Clement Attlee – Widely considered the finest UK Prime Minister of modern times, in public and academic surveys
Labour was elected to office in July of 1945. Ten months later (on the 11th of June) Attlee reported on the government’s achievements to the rest of the Labour Party. They were many: nationalisation of the Bank of England, the repeal of the Trades Disputes Act, legislation on National Insurance and the NHS. But also numerous were the difficulties: managing demobilization; the transition from a war to a peace economy; the housing shortage in a bombed-out nation; shortages of labour, coal, transport and food.
The Times described this speech, in terms that perhaps seem unlikely to be applied to so famously modest a figure as Clem Attlee, calling it “a vivacious account of the Government’s achievements in the first 10 months of its life”. In truth there is much that seems simply businesslike in this speech. Yet that very manner serves Attlee well as he seeks to reassure his Party and steel it for the labours to come.
Formally, the party leader’s speech to the Labour Party Conference is the report of the Parliamentary section to the rest of the Labour movement. And perhaps the most striking thing about the speech, to those looking at it today, is the extent to which it really is such a report. There is little here that is addressed to a wider public and not much that is hugely rousing. Indeed, the tone is more one of reassurance of the Party. Attlee lays out the successes of his young ministry, and affirms the overall competence and experience of the Labour Parliamentarians. There seems to be a measure of defensiveness in front of a party that may want more, and more quickly. Attlee dampens expectations while reassuring that ‘the Movement is going forward’.
The speech is light on metaphorical flourish – aside from a rather drawn out image of a policy ‘fish basket’ – but ends with a firm commitment to he an idealistic politics. A passage in foreign policy affirms commitment to decolonisation and the spread of democracy. Expressions of international solidarity will remain an element of the Labour leaders speech into the 1990’s.
Overall the speech is an argument for (and a demonstration of) the unity of the party in government. But behind that lurks a certain defensiveness. In reporting on the success of the Parliamentary Party Attlee seems to think it necessary to prove the right of his people to be in office. He stresses their legitimacy by referring several times to their electoral mandate; he affirms competence by adducing ministers’ previous experience in the war cabinet; he cites the ability to convince an unnamed American statesman. He also feels it is important to state that his government’s policies are rooted in practical experience and not ‘a priori theorising’. In short, although primarily addressed to the party the speech seems also to respond to range of criticisms expresses elsewhere (and in so doing draws attention to them). That is a characteristic of speeches from Labour leaders. It is never found in Conservative oratory.
I have heard many Parliamentary Reports moved in Conference. I myself have been responsible for a number of them, but this Parliamentary Report differs in character from any of those that have come before Conference hitherto. For the first time we have a Report of the work of a Labour Government in power, a Labour Government supported by a great majority in the House of Commons, a Labour Government carrying out the policies of the Socialist Movement.
I have been nearly 24 years in the House of Commons, years of struggle, years of being in a minority, with two short frustrated periods of office. It was not without emotion that I rose for the first time in the House of Commons with the consciousness of the backing of nearly 400 Members. Today my mind goes back, first of all, to the last Bournemouth Conference in that fateful year, 1940. I remember how this Conference took its great decision. It did not take that decision lightly, but it resolved that in the crisis of the nation the Labour Movement would take its full share of responsibility. We went into the Government as a united party. Through those difficult years we worked as a united party, and we came out as a united party. Those decisions were taken democratically by the Labour Party in conference. We did not have to wait to be told the party line from elsewhere.
Those five years of responsibility were of inestimable value to us when the time came for us to take over the responsibilities of government. We had much experience. We had much knowledge of the problems that we had to face, but before we took over the Government we went to an election, and we fought that General Election honestly. I have known skilful tacticians in the political world who have told me that it was always advisable to go to the country on negatives, on criticism, on grievances and vague promises. I have known Governments that have got in through a subterfuge.
I have known Governments that have got in through stunts of one kind and another. We went in setting out our full programme, and as a result we were returned – as our opponents admit – with a mandate for our full policy. That is democracy in action.
What has been our course of action since we obtained power? How have we approached our problems? I recall very well meeting the new Labour Parliamentary Party in the Beaver Hall in the City of London, and I stated then that our intention was to carry out our full programme. I said: ‘We have to deal with the problems arising from the war and the aftermath of war, very heavy problems that will put a burden on any Government. We have schemes of social reform, schemes prepared during the war government, in the preparation of which your Labour Ministers took a very full share. We are resolved to carry through those great schemes.’ But, I said, ‘We also are resolved to carry out as rapidly and as energetically as we can the distinctive side of Labour’s programme: our socialist policy, our policy of nationalisation.’ That was the line of action laid down then. It was embodied in the King’s speech, and this Report shows you how faithfully it has been carried out.
