Clement Attlee

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Clement Richard Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee KG OM CH FRS PC (3 January 1883 – 8 October 1967) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1945 to 1951. Coming from an upper middle class background, Attlee was converted to socialism through working in the East End of London and became MP for Stepney in 1922. He was elected Labour Party leader in 1935 and won a landslide victory in the 1945 election; his government put in place the welfare state including the National Health Service. Attlee was well known for his laconic turn of phrase.


  • … the Peace Treaties must be scrapped … I stand for no more war and no more secret diplomacy.
    • T.W. Walding (ed.), Who's Who in the New Parliament:Members and their pledges (Philip Gee, London, 1922), p. 35.
    • Extract from his 1922 election address.
  • There is a denial of the value of the individual. Christianity affirms the value of each individual soul. Nazism denies it. The individual is sacrificed to the idol of the German Leader, German State or the German race. The ordinary citizen is allowed to hear and think only as the rulers decree.
    • Speech (May 1940). Reported in the The Listener (Vol. 23), BBC (1940)
  • I am pleased to see from the laughter on the Ministerial benches that there is no implication on their part to take Sir Oswald Mosley too seriously. It can easily be seen to-day that this idea of a dictator is gradually falling down.
    • The Times, 14 July 1934, p. 7.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 13 July 1934, on the Foreign Office estimates. His remarks about dictatorships gradually falling down was a reference to the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany a fortnight before.
  • We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty. We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country.
    • Talus, Your Alternative Government (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1945), p. 17.
    • D. M. Touche, Britain's Lost Victory (London: The Individualist Bookshop, 1941).
    • Speech to the Labour Party Conference in Southport, 2 October 1934.
  • We are told in the White Paper that there is danger against which we have to guard ourselves. We do not think you can do it by national defence. We think you can only do it by moving forward to a new world – a world of law, the abolition of national armaments with a world force and a world economic system. I shall be told that that is quite impossible.
    • Hansard, House of Commons, 5th series, vol. 299, col. 45.
    • Speech in the House of Commons, 11 March 1935. Attlee's concluding observation was met by Conservative cries of "Hear, hear", with one MP shouting "Tell that to Hitler" according to The Times of 12 March 1935.
  • Mr. Chamberlain's Budget was the natural expression of the character of the present Government. There was hardly any increase allowed for the services which went to build up the life of the people, education and health. Everything was devoted to piling up the instruments of death. The Chancellor expressed great regret that he should have to spend so much on armaments, but said that it was absolutely necessary and was due only to the actions of other nations. One would think to listen to him that the Government had no responsibility for the state of world affairs.
    • "Mr. Attlee on a war budget", The Times, 23 April 1936, p. 16.
    • Broadcast, 22 April 1936.
  • The Government has now resolved to enter upon an arms race, and the people will have to pay for their mistake in believing that it could be trusted to carry out a policy of peace. … This is a War Budget. We can look in the future for no advance in Social Legislation. All available resources are to be devoted to armaments.
    • "Mr. Attlee on a war budget", The Times, 23 April 1936, p. 16.
    • Broadcast, 22 April 1936.
  • When we are returned to power we want to put in the statute book an act which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.
    • C. R. Attlee, The Labour Party in Perspective (Left Book Club, 1937).
  • Not Churchill. Sixty-five, old for a Churchill.
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London, 1986), p. 54.
    • At the University College 'gaudy' in Oxford, December 1939, when the dons suggested Winston Churchill should be made Prime Minister.
  • You will be judged by what you succeed at gentlemen, not by what you attempt.
    • On formation of Government after landslide victory in 1945.
  • You have no right whatever to speak on behalf of the Government. Foreign affairs are in the capable hands of Ernest Bevin. His task is quite sufficiently difficult without the irresponsible statements of the kind you are making . . . I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.
    • David Butler and Gareth Butler, Twentieth Century British Political Facts (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 289.
    • Letter to Harold Laski, Chairman of the Labour Party, in 1946.
  • When I look at this as a proposal [i.e. British entry into the Common Market], it is really an extraordinary change. We used to put the Commonwealth first. It is quite obvious now that the Commonwealth comes second. We are going to be closer friends with the Germans, the Italians and the French than we are with the Australians or the Canadians. People are talking about what will happen thirty years hence: but, you know, twenty years ago I should never have imagined that we would be putting, as close friends, the Germans in front of the Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Indians or anyone else. That does make for an entire revolution. It is also an entire revolution in the historic position of this country. I am not putting it forward that necessarily old things are right: I should be showing my age too clearly if I did that. It may be they are right; but make no mistake: this is an enormous change.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (2 August 1962).
  • ...our geographical position put us in the centre of markets. That was one of the great strengths of our position. We did not have to look merely into Europe; we could look outside. We had our relationships with the Colonies overseas, later the Dominions; with the United States; with all continents, just because we were not tied up with the Continent of Europe. Now we are to be tied. It might be right, it may be wrong; but do not make any mistake: it is entirely different from anything we have had before. We are to become part of a larger whole, an appendage to Europe. It may be right now, but, historically, that has not been our position. We may have been at the centre of markets, but we have not been in one market and out of the others. We have had to fight against hostile tariffs; we have had to keep our end up. We have never put ourselves into a position in which we were inside a ring-fence with a number of Continental Powers. Make no mistake: it is an entire change.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (2 August 1962).
