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Useful Notes / Clement Attlee

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Few thought he was even a starter
There were those who thought themselves smarter
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.
Clement Attlee

Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee KG OM CH PC FRS (3 January 1883 8 October 1967) was a British Labour 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.

Born to a well-off London family, he became a socialist after he personally saw the horrific conditions of the British working class during the early 1900's while working in a charity club. During World War I, he served in the army (reaching the rank of Major) and served in the Gallipoli Campaign, the notorious military disaster organised by his future political rival Winston Churchill.note  He became very involved in Labour Party politics following the war, winning in 1922 a seat in Parliament representing the very poverty-stricken Limehouse constituency in London. Attlee was one of the few Labour MPs to keep hold of his seat after the disastrous 1931 general election,note  which saw the party virtually wiped out and only avoid reduction to third-party status by virtue of the Liberal Party splintering into three different factions. In the aftermath, he became deputy to new Labour leader George Lansbury, as the only person who really wanted the job.

When Lansbury resigned barely a month before the next general election, Attlee was left holding the reins through the campaign, and did a creditable job of bringing the party back from the brink of extinction. While he was challenged for the party leadership after the election by Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood, Attlee ultimately emerged as the new permanent leader after a backroom deal with Greenwood, who subsequently replaced him as deputy leader. Attlee would lead the party continuously for 20 years (from October 1935 to December 1955)—the longest-serving Labour leader by a country milenote . 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 formed a Coalition government with Churchill and served in the war cabinet as Deputy Prime Minister 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. It didn't help that Churchill, against the advice of basically everyone, made a catastrophically ill-judged election broadcast, in which he foolishly claimed that a Labour government would need to suppress dissent by means of "some sort of Gestapo." Attlee made a broadcast the following night in which he calmly rebutted everything Churchill had said, making Churchill seem partisan and near-hysterical.

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.note  He has been regarded as a good person 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". Perhaps the most well-known attack on Attlee was a joke which went "An empty taxi drew up outside 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it"—a quote sometimes attributed to Churchill, who strenuously denied it, although when Harry Truman said to Churchill of Attlee "He seems a modest sort of fellow," Churchill did reply "He's got a lot to be modest about."note  Still, Attlee's lack of a forceful personality in public hid his very real skills in organising a government, where he managed to successfully work with members of his Cabinet for six years without much difficulty (at least until the very end) in spite of the major issues plaguing the country.

He put in place the Keynesian economic structure that, known as the "post-war consensus", remained the cornerstone of UK policy until the election of Margaret Thatcher ushered in a new era of neoliberalism. With the widespread backing of the working class, Attlee helped create the modern British welfare state: government national insurance programs were expanded, free secondary education became a right, worker and union rights reached new highs, and housing programs were put in place to put his citizens back into homes after the chaos of the war years. Most importantly, Attlee's government nationalised many important industries and services, including the coal mines, the railroads and other infrastructure, electricity and gas services, and the steel industry; roughly one fifth of the British economy was nationalised by the time his premiership ended. His most stunning accomplishment was the creation of the National Health Service, the United Kingdom's legendary single-payer healthcare system which became the model for many other national healthcare plans. It remains extremely popular among Britons to this day, with even Thatcher deciding not to privatise it. Despite the daunting challenge of transitioning from a wartime to a peacetime economy, unemployment was decreased to nearly 2% and social inequality actually reduced, and he did all of this while running budget surpluses (at least until the UK entered The Korean War). He also dealt with the decolonisation of much of the British Empire (specifically the lands that are now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, Israel, Palestinian Territories, and Jordan) and the development of British nuclear weapons. The British nuclear power program with the - explicitly dual use - "Magnox" reactor note  also originated in his time in office even though it did not produce the first operating power reactor until after he had left office. And he did it all in just five years.

Attlee, therefore, has a decent shot 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: after the war, Britain was in a dire economic situation whereas the USA was doing exceptionally well, and Truman was not the only senior US figure who was reflexively wary of the Labour party's explicitly socialist policies regarding health care, nationalisation of industry and social welfare. 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. Nevertheless, Attlee and Truman hit it off personally, having similarly laconic and undemonstrative personalities, and they found common ground as fellow veterans of the First World War; it's just that the USA was quietly withdrawing from a partnership that Attlee hoped would continue. Attlee improved on the foreign policy field as he went on, partly thanks to his excellent Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, and his position on the USSR went from general wariness to regarding them as definitely an enemy of stability in Europe. Not surprisingly, he welcomed the Marshall Plan, and was instrumental in forming NATO, as well as being an enthusiastic supporter of the fledgling United Nations.

