Clement Attlee, the son of a solicitor, was born in Putney in 1883. Educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford he became a barrister in 1906. Attlee developed an interest in social problems while doing voluntary work at a boy's club in Stepney. Converted to socialism by reading the works of John Ruskin and William Morris, he joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908.
After working in a series of temporary jobs, he met Sidney Webb, who arranged for him to teach social administration at the London School of Economics. "I was not appointed on the score of academic qualification, but because I was considered to have a good practical knowledge of social conditions."
In 1914 Attlee joined the British Army and served in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia , where he was badly wounded at El Hanna. After recovering back in England, Attlee was sent to France in 1918 and served on the Western Front for the last few months of the war. By the end of the First World War Attlee reached the rank of major.
In the 1922 General Election he was elected Labour MP for Limehouse in London. Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the party in the House of Commons, recruited Attlee as his parliamentary secretary (1922-24). In the 1924 Labour Government Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War.
After the Labour Party victory in the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Attlee as postmaster-general. However, like most ministers, Attlee refused to serve in the National Government formed by MacDonald in 1931. Attlee was one of the few Labour MPs to win his seat in the 1931 General Election and became deputy leader of the party under George Lansbury. "On going to the first Party Meeting after the Election, I had a message from Arthur Henderson that George Lansbury would be proposed as Leader and myself as Deputy. These nominations went through without opposition." Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977) has argued that Arthur Henderson "may have been concerned that the vague and emotional Lansbury should be balanced by the practical and efficient Attlee."
When George Lansbury retired in 1935 Attlee became the new leader of the Labour Party. At that time the Conservative government feared the spread of communism from the Soviet Union to the rest of Europe. Stanley Baldwin, the British prime minister, shared this concern and was fairly sympathetic to the military uprising in Spain against the left-wing Popular Front government.
Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, initially agreed to send aircraft and artillery to help the Republican Army in Spain. However, after coming under pressure from Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden in Britain, and the more right-wing members of his own cabinet, he changed his mind.
In the House of Commons on 29th October 1936, Attlee, Philip Noel-Baker and Arthur Greenwood argued against the government policy of Non-Intervention. As Noel-Baker pointed out: "We protest with all our power against the sham, the hypocritical sham, that it now appears to be." During the Spanish Civil War he supported the British volunteers fighting against General Francisco Franco and visited the International Brigades on the front-line in December 1937.
In 1940 Attlee joined the coalition government headed by Winston Churchill. He was virtually deputy Prime Minister although this post did not formally become his until 1942. It was afterwards claimed that during the Second World War Attlee worked as a restraining influence on some of Churchill's more wilder schemes.
During the Second World War some some MPs believed that Herbert Morrison should replace Clement Attlee as leader of the Labour Party. The leader of the plot was his mistress, Ellen Wilkinson. A fellow Cabinet Minister, Hugh Dalton wrote in his diary on 28th October, 1942. "Ellen Wilkinson came to dine with me.... She is still a most devoted worshipper of Herbert Morrison, and puts me second. What she would like would be Morrison to lead the Party and me to be his deputy. She would like us two to go into the War Cabinet, putting out Attlee and Cripps. The difficulty about all such plans is that the right moment never arrives to put them into execution!" Emanuel Shinwell warned Attlee about this plot when he promoted Wilkinson to the post of Minister of Education: " I mentioned to Attlee that a number of plotters had been given jobs. He laughed, perfectly well aware of what had been going on. It is not bad tactics to make one's enemies one's servants.
In 1945 Morrison was given responsibility for drafting the Labour Party manifesto that included the blueprints for the nationalization and welfare programmes. "The Labour Party is a socialist party and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose at home is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain - free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organized in the service of the British people." Morrison explained in An Autobiography (1960): "We had not been afraid to be frank about our plans. There would be public ownership of fuel and power, transport, the Bank of England, civil aviation, and iron and steel. We proposed a housing programme dealt with in relation to good town planning. We promised to put the 1944 Education Act into practical operation. We said that wealth would no longer be the passport to the best health treatment. We promised that a Labour Government would extend social insurance over the widest field."
Margaret Thatcher thought the manifesto was an extremist document: "The 1945 Labour manifesto was in fact a very left-wing document. That is clearer now than it was then. Straight after the war much of the talk of planning and state control echoed wartime rhetoric, and so its full implications were not grasped. In fact, it was a root and branch assault on business, capitalism and the market... The state was regarded as uniquely competent to judge where resources should and should not be employed in the national interest. It was not solely or even primarily on social grounds that nationalization, controls and planning were advanced, but on economic grounds. Harmful monopolies were seen as occurring only in the private sector... Most radical of all, perhaps, was the Labour Party's attitude to land, where it was made clear that compulsory purchase by local authorities was only the beginning of a wider programme."
In May 1945, Winston Churchill made a radio broadcast where he attacked the Labour Party: "I must tell you that a socialist policy is abhorrent to British ideas on freedom. There is to be one State, to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State, once in power, will prescribe for everyone: where they are to work, what they are to work at, where they may go and what they may say, what views they are to hold, where their wives are to queue up for the State ration, and what education their children are to receive. A socialist state could not afford to suffer opposition - no socialist system can be established without a political police. They (the Labour government) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo."
Attlee's response the following day caused Churchill serious damage: "The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life."
In the 1945 General Election Attlee led the Labour Party to its largest victory at the polls. During his six years in office he carried through a vigorous programme of reform. The Bank of England, the coal mines, civil aviation, cable and wireless services, gas, electricity, railways, road transport and steel were nationalized. The National Health Service was introduced and independence was granted to India in 1947.
One of Attlee's ministers, Harold Wilson, commented: "He was in full control of himself, his Cabinet and the House. His answers in Parliament were concise and clear, with a tight little sense of humour. In the first debate of the 1945 Parliament, referring to Churchill as his Right Honourable Friend, he paid an unstinted tribute to his predecessor's war leadership. But he could be sharp with his former colleague.... His speeches in Parliament were usually very short. Members of the Cabinet summoned to brief him, or calling on some other issue, would find him upstairs in the flat, picking out his text with two fingers on a non-standard keyboard, probably dating from his days as a social worker in Stepney. He would bring Cabinet discussion to a brisk close, before producing a clear summing-up in very few words. Cabinet business was carried through with brevity and discussions kept firmly to the point."