If I were to be cynical, which would come as no surprise, I could say Tony Blair was the most successful war criminal; or Margaret Thatcher was the most successful at selling local authority housing. But, I feel it would be nice to write dichotomously compared to the rest of blog, and say who was the most successful at making the most happy, and uncontroversially doing the best for the country.
I looked at a few surveys surrounding this issue – they’re all from a little while ago, so some of them don’t include Cameron, and all don’t include May. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_rankings_of_Prime_Ministers_of_the_United_Kingdom] But three names are always near the top, two of which previously mentioned. Thatcher, Blair & Attlee. No prime minister has made everyone happy, but I think our two earliest prime ministers, Churchill & Attlee stick out to me. The main problem being, Churchill’s first and second ministry were the ones he made the greatest effect – which gives me one left: Clement Attlee.
It is claimed in the 2010 University of Leeds survey, ‘Clement Attlee is highly rated for his post-war leadership and social reforms.’ I even posed the question to an ex-politics A-level friend, and she said ‘Definitely Attlee – social welfare and that [sic].’
Attlee was born into a middle-class family in Putney – Then Surrey, now London. In 1906 he volunteered to help at a working-class boys club in Stepney. Up to this point, his political persuasion was rather conservative, however, he was shocked by poverty in the slums. His view was that private charity would never sufficiently stop this and only direct action and ‘income redistribution’ provided by the state would have any large scale useful response. He was still willing to serve in the First World War, even though he was originally rejected due to his old age of 31. Labour won the 1945 General Election with the theme of ‘Let Us Face the Future’ purporting to rebuild Britain after the Second World War.
Attlee’s government was committed to rebuilding society after the war, and utilising public ownership to abolish the extreme ends of wealth and poverty. This was in vast contrast to the Conservative ideology. He was not too focused on economic policy and allowed the cabinet to handle the issues.
Attlee’s Government formed the NHS, in a fight against the disapproval of the medical establishment. They formed a public funded healthcare system, that was free of charge for all at the point of use – meaning when you need it you don’t pay, rather through taxation. In 1946 National Insurance was introduced. Workers paid a flat rate and in return, they gained a pension, sickness pay, unemployment benefit and funeral fees. Other benefits were introduced and became exempt from tax in 1949. Attlee fundamentally introduced systems that protect us at our lowest points either through health or economically, and both of these systems ring through today.
Housing was also a big deal and instructed county councils to prepare development plans. Councils had to provide emergency and temporary accommodation to those who were found homeless through no fault of their own. Local authorities were empowered to provide people suffering from poor health to subsidised rents. He also introduced many large house-building programmes. Many were left homeless after the war, and this process allowed housing to be affordable in a time of economic instability.
Nationalisation was perhaps his middle name. The bank of England, civil aviation, coal mining, the railways, road haulage , the canals were nationalised by 1947, in 1948 electricity and gas, and then by 1951 the steel industry. At this point, 20% of the British economy was under public ownership. It didn’t increase a greater say for workers, but increased wages, reduced working hours and significant changes to Health & Safety requirements. There weren’t smiles all round during this, as they appeared to be communist views, and with the Cold War brewing, some didn’t appreciate the move.
Attlee made education easier to access, increased the school leaving age and grew the economy by 3% each year. He was focused on forming the United Nations and decolonisation. He also feared the Cold War and worked towards his views of post-war Europe.
He was defeated in 1951, after him and his cabinet started to run out of new ideas, and people wanted something fresh. He received peerage in 1955 and spoke in 1962 against the UK’s application to join the EEC (common market)
Clement Attlee had a difficult job to do: Sweep up post-war Britain. He made some revolutionary changes, some of which are discussed every day in modern politics. The introduction of the NHS, national insurance and a proper welfare system means he cared for everyone, not just those who could fund his government. I think his upbringing and involvement in the war aided this, and it was fairly new to politics at the time, which lead to some disapproval. But in general, I think he did a good job at the impossible task; and has a lasting impact.