Clement Attlee, the son of Henry Attlee, was born in Putney on 3rd January, 1883. His mother, Ellen Attlee, was the daughter of Thomas Simons Watson, who was educated at Cambridge University and became secretary of the Art Union. Clement was the seventh of eighth children and had three sisters and four brothers. (1)
For more than 200 years the Attlee family had become wealthy, primarily through corn mills and brewing. His grandfather, Richard Attlee had been especially successful. Henry, the ninth of his tenth children, was articled to the solicitors Druces, where he rose to become senior partner in 1897. He became one of His Majesty's Lieutenants of the City of London and eventually, in 1906, President of the Law Society. (2)
The family home was a large villa with two storeys. As well as a large garden they had their own tennis court. As well as three domestic servants, the family employed a full-time gardener. "On first appearance, Henry Attlee appeared rather austere, with a long white beard, top hat, and dress suit. All his children, however, remembered him as warm, convivial and affectionate. On those occasions when he had won a case in court, he was known to chase them through the garden and leap through the flowerbeds." In 1898 Henry Attlee purchased a large country house in Thorpe-le-Soken, which had 200 acres of land. (3)
Henry and Ellen Attlee were committed Anglicans and there was a strong tradition of "good works" in the family. "Every morning Henry Attlee said prayers before breakfast to the whole family and servants; after breakfast, psalms were read with Ellen Attlee presiding… Attlee was instilled with an enduring sense of Christian values." (4) Henry was on the council of St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and Ellen was involved in charitable activity through the church. The eldest son, Bernard, became a clergyman. The eldest daughter, Mary, went to South Africa as a missionary. (5)
Education of Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee was very close to his older brother Tom Attlee. At the age of nine he followed Tom to board at Northaw Place preparatory school in Hertfordshire. Other pupils at the time included William Jowitt and Hilton Young, two future MPs. Clement enjoyed his time at Northaw Place but considered its teaching methods eccentric and blamed the school for not giving him a good enough grounding in Latin and Greek. (6)
In 1896 at the age of thirteen went on, like all the boys in the Attlee family, to Haileybury College. He spent four years in the middle of his class and was never identified as a candidate for a scholarship to one of Britain's prestigious universities. According to John Bew: "Haileybury had hardened what was essentially Conservative - and most decidedly imperialist - political convictions. He was aware that such a thing as socialism existed but did not think it worth much consideration. As for the plight of the poor in England, he showed no sign of empathy; quite the contrary. One of his earliest poems, which appeared in the Haileybury magazine in 1899, was a strongly worded attack on the London cabbies who were striking at the time. Before long, he predicted, these upstarts would be forced to beg for their fares." (7)
Attlee came under the influence of his housemaster Frederick Webb Headley, who had right-wing political opinions, and was the author of Darwinism and Modern Socialism (1909). The principle theme of the book is a defence of capitalism, specifically of the ingenuity of capitalists large and small, concluding that socialism would never take root in Britain. If introduced socialism would have a "crushing, deadening influence" and would "introduce unjust and impossible economics". It would, Headley maintained, "destroy the main motives for enterprise and put an end to the struggle for existence, the action of which maintains the health and vigour of human communities." (8)
Attlee's views on politics can be discovered by his contribution to Haileybury School Debating Society. For example, he opposed the motion "that museums and picture galleries should be open on Sundays". What class, Attlee asked, would benefit from the opening of museums and galleries? Certainly not the poorer class, as they could not appreciate them. He thought that it would be giving the upper class another excuse for not going to church. It was introducing the thin end of the wedge." (9)
Clement's conservative views brought him into conflict with his father who was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party. He had many friends in the party including John Morley, who had served as Chief Secretary for Ireland and Secretary of State for India, who lived close by in Putney. Morley had also published biographies of Oliver Cromwell and William Ewart Gladstone. Both these books were later read by Clement Attlee. (10)
Henry Attlee and his sons disagreed about the Boer War. Whereas the boys felt the strong emotions of patriotism during the conflict, their father believed the good name of the country was being besmirched by the actions of a "rather unsavoury cosmopolitan clique of financiers in Johannesburg" who were falsely claiming to act in the interests of the empire. How could the British criticize the actions of other colonial powers in the "scramble for Africa" - such as Belgium, Germany and France - when it acted in ways that were just as ignoble? (11)
Francis Beckett claims that "Attlee was a perfectly able though undistinguished pupil, becoming a prefect but not head of house... He was so shy that he could hardly bring himself to speak in the school's Literary and Debating Society. He was given the job of running the house library because he had read all the books... For a small, shy bookworm without any talent for games, he contrived to stay out of trouble most of the time. If anyone knew what to look for, they might have seen a natural politician in the making." (12)
Clement Attlee entered University College to read Modern History in October 1901. His brother Tom was also at Oxford University and in his final year of Corpus Christi. The brothers relished the freedom of university, which contrasted to their regimented existence at Haileybury. They were given a generous stipend by their father and embraced the university lifestyle - rowing, reading and socializing. Tom later recalled: "Your time at Oxford was your own and you did not waste a bit of it." (13)
Attlee was not an outstanding student. Some tutors suggested he could have achieved a first-class degree, but found himself reading around the history syllabus. One of his tutors described him as a "level-headed, industrious, dependable man with no brilliance of style... but with excellent sound judgement." He received a second-class degree but developed a life-long interest in history. His sister Mary commented that his knowledge of history was "of the greatest help to him, for not only has it provided him with a sound understanding of the causes of tendencies in modern society, but it is a subject which gives every intelligent student of it perspective and a sense of balance." (14)
Attlee did not take an interest in politics or economics while at university. It did not cross his mind to question the order or structure of society. He admitted that at this time he was a "good old fashioned imperialist conservative". (15) He later recalled: "The capitalist system was as unquestioned as the social system. It was just there. It was not known under that name because one does not give a name to something of which one is unconscious." He later recalled: "In my day we were extraordinarily backward. I was a very backward boy myself - we knew nothing about socialism." (16)
Attlee wrote in his autobiography, As It Happened (1954): "Oxford University 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." (17)
In the autumn of 1904 he entered the Lincoln's Inn chambers of Sir Philip Gregory, a leading conveyancing lawyer, and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in March 1906. This was achieved through his father's connections. He also studied under Theobald Matthew, a famous Common Law barrister. Attlee had a spell in his father's firm of solicitors, which he found boring. "Attlee devoted no great energy to the law, and was idling his life away in congenial London company, insulated from most practical cares by living at home." (18) He eventually came to the conclusion that he was "not really much interested in the law and had no ambition to succeed." (19)
In October 1905, Clement and his younger brother, Laurence, was asked to inspect the work of Haileybury House. The founder of the settlement, Cecil Nussey, an old Haileyburian, while at Oxford University, became a disciple of the generation of social thinkers that had been inspired by the ideas of Thomas Hill Green, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Balliol College. "Green's ethical socialism was based on the premise that human self-perfection could only be achieved through society, and that society therefore had the moral obligation to ensure the best conditions for everyone. This entailed for the individual not random and remote acts of charity, but the obligation on the more fortunate to share their fuller lives with the poor." (20)
Nussey's idea was that old Haileyburians would become residents rather than as occasional visitors to the people living in the East End of London. The two brothers were given a tour of the Haileybury Club, an institution where working-class boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen met under the supervision of Haileyburians. The school was in Stepney and was a different world from that in which they had been raised. "This was the dark heart of the East End - densely populated by dockworkers, casual labourers and notorious for unemployment, poverty, crime and disease." (21)
At first Attlee feared the idea of living with people from such a different background. Clement was so shy that he found it agonizing to talk to the boys. At first he agreed to give one night a week to the club. The club was open for five nights a week, from 8 to 10 pm. All the boys joined the Territorial Army and represented 'D' Company of the 1st Cadet Battalion of the Queen's Regiment. They took part in drilling and they learnt to clean and load rifles. The boys wore a uniform on club nights, "which gave them a pride in their appearance which their everyday rags could not offer." (22)
On 13th March 1906, Clement Attlee took a commission in the Territorial Army and became a second lieutenant. He was now spending several nights a week at the club. He later pointed out how this experience changed his political views. "A boy from a public school knowing little or nothing of social or industrial matters, who decides, perhaps at the invitation of a friend or from loyalty to his old school that runs a mission, or to the instinct of service that exists in everyone, to assist in running a boys' club.... The thoughtless schoolboy will have become interested in social problems in the concrete, and from this it is but a step to studying them in the abstract, and he soon sees how little his efforts can accomplish, and will perceive that the faults he sees are only the effects of greater causes." (23)
Attlee came to the conclusion it was "vital to break up the huge collection of people of one class living as it were among the natives and create a more natural system". He believed that social workers should live with the people who they were serving. In the autumn of 1907, the manager of Haileybury House resigned and Nussey asked Attlee if he would be interested in taking the job, a residential position with an annual salary of £50. He accepted and he moved into Haileybury House. He now had much more contact with the boys, often visiting their homes and talking with their parents. (24) Attlee later recalled that there was "no better way of getting to know what social conditions are like than in a boy's club. One learns much more of how people in poor circumstances live through ordinary conversation with them from studying volumes of statistics." (25)
Gradually, Attlee came to the conclusion that the capitalist system had to be reformed to ensure that all classes of society could have an accepted standard of living. The only way it was possible to understand how "people in poor circumstances" live was living among them and having the experiences yourself. Christian ethics had been a central part of Attlee's childhood, so serving others was nothing new. (26) It was by having conversations with the boys and their parents "was a step to examining the whole basis of our social and economic system." He now understood "why the Poor Law was so hated." (27) Roy Jenkins, described Attlee's experience in the East End as his "road to Damascus". (28)
Independent Labour Party
Clement came under the influence of his older brother, Tom Attlee. While at university he became very interested in the work of John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, writer and educationalist. He also began reading the novels of William Morris, including The Dream of John Ball (1888), a story about the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and News from Nowhere (1889), his depiction of a socialist utopia. Tom joined the Christian Social Union, an organization established by Henry Scott Holland. He also volunteered in a boys' home in Hoxton. It had been founded by Frederick Denison Maurice, a professor of theology and one of the leading figures in the Christian Socialist movement. It taught pacifism whereas Clement's school taught military skills. (29)
Tom became a committed socialist and encouraged Clement to join the Fabian Society. At the first meeting he met one of its leaders, Edward Pease, and later claimed that the viewed him and Tom as if they were "two beetles who had crept under the door." During the next few weeks he also came into contact with H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb. Clement Attlee thought there was something remote and superior about these intellectuals and it was not long before he stopped attending meetings. (30)
On the suggestion of Tom Williams, a dockworker, Clement and Tom attended a meeting of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), founded by Keir Hardie in 1893. Both men became activists in the ILP - Clement in Stepney and Tom in Wandsworth. He read Hardie's book From Serfdom to Socialism (1907) and found his practical approach to achieving social reform, more appealing than utopianism or intellectualism. Within a few months this "young Tory had become a fervent socialist and a street-corner propagandist in the Independent Labour Party". (31) Clement later commented: "After looking into many social reform ideas (my elder brother and I) came to the conclusion that the economic and ethical basis of society was wrong." (31a)
Stepney ILP only had twelve members. As a result of its small size and the fact that he was one of the few with any time to spare, Attlee quickly became the branch secretary. (32) One reason that they had problems persuading men to join was the fear of losing their jobs if they admitted membership. During this period, Attlee spent four evenings a week at the club, one night at a ILP branch meeting and refereeing football matches on Saturday. He also addressed open-air meetings on a Sunday. (33) He found it difficult making speeches in public but as he later explained, it "at least cured my shyness." (34)
