Attlee, Clement Richard, first Earl Attlee 1883-1967, statesman, was born in London 3 January 1883, the fourth son and seventh child of Henry Attlee, a leading solicitor in the City, and his wife, Ellen, daughter of T. S. Watson, secretary of the Art Union of London. The Attlee family had lived near Dorking for generations as farmers, millers, and merchants, but by the middle of the nineteenth century were in the main solid and prosperous members of the professional class.
The Attlee house was in Putney; a country house in Essex was added in 1896. Attlee always said that his was a typical family of the professional class brought up in the atmosphere of Victorian England. He was taught at home until he was nine, acquiring an abiding love of literature from his mother. Other teaching was done by a succession of governesses engaged for his sisters, one of whom had previously had (Sir) Winston Churchill in her charge. A preparatory school at Northam Place, Potters Bar, was then followed by Haileybury College. His record at both was undistinguished. When he left Haileybury he was still immature and painfully shy, having made a mark only as an outstandingly good cadet.
He went up to University College, Oxford, in 1901 and spent three happy years there. He emerged with a deep love of literature and history (he obtained second class honours in modern history in 1904), a half blue for billiards, the sole game for which he had skill, and a lasting affection for his college and Oxford. Otherwise he was as conventional in general outlook and as Conservative in politics as he had been at Haileybury. He had already begun to eat dinners at the Inner Temple and was called to the bar in 1905.
In October 1905 Attlee's life took what proved to be a decisive turn when he paid his first visit to Haileybury House, a boy's club in Stepney, supported by his old school. He soon began to help regularly in the club and took a commission in its cadet corps. In 1907 he agreed to become manager of the club and went to live there. His home was in the East End for the next fourteen years.
By the end of 1907 he was a socialist, converted by his experience of life in Stepney and his reading of the works of John Ruskin [qv.], William Morris [qv.], Sidney and Beatrice Webb [qv.], and other apostles of socialism. In 1908 he joined the tiny Stepney branch of the Independent Labour Party. There was nothing unusual in such a conversion to socialism. Two of his brothers and several of his friends took the same path. What marked out Attlee was that he abandoned any idea of a regular career which might be combined with political agitation and social work on the side. His father's death in 1908 assured him of an income of £400 a year. It enabled him to abandon the law and was enough for his spartan tastes. He took a succession of ill-paid jobs connected with social work or politics: lecture secretary of the Webbs' campaign for the minority report of the Poor Law Commission, secretary of Toynbee Hall, lecturer at Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1911, and official explainer of the National Insurance Act of that year. At the instigation of Sidney Webb (later Lord Passfield), he became a lecturer in social administration at the London School of Economics in 1913. The other candidate was E. Hugh (later Lord) Dalton [qv.].
He thus had plenty of time for social work and socialist propaganda. As secretary of the Stepney branch of the ILP he was active in Labour's London organization and, his early shyness conquered, became an experienced, if not very effective, street-corner orator. By 1914, without any abandonment of his old friends and connections, his roots were deep in the East End and the growing Labour movement.
He had not, however, given up his voluntary commission in the cadets and within a few weeks of the outbreak of war, at the age of thirty-one, was a lieutenant in the 6th South Lancashire Regiment. He went with his battalion to Gallipoli and had two spells there, the second ending with command of the rearguard at the evacuation of Suvla Bay. He was in Mesopotamia in 1916, where he was badly wounded by a British shell and invalided home. After recovery he served with the Tank Corps for a year and was promoted to major in 1917. By the summer of 1918 he was back with the South Lancashires in France. During the advance to Lille he was injured and sent home, celebrating the armistice in hospital.
Attlee was unusual among the coming Labour leaders in having served as an active officer throughout the war. For many years he was most commonly known as Major Attlee, his vaguely military bearing and appearance, and the clipped anachronisms of his conversation, setting him somewhat apart from his contemporaries in the Labour Party. The war also gave rise to a keen interest in the theory of warfare; he was, for example, convinced that Churchill's strategic conception at Gallipoli had been sound.
Attlee returned to the London School of Economics and to political activity in the East End immediately after demobilization. In 1919 he was co-opted by Stepney Borough Council as mayor. Apart from the routine work of the Council his main concern was the high level of unemployment in Stepney. He helped to form an association of the Labour mayors of London boroughs and became its first chairman, leading a deputation to 10 Downing Street to appeal to Lloyd George for stronger measures to deal with unemployment in London.
Attlee continued, as an alderman, to be active in the affairs of Stepney until 1927. But marriage in 1922, the purchase of a house in an Essex suburb, and election as an MP brought to an end the years of absorption in the life of the East End. His main role became that of representing Stepney on many of the organizations set up to co-ordinate the work of the London borough councils; for some years he served as vice-president of the Municipal Electricity Authorities of Greater London.
When he was elected to the House of Commons in 1922 Attlee gave up his post at the London School of Economics and became, in effect, a full-time politician. His constituency, Limehouse, was one of the few safe Labour seats outside the mining districts. It was a fitting reward for all that he had done in the East End since 1907. Elsewhere, he was virtually unknown. Platform oratory was the route to reputation in the Labour Party and he had little talent for it.
