Clement Attlee, the son of a solicitor, was born in Putney in 1883. Educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford he became a barrister in 1906. Attlee developed an interest in social problems while doing voluntary work at a boy's club in Stepney. Converted to socialism by reading the works of John Ruskin and William Morris, he joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908.
After working in a series of temporary jobs, he met Sidney Webb, who arranged for him to teach social administration at the London School of Economics. "I was not appointed on the score of academic qualification, but because I was considered to have a good practical knowledge of social conditions."
In 1914 Attlee joined the British Army and served in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia , where he was badly wounded at El Hanna. After recovering back in England, Attlee was sent to France in 1918 and served on the Western Front for the last few months of the war. By the end of the First World War Attlee reached the rank of major.
In the 1922 General Election he was elected Labour MP for Limehouse in London. Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the party in the House of Commons, recruited Attlee as his parliamentary secretary (1922-24). In the 1924 Labour Government Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War.
After the Labour Party victory in the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Attlee as postmaster-general. However, like most ministers, Attlee refused to serve in the National Government formed by MacDonald in 1931. Attlee was one of the few Labour MPs to win his seat in the 1931 General Election and became deputy leader of the party under George Lansbury. "On going to the first Party Meeting after the Election, I had a message from Arthur Henderson that George Lansbury would be proposed as Leader and myself as Deputy. These nominations went through without opposition." Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued that Arthur Henderson "may have been concerned that the vague and emotional Lansbury should be balanced by the practical and efficient Attlee."
When George Lansbury retired in 1935 Attlee became the new leader of the Labour Party. At that time the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.
Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and the more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Attlee, Philip Noel-Baker and Arthur Greenwood argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be." During the Spanish Civil War he supported the British volunteers fighting against General Francisco Franco and visited the International Brigades on the front-line in December 1937.
In 1940 Attlee joined the coalition government headed by Winston Churchill. He was virtually deputy Prime Minister although this post did not formally become his until 1942. It was afterwards claimed that during the Second World War Attlee worked as a restraining influence on some of Churchill's more wilder schemes.
During the Second World War some some MPs believed that Herbert Morrison should replace Clement Attlee as leader of the Labour Party. The leader of the plot was his mistress, Ellen Wilkinson. A fellow Cabinet Minister, Hugh Dalton wrote in his diary on 28th October, 1942. "Ellen Wilkinson came to dine with me.... She is still a most devoted worshipper of Herbert Morrison, and puts me second. What she would like would be Morrison to lead the Party and me to be his deputy. She would like us two to go into the War Cabinet, putting out Attlee and Cripps. The difficulty about all such plans is that the right moment never arrives to put them into execution!" Emanuel Shinwell warned Attlee about this plot when he promoted Wilkinson to the post of Minister of Education: " I mentioned to Attlee that a number of plotters had been given jobs. He laughed, perfectly well aware of what had been going on. It is not bad tactics to make one's enemies one's servants.
In 1945 Morrison was given responsibility for drafting the Labour Party manifesto that included the blueprints for the nationalization and welfare programmes. "The Labour Party is a socialist party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain - free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organized in the service of the British people." Morrison explained in An Autobiography (1960): "We had not been afraid to be frank about our plans. There would be public ownership of fuel and power, transport, the Bank of England, civil aviation, and iron and steel. We proposed a housing programme dealt with in relation to good town planning. We promised to put the 1944 Education Act into practical operation. We said that wealth would no longer be the passport to the best health treatment. We promised that a Labour Government would extend social insurance over the widest field."
Margaret Thatcher thought the manifesto was an extremist document: "The 1945 Labour manifesto was in fact a very left-wing document. That is clearer now than it was then. Straight after the war much of the talk of planning and state control echoed wartime rhetoric, and so its full implications were not grasped. In fact, it was a root and branch assault on business, capitalism and the market... The state was regarded as uniquely competent to judge where resources should and should not be employed in the national interest. It was not solely or even primarily on social grounds that nationalization, controls and planning were advanced, but on economic grounds. Harmful monopolies were seen as occurring only in the private sector... Most radical of all, perhaps, was the Labour Party's attitude to land, where it was made clear that compulsory purchase by local authorities was only the beginning of a wider programme."
