Great Prime Ministers are winners. Attlee won Labour its first-ever majority with the landslide in 1945 and his government delivered an enormously transformative manifesto, practically in its entirety. The NHS, co-founding NATO, the end of empire, rebuilding the economy after the War, and the nationalisation of industry – these things were to shape Britain for decades ahead. The Attlee government set the framework of postwar politics.
Attlee practised a collective model of leadership that was extremely effective after the convulsions of the War and Churchill’s idiosyncratic and charismatic rule. In person he was not overbearing by any means but he was skilled at manufacturing and managing consensus, at keeping discord at bay in a Cabinet full of strong personalities like Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps and so on. After the larger-than-life, autocratic Churchill, Attlee was a reassuring figure on the national scene – a kind of understanding, trustworthy and reassuring Captain Mainwaring, the sort of man you want around in a time of national difficulty.
Attlee’s opponents tended to underestimate him, often fatally so. The Tories attacked him mercilessly as a non-entity when he was in office. Churchill is reputed to have said that an empty taxi turned up and Mr Attlee got out. His own party firebrands often felt frustrated at his measured approach, feeling that he followed rather than led. And yet whenever the dust settled, somehow Attlee would still be standing and would be seen to have made the sensible decision.
When Attlee’s government was finally beaten in 1951 by Churchill, it was largely because Labour had run out of steam. The party was faced with the choice of further nationalisation or consolidation. There was a lot of infighting instead of new ideas, and the Conservatives finally got their act together. And it has to be said that one of Attlee’s weaknesses was that he was bad at timing general elections.
Calling elections in 1950 and then 1951 were both terrible moves. There had been a huge reorganisation of seats that favoured the Conservatives, plus Labour was campaigning in conditions of austerity – not unlike now. Because Attlee had rebuilt the economy with an emphasis on exports and industry rather than domestic living standards, Churchill was able to exploit the fact that Britain was still under rationing. Labour went out of power for 13 years.
Politicians’ reputations do change over the years and it’s fair to say that Attlee’s declined quite drastically afterwards. By the time of his death in 1967 he was written-off by some writers as a sort of second-rate mediocrity. By the 1970s some historians were actually rating Macmillan above Attlee.
But the more we look in depth at his record, the more it grows in stature. It was only in the 1980s, when Thatcher began to sweep away much that Attlee had stood for, that we started to see the first proper biographical and historically informed appreciations of what he achieved. Since then his reputation has only grown. Attlee has topped my poll of postwar Prime Ministers among politics academics for the third time running; there’s growing consensus around the argument that he was not merely a effective Prime Minister but a great one.