Clement Attlee: 1919-1939

Clement Attlee

On 16th January 1919, Clement Attlee left the British Army. He went straight to the Haileybury Club, where he hoped to take up residence again. He found it was boarded up and had fallen into disuse and therefore he returned to teaching at the London School of Economics. Attlee also became active in the Limehouse Labour Party and leased Norway House, at 638 Commercial Road. This became his home as well as party headquarters. In local elections the party called for the municipalisation of food supplies, markets, cinemas, theatres, meat, milk and dairy commodities. It also argued for the building of more public libraries, art galleries and museums. (1)

Attlee joined forces with Oscar Tobin, a Jewish refugee from Romania, who had qualified as a doctor. He believed that by combining local trade unionists, ILP members and other Labour supporters could gain control of Stepney Borough Council and win its three parliamentary seats, Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel. However, to achieve this, it would be necessary for the two ethnic communities in the East End - the Jews and the Irish - to put aside their mutual distrust and work together. This meant that Attlee and Tobin had to persuade the most influential Irish Catholic trade unionist in the area, Matt Aylward, to join the campaign. They formed the Stepney Trade Council and in its annual report in 1919, Tobin wrote: "For many years Stepney has been the black spot of the Labour movement... It was the most reactionary borough in London." (2)

The Labour Party in Stepney came under attack from the Conservative Party MP, Major Reginald Blair, who feared the growth of socialism and tried to link them with the Bolsheviks who had gained power during the Russian Revolution. Blair described them as "the brothers of the Russian Bolsheviks, and had done everything to protect the Bolsheviks in their attempt to found a Russian Socialist State." (3)

The result of the borough elections transformed the area. Of the 60 seats for Stepney, 43 Labour councillors were returned. There had been none before. In the Limehouse division, the Labour Party won all 15 seats. Although he had not won a seat to the borough council, the victorious Labour members proposed to make him mayor of Stepney. With the few remaining Conservatives complaining about the unprecedented move, Major Attlee was effectively co-opted into the position by the unanimous support of the Labour councillors. It was argued that his military and middle class background would be more acceptable to those ratepayers who feared the Labour Party was under the influence of foreign revolutionaries. (4)

Attlee was proud of the council's record during his mayoral year. He was able at last to do something about the slum landlords who charged exorbitant rents but refused to spend money on keeping their property in a habitable condition. The council served more than 40,000 legal notices on house-owners to repair their property, and made sure these orders were enforced. It appointed sanitary inspectors and health visitors, started ante-natal clinics, provided free milk for more than 6,000 families, and reduced the infant mortality rate. It set up an advice bureaux to advise tenants of their rights. To pay for this they increased the rates and also raised £200,000 by increasing taxes on local public houses. (5)

In 1920 Clement Attlee published his book, Social Worker (1920) where he outlined his views on how to deal with the problem of poverty: "In a civilized community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways - they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organized community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community... Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice." (6)

Clement Attlee and the 1922 General Election

In the 1918 General Election, a large number of the Labour leaders who opposed the First World War lost their seats. This included Arthur Henderson, Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden, George Lansbury and Fred Jowett. At the Labour Conference that year they decided to make a statement of objectives. This included: "To secure for the producers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry, and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible, upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry and service." (7)

The new Labour Party Constitution had been drafted by Sidney Webb. It presented the case for a minimum standard of life for all, for full employment, public ownership and greater equality. (8) G.D.H. Cole described the Constitution as "an historic document of the greatest significance" because "it unequivocally committed the Labour Party to Socialist objectives". (9) Attlee agreed and called it "an uncompromisingly Socialist document." (10)

Clement Attlee was selected as the for Labour candidate for the Limehouse constituency. John Beckett became his election agent. The local newspaper, East London Observer, praised his war record and commented on his style of public speaking. His voice was "penetrating, and he never makes hushed whispers nor swallows his words". He spoke in "intensely, concentrated, firm - almost curt - precise, and unmistakable sentences". His style resembled the slamming of a railway carriage door, "so that the person on the wrong side is nonplussed, and before he can recover mental balance the opportunity has passed." (11)

Attlee condemned the government led by David Lloyd George for breaking the promises made during the 1918 General Election campaign. In a speech he made at a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control, he recalled: "When I was in the army I used to take occasion to chat with the men and with the officers, particularly with the men, and I have often asked the men what they went to fight for. I always got the same answer: they were fighting for something far bigger than King or Country. They believed, and we believed, that they were fighting for the good of the whole world. That is where the government betrayal comes in." (12)

In another speech Attlee explained why he refused to take part in a recruiting campaign for the Territorial Army: "After four years of active service I have seen every ideal I fought for betrayed in the Paris Peace Conference." (13) He even went as far as to say: "Personally I think the time has come when we ought to do away with all armies and all war." (14) At the 1923 Labour Conference he claimed that if he was elected to the House of Commons he would vote against all military expenditure. (15)

Clement Attlee leading a deputation of unemployed men (18th October, 1920)
Clement Attlee leading a deputation of unemployed men (18th October, 1920)

On 10th January 1922, Clement Attlee, aged 39, married Violet Millar, aged 25. She was the daughter of H. E. Millar, a Conservative Party supporting businessman from Hampstead Village. As he confessed to his sister Mary, he was "mad as a March hare with joy". She reported that he was "transformed" and "tremendously in love". Attlee joked that there was a similarity between his love life and the Labour movement: "waiting some time, before it came unto his own". Clement and Violet Attlee were to have three daughters and a son during the course of a devoted marriage. (16)

At a meeting on 18th October, 1922, two younger members of the government, Stanley Baldwin and Leo Amery, urged the Conservative Party to remove David Lloyd George from power. Andrew Bonar Law disagreed as he believed that he should remain loyal to the Prime Minister. Two other senior ministers, Austen Chamberlain and Arthur Balfour also defended the coalition. However, it was a passionate speech by Baldwin: "The Prime Minister was described this morning in The Times, in the words of a distinguished aristocrat, as a live wire. He was described to me and others in more stately language by the Lord Chancellor as a dynamic force. I accept those words. He is a dynamic force and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in our opinion, arise. A dynamic force is a terrible thing. It may crush you but it is not necessarily right." The motion to withdraw from the coalition was carried by 187 votes to 87. (17)

David Lloyd George was forced to resign and call a General Election. In his election address Clement Attlee stated that "I stand for life against wealth. I claim the right of every man, woman and child in the land to have the best life that can be provided. Instead of the exploitation of the mass of the people in the interests of a small rich class, I demand the organization of the country will be owned by the nation and used for the benefit of the country." (18)

In the 1922 General Election Attlee defeated the sitting Liberal MP, William Pearce, by 1,899 votes The Conservatives had a majority of 85 seats but the Labour Party had gained 68 seats to take it up to 137 (and 29.7 per cent of the overall vote). It was now the largest party in Scotland and its vote in London was up 128 per cent, from 146,468 to 333,035. The result meant that the Labour Party was the second strongest party and became His Majesty's official opposition in Parliament. Attlee commented that it was a victory for socialism over liberalism: "Whenever we fought on the full programme of the Socialist movement, there we won." (19)

Clement Attlee made his maiden speech in the House of Commons of 23rd November, 1922, on the subject of unemployment. "In my district every day men are coming to me whom I have known years ago, and I see how they have fallen off through unemployment. You see men who were fit to be sergeant-majors in the Army - fine, upstanding men - reduced to dragging along the streets with their hands out for anything they can get. That is an enormous waste. It is not only waste, but absolute folly. We are told, and I believe it, that there is sympathy on the other side with the unemployed. I do not suppose that anyone on the benches opposite is going to get up and say that he is prepared to put the unemployed men, and their wives and families, into a lethal chamber and kill them. I think that everyone on all sides is agreed that they are to be kept alive, and the only question we have to face is whether they are going to be kept alive in fine and fit condition, or upon a dole which means that they are going steadily downhill. when unemployment was practically non-existent was the time of the War; and, despite all the rationing, despite all the food substitutes, on the whole the living conditions of our people were actually better during the War period." (20)

Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee

At a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on 21st November, 1922, Emanuel Shinwell proposed Ramsay MacDonald should become chairman instead of John R. Clynes, who had held the position since 1918. David Kirkwood, a fellow Labour MP, commented: "His voice was rugged, but soft, and, as he spoke, there came into it a throb. It was the natural instrument of an orator. Standing upright, he was a splendid figure of a man, and his appearance of height and strength was increased by his habit of rising on his toes and throwing back his head..... Nature had dealt unevenly with them. She had endowed MacDonald with a magnificent presence, a full resonant voice, and a splendid dignity. Clynes was small, unassuming, of uneven features, and voice without colour." (21)

Fenner Brockway, who worked with MacDonald in the peace movement during the war also supported him against Clynes: "Ramsay MacDonald was a born leader, with a commanding personality and a magnificent presence; the most handsome man in public life. He was a great orator whose deep, resonant voice and sweeping gestures added to the force of his words." (22) John Beckett described him as having a "handsome face" with a "organ-like voice". After much discussion, John R. Clynes received 56 votes to MacDonald's 61. Clynes, "with characteristic generosity, declared that the whole party was determined to support the new leader". (23)

Clement Attlee also supported MacDonald over Clynes. "I had been a great admirer of many years." MacDonald was also aware of Attlee's talents and considered appointing him as his parliamentary secretary. He asked Clynes: "I have heard good accounts of a fellow named Attlee; do you think he will do it?" (24) Attlee accepted and Jack Lawson was later to argue that he did the job very successfully. "The personal pronoun doesn't exist for him. He (Attlee) is objective; and appears to be free of many common human weaknesses… And loyalty is the very core of him… Speaking as one who knows him as intimately as anyone outside of his household, I can say he is the most selfless man I have ever known, unshakeable in his loyalty to friends and colleagues and motivated by a deep and profound sympathy for the humble men and women who do the ordinary tasks of the world." (25)

On 17th May, 1923, Andrew Bonar Law was told he was suffering from cancer of the throat, and gave him six months to live. Five days later he resigned and was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. It was a difficult time for the government and it was faced with growing economic problems. This included a high-level of unemployment. Baldwin believed that protectionist tariffs would revive industry and employment. However, Bonar Law had pledged in 1922 that there would be no changes in tariffs in the present parliament. Baldwin came to the conclusion that he needed a General Election to unite his party behind this new policy. On 12th November, Baldwin asked the king to dissolve parliament. (26)

During the election campaign, Baldwin made it clear that he intended to impose tariffs on some imported goods: "What we propose to do for the assistance of employment in industry, if the nation approves, is to impose duties on imported manufactured goods, with the following objects: (i) to raise revenue by methods less unfair to our own home production which at present bears the whole burden of local and national taxation, including the cost of relieving unemployment; (ii) to give special assistance to industries which are suffering under unfair foreign competition; (iii) to utilize these duties in order to negotiate for a reduction of foreign tariffs in those directions which would most benefit our export trade; (iv) to give substantial preference to the Empire on the whole range of our duties with a view to promoting the continued extension of the principle of mutual preference which has already done so much for the expansion of our trade, and the development, in co-operation with the other Governments of the Empire, of the boundless resources of our common heritage." (27)

The Labour Party election manifesto completely rejected this argument: "The Labour Party challenges the Tariff policy and the whole conception of economic relations underlying it. Tariffs are not a remedy for Unemployment. They are an impediment to the free interchange of goods and services upon which civilized society rests. They foster a spirit of profiteering, materialism and selfishness, poison the life of nations, lead to corruption in politics, promote trusts and monopolies, and impoverish the people. They perpetuate inequalities in the distribution of the world's wealth won by the labour of hands and brain. These inequalities the Labour Party means to remove." (28)

In the 1923 General Election, the Labour Party won 191 seats. Attlee had an increased majority of 6,000. David Marquand has pointed out that: "The new parliamentary Labour Party was a very different body from the old one. In 1918, 48 Labour M.P.s had been sponsored by trade unions, and only three by the ILP. Now about 100 members belonged to the ILP, while 32 had actually been sponsored by it, as against 85 who had been sponsored by trade unions.... In Parliament, it could present itself for the first time as the movement of opinion rather than of class." (29)

Although the Conservative Party had 258 seats, Herbert Asquith announced that the Liberal Party would not keep the Tories in office. If a Labour Government were ever to be tried in Britain, he declared, "it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". The Daily Mail warned about the dangers of a Labour government and the Daily Herald commented on the "Rothermere press as a frantic attempt to induce Mr Asquith to combine with the Tories to prevent a Labour Government assuming office". (30) John R. Clynes, the former leader of the Labour Party, argued: "Our enemies are not afraid we shall fail in relation to them. They are afraid that we shall succeed." (31)

On 22nd January, 1924 Stanley Baldwin resigned. At midday, the 57 year-old, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to be appointed prime minister. He later recalled how George V complained about the singing of the Red Flag and the La Marseilles, at the Labour Party meeting in the Albert Hall a few days before. MacDonald apologized but claimed that there would have been a riot if he had tried to stop it. (32)

MacDonald agreed to head a minority government, and therefore became the first member of the party to become prime minister. He had the problem of forming a Cabinet with colleagues who had little, or no administrative experience. Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War and served under the cabinet minister, Stephen Walsh. Now that he was at the War Office, he immediately resigned his membership of the Union of Democratic Control. (33)

Political Career: 1924-1929

The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter on 25th October 1924, just four days before the 1924 General Election. Under the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists Masters" it argued: "Moscow issues orders to the British Communists... the British Communists in turn give orders to the Socialist Government, which it tamely and humbly obeys... Now we can see why Mr MacDonald has done obeisance throughout the campaign to the Red Flag with its associations of murder and crime. He is a stalking horse for the Reds as Kerensky was... Everything is to be made ready for a great outbreak of the abominable class war which is civil war of the most savage kind." (34)

Dora Russell, whose husband, Bertrand Russell, was standing for the Labour Party in Chelsea, commented: "The Daily Mail carried the story of the Zinoviev letter. The whole thing was neatly timed to catch the Sunday papers and with polling day following hard on the weekend there was no chance of an effective rebuttal, unless some word came from MacDonald himself, and he was down in his constituency in Wales. Without hesitation I went on the platform and denounced the whole thing as a forgery, deliberately planted on, or by, the Foreign Office to discredit the Prime Minister." (35)

Ramsay MacDonald suggested he was a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (36)

The rest of the Tory owned newspapers ran the story of what became known as the Zinoviev Letter over the next few days and it was no surprise when the election was a disaster for the Labour Party. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told Lord Rothermere, the owner of The Daily Mail and The Times, that the "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere replied that it was probably worth a hundred seats. (37)