In May 1945, Winston Churchill made a radio broadcast where he attacked the Labour Party: "I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo."
Attlee's response the following day caused Churchill serious damage: "The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life."
In the 1945 General Election Attlee led the Labour Party to its largest victory at the polls. During his six years in office he carried through a vigorous programme of reform. The Bank of England, the coal mines, civil aviation, cable and wireless services, gas, electricity, railways, road transport and steel were nationalized. The National Health Service was introduced and independence was granted to India in 1947.
One of Attlee's ministers, Harold Wilson, commented: "He was in full control of himself, his Cabinet and the House. His answers in Parliament were concise and clear, with a tight little sense of humour. In the first debate of the 1945 Parliament, referring to Churchill as his Right Honourable Friend, he paid an unstinted tribute to his predecessor's war leadership. But he could be sharp with his former colleague.... His speeches in Parliament were usually very short. Members of the Cabinet summoned to brief him, or calling on some other issue, would find him upstairs in the flat, picking out his text with two fingers on a non-standard keyboard, probably dating from his days as a social worker in Stepney. He would bring Cabinet discussion to a brisk close, before producing a clear summing-up in very few words. Cabinet business was carried through with brevity and discussions kept firmly to the point."
Oxford was at that time predominately Conservative though there was a strong Liberal group, notably at Ballioli, which counted among its undergraduates such men as R. H. Tawney and William Temple, the future Archbishop, whose influence on socialist thought was in later years to be so great. Socialism was hardly spoken of, although Sidney Ball at St. John's and A.J. Carlyle, at University College, kept the light burning.
I was at this time a Conservative, but I did not take any active part in politics. I never belonged to any political club. Some of my friends were interested in the University Settlements - Oxford House and Toynbee Hall.
I became interested in the work and began making the journey from Putney to the club one evening a week. Soon my visits became more frequent. In 1907 the club manager resigned and Cecil Nussey asked me if I would take over the job. I agreed, went to live at Haileybury House and thus began a fourteen years' residence in East London.
I soon began to learn many things which had hitherto been unrevealed. I found there was a different social code. Thrift, so dear to the middle classes, was not esteemed so highly as generosity. The Christian virtue of charity was practised, not merely preached. I recall a boy in the club living in two rooms with his widowed mother. He earned seven shillings and sixpence a week. A neighbouring family, where there was no income coming in, were thrown on to the street by the landlord. The boy and his mother took them all into their little home.
I remember taking the club's football team by local train to play an away match. Young Ben had come straight from work with his week's money - a half-sovereign - and somehow he had lost the gold coin. There was no hesitation amongst the boys. Jack said, "Look, a tanner each all round will make half of it." They readily agreed, yet probably that tanner was all that most of them would have retained for themselves from their wages.
I found abundant instances of kindness and much quiet heroism in these mean streets. These people were not poor through their lack of fine qualities. The slums were not filled with the dregs of society. Not only did I have countless lessons in practical economics but there was kindled in me a warmth and affection for these people that has remained with me all my life.
From this it was only a step to examining the whole basis of our social and economic system, I soon began to realise the curse of casual labour. I got to know what slum landlordism and sweating meant. I understood why the Poor Law was so hated. I learned also why there were rebels.
My elder brother, Tom, was an architect and a great reader of Ruskin and Morris. I too admired these great men and began to understand their social gospel. My brother was helping at the Maurice Hostel in the nearby Hoxton district of London. Our reading became more extensive. After looking into many social reform ideas - such as co-partnership - we both came to the conclusion that the economic and ethical basis of society was wrong. We became socialists.
I recall how in October, 1907, we went to Clements Inn to try and join the Fabian Society. Edward Pease, the Secretary, regarded us as if we were two beetles who had crept under the door, and when we said we wanted to join the Society he asked coldly, "Why?" We said, humbly, that we were socialists and persuaded him we were genuine.
I remember very well the first Fabian Society meeting we attended at Essex Hall. The platform seemed to be full of bearded men: Aylmer Maude, William Sanders, Sidney Webb and Bernard Shaw. I said to my brother, "Have we got to grow a beard to join this show. H. G. Wells was on the platform, speaking with a little piping voice; he was very unimpressive.