He did, however, have some long-run advantages over the other middle-class and professional men who became Labour MPs in the elections of 1922 and 1923. His experience of working-class life was both extensive and firsthand and he had started at the bottom of the Labour movement. He had already begun to show, too, unusual effectiveness at the hard slog of committee work. His views were well to the left of his party's official policy. He was a member of a small ginger group in the ILP in company with A. Fenner (later Lord) Brockway and R. Clifford Allen (later Lord Allen of Hurtwood) [qv.], and also attracted by the guild socialism advocated by G. D. H. Cole [qv.].
Ramsay MacDonald was elected leader of the Labour Party after the election of 1922 and invited Attlee to be one of his parliamentary private secretaries. But the Parliament was short-lived. Stanley Baldwin (later Earl Baldwin of Bewdley) decided to seek a mandate for tariff reform and went to the country at the end of 1923. The upshot was a minority Labour Government which held office for ten uneasy months. Attlee served as under-secretary of state for war, under Stephen Walsh [qv.], a post which he found congenial.
Back in opposition, Attlee's contribution was largely confined to putting his party's case on the Electricity Bill (1926) and a Rating and Valuation Bill (1925) which was one of Neville Chamberlain's key reforms as minister of health. Attlee's growing reputation for competence at the detailed work of committees must have played some part in MacDonald's invitation in 1927 to serve as one of the two Labour members on a statutory commission for India, chaired by Sir John (later Viscount) Simon [qv.]. For the next two years Attlee devoted himself to the political problems of India. The commission met considerable obstruction on its two visits to India and its report in 1930 was rejected by the leaders of the Congress and denigrated by their supporters in the Labour Party. Attlee himself always defended the commission's proposals for an extension of self-government in the provinces as going as far as was realistic at the time. Certainly his service on the Simon commission gave him a valuable insight into the problems of India.
After the election of 1929 MacDonald broke a promise that serving on the Simon commission would not affect Attlee's chance of a post in the event of Labour coming to power. His opportunity did not come until the spring of 1930 when Sir Oswald Mosley resigned from the chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. Attlee succeeded him but with a considerably reduced brief. He assisted Addison with his Agricultural Marketing Bill, one of the Government's few parliamentary successes, and wrote a major memorandum on The Problems of British Industry which, although it went unheeded by the Cabinet, was the first indication of his ability to analyse a problem and distil a course of action. In March 1931 Attlee was transferred to the Post Office which had gone to seed under Sir G. E. P. Murray [qv.], who had ruled it with an autocratic hand since 1914. Attlee set to with a will and inaugurated a number of reforms, the benefits of which largely accrued to Sir H. Kingsley Wood [qv.] in the succeeding Government.
He was on holiday with his family in August 1931 when he was summoned to Downing Street and told, with the other non-Cabinet ministers, that the Labour Government was at an end and that MacDonald was forming a coalition Government. Attlee was never in any doubt about his own course of action in spite of his past association with MacDonald and a growing reputation for being not only middle-class but also middle-of-the-road. He had become increasingly disillusioned with MacDonald since joining the Government but the reasons for his staying with the Labour Party lay deeper, in the strength of his personal beliefs and his roots in the movement. He never changed his view that MacDonald had perpetrated the greatest betrayal in the political history of the country.
Attlee survived the landslide of the 1931 election but with a majority at Limehouse of only 551. Labour, including the rump of the ILP, was reduced to 52 members. George Lansbury [qv.], the sole survivor of those who had sat in Cabinet, was elected leader of the parliamentary party and Attlee became his deputy. Sir R. Stafford Cripps [qv.] completed a triumvirate; although solicitor-general in the Labour Government he had been in the Commons for little more than a year. The team of three worked harmoniously. Cripps provided the driving force and for a time Attlee was considerably influenced by him. But as Cripps moved further to the left, neither his views nor his crusade against Transport House were to Attlee's liking. Attlee was the last man to wish to split the Labour Party and his own ideas about policy were becoming increasingly balanced and eclectic. He expressed them in The Will and the Way to Socialism published shortly before the election of 1935.
The years from 1931 to 1935 were the making of Attlee. He was no longer confined to occasional parliamentary speeches on specialist topics but, as deputy leader, was called upon to cover the whole range of debate. In 1932 he filled more columns of Hansard than any other member and led the party for several months in 1934 when Lansbury fell ill. His own parliamentary style was steadily developing. His speeches lacked flourish to the point of being laconic but they were thorough and spiced with an occasional waspish sting. But none of this was enough to suggest that he was a potential leader of the party
Lansbury resigned the leadership after his defeat at the Brighton conference in October 1935, a bare three weeks before the start of the election campaign. The parliamentary party had little choice but to appoint Attlee as leader. The Manchester Guardian reflected universal opinion; it observed, ‘This is hardly more than an interim appointment’. Attlee worked hard in the campaign but made little personal impact on the electorate and the result, 154 seats to Labour, was a disappointment. In the contest for the leadership that followed the election the loyalty of his old colleagues, particularly the miners, from the previous Parliament and his reputation for rectitude were enough to ensure the defeat of Herbert Morrison (later Lord Morrison of Lambeth) and Arthur Greenwood [q.v.], his rivals for the leadership. Even his modesty helped, for his approach to the tasks of leadership was the antithesis of the style which MacDonald had made suspect.
