When Clement Attlee was once asked how he had felt on first entering 10 Downing Street, his reply was characteristically terse and modest.
“There were jobs to be done,” he said.
There were indeed jobs to be done, and he did them – leaving a postwar legacy that still lives on today.
It is 75 years since he became Prime Minister, beating Winston Churchill in the general election in July 1945.
For the next six years he led a government that would transform the country and lay the foundations on which so much that we value in this country still rest.
These achievements were all the more remarkable given that they were forged in the gloom of an economy broken by war and with a Cabinet riven by rivalries, distrust and raging egos.
Attlee made an unlikely revolutionary – an ex-public schoolboy who had seen active service in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. Nye Bevan, a constant thorn in his side, was withering about his boss’s “suburban middle-class values”.
Yet he oversaw a government that created the welfare state, gave birth to the NHS and rescued the country from the rubble of the Second World War. Biographer John Bew writes in Citizen Clem: “That he was unthreatening and unexotic did not mean he was not bold, courageous and sometimes radical.”
On entering Downing Street on July 26, 1945, Attlee inherited a country on the verge of bankruptcy. More than two million troops needed to be demobilised and returned to work, industrial output had ground to a halt, and there was a housing crisis caused by the Blitz.
The domestic challenge was matched by the foreign one. Britain’s position on the world stage was at risk from the rise of the Soviet empire and the demand for independence from colonial states.
The task was daunting, but Attlee was blessed with a high-calibre Cabinet including no-nonsense Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, Chancellor Hugh Dalton, Ellen Wilkinson on education, Stafford Cripps at the Board of Trade and, most famously perhaps, Nye Bevan as Minister for Health.
The founding of the NHS is regarded as the signature policy of the Attlee years, but just as impressive were the National Insurance Act that provided the first comprehensive welfare system, the New Towns Act and the building of over 800,000 council houses.
Rail, coal and electricity were taken into public ownership. Trade union rights were improved, sick pay extended and health and safety measures introduced. They even created our first national parks.
But his legacy goes beyond his domestic achievements. He began the process of dismantling the British Empire by granting India and Pakistan independence in 1947. Attlee and Bevin were the driving force behind the creation of NATO in 1949 which bound America into Western European
security for generations to come.
More controversially, Attlee made sure Britain had its own nuclear deterrent, a decision taken without debate in Parliament or the Labour Party, and despite straining the finances of a country on the edge of bankruptcy.
Bevin said Attlee was set on having “an atomic bomb with a Union Jack on it”.
Tensions in Cabinet were never far from the surface. When told Bevan was his own worst enemy, Bevin quipped: “Not while I’m alive, he isn’t.”
Attlee found himself struggling to keep unity in the party as the economic difficulties mounted.
There was a fuel crisis in 1947 and the devaluation of the pound in 1949.
The continuation of rationing remained a constant source of irritation. At the February 1950 general
election Labour squeezed home with a majority of five. A few months later Nye Bevan resigned in protest at plans to charge for prescriptions.
Attlee called a snap election in 1951 to try to win a clear majority but, despite winning the popular vote, lost power to his rival Churchill.
The Cabinet was physically exhausted and the divisions within the party were becoming harder to contain.
Only later could they look back on how much they had achieved in such extraordinary circumstances.
Basic rights we now take for granted, such as a cradle-to-grave welfare system, compensation for injured workers, unemployment pay, sickness benefit and maternity leave, were first introduced by this proud socialist government.
Shadow Home Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds MP, who has written biographies of Bevan and Attlee, said Attlee’s status as the greatest Labour PM was “beyond doubt”.
He added: “That rests on his ability to have chaired that quite remarkably talented 1945-51 Cabinet and to have kept the peace between them as well.
“The creation of the welfare state, the transformation of the economy through nationalisation, the crowning achievement of the NHS are all testament to his lasting legacy.”