In 1912, largely through the influence of Sidney Webb, I was appointed a lecturer and tutor in the London School of Economics in the Department of Social Science and Public Administration. I was not appointed on the score of academic qualifications but because I was considered to have a practical knowledge of social conditions. The salary was small but sufficient for my wants, while the hours of my work left me plenty of time for social work and also for socialist propaganda, for it was a fundamental rule of the School that no one could be restricted in venting his political opinions.
The outbreak of the war brought great heart-searchings in the ranks of the Labour and Socialist Movement, especially in the membership of the Independent Labour Party, which had always been strongly pacifist. The difference of view in the Party was well illustrated in our family. My brother Tom was a convinced conscientious objector and went to prison. I thought it my duty to fight.
I was told when I first tried to join the Army that I was too old at thirty-one. A relative of one of my pupils, who was commanding a battalion of Kitchener's Army, had applied for me, and one Sunday morning, on returning from doing a guard at Lincoln's Inn, I found a letter telling me to report as a Lieutenant to the 6th South Lancashire Regiment at Tidworth. There I found plenty to do, as I soon found myself in temporary command of a company of seven officers and 250 men.
Many members of the Government, of whom I was one, were seriously disturbed at the lack of constructive policy displayed by the leaders of the Government. We were also conscious of a growing estrangement between MacDonald and the rest of the Party. He was increasingly mixing only with people who did not share the Labour outlook. This opposition, however, did not crystallise, because the one man who could have taken MacDonald's place, Arthur Henderson, was too loyal to lend himself to any action against his leader. Instead of deciding on a policy and standing or falling by it, MacDonald and Snowden persuaded the Cabinet to agree to the appointment of an Economy Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir George May of the Prudential Insurance Company, with a majority of opponents of Labour on it. The result might have been anticipated. The proposals were directed to cutting the social services and particularly unemployment benefit. Their remedy for an economic crisis, one of the chief features of which was excess of commodities over effective demand, was to cut down the purchasing power of the masses. The majority of the Government refused to accept the cuts and it was on this issue that the Government broke up. Instead of resigning, MacDonald accepted a commission from the King to form a so-called 'National' Government.
Roy Jenkins has described the election of Attlee in 1931 as "almost automatic ... Its inevitability although of very recent growth, was almost complete." It is not clear that this was so. Apart from Lansbury, Attlee had more solid ministerial experience than any other MP - though he had only served above the rank of under-secretary for a little over a year. Yet it is surprising that no miner was put forward for the deputy post. One MP who was well suited for it was D. R. Grenfell, MP for Gower since 1922, and later Minister for Mines in the Wartime Coalition. A man of considerable talents, with a self-taught fluency in French, he had been elected to the Parliamentary Executive (for which Attlee did not stand) in September, and retained a high position on it for the rest of the decade. In 1918, a PLP similarly dominated by miners had chosen as chairman Willie Adamson, a miner of meagre abilities and little standing, despite the far greater claims of Clynes and J. H. Thomas.
Attlee's own cryptic comment on the most fateful event of his Parliamentary career is interesting. "On going to the first Party Meeting after the Election, I had a message from Arthur Henderson that George Lansbury would be proposed as Leader and myself as Deputy. These nominations went through without opposition." Henderson may have been concerned that the vague and emotional Lansbury should be balanced by the practical and efficient Attlee. At any rate, it is an open question whether without the intervention of Henderson the outcome would have been the same."
Attlee's early life was singular mainly for its lack of distinction of a conventional kind. Born in 1883 the son of a City solicitor, he was educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford; his progress at both institutions was unremarkable. A short career after Oxford as a barrister was a depressing failure. "I had always been painfully shy", he wrote later, 14 and perhaps this was why he rapidly found that he was unsuited to work at the Bar. Instead he took up social work in the East End, where, affected by the poverty and miseries of the slums, his Anglican Toryisrn gave way to the doctrines of Ruskin, Morris and Webb. At the age of 25 he joined the ILP and became active in establishing the party in Stepney. "The experience that he gained during this time was later of inestimable value to Attlee", his biographer has written. "He treated the East End as his home, and not as a laboratory in which he could carry out social experiments. By so doing he dug himself into one of the great working-class areas of the country and grew roots of a firmness that few middle-class socialists have been able to achieve."