This vigorous and forceful action rather upset our opponents, for some of them seemed to be rather scandalised that, having gone to the country with a clear and definite programme, we should proceed to carry it out. It was always their pretence that programmes of nationalisation were theoretical, ideological fads, drawing the Government’s attention from its proper duties. Indeed, they went so far as to embody that view in a vote of censure which, as you will see from this Report, was well and truly defeated. The fact is that these measures of ours are not theoretical trimmings. They are an essential part of a planned economy that we are introducing into this country. They are designed to help in promoting full employment, economic prosperity and justice for all. They are vital to the efficient working of the industrial and political machine of this country. They are the embodiment of our Socialist principle of placing the welfare of the nation before that of any section and of dealing with every problem in a practical and businesslike way. We have been able to show how essential our proposals are to the needs of the existing situation, and so, when it came to bringing our measures on to the floor of the House, our Ministers and our Members in the House had no difficulty in putting their case across. Let me say that I have never known a Parliamentary Labour Party with so many Members so capable of putting Labour’s case across.
We had secured a clear mandate from the people, and so, when we introduced the nationalisation of the Bank of England – which some of us can remember as a subject of such violent storms in Parliament and the press, which was regarded by some people as the end of all things – it went through with hardly a ripple on the surface of either House, and when we came to the nationalisation of the mines, although there was criticism in detail, it was quite clear that the Opposition had no alternative. I recall very well, after the Second Reading debate, talking to an American statesman. He does not belong to our Party. The last thing he would like would be to be accused of being a Socialist, but when he came away from that debate he said: ‘Your man Shinwell convinced me.’ The case on the mines was unanswerable. Those two have already become law, but others are marching on. The Cable and Wireless Bill is in Committee, and so is the Civil Aviation Bill. Others are in preparation, and the process will continue. These measures are not the result of some a priori theorising. They come out of hard and practical experience and close study of the problems involved.
I think that that is a pretty good start. You must not overload the political machine. I believe that quite a number of our Members in the House of Commons are realising that we have made our policy of full employment begin with them. You must not overload the administrative machine either, because the Civil Servants are also experiencing full employment. In all these things we must observe the priorities
I can assure you that we are planning ahead. We are planning ahead for the work of the next session after this one and the next after that. It is generally agreed that this legislative activity is unexampled. It is attributable to the energies of Ministers, of the Civil Service and of the House of Commons. 73 Bills have been introduced. 55 have already received the Royal Assent. There are a lot of fish in the basket, and they are not just minnows. There are pretty big salmon among them. Look at those three great measures of social reform: National Insurance, National Insurance Injuries and the National Health Services. In previous Parliaments any one of those would have been thought to have provided a full meal for a whole year. We worked on the basis of what was done under the War Government, but Parliament and this Government have improved on those first drafts submitted during the war years. We have produced them in the first ten months of our Government.
Our opponents had some kind of a vague programme, not very clearly put across at the General Election, which was called the five year plan. As far as I can see they would have proceeded very leisurely to do in five years what we have done in ten months. We are in great measures of social reform, to vary my metaphor, two up and one to play, two on the Statute Book and one which is just going through Committee. We have had a wonderful spirit and wonderfully loyal support from all our Members in the House. Of course, they have criticised because we are trained in criticism, but their criticism has been constructive.
Let us look a little further into the fish basket. Here is another large one: the repeal of the Trade Disputes Act. At long last that unjust stigma on the Trade Union Movement, that injustice to Civil Servants, has been removed. The late Prime Minister invited us to go to the country on this issue, to appeal to Caesar. We appealed, Caesar gave his verdict, and the Trade Disputes Act is no more.
We have had two successful Budgets. It is a remarkable thing that confidence in our British financial system has risen steadily with the work of the Socialist Chancellor of the Exchequer. Besides these Budgets he has introduced other measures designed to make money the servant and not the master, designed to cause capital to flow into those channels where it will bring forth most fruit for the benefit of the whole people.
Among the lesser measures there are some which are of vital importance dealing with questions applicable to the miners, questions dealing with dockers, dealing with special sections of the people and dealing with the whole people. Besides these there are a number of measures which are absolutely needed in the stern conditions under which we are living.
I would like you for a moment to consider just what the conditions have been in which this great volume of legislation has been placed on the Statute Book: not the easy times of peace, not a time of settled conditions, not a time of leisure for Ministers or for Civil Servants, but the most difficult time of all, the period of reconstruction after a great war. I say, the fact that we have been able to pass these measures with full discussion is a great vindication of the democratic system of government.
