Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition

Last month JON CRUDDAS delivered the Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College, Oxford. Here, in an edited version of that talk, the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, argues that, far from his cold, taciturn image, Attlee was always at heart an ILP socialist.

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak about Clement Attlee. It is not an easy task. Attlee is our only ‘really unknown’ prime minister, as Ken Morgan said, borrowing a term applied to Bonar Law.

Attlee statueA host of very readable biographies exist, yet there remains a sense of something hidden deep within the character of the man. His letters to his brother, Tom, and poems provide some insight, certainly compared to his own autobiography and other limited reminiscences. He is an elusive figure – ‘difficult to know and easy to underrate’, as Jim Callaghan remarked.

So this ‘unknown’ figure has tended to be defined by others, often in a featureless form. This starts with the notion of the ‘accidental leader’ put around by those who did not survive 1931 – the party was to be led by a ‘little mouse’, said Hugh Dalton in 1935. It builds with the portrait of a technocrat and of a man perceived to lack warmth and vision, argued by the likes of Michael Foot; colourless, taciturn. Churchill supposedly suggested he had ‘a lot to be modest about’.

The effect is political diminishment: he was a functional figure overseeing the actions of others, chairing a cabinet of great talents. This is underwhelming, indeed undermining. Let’s call this ‘the orthodox Attlee’.

Is this portrait a correct one? I admit my own ignorance.

Within a sentimental party my personal preferences tend toward the pioneers of the Independent Labour Party.

At the 1935 party conference, in an unnecessary piece of theatre, George Lansbury was pulled down by an Ernest Bevin hostile and contemptuous of the ILP: ‘Let their bleeding ’earts run away with their bleeding ’eads,’ he said.

I assumed 1935 changed the whole sentiment of the party. The ILP disaffiliated in 1932, yet October 1935 was when we turned away from the ILP tradition – indeed the generation – of Hardie, MacDonald and Lansbury.

In the furnace of the late 19th century they had built a charged, passionate socialism of human virtue, creativity and self-realisation that sought to recapture alienated labour and enclosed land.

In its place came the abstractions of the middle class rationalists; various socialisms of deductive reasoning; science and the value theories of Marx, Smith, Mill and Ricardo.

In the thirties – the ‘low dishonest decade’ described by Auden – this played out alongside the defeat of the party intellectuals, of Cole and Tawney, again at the hands of Bevin.

This was victory for the professionals, pragmatists and operators over the prophets. The page turned toward the younger planners and economists around Dalton. The unions retreated into organisation. Literally, as the hailstones smashed into the Brighton Conference centre in 1935, the party lost part of its history.

Attlee’s leadership built on removal and closure. It was a triumph of rationality and managerialism; a socialism of calculus and planning; graphs and levers. Cold. This is my own portrait, if you wish, of ‘the orthodox Attlee’.

Hidden fire

On the 7th May this year I was invited to say a few words about George Lansbury. We were dedicating a plaque to him on the Bow Road in London’s east end, in the church he worshipped in for 40 years, to mark the 700th anniversary of Bow Church where his funeral cortege had arrived five years after the hailstones hit the Brighton roof.

It was a magnificent ILP and Christian socialist event. There were hundreds there, including 80 of the Lansbury family, plus his biographer John Shepherd, his granddaughter Angela Lansbury, and Lord Peter Hennessy.

I spoke about Lansbury as the greatest opposition leader, a man with a politics of virtue and decency, and about the ILP notion of fellowship. Attlee benefited when Bevin struck down both this man and this tradition.

At the close the eminent Lord leaned across and we exchanged friendly words, but quietly he suggested I continue my research into Major Attlee. John Shepherd thought a trip from Bow to Stepney might be of use.

Weeks later I was invited to give this lecture. I would formally like to thank University College Oxford for their role in my political re-education.

I suggest today that, quietly, though often crowded out by orthodoxy, we can discover a different character, a man revered by the likes of Manny Shinwell and Fenner Brockway. Scratch beneath the veneer and reveal an ‘inward serenity … a moral and intellectual quietness … born of conviction’, according to Donald Soper. Francis Packenham talked of ‘the most selfless politician of the first rank … but the most ethical PM in the whole of British history’. You search and find – to quote an aide of Mountbatten – that ‘the man burns with a hidden fire’.