A series of temporary jobs led, through a brief association with Sidney Webb, to a post teaching social administration at the London School of Economics. "I was not appointed on the score of academic qualification," Attlee later wrote modestly, "but because I was considered to have a good practical knowledge of social conditions." In 1914 Attlee rejected the pacifism prevalent in the ILP and joined up. He rose to the rank of major, saw action at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and in France, was wounded and suffered recurring bouts of illness. Recovered by 1919, he returned to Stepney, fought and lost an LCC contest, was co-opted mayor of Stepney, and in 1922 became MP for Limehouse.
Attlee's Parliamentary career started with a stroke of good luck. MacDonald, newly elected to the Leadership, picked him as his PPS. In 1924, however, he was given a meagre reward -one of the least promising posts in the first Labour Government - under-secretary at the War Office. Five years later he was passed over completely - partly because he was still serving on the Indian Statutory Commission, to which he was appointed in 1927. If Mosley had not resigned in May 1930 Attlee might never have served in the Second Labour Government; for the abrupt end to Mosley's career provided a crucial stepping-stone for Attlee who moved from the backbenches to the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. In March 1931 he was transferred to the Post Office, and for five months, the only period in his whole career, he had responsibility for a Government department. At the election he held Limehouse with the slim majority of 551.
The Party had to face the growing international tension caused by the emergence of aggression - first in the Far East and then in Abyssinia. There was also the growing strength of Hitler in Germany. The Party, under the leadership of Henderson, had adopted the policy of strong support for the League of Nations, but there was in our ranks a strong pacifist section led by George Lansbury. When the Government embarked on rearmament, this division in our ranks became more apparent. The Party was prepared to rearm provided that it was in support of a genuine League policy.
The crisis came over the question of the application of sanctions against Mussolini for invading Abyssinia. After a very full discussion at the Annual Party Conference at Brighton in October, 1935, the pacifists were overwhelmingly defeated. A few days later Lansbury resigned the leadership. This was a grief to all of us, for we had a great admiration and affection for him, but he was right in thinking that his position had become impossible. I was elected Leader in his place.
We withdrew to Mondijar, a small village to the east of Madrid. Comfortable quarters in a beautiful countryside soon improved morale. New recruits brought our figure back to the six hundred mark. Field training and manoeuvring took up all our time. During this period Major Attlee, the leader of the British Labour Party, with Ellen Wilkinson and Noel Baker, came out to Spain. Ellen was a great favourite with the lads. Her fiery enthusiasm and kind interest in the smallest things made her the central figure of this group.
At about nine o'clock at night, as darkness was falling, the square at Mondijal was lined by the members of the British 16th and 50th, and the American Washington and Lincoln battalionssome twelve to fifteen hundred men. Those in the rear were holding lighted torches. Clem Attlee and Ellen spoke from a cart, in simple, kind language, of the things that the British Labour Party were trying to do. The response was terriffic. Carried away by the enthusiasm of the speeches, I asked Clem whether he would allow the battalion to be called after him, and he immediately agreed, declaring himself more than honoured. He was to meet considerable opposition on his return to England from the Tory Government over this incident.
When Anthony Eden and Lord Cranborne resigned from the Chamberlain Government early in 1938, as a protest against the Prime Minister's decision to open conversations with Mussolini whilst Italy was carrying on intervention in Spain and anti-British propaganda, I told the House that the policy of the Government was "an abject surrender to the dictators" and that "the Government, instead of trying to deal with the causes of war, had always been trying in a feeble way to play off one dictator against another. That is a policy which sooner or later leads to war."
Successful violence bred more violence. Ruthless cruelty became rampant. We are now faced with the danger of the world relapsing into barbarism. Nazism is the outstanding menace to civilisation, not only because of the character and actions of the men who are in absolute control of a great nation, but because of their ideas which are openly in conflict with all the conceptions upon which civilised life is based. They do not accept as valuable the virtues which are in this country accepted as desirable by all, even by those who honour them with very little in their actions.