Attlee also became a member of the Labour Party. He got to know all its leaders and became close to Will Crooks and George Lansbury. In later years, Attlee often paid tribute to the humane and deeply moral creed of the early leaders. "What he admired about Crooks and Lansbury most, however, was their tolerance. Both were teetotalers, for example, but they appreciated the right of the working man to have a drink. They did not impose their own version of the good life on others. Crooks argued for a reduction in the number of pubs but did not want to ban them all." (35)
On 19th November, 1908, Henry Attlee died of a heart-attack. Henry left the two houses and £70,000 to his wife and children. His inheritance allowed Clement Attlee to commit his activities full-time to the socialist cause in Stepney. "I remember, on giving up practice at the bar, being congratulated by my friends in a poor district in much the same terms as would have been employed had I at last given up the drink." (36)
In 1909 he became secretary at Toynbee Hall, the best-known of the East End university settlements, but after a year he left because the atmosphere there did not chime in with his socialism. He later said the trustees of Toynbee regarded him as a "bit of a bolshie". Attlee did some lecturing at Ruskin College, and then in 1912 was appointed a lecturer in the social service department at the London School of Economics (LSE), after defeating Hugh Dalton largely because of his practical experience in the East End. "I was not appointed on the score of academic qualification, but because I was considered to have a good practical knowledge of social conditions." (37)
First World War
The Labour Party was completely divided by the First World War. Most of its leaders opposed the war, including Ramsay MacDonald, Keir Hardie, Philip Snowden, John Glasier, George Lansbury, Alfred Salter, William Mellor and Fred Jowett. Others in the party such as Clement Attlee, Arthur Henderson, George Barnes, J. R. Clynes, William Adamson, Will Thorne and Ben Tillett believed that the movement should give total support to the war effort. (38)
John Bew has argued that the main reason why Attlee supported the war effort concerned the fact that he had spent almost ten years as a second lieutenant in the 1st Cadet Battalion of the Queen's London Regiment. Many of the young boys he had trained were going to go to war. How would it look if the man who drilled them decided that his conscience could not allow him to join them on the front line? (39) The situation was very different at Tom's Christian Socialist boys club in Hoxton, as they did not have any military training: "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. My brother Tom was a convinced conscientious objector and went to prison. I thought it my duty to fight." (40) Tom Attlee argued that as a Christian and a socialist, he must be a conscientious objector, making it clear from the start by joining the No-Conscription Fellowship. (41)
Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, the author of Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) has suggested that "his deep sense of duty drove him to join the army and to risk his life in service of his country." He was turned down initially on grounds of age (he was 31 and the maximum age was 30). Not to be deterred, he joined the Inns of Court Regiment Officer Training Corps as an instructor, as a potential route to a commission in the regular army. He also asked a former pupil of his at the LSE to ask her brother-in-law (who had command of one of the new Kitchener battalions). The resulted him in being commissioned as a lieutenant of the 6th South Lancashire Regiment and was put in command of seven officers and 250 men. (42)
On 12th June, 1915, Attlee and his regiment was sent to Mesopotamia. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had persuaded Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, and the British government to open up another front in order to free up a supply route to Russia and threaten Austria from the Balkans. Churchill's plan was to invade the Gallipoli peninsula, place a fleet of ships in the Sea of Marmara, putting Constantinople under threat, and force the Turkish government to sue for peace. (43)
Leaders of the Greek Army informed Kitchener that he would need 150,000 men to take Gallipoli. Kitchener rejected the advice and concluded that only half that number was needed. Kitchener sent the experienced British 29th Division to join the troops from Australia, New Zealand and French colonial troops on Lemnos. Information soon reached the Turkish commander, Liman von Sanders, about the arrival of the 70,000 troops on the island. Sanders knew an attack was imminent and he began positioning his 84,000 troops along the coast where he expected the landings to take place. (44)
The attack that began on the 25th April, 1915 established two beachheads at Helles and Gaba Tepe. Another major landing took place at Sulva Bay on 6th August. By this time they arrived the Turkish strength in the region had also risen to fifteen divisions. Attempts to sweep across the peninsula by Allied forces ended in failure. By the end of August the Allies had lost over 40,000 men. General Ian Hamilton asked for 95,000 more men, but although supported by Churchill, Lord Kitchener was initially unwilling to send more troops to the area. (45)
After arriving in Hellespont, Attlee and his troops prepared for a massive assault on Turkish positions. He found night watch duty particularly tedious and even attempted, as company commander, by trying to convert his officers to socialism. "It was very boring on night watch. The only way to keep awake was to get a good talk going with the sergeants. I remember a long discussion on industrial and craft unionism with my CSM of the NUR and the platoon sergeant of the NUVW. We agree very well." (46)
At the end of July, Attlee contracted dysentery and was carried unconscious to the beach to be embarked on a hospital ship and taken to Malta. He therefore missed the major assault that took place on 6th August, 1915. His regiment suffered enormous casualties. His company caught the worst of the attack. Five officers were killed and "a dozen or so" wounded. Attlee refused the offer of being sent back to England and insisted on rejoining his regiment. (47)
Attlee was back with his battalion in early October, Attlee found that the failure of the August assaults had drained all momentum from the campaign. As heavy rain and, later, snow made any operations difficult, his principal responsibility was to keep his men in shape. After one terrible blizzard over 5,000 men suffered from frostbite, with some on sentry duty found frozen stiff, their rifles still wedged in their hands. (48)
On 14th October, 1915, General Ian Hamilton was replaced by General Charles Munro. After touring all three fronts Munro recommended withdrawal. Lord Kitchener, initially rejected the suggestion but after arriving on 9th November 1915 he visited the Allied lines in Greek Macedonia, where reinforcements were badly needed. On 17th November, Kitchener agreed that the 105,000 men should be evacuated and put Munro in control as Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean. (49)
Attlee and its regiment were put on duty at the Suez Canal in January 1916, before being sent to Mesopotamia as part of a mission to relieve Major General Charles Townshend at Kut, south east of Baghdad. On 5th April, 1916, he carried a red flag to guide artillery fire, but was hit from behind in "friendly fire" and carried from the field. In subsequent attacks his troops suffered heavy casualties, and once more Attlee was fortuitously absent. Attlee was shipped to a hospital in Bombay. (50)
In a letter to his brother Tom, he explained what happened: "Just a line to let you know that I hope in a few days to be sailing for England... I shall not be sorry to leave the East... bullet through the left thigh and... a considerable hole in my right buttock... but I still can't move my legs at all. Something wrong with the transmitting apparatus, I suppose. It's most absurd. I send along a direct order to my leg to lift itself and it takes not the slightest notice... By the way, it may interest the comrades to know I was hurt while carrying the red flag to victory." (51)
Tom Attlee and Conscription
Over 3,000,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces during the first two years of the war. The British had suffered high casualties at the Marne (12,733), Ypres (75,000), Gallipoli (205,000), Artois (50,000) and Loos (50,000). The British Army found it difficult to replace these men. In May 1915 135,000 men volunteered, but for August the figure was 95,000, and for September 71,000. Asquith appointed a Cabinet Committee to consider the recruitment problem. Testifying before the Committee, David Lloyd George commented: "I would say that every man and woman was bound to render the services that the State they could best render. I do not believe you will go through this war without doing it in the end; in fact, I am perfectly certain that you will have to come to it." (52)
Lloyd George threatened to resign if Asquith did not introduce conscription (compulsory enrollment). Eventually he gave in and the Military Service Bill was introduced by Asquith on 21st January 1916. John Simon, the Home Secretary, resigned and so did Arthur Henderson, who had represented the Labour Party in the coalition government. Alfred George Gardiner, the editor of the Daily News argued that Lloyd George was engineering the conscription crisis in order to substitute himself for Asquith as leader of the country. (53)
The Military Service Act specified that single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were liable to be called-up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of religion. Conscription started on 2nd March 1916. The act was extended to married men on 25th May 1916. The following month Tom Attlee made an application for exemption to the Poplar Military Service Tribunal, on the grounds of his conscientious objection. On 18th October, he was offered non-combatant service, but he refused this, also on the grounds of his pacifist principles. An estimated 16,550 registered as conscientious objectors. (54)
Most conscientious objectors accepted non-combatant service, leaving only 1,300 absolutists willing, as Tom was, to "go the whole hog". He wrote to his sister: "War doesn't work: to kill one devil you can call up seven new ones... I think the growth of envy, hatred, malice, pride, vain-glory, hypocrisy and certainly all uncharitableness is enough to drive me crazy." (55) Attlee remained active in the peace movement. He was at a meeting with Sylvia Pankhurst at the gates of the London docks when they were attacked by supporters of the war and attempts were made to throw them in the Thames. (56)
In December, 1916, Tom Attlee learned that his appeal to the Military Service Tribunal had not been successful. He spent Christmas awaiting arrest, with his wife Kathleen pregnant with their second child. He was arrested on 22nd January and sent to Wormwood Scrubs, where he spent the first month in solitary confinement, forced to sleep on a plank and given only bread and water. (57)
Major Clement Attlee
By the end of 1916 Attlee had fully recovered his health and returned to his regiment. On 1st March 1917, he was promoted to major in the 5th Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment and sent to Dorset. He became responsible for training and instructing new conscripts before they were sent to the Western Front. He spent two brief spells in France and Belgium - from 15th to 29th March 1917, and 10th to 24th September 1917, but did not take part in any military campaigns. At Ypres he witnessed "the hideous scar of no-man's land". It was the "abomination of desolation itself". (58)
In March 1918, Major Attlee was given an infantry regiment to train in Walney Island, Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. He described the area as a "crude, modern, industrial inferno". He compared the land to that of what he had seen on the Western Front. "It was not much worse to my mind that the district round Wolverhampton and the stretch of country seen from the train between Wigan and Widnes". In the same language he had used to describe "no-man's land" he described Lancashire as "an abomination of desolation and crude ugliness". (59)
Attlee began to lose his Christian faith. He told his brother that during the war he drifted from agnosticism to atheism. He described the Church of England as "the blind leading the blind". (60) Attlee rejected religiously inspired pacifism. "I think your objection to taking life is fallacious, in that it is at times necessary to take life". He did not like the nature of war any more than Tom. But the scruples of conscience, he explained, "cannot weigh with me if the work has to be done." (61)
In May 1918, Major Attlee was sent back to the Western Front. He joined the 55th West Lancashire Division as they made their way into Artois in pursuit of the retreating Germans. While advancing towards the German lines at Lille, he was knocked unconscious and was carried from the battlefield. Evacuated to England, in November he celebrated the news of Germany's defeat in a hospital in Wandsworth. Just a few miles away sat his brother Tom in a prison cell. Ellen Attlee remarked, "I don't know which of these two sons I am more proud of." (62)
Mayor of Stepney
On 16th January 1919, Attlee left the British Army. He went straight to the Haileybury Club, where he hoped to take up residence again. He found it was boarded up and had fallen into disuse and therefore he returned to teaching at the London School of Economics. Attlee also became active in the Limehouse Labour Party and leased Norway House, at 638 Commercial Road. This became his home as well as the local party's headquarters. Under the leadership of Attlee the party called for the municipalisation of food supplies, markets, cinemas, theatres, meat, milk and dairy commodities. It also argued for the building of more public libraries, art galleries and museums. (63)
Attlee joined forces with Oscar Tobin, a Jewish refugee from Romania, who had qualified as a doctor. He believed that by combining local trade unionists, ILP members and other Labour supporters could gain control of Stepney Borough Council and win its three parliamentary seats, Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel. However, to achieve this, it would be necessary for the two ethnic communities in the East End - the Jews and the Irish - to put aside their mutual distrust and work together. This meant that Attlee and Tobin had to persuade the most influential Irish Catholic trade unionist in the area, Matt Aylward, to join the campaign. They formed the Stepney Trade Council and in its annual report in 1919, Tobin wrote: "For many years Stepney has been the black spot of the Labour movement... It was the most reactionary borough in London." (64)
The Labour Party in Stepney came under attack from the Conservative Party MP, Major Reginald Blair, who feared the growth of socialism and tried to link them with the Bolsheviks who had gained power during the Russian Revolution. Blair described them as "the brothers of the Russian Bolsheviks, and had done everything to protect the Bolsheviks in their attempt to found a Russian Socialist State." (65)