There was a full testing of Attlee in the years that followed. Few leaders have had a more difficult baptism. The Labour Party struggled to cope with its own divisions in the face of Hitler's challenge to the country's security and the seeming impregnability of the ‘national’ Government. Attlee largely concentrated on his role in Parliament. He recognized that he had no talent for the more flamboyant arts of leadership in opposition and that the constitution of the Labour Party provided little scope for the imposition of his views on others. In so far as he gave a lead it was, as he said, ‘from slightly left of centre’.
With political passions running high his gift, as Dalton noted, was that he ‘lowered the temperature’. This low-key approach was denounced as colourless and uninspiring by the militants of both Left and Right in the party. Nor did it make Attlee appear to the electorate at large as being of the stuff of which prime ministers are made. But if he did not inspire the Labour Party, he did nothing to divide it and it was this preservation of Labour's fragile unity which made it possible to seize the opportunity of 1940.
Attlee's approach stemmed from his deep understanding of the Labour Party as a loose alliance of divergent views and interests. He was fortunate in one respect. The shock of 1931 and the depth of the economic depression combined to remove most of the ambiguities that had characterized the party's domestic programme in the MacDonald era. By 1935 the Labour Party was firmly pledged to policies of socialist planning and public ownership. This measure of agreement was, however, obscured by a more fundamental debate, stirred by the political and economic crisis of the thirties, in which the defenders of parliamentary democracy came under increasingly heavy Marxist fire.
Attlee put his own views in The Labour Party in Perspective which he was invited to write for the Left Book Club in 1937. His intention, he wrote in the introduction, was ‘to show the Labour Party in its historical setting as an expression in place and time of the urge for socialism, to show it as a characteristic example of British methods and as an outcome of British political instincts’. This belief in parliamentary institutions and the traditional ways of government was also exemplified in his support for Stanley Baldwin, for whom he had a lasting admiration, during the abdication crisis. They found themselves of one mind on the issue. Nor did Attlee doubt that he was expressing the views of the ordinary supporters of the Labour Party although not, as he noted later, ‘of a few of the intelligentsia who can be trusted to take the wrong view on any subject’.
But as Germany grew more menacing, domestic questions gave way to the problem of how the challenge was to be met. Chamberlain, who became prime minister in May 1937, quickly dispelled the hesitations of the Baldwin Government by a forceful combination of policies of positive appeasement and moderate rearmament. The Labour Party found it difficult to make a coherent response. It had previously paid little attention to foreign policy. The split in World War I had been healed with the slogan, ‘No more war’ and the pull of the pacifists remained powerful. In May 1935 Attlee stated views to which the majority of Labour Party members would have subscribed: ‘We stand for Collective Security through the League of Nations. We reject the use of force as an instrument of policy. We stand for the reduction of armaments and pooled security ¼ Our policy is not one of seeking security through rearmament but through disarmament.’ These policies of disarmament and collective security, tinged with pacifism, were slowly abandoned under the pressure of events. The occupation of the Rhineland, the Spanish civil war, and the Anschluss added substance to the arguments which Ernest Bevin [q.v.] and Dalton, in particular, had been advancing since Hitler's early days in power. Attlee himself denounced Chamberlain with vigour. When (Sir) Anthony Eden (later the Earl of Avon) resigned from the Foreign Office in February 1938 Attlee argued that the Government's policy was one of ‘abject surrender to the dictators’. He attacked the Munich agreement as ‘a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler’ and pressed Chamberlain hard in the summer of 1939 to come to terms with the Soviet Union.
The key issue, however, was rearmament. In July 1937 the Parliamentary Labour Party finally decided to abandon its traditional vote against the defence estimates and to confine itself to abstention. Attlee voted against the change. It was not until after Munich that he began to accept the case for rearmament and when Chamberlain announced the introduction of conscription for military service in April 1939 Attlee attacked the measure as useless and divisive.
The Labour Party was so divided in its views that Attlee, as leader, was in a difficult position. Urged on by Bevin, the leaders of the unions were able to ensure, after 1937, that the official line was in support of rearmament. But the main movement of opinion among the rank and file was sharply to the left and looked to the Soviet Union for salvation. The middle path followed by Attlee sprang as much from conviction as from his conception of his role as leader. The conclusions that he had arrived at after World War I were not readily discarded and his hostility to Chamberlain and his policies ran deep. In later years Attlee came close to admitting that the Labour Party had been in blinkers. His own comment on the vote against conscription is perhaps the best epitaph: ‘Well, it probably wasn't awfully wise.’
Attlee was ill when war broke out. Two operations for prostate trouble kept him out of action for several months and Arthur Greenwood took over the leadership. It was not until the fiasco of the Norwegian campaign in April 1940 that the opportunity arose to topple Chamberlain.
