The Class of 45: Attlee’s Critical War Years

Beginning a new series on the Class of 1945, Euan Saunders takes a look at Attlee and his role in Churchill’s War Cabinet

Clement Attlee embodies the Labour Movement. As the first Labour Prime Minister to govern with a majority he oversaw the most transformative economic and social programme in British political history. It is for this work that he is best remembered. 

However, Attlee’s role throughout World War II in Winston Churchill’s National Government is often overlooked. Here, he developed the foundations for his post-war programme, outmanoeuvring Churchill and gaining vital leadership experience as Deputy Prime Minister. 

Churchill’s leadership throughout WWII is viewed as omniscient and omnipotent. It has, as a result, defined much of the British political culture. Embodying the “bulldog” spirit, Churchill is referred to by many as the main reason Britain won the war. There is no doubt that his performative rhetoric and strong oratory skills were a vital asset. 

However, lost over time is the role played by the team around him. He was fortunate that in Britain’s darkest hour, a robust War Cabinet from all corners of the Commons and the Lords ably controlled the domestic sphere.

When Churchill ascended to the Premiership in May 1940, he was focused on one thing and one thing only: defeating Germany. Little time could be devoted to domestic issues.

Churchill’s focus on the war effort forced him to construct a Cabinet, which supplemented his skills and brought the best out of others. He claimed he had “left no genius out of government,” utilising Liberal, Labour, and Independent members.

This war cabinet would provide military support, be privy to decision making, but also empowered individuals to lead in other aspects of the war. Attlee was one of the best examples of this – commanding a great deal of domestic power.  

In May 1940, Churchill appointed Attlee to Lord Privy Seal. He granted him status as a member of the War cabinet alongside his Labour Deputy Arthur Greenwood. In this role, Attlee oversaw policy development on a range of committees, such as the Food Policy and Home Policy Committee, as well as assisting with the Steering Committee and the Lord President’s Committee. It says a great deal about Attlee’s persona that Churchill entrusted him to mobilise the operations of British resources at such a critical time. 

The Food Policy Committee, for example, considered rationing levels and agricultural wages, whilst the Steering Committee looked ahead to reconstruction after the war and the kind of society Britain should become. By 1942, Attlee had pushed Churchill to establish the Lord President’s Committee, to amalgamate the existing committees and manage the majority of the domestic sphere, which would be led by John Anderson, an independent member. This committee essentially created a Cabinet dedicated to decision making on the domestic front. 

These experiences developed Attlee’s skills as a Chairman, and he was able to utilise the skills of others to arrive at an adequate policy or decision. He took this skill into the Labour administration, using the levers of power to rebuild the welfare state. 

Moreover, these committees, and the development of the Lord President’s Committee, removed the onus from the Cabinet, the treasury and Number 10, and instead placed it in the hands of able bureaucrats and administrators. This increased Attlee’s dominance of the domestic sphere in the early period of the war, but also emboldened him. 

Attlee’s role within War Cabinet also had a ceremonial focus. As Lord Privy Seal and later Deputy Prime Minister, he chaired the meetings when Churchill was in Europe and in the United States. He deputised ahead of Tory grandees such as Anthony Eden and Kingsley Wood. This was despite Eden being designated second-in-command, should anything have happened to Churchill.

Attlee often led discussions in the Commons, whether this was reporting to the House on wartime matters, such as the situation in the Far East or on the various naval missions. He also took on a more public image, giving speeches at rallies and to the broader Labour movement, providing greater credibility in the eyes of the public, but also within the movement. 

“Citizen Clem” flourished in his roles within the National Government. Before 1940 many would have suggested that he could not make an impression at all, lesser still help to lead the country through the darkest of times.  A now-disowned quote from Churchill sums up the Conservative party’s impression of Attlee: “An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.” 

You could suggest that the pre-war, “empty taxi” Attlee would have capitulated, and allowed Morrison, Cripps, or Bevin to usurp him as the leader and impart their stamp on history. Wartime leadership had changed and hardened him, making him a resilient leader and an able chairman, willing to do what it needed to succeed. 

With Churchill’s reshuffle in 1942, Attlee cemented his position. After ignoring Lord Beaverbrook’s request to fire him, Churchill promoted him to the newly created role of Deputy Prime Minister. Here, Attlee could exercise his real power, as the de jureand de factonumber two. He began to shift the focus of the domestic debate to what would become his post-war reconstruction programme. 

After the publication of the Beveridge Report, Attlee made it his mission – alongside managing the domestic sphere – to introduce legislation in the Commons and attempt to push through reform whilst in coalition, rather than waiting for a Labour government. He aimed to widen the scope of social security and introduce universal healthcare. Whilst defeated in legislative terms, he had changed the debate. 

The most critical development of Attlee’s career was the decision to take responsibility for governing.. Labour had a ready made excuse not enter the War Cabinet.  Churchill’s issues with the Labour movement are well known. In the early 20thcentury, the Tonypandy issue in the Rhondda saw Churchill order the army to fire on striking workers. In 1919, he again demonstrated his dislike of organised Labour at the “Battle of George Square,” where Churchill ordered the tanks to “roll into the crowd” of striking workers, in Glasgow. 

To say Churchill was unpopular within the Labour Movement was an understatement. He was hated. But Attlee bridged this colossal gap and took the Labour Movement with him. And despite Churchill’s disdain for all things “socialism,” he had respect for the giants of the Labour Movement, and none more so than Attlee. 

So, Attlee’s multi-faceted role provided him with the perfect grounding for development and to redefine his quiet, small demeanour into an assertive Chairman of the Board. As outlined, he was essentially the de facto Prime Minister, leading the domestic sphere and dictating a policy agenda. It is this period which defined Attlee’s leadership. It prepared him for the tumultuous period after the war. If he could help face down the threat of the Axis powers, in his eyes, he could achieve anything in government.

Euan Saunders is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh. After reading a history degree he is currently interning with a Labour MP. His policy interests are in devolution, transport development, and urban planning. 

One thought on “The Class of 45: Attlee’s Critical War Years

  1. Pingback: The Class of 45: Attlee’s Critical War Years – Euan Saunders

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