The result of the borough elections transformed the area. Of the 60 seats for Stepney, 43 Labour councillors were returned. There had been none before. In the Limehouse division, the Labour Party won all 15 seats. Although he had not won a seat to the borough council, the victorious Labour members proposed to make him mayor of Stepney. With the few remaining Conservatives complaining about the unprecedented move, Major Attlee was effectively co-opted into the position by the unanimous support of the Labour councillors. It was argued that his military and middle class background would be more acceptable to those ratepayers who feared the Labour Party was under the influence of foreign revolutionaries. (66)
Attlee was proud of the council's record during his mayoral year. He was able at last to do something about the slum landlords who charged exorbitant rents but refused to spend money on keeping their property in a habitable condition. The council served more than 40,000 legal notices on house-owners to repair their property, and made sure these orders were enforced. It appointed sanitary inspectors and health visitors, started ante-natal clinics, provided free milk for more than 6,000 families, and reduced the infant mortality rate. It set up an advice bureaux to advise tenants of their rights. To pay for this they increased the rates and also raised £200,000 by increasing taxes on local public houses. (67)
In 1920 Clement Attlee published his book, Social Worker (1920) where he outlined his views on how to deal with the problem of poverty: "In a civilized community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways - they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organized community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community... Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice." (68)
Clement Attlee and the 1922 General Election
In the 1918 General Election, a large number of the Labour leaders who opposed the First World War lost their seats. This included Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. At the Labour Conference that year they decided to make a statement of objectives. This included: "To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service." (69)
The new Labour Party Constitution had been drafted by Sidney Webb. It presented the case for a minimum standard of life for all, for full employment, public ownership and greater equality. (70) G.D.H. Cole described the Constitution as "an historic document of the greatest significance" because "it unequivocally committed the Labour Party to Socialist objectives". (71) Attlee agreed and called it "an uncompromisingly Socialist document." (72)
Clement Attlee was selected as the for Labour candidate for the Limehouse constituency. John Beckett became his election agent. The local newspaper, East London Observer, praised his war record and commented on his style of public speaking. His voice was "penetrating, and he never makes hushed whispers nor swallows his words". He spoke in "intensely, concentrated, firm - almost curt - precise, and unmistakable sentences". His style resembled the slamming of a railway carriage door, "so that the person on the wrong side is nonplussed, and before he can recover mental balance the opportunity has passed." (73)
Attlee condemned the government led by David Lloyd George for breaking the promises made during the 1918 General Election campaign. In a speech he made at a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control, he recalled: "When I was in the army I used to take occasion to chat with the men and with the officers, particularly with the men, and I have often asked the men what they went to fight for. I always got the same answer: they were fighting for something far bigger than King or Country. They believed, and we believed, that they were fighting for the good of the whole world. That is where the government betrayal comes in." (74)
In another speech Attlee explained why he refused to take part in a recruiting campaign for the Territorial Army: "After four years of active service I have seen every ideal I fought for betrayed in the Paris Peace Conference." (75) He even went as far as to say: "Personally I think the time has come when we ought to do away with all armies and all war." (76) At the 1923 Labour Conference he claimed that if he was elected to the House of Commons he would vote against all military expenditure. (77)
On 10th January 1922, Clement Attlee, aged 39, married Violet Millar, aged 25. She was the daughter of H. E. Millar, a Conservative Party supporting businessman from Hampstead Village. As he confessed to his sister Mary, he was "mad as a March hare with joy". She reported that he was "transformed" and "tremendously in love". Attlee joked that there was a similarity between his love life and the Labour movement: "waiting some time, before it came unto his own". Clement and Violet Attlee were to have three daughters and a son during the course of a devoted marriage. (78)
At a meeting on 18th October, 1922, two younger members of the government, Stanley Baldwin and Leo Amery, urged the Conservative Party to remove David Lloyd George from power. Andrew Bonar Law disagreed as he believed that he should remain loyal to the Prime Minister. Two other senior ministers, Austen Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour also defended the coalition. However, it was a passionate speech by Baldwin: "The Prime Minister was described this morning in The Times, in the words of a distinguished aristocrat, as a live wire. He was described to me and others in more stately language by the Lord Chancellor as a dynamic force. I accept those words. He is a dynamic force and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in our opinion, arise. A dynamic force is a terrible thing. It may crush you but it is not necessarily right." The motion to withdraw from the coalition was carried by 187 votes to 87. (79)
David Lloyd George was forced to resign and call a General Election. In his election address Clement Attlee stated that "I stand for life against wealth. I claim the right of every man, woman and child in the land to have the best life that can be provided. Instead of the exploitation of the mass of the people in the interests of a small rich class, I demand the organization of the country will be owned by the nation and used for the benefit of the country." (80)
In the 1922 General Election Attlee defeated the sitting Liberal MP, William Pearce, by 1,899 votes The Conservatives had a majority of 85 seats but the Labour Party had gained 68 seats to take it up to 137 (and 29.7 per cent of the overall vote). It was now the largest party in Scotland and its vote in London was up 128 per cent, from 146,468 to 333,035. The result meant that the Labour Party was the second strongest party and became His Majesty's official opposition in Parliament. Attlee commented that it was a victory for socialism over liberalism: "Whenever we fought on the full programme of the Socialist movement, there we won." (81)
Clement Attlee made his maiden speech in the House of Commons of 23rd November, 1922, on the subject of unemployment. "In my district every day men are coming to me whom I have known years ago, and I see how they have fallen off through unemployment. You see men who were fit to be sergeant-majors in the Army - fine, upstanding men - reduced to dragging along the streets with their hands out for anything they can get. That is an enormous waste. It is not only waste, but absolute folly. We are told, and I believe it, that there is sympathy on the other side with the unemployed. I do not suppose that anyone on the benches opposite is going to get up and say that he is prepared to put the unemployed men, and their wives and families, into a lethal chamber and kill them. I think that everyone on all sides is agreed that they are to be kept alive, and the only question we have to face is whether they are going to be kept alive in fine and fit condition, or upon a dole which means that they are going steadily downhill. when unemployment was practically non-existent was the time of the War; and, despite all the rationing, despite all the food substitutes, on the whole the living conditions of our people were actually better during the War period." (82)
Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee
At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 21st November, 1922, Emanuel Shinwell proposed Ramsay MacDonald should become chairman instead of John R. Clynes, who had held the position since 1918. David Kirkwood, a fellow Labour MP, commented: "His voice was rugged, but soft, and, as he spoke, there came into it a throb. It was the natural instrument of an orator. Standing upright, he was a splendid figure of a man, and his appearance of height and strength was increased by his habit of rising on his toes and throwing back his head..... Nature had dealt unevenly with them. She had endowed MacDonald with a magnificent presence, a full resonant voice, and a splendid dignity. Clynes was small, unassuming, of uneven features, and voice without colour." (83)
Fenner Brockway, who worked with MacDonald in the peace movement during the war also supported him against Clynes: "Ramsay MacDonald was a born leader, with a commanding personality and a magnificent presence; the most handsome man in public life. He was a great orator whose deep, resonant voice and sweeping gestures added to the force of his words." (84) John Beckett described him as having a "handsome face" with a "organ-like voice". After much discussion, John R. Clynes received 56 votes to MacDonald's 61. Clynes, "with characteristic generosity, declared that the whole party was determined to support the new leader". (85)
Clement Attlee also supported MacDonald over Clynes. "I had been a great admirer of many years." MacDonald was also aware of Attlee's talents and considered appointing him as his parliamentary secretary. He asked Clynes: "I have heard good accounts of a fellow named Attlee; do you think he will do it?" (86) Attlee accepted and Jack Lawson was later to argue that he did the job very successfully. "The personal pronoun doesn't exist for him. He (Attlee) is objective; and appears to be free of many common human weaknesses… And loyalty is the very core of him… Speaking as one who knows him as intimately as anyone outside of his household, I can say he is the most selfless man I have ever known, unshakeable in his loyalty to friends and colleagues and motivated by a deep and profound sympathy for the humble men and women who do the ordinary tasks of the world." (87)
On 17th May, 1923, Andrew Bonar Law was told he was suffering from cancer of the throat, and gave him six months to live. Five days later he resigned and was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. It was a difficult time for the government and it was faced with growing economic problems. This included a high-level of unemployment. Baldwin believed that protectionist tariffs would revive industry and employment. However, Bonar Law had pledged in 1922 that there would be no changes in tariffs in the present parliament. Baldwin came to the conclusion that he needed a General Election to unite his party behind this new policy. On 12th November, Baldwin asked the king to dissolve parliament. (88)
During the election campaign, Baldwin made it clear that he intended to impose tariffs on some imported goods: "What we propose to do for the assistance of employment in industry, if the nation approves, is to impose duties on imported manufactured goods, with the following objects: (i) to raise revenue by methods less unfair to our own home production which at present bears the whole burden of local and national taxation, including the cost of relieving unemployment; (ii) to give special assistance to industries which are suffering under unfair foreign competition; (iii) to utilize these duties in order to negotiate for a reduction of foreign tariffs in those directions which would most benefit our export trade; (iv) to give substantial preference to the Empire on the whole range of our duties with a view to promoting the continued extension of the principle of mutual preference which has already done so much for the expansion of our trade, and the development, in co-operation with the other Governments of the Empire, of the boundless resources of our common heritage." (89)
The Labour Party election manifesto completely rejected this argument: "The Labour Party challenges the Tariff policy and the whole conception of economic relations underlying it. Tariffs are not a remedy for Unemployment. They are an impediment to the free interchange of goods and services upon which civilized society rests. They foster a spirit of profiteering, materialism and selfishness, poison the life of nations, lead to corruption in politics, promote trusts and monopolies, and impoverish the people. They perpetuate inequalities in the distribution of the world's wealth won by the labour of hands and brain. These inequalities the Labour Party means to remove." (90)
In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Attlee had an increased majority of 6,000. David Marquand has pointed out that: "The new parliamentary Labour Party was a very different body from the old one. In 1918, 48 Labour M.P.s had been sponsored by trade unions, and only three by the ILP. Now about 100 members belonged to the ILP, while 32 had actually been sponsored by it, as against 85 who had been sponsored by trade unions.... In Parliament, it could present itself for the first time as the movement of opinion rather than of class." (91)
Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". The Daily Mail warned about the dangers of a Labour government and the Daily Herald commented on the "Rothermere press as a frantic attempt to induce Mr Asquith to combine with the Tories to prevent a Labour Government assuming office". (92) John R. Clynes, the former leader of the Labour Party, argued: "Our enemies are not afraid we shall fail in relation to them. They are afraid that we shall succeed." (93)
On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, the 57 year-old, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. He later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. (94)
MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become prime minister. He had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War and served under the cabinet minister, Stephen Walsh. Now that he was at the War Office, he immediately resigned his membership of the Union of Democratic Control. (95)
Political Career: 1924-1929
The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter on 25th October 1924, just four days before the 1924 General Election. Under the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists Masters" it argued: "Moscow issues orders to the British Communists... the British Communists in turn give orders to the Socialist Government, which it tamely and humbly obeys... Now we can see why Mr MacDonald has done obeisance throughout the campaign to the Red Flag with its associations of murder and crime. He is a stalking horse for the Reds as Kerensky was... Everything is to be made ready for a great outbreak of the abominable class war which is civil war of the most savage kind." (96)
Dora Russell, whose husband, Bertrand Russell, was standing for the Labour Party in Chelsea, commented: "The Daily Mail carried the story of the Zinoviev letter. The whole thing was neatly timed to catch the Sunday papers and with polling day following hard on the weekend there was no chance of an effective rebuttal, unless some word came from MacDonald himself, and he was down in his constituency in Wales. Without hesitation I went on the platform and denounced the whole thing as a forgery, deliberately planted on, or by, the Foreign Office to discredit the Prime Minister." (97)