Is this a man who through acute shyness, and as an act of conscious political disguise, trained himself to withdraw and underwhelm? Who locked himself down in order to effectively pursue his socialism built around notions of duty and service?

The man who literally held his hand when he died, his manservant Alfred Laker, noted that he ‘had a depth of feeling he took care to keep hidden’. He disguised powerful emotions. He trained himself to lead through acute self-discipline. If so, an extraordinary story emerges of the creation of a political persona.

Revered by some, deemed impenetrable by others. How do we render intelligible the man when those who worked alongside him admit failure? Morrison said to Callaghan: ‘I’ve known Attlee for 25 years but I still don’t understand him.’

Patriot and hero

First, let’s briefly review the broad phases of his career.

On leaving University College, Attlee trained as a lawyer, and was called to the bar in 1906. From October 1905 he began his association with Haileybury House, a boy’s club in Stepney. From 1907 he took over as the club manager, beginning 14 years’ residence in east London. In 1909 he became lecture secretary to the campaign to popularise the Minority Report on the Future of the Poor Law. In 1910 he accepted the role of secretary of Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel. In 1911 he became an official explainer of the 1911 Lloyd George National Insurance Act. In 1912 he was appointed a lecturer at LSE.

During World War One Attlee served with the 6th South Lancashire Regiment. He was the last but one to leave the beach at Gallipoli. Brockway later said: ‘He never displayed his emotions, but he would tell quietly of the barbarities he had seen.’ Badly wounded at El Hannah, after rehabilitation he served the last three months of the war on the Western Front. He was a patriot, and hero.

Officially discharged 16th January 1919, he caught the tube straight to the east end. The same year Major Attlee became the youngest ever Mayor of Stepney. He supported Lansbury and the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921 and was elected MP for Limehouse in 1922. He backed Ramsay MacDonald over Clynes and became his Parliamentary Private Secretary.

In the first Labour Government of 1924 Attlee served as Under Secretary of State for War. Four and a half years of opposition followed. His appointment to the Simon Commission meant he had no immediate role in the second Labour government. Subsequently he replaced Oswald Mosley as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and in 1931 became Postmaster General.

In 1931, the government fractured under the orthodoxy of MacDonald, Phillip Snowden and Montagu Norman (Governor of the Bank of England), and following the appointment of the May Committee. He described MacDonald’s actions as ‘the greatest betrayal in the political history of this country’. Labour was reduced to 46 MPs plus five ILPers. Attlee held on by 551 votes and was deputy leader to Lansbury. In 1934, he became acting leader for nine months when Lansbury fell and nearly died. Later he defeated Greenwood and Morrison for the leadership.

As Leader of the Opposition Attlee orchestrated the retreat from Labour pacifism, and by November 1937 he had forced the government onto the back foot over spending and appeasement – partly aided by events in Spain which he had visited that year. In October 1938 he denounced Chamberlain over Munich, and he only joined the government in May 1940 once Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill.

On 26th July 1945 Labour swept to power with 393 seats – its first ever overall parliamentary majority, of 146. Despite late moves by Morrison and Laski to split the party and remove him as leader, Attlee became prime minister. ‘The beneficiary of a victory he had done little to contrive,’ remarked Foot.

The next phase was building Jerusalem: family allowance; national insurance; Industrial Injuries and National Assistance Acts; the 1944 Coalition Education Act; raising the school leaving age to 15; free school milk; building on the 1911 National Insurance Act through the National Health Service.

By 1947 the government was completing 139,000 new council homes per year – all achieved despite intense economic uncertainty after Lease-Lend was stopped and subsequent loan negotiations.

Yet nationalisation was still a priority. The Bank of England, civil aviation, cable and wireless communications, and the mines were all nationalised, as was inland transport – road haulage, canals and the railways – not to mention gas and electricity, iron and steel.

In foreign affairs we had NATO and the Marshall Plan, the secret development of an independent nuclear deterrent, and independence for India.

Plots continued. Bevin refused to move against Attlee in 1947. Later Dalton resigned as Chancellor after leaking the budget. Labour retained power in 1950 yet the big figures were exhausted, some literally dying. The party split in 1951. While Attlee lay in hospital, Gaitskell provoked Bevan into resignation. That year we lost.

Attlee still contested the 1955 election as leader. But he lost and retired. He supported Gaitskell and entered the Lords. Attlee died on 8th October 1967, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

I have rehearsed many dates and events but how do you get beneath this history?

The unorthodox Attlee

Let’s consider three elements of the Attlee character formed long before he was elected to any political office, which remain consistent throughout his political life. The idealist, the romantic and the ILP socialist. Let’s suggest they constitute ‘the unorthodox Attlee’.

Start here at University College. He entered in 1901, studied modern history and specialised in Italian. He secured a good second which disappointed him; a first might have ensured a fellowship. He later said: ‘I was at this time a conservative.’ He notes in his autobiography that Ernest Barker was ‘the only don who made much impression on me’. Kenneth Harris stated that Attlee left Oxford not very different from the schoolboy who entered. But is this correct?

An alternative interpretation might focus on the role of Barker in anchoring the future PM within the English idealism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It rejected individualism – embedding people in social relations at a time when the neo-classicists were atomising economics – and rejected empiricism and utilitarianism, searching instead for peoples’ good self.

Frank Field has argued that this movement, especially through the work of TH Green, secularised the Christianity ethic within Attlee and ‘marked him indelibly with a confidence so that he could attach absolute meanings to such concepts as duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage’, which were to stay with him for the next 60 years.

This idealism was reinforced at the LSE under EJ Urwick, himself a student of Green and of the turn of the century Toynbee Hall, later an author of the ‘Social Good’. Within Attlee it built an absolutism that translated into belief in the superiority of British institutions – including school, college, indeed, monarchy – in nurturing an ability to help live a virtuous life.

The corollary was that he saw patriotism itself as a virtue – representing loyalty to the institutions of the country, and the ‘emotion of every free-thinking Briton’, as he described it.

Fast forward some 45 years. After defeat in 1951 and through to 1966, Attlee wrote a series of short essays, obituaries, pen portraits and book reviews. His style remained short, almost terse. They show modesty and shyness yet extraordinary self-confidence and decisiveness; respect, courtesy and humour; intensity without malice; occasional barbs. These studies – of Churchill and Lansbury, Bevin and Bevan, Montgomery and George Marshall, Lord Woolton, Beatrice Webb, and many others, and specifically when discussing literature or ethics – reveal a deep humanity.

The same 1905 virtues re-appear throughout: duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage whether discussing persons and traditions, or leadership and power. Again and again, he shows a preoccupation with questions of decency, goodness, character, integrity and judgement, patriotism and England.

Yet still, on leaving this college he was a conservative.

Of course, in one sense – like much of the distinctive English left – this never changed. Roy Jenkins once said that Attlee ‘rather like Gladstone, confined his radicalism to politics. In everything else he was profoundly conservative’.

But the romantic in him was to change as he distilled a specific English socialism.

In 1954 Attlee wrote a short article entitled ‘The Pleasure of Books’. It charts his lifelong love of literature – his ‘ruling passion’ – especially the Romantic Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites. After Oxford we can identify less of a continental bent – the Italian Renaissance and Risorgimento of the political conservative – and one more distinctly anchored within English political radicalism.

It was his brother Laurence who first took Attlee to the Haileybury Club in Durham Road, Stepney, in October 1905. Yet it is the influence of his brother Tom that is critical in the making of the socialist.

Tom, the Christian socialist, was a pacifist colleague of Lansbury, disciple of FD Maurice and avid reader of John Ruskin and William Morris. After Oxford he imparted into his younger brother Clem an ‘amalgam of those artistic, religious and political ideas which were germinating in his own mind’, to quote Kenneth Harris. ‘I too began to understand their social gospel,’ wrote Attlee much later.

