Clement Attlee was invited by King George VI to form the Attlee ministry in the United Kingdom in July 1945, succeeding Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Labour Party won a landslide victory at the 1945 general election, enacting much of the post-war consensus policies, especially the welfare state and nationalisation of some industries. The government was marked by post-war austerity measures, in giving independence to India, and engagement in the Cold War against Soviet Communism.
Attlee went on to win a narrow majority of five seats at the 1950 general election, forming the second Attlee ministry. Just twenty months after that election, Attlee called a new election for 25 October 1951 in an attempt to gain a larger majority, but was narrowly defeated by the Conservatives.
The Labour Party came to power in the United Kingdom after its unexpected victory in the July 1945 general election. Party leader Clement Attlee became Prime Minister replacing Winston Churchill in late July. Ernest Bevin was Foreign Secretary until shortly before his death in April 1951. Hugh Dalton became Chancellor of the Exchequer, but had to resign in 1947, while James Chuter Ede was Home Secretary for the whole duration of the Attlee ministries' stay in power.
Other notable figures in the government included: Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons, who replaced Bevin as Foreign Secretary in March 1951; Sir Stafford Cripps was initially President of the Board of Trade but replaced Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947; Hugh Gaitskell held several minor posts before replacing Cripps as Chancellor in 1950; Nye Bevan was Minister for Health; Arthur Greenwood was Lord Privy Seal and Paymaster General while future Prime Minister Harold Wilson became the youngest member of the cabinet in the 20th century (at the age of 31) when he was made President of the Board of Trade in 1947. The most notable of the few female members of the government was Ellen Wilkinson, who was Minister for Education until her early death in 1947.
Main article: Political history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)
It was an "age of austerity," as wartime rationing was continued despite the Allied Forces' victory, and was even expanded upon to include bread. Living conditions were poor, instead of expansion, it was a matter of replacing the national wealth destroyed or used up during the war. The Great Depression did not return, and full employment was created. Returning veterans were successfully reabsorbed into the postwar society. The Attlee government nationalised about 20% of the economy, including coal, railways, road transport, the Bank of England, civil aviation, electricity and gas, and steel. However, there was no money for investment to modernise these industries, and there was no effort made to turn control over to union members. The Attlee government greatly expanded the welfare state, with the National Health Service Act 1946, which nationalised the hospitals and provided for free universal healthcare. The National Insurance Act 1946 provided sickness and unemployment benefits for adults, plus retirement pensions. The National Assistance Act 1948 provided a safety net for anyone not otherwise covered.. More council housing was built, and plans were made through the New Towns Act of 1946 for the growth of suburbs, and to reduce overcrowding in major cities such as London and Glasgow. Since there was little money for detailed planning, the government adopted Keynesianism, which allowed for planning in the sense of overall control of the national deficit and surplus. Two laws written by the Conservatives during the war were expanded, the Family Allowances Act 1945 and he Education Act 1944
The Transport Act 1947 established the British Transport Commission taking control over the railways from the Big Four being the Great Western Railway, London, Midland and Scottish Railway, London and North Eastern Railway and the Southern Railway to form British Railways.
In foreign affairs, the government was active in the United Nations and negotiated a $5,000,000,000 loan from the United States and Canada in 1946. It eagerly joined the Marshall Plan in 1948. It could no longer afford to support the Greek government and encouraged the U.S. to take its place through the Truman Doctrine in 1947. It took an active role in joining the United States in the Cold War and forming NATO. It gave independence to India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma and moved to strengthen the British Commonwealth.
- The Labour Party comes to power with a programme for nationalising weak sectors of the economy.
- Coal industry under the National Coal Board.
- Bank of England.
- National Health Service created (with separate units in England, Wales, and Scotland and for Northern Ireland) taking over hospitals and making medical services free. NHS started operations in 1948.
- British Electricity Authority and area electricity boards.
- Cable & Wireless.
- National rail, inland (not marine) water transport, some road haulage, some road passenger transport and Thomas Cook & Son under the British Transport Commission. Separate elements operated as British Railways, British Road Services, and British Waterways.
- Local authority gas supply undertakings in England, Scotland and Wales.
- Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain (privatised by the Conservative Government in 1955, and renationalised by Labour in 1967 as British Steel Corporation).
Attlee's Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, fought hard against the general disapproval of the medical establishment, including the British Medical Association, by creating the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. This was a publicly funded healthcare system, which offered treatment free of charge for all, regardless of income at the point-of-use. Reflecting pent-up demand that had long existed for medical services, the NHS treated some 8,500,000 dental patients and dispensed more than 5,000,000 pairs of spectacles during its first year of operation.
Consultants benefited from the new system by being paid salaries that provided an acceptable standard of living without the need for them to resort to private practice. The NHS brought major improvements in the health of working-class people, with deaths from diphtheria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis significantly reduced. Although there were often disputes about its organisation and funding, British political parties continued to voice their general support for the NHS in order to remain electable.
In the field of health care, funds were allocated to modernisation and extension schemes aimed at improving administrative efficiency. Improvements were made in nursing accommodation in order to recruit more nurses and reduce labour shortages which were keeping 60,000 beds out of use, and efforts were made to reduce the imbalance "between an excess of fever and tuberculosis (TB) beds and a shortage of maternity beds."
BCG vaccinations were introduced for the protection of medical students, midwives, nurses, and contacts of patients with tuberculosis, a pension scheme was set up for employees of the newly established NHS, and the Radioactive Substances Act of 1948 set out general provisions to control radioactive substances. Numerous lesser reforms were also introduced, some of which were of great benefit to certain segments of British society, such as the mentally deficient and the blind. Between 1948–51, Attlee's government increased spending on health from £6,000,000,000 to £11,000,000,000- an increase of over 80%, and from 2.1% to 3.6% of GDP.
The government set about implementing William Beveridge's plans for the creation of a 'cradle to grave' welfare state, and set in place an entirely new system of social security. Among the most important pieces of legislation was the National Insurance Act 1946, in which people in work paid a flat rate of national insurance. In return, they (and the wives of male contributors) were eligible for flat-rate pensions, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, and funeral benefit. Various other pieces of legislation provided for child benefit and support for people with no other source of income. In 1949, unemployment, sickness and maternity benefits were exempted from taxation.
A block grant introduced in 1948 helped the social services provided by local authorities. Personal Social Services or welfare services were developed in 1948 for individual and families in general, particularly special groups such as the mentally disordered, deprived children, the elderly, and the handicapped.
The Attlee Government increased pensions and other benefits, with pensions raised to become more of a living income than they had ever been. War pensions and allowances (for both World Wars) were increased by an Act of 1946 which gave the wounded man with an allowance for his wife and children if he married after he had been wounded, thereby removing a grievance of more than twenty years standing. Other improvements were made in war pensions during Attlee’s tenure as prime minister. A Constant Attendance Allowance was tripled, an Unemployability Allowance was tripled from 10s to 30s a week, and a special hardship allowance of up to £1 a week was introduced. In addition, the 1951 Budget made further improvements in the supplementary allowances for many war pensioners. From 1945 onwards, three out of every four pension claims had been successful, whilst after the First World War only one pension claim in three was allowed. Under the Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1948, employees of a body representative of local authorities or of the officers of local authorities could be admitted “on suitable terms to the superannuation fund of a local authority.” In 1951, a comforts allowance was introduced that was automatically paid to war pensioners “receiving unemployability supplement and constant attendance allowance.”
A more extensive system of social welfare benefits was established by the Attlee Government, which did much to reduce acute social deprivation. The cumulative impact of the Attlee's Government's health and welfare policies was such that all the indices of health (such as statistics of school medical or dental officers, or of medical officers of health) showed signs of improvement, with continual improvements in survival rates for infants and increased life expectancy for the elderly. The success of the Attlee Government's welfare legislation in reducing poverty was such that, in the general election of 1950, according to one study, "Labour propaganda could make much of the claim that social security had eradicated the most abject destitution of the 1930s".
The New Towns Act of 1946 set up development corporations to construct new towns, while the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 instructed county councils to prepare development plans and also provided compulsory purchase powers. The Attlee Government also extended the powers of local authorities to requisition houses and parts of houses, and made the acquisition of land less difficult than before. The Housing (Scotland) Act of 1949 provided grants of 75% (87.5% in the Highlands and Islands) towards modernisation costs payable by the Treasury to local authorities.
In 1949, local authorities were empowered to provide people suffering from poor health with public housing at subsidised rents.
To assist home ownership, the limit on the amount of money that people could borrow from their local authority in order to purchase or build a home was raised from £800 to £1,500 in 1945, and to £5,000 in 1949. Under the National Assistance Act of 1948, local authorities had a duty "to provide emergency temporary accommodation for families which become homeless through no fault of their own."
A large house-building programme was carried out with the intention of providing millions of people with high-quality homes. A housing bill passed in 1946 increased Treasury subsidies for the construction of local authority housing in England and Wales. Four out of five houses constructed under Labour were council properties built to more generous specifications than before the Second World War, and subsidies kept down council rents. Altogether, these policies provided public-sector housing with its biggest ever boost up until that point, while low-wage earners particularly benefited from these developments. Although the Attlee Government failed to meet its targets, primarily due to economic constraints, over 1,000,000 new homes were built between 1945-51 (a significant achievement under the circumstances) which ensured that decent, affordable housing was available to many low-income families for the first time ever.
Women and children
A number of reforms were embarked upon to improve conditions for women and children. In 1946, universal family allowances were introduced to provide financial support to households for raising children. These benefits had been legislated for the previous year by Churchill's Family Allowances Act 1945, and was the first measure pushed through parliament by Attlee's government. The Conservatives would later criticise Labour for having been "too hasty" in introducing family allowances.
A Married Women (Restraint Upon Anticipation) Act was passed in 1949 "to equalise, to render inoperative any restrictions upon anticipation or alienation attached to the enjoyment of property by a woman," while the Married Women (Maintenance) Act of 1949 was enacted with the intention of improving the adequacy and duration of financial benefits for married women.
The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1950 amended an Act of 1885 to bring prostitutes within the law and safeguard them from abduction and abuse. The Criminal Justice Act of 1948 restricted imprisonment for juveniles and brought improvements to the probation and remand centre systems, while the passage of the Justices of the Peace Act of 1949 led to extensive reforms of magistrates courts. The Attlee Government also abolished the marriage bar in the Civil Service, thereby enabling married women to work in that institution.
In 1946, the government set up a National Institute of Houseworkers as a means of providing a socially democratic variety of domestic service.
By late 1946, agreed standards of training were established, which was followed by the opening of a training headquarters and the opening of an additional nine training centres in Wales, Scotland, and then nationwide throughout Great Britain. The National Health Service Act of 1946 indicated that domestic help should be provided for households where that help is required "owing to the presence of any person who is ill, lying-in, an expectant mother, mentally defective, aged or a child not over compulsory school age". 'Home help' therefore included the provision of home-helps for nursing and expectant mothers and for mothers with children under the age of five, and by 1952 some 20,000 women were engaged in this service.
Planning and development
Development rights were nationalised while the government attempted to take all development profits for the state. Strong planning authorities were set up to control land use, and issued manuals of guidance which stressed the importance of safeguarding agricultural land. A strong chain of regional offices was set up within its planning ministry to provide a strong lead in regional development policies.
Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs), a designation under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, allowed local authorities to acquire property in the designated areas using powers of compulsory purchase in order to re-plan and develop urban areas suffering from urban blight or war damage.
Various measures were carried out to improve conditions in the workplace. Entitlement to sick leave was greatly extended, and sick pay schemes were introduced for local authority administrative, professional and technical workers in 1946 and for various categories of manual workers in 1948. Worker's compensation was also significantly improved.
The Fair Wages Resolution of 1946 required any contractor working on a public project to at least match the pay rates and other employment conditions set in the appropriate collective agreement. In 1946, purchase tax was removed completely from kitchen fittings and crockery, while the rate was reduced on various gardening items.
The Fire Services Act 1947 introduced a new pension scheme for firefighters, while the Electricity Act 1947 introduced better retirement benefits for workers in that industry. A Workers' Compensation (Supplementation) Act was passed in 1948 that introduced benefits for workers with certain asbestos-related diseases which had occurred before 1948. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1948 and the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act of 1949 were passed to improve conditions for seamen. The Shops Act of 1950 consolidated previous legislation which provided that no one could be employed in a shop for more than six hours without having a break for at least 20 minutes. The legislation also required a lunch break of at least 45 minutes for anyone for worked between 11:30am and 2:30pm, and a half-hour tea break for anyone working between 4pm and 7pm. The government also strengthened a Fair Wages Resolution, with a clause that required all employers getting government contracts to recognise the rights of their workers to join trade unions.
The Trades Disputes Act 1927 was repealed, and a Dock Labour Scheme was introduced in 1947 to put an end to the casual system of hiring labour in the docks. This scheme gave registered dockers the legal right to minimum work and decent conditions. Through the National Dock Labour Board (on which trade unions and employers had equal representation) the unions acquired control over recruitment and dismissal. Registered dockers laid off by employers within the Scheme had the right either to be taken on by another, or to generous compensation. All dockers were registered under the Dock Labour Scheme, giving them a legal right to minimum work, holidays and sick pay.
Wages for members of the police force were significantly increased. The introduction of a Miner's Charter in 1946 instituted a five-day work week for miners and a standardised day wage structure, and in 1948 a Colliery Workers Supplementary Scheme was approved, providing supplementary allowances to disabled coal-workers and their dependants. In 1948, a pension scheme was set up to provide pension benefits for employees of the new NHS, as well as their dependents. Under the Coal Industry Nationalisation (Superannuation) Regulations of 1950, a pension scheme for mineworkers was established. Improvements were also made in farmworkers' wages, and the Agricultural Wages Board in 1948 not only safeguarded wage levels, but also ensured that workers were provided with accommodation.
A number of regulations aimed at safeguarding the health and safety of people at work were also introduced during Attlee's time in office. Regulations were issued in February 1946 applying to factories involved with “manufacturing briquettes or blocks of fuel consisting of coal, coal dust, coke or slurry with pitch as a binding .substance,” and which concerned “dust and ventilation, washing facilities and clothing accommodation, medical supervision and examination, skin and eye protection and messrooms.”
The Magnesium (Grinding of Castings and Other Articles) (Special Regulations) Order of December 1946 contained special measures “respecting the maintenance of plant and apparatus; precautions against causing sparks; the interception and removal of dust; automatic operation of appliances; protective clothing; and prohibition of smoking, open lights and fires.” For those workers engaged in luminising processes, the Factories (Luminising) Special Regulations (1947) prohibited the employment of those under the age of 18 and ordered “an initial medical examination to be carried out before the seventh day of employment; subsequent examinations are to be carried out once a month.”Under the terms of the Blasting (Castings and Other Articles) Special Regulations (1949) “no sand or other substance containing free silica is to be employed in any blasting process,” while the Foundries (Parting Materials) Special Regulations (1950) prohibited the use of certain parting powders “which give rise to a substantial risk of silicosis.”
The Building (Safety, Health & Welfare) Regulations of 1948 required that measures should be taken to minimise exposure to potentially harmful dust or fumes, while the Pottery (Health) Special Regulations (1947) prohibited the use “except in the manufacture of glazed tiles" of all “but leadless or low solubility glazes and prescribe certain processes in which ground or powdered flint or quartz are not to be employed.” while the Pottery (Health and Welfare) Special Regulations of 1950 made provision for the health and safety of workers employed in factories "in which there is carried on the manufacture or decoration of pottery or certain allied manufactures or processes."
Various law reforms were also carried out by Attlee's government. The Criminal Justice Act of 1948 provided for new methods to deal with offenders, and abolished hard labour, penal servitude, prison divisions and whipping. The Law Reform (Personal Injuries) Act 1948 enabled employees to sue their employers in cases where they experienced injury due to the negligence of a fellow employee. The Legal Aid and Advice Act of 1949 introduced a state aided scheme to assist those who couldn't afford legal services.
Main article: Post-war consensus
Most historians argue that the main domestic policies (except nationalisation of steel) reflected a broad bipartisan consensus. The post-war consensus is a historians' model of political agreement from 1945 to the late-1970s. In 1979 newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected and reversed it. The concept claims there was a widespread consensus that covered support for coherent package of policies that were developed in the 1930s, promised during the Second World War, and enacted under Attlee. The policies dealt with a mixed economy, Keynesianism, and a broad welfare state. In recent years the validity of the interpretation has been debated by historians.
The historians' model of the post-war consensus was most fully developed by Paul Addison. The basic argument is that in the 1930s, Liberal Party intellectuals led by John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge developed a series of plans that became especially attractive as the wartime government promised a much better post-war Britain and saw the need to engage every sector of society. The coalition government during the war, headed by Churchill and Attlee, signed off on a series of white papers that promised Britain a much improved welfare state. After the war, the promises included the National Health Service, and expansion of education, housing, and a number of welfare programmes. It did not include the nationalisation of iron and steel, which was approved only by the Labour Party.
The model states that from 1945 until the arrival of Thatcher in 1979, there was a broad multi-partisan national consensus on social and economic policy, especially regarding the welfare state, nationalised health services, educational reform, a mixed economy, government regulation, Keynesian macroeconomic, policies, and full employment. Apart from the question of nationalisation of some industries, these policies were broadly accepted by the three major parties, as well as by industry, the financial community and the labour movement. Until the 1980s, historians generally agreed on the existence and importance of the consensus. Some historians such as Ralph Miliband expressed disappointment that the consensus was a modest or even conservative package that blocked a fully socialized society. Historian Angus Calder complained bitterly that the post-war reforms were an inadequate reward for the wartime sacrifices, and a cynical betrayal of the people's hope for a more just post-war society. In recent years, there has been a historiographical debate on whether such a consensus ever existed.
The Labour Party narrowly defeated the Conservative Party at the February 1950 general election. However, in the October 1951 general elections the Conservatives returned to power under Winston Churchill. Labour was to remain out of office for the next thirteen years, until 1964, when Harold Wilson became Prime Minister.
First Attlee ministry
- July 1946 – Arthur Greenwood becomes Paymaster General as well as Lord Privy Seal.
- October 1946 – The three service ministers (Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, and First Lord of the Admiralty) cease to be cabinet positions. A. V. Alexander remains in the cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. George Hall replaces A. V. Alexander as First Lord of the Admiralty, outside the cabinet. Arthur Creech Jones succeeds Hall as Secretary of State for the Colonies.
- December 1946 – A. V. Alexander succeeds Attlee as Minister of Defence.
- February 1947 – George Tomlinson succeeds Ellen Wilkinson as Minister of Education upon her death.
- March 1947 – Arthur Greenwood ceases to be Paymaster General, remaining Lord Privy Seal. His successor as Paymaster General is not in the cabinet.
- April 1947 – Arthur Greenwood becomes Minister without Portfolio. Lord Inman succeeds Arthur Greenwood as Lord Privy Seal. William Francis Hare, Lord Listowel succeeds Lord Pethick-Lawrence as Secretary of State for India and Burma.
- July 1947 – The Dominion Affairs Office becomes the Office of Commonwealth Relations. Addison remains at the head.
- August 1947 – The India and Burma Office becomes the Burma office with India's independence. Lord Listowel remains in office. Responsibility for relations with India and Pakistan themselves are transferred to Addison and the Commonwealth Relations Office.
- September 1947 – Sir Stafford Cripps becomes Minister of Economic Affairs. Harold Wilson succeeds Cripps as President of the Board of Trade. Arthur Greenwood retires from the Front Bench.
- October 1947 – Lord Addison succeeds Lord Inman as Lord Privy Seal, remaining also Leader of the House of Lords. Philip Noel-Baker succeeds Lord Addison as Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. Arthur Woodburn succeeds Joseph Westwood as Secretary of State for Scotland. The Minister of Fuel and Power, Emanuel Shinwell, leaves the Cabinet.
- November 1947 – Sir Stafford Cripps succeeds Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
- January 1948 – The Burma Office is abolished with Burma's independence.
- May 1948: Hugh Dalton re-enters the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Lord Pakenham enters the Cabinet as Minister of Civil Aviation.
- July 1948: Lord Addison becomes Paymaster General.
- April 1949: Lord Addison ceases to be Paymaster General, remaining Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords. His successor as Paymaster General is not in the Cabinet.
Second Attlee ministry
- October 1950: Hugh Gaitskell succeeds Sir Stafford Cripps as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
- January 1951: Aneurin Bevan succeeds George Isaacs as Minister of Labour and National service. Bevan's successor as Minister of Health is not in the cabinet. Hugh Dalton's post is renamed Minister of Local Government and Planning.
- March 1951: Herbert Morrison succeeds Ernest Bevin as Foreign Secretary. Lord Addison succeeds Morrison as Lord President. Bevin succeeds Addison as Lord Privy Seal. James Chuter Ede succeeds Morrison as Leader of the House of Commons whilst remaining Home Secretary.
- April 1951: Richard Stokes succeeds Ernest Bevin as Lord Privy Seal. Alf Robens succeeds Aneurin Bevan (resigned) as Minister of Labour and National Service. Sir Hartley Shawcross succeeds Harold Wilson (resigned) as President of the Board of Trade.
List of Ministers
Members of the Cabinet are in bold face.
The outcome of the 1945 election was more than a sensation. It was a political earthquake.
Less than 12 weeks earlier, Winston Churchill had announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Churchill wanted his wartime coalition to continue until Japan too had been defeated, but was not unduly dismayed when his Labour ministers insisted that the country be offered a choice. The prime minister called the election for early July, confident that the British people would back the greatest hero of the hour. Of all Churchill's colossal misjudgments, that was probably the most egregious.
The voters wanted an end to wartime austerity, and no return to prewar economic depression. They wanted change. Three years earlier, in the darkest days of the war, they had been offered a tantalising glimpse of how things could be in the bright dawn of victory. The economist William Beveridge had synthesised the bravest visions of all important government departments into a single breathtaking view of the future.
The 1942 Beveridge Report spelled out a system of social insurance, covering every citizen regardless of income. It offered nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state.
That was the great promise dangled before the British electorate in 1945. Though Churchill had presided over the planning for radical social reform, though he was a genuine hero of the masses - and though, ironically enough, the Tory manifesto pledges were not all that different from Labour's - the people did not trust him to deliver the brave new world of Beveridge.