  • When we come to the political point, I confess I feel gravely disturbed. We are allying ourselves with six nations of Europe; it may be more, but six at present. Four of those we rescued only twenty years or so ago from domination by the other two. Now we go cap in hand to the people whom we thought we beat in war. I am all for having agreements with everybody. I am all for getting on in the world with countries very differently organised to ourselves, capitalist countries, even Communist countries; but I am rather doubtful about these present proposals...It does not seem to me to be a very good tie-up for us; and if we are to go in irrevocably and tie ourselves up with other States, I think it is an extremely doubtful proposition for Britain. I think the political dangers are very great. Once you are in there, it is quite different from being in an organisation like NATO, which is a defence organisation directed against specific perils. It is a general link-up with Europe.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (2 August 1962).
  • My noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth rather suggested that it was a really good Socialist policy to join up with these countries. I do not think that comes into it very much. They are not Socialist countries, and the object, so far as I can see, is to set up an organisation with a tariff against the rest of the world within which there shall be the freest possible competition between, capitalist interests. That might be a kind of common ideal. I daresay that is why it is supported by the Liberal Party. It is not a very good picture for the future...I believe in a planned economy. So far as I can see, we are to a large extent losing our power to plan as we want and submitting not to a Council of Ministers but a collection of international civil servants, able and honest, no doubt, but not necessarily having the best future of this country at heart...I think we are parting, to some extent at all events, with our powers to plan our own country in the way we desire. I quite agree that that plan should fit in, as far as it can, with a world plan. That is a very different thing from submitting our plans to be planned by a body of international civil servants, no doubt excellent men. I may be merely insular, but I have no prejudice in a Britain planned for the British by the British. Therefore, as at present advised, I am quite unconvinced either that it is necessary or that it is even desirable that we should go into the Common Market.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (2 August 1962).
  • The Question of sovereignty is often raised. I am one of those who believe that in a modern world one has to give up a great deal of sovereignty. I am prepared to give up sovereignty to the world, but not to a selected number of European countries. That is not giving up something for world security; it is giving something up to sectional interests.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (8 November 1962).
  • Unfortunately, in this country the propaganda for entering the Common Market has been largely based on defeatism. We are told that unless we do it we are going to have a terrible time. That is no way to go into a negotiation. You ought to go into a negotiation on the basis that they have need of you, not just you of them.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (8 November 1962).
  • We are told that we have to accept the Treaty of Rome. I have read the Treaty of Rome pretty carefully, and it expresses an outlook entirely different from our own. It may be that I am insular, but I value our Parliamentary outlook, an outlook which has extended throughout the Commonwealth. That is not the same position that holds on the Continent of Europe. No one of these principal countries in the Common Market has been very successful in running Parliamentary institutions: Germany, hardly any experience; Italy, very little; France, a swing between a dictatorship and more or less anarchic Parliament, and not very successfully. As I read the Treaty of Rome, the whole position means that we shall enter a federation which is composed in an entirely different way. I do not say it is the wrong way. But it is not our way. In this set-up it is the official who really puts up all the proposals; the whole of the planning is done by officials. It seems to me that the Ministers come in at a later stage—and if there is anything like a Federal Parliament, at a later stage still. I do not think that that is the way this country has developed, or wishes to develop. I am all for working in with our Continental friends. I was one of those who worked to build up NATO; I have worked for European integration. But that is a very different thing from bringing us into a close association which, I may say, is not one for defence, or even just for foreign policy. The fact is that if the designs behind the Common Market are carried out, we are bound to be affected in every phase of our national life. There would be no national planning, except under the guidance of Continental planning—we shall not be able to deal with our own problems; we shall not be able to build up the country in the way we want to do, so far as I can see. I think we shall be subject to overall control and planning by others. That is my objection.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (8 November 1962).
  • But as a matter of fact the idea of an integrated Europe is historically looking backward, and not forward. The noble Viscount was looking at the Holy Roman Empire. We never belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and we never belonged to the reactionary organisation after 1815. We have always looked outward, out to the New World; and to-day we look out to the New World, and to Asia and Africa. I think that integration with Europe is a step backward. By all means let us get the greatest possible agreement between the various continents, but I am afraid that if we join the Common Market we shall be joining not an outward-looking organisation, but an inward-looking organisation. I think that Germany, for instance, which has probably the most powerful influence in the organisation, will not escape from looking at what she thought she was going to gain, and what she has lost. I do not think we have a new look there. I think that by marrying into Europe we are marrying a whole family of ancient prejudices and ancient troubles, and I would much rather see an Atlantic organisation. I would much rather work for the world organisation.
    • Speech in the House of Lords on the British application to join the Common Market (8 November 1962).
  • Attlee: I'm one of those people who are incapable of religious feeling.
    Harris: Do you mean you have no feeling about Christianity, or that you have no feeling about God, Christ, and life after death?
    Attlee: Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can't believe in the mumbo jumbo.
    Harris: Would you say you are in agnostic?
    Attlee: I don't know.
    Harris: Is there an after-life, do you think?
    Attlee: Possibly.
    • To his official biographer Kenneth Harris two years before his death. In Kenneth Harris, Attlee, pp. 563-4.
  • There were few who thought him a starter,
    Many who thought themselves smarter.
    But he ended PM,
    CH and OM,
    an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.
    • Kenneth Harris, Attlee (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1982)
    • Self-penned limerick.


