Sir Clement Attlee: Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
Up to the middle of the 20th century, the foundations of British society still predominantly operated under a Judeo-Christian worldview. Although this foundation had been seriously shaken in the 18th century by the Enlightenment, and in the 19th century by the rise of Darwinism and various revolutionary movements, the cultural consensus remained broadly Christian.
Because religious values had been part of the “common sense” of Victorian Britain, it was easy to take Christian principles for granted without thoughtful reflection and Biblical defence. Since Christian categories had become second nature to the British, the supernatural justification for those values was increasingly de-emphasized even within the Christian communities. The Congregationalist R.W. Dale touched a raw nerve when he declared in 1880 that the impulse to live without God could grow within the religious culture because of a “religious sentiment of a kind which makes God unnecessary.”
Precisely because Christian values were “in the air”, so to speak, it was easy for secularists to appropriate religious categories into their thinking and then transfer those categories to the state. The result would be the growth of a Messianic view of Government that would gradually displace the church as being the voice of public conscience. Under the new view of the state, Christian values were reworked in man-centred terms, resulting in a new pseudo-morality that would eventually become hostile to traditional religion.
This shift came to be felt most strongly when the Labour Government achieved an unexpected victory in the 1945 general election under the leadership of Clement Attlee.
From Opposition Leader to Prime Minister
Attlee had been leader of the Labour party from 1935. The party remain on the verges of British politics until Churchill’s Conservatives needed a coalition government to run the country following the outbreak of World War II. Labour joined the conservatives, giving Mr Attlee the opportunity to work in the government during the critical period of the war.
Even while the war was going on, the people of Britain began to desire change. The Beveridge Report of 1942 captured the public mood when it argued for the elimination of want through the welfare state. Labour was able to capitalize on the public mood in arguing that it would be the best party to rebuild Britain following the war. No one seriously expected Labour to win, and so it came as a surprise to everyone, including Attlee himself, when his party won a landslide victory in the 1945 general election.
Towards ‘A New Social Order’
It has generally been understood that the Government cannot be everywhere, dictate anything and do everything. The myth of Attlee’s socialism, however, was that government could aspire to this type of omnipotence and omnipresence. Indeed, Attlee possessed a naïve and apparently unlimited faith in man’s ability to create the perfect world through the state.
Instead of downsizing Government to what it had been prior to the War, Attlee increased the role of the State, expanding its tentacles even further into private life. As Peter Hitchens put it in The Rage Against God,
“The Labour government elected in 1945, with a huge Parliamentary majority, had many of the characteristics of a revolution, nationalising private property and centralising state power, greatly increasing the direct role of government in the national life in a way never before attempted in peacetime (though familiar from the recent war).”
One of the first things Attlee’s Government did was to begin a complete overhaul of British society, implementing the principles Attlee had written about in his 1935 publication The Will and the Way to Socialism. In that work Attlee had stated that “The Labour Party exists to challenge the whole basis of society in this country and the world…to lay the foundations of a new social order.”
The new social order would be based on Marxist ideas, though Attlee downplayed his dependence on Marx. Nevertheless, in The Labour Party in Perspective, he gave as one of the Party Objectives a goal that could have been lifted straight out of the Communist Manifesto: “To secure for the workers…the common ownership of the means of production…”
Courting Christian Support
Mr Attlee had grown up in a Christian home. One of his brothers became a clergyman and his sister became a missionary. Clement himself abandoned the faith, which he would always dismiss as “mumbo jumbo.” Because of his upbringing, however, Attlee knew how “to talk the talk.” This was one of the reasons he was able to win the 1945 election. By employing a steady stream of Christian vocabulary and symbolism, he was able to give a Christian hue to his socialist agenda and thus court the Christian Vote. He even claimed explicitly that he was influenced by Christianity, asserting in a 1948 Oxford address that “Our British socialism – our Western European Socialism – has its roots in…Christianity…”
Because the new socialist Government appeared to champion spiritual principles, the church had great confidence in the Labour movement and even decided to turn their Christian schools over to the state. Peter Hitchens described this process in The Rage Against God:
“The wartime Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, had considered himself a Christian Socialist, and much of the Church of England believed that in 1945 Labour government was enacting Christian legislation and turning the country into an ideal Christian society. One effect of this was that the Church relinquished control of many of its secondary schools to the state (a mistake the Roman Catholics did not make), in return for the promise of a daily act of Christian worship in all schools, a promise that would be extensively broken within a few decades.”
