What would Clement do?

A Labour blog that witters on about Clement Attlee. Hurrah for The Major!

On the shoulders of Giants…

This will be an irregular section, in which I will drone on about my Labour and Socialist heroes – gee, sounds fun eh..?

First off Clement Richard Attlee; the man himself, greatest ever Labour Leader, poet, loving husband, patriot and fighter…

Clement Richard Attlee was born into a comfortable Victorian household in Putney  on the third of January 1883, coincidentally the same year in which Kier Hardy founded the Independent Labour Party. His parents were Gladstonian Liberals, so he became a Tory of the one nation kind, attending Haileybury – then as now a minor Public school. After University College Oxford he was articled into the family’s City law firm (Attlee & Druce), which still exists today. It was here that he developed his lifelong obsessions with Cricket, poetry and languages, especially Italian.  He also enjoyed serving in his school’s Combined Cadet Force.

A bright lad from a family of lawyers, he finished his schooling and studied at Oxford University, where he assumed the mantle of cynical Toryism, in part as a reaction to his family’s classical Liberalism. He kept in touch with his old school and any other Old Haileyburians that crossed his path, this was something that continued right up until the day he died. His love of poetry, and the Italy of the Renaissance period, grew during his time at Oxford, but he left the University after graduation to study for the Bar, under the tutelage of Sir Henry Dickens (a son of Charles Dickens), through his family connections. Up until he moved back to London, Clement’s life seemed set on a path of conventional conservatism, yet all this was to change within a few years.

Like some other public schools Haileybury had,  through its old boys’ network, established a Boys’ Club in Durham Road, Stepney. This was somewhere where the sons of the East End poor could come in their little free time – they could form football teams, learn boxing, join the local Territorial Army and learn to read and write. It was also a way for those Old Haileyburians with a social conscience to use their spare time to support the clergy who were active in trying to “do something” to help the poor. Conditions in Stepney must have come as a shock to young Clem, used as he was to the wealth of Putney, the Bar and Oxford. On a night in 1905 his younger brother Laurence collected him from his office and within half an hour the Attlees were in an alien world – the crushing poverty of Limehouse. Then, as now, the richest in London lived a short walk from the direst poverty, although before the NHS and the welfare state the divisions were even deadlier.

In Edwardian London, the wealthiest, most powerful city in the world, the average life expectancy in Hampstead was fifty, however, in Southwark it was just thirty-six. In contrast to the life path of the wealthy and middle class a Limehouse boy could expect, if he was lucky, to finish his education at fourteen – no expensive University for him – he would probably have been given an exception from school from the age of twelve to work part time doing odd-jobs for those slightly better off than himself. Then, as now, the traditional way out of the slums was into the Army, Navy or Merchant Navy, if you were lucky. Housing was not only cramped, but often unhealthy, in bad repair, filthy and often came at exorbitant rents. Dwellings designed (if such a word can be used) to house maybe four people would actually contain three times as many, private landlords were unregulated, and many families were what we would call homeless – moving week after week from one slum to another to avoid unpayable rents.

Working at the Haileybury Club was not just a way for Clem to “put something back into the community”  (that awful, meaningless modern phrase that seeks to salve the conscience of the wealthy “philanthropist” while dodging tax) but a calling. Within a year, Attlee was working full-time at the club, care taking, organising and looking after his “Boys”, and had become by 1907 a Socialist. He also witnessed not only the terrible poverty of the East End, but came to love its flip-side, the Solidarity of ordinary working people. To the end of his days, Clem would have an abiding affection for the toughness, canniness and humour that he saw all around him before the Great War.

“…the fine characters of many of the boys, the heroism of the struggle with poverty, the unselfishness and neighbourly kindness which existed in a poor district…”

He also gained a distaste for charity as a means of helping the poor; charity, as he would later write…

“…tends to make the charitable think that he has done his duty by giving away some trifling sum, his conscience is put to sleep and he takes no trouble to consider the social problem any further.”

Sadly, this is still all too true today.

As the club superintendent, Attlee now lived  and worked in Stepney, witnessing on a daily basis the hardships and happiness that most of his class rarely if ever even read about. Having accepted that he wanted to change the world, the next move would be to join some organisation that he felt could do the job. The left has never been short of organisations that claim to have the true path, in the 1900s these included the middle class intellectuals of the Fabians, the marxist Social Democratic Federation, the still extant (and still tiny) Socialist Party of Great Britain,  and the Independent Labour Party. The SDF and SPGB, whilst both having some fantastic individual members, would be instantly recognisable to anyone who attends a demonstration today – revering purity of doctrine, and proposing impractical measures that nothing short of violent revolution could bring, their descendants today try to sell you a plethora of papers at every corner. The Fabian Society, the oldest “think tank” in Britain, was the home of HG Wells, GB Shaw and the Webbs, who at this time were determined to win socialism from above, via the Liberal Party. This was they heyday of the bearded aesthete, who was certain that they new best, and that all that was needed for the new Jerusalem would be the adoption of a plan thought up in Bloomsbury, if only the workers would keep quiet and let the enlightened rule for them.