There were other factors too. The Labour party had held office only twice before, in 1924 and in 1929-31, but during the war years its leadership had acquired both experience and trust. It now looked like a party of government.
Labour's promise to take over the commanding heights of the economy via nationalisation were anathema to committed Tories, but after nearly six years of wartime state direction of the economy it did not seem nearly so radical as it had before the war - or indeed as it seems now.
Then there was the military vote. Britain had millions of men and women in uniform in 1945, scattered over Europe, the far east, and elsewhere. They, more than any other section of the electorate, yearned for change and for a better civilian life. The military vote was overwhelmingly pro-Labour.
Many students of the 1945 election believe that a key role was played by the Daily Mirror, then the biggest selling paper in Britain, and easily the most popular among the armed forces. On VE (Victory in Europe) Day, the Mirror published an immensely powerful cartoon by the brilliant Philip Zec. It showed a battered, bandaged Allied soldier holding out to the reader a slip of paper marked Victory and Peace in Europe. Under the drawing was the caption "Here you are! Don't lose it again."
The same cartoon was published on the Mirror's front page on the morning of the most remarkable general election of the 20th century. But when the result was announced on July 26 - three weeks after polling day to allow military postal votes to be counted - it was clear that postwar politics had changed utterly.
With 47.7% of the vote, Labour secured a staggering 393 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, with 39.7%, won just 210 seats. The Liberal party, which had governed the country less than quarter of a century earlier, was reduced to 9% of the vote, and just 12 seats. The new prime minister was Churchill's deputy in the war time coalition, Clement Attlee.
On the first day of the new parliament, the massed ranks of Labour members bawled out the socialist anthem, the Red Flag. Tories everywhere were scandalised. (There is a splendid apocryphal story of a lady in a grand London hotel who was overheard exclaiming "Labour in power? The country will never stand for it!")
But stand for it they did, over the next six momentous years.
The new prime minister was not obviously cut out for the job. Painfully shy and reserved to the point of coldness, he had the appearance - and often the style - of a bank clerk. Churchill described him, cruelly, as "a sheep in sheep's clothing".
The son of a City solicitor, he was educated at Haileybury College - which specialised in turning out administrators for the British Raj - and at University College, Oxford. Attlee was so far from being a passionate ideologue that his wife Violet once casually observed: "Clem was never really a socialist, were you, darling? Well, not a rabid one."
Yet this essentially herbivorous exterior cloaked a steely determination, and a deepseated devotion to social justice first developed during his voluntary work in London's East End before the first world war. After distinguished service in that war, Attlee entered parliament in 1922, and served in the first two Labour governments. In 1931, he declined to join Ramsey Macdonald's national coalition, preferring to stay with the rump opposition. He became Labour leader in 1935.
Though many on the left opposed Labour participation in Churchill's wartime coalition (at least during the early years when Hitler was allied with the Soviet Union under Stalin), Attlee responded to the national crisis by guiding his party into the national government. He became Lord Privy Seal and, from 1942, deputy prime minister. He was 62 when he entered Downing Street.
The great tide of new Labour MPs who entered the Commons in 1945 included some eager youngsters who were to make their mark on the party, and indeed the country. They included Denis Healey (who made an impassioned maiden speech urging world socialist revolution), Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, and James Callaghan. But the men Attlee leaned on were of course of Labour's old guard. His principal props were Ernest Bevin, a pragmatic trade unionist who had made his mark during the war as an energetic labour minister, Labour stalwart Hugh Dalton, and Stafford Cripps, an aloof intellectual (Churchilll once remarked of him: "There but for the grace of God, goes God.").
The Attlee-Bevin alliance was particularly important in protecting the administration from some of its own hotter blooded members, who shared the young Healey's enthusiasm for revolution. Their most potent figurehead was Aneurin Bevan, a fiery orator from the Welsh valleys, who constantly urged the government to embrace radical reforms, and bitterly resisted any suggestion of pragmatic trimming of policy. Bevan eventually was to deal the Attlee administration a hammer blow, when he resigned over the reintroduction of NHS prescription charges. For six years, though, his was the voice of radical Labour.
"The Labour Party is a Socialist Party, and proud of it." The stark sentence is buried in the party's 1945 election manifesto, which promised that Labour would take control of the economy and in particular of the manufacturing industry. The manifesto pledged nationalisation of the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel. And with a majority of more than 150, the party could not be denied.
One by one the key industries of the postwar economy tumbled into the public sector, where they were subject to elaborate planning controls. For the most part the takeovers were highly popular; none more so than the nationalisation of the coalmines. Pit owners still employed a million men, many of them in dire and dangerous conditions. The new national coal board was seen as much as a humanitarian institution as an economic one.
