Clement Attlee is perhaps Labour’s most famous and well respected Prime Minister. His governments were responsible for the creation of the National Health Service and for introducing the nationalisation policy which remained until the 1980s.
Nevertheless he is often underrated by historians and contemporaries due to his lack of talent as a public speaker, especially compared with his predecessor as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
His main talent was perhaps in keeping his governments together during a period in which they were implementing almost revolutionary changes to the British state and while so many members of his government had major disagreements both personally and politically with each other.
The record of those governments includes the foundation of the NHS, widespread nationalisations, government responsibility to provide council housing, Britain’s role in the foundation of NATO and the independence on India, Britain’s largest colony.
This indeed would have been a remarkable list of achievements and one which most governments after would be pleased to achieve a fraction of. What makes this even more impressive was these achievements were realised in a period of austerity and a generally gloomy economic climate, combined with an international situation which could have seen a new war break out between America and the Soviet Union at any time.
Attlee viewed his own success largely due to his leadership style. He let the cabinet collectively make decisions by getting the ‘general feeling’, or as he put it to ‘collect the voices’ of the vast number of talented individuals in his government.
Attlee was born in 1883 to a middle class family who lived in London. He was a strong achiever and gained a place at Oxford to study jurisprudence (Law) between 1901 and 1904. After graduating he became a manager of a East London boys’ settlement in 1907 then became an officer in the First World War between 1914 and 1918.
After the war he entered politics, becoming the Mayor of Stepney in East London in 1919 before being elected as Labour MP for nearby Limehouse in 1922. He went on to serve in the brief 1930-31 Labour Party government when Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister.
In 1935 he was elected to lead the Labour Party, beating Herbert Morrison for the role. He would remain the leader for twenty years, until 1955.
During the Second World War he became the Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition government set up after Neville Chamberlain resigned.
The 1945-51 Labour Governments
The Labour government of 1945-51 is perhaps the most important in the entire twentieth century for Britain. This is due to the fundamental change in social policy which took place under this government: the foundation of the modern welfare state, which for the most part still exists today.
The other defining characteristic of the government was not to be as long lasting, but was equally revolutionary. The nationalisation of large parts of the British economy would change the structure of the country’s economy until the privatisation drives of the 1980s and early 1990s under the Conservative Party.
The Labour government of 1945 was perhaps uniquely gifted with a set of politicians who had already made names for themselves prior to entering a Labour government due to the wartime coalition government.
Among these was Ernest Bevin, not to be confused with similarly named Aneurin Bevan. He was on the right-wing of the Labour Party and had upset many within the party for fighting the far-left and Communist parts of the party. He had also won a lot of respect for his role as Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition, a role which saw him direct much of the wartime economy.
His role in the Attlee government was as Foreign Secretary. During his term in the role the Cold War was beginning and therefore he was responsible for forming Britain’s diplomatic policy in this. The choices he made, which amounted to an anti-Soviet, pro-American policy, remained Britain’s diplomatic policy throughout the Cold War.
Today Bevan is as respected at Attlee himself for his role in creating the National Health Service. Bevan was on the left of the Labour Party and unlike Cripps had the background to match his politics. He represented the Welsh mining town of Ebbw Vale from 1929 until he passed away in 1960. His speeches in parliament as perhaps as remembered for his speech impediment as his strong left rhetoric.
In Attlee’s government his main achievement was the creation of the National Health Service which began in 1948. Later he would attempt to gain leadership of the party when Attlee resigned in 1955, although he was beaten in the leadership election by Hugh Gaitskell.
Morrison was a leading figure within the Labour Party and had fought against Clement Attlee in 1935 for the leadership of the party. Initially he had been sidelined due to this, but he was brought into the wartime coalition as Home Secretary. Attlee recognised the respect he had gained and made him Deputy Prime Minister upon taking office.
Herbert Morrison and Nye Bevan frequently clashed, with Morrison regarding Bevan as dangerously left wing. Morrison’s dislike of other politicians was not reserved for the left-wing of the party however, as he also famously clashed with Ernest Bevin.
