British Labour Party leader from 1935 to 1955 and prime minister from July 26, 1945, to Oct. 26, 1951.
He presided over the establishment of the welfare state in Great Britain and over the most important step--the granting of independence to India--in the conversion of the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations. The son of a prosperous lawyer, Attlee himself practiced law briefly after studying at the University of Oxford but soon became primarily interested in social reform. From 1907 to 1922 (except for the period of his World War I service), he lived in a settlement house in the impoverished East End of London. In 1907 he joined the Fabian Society and in 1908 the Independent Labour Party. Entering East End politics after the war, he became mayor of the borough of Stepney in 1919 and a member of Parliament from Limehouse in 1922.
In the first Labour government (1924) he served as undersecretary of state for war, and, in the second Labour ministry (1929-31), he was successively chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and postmaster general. When the Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald formed a national coalition government in 1931, Attlee repudiated him, and in the same year he became deputy leader of the Labour Party under George Lansbury. In 1935 he succeeded Lansbury, who was forced to relinquish the party leadership because of his uncompromising pacifism. Although approving of the British declaration of war in September 1939, he refused to take office in Neville Chamberlain's government. In May 1940 he supported the prime ministry of Winston Churchill and, during the war, served in the war cabinet as lord privy seal (1940-42), deputy prime minister (1942-45), secretary of state for the dominions (1942-43), and lord president of the council (1943-45).
In May 1945 he led the Labour Party out of the coalition, and, after the decisive defeat of Churchill's Conservatives in the election of July 1945, he was appointed prime minister.Attlee assumed office during the final conference of the Allies in World War II (at Potsdam, Ger., July 17-Aug. 2, 1945). After accepting the U.S.-inspired European Recovery Program (1948; the Marshall Plan), Great Britain joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual defense (1949) as well as the Council of Europe for unity of the European peoples (1949). At home, a program of economic "austerity" was rigorously administered by Sir Stafford Cripps, Attlee's chancellor of the Exchequer and minister of economic affairs (1947-50). Major British industries were nationalized, including coal, steel, railways, civil aviation, telegraph services, and the Bank of England. The government created the National Health Service and put into effect other features of the comprehensive welfare scheme advocated (1942) by the economist William Henry Beveridge. Several of Atlee's principal colleagues--notably Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps, and Herbert Morrison--were more dominant public personalities than he was, but he held the government together with great success and was reputed to exercise firm control over his cabinet. During Attlee's tenure, independence within the Commonwealth was granted to India, a measure (in which he took great pride) that established the separate nation of Pakistan. Great Britain also conceded independence to Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and relinquished control of Egypt and of Palestine, where the nation of Israel was founded.
In April 1951 Attlee's already weak position (the Labour majority in the House of Commons had been reduced to six) further deteriorated when two Labour leaders, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson (afterward prime minister), resigned from the government over the introduction of health-service charges. When the Conservatives narrowly won the election of October 1951, Attlee resigned. On yielding the party leadership in December 1955, he was created an earl. In 1937 he published The Labour Party in Perspective and in 1954 his memoirs, As It Happened
Attlee's papers and correspondence are spread widely in various repositories around the country and many institutions hold the correspondence of the Prime Minister with a single individual, for example, the House of Lords Record Office holds his correspondence with Lord Beaverbrook from 1943 to 1961. However, major collections of Attlee's papers are located at three major instituions. The Special Collections and Western Manuscripts Department of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, hold Attlee's papers and correspondence from 1924 to 1957, whereas the Public Record Office hold his official papers from the years of the Second World War. Furthermore, a miscellaneous collection of Attlee's papers is held at the Churchill Archives Centre at the University of Cambridge