After the debate on 7 and 8 May 1940 it was evident that he could not carry on without Labour support. When Attlee and Greenwood saw Chamberlain on 9 May, Attlee said that he would put two questions to the Labour National Executive Committee: (1) Are you prepared to serve under Chamberlain? (2) Are you prepared to serve under someone else? He telephoned the replies on the following afternoon: ‘The answer to the first question is, no. To the second question, yes.’ Chamberlain resigned within the hour. Churchill was summoned to the Palace and during the night he and Attlee agreed on the distribution of posts in a coalition government.
Attlee served in the War Cabinet as lord privy seal until February 1942. He then became secretary for the Dominions and, from September 1943, lord president of the Council. He was also deputy prime minister, at first de facto, but, from February 1942, with the formal title. At the highest level the war was run by the War Cabinet and two subsidiary bodies; military matters were dealt with by the Defence Committee, civil by the Lord President's Committee. Attlee alone served on all three bodies and did so for the life of the Government. But although he played his part on the Defence Committee, his main responsibility lay on the civil side where, by 1944, he was very much the committee workhorse of the coalition. Most of the key committees were chaired by him and by the end of the war he had earned a high reputation for the efficient and business-like dispatch of business.
The day-to-day care of Government business in the House of Commons also fell mainly on Attlee and as deputy prime minister he took the chair at the War Cabinet and the Defence Committee when Churchill was absent from the country, as he increasingly was during the last two years of the war. These arrangements rested on a confidence and trust that lay at the heart of the coalition's high degree of harmony. Attlee's loyalty to Churchill never wavered for an instant, even in the dark days of 1941 and 1942.
From his central position in the machinery of government, Attlee was called upon to preside over much of the discussion of social reform that not only made the coalition one of the most considerable of all reforming governments but led to a consensus of view between the two parties and laid the framework for much of the work of Attlee's own administration. The war was fought on the home front with the weapons of economic control and social amelioration advocated by the Labour Party and it was evident by the end of 1943 that peace would bring further reforms: the implementation of the report of the committee on social insurance and allied services chaired by Sir W. H. (later Lord) Beveridge [q.v.], the establishment of a National Health Service, and the carrying out of economic policies aimed at full employment.
Attlee was well suited by temperament and experience to soothe such strains as these great changes brought to the coalition. In backing proposals for reform he eschewed the socialist arguments and socialist labels which would have antagonized his Tory colleagues. The case was put in terms of national unity and what was needed to win the war. But it was not easy for Attlee to avoid offending Tories without outraging many of his own supporters who wished Labour to use its leverage in the coalition for more socialist purposes. Attlee's reply was that ‘we cannot dictate to others the acceptance of our Socialist programme’, but this realism was usually tempered with emphasis on how much had been gained by participation: ‘The acceptance’, as he said at West Hartlepool in January 1944, ‘of so much of what our party has preached in the last thirty years.’
Attlee's wider responsibilities included the chairmanship of the committee on India and of committees dealing with the details of the post-war settlement in Europe. He opposed the Morgenthau plan to destroy Germany's industrial capacity although convinced of the need to enforce fundamental changes in its economic and social structure. He found himself very much in sympathy with Eden on more general questions and they combined on occasion to restrain Churchill, particularly when they thought him too influenced by Roosevelt. But the disagreements were minor and the bipartisan policy of the post-war years was forged during the coalition. No member of the Government was more hostile to Stalin than Attlee and he fully agreed with Churchill that long-term American participation in the peace settlement and the maintenance of the British Commonwealth were essential to counter the Russians and ensure stability.
Attlee's record during the war earned him little public reputation compared, for example, with Bevin and Morrison whose departments covered much of the home front. Within Whitehall, however, his standing grew as a chairman and conciliator of unusual quality. Churchill and he made an effective combination, of leader and chairman, which echoed that of Lloyd George and Bonar Law in the previous war. It also became increasingly clear that Attlee could not be lightly crossed; he could be devastating in his criticisms and his judgement, if sparsely offered, lacked neither crispness nor authority. It was an appreciation of these qualities, as he had seen them emerge during the war, that led Bevin to compare Attlee with Campbell-Bannerman as possessing ‘that gift of character which enabled him to hold a team of clever men together’.
One of his Tory colleagues in the War Cabinet said subsequently that he could not remember Attlee ‘ever making a point which I felt came from him as leader of the Labour Party’ as distinct from his pressing for improvements in the lot of the working class and for effective preparation for the post-war period. It was this non-partisan approach to the coalition which led Aneurin Bevan [q.v.] to accuse Attlee of bringing ‘to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match’. Attlee's own view was that his biggest achievement had been ‘to take a party intact into a coalition, to keep it intact for five years and to bring it out intact’.
In May 1945 Attlee accompanied Eden to the foundation conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. The prospect of a general election forced them to return early, but, on his way back, Attlee was able to meet Truman and found to his pleasure that they ‘talked the same language’.
Churchill and Attlee would have preferred to continue the coalition until Japan had been defeated but opinion in both parties, especially on the Labour side, was in favour of a quick end. Churchill formed a caretaker Government and a general election followed immediately.