Our Western civilisation has been built up in the main on the acceptance of the moral standards of Christianity. Even those who find themselves unable to accept Christian dogma accept in the main its ethical standards. In our everyday intercourse we assume that most men are honest, truthful and kindly, and in general we are not disappointed. We do not expect that we shall be violently attacked or maltreated by our neighbours. This mutual confidence is the foundation of a civilised peaceful life.
At no time in history have these standards been fully maintained in the relations between States. There have always been those who have been prepared to put apparent national interests before moral principles, but they have done it shamefacedly. Bad faith, lying and injustice have often marked international relations, but it has been left to the German Government to make them its regular practice and to glory in them.
Similarly, there was formerly a definite world conscience which revolted against cruelty and atrocities. The wholesale murder of innocent men, women and children was regarded as the mark of a barbarous people. Where such things happened under professedly civilised government there was an outcry in all countries, including the one whose government was responsible for the outrage. One can recall instances in our own history, such as the Amritsar massacre. Today in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland the German Government is indulging in wholesale massacre and torture of unoffending people. It not only admits it, it glories in it. At home and abroad, brutal cruelty is the mark of the Nazi regime.
It is essential to remember that civilisation takes long to build and is easily destroyed. Brutality is infectious. But there is something more than these outward expressions of the return to barbarism in the Nazi regime. There is a denial of the value of the individual. Christianity affirms the value of each individual soul. Nazism denies it. The individual is sacrificed to the idol of the German Leader, German State or the German race. The ordinary citizen is allowed to hear and think only as the rulers decree.
I lunched, as did Boss Butler, at the Belgian Embassy, and found myself next to Attlee, whose French is really appalling; but I was pleasantly surprised by the courtesy of the little man. He is a gentleman, or nearly so; no revolutionary he. We discussed poor Mr Chamberlain, whom he once so hated. Today he was kind about him, recalled his sympathetic speech on the Members' Pensions Bill, and lauded his great qualities But he shied off when I hinted that Neville had saved Christendom' though he did not contradict me. I think that I made a conquest of him; I hope so. He is narrow, nervous, unimposing and well-meaning and seems more Liberal than actually Socialist: but he could never control the energies of his wilder followers.
I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo.
The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners.
Forty years ago the Labour Party might, with some justice, have been called a class Party, representing almost exclusively the wage earners. It is still based on organised labour, but has steadily become more and more inclusive. In the ranks of the Parliamentary Party and among our candidates you will find numbers of men and women drawn from every class and occupation in the community. Wage and salary earners form the majority, but there are many from other walks of life, from the professions and from the business world, giving a wide range of experience. More than 120 of our candidates come from the Fighting Services, so that youth is well represented.
The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.
Our appeal to you, therefore, is not narrow or sectional. We are proud of the fact that our country in the hours of its greatest danger stood firm and united, setting an example to the world of how a great democratic people rose to the height of the occasion and saved democracy and liberty. We are proud of the self-sacrifice and devotion displayed by men and women in every walk of life in this great adventure. We call you to another great adventure which will demand the same high qualities as those shown in the war: the adventure of civilisation.
We have seen a great and powerful nation return to barbarism. We have seen European civilisation almost destroyed and an attempt made to set aside the moral principles upon which it has been built. It is for us to help to re-knit the fabric of civilised life woven through the centuries, and with the other nations to seek to create a world in which free peoples living their own distinctive lives in a society of nations co-operate together, free from the fear of war.
We have to plan the broad lines of our national life so that all may have the duty and the opportunity of rendering service to the nation, everyone in his or her sphere, and that all may help to create and share in an increasing material prosperity free from the fear of want. We have to preserve and enhance the beauty of our country to make it a place where men and women may live finely and happily, free to worship God in their own way, free to speak their minds, free citizens of a great country.
In a debate in the House of Commons on the Schuman Plan on 26 June 1950 Prime Minister Attlee said that Great Britain could not adopt the principle of subordinating vital parts of the British economy to a European authority. He regarded such a measure as absolutely undemocratic and incompatible with the principles of British democracy. In the same debate Eden, speaking for the Conservative Party which was then in opposition, declared that the success of the Schuman Plan was in the British interest. Yet the Conservative Party did not advocate British participation in the Schuman Plan.
I mentioned to Attlee that a number of plotters had been given jobs. He laughed, perfectly well aware of what had been going on. It is not bad tactics to make one's enemies one's servants.
