Attlee Nation

“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim”
— Clement Attlee

This is a project developed by TPNS embracing a festival – an Attlee Festival – framed by a wider public awareness campaign we call ‘Attlee Nation’. Intended for all generations, it wants to illustrate how, 70 years ago, politicians did push back powerful vested interests for a caring social democracy as Clement Attlee’s government oversaw the largest and most wide-ranging domestic social reform programme. Despite being in the most difficult of times, his 1945-51 administration borrowed, invested and nationalised in order to lay down the foundation for the welfare state and the NHS; expanding public housing and revitalising core industries. All this delivered a rapid rise in living standards, decreasing inequality and growing prosperity.

“Attlee’s political genius was to give people a sense of hope, a clear route map out of depression, war and austerity towards the social and economic justice they craved. His government rebuilt Britain, and the next government needs the political courage to do the same – including giving working people a voice so we can help build a more equal, more democratic country. We must not miss the chance again.”
— Frances O’Grady, Gen Sec TUC (The Guardian, 26/4/13)

Attlee set the ‘terms of reference’ for progressive domestic policy for the next 70 years. While many older citizens know this history, many others do not. What lessons we can bring forward for today’s ‘austerity’ debate? How do we ensure that the ‘terms of reference’ for the next 70 years are just as ambitious; that they rebuild the legacy by pushing back those economic interests that would ultimately destroy this legacy?  How do we prize and protect the notion of ‘generosity to the future’ so powerfully embodied in the Attlee administration?

Attlee was “the twentieth century’s greatest prime minister’’ according to an IPSOS-MORI poll of historians and political scientists (2004)

If you have heard of Churchill, then you should also know about Attlee. And if you don’t know much at all, check the history, and ask why?

Our first Attlee Festival was hosted by Sands Films Studios, Rotherhithe, London. ‘Attlee Remembered’ takes place on 7th and 8th October, marking 50 years since Attlee’s death on 7 October 1967


We are still – just about – the beneficiaries of the ‘Attlee settlement’. But the cord that connects us to it is very, very close to breaking once and for all.

Between July 1945 and October 1951, the Attlee government oversaw the creation of the NHS; one million homes built; 1000 schools built & 25,000 new teachers; introduced fair wage and employment conditions; introduced child benefit, disability benefit, social insurance, sickness pay, maternity pay; and created National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England and Wales, giving  the public rights of way and access to open land. All these were accomplished while servicing the unprecedented public debt accumulated as a result of the second world war.

Attlee achievmentThe foundations laid by Attlee and his government were built upon – not destroyed – by the next 13 years of Tory government. After that, the legacy continued with Harold Wilson – Attlee’s President of the Board of Trade at the age of 31.  The Wilson-led Labour Government of 1964-1970 continued the progressive domestic policy – more housing; they rolled out comprehensive education and created the Open University. Under the first Wilson government, for the first time in British history, more money was allocated to education than to defence. They liberalised laws on censorship, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality; abolished capital punishment; and crucial steps were taken towards stopping discrimination against women and ethnic minorities.

Every single one of us in 2016 still benefits from the extraordinary effort made in 1945 – 51 by politicians who believed it was the role of government to create economic and social conditions for the continued, progressive raising of standards – more inclusivity, not less; more investment, not less; public services for all, not privatised provision. How many of us know this? How many of us know what’s at stake once this legacy is abandoned?


celebrates the social cohesion that comes from investing in our people and our public services.

It therefore rejects political philosophies that serve to transfer public assets and resources to private interests; it rejects those political choices that seek to deliver profits to shareholders while relieving government of its responsibility.

Attlee charityThis practise has proven false economy for the vast majority. Moving core social activities like the upgrading of hospitals and schools off the nation’s ‘balance sheet’ (through PFI) has been disastrous; subsidising the ‘rentier’/landlord class through £27bn worth of taxpayer funded housing benefit while working people can still hardly afford to pay rent, is utterly immoral; Dickensian style zero hours contracts and the proliferation of food banks should be consigned to the dustbin;  putting our friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues through humiliating disability means testing should never have been on any government’s agenda, but it was.

[Note: The Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 was the ultimate, terrible, consequence of a culmination of these policies. As one commentator said, they ‘cladding over poverty’ rather than actually address housing poverty. All this in the richest borough in the UK.]

And what’s on the other side of this ideological coin? Tax dodging for corporate and wealthy; sky-high property prices; the disgusting image of a banker driving one of his fleet of gold plated sports cars around London; and a political class financially cut loose from their voters – in 2009, Boris Johnson called his £250,000 annual fee for a weekly column ‘knocked off’ on a Sunday morning in the Daily Telegraph, as ‘chicken feed’. He was also earning £160,000 p/a as London Mayor.

ATTLEE NATION wants to say ‘lest we forget’. It says poverty and division are man-made – but it was once reversed and can be again. It asks if we did it in 1945, can’t we do it now?. It says ‘What if?’ What if we let this present-day neoliberal economic story continue down this road for another five or ten years? How irreversible will the damage to the social fabric be?

We have let ourselves revert to Victorian levels of inequality. The very same kind of inequality that spurred Attlee and his 1945 govt to take drastic action. We are the 5th largest economy in the world. We need policies that take forward, not backward and we do have the resources to do it. We just need to choose to do it. ATTLEE NATION needs to rise again.


There is deep cultural and political amnesia on the topic of Attlee and his government.

The 1945-51 administration was every bit as transformative for the UK as the New Deal was for the USA under Roosevelt, yet the wider public are blissfully ignorant of this legacy, eclipsed as it is, by the personality of Churchill .

The UK is long overdue in recognising the breadth and depth of the profound and long-reaching change the  country underwent Attlee.

In post-war 1945 Britain, Attlee took the steps that finally fixed the the capitalist crisis for the country – one that began decades earlier and culminated with WW2.

The Attlee Festival and Nation  project wants this much forgotten and poorly understood chapter in our social, economic and political history to be celebrated.

And to be re-told for our 21st century society heading towards the demise of neoliberalism and multiple threats to global security.