Ramsay MacDonald suggested he was a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (98)
The rest of the Tory owned newspapers ran the story of what became known as the Zinoviev Letter over the next few days and it was no surprise when the election was a disaster for the Labour Party. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told Lord Rothermere, the owner of The Daily Mail and The Times, that the "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere replied that it was probably worth a hundred seats. (99)
David Low was a Labour Party supporter who was appalled by the tactics used by the Tory press in the 1924 General Election: "Elections have never been completely free from chicanery, of course, but this one was exceptional. There were issues - unemployment, for instance, and trade. There were legitimate secondary issues - whether or not Russia should be afforded an export loan to stimulate trade. In the event these issues were distorted, pulped, and attached as appendix to a mysterious document subsequently held by many creditable persons to be a forgery, and the election was fought on 'red panic' (The Zinoviev Letter)". (100)
After the defeat Clement Attlee decided to give his full support to MacDonald's attempts to position the Labour Party as a centre party. This meant him distancing himself from the socialism and pacifism of his former mentor, George Lansbury. He now left some of his old post-war radicalism behind him. He argued that Lansbury was "a man of his time" with "the moral earnestness of the Victorians" but "it was not for him to plan in detail the New Jerusalem, but by example as well as precept to show people the way of life which they must follow if a new society was to be built on firm foundations." (101)
Attlee shared MacDonald's view on the General Strike that took place in 1926. He feared that radical, particularly communist elements, might manipulate the crisis in a way that would damage the Labour Party's hard-won reputation for moderation. The day the strike was called, Attlee convened an emergency meeting of the committee to deal with the practical problem of ensuring, without undermining the strike, that Stepney's hospitals still had power. He obtained TUC agreement that Stepney's members of the Electrical Trades Union would work in order to supply light for the borough and power for hospitals only. (102)
In 1927 the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, ensured the trade union members had to voluntarily 'contract in' to pay the political levy to the Labour Party, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal. Attlee argued in parliament that "it is an out-of-date idea to think we can do without collective organization at the present day." (103) As A. J. P. Taylor has pointed out: "The attack on Labour party finance came ill from the Conservatives who depended on secret donations from rich men." (104)
1929 Labour Government
In January 1929, 1,433,000 people in Britain were out of work. Stanley Baldwin was urged to take measures that would protect the depressed iron and steel industry. Baldwin ruled this out owing to the pledge against protection which had been made at the 1924 election. Agriculture was in an even worse condition, and here again the government could offer little assistance without reopening the dangerous tariff issue. Baldwin was considered to be a popular prime minister and he fully expected to win the general election that was to take place on 30th May, 1929. (105)
In its manifesto the Conservative Party blamed the General Strike for the country's economic problems. "Trade suffered a severe set-back owing to the General Strike, and the industrial troubles of 1926. In the last two years it has made a remarkable recovery. In the insured industries, other than the coal mining industry, there are now 800,000 more people employed and 125,000 fewer unemployed than when we assumed office... This recovery has been achieved by the combined efforts of our people assisted by the Government's policy of helping industry to help itself. The establishment of stable conditions has given industry confidence and opportunity." (106)
The Labour Party attacked the record of Baldwin's government: "By its inaction during four critical years it has multiplied our difficulties and increased our dangers. Unemployment is more acute than when Labour left office.... The Government's further record is that it has helped its friends by remissions of taxation, whilst it has robbed the funds of the workers' National Health Insurance Societies, reduced Unemployment Benefits, and thrown thousands of workless men and women on to the Poor Law. The Tory Government has added £38,000,000 to indirect taxation, which is an increasing burden on the wage-earners, shop-keepers and lower middle classes." (107)
In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,656,000 votes (38%), the Labour Party 8,309,000 (37%) and the Liberals 5,309,000 (23%). However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party had 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. Clement Attlee increased his majority in Limehouse to 7,288 and the Labour Party became the largest party in Parliament for the first time in its history. (108)
David Lloyd George, the leader of the Liberal Party admitted that his campaign had been unsuccessful but claimed he held the balance of power: "It would be silly to pretend that we have realized our expectations. It looks for the moment as if we still hold the balance." However, both Baldwin and MacDonald refused to form a coalition government with Lloyd George. Baldwin resigned and once again MacDonald agreed to form a minority government. To everybody's surprise, Attlee was not invited to join the government. (109)
In January 1930 unemployment in Britain reached 1,533,000. By March, the figure was 1,731,000. Oswald Mosley, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, proposed a programme that he believed would help deal with the growing problem of unemployment in Britain. According to David Marquand: "It made three main assertions - that the machinery of government should be drastically overhauled, that unemployment could be radically reduced by a public-works programme on the lines advocated by Keynes and the Liberal Party, and that long-term economic reconstruction required a mobilization of national resources on a larger scale than has yet been contemplated. The existing administrative structure, Mosley argued, was hopelessly inadequate. What was needed was a new department, under the direct control of the prime minister, consisting of an executive committee of ministers and a secretariat of civil servants, assisted by a permanent staff of economists and an advisory council of outside experts." (110)
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, was a strong believer in laissez-faire economics and disliked the proposals. (111) MacDonald had doubts about Snowden's "hard dogmatism exposed in words and tones as hard as the ideas" but he also dismissed "all the humbug of curing unemployment by Exchequer grants." (112) MacDonald passed the Mosley Memorandum to a committee consisting of Snowden, Tom Shaw, Arthur Greenwood and Margaret Bondfield. The committee reported back on 1st May. Mosley's administrative proposals, the committee claimed "cut at the root of the individual responsibilities of Ministers, the special responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the sphere of finance, and the collective responsibility of the Cabinet to Parliament". The Snowden Report went onto argue that state action to reduce unemployment was highly dangerous. To go further than current government policy "would be to plunge the country into ruin". (113)
Mosley was not trusted by most of his fellow MPs. He came from an aristocratic background and first entered the House of Commons as a representative of the Conservative Party. One Labour Party MP said Mosley had a habit of speaking to his colleagues "as though he were a feudal landlord abusing tenants who are in arrears with their rent". (114) John Bew described Mosley as "handsome... lithe and black and shiny... he looked like a panther but behaved like a hyena". (115)
At a meeting of Labour MPs took place on 21st May, Oswald Mosley outlined his proposals. This included the provision of old-age pensions at sixty, the raising of the school-leaving age and an expansion in the road programme. He gained support from George Lansbury and Tom Johnson, but Arthur Henderson, speaking on behalf of MacDonald, appealed to Mosley to withdraw his motion so that his proposals could be discussed in detail at later meetings. Mosley insisted on putting his motion to the vote and was beaten by 210 to 29. (116)
Mosley now resigned from the government and was replaced by Clement Attlee. It has been claimed that MacDonald was so fed up with Mosley that he looked around him and choose the "most uninteresting, unimaginative but most reliable among his backbenchers to replace the fallen angel". Winston Churchill said he was "a modest little man, with plenty to be modest about". Mosley was more generous as he accepted that he had "a clear, incisive and honest mind within the limits of his range". However, he added, in agreeing to take his job, Attlee "must be reckoned as content to join a government visibly breaking the pledges on which he was elected." (117)
Philip Snowden presented his recommendations to the Cabinet on 20th August. It included the plan to raise approximately £90 million from increased taxation and to cut expenditure by £99 million. £67 million was to come from unemployment insurance, £12 million from education and the rest from the armed services, roads and a variety of smaller programmes. Most members of the Cabinet rejected the idea of the proposed cut in unemployment benefit and the meeting ended without any decisions being made. Clement Attlee, who was now a supporter of John Maynard Keynes, condemned Snowden for his "misplaced fidelity to laissez-faire economics". (118) The following year he was appointed as Postmaster General. (119)
Ellen Wilkinson pointed out that Attlee was unwilling to criticize Ramsay MacDonald in public and concentrated on arguing with him in private. "Major Attlee is too fastidious for intrigue, too modest for overmuch ambition, and yet with a mind that makes it worthwhile for a Prime Minister to discuss problems with him." It has been claimed that he lacked confidence in his exchanges with MacDonald, expressing concern that his suggestions on policy might come across as "too argumentative and tendentious". (120)
Clement Attlee complained to his brother, Tom Attlee, about the unwillingness of the government to do really tackle unemployment. "It needs a very strong push to overcome the timidity and conservatism of some ministers and some departments of the Civil Service notably the Treasury and the Board of Trade." (121) However, Attlee was also guilty of not being radical enough: "Our policy with regard to industry is perfectly clear. We do not believe in the capitalist system... we should like to see it ended, but the country has not yet said that we shall end it. We have no mandate for that." (122)
Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Susan Lawrence both decided to resign from the government if the cuts to the unemployment benefit went ahead: Pethick-Lawrence wrote: "Susan Lawrence came to see me. As Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, she was concerned with the proposed cuts in unemployment relief, which she regarded as dreadful. We discussed the whole situation and agreed that, if the Cabinet decided to accept the cuts in their entirety, we would both resign from the Government." (123)
Arthur Henderson argued that rather do what the bankers wanted, Labour should had over responsibility to the Conservatives and Liberals and leave office as a united party. The following day MacDonald and Snowden had a private meeting with Neville Chamberlain, Samuel Hoare, Herbert Samuel and Donald MacLean to discuss the plans to cut government expenditure. Chamberlain argued against the increase in taxation and called for further cuts in unemployment benefit. MacDonald also had meetings with trade union leaders, including Walter Citrine and Ernest Bevin. They made it clear they would resist any attempts to put "new burdens on the unemployed". Sidney Webb later told his wife Beatrice Webb that the trade union leaders were "pigs" as they "won't agree to any cuts of unemployment insurance benefits or salaries or wages". (124)
At another meeting on 23rd August, 1931, nine members (Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury, John R. Clynes, William Graham, Albert Alexander, Arthur Greenwood, Tom Johnson, William Adamson and Christopher Addison) of the Cabinet stated that they would resign rather than accept the unemployment cuts. A. J. P. Taylor has argued: "The other eleven were presumably ready to go along with MacDonald. Six of these had a middle-class or upper-class background; of the minority only one (Addison)... Clearly the government could not go on. Nine members were too many to lose." (125)
That night MacDonald went to see George V about the economic crisis. He warned the King that several Cabinet ministers were likely to resign if he tried to cut unemployment benefit. MacDonald wrote in his diary: "King most friendly and expressed thanks and confidence. I then reported situation and at end I told him that after tonight I might be of no further use, and should resign with the whole Cabinet.... He said that he believed I was the only person who could carry the country through." (126)
MacDonald told his son, Malcolm MacDonald, about what happened at the meeting: "The King has implored J.R.M. to form a National Government. Baldwin and Samuel are both willing to serve under him. This Government would last about five weeks, to tide over the crisis. It would be the end, in his own opinion, of J.R.M.'s political career. (Though personally I think he would come back after two or three years, though never again to the Premiership. This is an awful decision for the P.M. to make. To break so with the Labour Party would be painful in the extreme. Yet J.R.M. knows what the country needs and wants in this crisis, and it is a question whether it is not his duty to form a Government representative of all three parties to tide over a few weeks, till the danger of financial crash is past - and damn the consequences to himself after that." (127)
After another Cabinet meeting where no agreement about how to deal with the economic crisis could be achieved, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to resign. Sir Clive Wigram, the King's private secretary, later recalled that George V "impressed upon the Prime Minister that he was the only man to lead the country through the crisis and hoped that he would reconsider the situation." At a meeting with Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Herbert Samuel, MacDonald told them that if he joined a National Government it "meant his death warrant". According to Chamberlain he said "he would be a ridiculous figure unable to command support and would bring odium on us as well as himself." (128)
On 24th August 1931, Ramsay MacDonald returned to the palace and told the King that he had the Cabinet's resignation in his pocket. The King replied that he hoped that MacDonald "would help in the formation of a National Government." He added that by "remaining at his post, his position and reputation would be much more enhanced than if he surrendered the Government of the country at such a crisis." Eventually, he agreed to form a National Government.
