Clement Attlee: Labour’s postwar leader

Labour’s postwar leader Clement Attlee presided over the most consequential raft of legislation in modern British history. Charlotte Lydia Riley provides a brief history of his life and legacy

British prime minister Clement Attlee reading a document in his office, 27 July 1946. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Watching Clement Attlee speak on Pathé News footage, he’s notably unnoticeable, a genuinely shy man who looks a little like a mouse and tries hard not to draw attention to himself. But Attlee was a convincing public speaker, with a penetrating voice appreciated by the British public along with his plain tone and straightforward manner. He clung to both his convictions and the leadership of his party with an iron grip, despite frequent challenges and near constant in-fighting.

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Born into a comfortable family in Putney, Attlee was drawn to social work in the East End of London and developed his socialist convictions through his experiences there. First elected as an MP in 1922, he was leader of his party by 1935, and took Labour into the wartime coalition with Churchill. And then, of course, he led his party to victory in 1945: a landslide, delivered on the back of victory in Europe but not yet in the far east, with millions of soldiers voting in makeshift polling stations in barracks and tents around the world for a new Labour government.

The achievements of the 1945–50 Labour government have become canonised as the creation of postwar Britain. The application of the Beveridge Report in the creation of the NHS and the wider extension of the welfare state, and the delivery of a “people’s peace” to reward the sacrifices of the people’s war are perhaps the most consequential acts ever overseen by a modern British prime minister. And let’s not forget that all this was implemented in the context of the negotiation of the Marshall Plan and economic recovery from the ruins of war.

Attlee’s imperial legacy is far more murky: the violence of partition in India, the rapid, disorganised withdrawal from Palestine, and the start of colonial violence in Kenya and Malaya. And these two sides to Attlee’s premiership absolutely epitomise the duality of the British imperial nation, and the position Britain found itself in, in 1945.

Charlotte Lydia Riley is lecturer in 20th-century British history at the University of Southampton


Who was Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister? Listen to episode 3: Clement Attlee

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This content first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine