Clement Attlee. Source: National Archives INF 14/19
On Monday 9th October Ann Evans introduced us to the truly fascinating story of Clement Attlee.
In 1905 aged 22, Attlee, with his brother Laurence, set off from Putney station and travelled to Stepney Green. Within a few steps of the station, they entered a very different world. Attlee described travelling along the “ weary waters sad and brown…. Threading the close packed reaches of the town” as they headed towards “ squalid tenements of ill renown”. This was the dark heart of “Outcast London”. The East end of 1905 was densely populated by dockworkers, casual labourers and notorious for unemployment, poverty, crime and disease. As the “Observer”, stated in 1944, Attlee “went left by going east.”
The two Attlee boys were headed to the Haileybury Club, an institution founded by their old school, for boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. It was at the boys’ club that Attlee began his intellectual enquiry into the problems of poverty that confronted him in the East End. He read widely and came to the conclusion that the Poor Law system had failed its purpose miserably. Little had changed since the 1830s, when it distinguished between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The deprivation and poverty that he experienced while working with slum children changed his political views. He felt that private charity would never be able to alleviate this poverty and that only direct action by the state would have any serious effect. He converted to socialism and joined the Independent Labour Party in 1908.
A street in Limhouse.
Attlee joined up in September 1914. He served in the Gallipoli campaign, holding the line at Lala Baba. He became an admirer of Winston Churchill despite the failure of the action. He later served in the Mesopotamia Campaign in Iraq, where he was badly wounded. His final service was in France.
After the war Attlee re-immersed himself in local politics. He became mayor of Stepney in 1919. The council under his leadership tackled slum landlords, appointed health visitors and sanitary inspectors, worked to reduce infant mortality and took action to find work for returning unemployed ex-servicemen. He expressed his feelings in his poem Limehouse, written in 1912.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men who go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity,
The streets where men decay.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children, who go to work or play,
Of children born in sorrow,
The workers of tomorrow,
How shall they work tomorrow Who get no bread today
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor tired mothers trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love eachother
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.”
In 1920 he wrote in The Social Worker: “In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some periods to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may, be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community.” In 1922 Attlee was elected as MP for Limehouse. In 1935, George Lansbury resigned after delegates at the Labour Party Conference supported sanctions against Italy for its aggression towards Abyssinia. Baldwin announced an election in November 1935, with no time for a leadership contest, Attlee agreed to be interim leader. After winning 38% of the vote, Attlee stood for the leadership against Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. Attlee was elected as a competent and unifying figure.
Statue of Clement Attlee. Public Domain.
Attlee remained as Leader of the Opposition when the Second World War began, convincing the Party to go into Coalition Government. Attlee stood with Churchill at his lowest ebb, sharing a joint conviction that government had to function efficiently, if generals were to succeed in the field, Churchill, never forgot, “Mr Attlee is a great patriot.” In 1945 Attlee presented to the electorate, an agenda of social patriotism, based on the “Social Insurance and Allied Services” report, drafted by the Liberal economist William Beveridge. In this, Beveridge identified five “Giant Evils” in society, squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. It proposed widespread reform to the system of social welfare. It was widely popular and formed the basis for the welfare state, the expansion of National Insurance and the creation of the National Health Service.
In the 1945 General Election Labour won by a huge landslide, winning 393 seats in Parliament and a majority of 146. When Attlee went to be appointed Prime Minister by King George VI, the laconic Attlee and the tongue-tied King stood in silence, Attlee finally volunteered the remark, ”I’ve won the Election.” The King replied , ”I know, I heard it on the Six O Clock News.” Attlee’s Government brought in to law, the National Insurance Act and National Health Service, as well as the 1944 Butler Education Act and Family Allowance Act – it signalled the move from a welfare system based on means testing to one premised on universal provision. The long held wish, expressed in The Social Worker, written in 1922, was realised.
The East End of London had been the inspiration of Clement Attlee. The dreadful living conditions of its population, had moved him from a comfortable middle class world, into radical socialism. His politics were ones of deep ethical conviction. Inspired by the needs of the people of Limehouse and the East End, he successfully established the Welfare State.