Dalton used to come back from No. 10 seething with rage about what he called 'the incompetent little Prime Minister who just sat there doing nothing to influence a decision "while I had to sit listening to rambling monologues from your friend Ernie Bevin".
I didn't share Dalton's view on Bevin, but I did begin to wonder about Mr Attlee. Everybody seemed to be talking about Attlee's indifference, and I spent a lot of time in the tea room of the House of Commons (I've learned better since!) listening to, and taking part in, the discussions that went on. At that time Patrick Gordon Walker was Herbert Morrison's P.P.S., and he and I had long discussions about what we regarded as the Attlee problem. Finally we decided that we should have to do something about it, so we determined to organize a 'putsch' to get rid of Mr Attlee and replace him by Bevin. Bevin was the only possible strong man to take his place as Prime Minister. One lot in the Parliamentary Labour Party wouldn't have Cripps, others wouldn't have Morrison, and nobody would have Dalton. So Bevin was the only man, and we set out to organize a revolt by collecting signatures in the tea room to a resolution demanding the resignation of Mr Attlee and his replacement by Bevin. I was deputed to be the man to go to Bevin to tell him that we'd got all this arranged, so would he please put on his best suit and be ready to go to the Palace at any moment.
The war in Korea, which had broken out in June 1949, suddenly acquired a menacing aspect when General MacArthur determined to resolve the conflict by bombing mainland China itself, together with a blockade of the entire coast and the employment of President Chiang Kai-shek's forces in Taiwan in an almost unlimited offensive. At the beginning of 1951, the Labour Government initiated an extremely serious two-day debate in the House on the grave international situation, amid anxiety that the Korean war was about to escalate into a world confrontation. On the afternoon of the second day, the Press Association ticker-tape in the Palace of Westminster carried the story that President Truman had said in Washington that General MacArthur possessed delegated authority to use nuclear weapons without reference to the White House.
There was uproar in the Commons when the news spread. Attlee was due to wind up the debate at 9.30 pm, but earlier in the evening he called a Cabinet in his room at the House. He referred perfectly calmly to the report and said that he had concluded that he must fly to Washington, not then a routine operation, and see the President. In other circumstances he would have asked the Foreign Secretary to go, but the state of Ernie Bevin's health ruled that out and a sea voyage would take too long. He would try to contact the President on the transatlantic telephone, a very uncertain means of communication in those days, especially if the President was away from the White House. He would hope to receive confirmation of his planned visit before he wound up the debate. The Cabinet concurred.
Attlee succeeded in defusing the crisis in Washington, but at a heavy price as far as Britain's strained economy was concerned. In the communique issued at the end of the talks with President Truman, the key clause committed both countries "to increase their military capabilities as rapidly as possible". Under American pressure Britain's already crippling arms burden was to go up from £3,400 million to £4,700 million. This squandering of our resources is what brought me out fighting at Bevan's side. The armourers were to thrive, but not the deliverers of arms. I had been a witness of the process. Two wars should have taught the economic innumerates, so many of whom then populated the Foreign Office and Defence departments, what the results would undoubtedly be.
Differences of opinion arose in the Government. The immediate cause was a proposal in the Budget to make charges for certain of the Health Services in order to prevent abuse. There were other differences of a more personal nature. I endeavoured to effect agreement, but the disagreement spread to some other matters, notably to the effect on the economy of the country of the level of armaments on which we had embarked. I had, as a matter of fact, pointed out in public speeches that the achievement of our programme was conditioned by various factors such as the availability of raw materials and machine tools, and the level of prices. There was, therefore, in my view, no real difference of principle. However, the upshot was that Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman insisted on resigning from the Government.
It is wrong (to impose national health charges) because it is the beginning of the destruction of those social services in which Labour has taken a special pride and which were giving to Britain the moral leadership of the world.
He was in full control of himself, his Cabinet and the House. His answers in Parliament were concise and clear, with a tight little sense of humour. In the first debate of the 1945 Parliament, referring to Churchill as his 'Right Honourable Friend', he paid an unstinted tribute to his predecessor's war leadership. But he could be sharp with his former colleague. On another occasion, when Attlee was dealing with a particular problem, Churchill intervened to say that the issue had been brought up several times in the wartime Cabinet. 'I must remind the Rt Hon. Gentleman', Attlee replied, 'that a monologue is not a decision.'