During the campaign Attlee established himself for the first time in the public eye. His broadcast in reply to Churchill's ‘Gestapo’ speech was a model of effective restraint and his campaign, for which he was driven about by his wife in their small family car, was in telling contrast to his opponent's almost regal style. He also emerged with credit from the one testing episode of the campaign, an attempt by Churchill and Beaverbrook to take advantage of some tiresome interventions by Harold Laski [q.v.], the chairman of the Labour Party's National Executive Committee.
The result of the election, much to Attlee's surprise, was a Labour landslide with a majority over the Tories of 170. But he did not become prime minister without some exchanges in which, in Emanuel (later Lord) Shinwell's words, ‘the brotherly love advocated by the movement was conspicuous by its absence’. Bevin's unwavering support ensured the defeat of a challenge by Morrison for the leadership and Attlee proceeded to form a strong and experienced Government. His first task, once the principal posts had been filled, was to return to the Potsdam conference with the new foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin.
Conservatives feared and socialists hoped that the election of 1945 presaged fundamental changes. The Labour Party's manifesto had declared, ‘The Labour Party is a Socialist Party. Its ultimate aim is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain.’ Attlee's own horizon was more restricted: to the implementation of the manifesto's specific proposals and the tackling of the problems which the post-war period would bring, particularly in economic policy and foreign affairs. During the war he and all his leading colleagues had participated in a gigantic exercise in planning and economic control so that, to a considerable extent, the election of 1945 signified not change but continuity. Nor, in spite of the dismay of defeat, did the Conservative Party lag far behind Labour. It was by 1945 already well on the way to embracing both the managed economy and the Welfare State. If Attlee presided over a revolution, therefore, it was, as he himself stressed, an extraordinarily quiet and peaceful revolution which had begun well before 1945 and was to lead more to consensus between the parties than to conflict.
The leading figures in the Government, Bevin, Morrison, Cripps, Dalton, and Bevan, formed an exceptionally able but difficult team, managed by Attlee with great skill. He was at his best when he could delegate substantial control of major areas of policy to ministers in whom he had complete confidence, as with Bevin at the Foreign Office and Cripps at the Treasury, and so be free to concentrate his own efforts on one or two key political problems and the general tasks of co-ordination and management. ‘If you have a good dog, don't bark yourself’ was a favourite Attlee proverb.
The backing of Bevin was proof against all intrigues but Attlee's authority over his principal colleagues and his more general mastery of the Cabinet sprang from his own qualities. He was a good judge of men and adept at managing them, rarely allowing his judgement to be clouded by personal prejudice. His integrity was accepted as being beyond question.
From the beginning Attlee succeeded in enforcing his own style on the working of his Government. He put high value on the bureaucratic virtues of formality, order, and regularity and in structure and method the Government conformed to them to an unusual degree. His own strong preference was for working through paper. Even at the highest level the circulation of boxes was the medium by which the work of the Attlee Government was mainly done. There was little of the informal and speculative discussion typical of Churchill's methods. The same puritanical concentration on the matter in hand characterized Attlee's running of the Cabinet and its committees. As he later remarked, ‘I was always for getting on with the job.’ Some indulgence was shown to senior ministers but short shrift was usually dealt out to anyone who had failed to master his brief or who attempted to read it. In summing up Attlee was invariably precise and succinct. Otherwise he said little and rarely took a vote. His aim was to make the Cabinet and its committees efficient machines for the dispatch of well-prepared business and to cut to the minimum their tendency to become talking shops.
The main defect of such methods was that Attlee remained remote from his party and the general public, and even from ministers who were not privy to the inner circle. The impression that he gave of a Victorian headmaster keeping his school under strict control was compounded by an inability to participate in the complimentary small-talk of politics, a consequence doubtless of his innate shyness. His considerable kindliness was invariably expressed by letter.
‘The little man’, as Bevin affectionately called him, had few of the attributes normally looked for in a political leader but this was of little significance while Bevin was attempting to forge a Western alliance or Cripps was embarking on his austere crusade. But when ill health compelled them to resign and Morrison proved a palpable failure at the Foreign Office, it was beyond Attlee's power to fill the gap. The Labour Party respected him to an unsurpassed degree but could not rise to him. Nor had he the gift, possessed by Bevin and Cripps, of rallying those outside the ranks of his own party even though his lack of partisan spite and devotion to the broad national interest came to be increasingly recognized. But as a catalyst among politicians engaged in the business of government Attlee has few rivals.
In domestic politics the first eighteen months or so of his office were almost untarnished honeymoon. The Opposition showed few signs of recovery and major legislation poured from Parliament at an unprecedented rate. Attlee was determined to push ahead and by the end of 1946, an annus mirabilis, acts had been passed nationalizing the Bank of England, the coal industry, civil aviation, and Cable and Wireless; there had also been a National Insurance Act, a New Towns Act, a Trade Disputes Act, an Act for the establishment of a National Health Service, and a host of minor measures. The legislation remains as a permanent memorial. It was passed in a period of optimism in politics and cheap money in the economy. The Japanese war ended with unexpected speed, taxation was cut, demobilization went smoothly with none of the unemployment that had been feared, and industry was turning over to peacetime production with remarkably little friction. The Welfare State was in an advanced state of construction and the nation was still proud of its rationing system and its sense of social discipline.
