A man who transformed Britain
Clement Attlee was born in Putney, Surrey in 1883. A trained barrister who went on to serve in the First World War, he was to blossom as a politician, becoming wartime Deputy Prime Minister and then Prime Minister following the 1945 general election. He is hailed as the man who helped transform British society and who also drove Britain’s policy of decolonisation after the Second World War.
The formation of a political mind
Attlee was educated at Haileybury, graduated in Modern History at Oxford and then studied law, being called to the Bar in 1906. His work at Haileybury House, a charitable institution in London’s Stepney, between 1906 and 1909 opened his eyes to the issues of social inequality, leading him to join the Independent Labour Party in 1908.
From this point his political career began to move forward, working also at the London School of Economics (the LSE) until joining the army in 1914 where he served in the South Lancashire Regiment during the Gallipoli campaign and later in Mesopotamia, where he was badly wounded.
After the war, Attlee returned to the LSE and in 1922 became MP for Stepney, the borough which formulated much of his political viewpoint. He served in a variety of posts and, by 1930, he had become Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and then Postmaster General.
However, following the general election of 1931, fought among the maelstrom of the Great Depression, he was one of the few Labour MPs with ministerial experience to hold their seat as the government was ejected.
Leader of the Opposition
In 1935, Attlee had become interim leader of the Labour Party, considerably reviving its fortunes in the general election of that year. He was elected Leader of the Labour Party in October and became an active campaigner against national rearmament at a time when he felt there was much greater need for social reform.
In the face of increased Nazi aggression, this policy was reversed in 1937 and, following the outbreak of war and the fall of Neville Chamberlain, he became Deputy Prime Minister to serve with Winston Churchill in a national coalition government to fight Hitler.
In 1945, Churchill was ousted as Prime Minister in a shock general election result, giving Attlee, as victor and new Prime Minister, the opportunity to implement perhaps the most far-reaching social changes Britain had ever seen.
Focusing on social equality and ethical policies, in five years his Labour government established the National Health Service, implemented the “cradle to grave” welfare state, established new towns, introduced the family allowance, extended workers’ rights, transformed secondary education, introduced agricultural subsidy reforms and engaged in a process of wholesale nationalisation of key industries such as rail, coal and steel.
In foreign affairs, he began the process of withdrawal from Empire – most notably with the independence of India – and yet was a firm opponent of Soviet aggression in an uncertain postwar environment which saw the beginning of the Cold War.
Despite his radical agenda, Attlee’s government was hamstrung by the pressing need for post-war austerity and was defeated first at the 1951 general election and again in 1955, when he retired as leader.
Yet this could never diminish his reputation in terms of what he delivered for a country whose social structure and the problems they created belonged to another age. Today, Clement Attlee, who became Earl Attlee and Viscount Presswood in 1955, is venerated as a leader who facilitated fundamental changes in British society, politics and who, alongside Churchill and Thatcher, is seen as one of the great British prime ministers of the 20th Century – and by many, indeed, as the greatest.
His connections with Haileybury, and his work with Haileybury House over 100 years ago, are rightly celebrated by the College, which sees him as perhaps its finest son.
Click on any of the links below for more information about Clement Attlee and his career: