Attlee | Clement Richard | 1883-1967 | 1st Earl Attlee, Prime Minister of Great Britain

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Clement Richard Attlee (1883-1967), Labour prime minister of Britain from 1945-1951, presided over one of the most radical peacetime administrations in Britain's history. Born into a prosperous family (his father was a solicitor), Attlee went to private schools then to University College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a second-class degree. The turning point in his life came when he visited a boys' club in London's East End, which was supported by his old school. The squalor he saw converted him from a conservative into a socialist. In 1907, he became the manager of the club and settled in the area. In 1908, he joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a precursor of the modern Labour Party, and soon after became a lecturer in social administration at Sidney Webb's London School of Economics (LSE).

Unlike many of his contemporaries in the Labour movement, Attlee was not a pacifist, and he fought in the Middle East and in France (where he was wounded) in World War 1. His breakthrough in politics occurred shortly after the end of the war, when the council of the London borough of Stepney elected him mayor. Attlee joined the House of Commons in 1922 and served as under-secretary of state for war in the short-lived Labour administration of 1924. He also held several posts in the 1929 government. When, in 1931, Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald ended the Labour government in order to form a "National Government" with the Conservatives, Attlee joined the majority of his party in disowning MacDonald's actions and going into opposition. The Labour meltdown of the 1931 election - when the total number of Labour and allied MPs dropped to just 52 - turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Attlee, as he was one of the few remaining high-profile Labour MPs, and became deputy leader under George Lansbury (1859-1940). During the 1935 election campaign, Lansbury resigned over his anti-war views, leaving the road clear for Attlee to take control. He remained leader for 20 years.

Attlee's important role in government came during World War 2. Having edged (Arthur) Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) out of office, the Labour party joined a coalition administration under Winston Churchill (1874-1965) in which several Labour MPs played key roles. In 1942, Attlee rose to become deputy prime minister, a job he carried out with much skill, though his careful and understated style contrasted with Churchill's charismatic flamboyance.

In the 1945 election, much to Attlee's surprise, the Labour party won a substantial majority after campaigning for a "Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain". The following six years of government saw radical changes from the style of government of the pre-war years. Many industries were nationalised, the embryonic welfare state was enlarged, and free healthcare was introduced, as well as major reforms in education, finance and urban planning. The statist policies of wartime were, if anything, extended, and Britain saw what was probably its only true socialist government. The election of 1951 sent a mixed message. Labour's vote was the largest ever received by a British political party, but the complexity of the "first past the post" electoral system allowed his wartime colleague Churchill to return to power despite getting less votes. After a further defeat in 1955, Attlee resigned the leadership of the Labour Party. He was immediately elevated to the House of Lords.

It is said that Attlee's skills were in detailed committee work and making people with conflicting opinions and personalities work together, rather than particular administrative skills. Nonetheless, despite the disastrous final 20 months of his government after the indecisive 1950 election (when several cabinet ministers resigned because of the introduction of NHS charges and the prosecution of the Korean War, denting Labour's wafer-thin majority), Attlee remains one of the more successful British prime ministers of the 20th Century.


No relevant relationships.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

The Labour Party in Perspective, ( 1937)

As it Happened (1954)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1919: Elected Mayor, London Borough of Stepney

1922-1950: Elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Limehouse

1924: Appointed Under-Secretary of State for War

1930: Appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

1935-1955: Elected Leader of the Labour Party

1940: Appointed Lord Privy Seal

1942-1945: Appointed Deputy Prime Minister

1943: Appointed Lord President of the Council

1945-1951: Appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain

1955: Awarded Earldom


List of sources for the biographical information:

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ( Chicago, William Benton, 1964)

Williams, ET, Nicholls, CS, Dictionary of National Biography 1961-1970, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1981)