A few years ago, a British friend gave me a "What Would Clement Do?" T-shirt
and complimented me that I was the only Yank she knew who might understand it. She was exaggerating my erudition; though I'd heard of British Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, I didn't know hardly a thing about him. And so, eventually, I picked up historian John Bew's exhaustive biography, Clement Attlee: The Man Who Made Modern Britain
Bew advocates vigorously for the historic significance of his subject:
... it is difficult to think of another individual through whom one can better tell Britain's story form the high imperialism of Queen Victoria's Jubilee of 1887, through two world wars, the Great Depression, the nuclear age, and the cold war, and the transition from empire to commonwealth.
Born in the late 19th century into Britain's comfortable middle class, Attlee was on his way to a genteel conservative life via a second tier public (private) school, Oxford, and reading for the bar, when he took a detour into the London slums (Stepney, Limehouse) and emerged a convinced socialist. Amid the frothy political currents of the day, he took up with the pragmatic socialists -- as opposed to the airy intellectuals or dogmatic Marxists. These socialists eventually amalgamated with the trade unions to form the Labour Party. The Great War (1914-18) pulled Attlee into combat; amid the slaughter at Gallipoli and later in Iraq, he was lucky enough to suffer wounds which took him away while his units were decimated. He came out of the war a respected major, a leader of men, and returned to campaigning for socialism in London's East End. He was elected to Parliament in 1922 proclaiming:
"I stand for life against wealth ... I claim the right of every man, woman and child in the land to 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 in the interests of all as a cooperative commonwealth in which land and capital will be owned by the nation and used for the benefit of the country."
... [In those years] socialists may have remained deeply unsatisfied with the situation in post-war Britain, but the point that Attlee was making was that they no longer had any excuse for failing to participate. He threw down the gauntlet to those who believed they were 'above the rough and tumble of a local election', or above the need for compromise on politics. He condemned the "revolutionary idealist" who rejected democratic participation. This type of extremist would "criticise and condemn all methods of social advance that do not directly square with his formulae and will repeat his shibboleths without any attempt to work out their practical application."
The Great Depression of the 1930s with mass unemployment and near starvation among the working class tempted him toward a less 'democratic' radicalism envisioning implementing "socialism by decree" if Labour should ever gain power. But the rise of fascism in Europe changed his views:
the British Labour Party should define itself as standing for democracy over totalitarianism. Whether that totalitarianism was fascist or communist was essentially irrelevant.
It didn't help that he experienced the communists in East End London as violent thugs, all too similar to British fascist Oswald Mosley's followers.
In 1935, Attlee was elected leader of the parliamentary Labour Party. He was thought a weak choice, but had supporters in all factions. He had led his party to support full self-government for India and had lent his support to the fighters of the Spanish Republic, visiting soldiers in that civil war. The party now put forward what was seen as a "moderate" program:
A Labour government would nationalise the Bank of England, coal, electricity, cotton, and transport. Unemployment would be tackled and the means test for welfare would be abolished.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party in government was appeasing Hitler abroad and failing to bring prosperity at home. As British resistance to the Nazi sweep across Europe crumbled in 1940, the old war horse Winston Churchill came in as Prime Minister and formed a government of national unity, bringing in Labour with Attlee as the party's leader. Bew speculates that for Churchill in that terrible moment,
... if turning Britain socialist was the price of victory, it was one he might be willing to pay.
Meanwhile, Attlee offered his understanding of what Labour's war aims ought to be:
"It would be an error to think changes are only needed in dictatorship countries, or after the war Western democracies can return to their rear positions unaffected..." [Labour was fighting not only against fascism but also] to make "the world safe for the ordinary man and woman of whatever creed or color," and for the "fundamental decencies of life."
Churchill and Attlee worked as successful wartime partners. Attlee's experience in the 1914 war had reinforced his gut level patriotism and given him a sense of the social mobilization required to win an existential national struggle. The Labour ministers were thought to have made essential contributions to war mobilization. And then -- dramatically -- in 1945 just as hostilities were being completed, the British electorate voted the Conservatives out of power and installed the Labour Party with Attlee as prime minister.
The residue of the war greatly assisted Labour in carrying out its program. The nation had become accustomed to a mix of disruption, solidarity and shared sacrifice. Wartime controls on finance and industry meant that it was possible with minimal disturbance to nationalize key economic sectors in accord with long stated aims. And Labour turned the aroused energy of the nation to creating the National Health Service (over the objections of many doctors) and building housing for the returning soldiers. Concurrently, independence finally came to India, signaling the end of empire though further decolonization took another decade and a half.
No British government of the twentieth century was as active, in terms of legislation passed, as the Attlee administration when it came to changing the relationship between state and society.
By 1951, Labour's leaders, largely men (very few women) who had carried the nation through the war against fascism, were quite simply tired. Voters returned the Conservatives to power in that year; Attlee remained party leader until 1955 -- a run of 20 long years at the highest level of British politics.
Obviously, Attlee's career played a huge role in shaping the Britain that endured at least until Margaret Thatcher's Conservative regime (1979-90) and in some ways until today, though its legacy of enlightened social policies is always under assault.
He wasn't ever a heroic or larger than life leader like his contemporary Churchill; people tended to underestimate him, but he certainly helped bring change gracefully to a Britain losing its empire and its world position, all for the benefit of its people. Not bad.
One of John Bew's themes in this biography is how Attlee's socialism differed from pretty much all the other variants that thrived in the 20th century. He was not ideological in the common sense.
For Attlee, British socialism had a pre-history which long predated the theories of Karl Marx. [He looked to the writings of Romantic poets, to Percy Blythe Shelley, to John Ruskin, to Edward Morris .... but] ... aesthetic or idyllic socialism could take one only so far. The nation and the state could not be wished away; in fact Attlee came to think of them as positive instruments of change. [He was formed in part by the American Edward Bellamy's forward looking socialist vision ...] "the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away."
Improving conditions for workers, such as wages, working hours, insurance and healthcare, was the first battle the Labour movement should fight. .. while he believed that it was necessary to insert some science into socialism, there was a danger it would become too mechanical and systematized, and lose sight of the citizens it was supposed to liberate. "The besetting sin of the scientific type of social reformer is his failure to make allowance for the idiosyncrasies of the individual."
For an extended time, this British socialism worked for most citizens. Eventually a rapacious modern capitalism replaced it and Labour for a long time lost its moorings, whether in opposition or in government. As the current Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May stumbles through Brexit, Labour has regained much popularity -- can it again find a way to look ahead? "What WOULD Clement Do?"