In a political age devoid of decency and talent, the lessons we can learn from Clement Attlee

In his Attlee Foundation lecture delivered at Queen Mary University of London, Jon Davis explores the ambiguous reputation of Britain’s first post-war prime minister and pays tribute to his own mentor, historian Peter Hennessy

Thursday 26 October 2023 10:43 BST
<p>Clement Attlee and his wife Violet wave to crowds in London on 26 July 1945 – the day he became prime minister </p>

Clement Attlee and his wife Violet wave to crowds in London on 26 July 1945 – the day he became prime minister

I am the first in my family to stay on for A-levels, let alone anything else. I do not remember the idea of going to university being a part of my upbringing until A-level teachers started to mention it – something I thought might happen one day, but far into the future. After an unhappy stint in banking, I chose Queen Mary, which is where Clement Attlee’s election count was held in 1945; it was the night he became the first majority Labour prime minister. I chose Queen Mary for its reputation, for its proximity to our home at the end of the District line in Upminster, and for its East End location.

My great stroke of professional fortune came in my final undergraduate year, when I was accepted into the class “Cabinet, Premiership and the Conduct of British Central Government since 1945” by Professor Peter, now Lord, Hennessy.

I revelled in Peter’s teaching: his analysis, his anecdotes, but most of all his passion. And none more so than for Attlee. I had heard of the Labour leader mostly in the context of Winston Churchill’s stunning and oh-so-complicated landslide defeat in 1945; what a way for the British people to repay the greatest war leader this country had ever known. Outside of this, Attlee was never really spoken about. Not at home – a very lively debating forum, I can tell you; not at school; not even, really, for the first two years of a history and politics degree in the East End. Peter’s teaching was a revelation.

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