David Low was a Labour Party supporter who was appalled by the tactics used by the Tory press in the 1924 General Election: "Elections have never been completely free from chicanery, of course, but this one was exceptional. There were issues - unemployment, for instance, and trade. There were legitimate secondary issues - whether or not Russia should be afforded an export loan to stimulate trade. In the event these issues were distorted, pulped, and attached as appendix to a mysterious document subsequently held by many creditable persons to be a forgery, and the election was fought on 'red panic' (The Zinoviev Letter)". (38)

After the defeat Clement Attlee decided to give his full support to MacDonald's attempts to position the Labour Party as a centre party. This meant him distancing himself from the socialism and pacifism of his former mentor, George Lansbury. He now left some of his old post-war radicalism behind him. He argued that Lansbury was "a man of his time" with "the moral earnestness of the Victorians" but "it was not for him to plan in detail the New Jerusalem, but by example as well as precept to show people the way of life which they must follow if a new society was to be built on firm foundations." (39)

Attlee shared MacDonald's view on the General Strike that took place in 1926. He feared that radical, particularly communist elements, might manipulate the crisis in a way that would damage the Labour Party's hard-won reputation for moderation. The day the strike was called, Attlee convened an emergency meeting of the committee to deal with the practical problem of ensuring, without undermining the strike, that Stepney's hospitals still had power. He obtained TUC agreement that Stepney's members of the Electrical Trades Union would work in order to supply light for the borough and power for hospitals only. (40)

In 1927 the British Government passed the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act. This act made all sympathetic strikes illegal, ensured the trade union members had to voluntarily 'contract in' to pay the political levy to the Labour Party, forbade Civil Service unions to affiliate to the TUC, and made mass picketing illegal. Attlee argued in parliament that "it is an out-of-date idea to think we can do without collective organization at the present day." (41) As A. J. P. Taylor has pointed out: "The attack on Labour party finance came ill from the Conservatives who depended on secret donations from rich men." (42)

1929 Labour Government

In January 1929, 1,433,000 people in Britain were out of work. Stanley Baldwin was urged to take measures that would protect the depressed iron and steel industry. Baldwin ruled this out owing to the pledge against protection which had been made at the 1924 election. Agriculture was in an even worse condition, and here again the government could offer little assistance without reopening the dangerous tariff issue. Baldwin was considered to be a popular prime minister and he fully expected to win the general election that was to take place on 30th May, 1929. (43)

In its manifesto the Conservative Party blamed the General Strike for the country's economic problems. "Trade suffered a severe set-back owing to the General Strike, and the industrial troubles of 1926. In the last two years it has made a remarkable recovery. In the insured industries, other than the coal mining industry, there are now 800,000 more people employed and 125,000 fewer unemployed than when we assumed office... This recovery has been achieved by the combined efforts of our people assisted by the Government's policy of helping industry to help itself. The establishment of stable conditions has given industry confidence and opportunity." (44)

The Labour Party attacked the record of Baldwin's government: "By its inaction during four critical years it has multiplied our difficulties and increased our dangers. Unemployment is more acute than when Labour left office.... The Government's further record is that it has helped its friends by remissions of taxation, whilst it has robbed the funds of the workers' National Health Insurance Societies, reduced Unemployment Benefits, and thrown thousands of workless men and women on to the Poor Law. The Tory Government has added £38,000,000 to indirect taxation, which is an increasing burden on the wage-earners, shop-keepers and lower middle classes." (45)

In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,656,000 votes (38%), the Labour Party 8,309,000 (37%) and the Liberals 5,309,000 (23%). However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party had 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. Clement Attlee increased his majority in Limehouse to 7,288 and the Labour Party became the largest party in Parliament for the first time in its history. (46)

David Lloyd George, the leader of the Liberal Party admitted that his campaign had been unsuccessful but claimed he held the balance of power: "It would be silly to pretend that we have realized our expectations. It looks for the moment as if we still hold the balance." However, both Baldwin and MacDonald refused to form a coalition government with Lloyd George. Baldwin resigned and once again MacDonald agreed to form a minority government. To everybody's surprise, Attlee was not invited to join the government. (47)

In January 1930 unemployment in Britain reached 1,533,000. By March, the figure was 1,731,000. Oswald Mosley, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, proposed a programme that he believed would help deal with the growing problem of unemployment in Britain. According to David Marquand: "It made three main assertions - that the machinery of government should be drastically overhauled, that unemployment could be radically reduced by a public-works programme on the lines advocated by Keynes and the Liberal Party, and that long-term economic reconstruction required a mobilization of national resources on a larger scale than has yet been contemplated. The existing administrative structure, Mosley argued, was hopelessly inadequate. What was needed was a new department, under the direct control of the prime minister, consisting of an executive committee of ministers and a secretariat of civil servants, assisted by a permanent staff of economists and an advisory council of outside experts." (48)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Snowden, was a strong believer in laissez-faire economics and disliked the proposals. (49) MacDonald had doubts about Snowden's "hard dogmatism exposed in words and tones as hard as the ideas" but he also dismissed "all the humbug of curing unemployment by Exchequer grants." (50) MacDonald passed the Mosley Memorandum to a committee consisting of Snowden, Tom Shaw, Arthur Greenwood and Margaret Bondfield. The committee reported back on 1st May. Mosley's administrative proposals, the committee claimed "cut at the root of the individual responsibilities of Ministers, the special responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the sphere of finance, and the collective responsibility of the Cabinet to Parliament". The Snowden Report went onto argue that state action to reduce unemployment was highly dangerous. To go further than current government policy "would be to plunge the country into ruin". (51)

Mosley was not trusted by most of his fellow MPs. He came from an aristocratic background and first entered the House of Commons as a representative of the Conservative Party. One Labour Party MP said Mosley had a habit of speaking to his colleagues "as though he were a feudal landlord abusing tenants who are in arrears with their rent". (52) John Bew described Mosley as "handsome... lithe and black and shiny... he looked like a panther but behaved like a hyena". (53)

At a meeting of Labour MPs took place on 21st May, Oswald Mosley outlined his proposals. This included the provision of old-age pensions at sixty, the raising of the school-leaving age and an expansion in the road programme. He gained support from George Lansbury and Tom Johnson, but Arthur Henderson, speaking on behalf of MacDonald, appealed to Mosley to withdraw his motion so that his proposals could be discussed in detail at later meetings. Mosley insisted on putting his motion to the vote and was beaten by 210 to 29. (54)

Mosley now resigned from the government and was replaced by Clement Attlee. It has been claimed that MacDonald was so fed up with Mosley that he looked around him and choose the "most uninteresting, unimaginative but most reliable among his backbenchers to replace the fallen angel". Winston Churchill said he was "a modest little man, with plenty to be modest about". Mosley was more generous as he accepted that he had "a clear, incisive and honest mind within the limits of his range". However, he added, in agreeing to take his job, Attlee "must be reckoned as content to join a government visibly breaking the pledges on which he was elected." (55)

National Government

Philip Snowden presented his recommendations to the Cabinet on 20th August. It included the plan to raise approximately £90 million from increased taxation and to cut expenditure by £99 million. £67 million was to come from unemployment insurance, £12 million from education and the rest from the armed services, roads and a variety of smaller programmes. Most members of the Cabinet rejected the idea of the proposed cut in unemployment benefit and the meeting ended without any decisions being made. Clement Attlee, who was now a supporter of John Maynard Keynes, condemned Snowden for his "misplaced fidelity to laissez-faire economics". (56) The following year he was appointed as Postmaster General. (57)

