For many people Clement Attlee remains somewhat of an enigma: a small bald man, physically unimpressive and a poor orator and yet the enactor of the most radical government this country has ever seen. Clement Attlee, alongside Winston Churchill, helped the United Kingdom and her allies to win the Second World War. Attlee then deposed the heroic Winston Churchill, winning a landslide victory in 1945. In the succeeding five years, the Labour Party inaugurated the National Health Service, nationalised the bankrupt utilities of coal, gas, electricity and the railway industries, and presided over the first significant period of decolonisation, negotiating the overdue independence of India. The Labour Party did all this under Clement Attlee, during a period in which Britain was reeling financially from the aftermath of the war. By the time the Attlee government was voted out of office in 1951, it had overseen six years of full employment, rising living standards and economic growth which stood at 3% a year (the best economic performance in Europe.) 
It is these things that make Clement Attlee our greatest peacetime Prime Minister and a hugely significant political figure.
Attlee was born in Putney in 1883, to a conservative, god-fearing family headed by a successful solicitor. Initially, it seemed that Clement would be no different. He was educated at Haileybury College before attending University College, Oxford, where he studied for a BA in Modern History. After graduation Attlee then trained as a lawyer, and was called to the Bar in 1906. In 1906 he decided to do some voluntary work, and his former college Haileybury College had an association with a working class boy’s club in London’s East End. It is often argued that the poverty and deprivation he witnessed whilst working for this charitable organisation caused him to change his previously conservative political views and become a socialist, joining the Independent Labour Party in 1908.
The First World War soon followed and unlike many of his socialist colleagues who insisted on pacifism, Attlee immediately signed up. He caught dysentery in Gallipoli and was badly wounded in a battle near the Suez Canal in April 1916, but recovered enough to be sent back to France in 1918. It is documented that he pulled a pistol on a weeping junior officer who did not want to go over the top, a clear example of the determined character that lay beneath his unassuming presentation.
He became a Member of Parliament in 1922, Under-Secretary of State for War in 1924 and then after the 1931 General Election (which ended in disaster for Labour) deputy leader under George Lansbury. Attlee was chosen to succeed Lansbury (a pacifist) as Labour leader in 1935. He was expected to last six weeks, long enough to guide his party through a general election at which point it was expected that several distinguished figures that had lost their seats in 1931, notably Herbert Morrison, would be returned to Westminster. Morrison returned to parliament, but Attlee lasted another 20 years as Labour leader, five years spent as wartime deputy to Churchill, and six years as prime minister.
Attlee is often described as an ordinary politician and thinker who simply found himself in the right place at the right time. His quiet and unassuming image meant that his Conservative opponents painted him as weak and ineffectual. Churchill asserted that “Mr Attlee is a very modest man. Indeed, he has a lot to be modest about.”
It was not just those on the right of the political spectrum who were dismissive of Attlee’s ability: Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the New Statesman and the London School of Economics and Political Science, described him as “without distinction in the voice, manner or substance of his discourse. To realise that this little nonentity is the Parliamentary Leader of the Labour Party – and presumably the future Prime Minister – is pitiable.” On the contrary it was his trustworthy, inauspicious character which allowed him to enact such radical, far reaching and sweeping policies. Attlee’s conception of leadership was that of being a “good chairman able to get others to work” and telling the party conference in 1953 “I am only here to carry out your will.” This concept of leadership is profoundly democratic and, when combined with Attlee’s deep moral compulsion, leads us to question what Attlee would have thought of today’s generation of politicians and their reliance on presentation over substance.
Perhaps the greatest compliment paid to Attlee and his government came not from the left, but the Thatcher’s Conservative party, who set about completely reversing Attlee’s work. Nigel Lawson describes in a lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies:
How Thatcher’s governments had transformed the politics of British–indeed Britain itself–to an extent no other government has achieved since the Attlee governments of 1945-51 . . . . [Which] . . . . set the political agenda for the next quarter of a century. The two key principles which informed its actions and for which it stood, big government and the drive towards equality, remained effectively unchallenged for more than a generation, the very heart of the post-war consensus.
In just his six years Clement Attlee managed to so fundamentally alter the British economy that it took Mrs Thatcher over ten years to reverse the post-war consensus.The post-war consensus may have been dismantled by Thatcher’s government, which continued under New Labour. However, it is still politically toxic for any government to attempt to dismantle or reform the National Health Service, and the welfare state still exists in a similar form to that which Mr Attlee’s government introduced. The achievements abroad are irreversible and the freeing of millions of people from imperialism after the war is an outstanding achievement too often forgotten. Attlee’s career should serve as a crucial lesson for today’s Parliamentary Labour Party: a democratic leader who led a cohesive, principled and successful government because the party knew what they believed in.
Article by Ben Craig. Edited by Claire Porthouse.
M. Beech and S. Lee, (eds.) Ten Years of New Labour, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p.37.
 1988 Lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies ‘The tide of ideas from Attlee to Thatcher’