Life of Clement Attlee

Socialists in Retrospect: CLEMENT ATTLEE

Kenneth Harm’s political biography of Attlee is a long book – nearly 500 pages.[1] Yet I found it a very readable book. I must confess that before reading the biography I had only a sketchy knowledge of Attlee’s role in Labour Party history. Like everyone else I knew that he had led the very effective post-war Labour administration from 1945-1951, but little else. Harris’s biography manages to fill most of the gaps. Those that remain are, I suspect, more Attlee’s fault than Harris’s. What picture emerges then of Attlee in Harris’s biography?

Attlee came from a reasonably well off middle-class family. His upbringing was fairly typical. He attended Haileybury public school and then went on to Oxford to study history. On finishing at Oxford he began to train as a barrister at his father’s firm of solicitors. His family had a strong Christian-humanist tradition, and while some of this may have rubbed off on Att1ee., by the age of 21 his mentality appears to have been that of a slightly cynical, detached young man with some aesthetic pretensions.

His transformation to socialism took place over a remarkably short space of time. A chance visit to his old public school’s youth club in the East End first drew his attention to the plight of the working class and the unemployed. Though distressed by what he saw, his reaction was sharply different from that of a middle-class philanthropist

He was not attracted by the idea of doing good works for the poor. Rather he did not want there to be any poor. In addition, from his own observations he decided the poor were poor because of the capitalist system’s defects. He was not afraid to draw the conclusion that therefore the capitalist system required substantial modification. And so the young man who had been wandering rather aimlessly through life suddenly had a purpose.

Attlee was never a Marxist. His socialism was very much in the British tradition based on Owen, Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris, whose works he particularly liked. He liked the utopian vision in Morris’s writings and he seems to have used it to give him moral strength rather than to determine practical political activities.

For a young socialist in those days there were many organisations which he could JOID. Attlee first joined the Fabian Society but soon left as he felt that they wanted to change society on behalf of the working class. Attlee felt that the working class should take its destiny into its own hands. He found a similar attitude in the ILP which he joined on leaving the Fabians. The year was 1908 and Attlee was 25 years old

Into politics

And so began Attlee’s public political career, standing at street comers addressing the passing crowd, canvassing in the local slums, collecting and agitating in support of various Strikes. writing articles. He WU still engaged in these activities seven years later when the first world war started.

On the outbreak of war Attlee immediately joined the army. This strikes me as being a typical Attlee move. He felt the correct thing to do was to support the war effort The fact that the ILP was sharply divided on the issue of the war and that Ramsey MacDonald was the main proponent of the pacifist position was irrelevant once Attlee had made up his mind.

Harris gives no account of an agonised Attlee wondering if he was doing the right thing. I doubt if Attlee ever felt a moment’s guilt in his entire life (unlike the guilt ridden members of today’s Constituency Labour Parties) and I think this is quite important in understanding his effectiveness in the world Unfortunately, since Attlee had no qualms about the first world war, one then gets no feel in Harris’s account for the crisis that affected British and European socialism in this period. We .shall ignore here Attlee’s activities during the war other than to note that he returned from the war a badly wounded major and plunged straight into East End politics.

He was quickly spotted as MP material and so with the backing of the Irish and Jewish communities was made the Labour Party candidate for Limehouse in the London County Council election of 1919. Although this first election attempt was unsuccessful, he was adopted as the candidate in the general election of 1922, scraping home with a margin of 1,899 votes to be in parliament for the formation of the first minority Labour government with 191 seats. He was Ramsay MacDonald’s parliamentary private secretary for the brief life of that parliament before its sudden collapse over an incident involving the communist party.

Attlee was not impressed by MacDonald’s handling of this affair. Nor was he impressed by MacDonald’s habit of complaining to Attlee himself about the behaviour of his senior colleagues. Labour lost 40 seats in the ensuing general election (the Zinoviev letter election) even though the overall Labour vote went up by over one million votes. Attlee retained his seat with a substantial majority.

The years 1924-1929 were fairly quiet years politically for Attlee. There was the general strike in 1926 for which Attlee worked actively. Its failure finished for him and indeed for many other potential syndicalists the idea that the liberation of labour could be achieved by other than political means. He continued with his public meetings, writing and administrative activities tho4gh at a more leisurely pace than before.

