Attlee Then and Now


From 1945 to the present day – conditions no so different?

If you lived in 1925, 1935, 1945 or 1985, 1995, 2015 – you might find that, in many fundamental ways, our societies were not so far apart and the presence (or absence)  of government (regulation and investment) is central.

Notwithstanding  21st century  phenomena such as social media and 24 hour news cycle, debt-driven consumerism and wilful environmental destruction,  there is much that connects conditions today to those of past decades such as

  • appalling social deprivation and growing inequality
  • a need  to find the political will to end the ever-rapid break down in the social fabric with pro-poor, pro-public services policies
  • the urgent need for imaginative, modernising economic thinking that offers each and every person the opportunity to fulfil their potential in work and recreation.

So if, as Shakespeare said, ‘the past is prologue’ – what does the Attlee story have to tell us about our political ‘plight’ today?

Clement Attlee recognised and addressed all these issues. He came of political age working in the slums of Stepney after serving in WW1 and this experience shaped his entire political life.  He was Deputy Prime Minster throughout the war years and in 1945 he defeated a conservative party led by Churchill thanks to a radical transformative Labour manifesto. Despite a shattered post-war economy, he borrowed money to invest in creating a public sector and, in effect, the redistribution of wealth.

All this was achieved in the face  of opposition from a variety of powerful commercial vested interests as well as a press that despised him – yet Attlee would push through monumental changes in British society that resonate through to today.


Clement_Attlee“There are those who convincingly argue that Clement Attlee ‘was the greatest change-maker who ever occupied 10 Downing Street’.”   Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee Labour’s Great Reformer
He was. Yet this was achieved despite continued attempts to remove him as leader. In 1935, on the night Attlee was elected as Labour Party leader, a bitterly disappointed Hugh Dalton wrote in his diary: ‘And a little mouse shall lead them.’ Ellen Wilkinson said ‘Stars are as necessary to a political party as to a film. Attlee was not a star.

Attlee was no mouse nor did he need star power.


By the time Attlee fought his first general election as leader in 1936, quite a few Labour MPs were finding it hard to forgive him for being unobtrusive and a little too left-wing for comfort.

The next year, Attlee published The Labour Party in Perspective, and offered his reasoning in a vintage Attlee passage

I find that the proposition often reduces itself to this – that if the Labour Party would drop its socialism and adopt a Liberal platform, many Liberals would be pleased to support it. I have heard it said more than once that if Labour would only drop its policy of nationalisation everyone would be pleased, and it would soon obtain a majority. I am convinced it would be fatal for the Labour Party … People who say socialism curtails individual liberty belong invariably to the class of people whose possession of property has given them liberty at the expense of the enslavement of others … A far greater restriction on liberty is imposed on the vast majority of the people of this country by poverty… How little would those who so easily recommend this to the workers appreciate being transferred from their pleasant homes in Surrey or Buckinghamshire to Whitechapel or the Black Country?

This all has a remarkably modern-day resonance.


Between the war years, Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister, running the domestic economy.  Churchill has since come to dominate the post-war history landscape in the UK and Attlee is little is spoken of. While Churchill and Attlee worked well and closely together, by the time of 1945 general election, these two men would stand for vastly different visions of post-war Britain. Their manifestos spoke to this – and it was the progressive, socially transformative Labour Party manifesto that swept Attlee and his government into office.

The attempts by Churchill to paint Attlee and Labour as totalitarian backfired.  In 1945, the public saw through the fear-mongering and said ‘no’ to Churchill.

“No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.”  June 4th 1945

Attlee replied the next day

“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.”

Seventy years later,  it seems we are returning our society to the same conditions as prevailed in 1945 where wealth and power reside in the hands of the few and the role of government is to de-regulate and privatise.



Between 1945 until 1951, Attlee led the government which created the National Health Service, made Britain’s first and only serious assault on poverty and built most of the features of the welfare state. 

Before the Attlee government, working-class parents could not afford the doctor, and relied on folk remedies – old wives tales – to treat their children’s ailments. Before the First World War, 163 of every 1,000 children died before their first birthday. The figure was twice as high for working-class children .Of those who survived, one in four did not live beyond the age of four. Infant mortality is four per 1,000 today….In the early weeks of the National Health Service in 1948, consultants reported shoals of women coming in with internal organs that had been prolapsed for years, and men with long undiagnosed hernias and lung diseases.