At this stage there was little public consciousness that there would be tight physical constraints on what could be done. J. M. (later lord) Keynes [q.v.], for example, wrote to Dalton about the latter's National Land Fund to say that he should have ‘acquired for the nation all the coastline round the island at one stroke’. It was a time when anything seemed possible.
Attlee did not share this euphoria. He was shocked by the sudden ending of Lend-Lease in August 1945 and, while adamant that there was no alternative but to accept the terms on which the American loan was subsequently made, knew that the most severe difficulties would be likely to arise from the requirement to make sterling convertible within a year of the commencement of the loan.
In foreign affairs events at first appeared to match the fears that Churchill and Attlee had shared in the last months of the war. Stalin cemented his hold on Eastern Europe and was obstructive in Germany. Large Communist parties in France and Italy awaited his bidding. It was, however, the uncertainty engendered by American policy which most disturbed the Government.
Attlee did not doubt Truman's own goodwill but the negotiation of the loan and the passing of the McMahon Act by Congress in 1946 were jolting experiences and the American reaction to Russia seemed ambivalent and at times naïve. Relations between the two countries were further strained by Bevin's policy in Palestine, fully backed by Attlee, which American opinion thought pro-Arab and anti-Zionist.
A transformation of American policy began with the arrival of General Marshall at the State Department in January 1947. The Truman Doctrine which secured aid to Greece and Turkey, previously British responsibilities, was declared in March. A year later the Marshall Plan was launched and followed in 1949 by the setting up of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Together they ensured the economic recovery and political security of Western Europe. If the main influence bringing about the change was the effect of Stalin's obduracy on American opinion, the patient persuasion of Bevin and Attlee should not be discounted. In a relationship which Attlee called ‘the closest of my political life’ they were of one mind on the necessity of involving the United States in the defence of Western Europe.
Attlee's own most important contribution, and one with which his name will always be associated, was, however, the granting of independence to India. He acted in effect as his own secretary of state and all the major decisions bear his unmistakable stamp. He began with the intention of modifying the plan which Cripps had proposed to the Indians in 1942 but the failure of the Cabinet mission in 1946 convinced him of the need to take full account of the strength of the Muslim League and its determination to establish Pakistan. Viscount (later Earl) Wavell [q.v.], who had been viceroy since 1943, was dismissed and replaced by Attlee's personal choice, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was charged with the negotiation of independence within a time limit. The new viceroy arrived in India in March 1947 and acted with great speed and decisiveness. On the day of the declaration of Indian independence he wrote to Attlee, ‘The man who made it possible was you yourself. Without your original guidance and your unwavering support nothing could have been accomplished out here.’
Attlee was also mainly responsible for the decision that Britain should manufacture her own atomic bomb. Concern at the narrowness with which American officials were interpreting the Quebec agreement for the exchange of atomic information led him to fly to Washington in November 1945. His discussions with Truman were cordial but the President was in the event unable to deliver even the little that he offered. The coup de grâce was delivered by Congress a few months later with the passage of the McMahon Bill. Attlee had no hesitation in deciding that Britain should make her own bomb: ‘It had become essential. We had to hold up our position vis-à-vis the Americans. We couldn't allow ourselves to be wholly in their hands, and their position wasn't awfully clear always.’ He also insisted on the maximum of secrecy. All but a few members of the Cabinet were kept in the dark, questions in Parliament discouraged, and large sums concealed in the estimates. ‘The project’, as Attlee put it, ‘was never hampered by lack of money.’
The Government ran into its first major trouble early in 1947 when fuel supplies broke down in savage weather. For a time two and a half million men were out of work. During the following months the Cabinet was further shaken by a dispute over the nationalization of iron and steel and by an economic crisis. The nationalization of iron and steel was the only major item of the 1945 programme on which there had been no progress. Morrison, whose responsibilities included the co-ordination of economic policy, had always been lukewarm. With some encouragement from Attlee, he succeeded in negotiating an agreement with the leaders of the industry which fell well short of nationalization. But the compromise ran into trouble in the Cabinet, with Bevin, Cripps, and Dalton in opposition, and raised a storm in the party. Although Attlee took care to leave the running to Morrison, it was evident that he had made an error of judgement.
A growing exchange crisis came to a head in July when sterling became freely convertible, under the terms of the American loan. The Cabinet dithered for five weeks before suspending convertibility. His critics were confirmed in their view that Attlee, never at his best in discussions about finance, was losing his grip.
Foremost among these critics was Cripps who had some success in persuading one or two of his leading colleagues that Bevin should replace Attlee, with the latter taking the Exchequer. The attempt was doomed from the start by Bevin's response: ‘What has the little man ever done to me?’ But Cripps persisted. Although deserted by his fellow conspirators he went to see Attlee on 9 September. The interview began with Cripps suggesting that Attlee should give way to Bevin. It ended with Cripps agreeing to take on the new post of minister for economic affairs. Whatever the summer might have disclosed of Attlee's failings, his touch with men had not deserted him.