In 1928 he agreed to take part in a royal commission on the position of India in the empire, though he did this reluctantly as he felt involvement in the commission would prevent him taking office in the next Labour administration which he felt was imminent. MacDonald assured him that this would not be the case. However, when in the 1929 general election Labour gained a majority and formed a government, he was, much to his annoyance, not included.

Mosley and MacDonald

By 1929 then Attlee was a reasonably well known and respected member of the party. No one, however, would have believed it possible that within four years he would become leader and remain so for the next twenty years. There is no doubt that lady fortune made several very timely interventions in his career in these years. The first timely intervention was connected with the Mosley affair.

The account of the Mosley affair is unfortunately very brief in Harris’s biography. The Labour MP Oswald Mosley in 1930 launched a strong attack on the Labour government. He favoured active government intervention along Keynesian lines to attack the massive problem of unemployment. Harris does not manage to give us much idea of what Attlee really thought about Mosley’s proposals. Whatever he may have thought, however, Attlee supported MacDonald in the dispute. Mosley lost and Attlee was given Mosley’s old position as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. According to Harris:

“the appointment was most fortunate for Attlee. It widened his range of experience; it relieved him of the burden of having seemed reactionary on India; and it enabled him to be identified with those who, as a result of the crisis of 1933 would later break with the traitors, MacDonald, JH. Thomas and Philip Snowden.”

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster he was automatically a member of the economic advisory council which included Keynes, Tawney, Cole, Bevin and Citrine. He learned much from attending the occasional council meetings. In addition he learned how totally incapable of acting MacDonald seemed to be, that he was quite incapable of comprehending anything other than the most sterile orthodox economic remedies.

As the economic situation deteriorated MacDonald in desperation decided he must cut unemployment benefits to help balance his budget. This was the last straw for his cabinet, which revolted. MacDonald tendered his resignation to the King who, without, it appears, much difficulty, convinced him to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals.

In the ensuing general election the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was reduced to a rump of 50 members. Attlee himself only scraped home by less than 1,000 votes. Every single member of MacDonald’s cabinet who had opposed the National Government lost his seat with the sole exception of George Lansbury. And so George Lansbury was elected leader of the PLP while Attlee was elected deputy leader. The ill winds which had temporarily destroyed the Labour Party had brought Attlee nothing but good.

The rebuilding of the labour movement began immediately. As Lansbury was not in good health it fell to Attlee to represent the labour movement in Parliament. Day after day, week in, week out he criticised, mocked, pounded away at the National Government. He spoke more than any other member of parliament in the years 1931 to 1933. Alone, almost, he embodied His Majesty’s Opposition.

The Labour Party learned much from MacDonald’s failure. It realised that it had to have a worked out set of policies and in addition a clear set of priorities. It was no use going for everything and gaining nothing. Harris’s book does not suggest that Attlee was very deeply involved in formulating the major policy documents produced by Labour in the 1930s on which it was to fight the general election in 1945. That work was largely done by Dalton and Morrison. Rather Attlee took the policies, mastered them, propagated them and popularised them. In addition, through his chairmanship of committees he got things produced.

War and the Labour Leadership

It was not however domestic policies which would divide the Labour Party in the period 1931- 1939. This period saw the rise of fascism in Europe, the imperialist moves of Hitler and . Mussolini and the Spanish civil war. Year after year the Labour Party conferences were dominated by these events. It must be remembered that the labour movement had directly experienced the carnage of the first world war and was still deeply affected by that experience. Attlee himself had seen the worst of it at Gallipoli. The idea that a war between nations could be anything other than imperialist was hardly admitted. In particular, opposition to Hitler and Mussolini was interpreted as just British imperialism on the move.

Attlee, Bevin and Dalton were the first to break with this mentality. Bevin and Dalton in particular realised at an early date that it was extremely probable that a war would have to be fought with Hitler. It appears that Attlee agreed with this analysis but refused to vote in favour of the defence estimates in parliament· until as late as 1937. Attlee’s excuse was that he was not prepared to arm Baldwin’s government whose intentions he did not trust. I suspect however that he took this position to prevent a split in the party since opposing the defence estimates had no practical consequences given the Tory · majority in Parliament.

