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Clement Attlee

(1883—1967) prime minister


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(b. London, 3 Jan. 1883; d. London, 8 Oct. 1967)

British; Prime Minister 1945–51; Earl 1955 Clement Attlee's government (1945–51) is widely regarded as Labour's most successful government. The administration decisively shaped post-war Britain, establishing the policies for full employment, the welfare state, mixed economy, and passage from the British Empire to Commonwealth.

Attlee was born into a comfortable middle-class family and there was little in his background to suggest that he would lead a party of the left. His father was a city solicitor, able to send him to Haileybury. Attlee graduated from Oxford University and qualified as a barrister. His shock at witnessing poverty in London's East End, reinforced by his reading, made him into a socialist.

The East End was to be his political base for the next fifty years. In 1907 he began to manage a Boys' Club in Stepney and eventually combined this with lecturing in social administration at the London School of Economics. His distinguished record in the 1914–18 war earned him the title ‘Major Attlee’ in the 1920s. He became mayor of Stepney in 1919 and was elected as Labour MP for Limehouse in 1922. With a private income from his parents he was able to become a full-time politician. He was a middle-class university graduate in a party still recruited largely from the working class.

Attlee held junior office in the first Labour government in 1924. Between 1927 and 1929 he served as one of two Labour members on the Simon Commission on India. In the second Labour government (1929–31) he replaced Oswald Mosley as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when the latter resigned in 1930, and the following year he became Postmaster-General. When the minority government collapsed in 1931, and Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald went off to lead the National Government, Attlee had no doubts about staying in the Labour Party. He regarded MacDonald's act as a betrayal.

Attlee gained from the devastation of the Labour Party in the 1931 general election. Just fifty Labour MPs were returned and only a handful had any ministerial experience. He was elected deputy leader and found himself necessarily speaking on a great variety of subjects in the House of Commons. When the leader George Lansbury resigned shortly before the 1935 election, Attlee was elected as his successor—obviously, so people thought, as an interim leader. In the new parliament over 150 Labour MPs were returned and in a leadership election Attlee beat the more fancied Herbert Morrison and held the post for the next twenty years, the longest spell in the party's history. Attlee's election was helped by the fact that he was the man in post. But he was also seen as the antithesis of MacDonald. His modest demeanour and his willingness to subordinate himself to the views of the majority in the party were qualities Labour MPs were looking for.

In the late 1930s Labour was increasingly divided over foreign policy and what to do about the rising menace of Nazism in Germany. The party had a strong pacifist group and was opposed to rearmament. In 1940 Attlee led Labour into Churchill's wartime coalition. He became Lord President of the Council, Deputy Prime Minister 1942–5, and was a member of the five-man War Cabinet. He chaired a number of Cabinet committees, including an important one on post-war reconstruction. As members of the coalition government, Labour ministers demonstrated both their competence and patriotism.

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Subjects: British History.


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