My history hero: Clement Attlee (1883–1967)

"If I could meet Attlee, I'd ask him for his views on the Labour government of 1997–2010, and what he makes of today's Labour party. It would be interesting to find out!": Betty Boothroyd tells York Membery why Clement Attlee is her history hero...

British leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee leaves the Treasury, 27 May 1945. (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Clement Attlee was leader of the Labour government that swept to power in the 1945 general election.

He was also deputy prime minster of Churchill’s wartime coalition from 1942–45. As prime minister (1945–51), he oversaw the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state – and the nationalisation of coal mining, the railways, the steel industry and the utilities.

His government also began the postwar decolonisation of the British empire and in 1947 granted India independence. He retired as leader of the Labour party, and entered the House of Lords as 1st Earl Attlee, in 1955.

When did you first hear about Clement Attlee?

As a schoolgirl. My Labour-supporting family were always interested in politics so I first heard about him through my parents. But the teachers at my local school also taught us a good deal about current affairs, so thanks to them, I learnt more about him and other famous British political leaders.

What kind of person was Attlee?

He was unassuming, not at all pompous, and totally committed to what he wanted. My mother, who was in the women’s section of the Labour party, used to take me along as a girl to party meetings and I occasionally saw him speak at a rally. I’ll never forget seeing this little man at the microphone, his wife, Vi, knitting away on the platform alongside him! You know, Churchill reportedly once said that Attlee was “a modest man, with much to be modest about” – but I disagree. I believe that Attlee was a modest man with nothing to be modest about!

What made him a hero?

Firstly, his commitment to making the 1940–45 wartime coalition work. We should never forget that when the Nazis were 20 miles away across the English Channel, we still had a working democracy in this country.

Secondly, his commitment to democratic socialism. He wanted to control the commanding heights of the economy. By that I mean, take into public ownership the great utilities – electricity, the Royal Mail, trains, coal and steel – for the benefit of the people. He also began the historic move from empire to

Commonwealth, and the freeing of India from colonial rule, which I think was a great achievement, despite the bloodshed.

A lot of today’s politicians are just not of the same calibre.

What was his finest hour?

I think he had two or possibly three finest hours. First, as deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition – the most successful coalition government in our history. And even though Churchill and Attlee were very different personalities, it was a coalition that worked, in no small part because Attlee made it work.

Secondly, the brave stand he took with regard to the British empire. By the time he became prime minister in 1945, he knew that the empire had come to an end, and it was time to transform it into the Commonwealth. He was there to oversee the change.

Thirdly, his postwar Labour government’s many achievements, most notably the creation of the National Health Service.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

I think Attlee could have made more of his speeches. He was very direct and to the point; he was certainly no Nye Bevan or Michael Foot. He could have entertained us a bit more!

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

Unlike Attlee, who came from a rather privileged background, I came from a poor working-class family. However, even though I came out of the womb a social democrat – and he didn’t – we shared the same beliefs.

If you could meet Attlee, what would you ask him?

First, his view of the 1997–2010 Labour government. Second, what he makes of today’s Labour party. It would be fascinating to know!

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Betty Boothroyd was a Labour MP from 1973–92, and speaker of the House of Commons from 1992–2000. To date, she is the only female speaker. She now sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Boothroyd.