On 24th August 1931 King George V had a meeting with the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties. Herbert Samuel later recorded that he told the king that MacDonald should be maintained in office "in view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working class". He added that MacDonald was "the ruling class's ideal candidate for imposing a balanced budget at the expense of the working class." (129)
Later that day MacDonald returned to the palace and had another meeting with the King. MacDonald told the King that he had the Cabinet's resignation in his pocket. The King replied that he hoped that MacDonald "would help in the formation of a National Government." He added that by "remaining at his post, his position and reputation would be much more enhanced than if he surrendered the Government of the country at such a crisis." Eventually, he agreed to continue to serve as Prime Minister. George V congratulated all three men "for ensuring that the country would not be left governless." (130)
Ramsay MacDonald was only able to persuade three other members of the Labour Party to serve in the National Government: Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Jimmy Thomas (Colonial Secretary) and John Sankey (Lord Chancellor). The Conservatives had four places and the Liberals two: Stanley Baldwin (Lord President), Samuel Hoare (Secretary for India), Neville Chamberlain (Minister of Health), Herbert Samuel (Home Secretary), Lord Reading (Foreign Secretary) and Philip Cunliffe-Lister (President of the Board of Trade). (131)
MacDonald's former cabinet colleagues were furious about what he had done. Clement Attlee asked why the workers and the unemployed were to bear the brunt again and not those who sat on profits and grew rich on investments? He complained that MacDonald was a man who had "shed every tag of political convictions he ever had". His so-called National Government was a "shop-soiled pack of cards shuffled and reshuffled". This was "the greatest betrayal in the political history of this country". (132)
The Labour Party's governing national executive, the general council of the TUC and the parliamentary party's consultative committee met and issued a joint manifesto, which declared that the new National Government was "determined to attack the standard of living of the workers in order to meet a situation caused by a policy pursued by private banking interests in the control of which the party has no part." (133)
On 28th August, 1931, Arthur Henderson became leader in place of MacDonald. Attlee wrote to his brother: "Things are pretty damnable - I fear we are in for a regime of fake economy and a general attack on the workers' standard of life." Attlee added: "MacDonald had no constructive ideas, while at the Treasury Philip Snowden had fallen completely under the spell of orthodox finance and the influence of Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England." (134)
On 8th September 1931, the National Government's programme of £70 million economy programme was debated in the House of Commons. This included a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. All those paid by the state, from cabinet ministers and judges down to the armed services and the unemployed, were cut 10 per cent. Teachers, however, were treated as a special case, lost 15 per cent. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were "not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government". In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249. (135)
John Maynard Keynes spoke out against the morality of cutting benefits and public sector pay. He claimed that the plans to reduce the spending on "housing, roads, telephone expansion" was "simply insane". Keynes went on to say the government had been ignoring his advice: "During the last 12 years I have had very little influence, if any, on policy. But in the role of Cassandra, I have had considerable success as a prophet. I declare to you, and I will stake on it any reputation I have, that we have been making in the last few weeks as dreadful errors of policy as deluded statesmen have ever been guilty of." (136)
Snowden's behaviour disgusted Attlee and he made a strong attack on him in the House of Commons. "The Chancellor has broken all Parliamentary records. He has not merely produced two budgets in one session; he has produced one on behalf of the Labour Party and the other on behalf of the united Capitalist parties. These two budgets are based on entirely different social philosophies. The first one still retains, to some extent, the social philosophy which he has preached with such extreme success for the last 30 or 40 years; and the second one is based on a wholly different outlook." (137)
The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. Ramsay MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with several leading Labour figures, including Arthur Henderson, John R. Clynes, Arthur Greenwood, Charles Trevelyan, Herbert Morrison, Emanuel Shinwell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Hastings Lees-Smith, Hugh Dalton, Susan Lawrence, William Wedgwood Benn, Tom Shaw and Margaret Bondfield losing their seats. Attlee's majority was cut to just 551. (138)
The Government parties polled 14,500,000 votes to Labour's 6,600,000. In the new House of Commons, the Labour Party had only 52 members and the Lloyd George Liberals only 4 seats. Clement Attlee, George Lansbury, William Adamson and Stafford Cripps were the only leading Labour figures to win their seats. The Labour Party polled 30.5% of the vote reflecting the loss of two million votes, a huge withdrawal of support. The only significant concentration of Labour victories occurred in South Wales where eleven seats were retained, many by large majorities. (139)
Arthur Henderson, leader of the Labour Party, lost his seat and it was agreed that George Lansbury, aged 72, should become leader and Attlee as his deputy. Lansbury commented: "I honestly believe the movement is going to be purer and stronger for the very heavy defeat we have sustained." (140) Ernest Bevin was especially opposed to Lansbury's leadership: "Lansbury has been going about in saint's cloths for years waiting for martyrdom. I set fire to the faggots." (141)
Attlee disagreed with Bevin and believed he was a very good leader because of his Christian faith. "One great source of strength which he had was his power to inspire affection, not only in those who were his immediate colleagues, but in thousands of men and women throughout the country... Another source of strength was his firmly held Christian faith. A convinced Anglican, he was nevertheless ready to work with men of all creeds or of none at all, for he was quite free from intolerance and pharisaism." (142)
Arthur Henderson did return to the House of Commons at a by-election on 1st September 1933, but as he was nearly 70 he decided that he would not take back the leadership. During this period Attlee was the main spokesman for the Labour group in Parliament. Most of his speeches concerned the economy and the basis upon which it should be run and organized. However his most controversial speech concerned the House of Lords. "One hopes to live long enough to see the House of Lords abolished and single Chamber Government established... We do not think that it can be reformed. We think it ought to be abolished." (143)
Attlee argued for government involvement in industry: "The Labour Party was not for Protection or for Free Trade. We believe that industry has to be organized... Importation has got to be controlled... We are not satisfied unless the State gets full advantage to itself and to the people of this country in return for the advantages which it bestows." (144) Two days later he argued for Indian independence: "We in the party stand for India's control of her own affairs... our position is that India, as has been said, must be allowed to make her own mistakes." (145)
Attlee also made an important speech on the subject of economic inequality: "If the blood - in this case currency - does not reach the extremities, you get cold feet and hands and the people who are in the chilliest part of the body politic today are the poorest people, because currency does not circulate freely to them. I suggest that there is another danger besides that of anaemia or apoplexy. There might be a clot in the brain or the heart. I suggest that the concentration of wealth in a small part of the nation affects both the brain and the heart of the nation." (146)
On 7th June 1935, Ramsay MacDonald went to see George V to tell him he was resigning as head of the National Government. Henry Channon, the Conservative MP for Southend, commented in his diary: "I am glad Ramsay (MacDonald) has gone: I have always disliked his shifty face, and his inability to give a direct answer. What a career, a life-long Socialist, then for 4 years a Conservative Prime Minister, and now the defender of Londonderry House. An incredible volte-face. He ends up distrusted by Conservatives and hated by Socialists." (147)
Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party
Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister for the third time. On 8th October, 1935, George Lansbury resigned as leader of the Labour Party. As the 1935 General Election was set for 14th November. It was decided that Attlee would be caretaker leader during the campaign with a full leadership contest to be held after the poll. In the election the Conservative-dominated National Government lost 90 seats from its massive majority of 1931, but still retained an overwhelming majority of 255 in the House of Commons. Labour, with just over 8.3 million votes, 37.9 per cent, took 154 seats. (148)
Attlee was nominated along with Arthur Greenwood and Herbert Morrison. Attlee was expected to be beaten by Morrison who was considered to have all the necessary leadership qualities. Beatrice Webb commented: "Clement Attlee… though gifted with intellect and character and also with goodwill has, alas, no personality… He is neither feared, disliked nor admired but merely respected by Labour men and approved by the government bench." (149)
At that time only Labour Party MPs voted. Attlee took 58 votes, Morrison 44 and Greenwood 32. Under the rules Greenwood dropped out and the final result was Attlee 88 and Morrison 44. This was a shock result as Morrison was expected to win the contest. Hugh Dalton pointed out there had been a "prejudice, surprisingly strong and widespread, against Morrison. There was a feeling that, if he got the Leadership now, he would keep it, but that, if Attlee got it, there might be a change later. This feeling helped to explain the swing on the second vote." (150)
Dalton, who was on the right of the party described it as "a wretched, disheartening result" and now had "a little mouse" leading the party. (151) Harold Laski welcomed the fact that they had selected a "left-centre socialist" and predicted that "if the new session lasts long enough for Mr Attlee to prove himself, experience will show that the Labour Party has found a permanent and not a temporary leader." (152) The Daily Mail disagreed: "So the leader of the socialist opposition is to be Major Attlee. I am afraid he will not be so for long, but he deserves the success that is his momentarily." (153)
Clement Attlee attempted to persuade the Labour Party to change its view on rearmament. In one speech he argued: "We are against the use of force for imperialist and capitalist ends, but we are in favour of the proper use of force for ensuring the use of law. I do not believe that non-resistance is a possible policy for people with responsibility." (154) The Daily Mail suggested he would make a good leader: "Clement Attlee… courteous and hard-working, he perhaps can never be an out-and-out extremist: when he speaks you feel that however much you disagree with him, it is what he thinks, and thinks sincerely about the subject." (155)
Kingsley Martin believed that the Labour Party had made a wise choice: "With a characteristic combination of shrewdness and generosity, the British Labour Party has pinned its faith to his integrity. And rightly so. Attlee first had his foot planted on the ladder of promotion because he had had more experience and a better education than most of his colleagues in the Stepney Labour Party. Ever since, he has borne his trust with the stolid conscientious of a just headmaster. In any democratically organized party, a man who is held to be personally unambitious and of unimpugnable integrity is liable to have leadership thrust upon him. After the desertion of MacDonald, the Labour Party became very suspicious of prima donnas, and when Lansbury's Christian Pacifism ceased to match the mood of the Party, it was Attlee, the plodding dark horse, and not the more fancied and more talented Greenwood or Morrison, who slipped into the leadership." (156)
The left of the Labour Party argued that its policy should be to oppose rearmament and stimulate international socialist co-operation to avoid a capitalist war. From the right came the proposition that the party must support rearmament to defend freedom and democracy. As Trevor Burridge, the author of British Labour & Hitler's War (1976) has pointed out: "Though the Party never officially adopted an outright pacifist position, a dedicated pacifist, George Lansbury, was Leader of the Party from 1932-35. In addition, Socialist theory interpreted war in economic terms as a clash of rival imperialism - the last, most decadent stage of capitalism." (157)
At the 1935 Labour Party Conference, Sydney Silverman, the MP for Nelson and Colne, argued that there should be no cooperation with the government on rearmament, and the Party should be involved in "a movement of resistance" in the country and to "re-establish international working-class unity in active resistance to capitalist and imperial war". (157a) Ernest Bevin took the opposite view: "I would vote for armaments to defend democracy and our liberty, I would also say, strive with all our might to build the great moral authority behind international law." (157b)
Clement Attlee, agreed with Bevin, but admitted that it would take some time before he could get complete control of his Party. He told his brother, Tom Attlee: "I am not prepared to arrogate to myself a superiority to the rest of the movement. I am prepared to submit to their will, even if I disagree. I shall do all I can to get my views accepted, but, unless acquiescence in the views of the majority conflicts with my conscience, I shall fall into line, for I have faith in the wisdom of the rank and file." (158)
In the 1930s the Conservative Party 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. On the 19th July, 1936, Spain's prime minister, José Giral, sent a request to Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, for aircraft and armaments. The following day the French government decided to help and on 22nd July agreed to send 20 bombers and other arms. This news was criticized by the right-wing press and the non-socialist members of the government began to argue against the aid and therefore Blum decided to see what his British allies were going to do. (151)
Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, received advice that "apart from foreign intervention, the sides were so evenly balanced that neither could win." Eden warned Blum that he believed that if the French government helped the Spanish government it would only encourage Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to aid the Nationalists. Edouard Daladier, the French war minister, was aware that French armaments were inferior to those that Franco could obtain from the dictators. Eden later recalled: "The French government acted most loyally by us." On 8th August the French cabinet suspended all further arms sales, and four days later it was decided to form an international committee of control "to supervise the agreement and consider further action." (152)
Attlee argued for intervention against the fascists. However, he was aware that the problem with intervention was the danger of escalating the conflict to a general European war against the fascist powers. Labour's 1936 conference in Edinburgh condemned non-intervention and demanded that the British government restore to the Spanish government its right to buy arms. In a letter to his brother Tom in April 1937, he wrote that "I'm afraid there's no doubt about the strong pro-Franco attitude of many of the government." (153)
In a speech in October, 1936, Clement Attlee described the Spanish Civil War as "a fight for the soul of Europe", charging that non-intervention had become "a farce". For the first time he stated that the government was guilty of incremental steps of appeasement. If Britain had stood firm against Mussolini over Abyssinia, there would not have been this trouble in Spain. He argued there had been "no policy in foreign affairs except the policy of giving way. The result of that is a world in anarchy." The government's policy "has not brought us nearer peace but has brought us closer and closer to the danger of war." (154)
At the party conference in Edinburgh in 1936, Attlee attempted to unite the Labour Party on foreign policy. The party's official position under Lansbury was to vote against the defence estimates of the government because pf the latter's failure to sufficiently support the League of Nations. Attlee argued that it was time to reassess the situation. For example, he was in a minority in believing that the government should send arms to Spain to fight the fascists. He therefore supported rearmament but rejected the view expressed by Hugh Dalton, that the party should support the government's rearmament plans in their entirety. (155)