Early after the 1945 election a plot was hatched by some Labour MPs to start a leadership election to replace Attlee with Morrison, but got nowhere.
Cripps was an odd figure, and perhaps the least likely by background to be on the pro-Communist wing of the Labour Party of all the ministers. Despite his Communist leanings he was able to enter government during the wartime when the Soviet Union became Britain’s ally in 1941. Cripps was then made Minister of Aircraft Production in 1942 and kept this role throughout the war, although he would also be sent in India to negotiate independence in 1942 and during the Labour government in 1946.
His role in Attlee’s government was as Chancellor of the Exchequer after Hugh Dalton was forced out of the role in 1947, and thus in charge of the post-war economy. The economy at the time was not in a great shape but Cripps was seen to do well in the role by many.
During the wartime coalition Dalton had the roles of Minister of Economic Welfare and the President of the Board of Trade. He is best known as the academic who planned much of the nationalisations under the Labour government and enacted them in his role as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was unable to keep this role however because he leaked some of the 1947 budget plans which greatly annoyed Clement Attlee.
Shortly after the war against Japan had been won the financial and economic assistance Britain had been receiving from America, which had amount to a substantial sum, was discontinued by President Harry S. Truman. Furthermore the debts that Britain owed America now became due, and the total debt of the UK owed to other countries was £3.5 billion. In short, the country was in for grim economic times.
The American Loan
Attlee realised this would completely scuttle the plans for a welfare state and that he would have to find a way of avoiding paying this debt if Britain was going to change. Some even feared a revolution if a solution couldn’t be found. Attlee’s plan was to send the famous economist John Maynard Keynes to America to argue the case for a interest free loan or grant of £8 billion. This didn’t prove popular in America, 60% of the population was against the idea. Keynes spent three days attempting to persuade the Americans, and while they found his arguments convincing they still rejected the proposal. The negotiations continued for a further three months, eventually leading to a £4 billion loan under the condition that Britain’s exchange controls, used to protect its economy, would end within 12 months of the loan being issued. The loan was so large it took until December 2006 to pay it, and the interest from it, off.
An Export-Led Economy
The only way Britain could afford to avoid gaining more debt was to prioritise exports, but the price it would pay for this was domestic shortages. Rationing became worse than even in the war – even bread, not rationed in wartime, was limited. The shortages wouldn’t let up any time soon, in 1954 meat would still be being rationed.
With house building going slowly and so many damaged and destroyed homes leaving many to be homeless or in cramp conditions, people took it upon themselves to find shelter. They would find abandoned houses, commercial spaces and just about any building imaginable and, illegally but perhaps morally justifiably, make it into a home for themselves and their families. The movement was led by the Communist Party of Great Britain who organised large numbers to collectively break into empty buildings. The general mood was sympathetic – and understandably so, the same mood that gave push to the welfare reforms believes people deserved decent conditions even if they had to take it upon themselves to get them against the wishes of the state.
National Coal Board Nationalisations
Manny Shinwell was the minister in charge of nationalisation the coal mines, a policy that the Conservative press campaigned bitterly against. His response was powerful: if they didn’t like it, why didn’t they “come and dig some coal themselves”! At the time 90% of Britain’s electricity came from coal, meaning government control was seen as a big change in its remit.
The extreme cold of the winter of 1947 led to a slow down in the economy. It started on the 23rd January 1947 and lasted months. Coal couldn’t be moved for three months, leading to shutting down of power stations and an increase in unemployment of 2 million people. Plans had to be drawn up in case of mass starvation, including military conscription for agricultural production and taking children out of school to do manual agricultural labour. Luckily this was avoided, but the post-war promise of a ‘new Jerusalem’ seemed doomed. That the following year the welfare state would start seems surprising in this context.