If instead of jumping so quickly onto the Labour bandwagon, Attlee’s Christian supporters had paid more attention to what he actually meant when he used religious language, they would have seen that he was re-appropriating Christian categories and applying them to the state. In a feat of almost unimaginable idolatry, Attlee deified the state, taking what God said about His Kingdom and applying it to the British Government. The result was a Messianic view of government. Through the use of force, he believed that the state could literally create a paradise on earth. He described this statist utopia in spiritual terms, writing
“We are out to build a new society, a society of peace, freedom and social justice. We have to conquer material things, to preserve things of the spirit just as we had to conquer Hitler’s armed forces to preserve freedom and democracy in the world. But the conquest of the material is not an end in itself but only a means to achieve the spiritual. My appeal to you is to re-dedicate yourselves to the ideals of Socialism…”
Only afterwards did many of the Christians in Britain realize that they had been deceived by Attlee. When he used Christian language, as in the following poem, he had not been referring to the kingdom of Christ, but to utopia that socialist ideology would bring to the earth.
“While gazing seawards to the West
I look for Islands of the Blest
And mindful of the teeming slum
Cry out ‘On earth thy kingdom come’,
For sure with beauty everywhere
The heart must needs breathe such a prayer.
Nor need we priest within the shrine
With broken bread and hallowed wine
To show that Love is all God’s plan
And teach the Fellowship of Man:
When man and earth and sky and sea
Are in such mighty harmony.”
Replacing the Church With The State
In his book The Labour Party in Perspective Attlee wrote that “Socialism to me is not just a piece of machinery or an economic system, but a living faith translated into action.” Elsewhere he wrote that socialist economics was the key to a fulfilled life: “Socialists regard economic activities only as the foundation for a full life of the spirit.”
As a ‘living faith’ foundational for spiritual life, Attlee’s socialism was in direct competition with another living faith, namely Christianity. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Attlee began handing over to the state many things that had previously rested with the church. For example, he argued against the church’s role in helping the poor. “Charity” he once remarked, “is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly…” He also believed that socialism, not the church, was the instrument for bringing civic regeneration. In fact, the very future of civilization depended on the British people accepting the solution of socialism. As he wrote, “In my view the future of civilisation hangs in the balance, and the people of this country have it in their power to play a decisive part.”
If socialist principles were embraced, not only would it save the human race, but it would allow future generations to participate in a society that Attlee described in almost euphoric terms:
“Socialists envisage human progress as continuous…. Socialism is not an end itself, but only the means of attaining conditions under which the fullest possible life will be available for the human race. Further developments which we cannot contemplate today will inevitably follow.”
During his first May Day rally as Prime Minister in 1947, Attlee told his hearers that Labout government was based on “the brotherhood of man.” Attlee believed that the way to achieve such brotherhood was to use force to remove the inequalities which existed in the social and the economic spheres. Naturally, he wanted to abolish the House of Lords, but that was just the beginning. Championing what he called “an equalitarian society”, Attlee would not rest content until everyone was equal with everyone else. He even advocated what he called an “equalitarian village” where every person’s house was the same size as that of every other person.
In order to achieve this equalitarian utopia, the Government would need to abolish all private property. He expressed his desire like this in The Labour Party in Perspective: “Land will be owned by the community, not by private individuals… All the major industries will be owned and controlled by the community…” And elsewhere: “As long as private ownership exists it is…impossible to plan the development of the country in the national interest…”
How was property to be transferred from the individual to the state? For Attlee the answer was simple: Government should be able to just take the land it wants. As he wrote, “The Labour Government will, therefore, pass a measure giving power to purchase compulsorily whatever land it requires for whatever purpose….Confiscation is a form of taxation differing only from any other tax in the amount taken.”
In order to achieve a government with the powers of confiscation, Attlee hoped to bring to the UK the type of planned economy that Brits had only witnessed from afar in such nations as Hitler’s Germany, where the national socialist party controlled all aspects of commerce. A big obstacle, of course, was that Britain had just fought a war to save themselves from that type of totalitarian regime. However, it was a credit to Attlee’s genius that he converted the anti-fascist mood into an argument for socialism, suggesting that “Fascism…is only a cloak for Capitalism.”
Attlee’s legacy has also been seminal in the internationalism that came to dominate the last half of the 20th century. Mr Attlee suggested that the notion of the sovereign states making its own decisions was “as out of date as would be the heptarchy in these islands.” Elsewhere he wrote, “The Labour Party does not regard the British Commonwealth as an end in itself, but only as a factor in the building up of a world federation.” He hoped the League of Nations would be transitional to a one-world government, describing it “as a beginning of the World Federation which it hopes to see established.”
By the time Attlee ceased being Prime Minister in 1951, the landscape of British society was permanently altered. One fifth of the economy had been nationalized and the division between government and private life had become tenuous.
History has looked about Clement Attlee as a hero of renown. This was reflected when he received knighthood in 1948. Those who sing his praises are right about one thing: he did play a seminal role in shaping the Britain we know today. Indeed, the Keynesian economic principles he followed set Britain on a trajectory that would come to result in the type of unprecedented public debt, deficit spending and inflation that have now become commonplace.