David Blunkett: Clement Attlee is Labour's greatest hero

It's only now we can properly evaluate and respect the contribution he made to Britain during the second world war

When I was asked to participate in the conference debate around Labour's greatest heroes, my mind was immediately drawn to the fact that we're always seen in a better light long after we've gone (sometimes out of office, mostly when we're deceased).

It's not surprising, therefore, that the four chosen by Guardian readers reflect the latter. I think – although it may take longer in terms of the readers of this renowned newspaper! – that within 25 years, Tony Blair will be seen in the light of the four "contestants" in this interesting and, I hope, enjoyable debate.

Clement Attlee is probably the most difficult to promote. Not because he was not the most effective, or did not give us (before 1997) the most profound legacy; but because of his personality.

He was "Not flash, just Gordon" before that clever quip was launched on the world 12 months ago. It did not undermine his ability firstly to outwit those who would have unseated him – as with Herbert Morrison – or to engineer 4.5 million people, demobbed from the armed services, back into work, restore a functioning civil society and cope with the Americans pulling the plug on the British economy.

Aneurin Bevan wouldn't have been able to take on the role of architect of the NHS 60 years ago, if Attlee had not been prepared, as prime minister, to support him. Unlike Bevan, he didn't have the luxury of resignation just before the 1951 election – an oft-forgotten act that, if perpetrated today, would create banner headlines of unrepeatable venom!

Of course, Attlee had been the quiet voice, the decision-taker behind Winston Churchill throughout the second world war.

While Churchill rallied the nation and the world, Attlee was here at home ensuring that the war machine worked, that the fabric of society held together, and the nation was fed.

Churchill's quip about him being "a modest man with a lot to be modest about" was as far from the mark as you could possibly get.

Achievements are those changes, which last. The things that make a difference to the lives and wellbeing of the people we in the Labour party seek to serve.

To do so, not only on the world stage in relation to the war but in freeing hundreds of millions of people from imperialism after the war (not least in India), he laid the foundations of a commonwealth of equals.

In promoting the cause of Attlee, I also draw conclusions from aspects of his life and premiership which teach us lessons today. The failure to lift rationing (a policy that had ensured the health and nutrition of the bulk of the population during the war) was a mistake. It demonstrated that something that was right for its own time, that was a necessity to prevent rickets or even famine, was a millstone when its time had run out. The world of choice, the need for hope and optimism, of a rejection of government telling people what was good for them, had arrived – but not, however, in the Labour government and Labour party of 1950-51.


David Blunkett

The GuardianTramp

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