The name of Clement Attlee is indelibly associated with the great leap forward in the construction of Britain's welfare state accomplished by the 1945-51 Labour government: the implementation of William Beveridge's blueprint for National Insurance, a Family Allowance, improved old age pensions, and the National Health Service. For many this moment marks the historic birth of a British welfare consensus whose contours are still clearly recognisable today, even after seventy years of social and economic change, and political controversy that has raged ever since.
As the Labour Party looks to win office in 2015 so that it can build on this legacy, Clement Attlee's government is still somewhere to go to for inspiration and guidance. But our focus here will not be the events of the 1940s. Rather, we argue that to fully understand that breakthrough and what made it possible, and also to gain true historical perspective on the debates and developments of today, we need to dig deeper, beneath the Acts of Parliament and civil service committees, to the social underpinnings of this administrative achievement, and look further back into Attlee's own life, and his involvement in what we might call the Edwardian pre-history of Britain's welfare state.
For Clement Attlee was himself formed by his experiences and activities in this critical period when Victorian philanthropy met and was forced to come to terms with working-class self-organisation in the crucible of London's East End. Revisiting this time, and the part Attlee played in it, gives us a richer appreciation of the historical pre-conditions of the post-war settlement.
In particular, it reminds us that the welfare state was never intended to, and should never be expected to, stand alone as a set of institutions or policies. It depends for its stability and sustainability upon ethical, economic, and political foundations that were seen as essential by its Edwardian pioneers, and are no less vital in the twentyfirst century. For as we look now at how we renew and secure a decent social security system for the next generation, we need to be attentive to fundamental questions such as the values and principles that the welfare state embodies, how it treats people and what it asks of them; its interaction with the labour market and wider economic context; and the need to engage and involve as many people as possible in the debate about its future, so we can maintain and renew its popularity and legitimacy.
East End epiphany
As Jon Cruddas showed in his Attlee memorial lecture (Cruddas, 2011), Clement Attlee was a romantic before he was a politician. He spent his years at public school immersed in Tennyson and Browning. At University College, Oxford, he admits to being distracted from his studies by 'poetry and history', becoming especially enchanted by the Pre-Raphaelites. He showed little interest in political or social issues; his default allegiance was Tory but he was too shy to get involved in the debates at the Union.
It was, of all things, his old school tie that first took him to Stepney at the age of 22, to help out at a Boys Club attached to his alma mater, Haileybury. But unlike other young men and women of the professional and upper middle classes, who often did a stint of voluntary work in the East End in a manner akin to the 'gap years' of today, Attlee stayed on.
After two years he had taken over as manager of the Club. A year later, he joined the Independent Labour Party, and a year after that abandoned the Bar, where his father had lined him up for a job, to take up a full time position as lecture secretary for Beatrice Webb's campaign to popularise the Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law, a text which in his own words 'may be regarded as the seed from which later blossomed the welfare state' (Attlee, 1958; see also Wallis, 2009, and Ward, 2011). Also at this time he became involved in the National Anti-Sweating League's campaign for trade boards and minimum wages to be established in casualised sectors like tailoring and chain-making. The following year he became secretary of Toynbee Hall, and was employed by the government to give public presentations on Lloyd George's National Insurance Act.
In 1912, at the age of 29, Attlee was appointed to a part time position at the London School of Economics, lecturing on what was then the emerging profession of social work--beating his future Chancellor Hugh Dalton to the job, apparently as a result of the Webbs' influence. It was in this capacity that, after the First World War and before his final entry into full time politics as Labour Mayor of Stepney, he wrote a textbook on the subject, The Social Worker (Attlee, 1920), which gathers together observations and reflections on this period of his life, and today gives us a fascinating insight into the impact that these experiences had on his character and values.
It is clear that what, in the first instance, changed the course of Attlee's life was a humane and compassionate response to the daily hunger and precarious existence he encountered in the East End. Attlee tells the story of a small boy he met in the street. 'We walked along together', Attlee recounts.
'Where are you off to?' says he. 'I'm going home to tea', said I. 'Oh, I'm going home to see if there is any tea', was his reply. (Attlee, 1920, 134) 'It is as well to keep clearly in mind', Attlee observed, 'if you are one of those whom meal-times come with almost monotonous regularity, that to others there is the question always present: Where is tomorrow's dinner to come from?'.
Attlee even attempted to express his feelings in poetic form:
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day I hear the feet of many 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 of sorrow, The workers of tomorrow How shall they work tomorrow Who get no bread today? But Attlee's early writings also reveal that his response to what he encountered was more complex than sheer shock at the squalor and waste he witnessed. This was a common enough reaction among people of his background who visited the East End at this time. In the late nineteenth century East London had been the focus of waves of moral panic about segregated communities locked in self-perpetuating cycles of concentrated deprivation, financial irresponsibility, and what would today be called 'welfare dependency'. In Gareth Stedman Jones's account, these streets figured in the late Victorian imagination as a
nursery of destitute poverty and thriftlessness, demoralised pauperism, as a community cast adrift from the salutary presence and leadership of men and wealth and culture, and as a potential threat to the riches and civilisation of London and the Empire. (Stedman Jones, 1984)
Orthodox remedies, promoted by the theorists of the New Poor Law and the Charity Organisation Society, focused on tighter regulation and restriction of official poor relief and charitable 'hand-outs' that were seen as barriers to the proper functioning of the labour market, and corrupting influences on the moral character of the local population. (Those of us with an interest in today's welfare debates might find such attitudes depressingly familiar).
Attlee himself acknowledged that patrician and even colonial attitudes could be found among the philanthropists and social activists who came to live in places like the East End as part of what was known as the 'Settlement Movement' (Attlee, 1920, 214). And yet the commitment to sustained cohabitation and cooperation with working people seems to have generated its own dynamic (see Meacham, 1996), one that Attlee's trajectory embodies.
Attlee identified the impetus of the movement with a motto of Canon Barnett, founder of Toynbee Hall, that 'enquiries into social conditions lead generally to one conclusion: they show that little can be done for which is not done with the people' (Attlee, 1920, 192). In Attlee's own case this culminated in a profound appreciation of and respect for the dignity, solidarity and morality of the people he came to know that cuts directly against Victorian presumptions that the East End represented a case of moral, cultural, even biological 'degeneration'.
In 1920 he reflected that:
we are struck by the amazing charity of the poor to the poor, the readiness with which one poor household will take into their home and support a friend who is out of a job, and the ready response to whip round for a widow left penniless, or for similar cases of misfortune. (Attlee, 1920, 127)
He repeatedly warns, however, against the prejudice that means the distinctive moral codes of the working poor can be missed, or misconstrued as mere profligacy or irresponsibility. The social worker, he says, 'is apt to be irritated' by the fact that 'a very poor family will spend all the money derived from an insurance policy on an expensive funeral'. But what must be understood, he says, is that 'it is in reality only a means of expression of proper pride' and 'the tradition of the neighbourhood'...