Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967), was prime minister of England from 1945 to 1951. He led the labour government that established the welfare state in Great Britain.
Clement Attlee was born in Putney, near London, on Jan. 23, 1883, the son of Henry Attlee, a successful solicitor, and Ellen Watson Attlee, a cultivated and educated woman. The family was devoutly religious. Attlee attended Haileybury College and then University College, Oxford, where he read modern history and achieved second-class honors in 1904.
Heading for a legal career, Attlee joined the Inner Temple, studied and worked in chambers, was called to the bar in 1906, and set up his own office. After a visit to Haileybury House in east London, a boys' club supported by his old school, he moved to the East End. He continued practicing law, helped evenings in the club, and soon became its manager. He developed a new outlook and a new purpose. By 1908 he was a member of the Fabian Society (a socialist organization) and of the Independent Labour party, and he was a socialist in the practical sense of being committed to improving the lot of the working class.
In 1909 Attlee gave up his law practice and spent a brief period as secretary of Toynbee Hall, the best-known of the university settlements in the East End. Then he lectured at Ruskin College, Oxford, and was appointed tutor and lecturer in social science at the London School of Economics in 1913.
In 1914 he had leanings toward pacifism but concluded that the war was justified. Promptly commissioned, he served in Gallipoli and in Mesopotamia. He was discharged as a major, a title he continued to use, and returned to the London School of Economics. Still residing in the East End, he became the first labour mayor of Stepney in 1919 and a member of the executive committee of the London Labour party. In 1922 he was returned to Parliament from Limehouse, and that year he married Violet Helen Millar of Hampstead; four children were born to them.
Attlee now devoted full time to Labour politics. Ramsay MacDonald, as leader of the Opposition, appointed Attlee his parliamentary private secretary and then in 1924 in the first Labour government designated him undersecretary of state for war. Though at first excluded from the Labour Cabinet in 1929, Attlee became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in 1930 and a year later postmaster general. In the landslide victory for the National (coalition) government in 1931, Attlee, one of three surviving Labour members with front-bench experience, was made deputy leader of the party. Labour members of Parliament became almost hopelessly divided on armaments and diplomacy; in a tumultuous meeting in October 1935 Attlee was elected party leader, because of his demonstrated parliamentary qualities. It cannot be said that either Attlee or his party had imaginative views for dealing with Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, but on the other hand the National government made no moves toward developing common policy. Attlee did reunite his party.
When war came and Winston Churchill formed a true coalition government in May 1940, Attlee joined the War Cabinet of five and in 1942 became deputy prime minister. He attended the San Francisco conference in April 1945, which established the United Nations. At Potsdam, the final wartime conference of the allies, in July 1945, power shifted from Churchill to Attlee after the overwhelming electoral victory of Labour at the polls. Attlee formed a strong government, and in nationalization of basic industries, the extension of social insurance, and the establishment of the National Health Service, he carried out most of his party's pledges. Under his guidance India and Pakistan became independent and England entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Labour was less successful in dealing with economic problems; leadership shifted in 1951 to the Conservatives. Within the party Attlee managed to hold on, despite attacks from the left wing, until 1955, when he suffered a stroke and resigned after 20 years of leadership.
Attlee received the Order of Merit in 1951. In 1955 he was made a knight of the Garter and granted an earldom. For several years he was active in the House of Lords and devoted considerable time to writing and lecturing. He died on Oct. 8, 1967.
Further Reading on Clement Richard Attlee
Roy Jenkins, Mr. Attlee: An Interim Biography (1948), is useful on Attlee's early years but continues only to 1945. Another early biography is Cyril Clemens, The Man from Limehouse: Clement Richard Attlee (1946). Attlee tells his own story to 1953 in As it Happened (1954). Francis Williams records conversations with Lord Attlee concerning the war and postwar periods in A Prime Minister Remembers (1961). Background studies which discuss Attlee include R. T. McKenzie, British Political Parties (1955; 2d ed. 1963); Henry Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party (1961; 2d ed. 1965); D. N. Pritt, The Labour Government, 1945-51 (1963); Francis Boyd, British Politics in Transition, 1945-63 (1964); and Carl F. Brand, The British Labour Party: A Short History (1964).