But legislation is one thing and administration is another. Let us have a look at administration. No one, I think, would deny the magnitude of the administrative tasks that have faced this Government. People used to say to me before the election: ‘Don’t you hope you will not win? Look at the difficulty of your task.’ We did not take that line. Take one or two of our major questions. Demobilisation is an enormous problem. Our policy was to maintain with reasonable flexibility the principles which had been laid down by a great Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, during the war. Nothing throws up more difficult cases than demobilisation. Nowhere is it more easy to get prejudice, but I claim, looking back over these ten months, that our policy has been vindicated, and, considering the difficulties, that great change-over has worked wonderfully smoothly, thanks not just to the Government machine but to the temper and patience of the fighting men and women, and to the full co-operation of organised labour.
We then had the problem of the change-over from a war to a peace economy. Inevitably you will get some pockets of unemployment, but we have seen a wonderful and orderly absorption of labour into industry where it was most needed. Again, how much we owe to co-operation with the Trade Unions. We have seen a remarkable expansion of our export trade. You can see here, too, plans working out to direct industry to where it is most needed, to see that never again are we left with those special areas which we had before the war, and that we do not over-congest areas like London and other centres.
We have been giving freedom to develop where restrictions are not necessary, but we have kept on restrictions which are needed to prevent exploitation and inflation.
Take another problem: housing. It is an enormous problem that cannot be solved quickly. Some people seem to think that one could build all the houses that one wants m the winter. They do not belong to the building trades. There is a lot of criticism by ignoramuses, but now, week by week, work is going forward. Houses are being built, houses are in building, houses are being completed. We shall carry out the programme set us, not to solve the problem in twelve months, but, with the resources available, to go steadily ahead on our policy of providing houses for the people.
In conditions of shortage of labour, shortage of materials, difficulties as regards food and transport, to talk of the complete removal of controls is folly. We do not try to keep any controls that are not essential. I think the steadiness of the nation is remarkable, and the demand for the abolition of controls is practically confined to the lunatic fringe, but, actually, we do not want all the time to emphasise restrictions. Actually a new impulse has been, given by the Labour Government over the whole field of governmental activity. In every sphere administration has been given a definite objective. Besides the work of the Cabinet and its Committees in co-ordinating work, there is a wonderful effect from having Ministers who are animated by the same ideals. It helps them to make a co-operative effort. It helps them to take the broad view.
You see, therefore, the Movement going forward, in agriculture, education and every department, and you see it, too, in the fighting services. There has been a new start. For the first time the remuneration of the fighting services has been deliberately equated with that of civilian workers. It is a bigger change, perhaps, than everybody realises.
We are facing difficulties, but difficulties are made to be overcome, but our home problems are affected all the time by the world situation. Our home food troubles have been vastly accentuated by the responsibilities that we have for others. We are holding a firm balance between our responsibilities to our own people and our responsibilities to peoples of the world, and we are striving, and with success, to get the world food problem viewed not as that of a scramble for every country to get its own, but for all of us to overcome these years of dearth and, in the future, to have a world that is free from want.
Coal shortages and transport shortages again are not just home problems. They are foreign problems. I need not tell you what energetic leads have been given by our representatives at international conferences. There are economic matters, monetary matters and social matters. This Labour Movement of ours has never been a narrow insular movement. It has always recognised that the cause of the workers all over the world was one. We have always realised that you cannot build up a little safety zone for yourselves and leave misery in the rest of the world.
In this problem of foreign politics, in the implementation of the great responsibilities that fall on this country – because we were one of the great victors in the war – the Labour Government is resolved to carry out its responsibilities. I am not going to say much this morning on foreign affairs because you are going to have a full debate, and you will hear our great Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. We are carrying out, in foreign affairs, our Party policy, and we bring to foreign affairs, as to other spheres, the touchstone of our Socialist faith. We are seeking to promote world peace by collective security. For many years we have been faithful to that doctrine when others fell away. At the time of the late Arthur Henderson we did our utmost.
We have taken up again the work that fell from the hands of that great man. We support democracy and freedom everywhere. Let me say that we know what democracy means and we know what freedom means, because we have it ourselves. We know, too, that political world settlement is not enough. We must base the peace on economic prosperity and social justice. I say that we know what democracy and freedom mean. We do not seek to force our ideas on other countries. We recognise that we live in a world of variously organised States, some Socialist, some capitalist, some Communist, and many with mixed economies. We have to live and work in the world with States of diverse characteristics, just as here in this country we live and work with our fellow citizens of diverse characteristics. We believe in the co-operation between peoples of different outlooks, and not the attempt to force a dull uniformit y on the world. We ask for others the freedom that we claim for ourselves.