Dalton was compelled to resign in November as a consequence of a few indiscreet words to a journalist immediately before his budget speech. He was succeeded at the Exchequer by Cripps who thus came to dominate economic affairs and, to Attlee's immense relief, soon brought authority and purpose to domestic policy. Cripps's policies were hard and austere. Rations were, for a time, lower than they had been in the war. The housing programme was cut and the building of hospitals and roads brought almost to a halt. The bombed wastes at the centre of cities became even more derelict. But the aim was clear: to bring the balance of payments into equilibrium and, in particular, to solve the problem of the dollar shortage while maintaining the benefits which the Government had earlier secured for the working class.
Attlee was content to leave the lead to Bevin and Cripps. In foreign affairs, the early work began to bear fruit. The Organization for European Economic Co-operation was set up and the Marshall Plan implemented in 1948, so providing the underpinning for Cripps's policies. The Russian challenge at Berlin was successfully met by the Anglo-American airlift and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949. But the growing movement in favour of a federal Western Europe was met by Bevin with a mixture of hostility and scepticism. Attlee was of the same mind. As he later wrote, ‘Britain has never regarded itself as just a European power. Her interests are world-wide. She is the heart of a great Commonwealth and tends to look outwards from Europe.’
By the end of 1949, ten years of continuous office had taken its toll of the leading members of Attlee's Government. They had all suffered bouts of serious illness and Bevin and Cripps were soon to be forced to resign. It was also evident that the Government had little to offer by way of new ideas and policies once it had exhausted the capital of the 1945 manifesto. Cripps had successfully completed the transition from a war economy by marrying Keynesian techniques of budgetary manipulation to the system of rationing and controls inherited from the Churchill coalition but it could scarcely be argued that this was more than a temporary solution to the problem of how the economy should be run.
The inevitable consequence was an intensification of the ancient dispute between the left and right wings of the Labour Party. Attlee offered no lead, took no initiative. He increasingly concentrated his energies on contriving to achieve agreement in Cabinet and became even less disposed than before to contemplate crossing his bridges before he came to them.
Nevertheless, Attlee and his colleagues approached the general election in February 1950 with some confidence in spite of having been forced to devalue sterling in the previous autumn. No other industrial country in Europe had made a comparable recovery, the promises of 1945 had been broadly kept, and the working class, in particular, had much to be greatful for. The result was a disappointment, a majority of ten for Labour. Attlee, who had represented Limehouse since 1922, stood at West Walthamstow. He remained in office although no one expected that his Government would last more than a few weeks. In the event it survived for twenty difficult months. Few governments have achieved so little, been so battered by external circumstances, or suffered so much from internal disharmony. The Korean war, which began in June 1950 and brought in its train a massive rearmament programme, inflation, and a disruption of the balance of payments, was the main catalyst of disaster. Much of the ground that had been so painfully gained during the previous three years was lost. When Attlee's Government was defeated at the polls in October 1951, it ended as it had begun, running a war economy.
The strain on Attlee was considerable. The two mainstays of his Cabinet were forced to resign after long periods of ill health, Cripps in October 1950 and Bevin in March 1951. But he enjoyed something of a Roman triumph in December 1950 when, with Bevin too ill to fly, he decided suddenly to go to Washington because of a general worry that the Americans were intending to extend the Korean war and a particular fear, based on a misunderstanding, that Truman was contemplating the use of the atomic bomb. Morrison, who took Bevin's place, was a disaster at the Foreign Office; ‘the worst appointment I ever made’, was Attlee's conclusion. He was of necessity drawn into direct intervention in the conduct of foreign policy and it was largely due to his steadying hand that there was such a muted response to Musaddeq's expropriation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Hugh Gaitskell [q.v.] succeeded Cripps at the Exchequer. There was no doubt about his competence but his promotion roused the resentment of Bevan who stood high in the party and had done well as minister of health. Attlee thought highly of Bevan's talents but had always found him difficult, in respect both of temperament and opinions, and had usually tried to deal with him through an intermediary. What he now had to face was not just personal animosity between the two men but a conflict between the standard bearers of the right and left wings of the party.
Matters came to a head with the preparation of the budget in April 1951. Gaitskell was determined to impose charges for a number of services which had previously been provided free in the National Health Service. Attlee was in hospital with a duodenal ulcer and Morrison, his deputy, made little attempt to confine the resulting conflict. When Attlee returned to duty, the breach was beyond repair. Bevan, (Sir) Harold Wilson, and John Freeman had already resigned and were soon leading a wide-ranging attack on the Government's policies.
A spurious unity was patched up for the election in October but the Labour Party entered it with considerable handicaps. Attlee was its sole leader with a reputation that still counted with the electorate and he campaigned with his wife in what had become his familiar style. He lost and Churchill took office but the total Labour vote was greater than that of the Conservatives and indeed the highest achieved by any party in any election.
