Guess whose birthday it is today? Britain’s greatest Prime Minister Clement Attlee who became PM 72 years ago on 26 July 1945.
The 1945 general election saw the return of the first ever majority Labour government. The Gallup poll had shown a Labour lead for over two years. Nevertheless most politicians and commentators were astonished by the result, since they expected that the war hero, Winston Churchill, would be returned to office by a grateful nation. In the event there was a swing of around 12% to Labour.
Seventy two ago, Britain found itself in one of the strangest political situations in its history. On July 5, 1945, just weeks after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the nation had gone to the polls in the first general election for a decade. But with so many British men still serving abroad, the results were not counted and declared for another three weeks. In the meantime, the country waited in a state of suspended anticipation. And then at last, on July 26, the most extraordinary election result in our history became clear. Britain had turned its back on Winston Churchill, the indomitable lion who had led us to victory. Instead, the nation had turned to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, who swept into office with a landslide majority.
And for the next six years, Attlee and his colleagues laid many of the foundations of the Britain we know today, from the National Health Service and the welfare state to workers’ rights, new towns and even national parks.
Attlee would not have thrived in today’s world of pervasive media demanding instant soundbites. In public, he appeared modest and unassuming; he was ineffective at public relations and lacked charisma. His strengths emerged behind the scenes, especially in committees where his depth of knowledge, quiet demeanor, objectivity and pragmatism proved decisive. He saw himself as spokesman on behalf of his entire party, and successfully kept its multiple factions in harness. His reputation among scholars in recent decades has been much higher than during his years as Prime Minister, thanks to his role in forging the welfare state and opposing Stalin in the Cold War. In 2004 he was voted the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century by a poll of 139 academics organised by Ipsos MORI.
I’m grateful to the archives at The Bucks Herald for this picture of Britain’s greatest post-war Prime Minister addressing crowds in Market Square, Aylesbury. Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee addressed an election rally in Market Square during the 1951 general election campaign. It did little good, as Tory Gerard Spencer Summers once again beat Labour’s Anthony Shannon Harman for the town’s seat, while Winston Churchill’s Conservatives also took power nationally.
Attlee had many local connections with Aylesbury from his time at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence near Wendover, about 5 miles from Aylesbury. His sub-title inherited by his son when he went to the House of Lords was “Viscount Prestwood”, an area beside Great Missenden. His three daughters married in local churches in Elesborough, Hampden and Great Missenden.
The crowd that greeted Attlee in Market Square is a reminder that Aylesbury was a hard working town in the 1950’s with a Labour Town Council and many working in manufacturing, food processing and distribution industries. The printers and bookbinders, Hazell, Watson and Viney and the Nestlé dairy which made condensed milk were two big employers along with Aylesbury Rivets whose products held the Spitfire together. Cars were even manufactured for a brief period by the Cubitt Car Company. After World War II and the bomb damage in London a number of businesses relocated to the area often offering workers new houses as part of the package.
So Aylesbury attracted many who wanted a fresh start for themselves and their families. So we have a large Muslim community mainly Kashmiri and Pashtun with their own mosque and an Italian community who came to the area after World War II to work in the sand pits and brickworks along the Chiltern Escarpment. Add to this a significant Afro-Caribbean community and the many Londoner’s, Scots and Irish who made their home in the town in the 1960′s to work in the then busy manufacturing industries of Aylesbury which included printing, food manufacturing, engineering, hat making, distribution and much more.
As a result of this mix in what was a traditional county shire town Aylesbury is a more diverse and tolerant community than people imagine. These tolerant attitudes owe no small part to a remarkable individual who fetched up in Aylesbury as a teacher and Labour Councillor, Jacob (Jack) Briskman, whose legacy is commemorated at the college where he taught and where every year since his death, the staff of Aylesbury College of Education celebrate his life with an annual public lecture. He was a former teacher and community activist in Aylesbury and a very active member of Aylesbury Labour Party. Briskman Way behind Aylesbury College is named in his honour and there is a Jacob Briskman room in the Aylesbury Vale Multi-Cultural Centre.
When Clement Attlee spoke in Market Square in 1951 he would have been watched over warily by the father of One Nation Conservatism , Benjamin Disraeli, who was a local MP and later Earl of Beaconsfield and who lived at Hugenden Manor near High Wycombe. The other statue is of another local MP Sir John Hampden . He stood trial in 1637 for his refusal to be taxed for ship money, and was one of the Five Members whose attempted unconstitutional arrest by King Charles I in the House of Commons of England in 1642 sparked the Civil War. The Parliamentary seat in Aylesbury has returned a Conservative for over 100 years. This is somewhat perverse for while the Conservatives care much about the countryside and its Manors they do not care much about the County Town of Aylesbury. So the Town Council was Labour controlled when Aylesbury was a hardworking manufacturing town and when Attlee addressed the election meeting in Market Square.
Many consider Attlee he greatest 20th Century British Prime Minister, rated in a poll of UK academics ahead of the PM he succeeded, Winston Churchill. He became prime minister on 26 July 1945 as the leader of a Labour party that had won a landslide general election victory with a majority of 144 seats. His government was a transformational one. At home, the government created the welfare state and the National Health Service; abroad, it decolonised vast swathes of the British Empire, including India, and cemented Britain’s relationship with the United States. Its strategy of maintaining high levels of employment, with major industries under public ownership, was the governing model in post-war British politics until Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of 1979–90.
