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Who was Clement Attlee?

Updated on December 2, 2016

Clement Richard Attlee (1883-1967), British political leader, who was prime minister of Britain from 1945 to 1951. He was the leader of the British Labour party from 1935 until 1955, when he was created 1st Earl Attlee and Viscount Prestwood.

Clement Attlee was born at Putney on January 3, 1883, the seventh child of an eminent London lawyer. After graduating from Haileybury College and Oxford, he became a barrister. His politics were mildly conservative. In October 1905, Attlee visited the East End of London, then a place of stark poverty and grinding unemployment. Its impact on him was immediate and profound. He abandoned his pleasant career, and in a passion for social service that was akin to a religious conversion he went to live and work in the Limehouse slums. He remained there for nearly 20 years, interrupted only by World War I, during which he served with distinction in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and France, and was . wounded.

After the war he returned to the East End. In 1922, on the fall of the Lloyd George coalition, the East Enders prevailed on him to run for the Limehouse seat in Parliament in the general election. He won by a big majority. In the same year he married Violet Helen Millar.

These early years provide an essential key to Attlee's character and his subsequent role. He was small in stature, modest, unassuming, and without much public glamour or oratorical skill; but he had a deep sense of public service and an unmistakable integrity that earned him the abiding loyalty of the East End. This loyalty, almost accidentally, brought him to the leadership of his party, for in the crisis election of 1931 which reduced the Parliamentary Labour party from 287 to a tiny group of only 46 members and robbed it of almost all its best-known figures, Attlee was one of the few to survive. He became deputy to the beloved veteran George Lansbury, and when Lansbury resigned in 1935, Attlee was elected leader in his place. Everyone, including himself, assumed the appointment was merely a stopgap; but when the general election of November 1935 brought back most of the better-known Labour leaders, Attlee was re-elected leader. He remained leader longer than any man in the party's history.

As leader of the Labour party, Attlee in 1942 became deputy prime minister under Winston Churchill in the wartime national government, after refusing to serve, in any circumstances, under Neville Chamberlain. Attlee was in the war cabinet longer than any man except Churchill.

When party politics resumed at the end of the war in Europe, the majority of the nation, including most of the armed services, unexpectedly turned to this quiet and essentially unassuming man in preference to Churchill. Attlee became prime minister after Labour's election victory in July 1945. Churchill fought as Conservative leader, but reaction against Conservative rule, particularly of the prewar period, was strong. On the other hand Attlee's calm, logical assessment of postwar problems proved to have a powerful appeal.

Although it was against Attlee's nature to play a buoyant role as a national leader, he proved a firm and decisive master of his cabinet. His qualities as prime minister were those of an administrator of ideas rather than a creative thinker. He lacked his predecessor's imagination and also his ability to communicate to a mass public a sense of participation in history. In the end his government, which was inevitably caught up in serious postwar economic shortages and had to deal with the transitions required by Britain's altered position in the world, suffered in popularity. But within its range, Attlee's vision was clear, precise, and orderly, informed by a deep moral purpose, but practical and realistic and salted with an agreeable wit. He never lacked the courage to do what he thought was right, however unpopular. He was quick to perceive the danger of a Russian advance in Europe after the war and, at considerable national sacrifice, put Britain's remaining power in its way. In his dealing with Indian independence and his conception of Britain's future role in relation to her old colonial empire, he displayed great qualities of imaginative statesmanship.

Possibly Attlee's greatest contribution to the political life of his own country was that, essentially moderate and pragmatic in his socialism, he enabled Britain to carry through a postwar economic and social revolution without a breakdown in basic national unity.

Attlee was the author of The Social Worker (1924), The Will and the Way to Socialism (1935), The Labour Party in Perspective (1937), Purpose and Policy: Selected Speeches by Attlee (1946), The Labour Party in Perspective and Twelve Years Later (1949), As It Happened (1954), and A Prime Minister Remembers, with Lord Francis-Williams (1962). Attlee died in London on October 8, 1967.


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