The size of the vote was a remarkable indication of the loyalty which the Attlee Government aroused in its supporters. Labour's straightforward mixture of social concern and sensible pragmatism, exemplified by Attlee's own views, may not have been socialist enough to satisfy the Left or been a reliable pointer to the party's future but it satisfied its supporters. The main legacies of the Attlee Government were that it ensured the country's safety and initiated policies of welfare, full employment, and the budgetary control of the economy to such effect that Governments for the next twenty years had no alternative but to attempt to follow in its wake.
Attlee remained leader of the party for four more years. But they were years of frustration and anticlimax. In the House of Commons he continued to speak at a high level of statesmanship, particularly in support of the bipartisan policies in defence and foreign affairs of which he and Bevin had been the principal architects. But it was as leader of the Labour Party that he was judged and for much of this period the leadership was virtually in commission. The broad consensus of the 1940s had disappeared and divisions of opinion had inexorably hardened into faction. Attlee, bereft of the authority of a prime minister, found it hard to cope with the dissensions of Opposition and failed to regain his old touch with back-benchers and the rank and file of the party.
His aim, as it had been before 1939, was to hold the party together. Although unwilling to make any policy concessions to the left wing, he consistently opposed the hounding of Bevan and its other leaders which was enthusiastically led by Arthur Deakin, Bevin's successor at the Transport and General Workers' Union. But passions were too high and the division of opinion too deep for there to be a chance of more than a passing reconciliation. Attlee increasingly withdrew into silence and the anonymity of committee membership. As one of his colleagues put it, ‘At the National Executive, he doodled where he should have led’.
The election of May 1955 was a dull affair. The result was a comfortable Conservative victory and it was evident that Attlee's retirement could not be long delayed. The candidates for the succession were Morrison, Bevan, and Gaitskell and by the autumn they were all in the field. But Attlee held on. The consequence, and almost certainly the intention, was that the prize went to Gaitskell. Attlee announced his retirement in a brief and unheralded speech at a regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 7 December 1955. The Queen conferred an earldom on him; he had already been admitted to the Order of Merit in 1951.
Attlee was sworn of the privy council in 1935, was made CH in 1945, and KG in 1956. He became an honorary bencher (Inner Temple) in 1946 and FRS in 1947. He was awarded honorary degrees by many universities, and was made an honorary fellow of University College, Oxford (1942), Queen Mary College, London (1948), and LSE (1958).
Attlee's retirement was happy and busy. He travelled widely and wrote and lectured about politics with a frankness that surprised many of his former colleagues. To this Dictionary he contributed the notice of William Whiteley, Labour chief whip. His own stock rose as his virtues of integrity, fairness, and coolness in adversity came to be more widely appreciated. Even his habitual restraint and understatement, which had so often offended his supporters by making him appear remote and almost disinterested, appealed to a generation over-fed on political hyperbole.
Attlee is the leading example in modern times of a politician who achieves high office against all expectations, only then to reveal unsuspected talents. Before 1940 it was assumed that he held a short lease on the leadership of the Labour Party. Many of his colleagues still thought him unfitted for the premiership in 1945. Five years later there would have been little disagreement with Bevin's reported verdict, ‘By God, he's the only man who could have kept us together’. Attlee's contribution doubtless lacked the ideas, stimulation, and flair, which are usually thought of as the stuff of leadership. He could act decisively, as he did with India, but he was in general content to wait until opinion had formed before he moved out to express it.
The qualities that made him indispensable and gained him the respect and loyalty of his colleagues were his sense of justice, his imperturbability in a crisis, his skill at the business of administration, and, above all, his adroitness in choosing and managing men. In the main, these are qualities not for opposition, but for office. They enabled Attlee to play a significant part during the war of 1939-45 and then to harness men of inherently greater ability and imagination into a team which effectively laid the foundations of post-war politics both at home and abroad.
Attlee was a solitary man but only in the sense that he had no political cronies. ‘It's very dangerous’, he said, ‘to be the centre of a small circle.’ His gregariousness was expressed in other ways. He liked formal dinners and kept in close touch with the ramified Attlee family. The fortunes of his old friends of school, university, and army were followed in The Times; his daily recreation was then to solve the crossword. But his wife, to whom he remained devoted until her death in 1964, and his family, provided all the ordinary company and relaxation that he needed.
He married in 1922 Violet Helen, daughter of H. E. Millar, of Hampstead. They had three daughters and a son, Martin Richard (born 1927), who succeeded his father in the earldom. Attlee died in Westminster Hospital 8 October 1967.
There are portraits of Attlee by Flora Lion (1941); Rodrigo Moynihan (1948) in the Oxford and Cambridge Universities Club; G. Harcourt (1946) in the National Portrait Gallery; Cowan Dobson (1956); Lawrence Gowing (1963); and Derek Fowler, at Haileybury. There is also a bronze presentation medallion (1953), a bronze head by David McFall (1965) in the National Portrait Gallery, and a statue by Ivor Roberts-Jones in the lobby of the House of Commons (1979).
Attlee's own writings, principally As It Happened, 1954;
Kenneth Harris, a biography of Attlee in draft;
Francis Williams, A Prime Minister Remembers, 1961;
The Times, 9 October 1964;
Contributor: Maurice Shock