These great achievements are even more remarkable when considered in context. On 21 August 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the US abruptly cut Britain’s supply lines. Lend-Lease, which had given Britain vital supplies in return for military bases, was ended at a stroke, and John Maynard Keynes memorably said that Britain faced a “financial Dunkirk”. But Attlee’s government was able to negotiate a loan from the US in November 1945, when a line of credit of $3.75bn was made available. Britain also received around $3bn dollars in Marshall Aid between April 1948 and December 1951. Yet this external help should not detract from the great credit the Attlee government deserves for its management of the immense task of demobilisation.
The lessons of 1918 were learnt, when Lloyd George’s Liberal Party promises of a land “fit for heroes” rang hollow. At the beginning of 1922, as the Lloyd George coalition entered its final year, unemployment in Britain had climbed to over two million. With the temporary exception of the winter of 1947, during the fuel shortage, the Attlee government achieved virtual full employment; by July 1951, in its final summer, unemployment stood at just over 200,000.
There are lessons for today in what Clement Attlee achieved for Britain and his priorities. He ensured that Britain after WWII was indeed “fit for heroes.” That Britain was a land where people could build stable families by having proper jobs and pensions, good housing, decent healthcare for all and be looked after and helped back onto their feet in times of need. Compared with the empty rhetoric on the basic needs of housing, health and jobs we hear today Clement Attlee can rightly be judged on his deeds and the example he gave of a nation at ease with itself.
His riposte to Churchill’s 1945 claim that electing a Socialist would result in a Britain policed by a Socialist Gestapo still stands today:
“The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.”
Astonishingly, however, only two Labour leaders — Harold Wilson and Tony Blair — have matched Attlee’s feat of taking the party from opposition into government. Tellingly, both did so by downplaying Left-wing idealism and by reaching out to middle-class voters. And, equally tellingly, both were excoriated by their own activists as traitors and sell-outs.
Attlee would have none of the infantile Left and their lack of respect for what voters actually think. He clearly understood that a Labour Party which does not get elected delivers nothing and betrays its voters. His Labour Party was a straightforward Party to cater for the real needs of hardworking voters and give them a helping hand when they needed it. In a post-war world he dealt with hard realities including Britain’s defences and he was no pacifist, acquiring Nuclear weapons, withdrawing from Greece in 1947 when Britain could not afford to keep armed forces there, intervening in Malaysia the same year ending Imperialist Rule in India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon and sending troops to Korea in 1951. He was anti-communist and saw Stalin as a threat. He was a British Army officer who fought in Iraq and was referred to between the wars as Major Attlee, admired Churchill’s strategic vision and served under him in a War Cabinet. He went to Public School, to Oxford University and was a Barrister member of Lincoln’s Inn and he got his first jobs through connections and patronage.
His policies were driven by pragmatism and reality. So the much vaunted Nationalisation of utilities and major industries was undertaken against a background of war time planning and in recognition that the infrastructure had been broken by war and the private owners would not have the capital to rebuild. It had the side effect of greatly improving conditions for those who worked in these industries but did not advance industrial democracy. And like anybody who actually tries to do things in the real world he made bad mistakes. The Partition of India and the betrayal of the people of Kashmir still reverberates to this day and he unnecessarily maintained rationing contributing to a National sense of gloom which helped the Tories get re-elected in 1951.
Ooh, it's Clement Attlee's birthday.
A perfect time to remind Corbynites of the quiet old patriot's greatest gift to our nation: the Nuclear Deterrent.
— Tim Dawson (@Tim_R_Dawson) January 3, 2018
The achievements of the first Labour government are still rightly legendary: a government that actually contained as ministers seven men who had begun their adult lives as working coal miners, brought in national health insurance, made the provision of housing central to its ends, and fought and mostly won the battle against unemployment. Imperfect as its accomplishments were—the virtues of nationalization proved less absolute than the ideologues imagined—it nonetheless empowered the working classes. Labour set the ethical terms on which Britain’s new social contract was founded. It is still a social contract in many ways intact, and was the background for the extraordinary cultural renaissance of working-class Britain in the nineteen-sixties and beyond. The Beatles begin here. It is this social contract which the rudderless Conservative Party has perniciously attacked the last 8 years with the retrograde results of Brexit, narrow minded nationalism and economic irrelevance and stagnation which is dragging Britain down in 2018.
To those inventing my ‘liberal elite’ background: I’m happy with who I am & see no need to repent. In particular, I’m a radical social democrat whose 2018 mission is to fight Brexit & reinvent the Attlee Govt to meet today’s crisis!
— Andrew Adonis (@Andrew_Adonis) January 1, 2018
The Labour Party still stands for what Attlee stood for “Social Justice at home and Peace abroad.” He won in 1945 by understanding that the Labour Party must be the Party of Hope and he probably lost in 1951, despite his achievements, because people didn’t see hope in their everyday lives.
“a quiet man who helped make a genuine revolution, achieving almost everything that Marx had dreamed of for the British working classes without a single violent civil act intervening. It reminds one that the true progressive giants are radicals of the real—those who accept that democracy implies pluralism”
Notably lacking in self importance whilst taciturn with the press he was a genial character with colleagues and even wrote a Limerick outlining his career.
There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.
(3 January 1883 – 8 October 1967)