Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee led the Labour Party into the 1945 General Election. As Labour won this election, Attlee became Prime Minister - the first Labour Prime Minister to have a decent working majority in the House of Commons. Clement Attlee faced many major problems (both domestically and at an international level) as would be expected after six years of warfare but his time as Prime Minister was marked by the introduction of the National Health Service and Nationalisation.


Clement Attlee was born in Putney in 1883. He was educated at Haileybury and went to University College, Oxford. By 1906, Attlee was qualified as a barrister but he went on to teach at Ruskin College and the London School of Economics. He lived in the East End of London and got involved in the social issues that dominated the area.


Attlee was given a commission in the South Lancashire Regiment in 1914 and served in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and France during World War One. When the war finished in 1918, Attlee held the rank of major.


After the war, he became the mayor of Stepney and in 1922 was elected as MP for Limehouse - a seat he held until 1950 when it was abolished. After this, Attlee became MP for West Walthamstow. In 1922, Attlee served as Ramsey MacDonald's parliamentary secretary - a position he held until 1924. In the short-lived 1924 Labour government, Attlee was appointed Under Secretary of State for War.


The Labour Party won a more substantial election victory in 1929. MacDonald appointed Attlee Postmaster General. However, Attlee refused to serve in the National Government formed by MacDonald in 1931 and fought the 1931 general election as a Labour Party candidate. He was one of the few in the party to win a seat in the Commons. Attlee became the deputy leader of the Labour Party that was led by George Lansbury. 


Lansbury retired in 1935, and Attlee became the next party leader. However, the political strength of the National Government was such that the Labour Party's power in the House of Commons was minimal - after the 1935 election, Labour held 154 seats to the National Government's 429. However, in a pointer to the victory in the 1945 election, the Labour Party got 8.3 million votes in 1935 to the National Government's 11.7 million. So though the Labour Party was heavily defeated in terms of seats won, in terms of votes cast, they were not devastated as a political party.


On a domestic level, the Labour Party had a minimal impact during the days of the National Government. In the international arena, with the growing menace of Hitler and Mussolini, Attlee's influence was also minimal. He showed his socialist credentials when during the Spanish Civil War when he supported those from Britain who joined the International Brigade and visited the Brigade in December 1937. 


In the lead up to World War Two, British politics was dominated by Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. When Churchill formed a war-time coalition government in 1940, he invited Attlee to join. Attlee acted as a deputy Prime Minister to Churchill and was given the title in 1942.


He answered to Parliament for Churchill when Churchill could not attend and only Attlee and Churchill served in the War Cabinet throughout the war. Churchill was more interested in military matters and he allowed Attlee to take the dominant interest in social issues and social reform. During the war, Attlee was Lord Privy Seal (1940-42), Deputy Prime Minister (1942.45), Dominions Secretary (1942-43) and Lord President of the Council (1943-45). Attlee was considered to be a loyal and hard-working politician; a man who worked behind the scenes while Churchill was very much the front of the government.


The seeming close relationship between Attlee and Churchill tuned sour in the 1945 election. Though Labour had been severely beaten in the 1935 election in terms of seats won, the number of votes they got (8.3 million) was a sound platform to build on. The result of the 1945 election (Labour 393 seats and 11.9 million votes to the Conservatives 197 seats and 9.1 million votes) gave Attlee was comfortable position to introduce his social reforms. Labour's dominance in Parliament was such that in total, the number of opposition MP's was 247 to Labour's 393 - a very healthy majority.


Attlee had been keen to introduce social reform that would eradicate poverty and want in Britain. His government set about with great gusto to achieve this.


Nationalisation, housing, free health care (the NHS), reducing Britain's dominance in the Commonwealth, primarily India, were all introduced. Attlee also put his full support behind the Marshall Plan as he saw this as the only way to quickly rebuild a Europe that was devastated by war.


Attlee was re-elected in 1950 but with a greatly reduced majority. Though the number of Labour supporters had remained near enough constant, just over 11 million in 1951, the First-Past-The-Post system meant that they got only 251 MP's. The Conservative Party got 9.8 million votes and 243 seats. The 10 seats held by the National Liberal and Conservative Party were sufficient to make or break Labour, depending on how the 10 members of this party voted. With such a close result, that could have stifled the work of Parliament, another election was held in 1951, which Attlee lost to Churchill.


Attlee remained as Leader of the Opposition until 1955 when he retired from the House of Commons. He was rewarded for his public service with a peerage and he became Earl Attlee in December 1955. 


Clement Attlee died in 1967.


MLA Citation/Reference

"Clement Attlee". 2014. Web.

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