In November, 1936, Stanley Baldwin, briefed Attlee in confidence on the impending crisis concerned the monarchy. King Edward VIII wanted to marry an American woman, Wallis Simpson. Baldwin told the King that the proposed marriage would be unacceptable to him, and if it took place the government would resign. If Attlee opposed Baldwin on this issue he would probably be asked to form a government. Attlee refused to take this opportunity and instead told Baldwin that although he did not object to an American queen, a twice-divorced woman and a morganic marriage was unacceptable. Attlee's critics pointed out that he had shown too great a concern for the monarchy and too little for his party. Attlee saw his duty as clear: "to support the constitutional position taken by Baldwin; to fight an election on the issue would be manifestly opportunistic." (156)
In May 1937 Stanley Baldwin resigned and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain, a strong supporter of appeasement. Attlee described him as being "just an imperialist of the old school but without much knowledge of foreign affairs or appreciation of the forces at work." (156a) In July, with the help of Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin, he persuaded the Labour Party National Executive to support rearmament. Attlee pointed out that it was absurd to argue that the government should do more about Spain but simultaneously fail to back it on rearmament. That summer Attlee finally began to really assert authority over his party. (157)
Attlee continued to support the Popular Front government and in December, 1937, he led a Labour delegation that included Ellen Wilkinson and Philip Noel-Baker, that visited Barcelona. Soon after arriving they saw the aftermath of an air raid in which thirty people had been killed in a cafe. They then went on to Valencia and Madrid, where he met representatives from the Republican government, as well as visiting hospitals, schools and other bomb sites. He also talked to schoolchildren, who were still studying despite being only a few kilometres from the fighting, and under constant fear of attack. Wilkinson noticed that Attlee was moved to tears by their plight. (158)
The delegation went to the front-line to meet members of the International Brigades. The group that he visited were later renamed as the Major Attlee Company and was led by Jack Jones. After talking to these men he developed the view that the Republican cause had been weakened and damaged by factionalism on the left. In the face of the fascist threat, he believed that it was a tragedy that "all the time the Communists were intriguing and seeking to divert the contest into a battle for Communism." (159)
Adolf Hitler knew that both France and Britain were militarily stronger than Germany. However, their failure to take action against Italy, convinced him that they were unwilling to go to war. He therefore decided to break another aspect of the Treaty of Versailles by sending German troops into the Rhineland. The German generals were very much against the plan, claiming that the French Army would win a victory in the military conflict that was bound to follow this action. Hitler ignored their advice and on 1st March, 1936, three German battalions marched into the Rhineland. Hitler later admitted: "The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance." (160)
The British government accepted Hitler's Rhineland coup. Sir Anthony Eden, the new foreign secretary, informed the French that the British government was not prepared to support military action. The chiefs of staff felt Britain was in no position to go to war with Germany over the issue. The Rhineland invasion was not seen by the British government as an act of unprovoked aggression but as the righting of an injustice left behind by the Treaty of Versailles. Eden apparently said that "Hitler was only going into his own back garden." (161)
Clement Attlee attacked the policy, stressing the futility of dealing with dictators, where you yield to force at every point. (162) In the House of Commons he spoke out vehemently against inaction: "In the last five years we have had quite enough of dodging difficulties, of using forms of words to avoid facing up to realities. I am afraid that you may get a patched-up peace and then another crisis next year." (163)
The Munich Agreement
In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable. Neville Henderson, the British ambassador in Germany, pleaded with Chamberlain to go on negotiating with Hitler. He believed, like Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, that the German claim to the Sudetenland in 1938 was a moral one, and he always reverted in his dispatches to his conviction that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair to Germany. "At the same time, he was unsympathetic to feelers from the German opposition to Hitler seeking to enlist British support. Henderson thought, not unreasonably, that it was not the job of the British government to subvert the German government, and this view was shared by Chamberlain and Halifax". (164)
Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany. The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Chamberlain and Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. (165)
The meeting ended with Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signing the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. "We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as Symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries." (166)
Neville Henderson defended the agreement: "Germany thus incorporated the Sudeten lands in the Reich without bloodshed and without firing a shot. But she had not got all that Hitler wanted and which she would have got if the arbitrament had been left to war... The humiliation of the Czechs was a tragedy, but it was solely thanks to Mr. Chamberlain's courage and pertinacity that a futile and senseless war was averted." (167)
On 3rd October, 1938, Clement Attlee, attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in the House of Commons. "We have felt that we are in the midst of a tragedy. We have felt humiliation. This has not been a victory for reason and humanity. It has been a victory for brute force. At every stage of the proceedings there have been time limits laid down by the owner and ruler of armed force. The terms have not been terms negotiated; they have been terms laid down as ultimata. We have seen today a gallant, civilized and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism. We have seen something more. We have seen the cause of democracy, which is, in our view, the cause of civilization and humanity, receive a terrible defeat.... The events of these last few days constitute one of the greatest diplomatic defeats that this country and France have ever sustained. There can be no doubt that it is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler. Without firing a shot, by the mere display of military force, he has achieved a dominating position in Europe which Germany failed to win after four years of war. He has overturned the balance of power in Europe. He has destroyed the last fortress of democracy in Eastern Europe which stood in the way of his ambition. He has opened his way to the food, the oil and the resources which he requires in order to consolidate his military power, and he has successfully defeated and reduced to impotence the forces that might have stood against the rule of violence." (168)
On 27th April 1939, Neville Chamberlain made the controversial decision to introduce conscription, although repeated pledges had been given by him against such a step. It is claimed that Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War, had forced Chamberlain to change his mind. Both members of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party objected to the measure and according to Winston Churchill because of "the ancient and deep-rooted prejudice which has always existed in England against Compulsory Military Service." (169)
Clement Attlee argued: "Whilst prepared to take all necessary steps to provide for the safety of the nation and the fulfillment of its international obligations, this House regrets that His Majesty's Government in breach of their pledges should abandon the voluntary principle which has not failed to provide the man-power needed for defence, and is of opinion that the measure proposed is ill-conceived, and, so far from adding materially to the effective defence of the country, will promote division and discourage the national effort, and is further evidence that the Government's conduct of affairs throughout these critical times does not merit the confidence of the country or this House." (170)
Attlee later attempted to explain why he opposed conscription. He thought this was of doubtful military value and that military conscription might pave the way for industrial conscription. He admitted to Mark Arnold-Forster: "But you must remember the hangover from the last war. The generals were given far too many men. They sacrificed men because they wouldn't use their brains. Didn't happen in the second war." (171)
Parliament passed the Military Training Act by 380 to 143 votes. This introduced conscription for men aged 20 and 21, who were now required to undertake six months' full-time military training. Once this decision had been taken, however, the Labour Party quickly accepted it, and it soon ceased to be contentious. A resolution at the Labour Party Conference calling for non-cooperation in defence measures was defeated by a huge majority - 1,670,000 to 286,000. Attlee and the shadow cabinet continued to oppose any further concessions to Adolf Hitler. (172)
Stafford Cripps & Nye Bevan
Clement Attlee had led the campaign against appeasement. This caused him problems in the Labour Party and there was a campaign to persuade Herbert Morrison to run against him for the leadership of the party. His critics thought he was being disloyal to work so closely with anti-appeasers such as Churchill and Eden. In November, 1938, Attlee made a speech where he rejected all talk of setting aside party differences because of the threat of war and pointed out that when this was done in 1931 it resulted in the "most incompetent Government in modern times." (173)
Stafford Cripps, on the left of the party, was also a critic of Attlee and in January, 1939, called for the creation of a Popular Front against fascism. This would be built of those across the political spectrum, including Churchill, who shared the desire to confront fascism and preserve democracy. Cripps also circulated it to the constituencies and as a result was expelled from the party. Nye Bevan was furious and argued: "If Sir Stafford Cripps is expelled for wanting to unite the forces of freedom and democracy, they can go on expelling others... His crime is my crime." (174)
Bevan supported Cripps and in an article in The Tribune, "Cripps was expelled because he claimed the right to tell the Party what he had already told the Executive... This is tantamount to a complete suppression of any opinion in the Party which does not agree with that held by the Executive... If every organised effort to change Party policy is to be described as an organised attack on the Party itself, then the rigidity imposed by Party discipline will soon change into rigor mortis." (175)
On 31st March 1939, Bevan, George Strauss and Charles Trevelyan were expelled from the Labour Party. Bevan continued to attack the NEC. So did other party members. David Low published a cartoon showing Colonel Blimp saying: "The Labour Party is quite right to expel all but sound Conservatives." However, they were readmitted in November 1939 after agreeing "to refrain from conducting or taking part in campaigns in opposition to the declared policy of the Party." (176)
Attlee and Foreign Alliances
On 15th March 1939, Nazi tanks entered Prague and destroyed the Munich agreement. The annexation of an area peopled by non-Germans showed that Hitler was going further than redressing the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. At a Cabinet meeting it was agreed that the government would find a form of words in order to back out of honouring what amounted to a moral guarantee to Czechoslovakia implicit in the Munich agreement, but never formally ratified in the months which followed by Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Chamberlain refused to accept that his appeasement policy had failed: "Though we may have to suffer checks and disappointments, from time to time, the object that we have in mind is of too great significance to the happiness of mankind for us lightly to give it up." (177)
Maxim Litvinov, Commissar for Foreign Affairs, denounced Hitler's decision to occupy Prague. Later that day, the British Foreign Office, asked Litvinov what would be the Soviet Union's attitude be towards Hitler if he ordered the invasion of countries such as Poland and Rumania. Joseph Stalin replied when he proposed an alliance between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, where the three powers would jointly guarantee all the countries between the Baltic and the Black Sea against aggression. (178)
On 18th March, 1939, the Cabinet met to discuss Stalin's proposal to convene a conference of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Poland, Rumania and Turkey to find a collective means of resisting further aggression. Chamberlain did not like the idea. He wrote to a friend: "I must confess to the most profound distrust of Russia. I have no belief whatever in her ability to maintain an effective offensive, even if she wanted to. And I distrust her motives, which seem to me to have little connection with our ideas of liberty, and to be concerned only with getting everyone else by the ears." (179)
A debate on the subject took place in the House of Commons on 19th May, 1939. The debate was short and was "practically confined to the leaders of Parties and to prominent ex-Ministers". Chamberlain made it clear that he had severe doubts about Stalin's proposal. David Lloyd George, the former prime minister called for an alliance with the Soviet Union. Clement Attlee had been campaigning for a military alliance with the Soviet Union since September, 1938, during the crisis over Czechoslovakia. (279) Attlee argued in the House of Commons that the government should form a "firm union between Britain, France and the USSR as the nucleus of a World Alliance against aggression". The government was "dilatory and fumbling" and was in danger of letting Stalin slip out of their grasp and into Hitler's hands." (180)
In June, 1939, a public opinion poll showed that 84 per cent of the British public favoured an Anglo-French-Soviet military alliance. Negotiations progressed very slowly and it has been claimed by Frank McDonough, the author of Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War (1998), that "Chamberlain did not seem to care less whether an Anglo-Soviet agreement was signed at all, kept placing obstructions in the way of concluding an agreement swiftly." (181) Chamberlain admitted: "I am so sceptical of the value of Russian help that I should not feel that our position was greatly worsened if we had to do without them." (182)
On 28th August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow. It was reported: "Late Sunday night - not the usual time for such announcements - the Soviet Government revealed a pact, not with Great Britain, not with France, but with Germany. Germany would give the Soviet Union seven-year 5% credits amounting to 200,000,000 marks ($80.000,000) for German machinery and armaments, would buy from the Soviet Union 180,000.000 marks' worth ($72,000,000) of wheat, timber, iron ore, petroleum in the next two years". (183) Apparently, the day after the agreement was signed, Stalin told Lavrenti Beria: "Of course, it's all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler's up to. He thinks he's outsmarted me, but actually it's I who have tricked him." (184)
On 31st August, 1939, Adolf Hitler gave the order to attack Poland. The following day fifty-seven army divisions, heavily supported by tanks and aircraft, crossed the Polish frontier, in a lightning Blitzkrieg attack. A telegram was sent to Hitler warning of the possibility of war unless he withdrew his troops from Poland. That evening Chamberlain told the House of Commons: "Eighteen months ago in this House I prayed that the responsibility might not fall on me to ask this country to accept the awful arbitration of war. I fear I may not be able to avoid that responsibility". (185)
At a meeting of the Cabinet on 2nd September, the Cabinet wanted the prime minister to declare war on Nazi Germany. Chamberlain refused and argued it was still possible to avoid conflict. That night he announced in the House of Commons that he was offering Hitler a conference to discuss the subject of Poland if the "Germans agreed to withdraw their forces (which was not the same as actually withdrawing them), the British government would forget everything that had happened, and diplomacy could start again." (186)
Clement Attlee was not in the House of Commons as he was recovering from a serious operation. It was acting leader, Arthur Greenwood, who replied to Chamberlain's statement. As he stood up, Leo Amery shouted "Speak for England, Arthur!". Greenwood said: "I am gravely disturbed. An act of aggression took place 38 hours ago. The moment that act of aggression took place one of the most important treaties of modern times automatically came into operation. There may be reasons why instant action was not taken. I am not prepared to say - and I have tried to play a straight game - I am not prepared to say what I would have done had I been one of those sitting on those Benches. That delay might have been justifiable, but there are many of us on all sides of this House who view with the gravest concern the fact that hours went by and news came in of bombing operations, and news today of an intensification of it, and I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilisation, are in peril. We must march with the French." (187)
Second World War
On the outbreak of the Second World War Chamberlain asked Winston Churchill to join his cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill suggested that Anthony Eden and Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal Party leader, should be appointed to the War Cabinet. "Aren't we a very old team? I make out that the six you mentioned to me yesterday aggregate 386 years, or an average of over 64, only one year short of the old age Pension! If, however, you added Sinclair (49) and Eden (42), the average comes down to 57½. If the Daily Herald is right that Labour will not come in, we shall certainly have to face a constant stream of criticism, as well as the many disappointments and surprises of which war largely consists. Therefore it seems to me all the more important to have the Liberal Opposition firmly incorporated in our ranks." (188)
Eden was appointed as Secretary of State for the Dominions, but Sinclair and Attlee were not invited to join Chamberlain's government. Once in office Churchill he wrote a paper where he assessed the possibility of defeating Nazi Germany. He reassured his colleagues that Germany was short "of certain vital materials, and some at least of their population was gravely disaffected... after a few months weaknesses would begin to show in the German military machine." (189)
Chamberlain's popularity began to decline in the early months of 1940. It was decided to send troops to help defend Finland against the Soviet Union. This action was criticised: "The motives for the projected expedition to Finland defy rational analysis. For Great Britain and France to provoke war with Soviet Russia when already at war with Germany seems the product of a madhouse, and it is tempting to suggest a more sinister plan: switching the war on to an anti-Bolshevik course, so that the war against Germany could be forgotten or even ended." (190)
On 12th March, 1940, Finland agreed to the Soviet demands and made peace. The British and French governments were humiliated. At a Cabinet meeting on 8th April it was agreed to send help to Norway. However, it was too late and Germany took over Denmark unopposed and seized every important Norwegian port from Oslo to Narvik. Chamberlain received a hostile reception in the House of Commons. Chamberlain complained about being "continually interrupted with shouts, sneers, and derisive laughter" and "my depression is increased by the partisanship and personal prejudice shown by the Labour Party". (191)
In a debate in the House of Commons on 7th May, 1940, Admiral Roger Keyes, the Conservative Party MP for Portsmouth North, attacked the government's military strategy including the role played by Winston Churchill as First Lord of Admiralty: "I came to the House of Commons to-day in uniform for the first time because I wish to speak for some officers and men of the fighting, sea-going Navy who are very unhappy. I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not their fault that the German warships and transports which forced their way into Norwegian ports by treachery were not followed in and destroyed as they were at Narvik. It is not the fault of those for whom I speak that the enemy have been left in undisputable possession of vulnerable ports and aerodromes for nearly a month, have been given time to pour in reinforcements by sea and air, to land tanks, heavy artillery and mechanised transport, and have been given time to develop the air offensive which has had such a devastating effect on the morale of Whitehall. If they had been more courageously and offensively employed they might have done much to prevent these unhappy happenings and much to influence unfriendly neutrals." He then went on to compare the operation with Churchill's failure at Gallipoli. (192)
Leo Amery, another Tory MP, argued in the House of Commons: "Just as our peace-time system is unsuitable for war conditions, so does it tend to breed peace-time statesmen who are not too well fitted for the conduct of war. Facility in debate, ability to state a case, caution in advancing an unpopular view, compromise and procrastination are the natural qualities - I might almost say, virtues - of a political leader in time of peace. They are fatal qualities in war. Vision, daring, swiftness and consistency of decision are the very essence of victory." Looking at Chamberlain he then went onto quote what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go." (193)
The following day, Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party demanded a vote of no confidence in Chamberlain. The 77 year-old David Lloyd George, was one of those MPs who called on the prime minister to resign. The government defeated the Labour motion by 281 to 200 votes. But the abstention of 134 Tory MPs indicated the extent to which the government had haemorrhaged authority. It was clear that drastic changes were essential if the government was to restore its authority. Chamberlain invited Attlee to join a National Government but he refused and said he would only accept if the prime minister resigned. (194)
Chamberlain told King George VI that he had no choice but to resign. In his diary he wrote: "The Amerys, Duff Coopers, and their lot are consciously, or unconsciously, swayed by a sense of frustration because they can only look on, and finally the personal dislike of Simon and Hoare had reached a pitch which I find it difficult to understand, but which undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the rebellion. A number of those who voted against the government have since either told me, or written to me to say, that they had nothing against me except that I had the wrong people in my team." (195)
The King and Chamberlain wanted Lord Halifax to become prime minister. Halifax had the support of some Labour MPs like Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison, but not Attlee who wanted Churchill. The King attempted to insist on Halifax but eventually he agreed to ask Winston Churchill to become prime minister. As Clive Ponting, the author of Winston Churchill (1994) pointed out: "It was perhaps the crowning irony of his career that he should become Prime Minister because of the need to bring the Labour Party, which had so far only formed two minority governments, into a national coalition. One of the main motivating forces of his political life in the previous twenty years was his outright opposition to the claims of Labour and the trade unions, reflected in his often expressed belief that not only were they unfit to govern the country but that they were engaged in a campaign to subvert its political, economic and social institutions." (196)
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 June 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."
David Low, like Harold Laski, and other members of the left-wing members of the party, began to get disillusioned by Attlee's cautious leadership. On 12th August 1947, Low produced a cartoon entitled, Giving a Lead, which shows Attlee at the head of a march of Labour Party members, who he appears to be holding them back.
After being narrowly defeated in the 1951 General Election, Attlee led the Labour Party until resigning in 1955. He was granted a peerage and was active in the House of Lords until his death in 1967.
(1) In his autobiography, As It Happened, Clement Attlee described his time at Oxford University.
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.
(2) In October 1905, Clement Attlee went to visit a boys' club at Stepney that was being supported by his old school, Haileybury College.
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.
(3) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(4) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(5) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(5) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920) page 30
In a civilized community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways - they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organized community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community...
Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice.
(6) Ramsay MacDonald appointed Clement Attlee as Postmaster General in 1929. He wrote about MacDonald's government in his autobiography, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(7) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977)
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.
(8) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(9) Fred Copeman, Reason in Revolt (1948)
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 battalions - some 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.
(10) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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."
(11) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (3rd October, 1938)
We all feel relief that war has not come this time. Every one of us has been passing through days of anxiety; we cannot, however, feel that peace has been established, but that we have nothing but an armistice in a state of war. We have been unable to go in for care-free rejoicing. We have felt that we are in the midst of a tragedy. We have felt humiliation. This has not been a victory for reason and humanity. It has been a victory for brute force. At every stage of the proceedings there have been time limits laid down by the owner and ruler of armed force. The terms have not been terms negotiated; they have been terms laid down as ultimata. We have seen today a gallant, civilised and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism. We have seen something more. We have seen the cause of democracy, which is, in our view, the cause of civilisation and humanity, receive a terrible defeat.
I think that in the mind of every thoughtful person in this country when he heard that this settlement had been arrived at Munich, there was a conflict. On the one hand there was enormous relief that war had been averted, at all events for the time being; on the other, there was a sense of humiliation and foreboding for the future. If I may compare my feelings at that time, they were akin to those I felt on the night that we evacuated the Gallipoli Peninsula. There was sorrow for sacrifice. There was sorrow over the great chance of ending the war earlier that had passed away. There was, perhaps, some feeling of satisfaction that for a short time one was getting away from the firing line, but there was the certain and sure knowledge that before very long we should be in it again.
The events of these last few days constitute one of the greatest diplomatic defeats that this country and France have ever sustained. There can be no doubt that it is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler. Without firing a shot, by the mere display of military force, he has achieved a dominating position in Europe which Germany failed to win after four years of war. He has overturned the balance of power in Europe. He has destroyed the last fortress of democracy in Eastern Europe which stood in the way of his ambition. He has opened his way to the food, the oil and the resources which he requires in order to consolidate his military power, and he has successfully defeated and reduced to impotence the forces that might have stood against the rule of violence.
The Prime Minister has given us an account of his actions. Everybody recognises the great exertions he has made in the cause of peace. When the captain of a ship by disregarding all rules of navigation has gone right off his course and run the ship into great danger, watchers from the shore, naturally impressed with the captain's frantic efforts to try to save something from the shipwreck, cheer him when he comes ashore and even want to give him a testimonial, but there follows an inquiry, an inquest, on the victims, and the question will be asked how the vessel got so far off its course, how and why it was so hazarded? All the faults of seamanship and errors of judgment must be brought to light, and no amount of devotion at the eleventh hour will save that captain from the verdict that he has hazarded his ship through bad seamanship. Parliament is the grand inquest of the British nation, and it is our duty to inquire not alone into the actions of the Prime Minister during the last few days or the last few weeks, but into the whole course of policy which has brought this country into such great danger and such great anxiety.
Many people have been paying tributes to the Prime Minister with great enthusiasm as the man who saved the peace. Yes, but he is the man who brought us into danger of war. The same Government that has been grappling with these dangers in the last few days has been responsible for the policy of this country for the last seven years. We have to look at the background of these events as well as to the future. Before doing 53 so I would like to pay my tribute on behalf of my friends, and express our sympathy with President Benes and the people of Czechoslovakia. I do so the more because, although the Prime Minister has paid a tribute to-day, I think that tribute was belated, and that some words of sympathy might be said in this Debate. These are the victims of aggression. They have shown marvellous courage and self-control. It is the Czechs who kept the peace of Europe; it is their sacrifice which has averted war. Most people in this country believe that the Czechs have been shamefully betrayed by those pledged to stand by them. Faced with the threat of armed attack from without and murder and outrage within, instigated from without, exposed to violent slander and abuse by their enemy, and deserted by those whom they had a right to trust, they have shown dignity, courage and self-control worthy of a great democracy, and their distinguished President, a great patriot, and also a great European, who has been assailed by the German Press and the German leader in most disgraceful language, has never stooped to reply. His bearing throughout has shown the difference between a civilised man and a gangster.
I have had the privilege to visit Czechoslovakia and I know many of the Czechs. They are a fine, free and democratic people. I know Sudeten Germans, too. Sudeten Germans are now flying from the country because Germany has entered. When you come to think of it, what has been the fault of the Czechs? It is not a fault: it is a misfortune. It is not what they are, but where they are that has caused all the trouble. I should like to say that one of the points on which we shall require a great deal more elucidation before the Debate is ended is why, in all these proceedings, everyone seems to have been approached except the Czechs. There are visits to Herr Hitler, Signor Mussolini is called in, but there seems to have been no real contact with the leader of the Czech Government. Peace has been preserved at a price, but the immediate people who pay the price are the Czechs. The armaments which they have built up, which they scraped and pinched themselves to build, are to be handed over to the Germans�armaments which they built at the request of their allies and which were brought into 54 these areas on mobilisation will have to be left there. They have lost some of their most valuable assets and will have an enormous refugee problem to deal with. I was glad to hear from the Prime Minister that something is to be done to help them. I would give them more than a loan, more than a guarantee. I know many poor people in this country who are sending along their pennies and shillings on account of their sympathy with the Czech people. If war has been averted it has been due to the Czechs, and in Britain and France great efforts should be made to help them to grapple with their misfortunes.
(12) Clement Attlee, speech in May 1940.
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.
(13) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (11th November, 1940)
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.
(14) Winston Churchill, election broadcast (4th June, 1945)
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.
(15) Clement Attlee, election broadcast (5th June, 1945)
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.
(16) Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs 1945-53 (12th July, 1952)
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.
(17) Emanuel Shinwell was surprised when he heard Clement Attlee had appointed Ellen Wilkinson as 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.
(18) George Brown, In My Way (1970)
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.
(19) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)
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.
(20) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)
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.
(21) Aneurin Bevan, letter to Clement Attlee explaining why he was resigning (April, 1951)
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.
(22) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)
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'.
(23) Margaret Thatcher, The Path of Power (1995)
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.
(24) David Blunkett, Clement Attlee (19th September, 2008)
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.
