A humble and reserved man, and a far-cry from the character politics of today, Clement Attlee was prime minister between 1945 and 1951, during which time he quietly set about building modern Britain.
Atlee was born in Putney in 1883, and was educated at Haileybury College before winning a place to study at University College, Oxford, during which time he also played football for Fleet Town. He graduated with a second class honours in Modern History in 1904, going on to train as a lawyer. Having previously held conservative views, Atlee’s outlook was affected profoundly by the time he spent managing a charitable club for working class boys in Stepney. The poverty of the slum children he worked with convinced Atlee that only direct action and income redistribution by the state could alleviate poverty.
First elected to parliament in 1922 as MP for Limehouse, Atlee rose quickly to a ministerial position in the minority government of Ramsay MacDonald in 1924. 4 years after labour suffered a humiliating election defeat, Atlee became leader of the opposition in 1935. After reversing Labour previous policy of appeasement and pacifism, Atlee took his party into Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition, serving as deputy prime minister for the last three years of the war. Once the war ended, the coalition was dissolved and Atlee led labour to win a huge majority in the subsequent election.
In government, Labour adopted Keynesian fiscal policies as a means of achieving full employment and established a far reaching network of social welfare and services, underpinned by the Beveridge report which sought to provide a safety net for those dropping below the poverty line, protecting against the five giant evils of Want, Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness and Disease. Atlee’s government nationalised public utilities and major industries, and also created the National Health Service.
Although he faced initial conservative opposition to Keynesian economics, Atlee eventually built what would be later known as the post-war consensus, and this settlement was broadly accepted by all three major parties until the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Atlee also oversaw the decolonisation of large parts of the British Empire, granting independence to India, Burma and Ceylon, as well as strongly supporting the Cold War against Stalin and the Soviet Union.
In contrast to today’s politicians, Atlee was a reserved and quiet figure. He often struggled with public relations, and when he spoke publicly he lacked charisma. Atlee’s strength was rather in his work behind the scenes, where his depth of knowledge, pragmatism and and quiet demeanour were hugely influential. His modest and unassuming approach successfully kept the many factions of his party together, and allowed him to build the Welfare State.
Atlee’s influence on modern Britain has been staggering. He is widely recognised as one of the great politicians of his generation, and in 2004 he was voted the greatest politician of the 20th century in a poll of academics.