End of Exchange Controls
When the condition attached the the American loan that exchange controls be lifted the economy had another hit. The previous rules limiting taking money out of the country to £5 meant that those who wanted to speculate on the economy couldn’t. Now they could, and they bet against it by changing their pounds for dollars. The effect most people felt from this was that imports suddenly become incredibly expensive compared with previously. The cuts made to the navy to try to help left 840 ships removed from service and Britain with only a single battleship.
The Marshall Plan
The British troops in Greece and Turkey who were fighting against Communists were threatened to be withdrawn to the Americans, at a time when Italy and France had vastly popular Communist Parties and America feared the whole of Europe would become part of the Soviet Union. America responded with the Marshall Plan, massive grants to Europe of which Britain got the largely single amount. This lead to fast growth of the economy.
The Beveridge Report had been published in 1942 calling for comprehensive insurance to solve social problems. While the report’s author was a Liberal, the report would become most associated with Labour’s post war welfare reforms. Indeed when the report was published all parties agreed with its principles but both Labour and the Conservatives had voted against calls to implement it during the war. After the war had ended and with a large majority, the Labour Party now began implementing the proposals.
In the 1945 General Election the Labour Party had campaigning around the issue of reward for six years of hard effort, and the welfare programme is what was envisaged as a suitable answer for the suffering people had gone through to win the war.
It would take several years for the most famous parts of the welfare programme to be introduced, but the Attlee government had previously implemented schemes which had been voted through under the wartime coalition government including the 1944 Education Act and the 1945 Family Allowances Act.
The 1944 Education Act was introduced by R.A. Butler, a Conservative politician, and was designed to provide free education to high school students in three bands (decided by an 11-plus exam). For those who were deemed to be more suited to academic education there was Grammar schools, for those who were seen as more suited to vocations their was Secondary-Technical schools and there was a third type, a Secondary Modern. Athough decided upon during the previous coalition government it came down to the post-war Labour government to implement.
The 1945 Family Allowances Act provided a small amount, five shillings (25p) to mothers for every child, excluding the first.
The welfare programme would consist of four plans to be brought in during the Summer of 1948. On the 4th July 1948 Attlee would make a speech to the nation where he described the four parts of the welfare as ‘the main body of the army of social security’. And that these would provide ‘security to all members of the family’ and be ‘available to every citizen’.
The four parts of the Summer 1948 legislation were as follows:
The National Insurance Act
This created a central fund that all employees and employers would be legally obliged to pay contributions to. From this fund would come the payments made to those who were unemployed, retired or unable to work due to sickness, injury, being widowed or giving birth.
The National Assistance Act
Created National Assistance Boards which would assist those in dire need due to poverty and other hardships.
The Industrial Injuries Act
This act provided insurance for injuries that happened during the working day.
The National Health Service
The most remembered of all the acts, this gave everyone access to free healthcare no matter what their income. It also included dental care, prescriptions and opticians visits. Existing hospitals that were run by local authorities or not for profit would now be centrally co-ordinated, but run by local health boards.
Britain came out of the war still ruling over a quarter of the world’s population. Almost everyone could see the writing was on the wall for this though: the economy suffering so ability to pay for the navy and army to control these countries was running out (in an effort to save money 840 navy ships were taken out of service), the soldiers assigning to these countries had started demobilisation strikes and the treat of mutiny if ordered to fight was real, and their was growing resentment at British rule. In India there were mass protests and strikes over the trials of those who had fought in the India National Army and around those Indians who had mutinied in the Royal Indian Navy against poor conditions and racism. By the 15th August 1947 India had gained independence, although as two states rather than one. A situation which led to mass death and family uprooting.
The British Nationality Act
In an effort to rebuild trust with other nations in the empire, the British Nationality Act was passed allowing any of the 800 million people in the commonwealth to move to Britain. Surprisingly given the xenophobia of much of post-war Britain there was very little opposition to this bill.
European Coal and Steel Community
After resigning as leader of the Labour Part in 1955, Attlee was brought into the House of Lords. He would live until 1967.
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