greece and Palestine, leaving it to the U.S. to set up Israel, but joined with the U.S. unquestioningly when the Korean War broke out in 1950.

Economically, Attlee was a Keynesian – he believed in control of the economy by an enlightened government, including a substantial degree of state ownership, but not in full public ownership of industry. In his time, this was forgivable; capitalism had a relatively poor track record in the inter-war period, while two wars had shown the allure of “war socialism” and government controls. Even in Attlee’s Edwardian youth, the British economy had been underperforming other leading powers because of the country’s persistent commitment to unilateral free trade. Later, there was much less excuse for such belief among Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath (1916-2005), when post-war “economic miracles” had produced capitalist economic revitalizations in other countries.

On taking office, Attlee thus embarked on an extensive programme of nationalization, beginning with the Bank of England, then coal, the railways, electricity, gas, airlines, long-distance road haulage and later the iron and steel industry. None of these nationalizations was successful; they tended to run large losses and acquire highly inefficient management practices, but only road haulage and iron and steel nationalization were reversed by Churchill’s Conservatives; the remaining privatisations had to wait for Thatcher.

The Attlee government carried out two major reforms that made a major difference to the long-term future of the British populace. The first was the National Insurance Act of 1946, which established a universal compulsory national insurance and old age pensions system. The second, even more iconic to the electorate today, was the establishment in 1948 of the National Health Service, again initially on a non-contributory basis, although prescription charges were introduced as an economy measure by Hugh Gaitskell (1906-63) in 1951. Bevan was responsible for the NHS; he had to overcome major resistance from the doctors, and it is a credit to his determination and Attlee’s backing that the NHS was implemented in full.

Throughout Attlee’s term in office, the economy was in difficulties, running a large balance of payments deficit that with the Bretton Woods system’s fixed exchange rates could not be ignored. In 1945, a $5 billion loan was negotiated from the U.S., requiring Britain to give up Imperial Preference (Britain could probably have got a deal with fewer strings from the big New York banks, but this was anathema to Keynes, still its chief negotiator). In 1947, Britain restored convertibility to the pound, a decision reversed within six weeks. In 1949, the pound was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80. Taxes were kept extraordinarily high and heavy rationing remained in force, to reduce the volume of imports. Attlee’s government was re-elected with only a small majority in February 1950, then after the Korean War had placed further strains on the economy, Labour lost a second election in October 1951.

During World War II, Attlee was an extremely effective deputy to Churchill, then after 1945 he capably implemented an agenda that changed Britain forever. His economic policies did not work but their defects could have been quickly corrected had the Conservatives who succeeded him been more competent. Bevan called him the “Arch-Mediocrity;” this is by no means his only parallel to Liverpool. Overall, he should rank among the top few prime ministers.

[1] “Clement Attlee – The Man Who Made Modern Britain” – John Bew, Oxford, 2017, p 64, “Churchill – Walking with Destiny” Andrew Roberts, Viking, 2018, p 32

[2] Bevan speech at the Labour party conference, Blackpool, May 24, 1945.

[3] Aneurin Bevan, Tribune, quoted “Aneurin Bevan” by Michael Foot, Faber & Faber, 1962, chapter 14.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson