Rachel Reeves

Member of Parliament for Leeds West

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Clement Attlee and the foundations of the British welfare state


Rachel and Martin McIvor's article on Clement Attlee and the foundations of the British welfare state is now available on Renewal.

You can read an extract below or visit Renewal for the full article and references.


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).


Click here to read full article.

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