Ward's Book of Days.

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On this day in history in 1967, died Clement Atlee.

Atlee was the Prime Minister who presided over the institution of the Welfare State, and the creation of the National Health Service.

Atlee was born on 3rd January 1883, at Putney, London, the son of a respectable and prosperous lawyer. He was educated at Northaw School, Haileybury and University College, Oxford, where he read law. After practicing law in the and becoming involved with the problems of slum children, he became concerned with the state of the working class and joined the Independent Labour Party. In 1913, Atlee became a lecturer at the London School of Economics, but enlisted for war service in 1914. Atlee achieved the rank of major in the First World War, but was seriously wounded in action and discharged in 1918.  

After the First World War, Atlee became actively involved in politics. He became mayor of Stepney in 1919 and was elected M.P. for Limehouse in 1922. He served as undersecretary for war and later as postmaster general in the Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-1931, but when Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey McDonald, formed a National Government, Atlee resigned. In 1931, Atlee became deputy party leader under George Lansbury and succeeded as party leader when Lansbury was obliged to resign as leader due to his obdurate pacifism.  

Although Atlee approved of the declaration of war against Germany in 1939, he refused to join Chamberlain’s coalition government and in 1940, he was instrumental in forming a new coalition with Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. During the Second World War, Atlee served as Deputy Prime Minister and, when the war ended in 1945, he took the Labour Party out of the coalition and at the 1945 General election, inflicted a decisive defeat on Churchill’s government, and was appointed Prime Minister.  

Atlee’s government was notable for its extensive reform of the economy and British social conditions. It nationalised coal, steel and the railways and introduced the welfare state, including benefits for sickness and unemployment. Its major achievement was the creation of the National Health Service, an institution whose purpose was to provide free health care for all citizens, and which still survives today under a modified form. The government granted independence to India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) thus bringing about the end of the British Empire and creating the Commonwealth. In 1951, the Labour government was defeated at a general election and Churchill returned to power.  

Atlee’s political style was consensus rather that confrontation. He was popular with the electorate because of his unassuming manner and his business like approach to politics. Margaret Thatcher, in her memoirs, recorded that Atlee was ‘quite contrary to the general nature of politicians was all substance and no show’. Churchill described him as ‘a modest man who had much to be modest about’.   

Atlee died on 8th October 1967 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

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