Ellen Wilkinson pointed out that Attlee was unwilling to criticize Ramsay MacDonald in public and concentrated on arguing with him in private. "Major Attlee is too fastidious for intrigue, too modest for overmuch ambition, and yet with a mind that makes it worthwhile for a Prime Minister to discuss problems with him." It has been claimed that he lacked confidence in his exchanges with MacDonald, expressing concern that his suggestions on policy might come across as "too argumentative and tendentious". (58)

Clement Attlee complained to his brother, Tom Attlee, about the unwillingness of the government to do really tackle unemployment. "It needs a very strong push to overcome the timidity and conservatism of some ministers and some departments of the Civil Service notably the Treasury and the Board of Trade." (59) However, Attlee was also guilty of not being radical enough: "Our policy with regard to industry is perfectly clear. We do not believe in the capitalist system... we should like to see it ended, but the country has not yet said that we shall end it. We have no mandate for that." (60)

Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and Susan Lawrence both decided to resign from the government if the cuts to the unemployment benefit went ahead: Pethick-Lawrence wrote: "Susan Lawrence came to see me. As Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, she was concerned with the proposed cuts in unemployment relief, which she regarded as dreadful. We discussed the whole situation and agreed that, if the Cabinet decided to accept the cuts in their entirety, we would both resign from the Government." (61)

Arthur Henderson argued that rather do what the bankers wanted, Labour should had over responsibility to the Conservatives and Liberals and leave office as a united party. The following day MacDonald and Snowden had a private meeting with Neville Chamberlain, Samuel Hoare, Herbert Samuel and Donald MacLean to discuss the plans to cut government expenditure. Chamberlain argued against the increase in taxation and called for further cuts in unemployment benefit. MacDonald also had meetings with trade union leaders, including Walter Citrine and Ernest Bevin. They made it clear they would resist any attempts to put "new burdens on the unemployed". Sidney Webb later told his wife Beatrice Webb that the trade union leaders were "pigs" as they "won't agree to any cuts of unemployment insurance benefits or salaries or wages". (62)

At another meeting on 23rd August, 1931, nine members (Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury, John R. Clynes, William Graham, Albert Alexander, Arthur Greenwood, Tom Johnson, William Adamson and Christopher Addison) of the Cabinet stated that they would resign rather than accept the unemployment cuts. A. J. P. Taylor has argued: "The other eleven were presumably ready to go along with MacDonald. Six of these had a middle-class or upper-class background; of the minority only one (Addison)... Clearly the government could not go on. Nine members were too many to lose." (63)

That night MacDonald went to see George V about the economic crisis. He warned the King that several Cabinet ministers were likely to resign if he tried to cut unemployment benefit. MacDonald wrote in his diary: "King most friendly and expressed thanks and confidence. I then reported situation and at end I told him that after tonight I might be of no further use, and should resign with the whole Cabinet.... He said that he believed I was the only person who could carry the country through." (64)

MacDonald told his son, Malcolm MacDonald, about what happened at the meeting: "The King has implored J.R.M. to form a National Government. Baldwin and Samuel are both willing to serve under him. This Government would last about five weeks, to tide over the crisis. It would be the end, in his own opinion, of J.R.M.'s political career. (Though personally I think he would come back after two or three years, though never again to the Premiership. This is an awful decision for the P.M. to make. To break so with the Labour Party would be painful in the extreme. Yet J.R.M. knows what the country needs and wants in this crisis, and it is a question whether it is not his duty to form a Government representative of all three parties to tide over a few weeks, till the danger of financial crash is past - and damn the consequences to himself after that." (65)

After another Cabinet meeting where no agreement about how to deal with the economic crisis could be achieved, Ramsay MacDonald went to Buckingham Palace to resign. Sir Clive Wigram, the King's private secretary, later recalled that George V "impressed upon the Prime Minister that he was the only man to lead the country through the crisis and hoped that he would reconsider the situation." At a meeting with Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Herbert Samuel, MacDonald told them that if he joined a National Government it "meant his death warrant". According to Chamberlain he said "he would be a ridiculous figure unable to command support and would bring odium on us as well as himself." (66)

On 24th August 1931, Ramsay MacDonald returned to the palace and told the King that he had the Cabinet's resignation in his pocket. The King replied that he hoped that MacDonald "would help in the formation of a National Government." He added that by "remaining at his post, his position and reputation would be much more enhanced than if he surrendered the Government of the country at such a crisis." Eventually, he agreed to form a National Government.

On 24th August 1931 King George V had a meeting with the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal parties. Herbert Samuel later recorded that he told the king that MacDonald should be maintained in office "in view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working class". He added that MacDonald was "the ruling class's ideal candidate for imposing a balanced budget at the expense of the working class." (67)

Later that day MacDonald returned to the palace and had another meeting with the King. MacDonald told the King that he had the Cabinet's resignation in his pocket. The King replied that he hoped that MacDonald "would help in the formation of a National Government." He added that by "remaining at his post, his position and reputation would be much more enhanced than if he surrendered the Government of the country at such a crisis." Eventually, he agreed to continue to serve as Prime Minister. George V congratulated all three men "for ensuring that the country would not be left governless." (68)

Ramsay MacDonald was only able to persuade three other members of the Labour Party to serve in the National Government: Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Jimmy Thomas (Colonial Secretary) and John Sankey (Lord Chancellor). The Conservatives had four places and the Liberals two: Stanley Baldwin (Lord President), Samuel Hoare (Secretary for India), Neville Chamberlain (Minister of Health), Herbert Samuel (Home Secretary), Lord Reading (Foreign Secretary) and Philip Cunliffe-Lister (President of the Board of Trade). (69)

MacDonald's former cabinet colleagues were furious about what he had done. Clement Attlee asked why the workers and the unemployed were to bear the brunt again and not those who sat on profits and grew rich on investments? He complained that MacDonald was a man who had "shed every tag of political convictions he ever had". His so-called National Government was a "shop-soiled pack of cards shuffled and reshuffled". This was "the greatest betrayal in the political history of this country". (70)

The Labour Party's governing national executive, the general council of the TUC and the parliamentary party's consultative committee met and issued a joint manifesto, which declared that the new National Government was "determined to attack the standard of living of the workers in order to meet a situation caused by a policy pursued by private banking interests in the control of which the party has no part." (71)

On 28th August, 1931, Arthur Henderson became leader in place of MacDonald. Attlee wrote to his brother: "Things are pretty damnable - I fear we are in for a regime of fake economy and a general attack on the workers' standard of life." Attlee added: "MacDonald had no constructive ideas, while at the Treasury Philip Snowden had fallen completely under the spell of orthodox finance and the influence of Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England." (72)

On 8th September 1931, the National Government's programme of £70 million economy programme was debated in the House of Commons. This included a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. All those paid by the state, from cabinet ministers and judges down to the armed services and the unemployed, were cut 10 per cent. Teachers, however, were treated as a special case, lost 15 per cent. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were "not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government". In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249. (73)

John Maynard Keynes spoke out against the morality of cutting benefits and public sector pay. He claimed that the plans to reduce the spending on "housing, roads, telephone expansion" was "simply insane". Keynes went on to say the government had been ignoring his advice: "During the last 12 years I have had very little influence, if any, on policy. But in the role of Cassandra, I have had considerable success as a prophet. I declare to you, and I will stake on it any reputation I have, that we have been making in the last few weeks as dreadful errors of policy as deluded statesmen have ever been guilty of." (74)