In the Thirties, my grandmother, widowed by the First World War, kept a tin on a shelf into which she put every spare coin she could, against the day when one of her children might need the doctor. She was a rather wise old lady, so I felt a sense of shock when, as a teenager, I received a letter from her, and realised she wrote like a five-year-old. Like millions of her generation, she was never taught to write properly. Working-class children in the 1930s seldom had enough to eat and received just enough education to enable them to do routine work. A father out of work meant a family near starvation.   Francis Beckett Clem Attlee, Labour’s Great Reformer

Attlee had absolutely no doubt about the programme of social transformation he wanted to bring to bear.  Despite a war-ravaged economy, he introduced a full-blooded welfare state (while others were urging caution) and in the face of opposition from the medical and commercial establishments and national press, Attlee’s support for Nye Bevan’s proposals for a National Health Service never wavered. If it had, many argue we wouldn’t have one. The Attlee settlement of 1945-51 gave working people leisure, healthcare, education and security for the first time and was the first generation for which university education was not a privilege of wealth.

What if?

What if the Conservatives had won the 1945 election, would this ‘revolution’ have happened?  No. What if Labour had elected a different leader? Would less have been done under a different Labour leader? Almost certainly.

And now?


Since the Thatcher era, we have witnessed the wholesale sell-off of the British family silver: privatisation of strategic important national assets – steel, telecom, energy and railways; the decimation of the then first-class industries – pharmaceuticals, chemicals, cars, power generation, machine tools, shipbuilding, steel, textiles, consumer electronics and IT – a transfer of public assets to the unaccountable 1%. Devastating cuts to public house building and demolition of social housing by transferring them to the rentier class on the cheap. The ongoing assault on the state education system – the privatisation by stealth through academisation, the re-introduction of grammar schools and tax breaks for public schools. A separate rule of law for the rich: tax breaks and cuts for the wealthiest,while the ever-increasing precarious nature of insecure employment and unsafe working conditions become commonplace. All this as record numbers of families are forced to use food banks.

These would all be signs to Attlee that we have returned to the territory he would recognise.

The last vestige of the Attlee settlement still clinging to life is the NHS – but for how much longer?

Will we have to return to pre-1945 conditions – no public health care, appalling housing conditions, food and fuel poverty – before we realise we need to re-invent the Attlee-government ‘wheel’?


Note: The above text is heavily based on Francis Beckett’s ‘Clem Attlee – Labour’s great Reformer’ (2015).


labour manifesto 1945

An excerpt from the 1945 Labour Manifesto.

(In the inter-war years)  ‘the “hard-faced men” and their political friends kept control of the Government. They controlled the banks, the mines, the big industries, largely the press and the cinema. They controlled the means by which the people got their living. They controlled the ways by which most of the people learned about the world outside. This happened in all the big industrialised countries.

Great economic blizzards swept the world in those years. The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.

Similar forces are at work today. The interests have not been able to make the same profits out of this war as they did out of the last. The determined propaganda of the Labour Party, helped by other progressive forces, had its effect in “taking the profit out of war”. The 100% Excess Profits Tax, the controls over industry and transport, the fair rationing of food and control of prices – without which the Labour Party would not have remained in the Government – these all helped to win the war. With these measures the country has come nearer to making “fair shares” the national rule than ever before in its history.

But the war in the East is not yet over. There are grand pickings still to be had. A short boom period after the war, when savings, gratuities and post-war credits are there to be spent, can make a profiteer’s paradise. But Big Business knows that this will happen only if the people vote into power the party which promises to get rid of the controls and so let the profiteers and racketeers have that freedom for which they are pleading eloquently on every Tory platform and in every Tory newspaper.

They accuse the Labour Party of wishing to impose controls for the sake of control. That is not true, and they know it. What is true is that the anti-controllers and anti-planners desire to sweep away public controls, simply in order to give the profiteering interests and the privileged rich an entirely free hand to plunder the rest of the nation as shamelessly as they did in the nineteen-twenties.

Does freedom for the profiteer mean freedom for the ordinary man and woman, whether they be wage-earners or small business or professional men or housewives? Just think back over the depressions of the 20 years between the wars, when there were precious few public controls of any kind and the Big Interests had things all their own way. Never was so much injury done to so many by so few. Freedom is not an abstract thing. To be real it must be won, it must be worked for.

The Labour Party stands for order as against the chaos which would follow the end of all public control. We stand for order, for positive constructive progress as against the chaos of economic do-as-they-please anarchy.

The nation needs a tremendous overhaul, a great programme of modernisation and re-equipment of its homes, its factories and machinery, its schools, its social services.

All parties say so – the Labour Party means it. For the Labour Party is prepared to achieve it by drastic policies and keeping a firm constructive hand on our whole productive machinery; the Labour Party will put the community first and the sectional interests of private business after. Labour will plan from the ground up – giving an appropriate place to constructive enterprise and private endeavour in the national plan, but dealing decisively with those interests which would use high-sounding talk about economic freedom to cloak their determination to put themselves and their wishes above those of the whole nation.