A great trailblazer and reformer, Clement Attlee is claimed by some to have been Britain’s greatest peacetime leader. Unlike the many that came before him, Attlee was not born into the aristocracy. He was the child of an upper-middle class family living in London, and received a fairly standard middle class upbringing. As a young man, he was influenced by Darwinist and Conservative views, later describing himself at this time as a “good old fashioned imperialist conservative”.
During a volunteership at a charity for working class boys, however, Attlee’s views radically changed. He bore first-hand witness to the poverty through which a great many of Britain’s population suffered, a tragic reality that he had, as a member of the middle class, initially been sheltered from. This sparked his interest in politics, and he later became a socialist activist. Before World War One, he pursued a political career with little success – failing his first election. Undeterred, he would return to politics immediately after the war, standing successfully in the election for the mayorship of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, at the time a famously poverty-stricken area. During his mayorship, he worked tirelessly to alleviate conditions for the poor and attacked wealthy landlords who abused their positions. In 1922, he became a Member of Parliament, and by 1935 he had ascended through the hierarchy of the Labour Party to become the Leader of the Opposition.
In what remains one of the most famous British elections of all time, Attlee became Prime Minister in 1945, immediately after Germany had been defeated in the war. The result came as a surprise to both the Labour and Conservative parties, as they had staunchly believed Churchill’s popularity as a war-time leader would ensure the Conservative Party’s re-election. However, the Labour party won a landslide victory, and almost immediately Attlee’s government set to work on radical reforms.
Attlee is most famously credited with authorising the creation of the National Health Service (NHS), which was launched by his minister of health, Aneurin Bevan. He also nationalised many industries and utilities, such as the coal and steel industries, as well as the railways. He improved conditions for workers and the average, everyday Briton astronomically, and made it easier for Unionists to demand better treatment from employers.