LSE lecturer, First World War veteran, Labour Leader, and then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee’s achievements have often been overlooked. In fact, a common view has been that Attlee was a passenger in history – lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But how much of this is true? Focusing on Attlee’s association with the LSE, John Bew and Michael Cox re-investigate his life and times.
The gallons of ink spilled on Winston Churchill – and the huge appetite for books about him – have created something of an imbalance in our understanding of twentieth-century Britain. Not only does Clement Attlee’s life deserve to have a rightful place alongside the Churchill legend, it is also more emblematic, and more representative, of Britain in his time. The story of Attlee is also much more dramatic than he himself ever made out – and not without an element of heroism. Here was a man born in the governing class who devoted his life to the service of the poor, who was carried off the battlefield three times in the First World War, who stood shoulder to shoulder with Churchill as Britain’s darkest moment, and then triumphed over him at the general election of 1945. In many ways we still live in a world of Attlee’s creation. His government of 1945-51 was the most radical in history, and gave Britain the NHS, National Insurance, NATO and the atomic bomb.
Both during his lifetime and afterwards, however, Attlee has had an odd relationship with the British left – particularly intellectuals of the left. For them, his greatest crime was what Nye Bevan called his ‘suburban middle class values’, or his resort to sporting clichés about fair play. This, after all, was a pipe and slippers man who compared socialism to gardening.
In so far as Attlee is discussed on the left, he has often been damned with faint praise – as a lucky leader, blessed with a talented cabinet, a good chairman but ultimately, in Hugh Dalton’s phrase, ‘a little mouse’. Even some of the eulogies for the Attlee government are pointedly selective in what they celebrate. Typical of such cherry-picking was The Spirit of ’45, the 2013 documentary film by Ken Loach, based on footage from the election of that year. This focused, rightly, on the creation of the NHS, the provision of social housing and the nationalisation of the mines but barely touched on foreign affairs – failing to mention Ernie Bevin, the foreign secretary, or the $3 billion from America’s Marshall Plan that enabled many of these changes. Its hero was more Nye Bevan, the Minister of Health and Housing, than the prime minister himself. In fairness to Loach, Attlee’s stiff public persona as recorded on contemporary newsreel did not lend itself easily to dramatisation, particularly when contrasted to Bevan’s penchant for theatre and bombast.
The prevailing view of Attlee that we have been left with, therefore, is of a passenger in history. To his critics, he was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time – to inherit the force of the Labour movement. So his greatest sin was passivity. ‘It’s a good title,’ said Bevan when Attlee’s autobiography, As it Happened, appeared in 1954. ‘Things happened to him. He never did anything.’ In 1967, just after his death, The Economist commented of Attlee that he ‘stayed in his shell’. This much is true. But the mistake, particularly common on the left in particular, was to assume that there was nothing in that shell. ‘In parliament or in the public he was nothing other than himself’, said The Economist, that is, he was ‘middle class with no ambitions to be anything else… a thinking man with no pretensions to be an intellectual.’
Yet this most underrated of men, who according to Kingsley Martin, later editor of The New Statesman, had a ‘deceptive capacity for not being noticed’, was appointed tutor in December 1912 in the newly established Department of Social Science and Administration at LSE. He lectured on two topics: local authorities and what is described in his file as a ‘summary of agencies’. Modest though the new Department may have been in its original ambitions, its impact was to be very great indeed. Directed by the great economic historian RH Tawney, and funded by the extraordinary Indian industrialist and philanthropist Sir Ratan Tata, the new Department, in effect, launched social work and social administration as a serious academic subject in Great Britain. Indeed, even before the outbreak of war, it managed to publish a series of path-breaking studies – a couple by Tawney himself, one by Arthur Greenwood on the health of schoolchildren, (Greenwood later became a Labour Minister of Health), another two by ME Buckley (one on school meals and nutrition), and yet another by one of the early stalwarts of LSE, the great statistician, AL Bowley, who authored a comparative study of working-class conditions in four northern towns.
Attlee himself did not publish anything of significance at this stage. However, he could at least take comfort from the fact that he now had a paying job which in 1912 secured him the grand sum of £75, and in 1913, £150 – plus 2 and half guineas per lecture! Moreover, he had secured the position against some very strong opposition, most obviously from the young Cambridge economist, Hugh Dalton who had earlier been awarded a prestigious scholarship at the School. Dalton might have thought – and almost certainly did – that he was a literal shoe-in for the new job in the new Department. But not for the first time did he underestimate Attlee. Later of course, Dalton did get a full-time position lecturing at the School in the Economics department. But the earlier defeat clearly hurt his not inconsiderable ego. Typically, Attlee believed that he had secured the post because he had what he termed ‘a good practical knowledge of social conditions’; Dalton, a talented but extremely vain man was not so sure and attributed it to the fact that he had not yet qualified as a barrister. But there was nothing else that Attlee had over him – or so Dalton thought. Dalton always believed that the moment would arrive when he would overtake Attlee. But that moment never came. Many others would make the same mistake.
Nevertheless, Attlee returned to the School after the First World War to join what was now called the Ratan Tata Department of Social Science and Administration teaching one class a week and editing a series of books in what became known as ‘The Social Service Library’. But the situation was far from ideal. For one thing there was a (temporary) decline in student numbers and so salaries would have to be adjusted downwards. Attlee’s, it seems, was reduced by a £100.00; he later complained that he simply ‘could not live on his present salary’. Meanwhile, the book series was not doing as well as expected. Indeed, by 1921 there was talk of discontinuing it altogether. And to make matters more complicated still, Attlee’s own book in the series The Social Worker (1920) appears to have created something of stir forcing his academic boss to ‘write a letter of regret’ to the ‘Charity Organization Society’.
Finally, to cap it all, Attlee himself was becoming more and more involved in politics outside the School, spending most of his time as Mayor of Stepney as a campaigner and an administrator of milk and water socialism. In 1922 Attlee was of course elected MP for Limehouse in the East End of London, and it was by now obvious that he could no longer continue at the School. But he only formally resigned in January 1923, and thereafter continued doing a few lectures (at £3.30 a lecture) well into Spring of the same year. Two years later he also collaborated with an LSE lecturer – William A Robson (later editor of Political Quarterly) – in authoring a study on local government and the important role that needed to be played by the town councillor, the title of the book, in keeping alive what the two authors called ‘the thin flicker of the civic spirit’ based on the ‘enhancement and development of the civic conscience’.
Even if Attlee’s formal association with the School was a short one, it was while he was at LSE that he completed his study on The Social Worker. The title may not inspire but the book itself is an important one in understanding Attlee’s world view. Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, his study does not begin with a description of what the social worker actually does – that comes later – but rather a discussion of Blake, Keats and Shelley and their poetic critique of industrial society. From here Attlee moves on to make a powerful case both for social service as a ‘call for change’ and the social worker as someone whose role is not just to administer charity to the poor but to advance the cause of justice in a new world where older, more traditional assumptions about the limited role of the state no longer held true. Over the course of his career, Attlee continued to talk in terms of duties and rights – but had come to believe that the Victorian liberal concept of citizenship had been discredited. British citizenship must continue to evolve he believed. This was a process of evolution that marked Britain out, in Attlee’s mind, as the most civilised nation in the world. During the war, every single citizen had been asked to make sacrifices for the greater national good. It had been urged, he said, ‘and by none so loudly as by those whose conception of citizenship had not previously been highly developed, that it was the duty of every man to do services in the trenches or munition works’ in order to achieve victory. Those who had refused to fight on the grounds of individual conscience, such as his brother Tom, had been excluded from the community. After the war, then, these citizens also expected a fuller conception of rights.
In a telling passage, which provides a clue to the Attlee credo, he quoted the work of Professor EJ Urwick, his head of faculty at LSE. Urwick’s 1912 book A Philosophy of Social Progress bemoaned the way in which, because of the emphasis on individual liberty in the prevailing economic theories of the nineteenth century, the citizenship idea had been pushed into the background by individualism and the atomisation of society. As he had written:
“In our modern life the sense of unity is not realised, and all the pervading duties of citizenship are lost sight of in the wilderness of interests of both individuals and groups. Our extraordinarily complex life, our far too numerous activities, our strong assertion of individual liberty which we very imperfectly understand, and the assumed importance our occupation as self-seekers and self-developers – all these things tend to drive the citizen idea into the background. Yet in theory and also in fact it is still the necessary and single basis of social duty and social morality.”
In a prophetic passage in The Social Worker, Attlee condemned the ‘revolutionary idealist’ who would ‘criticise and condemn all methods of social advance that do not directly square with his formulae and will repeat his shibboleths without any attempt to work out their practical application’. The ‘dreamer must keep his feet on the earth and the thinker must come out of his study’. Such words are as important today as ever.
John Bew is Professor at King’s College London and author of Attlee’s best-selling biography, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee.
Michael Cox is Director of LSE IDEAS.