Clement Attlee: A simple yet revolutionary statesman

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As the contest for the Labour leadership nears its conclusion, I believe it is necessary to reflect on Labour’s past. The 1945 General Election will always be a historic moment in the history of the Labour Party. The country had just come out of a bloody world war, during which politicians had preached the notion of equal sacrifice for the British flag. Labour MPs such as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee were utilised by the Churchill administration to rally the masses behind the war effort. Labour thus demonstrated its ability to work effectively in highly testing circumstances. As troops returned from the devastation in Europe, the political climate of Britain had shifted. Ordinary Britons, having made equal sacrifices, now sought equal shares in the post-war world. Subsequently, Labour swept into power with a landslide victory. The party won 393 seats, a post-war record unsurpassed until the Thatcher era.

 

Although the Labour Party was a significant political force before WW2, it had never formed a majority government. If we assess the 1945 General Election in terms of personality politics, then it is difficult to see exactly why the nation awarded the keys to Downing Street to Clement Attlee. Indeed, Conservative leader Winston Churchill was the hero of the war; a man of superhuman stature and strength. In comparison, after the First World War, the popularity of wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd-George was so overpowering that the Liberal leader was able to manufacture his way into Downing Street despite winning 250 fewer seats than the Tories. Consequently, in 1945, why did the nation elect a man who was once described by Churchill as a “sheep in sheep’s clothing”; a man who had not led the nation to victory?

 

An answer can perhaps be extracted from Attlee's pitch to the nation. Indeed, Labour's manifesto for the 1945 election was simple yet revolutionary. The manifesto, written by Michael Young, was entitled, ‘Let Us Face the Future’. If we consider the recently concluded election of 2015, it was clear that all parties claimed to offer the nation a ‘better future’. However, the issue for Ed Miliband's Labour Party was that it offered few genuinely new or ‘alternative’ ideas for how to ensure the betterment of society. Attlee, by contrast, proposed to the nation a radical programme of nationalisation and full employment; aligning his political vision with the ‘new popular radicalism’ of post-war British society.

 

The 1950s were momentous for British politics. The Conservative Party accepted and entrenched Attlee’s welfare state, fostering a post-war consensus built upon a proactive, rather than a benevolent state. Attlee could thus be credited with establishing a political agenda that endured until the emergence of the New Right during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, Clement Attlee founded a post-war consensus that improved the lives of ordinary Brits, one which awarded them a genuine stake in society for the first time. Attlee was a revolutionary statesman, even if he didn't exhibit the ritual pomp of leaders such as Winston Churchill.

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