Freeborn Englishman

Again fast forward 50 years. In the mid-1950s, beginning here in Oxford, and after Attlee had stood down as leader, parts of the so-called ‘New Left’ sought to focus on William Morris and his work as part of a general rehabilitation of a lost historical socialist arc – one authentically English, romantic, anti-scientific, and artistic in orientation.

EP Thompson’s work, for example, is part of a distinctly political project to identify a specific English politics of virtue – in Morris himself and the broader emerging working class. The sub-title of Thompson’s biography of Morris is Romantic to Revolutionary.

Raymond Williams, in Culture and Society, defines a political, artistic and cultural tradition from Ruskin through Morris to the modern New Left.

Starting with Ruskin he focuses on his resistance to laissez faire society though artistic criticism where ‘the art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues … the exponent of its ethical life’.

What we value in life is taken out of the realm of political economy – of supply and demand, of calculus – and instead relates to the virtue of the labour itself, seen as the ‘joyful and right exertion of perfect life in man’.

With Ruskin the notions of wealth and value, and indeed labour, is used to attack 19th century Liberalism for its cold utilitarianism, and instead promote a society governed by ‘what is good for men, raising them and making them happy’. What it is to become a ‘freeborn Englishman’.

The socialism of Morris is grounded in this emancipatory conception of human labour and creativity. Art constitutes a politics of resistance to life being commodified. Socialism is not some technical equation; it is the form of this resistance.

It is a continuous struggle, not just against capitalism but also left wing utilitarianism and Fabianism. Socialist change is not simply political and economic change – the ‘machinery’ of socialism, as he called it – but of heightened consciousness, self-realisation.

Morris is the key historic figure in translating a romantic approach to life and art into heightened political activity in the cauldron of 1880s England.

This period was one of change and rupture, of political realignment and struggle. Socialist responses divided between rational and romantic. For parts of the New Left, Morris remains the key figure on one side. Fabianism, utilitarianism and various scientific socialist or economistic strands stand on the other side. Half a century earlier Attlee trod a similar path to those who were to become the New Left.

In a very short piece in the Socialist Review of 1923 Attlee criticises statist, or municipal socialist traditions, and reveals this embrace of a distinct English strand. He writes, for example, that ‘the socialist movement was not merely a revolt against the unequal distribution of wealth … but a protest against the enslavement of man by the machine’, referring to the uniquely English socialist traditions learnt from his brother Tom between 1905 and 1907.

Later, in 1954, he wrote about how Morris ensured ‘literary intent merges with socialist impulse’. By early 1908 it led him to ILP membership. Formally he broke with the ILP in 1931; philosophically he never did.

The ILP and domestic socialism

Founded in Bradford in 1893 the ILP grew from the bottom up, ‘from those shadowy parts known as the provinces’, to quote EP Thompson. Its image was of bohemianism: ‘braving apathy and hostility, buoyed up by optimism, concerned not with the minutiae of political dealings but the broad uncomplicated advocacy of ethical principles’. Yet by 1931 it had descended into the ‘heart of Labour’s agony’, to quote from David Howell.

In many ways, 1895 was the critical year for the ILP. Under Hardie it turned away from the doctrinaire economism of the Social Democratic Federation and set in motion what was to become this distinctive tradition. This turn was a move away from scientific socialist elements embraced by the likes of the SDF where its ‘strange disregard of the religious, moral and aesthetic sentiments of the people is an overwhelming defect’, suggested Glasier. Instead it created a unique blend of domestic socialism.

In its notion of a ‘Labour Church’ and the ‘Socialist Sunday School’ movements with their alternative commandments, the ILP sort ‘the realisation of Heaven in this life by the establishment of a society founded on justice and love to thy neighbour’, and to ‘honour the good, be courteous to all, bow down to none’. Its politics were ethical, not materialistic.

In 1907 MacDonald wrote: ‘With the formation of the ILP, socialism in Britain entered upon a new phase. Continental shibboleths and phases were discarded. The propaganda became British. The history which it used, the modes of thought which it adopted, the political methods it pursued, the allies it sought for, were all determined by British conditions’.

It produced an evangelical, ethical, moral fervour within its politics.

