Attlee was the British Labour Party leader for 20 years, and presided over the 1945 - 1951 Labour government. This was the most significant reforming administration of 20th century Britain. It introduced the National Health Service, nationalised one fifth of the British economy, and granted independence to India.
Attlee was born on 2 January 1883. He had a conventional middle-class upbringing, and after going to Oxford University began a career as a barrister. However, he abandoned this to become a social worker in the East End of London, and later joined the Labour Party. He served in the army in World War One.
Attlee rose through the rank and file of the Labour Party which gave him a knowledge of Labour's culture and ethos that others from a similar social background, such as Hugh Dalton and Stafford Cripps, lacked. Attlee became member of parliament for Stepney in 1922 and served as a junior minister in the 1924 and 1929 - 1931 MacDonald governments. He became party leader in 1935, largely by default as many of his more charismatic rivals had lost their seats in the 1931 election. His quiet, unassuming personality led many to underestimate him. Plots to replace him were a regular occurrence throughout the next two decades, but Attlee had the self-assurance not to be perturbed by the machinations of Herbert Morrison or Ernest Bevin.
During World War Two, Attlee was a highly successful deputy prime minister in Churchill's coalition government. Then in 1945, when Labour swept to power in a landslide election victory, his combination of social conscience and staunch patriotism encapsulated Labour's experiment in democratic socialism. This led to the creation of the National Health Service and the nationalisation of coal mining and the steel industry. Attlee saw his role of premier as that of an umpire, reconciling the opinions of a cabinet composed of powerful personalities such as Morrison, Bevin and Aneurin Bevan. He played a critical role in supporting Bevin's Cold War diplomacy, and in accelerating independence for India, a cause which he had supported for many years.
After Labour's defeat in the general election of 1951, Attlee's effectiveness dramatically declined, his authority broken by factional fighting within the party. He resigned as leader in 1955 and accepted a peerage. He died on 8 October 1967.