Snowden's behaviour disgusted Attlee and he made a strong attack on him in the House of Commons. "The Chancellor has broken all Parliamentary records. He has not merely produced two budgets in one session; he has produced one on behalf of the Labour Party and the other on behalf of the united Capitalist parties. These two budgets are based on entirely different social philosophies. The first one still retains, to some extent, the social philosophy which he has preached with such extreme success for the last 30 or 40 years; and the second one is based on a wholly different outlook." (75)

The 1931 General Election was held on 27th October, 1931. Ramsay MacDonald led an anti-Labour alliance made up of Conservatives and National Liberals. It was a disaster for the Labour Party with several leading Labour figures, including Arthur Henderson, John R. Clynes, Arthur Greenwood, Charles Trevelyan, Herbert Morrison, Emanuel Shinwell, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Hastings Lees-Smith, Hugh Dalton, Susan Lawrence, William Wedgwood Benn, Tom Shaw and Margaret Bondfield losing their seats. Attlee's majority was cut to just 551. (76)

The Government parties polled 14,500,000 votes to Labour's 6,600,000. In the new House of Commons, the Labour Party had only 52 members and the Lloyd George Liberals only 4 seats. Clement Attlee, George Lansbury, William Adamson and Stafford Cripps were the only leading Labour figures to win their seats. The Labour Party polled 30.5% of the vote reflecting the loss of two million votes, a huge withdrawal of support. The only significant concentration of Labour victories occurred in South Wales where eleven seats were retained, many by large majorities. (77)

Clement Attlee
Clement Attlee (1932)

Arthur Henderson, leader of the Labour Party, lost his seat and it was agreed that George Lansbury, aged 72, should become leader and Attlee as his deputy. Lansbury commented: "I honestly believe the movement is going to be purer and stronger for the very heavy defeat we have sustained." (78) Ernest Bevin was especially opposed to Lansbury's leadership: "Lansbury has been going about in saint's cloths for years waiting for martyrdom. I set fire to the faggots." (79)

Attlee disagreed with Bevin and believed he was a very good leader because of his Christian faith. "One great source of strength which he had was his power to inspire affection, not only in those who were his immediate colleagues, but in thousands of men and women throughout the country... Another source of strength was his firmly held Christian faith. A convinced Anglican, he was nevertheless ready to work with men of all creeds or of none at all, for he was quite free from intolerance and pharisaism." (80)

Henderson did return to the House of Commons at a by-election on 1st September 1933, but as he was nearly 70 he decided that he would not take back the leadership. During this period Attlee was the main spokesman for the Labour group in Parliament. Most of his speeches concerned the economy and the basis upon which it should be run and organized. However his most controversial speech concerned the House of Lords. "One hopes to live long enough to see the House of Lords abolished and single Chamber Government established... We do not think that it can be reformed. We think it ought to be abolished." (81)

Attlee argued for government involvement in industry: "The Labour Party was not for Protection or for Free Trade. We believe that industry has to be organized... Importation has got to be controlled... We are not satisfied unless the State gets full advantage to itself and to the people of this country in return for the advantages which it bestows." (82) Two days later he argued for Indian independence: "We in the party stand for India's control of her own affairs... our position is that India, as has been said, must be allowed to make her own mistakes." (83)

Attlee also made an important speech on the subject of economic inequality: "If the blood - in this case currency - does not reach the extremities, you get cold feet and hands and the people who are in the chilliest part of the body politic today are the poorest people, because currency does not circulate freely to them. I suggest that there is another danger besides that of anaemia or apoplexy. There might be a clot in the brain or the heart. I suggest that the concentration of wealth in a small part of the nation affects both the brain and the heart of the nation." (84)

On 7th June 1935, Ramsay MacDonald went to see George V to tell him he was resigning as head of the National Government. Henry Channon, the Conservative MP for Southend, commented in his diary: "I am glad Ramsay (MacDonald) has gone: I have always disliked his shifty face, and his inability to give a direct answer. What a career, a life-long Socialist, then for 4 years a Conservative Prime Minister, and now the defender of Londonderry House. An incredible volte-face. He ends up distrusted by Conservatives and hated by Socialists." (85)

Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party

Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister for the third time. On 8th October, 1935, George Lansbury resigned as leader of the Labour Party. As the 1935 General Election was set for 14th November. It was decided that Attlee would be caretaker leader during the campaign with a full leadership contest to be held after the poll. In the election the Conservative-dominated National Government lost 90 seats from its massive majority of 1931, but still retained an overwhelming majority of 255 in the House of Commons. Labour, with just over 8.3 million votes, 37.9 per cent, took 154 seats. (86)

Attlee was nominated along with Arthur Greenwood and Herbert Morrison. Attlee was expected to be beaten by Morrison who was considered to have all the necessary leadership qualities. Beatrice Webb commented: "Clement Attlee… though gifted with intellect and character and also with goodwill has, alas, no personality… He is neither feared, disliked nor admired but merely respected by Labour men and approved by the government bench." (87)

At that time only Labour Party MPs voted. Attlee took 58 votes, Morrison 44 and Greenwood 32. Under the rules Greenwood dropped out and the final result was Attlee 88 and Morrison 44. This was a shock result as Morrison was expected to win the contest. Hugh Dalton pointed out there had been a "prejudice, surprisingly strong and widespread, against Morrison. There was a feeling that, if he got the Leadership now, he would keep it, but that, if Attlee got it, there might be a change later. This feeling helped to explain the swing on the second vote." (88)

Dalton, who was on the right of the party described it as "a wretched, disheartening result" and now had "a little mouse" leading the party. (89) Harold Laski welcomed the fact that they had selected a "left-centre socialist" and predicted that "if the new session lasts long enough for Mr Attlee to prove himself, experience will show that the Labour Party has found a permanent and not a temporary leader." (90) The Daily Mail disagreed: "So the leader of the socialist opposition is to be Major Attlee. I am afraid he will not be so for long, but he deserves the success that is his momentarily." (91)

Clement Attlee attempted to persuade the Labour Party to change its view on rearmament. In one speech he argued: "We are against the use of force for imperialist and capitalist ends, but we are in favour of the proper use of force for ensuring the use of law. I do not believe that non-resistance is a possible policy for people with responsibility." (92) The Daily Mail suggested he would make a good leader: "Clement Attlee… courteous and hard-working, he perhaps can never be an out-and-out extremist: when he speaks you feel that however much you disagree with him, it is what he thinks, and thinks sincerely about the subject." (93)

Kingsley Martin believed that the Labour Party had made a wise choice: "With a characteristic combination of shrewdness and generosity, the British Labour Party has pinned its faith to his integrity. And rightly so. Attlee first had his foot planted on the ladder of promotion because he had had more experience and a better education than most of his colleagues in the Stepney Labour Party. Ever since, he has borne his trust with the stolid conscientious of a just headmaster. In any democratically organized party, a man who is held to be personally unambitious and of unimpugnable integrity is liable to have leadership thrust upon him. After the desertion of MacDonald, the Labour Party became very suspicious of prima donnas, and when Lansbury's Christian Pacifism ceased to match the mood of the Party, it was Attlee, the plodding dark horse, and not the more fancied and more talented Greenwood or Morrison, who slipped into the leadership." (94)

The left of the Labour Party argued that its policy should be to oppose rearmament and stimulate international socialist co-operation to avoid a capitalist war. From the right came the proposition that the party must support rearmament to defend freedom and democracy. (95) Attlee admitted that it would take some time before he could get complete control of his party. He told his brother: "I am not prepared to arrogate to myself a superiority to the rest of the movement. I am prepared to submit to their will, even if I disagree. I shall do all I can to get my views accepted, but, unless acquiescence in the views of the majority conflicts with my conscience, I shall fall into line, for I have faith in the wisdom of the rank and file." (96)