In distinction to these seemingly arid debating societies stood the Independent Labour Party, founded by workers such as Kier Hardy, with members such as George Lansbury and Tom Mann, and based in the Trades Union movement. To join, Clem became a member of the National Union of Clerks, and duly became a member of his local branch. Unlike the sectarian marxists, or the high falutin’ Fabians, the ILP had a socialist commitment in its constitution, and also an immediate tactical objective – to get independent representation at national and local level for workers. In essence, it believed that the working class were fit to govern, that socialism was not inevitable, but had to be fought for, and because of this, it had been one of the mainstays of the Labour Representation Committee that would later become the Labour Party.

Most members of the Stepney branch were, like most Eastenders, busy working to scratch a living for themselves and their families, and had small time to devote to political matters. Clem was a boon – a single man with enough time on his hands to be able to get to meetings, and to organise. Despite his completely different background from them, he was well liked and accepted. He frequently campaigned for socialism, speaking at Union branches, open air meetings and street corners, and also campaigning against the iniquitous Poor Law.

In 1909, Clem became Secretary of Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, which was then aimed at connecting the universities and the workers. He found it still full of the complacent middle class snobbery to the poor that he had so recently rejected, and his fellow social workers found him too left wing. In 1910, he returned to Stepney and Limehouse, which he regarded as his patch, his political home. In 1911, the Liberal Government with Labour support, passed Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act , now seen as the foundation of the welfare state that was to follow forty years later. Clem spent the summer of 1911 cycling around Essex and Somerset as an official “explainer”, making sure that ordinary people understood their new rights. In 1912, he was made a lecturer in the LSE in its small school of Sociology.

From 1907 onwards, Attlee had quietly made a good name for himself within the ILP without making a song-and-dance about it. With more time to do them than other members, he had taken on those jobs which most aspiring politicians look down upon, but which are the mainstay of any party. Aiding striking dockers, carrying the branch banner, collecting for the 1913 Irish Transport and General Workers’ dispute, speaking at meetings across London. He was not a great orator, but he was reliable, which is often much more important. Up to the eve of the Great War, Clem had become one of those vital people, an organiser, and was pretty well know within his party, if not outside Limehouse.

The shock of August 1914 was one that was felt across Europe and the World, not least amongst the socialist parties, of which the ILP was one. Before the war, the ILP, like all the parties of The Second International, had been wedded firmly to an anti-war policy, to pacifism and the naive hope that should a general war break out, then each country’s working class should strike, preventing it. Pacifists such as Kier Hardy found themselves at best ignored, and Ramsey Macdonald, his most vocal supporter, resigned his leading position within the party. But Britain entered this war to defend the rights of small nations against bigger ones, and the whole Labour Movement was split. Clem joined the pro-war socialists, his elder brother remained a pacifist until his death. Two days after war was declared, Attlee volunteered. To imagine just how deep and lasting the split would be, simply imagine the “pro” and “anti” Iraq camps today.

In September 1914, he became a Lieutenant in 6th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, and was promoted to Captain in early 1915; his reasons for joining up were more complex than simple patriotism, and after the war he wrote this explanation:

“I could not accept the cry of “Your King & Country Need You” nor was I convinced of Germany’s sole guilt. On the other hand it appeared wrong to me to let others make a sacrifice while I stood by, especially as I was unmarried and had no obligations … I realised that some people had to serve and perhaps be killed and that I was partially trained already. I had no real religious conscientious objection. Whether I was right or wrong I cannot say.”

In June 1915, his regiment was sent to Gallipoli, into the ill-fated operation, conceived by Churchill, and bungled by the Admirals and Generals (so Clem thought to his death). Conditions were appalling, and although the slaughter was relatively light in comparison to the Western Front, dysentery, cholera, malaria and sandfly fever took an awful toll on the troops cooped up the Dardanelles. Clement was no exception, being sent back twice with dysentery, each time making his way back to his company.  Again, he quietly built a reputation as an efficient junior leader, and on 19th December 1915, was the last but one soldier to leave Gallipoli from Lala Baba.

April 1916 saw him serving in Egypt, once again facing the Turks, where he was shot and wounded charging an enemy position, whilst carrying a flag to signal to the artillery – he later found it funny that this flag was red. Eventually, Clem was sent home via India, promoted to Major, and spent most of 1917 training conscripts and recruits, whilst pushing anyone senior who would listen for a job at the front.

In 1918 he got his wish, and was transferred to a machine gun battalion on the Western Front, just in time for the great German Ludendorff Offensive of March and April, and for the recovery and eventual defeat of Germany in November 1918. Clem, unlike many of the boys he had trained and known in the Haileybury Club, had survived the war, but what would he make of the peace?

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