  • A Tory minister can sleep in ten different women's beds in a week. A Labour minister gets it in the neck if he looks at his neighbour's wife over the garden fence.
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London, 1986), p. 121.
  • Can't publish. Don't rhyme, don't scan.
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London, 1986), p. 128.
    • Response to John Strachey who had to ask permission to publish a collection of poems while a Minister.
  • I move previous face!
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London, 1986), p. 128.
    • To Sydney Silverman, a Labour MP who had arrived back at Parliament with a beard. Echoes the motion "I move previous business" used at Parliamentary Labour Party meetings to end discussion on a topic.
  • Not up to the job.
    • Harold Wilson, Memoirs 1916-1964: The Making of a Prime Minister (Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Michael Joseph, London, 1986), p. 122.
    • Explaining to John Parker why he was being sacked from the government in 1946.
  • The Common Market. The so-called Common Market of six nations. Know them all well. Very recently this country spent a great deal of blood and treasure rescuing four of 'em from attacks by the other two.
    • Peter Hennessy, The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945 (Penguin, 2001), p. 173.
    • Attlee's speech to a group of anti-Common Market Labour backbench MPs in 1967, as recalled by Douglas Jay to Peter Hennessy in 1983. This was Attlee's last ever speech.


  • An empty taxi drew up outside 10 Downing Street and Clement Attlee got out of it.
    • A remark commonly attributed to Winston Churchill; however, Churchill denied the attribution, saying "Mr Attlee is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anybody who does."
  • A modest man with much to be modest about.
    • A remark supposedly made by Winston Churchill, this is unconfirmed but the phrase has passed into popular usage.
  • He was a serious man and a patriot. Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.
  • Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.
    • Francis Beckett, Clem Attlee, summarizing views expressed in Attlee's The Social Worker (1920). This quote is often mistakenly attributed to Attlee himself.

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