In the 1930s the Conservative Party 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. On the 19th July, 1936, Spain's prime minister, José Giral, sent a request to Leon Blum, the prime minister of the Popular Front government in France, for aircraft and armaments. The following day the French government decided to help and on 22nd July agreed to send 20 bombers and other arms. This news was criticized by the right-wing press and the non-socialist members of the government began to argue against the aid and therefore Blum decided to see what his British allies were going to do. (97)

Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, received advice that "apart from foreign intervention, the sides were so evenly balanced that neither could win." Eden warned Blum that he believed that if the French government helped the Spanish government it would only encourage Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini to aid the Nationalists. Edouard Daladier, the French war minister, was aware that French armaments were inferior to those that Franco could obtain from the dictators. Eden later recalled: "The French government acted most loyally by us." On 8th August the French cabinet suspended all further arms sales, and four days later it was decided to form an international committee of control "to supervise the agreement and consider further action." (98)

Attlee argued for intervention against the fascists. However, he was aware that the problem with intervention was the danger of escalating the conflict to a general European war against the fascist powers. Labour's 1936 conference in Edinburgh condemned non-intervention and demanded that the British government restore to the Spanish government its right to buy arms. In a letter to his brother Tom in April 1937, he wrote that "I'm afraid there's no doubt about the strong pro-Franco attitude of many of the government." (99)

In a speech in October, 1936, Clement Attlee described the Spanish Civil War as "a fight for the soul of Europe", charging that non-intervention had become "a farce". For the first time he stated that the government was guilty of incremental steps of appeasement. If Britain had stood firm against Mussolini over Abyssinia, there would not have been this trouble in Spain. He argued there had been "no policy in foreign affairs except the policy of giving way. The result of that is a world in anarchy." The government's policy "has not brought us nearer peace but has brought us closer and closer to the danger of war." (100)

At the party conference in Edinburgh in 1936, Attlee attempted to unite the Labour Party on foreign policy. The party's official position under Lansbury was to vote against the defence estimates of the government because pf the latter's failure to sufficiently support the League of Nations. Attlee argued that it was time to reassess the situation. For example, he was in a minority in believing that the government should send arms to Spain to fight the fascists. He therefore supported rearmament but rejected the view expressed by Hugh Dalton, that the party should support the government's rearmament plans in their entirety. (101)

In November, 1936, Stanley Baldwin, briefed Attlee in confidence on the impending crisis concerned the monarchy. King Edward VIII wanted to marry an American woman, Wallis Simpson. Baldwin told the King that the proposed marriage would be unacceptable to him, and if it took place the government would resign. If Attlee opposed Baldwin on this issue he would probably be asked to form a government. Attlee refused to take this opportunity and instead told Baldwin that although he did not object to an American queen, a twice-divorced woman and a morganic marriage was unacceptable. Attlee's critics pointed out that he had shown too great a concern for the monarchy and too little for his party. Attlee saw his duty as clear: "to support the constitutional position taken by Baldwin; to fight an election on the issue would be manifestly opportunistic." (102)

In May 1937 Stanley Baldwin resigned and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain, a strong supporter of appeasement. Attlee described him as being "just an imperialist of the old school but without much knowledge of foreign affairs or appreciation of the forces at work." (103) In July, with the help of Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin, he persuaded the Labour Party National Executive to support rearmament. Attlee pointed out that it was absurd to argue that the government should do more about Spain but simultaneously fail to back it on rearmament. That summer Attlee finally began to really assert authority over his party. (104)

Attlee continued to support the Popular Front government and in December, 1937, he led a Labour delegation that included Ellen Wilkinson and Philip Noel-Baker, that visited Barcelona. Soon after arriving they saw the aftermath of an air raid in which thirty people had been killed in a cafe. They then went on to Valencia and Madrid, where he met representatives from the Republican government, as well as visiting hospitals, schools and other bomb sites. He also talked to schoolchildren, who were still studying despite being only a few kilometres from the fighting, and under constant fear of attack. Wilkinson noticed that Attlee was moved to tears by their plight. (105)

Clement Attlee with Ellen Wilkinson touring the ruins of Madrid in December 1938.
Clement Attlee with Ellen Wilkinson touring the ruins of Madrid in December 1938.

The delegation went to the front-line to meet members of the International Brigades. The group that he visited were later renamed as the Major Attlee Company and was led by Jack Jones. After talking to these men he developed the view that the Republican cause had been weakened and damaged by factionalism on the left. In the face of the fascist threat, he believed that it was a tragedy that "all the time the Communists were intriguing and seeking to divert the contest into a battle for Communism." (106)

Adolf Hitler knew that both France and Britain were militarily stronger than Germany. However, their failure to take action against Italy, convinced him that they were unwilling to go to war. He therefore decided to break another aspect of the Treaty of Versailles by sending German troops into the Rhineland. The German generals were very much against the plan, claiming that the French Army would win a victory in the military conflict that was bound to follow this action. Hitler ignored their advice and on 1st March, 1936, three German battalions marched into the Rhineland. Hitler later admitted: "The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance." (107)

The British government accepted Hitler's Rhineland coup. Sir Anthony Eden, the new foreign secretary, informed the French that the British government was not prepared to support military action. The chiefs of staff felt Britain was in no position to go to war with Germany over the issue. The Rhineland invasion was not seen by the British government as an act of unprovoked aggression but as the righting of an injustice left behind by the Treaty of Versailles. Eden apparently said that "Hitler was only going into his own back garden." (108)

Clement Attlee attacked the policy, stressing the futility of dealing with dictators, where you yield to force at every point. (109) In the House of Commons he spoke out vehemently against inaction: "In the last five years we have had quite enough of dodging difficulties, of using forms of words to avoid facing up to realities. I am afraid that you may get a patched-up peace and then another crisis next year." (110)

The Munich Agreement

In September 1938, Neville Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler at his home in Berchtesgaden. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After discussing the issue with the Edouard Daladier (France) and Eduard Benes (Czechoslovakia), Chamberlain informed Hitler that his proposals were unacceptable. Neville Henderson, the British ambassador in Germany, pleaded with Chamberlain to go on negotiating with Hitler. He believed, like Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, that the German claim to the Sudetenland in 1938 was a moral one, and he always reverted in his dispatches to his conviction that the Treaty of Versailles had been unfair to Germany. "At the same time, he was unsympathetic to feelers from the German opposition to Hitler seeking to enlist British support. Henderson thought, not unreasonably, that it was not the job of the British government to subvert the German government, and this view was shared by Chamberlain and Halifax". (111)

Benito Mussolini suggested to Hitler that one way of solving this issue was to hold a four-power conference of Germany, Britain, France and Italy. This would exclude both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, and therefore increasing the possibility of reaching an agreement and undermine the solidarity that was developing against Germany. The meeting took place in Munich on 29th September, 1938. Desperate to avoid war, and anxious to avoid an alliance with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, Chamberlain and Daladier agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland. In return, Hitler promised not to make any further territorial demands in Europe. (112)

The meeting ended with Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signing the Munich Agreement which transferred the Sudetenland to Germany. "We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as Symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries." (113)

Neville Henderson defended the agreement: "Germany thus incorporated the Sudeten lands in the Reich without bloodshed and without firing a shot. But she had not got all that Hitler wanted and which she would have got if the arbitrament had been left to war... The humiliation of the Czechs was a tragedy, but it was solely thanks to Mr. Chamberlain's courage and pertinacity that a futile and senseless war was averted." (114)