The war issue was yet another historical accident which was to help make Attlee leader of the Party. Lansbury, the leader up until 1935, was a pacifist and he publicly voiced his disagreement with a TUC conference resolution (in September 1935) that the Italian aggression against Abyssinia must be stopped, if necessary by force. At the Labour Party conference in October Bevin launched his famous attack on Lansbury (famous as much for its personal invective as for its , ‘ political content). Having been defeated in the vote by almost 2 million votes and feeling personally humiliated., Lansbury resigned. Attlee was made leader since agreement could not be reached on anyone else. Everyone saw it as a temporary measure. No one imagined he would still be leader 20 years later.

When I say that Attlee became leader almost by accident I mean that he spent no time trying to work out ways of becoming leader, unlike Herbert Morrison, (who spent nearly his whole life attempting to do so), and perhaps Dalton to a lesser extent. Having become leader Attlee did occasionally take measures to prevent anyone ousting him. Harris suggests that he remained as leader after 1951 simply to exclude Morrison who, he felt, was too vain and pompous to make a good leader. He also suggests that at one point Attlee hoped that Bevan. might develop into a potential leader but eventually had to write him off as too unstable. All that however was in the future.

Harris does not deal much with Attlee and Spain. He covers Attlee’s visit to Spain and the emotional events at the 1936 conference in Edinburgh but I do not feel that I know what Attlee really thought about it all. There is a throw-away remark to the effect that the republican government was seen as largely responsible for the situation there, and therefore presumably Attlee felt himself to be partly excused for doing nothing, but this is not developed. (This attitude would have been largely shared by Dalton and Bevin).

The years 1937-1939 saw the crisis in Europe deepen. The Labour Party under Attlee strengthened its commitment to opposing Hitler in Europe. Chamberlain was prepared to let dungs go, but had so committed himself to the defence of Poland that, when Hitler invaded it, he felt compelled to declare war on Germany.

Harris brings out very well that interim period (which one tends to forget) from the outbreak of the war up to the removal of Chamberlain and the assumption by Churchill of the role of National Leader. The Labour Party’s role in the removal of Chamberlain appears to have been crucial. It refused point blank to serve in a National Government under Chamberlain’s leadership because he was not prosecuting the war actively enough; but it was prepared to serve under Churchill. Since a National Government was necessary Chamberlain went. Churchill became Prime Minister and Attlee (unofficially) deputy Prime Minister.

Problems or a National Government .

Harris’s account of the period 1940-1945 is detailed. .There are two central themes in this account. The first theme is the task of prosecuting the war. The second theme is the problem of a Labour Party working with a Conservative party in a National Government.

In the task of prosecuting the war Attlee appears to have discharged his duties with immense competence.

‘The overall conduct of the war was in the hands of three interconnected committees. The war cabinet, the defence committee and the lord president’s committee which ran the civil side of the war. Only Attlee was a member of all three.”.

Churchill was chairman of the first two committees. Attlee was his deputy and also chairman of the third. Other than Churchill he was the only person to remain continuously a member of the war cabinet. In addition he regularly deputised for Churchill at Westminster.

“His principal task was to keep the coalition together; to make political sense of Churchill’s dictum: ‘Everything for the war, whether controversial or not, and nothing controversial that is not bona fide for the war”‘.

Harris’s account of the period brings out quite sharply the divisions in the government and in parliament on some quite fundamental issues which with the benefit of hindsight seem strange. For instance in December 1940 a number of ILP members tabled a motion calling for a negotiated peace with Germany. Indeed a cabinet committee was set up to determine war aims. When it reported in January 1941 Churchill refused to make a statement on the grounds that ‘precise aims would be compromising whereas vague principles would disappoint’. (This was all before the invasion of the USSR and the bombing of Pearl harbour).

The need to put the war before the pursuit of socialist aims per se led to regular problems within the PLP. These attacks on Labour’s role in the national government were invariably led or instigated by Aneurin Bevan who felt that more could be achieved in the social and economic spheres without damaging the war effort. It is interesting that Attlee never held this against Bevan. I suspect he found it fairly useful to have someone putting a doctrinaire socialist position while not actually doing any damage to the war effort. Bevin was much more upset by what he saw as Bevan’s treachery.

