Why Attlee Was Our Best Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee Have Recently Been Hailed as Britain's Most Effective Prime Ministers by a Prominent Historian. Most of Us Lived through Thatcherism but Attlee's Accomplishments Are Not Quite So Well Known. Here Alun Thorne Looks Back at the Legacy of Britain's First Post-War Prime Minister and Argues That His Achievements Outshine All Those before or Since

The Birmingham Post (England), August 30, 2006 | Go to article overview

Why Attlee Was Our Best Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee Have Recently Been Hailed as Britain's Most Effective Prime Ministers by a Prominent Historian. Most of Us Lived through Thatcherism but Attlee's Accomplishments Are Not Quite So Well Known. Here Alun Thorne Looks Back at the Legacy of Britain's First Post-War Prime Minister and Argues That His Achievements Outshine All Those before or Since


Byline: Alun Thorne

Clement Attlee wasn't always a socialist. Indeed, during his time at Oxford he proclaimed to be much more of a Conservative - although he wasn't really the card-carrying type.

It was after he left the hallowed halls of Oxford and began visiting a boys' club in Hackney in east London that his views on life began to change.

"I soon began to learn many things which had hitherto been unrevealed," he said in his autobiography As It Happened.

"I found there was a different social code. Thrift, so dear to the middle classes, was not esteemed so highly as generosity. The Christian virtue of charity was practised, not merely preached. I recall a boy in the club living in two rooms with his widowed mother. He earned seven shillings and sixpence a week. A neighbouring family, where there was no income coming in, were thrown onto the street by the landlord. The boy and his mother took them all into their little home."

This is just one of many stories recanted by Attlee about his 14 years at Haileybury House that would mould the man who this week has been hailed, alongside the 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher, as Britain's most effective Prime Minister.

Historian Francis Beckett ranked the 20 Prime Ministers, from Lord Salisbury to Tony Blair, with a score from one to five for the latest edition of BBC History Magazine.

The assessment was based not on popularity but on the politician's ability to put their visions for changing the country into practice.

According to Mr Beckett, Winston Churchill, the public's 'Greatest Briton', was merely the third most effective Prime Minister despite leading the nation through a successful prosecution of World War Two.

Both Attlee and Thatcher ranked the highest possible score of five for successfully pushing through their social agenda and while many remember (or are possibly trying to forget) the changes Thatcherism brought to Britain, those with first-hand experience of the seachange that swept Britain thanks to Attlee's first post-war Government are dwindling by the day.

As Beckett rightly states, Thatcher deserves her place at the top of the pile after "she took one sort of society, and turned it into another sort of society" and picks her hard-fought victory over the miners as the key moment of her premiership.

But in breaking the power of the unions, shrinking the state though privatisation and cutting taxes for the wealthy, she was effectively dismantling Attlee's legacy of 50 years previous.

Attlee was born in Putney in 1883 and enjoyed a privileged education at Oxford University before his years in the East End working with boys from the slums converted him to socialism.

In 1914 Attlee joined the British Army and served in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, where he was badly wounded at El Hanna. After recovering back in England, Attlee was sent to France in 1918 and served on the Western Front for the last few months of the war. By the end of the First World War Attlee reached the rank of major.

After the war Attlee returned to teaching at the London School of Economics and became a member of the Labour Party, becoming heavily involved in local politics.

After serving as Mayor of Stepney, he was elected to Parliament in the 1922 General Election as Labour MP for Lime-house in London. Ramsay Mac-Donald, the leader of the party in the House of Commons, recruited Attlee as his parliamentary secretary (1922-24). In the 1924 Labour Government Attlee was appointed as Under Secretary of State for War.

After the Labour Party victory in the 1929 General Election, MacDonald appointed Attlee as postmaster-general. However, like most ministers, Attlee refused to serve in the National Government formed by MacDonald in 1931. Attlee was one of the few Labour MPs to win his seat in the 1931 General Election and became deputy leader of the party under George Lansbury. …

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Why Attlee Was Our Best Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee Have Recently Been Hailed as Britain's Most Effective Prime Ministers by a Prominent Historian. Most of Us Lived through Thatcherism but Attlee's Accomplishments Are Not Quite So Well Known. Here Alun Thorne Looks Back at the Legacy of Britain's First Post-War Prime Minister and Argues That His Achievements Outshine All Those before or Since
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