Clement Attlee leading a deputation of unemployed men (18th October, 1920)
Clement Attlee with his daughters Janet and Felicity (2nd September, 1938)

On 3rd October, 1938, Clement Attlee, attacked the Munich Agreement in a speech in the House of Commons. "We have felt that we are in the midst of a tragedy. We have felt humiliation. This has not been a victory for reason and humanity. It has been a victory for brute force. At every stage of the proceedings there have been time limits laid down by the owner and ruler of armed force. The terms have not been terms negotiated; they have been terms laid down as ultimata. We have seen today a gallant, civilized and democratic people betrayed and handed over to a ruthless despotism. We have seen something more. We have seen the cause of democracy, which is, in our view, the cause of civilization and humanity, receive a terrible defeat.... The events of these last few days constitute one of the greatest diplomatic defeats that this country and France have ever sustained. There can be no doubt that it is a tremendous victory for Herr Hitler. Without firing a shot, by the mere display of military force, he has achieved a dominating position in Europe which Germany failed to win after four years of war. He has overturned the balance of power in Europe. He has destroyed the last fortress of democracy in Eastern Europe which stood in the way of his ambition. He has opened his way to the food, the oil and the resources which he requires in order to consolidate his military power, and he has successfully defeated and reduced to impotence the forces that might have stood against the rule of violence." (115)

Primary Sources

(1) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920)

In a civilized community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways - they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organized community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community...

Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient's character, and terminable at his caprice.

(2) The Daily Herald (23rd November, 1922)

I Slight figure, delicate complexion, lofty brow and gentle manners – his personality wins you from the first, but you would hardly guess what work this man of 39 has done as scholar, soldier, and administrator.

(3) Clement Attlee, The Labour Leader (12th January, 1923)

There are people who try to reduce all human activity to one plane, who rule out all other motives save those of material gain who read into the past the conditions of the present… The socialist historian must not focus solely on economic history, but must deal with every side of human activity. He should be no less interested in the struggle of mankind to gain freedom of thought and escape from the bondage of superstition than with his various contrivances for gaining economic freedom.

(4) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (15th February, 1933)

I am being forced to the conclusion that nothing short of a world state will be really effective in preventing war. I want us to come out boldly for a real long range policy which will envisage the abolition of the conception of the individual sovereign state.

(5) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

Many members of the (Ramsay MacDonald) Government, of whom I was one, were seriously disturbed at the lack of constructive policy displayed by the leaders of the Government. We were also conscious of a growing estrangement between MacDonald and the rest of the Party. He was increasingly mixing only with people who did not share the Labour outlook. This opposition, however, did not crystallise, because the one man who could have taken MacDonald's place, Arthur Henderson, was too loyal to lend himself to any action against his leader. Instead of deciding on a policy and standing or falling by it, MacDonald and Snowden persuaded the Cabinet to agree to the appointment of an Economy Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir George May of the Prudential Insurance Company, with a majority of opponents of Labour on it. The result might have been anticipated. The proposals were directed to cutting the social services and particularly unemployment benefit. Their remedy for an economic crisis, one of the chief features of which was excess of commodities over effective demand, was to cut down the purchasing power of the masses. The majority of the Government refused to accept the cuts and it was on this issue that the Government broke up. Instead of resigning, MacDonald accepted a commission from the King to form a so-called 'National' Government.

(5) Ben Pimlott, Labour and the Left (1977)

Roy Jenkins has described the election of Attlee in 1931 as "almost automatic... Its inevitability although of very recent growth, was almost complete." It is not clear that this was so. Apart from Lansbury, Attlee had more solid ministerial experience than any other MP - though he had only served above the rank of under-secretary for a little over a year. Yet it is surprising that no miner was put forward for the deputy post. One MP who was well suited for it was D. R. Grenfell, MP for Gower since 1922, and later Minister for Mines in the Wartime Coalition. A man of considerable talents, with a self-taught fluency in French, he had been elected to the Parliamentary Executive (for which Attlee did not stand) in September, and retained a high position on it for the rest of the decade. In 1918, a PLP similarly dominated by miners had chosen as chairman Willie Adamson, a miner of meagre abilities and little standing, despite the far greater claims of Clynes and J. H. Thomas.

Attlee's own cryptic comment on the most fateful event of his Parliamentary career is interesting. "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." Henderson may have been concerned that the vague and emotional Lansbury should be balanced by the practical and efficient Attlee. At any rate, it is an open question whether without the intervention of Henderson the outcome would have been the same."

Attlee's early life was singular mainly for its lack of distinction of a conventional kind. Born in 1883 the son of a City solicitor, he was educated at Haileybury and University College, Oxford; his progress at both institutions was unremarkable. A short career after Oxford as a barrister was a depressing failure. "I had always been painfully shy", he wrote later, 14 and perhaps this was why he rapidly found that he was unsuited to work at the Bar. Instead he took up social work in the East End, where, affected by the poverty and miseries of the slums, his Anglican Toryisrn gave way to the doctrines of Ruskin, Morris and Webb. At the age of 25 he joined the ILP and became active in establishing the party in Stepney. "The experience that he gained during this time was later of inestimable value to Attlee", his biographer has written. "He treated the East End as his home, and not as a laboratory in which he could carry out social experiments. By so doing he dug himself into one of the great working-class areas of the country and grew roots of a firmness that few middle-class socialists have been able to achieve."

A series of temporary jobs led, through a brief association with Sidney Webb, to a post teaching social administration at the London School of Economics. "I was not appointed on the score of academic qualification," Attlee later wrote modestly, "but because I was considered to have a good practical knowledge of social conditions." In 1914 Attlee rejected the pacifism prevalent in the ILP and joined up. He rose to the rank of major, saw action at Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia and in France, was wounded and suffered recurring bouts of illness. Recovered by 1919, he returned to Stepney, fought and lost an LCC contest, was co-opted mayor of Stepney, and in 1922 became MP for Limehouse.

Attlee's Parliamentary career started with a stroke of good luck. MacDonald, newly elected to the Leadership, picked him as his PPS. In 1924, however, he was given a meagre reward -one of the least promising posts in the first Labour Government - under-secretary at the War Office. Five years later he was passed over completely - partly because he was still serving on the Indian Statutory Commission, to which he was appointed in 1927. If Mosley had not resigned in May 1930 Attlee might never have served in the Second Labour Government; for the abrupt end to Mosley's career provided a crucial stepping-stone for Attlee who moved from the backbenches to the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster. In March 1931 he was transferred to the Post Office, and for five months, the only period in his whole career, he had responsibility for a Government department. At the election he held Limehouse with the slim majority of 551.

(8) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

The Party had to face the growing international tension caused by the emergence of aggression - first in the Far East and then in Abyssinia. There was also the growing strength of Hitler in Germany. The Party, under the leadership of Henderson, had adopted the policy of strong support for the League of Nations, but there was in our ranks a strong pacifist section led by George Lansbury. When the Government embarked on rearmament, this division in our ranks became more apparent. The Party was prepared to rearm provided that it was in support of a genuine League policy.

The crisis came over the question of the application of sanctions against Mussolini for invading Abyssinia. After a very full discussion at the Annual Party Conference at Brighton in October, 1935, the pacifists were overwhelmingly defeated. A few days later Lansbury resigned the leadership. This was a grief to all of us, for we had a great admiration and affection for him, but he was right in thinking that his position had become impossible. I was elected Leader in his place.