Other nationalisation operations were regarded more cynically. No sooner had British Railways taken over the old regional semi-private networks than jokes began to circulate about unreliable, crowded trains, crumbling stations and that old standby of British comedy, the buffet sandwich.
After the initial euphoria of nationalisation, it wasn't long before doubts began to emerge. The state industries were smothered by bureaucracy and the demands of Labour's economic gurus, both amateur and professional. Their bolder ideas were often subsumed in the delicate balance between principle and pragmatism.
It became clear that the lumbering machinery of economic planning could not deliver what the voters had demanded and Labour had promised: full employment, secure jobs with fair wages, an end to wartime rationing and - above all perhaps - decent homes for all.
It has sometimes been argued that the Attlee government's main disadvantage was that Britain had been on the winning side in the war. British cities and industries had been bashed around by German air raids, but had not suffered the wholesale destruction which allowed the renascent German economy to start from a clean sheet. More importantly, British economic class structures - and bitter enmities - survived the war unscathed, in contrast to those countries which had been traumatised by invasion and occupation (none more so than Germany) into rethinking their economic cultures.
But there were other obstacles in the path of Labour's would-be revolutionaries. The country, to put it brutally, was broke. It had poured its wealth into the war effort and in 1945 was groaning under a mountain of debt. It had pawned many of its most valuable assets, including a huge slice of overseas investments, to service that debt.
And even when the war was finally over, the victorious, impoverished British maintained vast numbers of men and resources tied up in an empire on which the sun was about to set. In Europe, Britain paid for a huge army of occupation in Germany. The dawn of the nuclear age, and British pride, demanded handsome investment in the new terrible weapons which would keep us allegedly a first class power. The disarmament, which some in the Labour party craved, proved illusory as - in Churchill's words again - an iron curtain descended across Europe, and the cold war began.
Speaking of cold, even the weather seemed at times to conspire against Labour. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the most severe ever recorded, causing widespread misery and disruption. One of the few truly cheering aspects of life was the imminent arrival of the Beveridge reforms.
The welfare state
The Attlee government is rightly seen as one of the great reformist administrations of the 20th century. It is a pleasant irony that the impetus for the more durable reforms came from outside the party.
The 1944 Education Act, which had introduced the concept of selection at 11 and compulsory free secondary education for all, was based on the work of a Tory, Richard Austin 'Rab' Butler, who went on to conquer all but the tallest peak of British politics.
The introduction of the welfare state rested very largely on the work of two Liberal economists: John Maynard Keynes, who argued the virtues of full employment and state stimulation of the economy, and William Beveridge.
Beveridge's ideas were culled from every nook and cranny of Whitehall. His formidable task was to put together a coherent plan for postwar social reconstruction. What he came up with extended hugely the framework of national insurance first put in place before the first world war by David Lloyd George. Every British citizen would be covered, regardless of income or lack of it. Those who lacked jobs and homes would be helped. Those who were sick, would be cured.
The birth of the National Health Service in July 1948 remains Labour's greatest monument. It was achieved only after two years of bitter resistance by the medical establishment, with consultants threatening strike action and the British Medical Association pouring out gloomy warnings about bureaucracy and expense.
Alas, those warnings proved to have more than a grain of truth, and the government was forced to retreat from its first grand vision of free, comprehensive health care for all. In the beginning, everything was provided: hospital accommodation, GP cover, medicine, dental care, and even spectacles. But with Britain showing few signs of economic take off, the budgetary burden was enormous. In 1951, chancellor of the exchequer Hugh Gaitskell was obliged to reintroduce charges for NHS false teeth and glasses. Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and junior minister John Freeman stormed out of government, and Attlee's goose was cooked.
Attlee's government took office in a world changing at bewildering speed. The war had forged new alliances, the greatest and most nebulous of all the United Nations. The USA and the USSR were undisputed superpowers; Britain and France deluded themselves that they were too.
In the far east, the embers of nationalism had been stirred into flame by the brutal advance and subsequent stubborn retreat of Japan. Britain's ignominious surrender of Singapore in 1941 had sent a clear signal to Asia that the daysof European imperialism were numbered.
With hindsight it was a blessing for Britain, as well as for its vast numbers of subjects around the world, that Winston Churchill lost the 1945 election. The old warrior was, at heart, a Victorian romantic, hopelessly in thrall to the so called romance of empire. His antipathy to India's independence struggle, in particular, was well established.
