He is noted for his dry sense of humour and rampant wit, but there was one joke that Winston Churchill enjoyed telling more than any other. “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street – and Clement Attlee got out.” Classic 1940s humour I’m sure, but Churchill’s jibe stumbles upon a serious point: Clement Attlee is far too often the forgotten man of 20th Century British politics. Attlee had none of the rhetoric of Churchill, his great political rival, and none of the public relations schmooze of Tony Blair. In the unlikely event that your ‘British Politics since 1945’ textbook is made into a film, Attlee will probably be played by someone unnervingly dull. Like Gary Oldman. But, much like Gary Oldman, deep down Attlee was a fascinating character with a career worth celebrating.
Attlee was born in 1883. He left school with conservative views but after working for a charity that helped to alleviate the poverty of working class children he was converted to socialism, joining the Labour Party in 1908. His first ‘political’ role saw him cycling around England explaining and promoting the National Insurance Act, one of the first pieces of major social legislation in British history. He then served in World War One, narrowly escaping death during the Gallipoli campaign. He returned to the country as Major Attlee and quickly rose through the ranks of local politics, becoming an MP in 1922. In 1935, Attlee finally became leader of the Labour Party, a post he would hold for 20 years.
Earl Attlee, as he would eventually become, achieved more in the inter-war period alone that the vast majority of modern day politicians achieve in their entire career. Under his leadership, Labour opposed both Nazi Germany and the prevalent strategy of appeasement. While Churchill is seen as the definitive wartime leader, Attlee was the man who ran Britain. Domestic policy was left almost exclusively in his hands as the Prime Minister focused his energy on the Second World War, and his steady yet dependable stewardship saw the wartime economy mobilise – enabling us to defeat Nazism without society collapsing at the same time. He simultaneously made the Labour Party a stronger electable force than ever in its history – and his post-war achievements as British Prime Minister set him apart as a truly great statesman.
Despite Churchill’s overwhelming popularity, Attlee won the 1945 general election with Labour’s largest number of votes ever. In the six years that followed, he began to rebuild Britain at the same time as forging the welfare state. The National Health Service is perhaps his greatest achievement but it is impossible to imagine today that, before Attlee’s government, there was barely any form of social security whatsoever. That he established the welfare state at a time when many called for severe post-war austerity measures ensures that these achievements resonate even more sharply today.
But Clem, as he was affectionately known, is not my political hero purely because of what he achieved. What seems even more remarkable today is the way in which he did it. Attlee was not a skilled communicator like the politicians of today. He was simply a man of absolute conviction and character, who presided over monumental achievements throughout the nation’s toughest decade. He didn’t seek office for power or money or fame, but rather because he believed Britain could and should be better. Yes, he had his failings. Critics say he should have made more profound changes to education, focused more on house building, or stood down as party leader sooner. But in light of his many and varied accomplishments these minor defects pale into insignificance.
It is almost unfeasible that Clement Attlee would succeed in politics today. He was too disinterested in pandering to the media to really shine now. But it seems to me that politics would be a better place if more of our leaders looked to Attlee to see what can be achieved with the appropriate focus and dedication. Attlee believed that drastic change was possible and could make our society better and stronger. The NHS and the welfare state, in particular, continue to stand as pillars of our community today – a testament to his tremendous vision and ability as a politician and a man.