(9) Fred Copeman, Reason in Revolt (1948)

We withdrew to Mondijar, a small village to the east of Madrid. Comfortable quarters in a beautiful countryside soon improved morale. New recruits brought our figure back to the six hundred mark. Field training and manoeuvring took up all our time. During this period Major Attlee, the leader of the British Labour Party, with Ellen Wilkinson and Noel Baker, came out to Spain. Ellen was a great favourite with the lads. Her fiery enthusiasm and kind interest in the smallest things made her the central figure of this group.

At about nine o'clock at night, as darkness was falling, the square at Mondijal was lined by the members of the British 16th and 50th, and the American Washington and Lincoln battalions - some twelve to fifteen hundred men. Those in the rear were holding lighted torches. Clem Attlee and Ellen spoke from a cart, in simple, kind language, of the things that the British Labour Party were trying to do. The response was terriffic. Carried away by the enthusiasm of the speeches, I asked Clem whether he would allow the battalion to be called after him, and he immediately agreed, declaring himself more than honoured. He was to meet considerable opposition on his return to England from the Tory Government over this incident.

(10) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954)

When Anthony Eden and Lord Cranborne resigned from the Chamberlain Government early in 1938, as a protest against the Prime Minister's decision to open conversations with Mussolini whilst Italy was carrying on intervention in Spain and anti-British propaganda, I told the House that the policy of the Government was "an abject surrender to the dictators" and that "the Government, instead of trying to deal with the causes of war, had always been trying in a feeble way to play off one dictator against another. That is a policy which sooner or later leads to war."


(1) East London Observer (27th September, 1919)

(2) Oscar Tobin, Stepney Trades Council: Annual Report (1919)

(3) East London Observer (15th November, 1919)

(4) Samantha L. Bird, Stepney: Profile of a London Borough (2011) pages 66-67

(5) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 63

(6) Clement Attlee, Social Worker (1920) page 30

(7) Labour Constitution (February, 1918)

(8) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 23

(9) G.D.H. Cole, A History of the Labour Party (1948) page 56

(10) Clement Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (1937) page 48

(11) East London Observer (6th December, 1919)

(12) Clement Attlee, speech at a meeting of the Union of Democratic Control in Kingsway Hall (11th November, 1920)

(13) Francis Williams, Fifty Years' March: The Rise of the Labour Party (1950) page 289

(14) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 111

(15) John T. Murphy, Big Three: An Autobiographical Study of Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin (1948) page 109

(16) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 116

(17) Stanley Baldwin, speech at a meeting of Conservative Party members of Parliament (19th October, 1922)

(18) Kenneth Harris, Attlee (1982) page 550

(19) The Daily Herald (23rd November, 1922)

(20) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (23rd November, 1922)

(21) David Kirkwood, My Life of Revolt (1935) page 195

(22) Fenner Brockway, Towards Tomorrow (1977) page 35

(23) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 165

(24) John R. Clynes, Christian Science Monitor (19th September, 1945)

(25) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 126

(26) Stanley Ball, Stanley Baldwin : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Conservative Party Manifesto (November, 1923)

(28) Labour Party Manifesto (November, 1923)

(29) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 283

(30) The Daily Herald (2nd January, 1924)

(31) The Daily Herald (4th January, 1924)

(32) Robert Shepherd, Westminster: A Biography: From Earliest Times to the Present Day (2012) page 313

(33) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) pages 132-133

(34) The Daily Mail (25th October 1924)

(35) Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree (1977) page 178

(36) Ramsay MacDonald, statement (25th October 1924)

(37) A. J. P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (1972) page 223

(38) David Low, Autobiography (1956) page 161

(39) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 127

(40) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) pages 81-82

(41) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (31st May, 1927)

(42) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) page 318

(43) Stuart Ball, Stanley Baldwin : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(44) The Conservative Manifesto: Mr. Stanley Baldwin's Election Address (May, 1929)

(45) The Labour Manifesto: Labour's Appeal to the Nation (May, 1929)

(46) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 55

(47) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 608

(48) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) page 539

(49) Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History: Democratic Socialism in Britain (1999) page 35

(50) Ramsay MacDonald, letter to Walton Newbold (2nd June, 1930)

(51) Philip Snowden Report (1st May, 1930)

(52) Hugh Dalton, quoting Clement Attlee, in his diary (20th November, 1930)

(53) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 149

(54) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 212

(55) Oswald Mosley, My Life (1968) page 233

(56) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 153

(57) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 57

(58) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 150

(59) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (1st November, 1930)

(60) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (3rd November, 1930)

(61) Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Fate Has Been Kind (1942) page 165

(62) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 100

(63) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 366-367

(64) Ramsay MacDonald, diary entry (23rd August, 1931)

(65) Malcolm MacDonald, diary entry (24th August, 1931)

(66) David Marquand, Ramsay MacDonald (1977) pages 627-637

(67) Herbert Samuel, Memoirs (1945) page 204

(68) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) page 198

(69) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 59

(70) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) page 74

(71) Statement issued by the Labour Party and the General Council of the TUC (26th August, 1931)

(72) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (2nd September, 1931)

(73) Tom Johnson, speech in the House of Commons (8th September, 1931)

(74) Austen Morgan, J. Ramsay MacDonald (1987) pages 114-115

(75) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (2nd October, 1931)

(76) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 62

(77) Martin Pugh, Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (2010) page 216

(78) George Lansbury, letter to Charles Trevelyan (5th January, 1932)

(79) Francis Williams, Ernest Bevin (1952) page 196

(80) Clement Attlee, The Observer (30th December, 1951)

(81) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (16th December, 1932)

(82) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (23rd November, 1931)

(83) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (25th November, 1931)

(84) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (9th May, 1932)

(85) Henry Channon, diary entry (June, 1935)

(86) Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee: A Life in Politics (2012) page 75

(87) Beatrice Webb, diary entry (28th September, 1935)

(88) Hugh Dalton, The Fateful Years: Memoirs, 1931-1945 (1957) page 82

(89) Hugh Dalton, diary entry (26th November, 1935)

(90) Harold Laski, Manchester Guardian (9th October, 1935)

(91) The Daily Mail (14th October, 1935)

(92) Clement Attlee, speech (1st October, 1935)

(93) The Daily Mail (14th October, 1935)

(94) Kingsley Martin, The New Statesman (24th April, 1954)

(95) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) page 104

(96) The Observer (20th October, 1935)

(97) Patricia Knight, The Spanish Civil War (1998) page 67

(98) Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War (1982) page 110

(99) Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee (2000) page 134

(100) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (29th October, 1936)

(101) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (26th October, 1936)

(102) Michael Jago, Clement Attlee (2017) pages 107-108

(103) Clement Attlee, letter to Tom Attlee (29th April, 1938)

(104) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 214

(105) The Observer (5th December, 1937)

(106) Clement Attlee, As It Happened (1954) pages 112-113

(107) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 345

(108) Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement and the British Road to War (1998) page 27

(109) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (14th March, 1938)

(110) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (26th March 1936)

(111) Peter Neville, Nevile Henderson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(112) Graham Darby, Hitler, Appeasement and the Road to War (1999) page 56

(113) Statement issued by Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler after the signing of the Munich Agreement (30th September, 1938)

(114) Neville Henderson, Failure of a Mission (1940) page 167

(115) Clement Attlee, speech in the House of Commons (3rd October, 1938)

John Simkin