Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee KG OM CH PC FRS
was a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951 and was voted the greatest Prime Minister of all time in a 2004 poll of British politics professors. He was Deputy Prime Minister under Winston Churchill
in the wartime coalition government and then won a landslide election victory in 1945. He was the first Labour Prime Minister to serve a full Parliamentary term and the first to have a majority in Parliament.
Attlee led the Labour Party continuously for 20 years (from October 1935 to December 1955)—the longest-serving Labour leader by a country mile (the next longest two, Harold Wilson
and Tony Blair
, served 13 years apiece). Whilst he was Leader of the Opposition, he opposed Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, at times viciously, and called the Munich agreement "a victory for brute force." He served in Churchill's war cabinet from 1940 to 1945. Then in 1945, when the national unity government broke up and an election was held in July 1945, Labour unexpectedly won a landslide victory
. While voters respected Churchill's war record, they were sceptical about his ability to govern in peacetime and were won over by Labour's plans to rebuild the economy and create a welfare state.
He put in place the Keynesian economic structure that remained the cornerstone of UK policy until the election of Margaret Thatcher
ushered in a new era of neoliberalism. This, combined with huge demand from the working classes, lead to the establishment of the British welfare state, the nationalisation of many industries and the creation of the National Health Service
. He also dealt with the decolonisation of much of the British Empire, especially India, and the development of British nuclear weapons. And he did it all in just five years, making him a Badass Bureaucrat
Attlee, therefore, has a decent shoot at second place in the rankings of Prime Ministers. One poll even ranked him first. When his record is criticised, it is generally for being too naive towards the Soviet Union (at one point giving them plans for new British jet engine breakthroughs, which they proceeded to use against British forces in The Korean War
) and for difficult relations with the United States. The latter, however, is not entirely his fault: the trans-Atlantic relationship was strained from the fact that Britain went from a right-wing to a left-wing leader at about the same time as America went the other way, and right in the middle of the peace negotiations at the end of World War II
. There was also the fact that the United States had entered the war late, and had (as US historian Stephen Ambrose points out) walked away with the spoils of it, entering a period of unprecedented post-war prosperity, whereas Britain was facing a massive national debt and living off rationing. Attlee improved on the foreign policy field as he went on, such as getting tougher on the USSR and supporting the Marshall Plan, and he was instrumental in forming NATO
Attlee's laconic, unglamorous personality makes him seem colourless next to Churchill, but he was a supremely effective politician, as Churchill recognised; Attlee and Churchill were the only constant members of Churchill's War Cabinet from its formation in 1940 to the 1945 general election. He was definitely a Hero with Bad Publicity
- the Sunday Times political journalist Stephen Margach noted that the generally conservative British press went far beyond what was necessary or fair in their attacks on him: "I have never known the Press so consistently and irresponsibly political, slanted and prejudiced".
Atlee's government came to end in 1951. In 1950, they were re-elected after serving a full term and but with an unworkably small majority, so another election was held in 1951. This ended with the odd result of Labour narrowly winning the most votes (a record 13.9 million votes; the only time this was surpassed was by the Conservatives in 1992) but it was the Conservatives who won a majority instead
. He retired after a second defeat in 1955.
Certainly, with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher
, no British Prime Minister since 1945 has inculcated such profound transformation of the political, cultural and economic landscape of Great Britain since Clement Attlee. Thatcher herself (along with Harold Wilson
) considered him to be the greatest PM of her own lifetime, because though she disagreed with his views, she admired how effectively and radically he had implemented them, describing him as "all substance and no show" and "a serious man and a patriot".
- In The Goon Show episode The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-Upon-Sea it is heavily implied that Winston Churchill threw a batter pudding at Clement Attlee.
- In the final episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, the main character saves Attlee's life.
- In World War Z, one character near the end refers to Attlee as a "third-rate mediocrity" whose only claim to fame was unseating Churchill and having World War II end on his watch. His judgment is quiteinaccurate, but then again, it is an American saying this — in America, Churchill is exalted as a war hero, while the only people who have heard of Attlee are students of British history and people who watch PBS.
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