(24) Rajeev Syal, The Guardian (19th September, 2008)
Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister whose government founded the welfare state, looked after a child refugee who escaped from the Nazis in the months leading up to the second world war, it can be revealed.
The then leader of the opposition sponsored a Jewish mother and her two children, giving them the confidence and authorisation to leave Germany in 1939 and move to the UK.
After their escape, Attlee invited one of the children into their home in Stanmore, north-west London, testimony and letters show. He neither publicised nor sought to make political capital from his visitor.
Paul Willer, the former child refugee who is now 90 and living in Gloucestershire, was 10 when he stayed with the Attlees for four months until the beginning of the war.
He has arranged to meet Attlee’s granddaughter for the first time on Wednesday at the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport scheme, which saved thousands of mainly Jewish children from Nazi Germany.
Speaking from his home in South Cerney, Willer said the Attlees, along with others, helped his family escape the Holocaust and forge new lives in the UK. “It was a remarkable kindness, a generous offer,” he said.
“Attlee was a modest man. He did not try and glorify himself in any way. He did it for the right reasons.”
The family was advised that because the children were seen as “half Aryan”, they might struggle to qualify for the Kindertransport scheme, which helped mainly Jewish children.
Seeking an alternative offer of assistance in the UK, Willer’s mother wrote to a German church official in January 1939. “I am in such despair and so despondent that I can’t see a way out,” she said.
A faint hope eventually came after her London-based brother Otto contacted the Rev William Hewett, the rector of Stanmore, who then found two local families willing to take a boy each.
One of these families was the Attlees, who were regular churchgoers and occupied Heywood, a beautiful home with a walled garden.
At the time, Attlee was 56 and had been the leader of the Labour party for four years. Europe was sliding closer to war and Labour was opposing the policy of appeasement being pursued by the then prime minister, Neville Chamberlain.
Willer said he arrived in London wide-eyed at cars driving on the wrong side of the road. His uncle took him to Heywood on Easter Sunday in 1939, where he was introduced to Attlee, his wife, Violet, and their four children.
“They took me inside what was a very large house. They had a maid and a cook too. The next morning, their son Martin [the late Lord Attlee], who was my age, took me upstairs and ran a cold bath, bathed, and encouraged me to do the same. I thought, ‘Is this what they do for Easter?’ It turned out that cold baths were what the males in the family did every day,” he said.
At first, Willer found it difficult to communicate with the Attlees – he spoke no English and they understood no German. Attlee’s daughter Felicity became the family’s translator because they had both learned basic Latin at school, he said.
Willer became fascinated by the letters that came to Attlee’s home from across the world, and would go with the children to Sunday school.
During Miller’s stay, Attlee was formulating Labour’s policy to oppose Hitler’s advances towards the Sudetenland, a policy that led him to cast doubt upon Chamberlain’s Munich agreement and claims of “peace in our time”.
In contrast to the taciturn, blunt image of Attlee the politician, Willer’s lasting impression was of a happy, relaxed presence, he said.
“He was a gentle man and a gentleman. He was very good with the children and affectionate. At breakfast, we would gather around the table and he played this game where he held out a coin and asked whose monarch’s head was on it. Whoever gave the correct answer was allowed to keep the coin,” he said.
(1) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 5
(2) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 6
(3) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 30
(4) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 5
(5) Trevor Burridge, Clement Attlee: A Political Biography (2005) page 11
(6) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 13
(7) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 37
(8) Frederick Webb Headley, Darwinism and Modern Socialism (1909)
(9) The Haileyburian (18th February, 1901)
(10) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 18
(11) Clement Attlee, Empire into Commonwealth (1961) pages 6-12
(12) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 13
(13) Peggy Attlee, A Quiet Conscience: Biography of Thomas Simons Attlee (1995) page 17
(14) Cyril Clemens, The Man from Limehouse: Clement Richard Attlee (1946) page 2
(15) The Guardian (22nd April, 1963)
(16) The Manchester Guardian (13th November, 1948)
(17) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) pages 21-22
(18) R. C. Whiting, Clement Attlee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2011)
(19) The Spectator (13th December, 1963)
(20) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 34
(21) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 50
(22) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 21
(23) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920) pages 211-212
(24) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 37
(25) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) page 17
(26) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 15
(27) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) page 21
(28) Roy Jenkins, Mr. Attlee: An Interim Biography (1948) page 30
(29) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 60
(30) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) pages 29-30
(31) Cyril Clemens, The Man from Limehouse: Clement Richard Attlee (1946) page 5
(31a) Kingsley Martin, The New Statesman (24th April, 1954)
(32) R. C. Whiting, Clement Attlee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2011)
(33) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 16
(34) The Spectator (13th December, 1963)
(35) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 63
(36) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920) page 207
(37) R. C. Whiting, Clement Attlee : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2011)
(38) Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (1988) page 43
(39) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 50
(40) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) pages 55-56
(41) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 43
(42) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) pages 21-22
(43) Roy Jenkins, Churchill (2001) page 255
(44) Les Carlyon, Gallipoli (2001) pages 189-190
(45) Basil Liddell Hart, History of the First World War (1930) page 138
(46) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 49
(47) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (27th August, 1915)
(48) Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli (2007) page 328
(49) George Barrow, The Life of General Sir Charles Carmichael Monro (1931) page 65
(50) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 51
(51) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (19th April, 1916)
(52) John Grigg, Lloyd George, From Peace To War 1912-1916 (1985) pages 325-326
(53) Alfred George Gardiner, Daily News (22nd April, 1916)
(54) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 87
(55) Peggy Attlee, A Quiet Conscience: Biography of Thomas Simons Attlee (1995) page 67
(56) East London News and Chronicle (22nd November, 1916)
(57) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 87
(58) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (20th March, 1918)
(59) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 88
(60) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (20th March, 1918)
(61) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (2nd April, 1918)
(62) Peggy Attlee, A Quiet Conscience: Biography of Thomas Simons Attlee (1995) page 66
(63) East London Observer (27th September, 1919)
(64) Oscar Tobin, Stepney Trades Council: Annual Report (1919)
(65) East London Observer (15th November, 1919)
(66) Samantha L. Bird, Stepney: Profile of a London Borough (2011) pages 66-67
(67) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 63
(68) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920) page 30
(69) Labour Constitution (February, 1918)
(70) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 23
(71) G.D.H. Cole, A History of the Labour Party (1948) page 56
(72) Clement Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (1937) page 48
(73) East London Observer (6th December, 1919)
(74) Clement Attlee, speech at a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control in Kingsway Hall (11th November, 1920)
(75) Francis Williams, Fifty Years' March: The Rise of the Labour Party (1950) page 289
(76) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 111
(77) John T. Murphy, Big Three: An Autobiographical Study of Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin (1948) page 109
(78) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 116
(79) Stanley Baldwin, speech at a meeting of Conservative Party members of Parliament (19th October, 1922)
(80) Kenneth Harris, Attlee (1982) page 550
(81) The Daily Herald (23rd November, 1922)
(82) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (23rd November, 1922)
(83) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935) page 195
(84) Fenner Brockway, Towards Tomorrow (1977) page 35
(85) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 165
(86) John R. Clynes, Christian Science Monitor (19th September, 1945)
(87) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 126
(88) Stanley Ball, Stanley Baldwin : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(89) Conservative Party Manifesto (November, 1923)
(90) Labour Party Manifesto (November, 1923)
(91) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 283
(92) The Daily Herald (2nd January, 1924)
(93) The Daily Herald (4th January, 1924)
(94) Robert Shepherd, Westminster: A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present Day (2012) page 313
(95) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) pages 132-133
(96) The Daily Mail (25th October 1924)
(97) Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree (1977) page 178
(98) Ramsay MacDonald, statement (25th October 1924)
(99) A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (1972) page 223
(100) David Low, Autobiography (1956) page 161
(101) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 127
(102) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) pages 81-82
(103) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (31st May, 1927)
(104) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 318
(105) Stuart Ball, Stanley Baldwin : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(106) The Conservative Manifesto: Mr. Stanley Baldwin's Election Address (May, 1929)
(107) The Labour Manifesto: Labour's Appeal to the Nation (May, 1929)
(108) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 55
(109) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 608
(110) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 539
(111) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 35
(112) Ramsay MacDonald, letter to Walton Newbold (2nd June, 1930)
(113) Philip Snowden Report (1st May, 1930)
(114) Hugh Dalton, quoting Clement Attlee, in his diary (20th November, 1930)
(115) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 149
(116) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 212
(117) Oswald Mosley, My Life (1968) page 233
(118) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 153
(119) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 57
(120) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 150
(121) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (1st November, 1930)
(122) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (3rd November, 1930)
(123) Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Fate Has Been Kind (1942) page 165
(124) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 100
(125) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 366-367
(126) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (23rd August, 1931)
(127) Malcolm MacDonald, diary entry (24th August, 1931)
(128) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) pages 627-637
(129) Herbert Samuel, Memoirs (1945) page 204
(130) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) page 198
(131) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 59
(132) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) page 74
(133) Statement issued by the Labour Party and the General Council of the TUC (26th August, 1931)
(134) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (2nd September, 1931)
(135) Tom Johnson, speech in the House of Commons (8th September, 1931)
(136) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) pages 114-115
(137) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (2nd October, 1931)
(138) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 62
(139) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 216
(140) George Lansbury, letter to Charles Trevelyan (5th January, 1932)
(141) Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin (1952) page 196
(142) Clement Attlee, The Observer (30th December, 1951)
(143) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (16th December, 1932)
(144) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (23rd November, 1931)
(145) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (25th November, 1931)
(146) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (9th May, 1932)
(147) Henry Channon, diary entry (June, 1935)
(148) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 75
(149) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (28th September, 1935)
(150) Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs, 1931-1945 (1957) page 82
(151) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (26th November, 1935)
(152) Harold Laski, Manchester Guardian (9th October, 1935)
(153) The Daily Mail (14th October, 1935)
(154) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 104
(155) The Daily Mail (14th October, 1935)
(156) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 225
(156) Kingsley Martin, The New Statesman (24th April, 1954)
(157) Trevor Burridge, British Labour & Hitler's War (1976) pages 17-18
(157a) Sydney Silverman, Report of the 36th Labour Party Annual Conference (1935) page 196
(157b) Ernest Bevin, Report of the 36th Labour Party Annual Conference (1935) page 204
(158) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (29th April, 1938)
(159) The Observer (20th October, 1935)
(160) Patricia Knight, The Spanish Civil War (1998) page 67
(161) Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War (1982) page 110
(162) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 134
(163) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (29th April, 1938)
(164) Peter Neville, Nevile Henderson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)
(165) Graham Darby, Hitler, Appeasement and the Road to War (1999) page 56
(166) Statement issued by Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler after the signing of the Munich Agreement (30th September, 1938)
(167) Neville Henderson, Failure of a Mission (1940) page 167
(168) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (3rd October, 1938)
(169) Winston Churchill, Gathering Storm (1948) page 276
(170) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (27th April, 1939)
(171) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 149
(172) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left in the 1930's (1977) page 183
(173) The Manchester Guardian (5th November, 1938)
(174) Aneurin Bevan, speech in London (25th January, 1939)
(175) Aneurin Bevan, The Tribune (10th March, 1939)
(176) John Campbell, Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism (1987) page 84
(177) The Times (16th March, 1939)
(178) Isaac Deutscher, Stalin (1949) page 422
(179) Neville Chamberlain, letter to Ida Chamberlain (26th March, 1939)
(180) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (19th May, 1939)
(181) Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War (1998) page 84
(182) Robert A. Parker, Chamberlain and Appeasement (1993) page 236
(183) Time Magazine (28th August, 1939)
(184) Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (1971) page 111
(185) Neville Chamberlain, speech in the House of Commons (1st September, 1939)
(186) Neville Chamberlain, speech in the House of Commons (2nd September, 1939)
(187) Arthur Greenwood, speech in the House of Commons (2nd September, 1939)
(188) Winston Churchill, letter to Neville Chamberlain (2nd September, 1939)
(189) Winston Churchill, memorandum to Cabinet (19th September, 1939)
(190) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 572-573
(191) Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1970) page 430
(192) Roger Keyes, speech in the House of Commons (7th May, 1940)
(193) Leo Amery, speech in the House of Commons (7th May, 1940)
(194) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 240
(195) Neville Chamberlain, diary entry (11th May, 1940)
(196) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 431