His speeches in Parliament were usually very short. Members of the Cabinet summoned to brief him, or calling on some other issue, would find him upstairs in the flat, picking out his text with two fingers on a non-standard keyboard, probably dating from his days as a social worker in Stepney. He would bring Cabinet discussion to a brisk close, before producing a clear summing-up in very few words. Cabinet business was carried through with brevity and discussions kept firmly to the point.
His decisions, personal judgements, terse comments and even his silences created the atmosphere in which all of us, from the most senior minister to the Parliamentary Secretary of Works, had to perform their duties. He was regular in his attendance in the House, regarding his presence there not so much as a gesture to Parliament, but as a means of monitoring the performances of his juniors. I remember one occasion, long after I had become President of the Board of Trade, when I remained seated and failed to answer some particularly banal, would-be funny, supplementary question. 'You're supposed to answer them, you know,' he snapped at me, 'don't sit there. Throw what they say back in their teeth'.
Well before the 1950 election we were all conscious of a Conservative revival. This was less the result of fundamental rethinking within the Conservative Party than of a strong reaction both among Conservatives and in the country at large against the socialism of the Attlee Government. Aneurin Bevan's description in July 1948 of Conservatives as 'lower than vermin' gave young Tories like me a great opportunity to demonstrate their allegiance in the long English tradition of ironic self-deprecation. We went around wearing 'vermin' badges - a little blue rat. A whole hierarchy was established, so that those who recruited ten new party members wore badges identifying them as 'vile vermin'; if you recruited twenty you were 'very vile vermin'. There was a Chief Rat, who lived somewhere in Twickenham.
Of Clement Attlee, however, I was an admirer. He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show. His was a genuinely radical and reforming government. The 1945 Labour manifesto was in fact a very left-wing document. That is clearer now than it was then. Straight after the war much of the talk of planning and state control echoed wartime rhetoric, and so its full implications were not grasped. In fact, it was a root and branch assault on business, capitalism and the market. It took as its essential intellectual assumption that 'it is doubtful whether we have ever, except in war, used the whole of our productive capacity. This must be corrected.' The state was regarded as uniquely competent to judge where resources should and should not be employed in the national interest. It was not solely or even primarily on social grounds that nationalization, controls and planning were advanced, but on economic grounds. Harmful monopolies were seen as occurring only in the private sector. So nationalization of iron and steel was justified on the argument that 'only if public ownership replaces private monopoly can the industry become efficient'. Most radical of all, perhaps, was the Labour Party's attitude to land, where it was made clear that compulsory purchase by local authorities was only the beginning of a wider programme.
Aneurin Bevan wouldn't have been able to take on the role of architect of the NHS 60 years ago, if Attlee had not been prepared, as prime minister, to support him. Unlike Bevan, he didn't have the luxury of resignation just before the 1951 election – an oft-forgotten act that, if perpetrated today, would create banner headlines of unrepeatable venom!
Of course, Attlee had been the quiet voice, the decision-taker behind Winston Churchill throughout the second world war.
While Churchill rallied the nation and the world, Attlee was here at home ensuring that the war machine worked, that the fabric of society held together, and the nation was fed.
Churchill's quip about him being "a modest man with a lot to be modest about" was as far from the mark as you could possibly get.
Achievements are those changes, which last. The things that make a difference to the lives and wellbeing of the people we in the Labour party seek to serve.
To do so, not only on the world stage in relation to the war but in freeing hundreds of millions of people from imperialism after the war (not least in India), he laid the foundations of a commonwealth of equals.
In promoting the cause of Attlee, I also draw conclusions from aspects of his life and premiership which teach us lessons today. The failure to lift rationing (a policy that had ensured the health and nutrition of the bulk of the population during the war) was a mistake. It demonstrated that something that was right for its own time, that was a necessity to prevent rickets or even famine, was a millstone when its time had run out. The world of choice, the need for hope and optimism, of a rejection of government telling people what was good for them, had arrived – but not, however, in the Labour government and Labour party of 1950-51.