Attlee, on the other hand, recognised that the British Raj was doomed. He had been to Haileybury College, after all, and had paid an official visit to India in 1929. Even if the prime minister had harboured any illusions about Britain's duty to its 300m Indian subjects, he was constantly reminded by Washington that the US would not tolerate the continuance of empire. Wisely, he bowed to the inevitable, and prepared for withdrawal.
But even as it bade farewell, Britain was to visit two disasters on the subcontinent. One was Attlee's appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy. Conceited, impatient, and breathtakingly arrogant, he took to the grandeur and the raw power of the job with unholy relish.
Mountbatten decided that independence would come on August 1947, on the second anniversary of the day he had accepted the surrender of the Japanese in south-east Asia. Nothing was to stand in the way of this vainglory - not even the unresolved issue of Muslim demands for a separate state, and the gathering storm clouds of communal violence.
In a few summer weeks, colonial servants scribbled lines across the map of the mighty subcontinent, carving East and West Pakistan out of Mother India, and sparking a bloodbath so frightful that no one to this day knows exactly how many millions died. The holocaust even consumed Mahatma Gandhi, the father of free India and of freedom movements everywhere, who was assassinated months after independence. Thus ended 300 years of history, and 90 years of Raj. King George VI would be the last British monarch to style himself emperor of India.
There was another colonial retreat, in a way just as disgraceful, on the extreme west of Asia. For just over a quarter of a century British administrators had tried, and on the whole failed, to make sense of their League of Nations (later United Nations) mandate to rule Palestine. They tried partition, appeasement, manipulation and bald coercion. Nothing helped assuage the bloody friction between the rising tide of Jewish immigrants and the native Palestinians.
The end of the second world war brought new waves of refugees from Nazi tyranny to the shores of the holy land, and the conflict became more unholy than ever. Washington was adamant that nothing should stand in the way of the establishment of Israel and when the mandate finally dribbled into the sands of history in May 1948, the new state was born, fighting for its life.
Elsewhere, of course, Britain's imperial might remained intact. The Union flag still flew over huge tracts of Africa, whole archipelagos in the Caribbean and Pacific, jewels of Asia like Singapore and Hong Kong. But there was another much greater reality: British adherence to, and even dependence on, the patronage of the United States. We tagged along with Washington in the occupation of Germany and the establishment of Nato; we acquiesced in the new division of Europe between east and west; we willingly did our bit in the great airlift which saved west Berlin from the Soviet blockade of the late 1940s, and we sent our troops to South Korea to fight for the United Nations - under US direction - against China and the North.
At the insistence of Attlee and the Labour right, we developed our very own nuclear weapons and insisted that they kept us independent. In reality, the north Atlantic connection was the only one which ultimately mattered.
It is tempting to think of the Attlee years as an anti-climax. After the clamour of victory, the peace was a drab disappointment. And after all the fervent promises of a new dawn, British life remained to a large extent grey and grim. At times, food restrictions were even tighter than during the war - bread was rationed for the first time. Class enmities flourished; social and economic inequalities remained palpable. Here and there were little pockets of a new prosperity: television broadcasts were resumed, the first Morris Minors appeared, and British designers were working on the world's first commercial jet, the De Havilland Comet. But of that great universal prosperity which seemed to glow from the 1945 manifestos, there was little sign.
And yet, and yet... Britain in the Attlee years changed more than under any other government, before or since. The welfare reforms, and to a lesser extent the great experiment of state control of industry, had a profound effect on the way the people saw themselves and their country. And what they saw, on the whole, was pleasing.
In 1950, after five exhausting years, it was inevitable that the great electoral tide of 1945 would be turned. But in the general election of that year the Labour vote dipped less than 2%, and it was only the vagaries of the first past the post system that saw the Tories gain 88 seats.
Still, Attlee remained in power, at the head of an increasingly fractious government rent by ideological divisions, and fatally wounded by the illness and withdrawal from public life of men like Cripps and Bevin. When the NHS prescription charge issue finally ripped the party apart, the prime minister was obliged to go to the country again in 1951.
Even then, Labour retained the faith of the people, gaining its highest ever share of the vote: 48.8%. Indeed, it was the closest any party came in the 20th century to achieving a popular majority mandate, but it was still not enough. The key turned out to be the Liberal vote, which suddenly evaporated, leaving the party with just 2.5% support and six MPs. The Conservatives ended up with fewer votes than Labour, but 26 more MPs. Winston Churchill was back in Downing Street.
Building the welfare state
Academic analysis of the welfare state
More about Clement Attlee
1945 election manifestos
The 1945 result
The 1950 result
The 1951 result
Results of all general elections since 1945