We proclaim this freedom, but we do more than proclaim it. We seek to put it into effect. Witness India. We have invited the people of India to decide their own destiny. If they will stay with us in the British Commonwealth we shall welcome them. If they desire to go outside, we shall stretch out the hand of friendship to them. Meanwhile, my three colleagues have been labouring over there, not to force something on India, but to help the Indians to solve their own problems.
We have set an example in UNO, where we were the first to proclaim our readiness to hand over our possessions from the last war under a system of trusteeship. In the Colonial Empire also self-government marches on. No Government has given more complete proof of its desire to follow the path of democracy and freedom. We hear a few voices now, and again mumbling the old shibboleths about Imperialism. I must say they seem to me rather second-hand voices.
Well, here is our work at home and abroad. We set this record before you, and this, after all, is but the beginning of things. We have had only just over ten months of Government. The work of a Prime Minister in these days is very heavy. The content of Government has expanded immensely in the last thirty or forty years, and no man can carry the burden of the Premiership without the loyal support and co-operation of his colleagues in the Government and without the loyal backing of the Party in Parliament and in the country. Let me say how fortunate I am in having such good and loyal comrades – a team of able colleagues working each in his own sphere and co-operating together in the general work of government. If you look around today you will not see any easy jobs in the Government. Every Department has its hard problems. Every Department needs an active and hard-working Minister, and every Department has got one today. There are Ministers who hold what are called sinecure offices where there is not much to do in the way of a department, but I am not sure that they are not the most hard-worked of all ministers. Let me refer to the Lord President the Council, Herbert Morrison. He does a great work in leading the House of Commons. That is where you see him, on the floor of the House. What you do not see is the mass of work he is doing behind the scenes in co-ordinating the work of Ministers. Take the Lord Privy Seal, Arthur Greenwood. Our special measures owe an immense debt to his knowledge and hard work. Then, of course, there is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Generally you come up against a Chancellor the Exchequer whenever you want something, and he says ‘No,’ but we have a constructive Chancellor: he is not a ‘Yes’ man and he will say ‘No’ on occasions, but not on every occasion, and that is what you want in a Chancellor of the Exchequer. And, of course, I have got the Foreign Secretary. I cannot run through the list of all my colleagues, but I especially mention another one – Lord Addison, the House of Lords. It is not an easy job to be in a permanent minority, but there are in that House what I used to call the thin red line of heroes – rather more of them now – and they are doing a very good work. The work of a Government is team work, and I want to give my thanks to my colleagues, whether as Ministers or as Under-Secretaries or as Whips; the last-named are people not ways popular, but we have a very good team of Whips. One other Minister I must mention once thought of the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster as being filled by dear old gentlemen – I filled it myself once – but, I should like to pay a tribute to the present Chancellor, John Hynd, and the difficult work that he has done which lies behind the occupation of Germany.
I wish I could mention all my colleagues, but they know we appreciate their work. We are backed by the finest House of Commons, I think, within living memory. I do not know what the House was like in the eighteenth century, but certainly it is the finest in our time, and much as I love and admire my colleagues of the past, I think that we have now in the House certainly the ablest and youngest, as well as the largest, Parliamentary Party we have ever had. If you look at this Report you will see how active they are, not only on the floor of the House but in Committees of every kind, in which they prepare themselves for work in the House and for bringing to bear that constructive criticism which all Governments need.
After all, this is only a beginning. I stand here with this experience of Government to reaffirm my faith in democratic Socialism. We will never sacrifice the liberties won by our forefathers. It is social democracy which can set us free from the tyranny of economic power and preserve us, too, from the dangers of the absolute power of the State. The inspiring vigour of Parliament, with its free and open criticism, is the source of strength of this Government, as of all British Governments. We rejoice in the co-operation of the people with the Government. We rejoice in the fact that great organisations like the Trade Unions co-operate with us, as well as scores of voluntary agencies, national and local, bringing to the governmental machine the surge of individual enthusiasm. That is a mark of the British way of life.
No one realises more clearly than I do that we have a long way to go yet to reach the Britain of our dreams and the world of our desires, and we believe that we shall get from all the people of this land hard work and courage to take us through the years ahead. For that hard work men and women need the inspiration of a great ideal. We are not ashamed to proclaim ourselves a party of idealists inspired by a living faith in freedom, democracy, and social justice. Through many years of adversity we have kept our faith, we have striven for the opportunity to translate our Socialist policy into action. That opportunity has now come to us in full measure. We have, I believe, made a good beginning. We shall not falter. With faith in the justice of our cause and our ability to serve the nation we confidently face the future
Leader’s speech, Bournemouth 1946