Why We Need to Talk about Attlee


Why we need to recognise that we are all – in some way – part of ‘Attlee Nation’ and why an ‘Attlee Unity Festival’ to mark his life  will help us all to appreciate and learn from the legacy of a certain kind of leadership that enabled the 1945-51 Labour Government to deliver its transformational policies.

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 World War 2.

The 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.

Not all of Attlee’s government policies were perfect – many rightly criticise aspects of decolonisation; the nuclear deterrent and his failure to abolish public schools.

But the truth remains that every single one of us today still benefits from the extraordinary domestic policy 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?


As in the 1920s and 1930s, so today, we see the same forces at play: political philosophies that serve to transfer public assets and resources to private interests, delivering profits to shareholders while relieving government of its responsibility has proven false economy for the vast majority.

Today, this is seen by moving core social activities like the upgrading of hospitals and schools off the nation’s ‘balance sheet’ (through PFI) to disastrous effect; subsidising the ‘rentier’/landlord class through £27bn worth of taxpayer funded housing benefit while working people can still hardly afford to pay rent; Dickensian style zero hours contracts and the proliferation of food banks;  putting our friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues through humiliating disability means testing.Attlee charity

On the other side of this ideological coin is 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.


There is widespread (convenient for some) political and cultural amnesia surrounding the Attlee administration and legacy.


We are in the new age of austerity. We are told that there is no alternative and despite all the evidence to the contrary, this has become the consensus. Economic performance since 2010 under the Coalition/Conservative’s austerity policies has proven to be the worst recovery since the South Sea Bubble three hundred years ago. National debt has doubled. Inequality is rising fast back to a level last seen before the Great Depression. And deflation is probably here to stay. All this and we still believe that austerity is the only way to get us out of the ‘economic mess’ and the ‘deficit crisis.’  We are witnessing the dismantling of the welfare state, privatisation of the last remaining state enterprises/assets, withdrawal of public services and stopping / cutting public investments. The railway and train services are widely acknowledged to be badly run but the political class to refuse to renationalise the railways, despite public support for this. Similarly industries like banking and energy are allowed to continue business as usual despite blatant systemic failings and rent-seeking behaviours. The financial crisis was caused in large part by the lack of regulation of banks, but somehow with their huge resources and political clout, banks and the complicit mass media have completely turned the thinking around – ‘the problem is public over-spending so the austerity is the answer.’ Even after the Coalition/Conservative’s austerity policies greatly exacerbated the Great Recession, we are still mired in this warped false reality against our own interests for the benefits of the financial elite – in 2015 the UK re-elected a government that is determined to have even less financial regulation.

Meanwhile, multinational corporations and land-owning asset-rich ‘wealth extracting’ billionaires not just evade paying taxes – greatly hindering the state’s ability to fund public investments – but also sabotage our democracy with their money-power. Privatisation, with no clear evidence it is working, is gathering pace. With the media cheer-leading all this, closing down alternative narratives, many of the general public are left with no other option than to genuinely believe in this approach while many more are simply disengaged.

The sad truth is that many in Britain are woefully unaware of its relatively recent post-war history and the British public’s support for the Attlee government as it took on the many vested interests through nationalisation and the creation of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state.

  • OVERCOMING THE ‘CHURCHILL FACTOR’ – HOW WIDELY KNOWN IS IT THAT ATTLEE IS CONSIDERED  TO BE BRITAIN’S GREATEST PRIME MINISTER?   “The twentieth century’s greatest prime minister.” IPSOS-MORI poll of historians and political scientists (2004)

attlee and churchillThe Churchill domination of the war-time and post-war period has played a huge role in consigning Attlee to the margins of British political history.  And the Churchill story show no sign of losing interest for the media across TV, film and publishing. Churchill is kept very much alive in the public mind.

And so an effort to reposition Attlee as an equally ‘great man’ of a very different political complexion, is long over-due. Britain in the Attlee years changed more than under any other government, before or since. The welfare reforms and state control of industry were highly welcomed by the public. There was a sincere sense of the inevitability of social democracy in the years to come.

So, Attlee and his government run a very poor second to the Churchill legacy and yet – and yet – Attlee is more relevant to the current climate today than Churchill, despite being relatively ‘air-brushed’ out of post-war history. Attlee speaks to one important theme- that there is an alternative to current austerity and neoliberalism policies and its roots are in that 1945 government. A 1945 -51 government with its legacy all around us today – yet why, what and how it happened has been forgotten.

British people owe it to themselves to know more about this radical history of early 20th-century British politics and to put Clement Attlee back in his rightful place in history – as a political giant equal in statue to Winston Churchill and in achievement, arguably the greatest British reformist leader.


After the First World War, austerity was the consensus. This led to a deflationary spiral, declining economy, large national debts, high unemployment and widespread poverty. At the end of the Second World War, the national debt level was multiple times of the level after the Financial Crisis when the Coalition declared there was a ‘budget deficit crisis.’ If there ever was a point in time when ‘there is no money left’, that surely would be it.


British politicians Clement Attlee (1883 - 1967, left) and Aneurin Bevan (1897 - 1960) leaving London Airport (now Heathrow) on the first stage of their journey to China, 9th August 1954. They are part of a Labour Party delegation visiting China, the first official party from the West to visit the People's Republic. (Photo by Meager/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Nevertheless, Attlee’s Labour Party was voted into government with overwhelming majority on the basis of progressive policies. The Attlee government greatly expanded the welfare state, founded the National Health Service, nationalised a large number of industries, such as railways, electricity and gas, and facilitated the independence of former colonies of the British Empire. Despite being in the most difficult of times, his government laid down the foundation for the subsequent rapidly rising living standard, decreasing inequality and growing prosperity.

Britain has a long proud history of social justice movements – abolitionism, women’s suffrage, the Co-operative movement and Labour Movement to name just a few.  Now more than ever is the time to carry on the baton. If we do not learn from history and change course, we are heading into dark times.


labour manifesto 1945

Below is an excerpt from the 1945 Labour Manifesto.  It speaks to conditions and needs today.

(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.