Two significant rebellions of the PLP occurred in mid-1942. The first was over the government white paper in June on the coal mines which evaded the question of ownership. Eight Labour MPs went into the lobbies against the government. In the division in July on the size of the increase in old age pensions 63 Labour MPs voted against the government.

In October 1942 Bevan launched a vigorous attack on Attlee in the pages of Tribune. Its vehemence is surprising.

“If Mr Attlee has gained some of the toughness which comes with high position in politics, it has been reserved for the members and policies of his own Party . ……

“Were merely Mr. Attlee’s reputation at stake we would find it worthy of comment as the passing of yet another socialist into the limbo of collaboration. But … Mr. Attlee is involving the entire LP in the disrespect which his actions … have earned.”

In addition Attlee was under continuous attack from Laski and Stafford Cripps. The self-doubt of many members of the Labour Party is well caught in a letter written by RH Tawney to Beatrice Webb In December 1942:

” As far as I can see the Labour Party has temporarily ceased not only to count but to believe in itself….. The only man who, in my opinion, might stop the rot is Bevin”

Bevan, Laski and Tawney may have raised questions about Attlee’s political position but Bevin seems rarely to have entertained any such doubts. Indeed Bevin was to threaten to leave the PLP because of the behaviour of people like Bevan, Laski and Cripps. This was over the issue of the Beveridge report. Churchill had rejected any attempt to implement the report during the war. He had also agreed that there would be no commitment against such legislation. The PLP in general wanted immediate moves towards implementation and was prepared to vote against the government:

“In a stormy meeting of the PLP Attlee and Morrison tried to persuade, Bevin bullied, but all three voiced the same theme: backbenchers must not vote against the government.”

Bevin threatened to resign if Labour went into the lobby against the government. Attlee made one of his finest parliamentary performances – but to no avail. 97 Labour MPs voted against the government, 30 abstained and 23 supported the government. From now on almost to the last year of the war Bevin suspended relations with the Labour Party, though his relationship with Attlee was unaffected. At the Bournemouth conference in June 1943 Attlee defended the political approach which was guiding his relationship with the Conservatives in the national government:

“The people of this country will not forget that some of the most onerous posts in Government have been held by Labour men who have shown great ability, ability to administer and courage to take unpopular decisions ….. We have a body of men and women who are experienced in administration and have proved themselves fit to govern. Had we remained merely a body of critics who left others to do the work, the Party would not have gained the respect and confidence of the country which I know it has today.”

“One cannot but be struck …. by the extent to which the Labour leaders disliked each other. They were an incredibly vain bunch. Attlee on the other hand had no vanity. Neither was he diffident or deferential. He enabled the Labour party to be effective.”

There were to be two other major clashes before the end of the war. By March 1944 large numbers of miners were on strike because of a minimum wages policy. Bevin drafted an amendment to the defence regulations which gave the government additional powers to deal with incitement to strike in the essential services. Bevan led the attackers and in a debate in the Commons only 65 MPs out of 165 voted for the regulations. Attlee called a meeting of the PLP to discuss Bevan’s expulsion. When Bevan agreed in future to obey the party’s standing orders the matter was not pursued.

The last major clash was over Bevin’s white paper on employment policy. Bevan (yet again) accused Bevin of rejecting the solutions to which socialists had been committed for years. Bevin in return launched a furious attack on socialist doctrinaires. The strain of being a pseudo-opposition were clearly showing by the end of the war. Everyone was relieved when the general election finally occurred.

Bevin’s and Attlee’s predictions of the electorate’s reaction to Labour’s involvement in a National Government turned out to be correct. The electorate rewarded Labour for its responsible behaviour by giving it a massive . overall majority of 150.

Immediately the result became known Attlee’s position as leader was again under attack from Laski and . Morrison who wanted a contest for the Party leadership before the government was formed. At Bevin’s instigation Attlee ignored Morrison and went to Buckingham Palace where he accepted the King’s request to form a government. Morrison was presented with a fait accompli. There was nothing he could do.

Into Power

The achievements of the 1945-51 Labour administration are well known. I shall not recite them here. It is Attlee’s role in these achievements that is of interest here. As always he held the ring. He let his ministers get on with things while keeping a close watch on what was developing. One cannot but be struck in Harris’s account by the extent to which the Labour leaders disliked each other. They were an incredibly vain bunch. Attlee on the other hand had no vanity. Neither was he diffident or deferential. He enabled the Labour Party to be effective.