Attlee'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: however, several senior figures in the government had died, including Bevin, and Attlee himself was deeply weary, having been in government continually since 1940. The 1951 had the odd result of Labour narrowly winning the most votes (a record 13.9 million votes; the only times this has been surpassed were by the Conservatives in 1992 and again in 2019) but it was the Conservatives who won a majority instead, due to some very weird technicalities and quirks in the British political system.note  It did not help that two major figures in his government, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson, resigned not long before the election, which split the Labour Party and gave the Conservatives a major advantage. Attlee still led Labour as Leader of the Opposition for the next few years, with Churchill back in the premiership, and published an autobiography in 1954. He retired after a second defeat in 1955, and was elevated to the House of Lords. In his last few years, Attlee publicly called for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, which happened just months before his death. He lived to see Wilson become the Prime Minister, and his party back in power for the first time in over a decade, before dying in 1967.

Certainly, with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson (and even in the latter's case, mostly through actions he took before becoming PM), 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". Attlee's historical reputation suffered on account of him being the man who unseated Winston Churchill, but nowadays he is remembered as the father of the National Health Service and one of the greatest Prime Ministers in British history. It wouldn't be until late in The New '10s, following a major rightward shift in the country's overall political landscape, that Attlee's reputation finally started coming under sustained attack from conservative commentators, who've typically accused him of creating an overly centralised, tax-heavy economy that would end up causing major problems in the 1970s. However, these attacks rely on the idea that Churchill would have rebuilt the country into more of a free market economy had he remained in power after the war, something that would have been politically untenable given the country's war-torn state (not to mention that it would have been the opposite approach to virtually every other major country's governments of the time). More pertinently, not only did Churchill not reverse Attlee's reforms to any significant degree after he returned to power, nor did any of the other Conservative PMs until Thatcher, making it hard for Attlee alone to be blamed for any issues that may have resulted from them.

He was, as noted above, famously laconic. In contrast to Churchill, Attlee was not a prolific writer and most of his notes on political papers tended to consist of 'Yes', 'No', his initials (to show that he'd read a document) or a tick. He published an autobiography, As It Happened, in 1954; he himself suspected that it wasn't very interesting, and his cabinet colleague Hugh Dalton commented "No statesman not an Englishman could have written such a book." He once summoned a junior minister to No. 10 and told him that he was fired; when the minister asked why, Attlee replied "Not up to the job." When asked by his official biographer if he had any feelings about Christianity, or life after death, he said "Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can't believe in the mumbo jumbo." On another occasion he grew so exasperated with the interference of the Chairman of the Labour Party, the more militant Harold Laski, that he wrote him a letter that concluded "A period of silence from you would be welcome."

He was also the first UK Prime Minister to admit to not believing in any sort of God.

Clement Attlee in fiction:

  • 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 Attlee.
  • In the final episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, the main character saves Attlee's life.
  • In Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years he's played by Norman Jones as a conscientious committee member trying to get a Sleazy Politician to tell the truth, who's then scuppered by the fact that the head of his own committee is secretly on the side of the Sleazy Politician, and lets the guy off the hook.
  • In Edward and Mrs. Simpson, he's played by Patrick Troughton. Which may add Time Lord to the list of his accomplishments.
  • In the 1974 film The Gathering Storm, starring Richard Burton as Churchill, Attlee is played by Patrick Stewart, who bears a remarkable resemblance to him. He's depicted as a Reasonable Authority Figure, demanding that there be accountability in the government for the failure of the Allied campaign in Norway.
  • 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. To say that his judgment is quite inaccurate would be an understatement.
  • In Into the Storm (2009) he's played by Bill Paterson as a calm and laconic Foil to Churchill himself.
  • Darkest Hour has a highly unsympathetic and relentlessly inaccurate depiction of Attlee as a loud-mouthed, angry Jerkass, played by David Schofield.
  • Portrayed in the first season of The Crown by Simon Chandler, which briefly takes place during his premiership; however, the bulk of the series is set following Churchill's return to office and his to Leader of the Opposition.