Domestic policy had largely been formulated by Morrison and Dalton. Attlee appeared to have no disagreements with those policies and let his ministers get on with implementing them. He personally took an active interest in foreign affairs, particularly in the termination of the Indian empire, which he effected with great success. The Palestine policy was not successful but there is every reason to believe that there was no policy which could be successful there either then or now. The matter has to be resolved by force of arms.

Towards the end of the first post-war Labour government when much had been achieved. the question arose – what next? The party divided into two groups: the consolidationists and the advancers. The latter wanted more nationalisation and state intervention in accordance with the traditional socialist model. The former were already beginning to ask questions about the usefulness of nationalisation and state intervention generally. Attlee was for consolidation though he was still prepared to nationalise the steel industry if only to hold the party together.

One must bear in mind that at this point (1950) the Labour leaders were quite old. Attlee was 67, Morrison was 62, Dalton was 63, Bevin was 69. They had been actively involved in running the country for over ten years and had achieved many of their original aims. They were never doctrinaire socialists. They soon became aware of the weaknesses of nationalisation as any sort· of panacea for the country’s economic plight The nationalised industries, as everyone was aware, had their problems too.

The consolidationists won easily in most of these disputes and so the manifestos for the 1950 and 1951 general elections were dominated by their approach.

Labour did very. well in the 1950 election in terms of the number of votes received. However it had a majority of only 5 seats. It might have survived for some considerable time had the pressure of international events in the form of the Korean war not emerged. Although Nye Bevan was to resign ostensibly over the realisation of charges on prescriptions, in fact much of his disquiet was based on what he felt was a too servile following of American foreign policy.

Harris’s whole account of the period 1952-1955 (when Attlee resigned) is very interesting. It suggests that all the disputes of the period were centred around foreign and defence questions, specifically whether Germany should be allowed to rearm, (Bevan and Dalton were very opposed ID this), and whether Britain should manufacture its own Hydrogen &mb. Pressure for German rearmament was coming largely from America which wanted to reduce· its commitment to European defence. But many Europeans still had their doubts.

It is interesting to note that on the issue of the Hydrogen bomb there was virtually no support for a unilateral nuclear disarmament position. As Attlee said:

“I don’t believe you can do it by saying you will set an example and disarming and hope the other fellows will follow suit. It looks a fine gesture, but suppose it doesn’t come off. suppose the other fellows don’t follow suit.”

Yet despite the dominance of the foreign policy issues at the party conferences one cannot but feel that what was really in question was the whole world outlook of the Labour Party. It was necessary to build a new world outlook, which would take cognisance of the victories gained and develop new policies reflecting these victories.

It must surely be admitted that Attlee had little to offer the Party at this juncture. He had been a perfect leader when the Party was clear in its aims but he was never an original thinker and had no new ideas to help the Party in the 1950s. To be fair to Attlee he probably realised this himself.

Harris suggests that in this period 1951-55 Attlee saw himself as caretaker of a party which had run out of steam. He was looking for someone to replace himself. Bevan he liked but eventually decided that he could never be leader since he wanted to lead and rebel at the same time. He did not admire Morrison and felt that Morrison would destroy the party in his antagonism to Bevan.

He eventually decided to throw his support behind Dalton’s protege Gaitskell who had become very popular. He felt the deep personal antagonism which existed between Bevan and Gaitskell would eventually be overcome. In this he was proved correct. However he did not foresee that he would outlive both of them.


Attlee became leader of the Labour Party by accident in 1935. Yet he was to tum out to be a very effective leader of the Party for 1he next 20 years largely because his strength was orchestrating the implementation of agreed policies. When a Party is not agreed on its policies it needs a strong leader with some charisma who is able to impose his world view on it. Charisma was not something of which Attlee had very much. Had Gaitskell lived. his charisma and leadership might eventually have got the Labour Party out of the rut into which it had settled. Is it still in that rut?

Martin Dolphin


This article appeared in July 1987, in Issue 3 of Labour and Trade Union Review.


[1] Attlee, by Kenneth Harris. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback 1984, 640pp, £5.95