Attlee speakingIn Attlee’s autobiography he counterposes his first visit to a Fabian meeting in October 1907 with him finally becoming a socialist. The Fabians – where, he remarked, ‘the platform seemed to be full of bearded men’ – ‘provided Attlee with the bridge by which he crossed to socialism. No sooner was he on the other side than he began to feel uncomfortable,’ says Kenneth Harris. ‘They would not take him far enough’.

It was patronism that he detected and a top-down culture that failed to stir him. Instead, Stepney taught him – in his own words – that the ‘working class would be fit to govern, and moreover that it had virtues and values which were in some respects superior to those of the middle class Fabians’.

Step forward Tommy Williams, an east end wharf keeper, ‘a fiery little Welshman’ who came to Haileybury House to denounce the Charity Organisation Society. His passion led directly to Attlee joining with the 15 other members of Stepney ILP in January 1908. It was this alternative socialist emotion that chimed with his literary and idealist sentiments. As Attlee wonderfully described it: ‘Williams proclaimed his socialist faith and I, listening, said, “I am a socialist too”.’

Despite many overlaps in terms of policy, membership and organisation, these were different traditions within and around the labour movement. Attlee said, in 1923, that: ‘The Fabian school of socialism, while strong in dealing with facts, was always rather weak in dealing with persons. It considered more the organisation of things than the life of the people.’

The death mask

Clement Attlee never really interested me. I bought into the carefully constructed persona. My re-evaluation began on being gently chastised in Bow Church. You discover what AJP Taylor once said, that ‘Attlee grows on you.’

I suggest the essential elements to the political character of Clement Attlee were in place by 1914. An amalgam of idealistic, romantic and socialist traditions that were to mould a politician of remarkable toughness and consistency. Yet these passions were obscured by the systematic creation of a political persona – amounting to a non-image – which has helped forge ‘the orthodox Attlee’ that we think we know and lazily turn to. Frank Field has described it as the construction of a political death mask.

His minimalism, terse manner, limited revelations and notional modesty reinforced the construction. Yet, his later short essays reveal hidden wiring; an intense, passionate socialism with antecedents within English radicalism, producing a rich, authentic, specifically English socialism.

More often than not this romantic tradition has lost out within left politics as the organisers and rationalists have won. Maybe Attlee succeeded when the ILP or elements within the New Left lost out precisely because – and quite deliberately – his political passions were locked down within a ‘rib cage of tradition’.

So what did it produce for the country and party?

The greatest contribution was in the summer of 1940. Within weeks of Labour entering the wartime coalition allied forces had retreated from the Dunkirk beaches and we were left vulnerable by the collapse of France. Churchill appeared old and isolated among his Conservative colleagues. Invasion appeared imminent. Yet by September the German strategy had changed and the blitz followed.

It is during these weeks that Attlee showed an extraordinary resolve, backed up by Greenwood, in completely resisting any notion of a negotiated peace suggested from within the Conservative ranks by Halifax and Chamberlain. Moreover, it was Attlee who brought rigour and order to day-to-day government operations and parliament, and in the drive for reconstruction.

Together with Bevin at Labour and Morrison at Supply, the Labour Party brought steel to the national mission. By the year’s end the threat of negotiation had been seen off. Throughout the rest of the war Attlee encountered major internal party tensions and divisions from the likes of Bevan and Laski – who charged him with ‘MacDonaldism’. At times his patriotic sense of duty endangered his own position. Yet what was never negotiable was the idealist absolutism chiselled into him decades before.

So Labour became embedded into the national story; it was a long way from the Zinoviev Letter. This conditioned the victory of 1945 and was maintained decades later, arguably until epochal shifts around Thatcherism.

The left has always had an uncomfortable relationship with issues of patriotism and nationhood which are generally deemed the natural preserve of the right. We cultivate alternative loyalties – to regions, races and genders.

In those critical periods, in the emergence of Attlee’s socialism, following the decline of Gladstonian Liberalism and the onset of the Boer war, much of the left sought to emphasise patriotism as pathology. Politically this tended toward a fear of the uneducated mob, those unable to resist the elemental patriotic callings inspired by the right and, consequently, to an elitist political culture on the left resistant to genuine mass participation.

This was never the nature of Attlee’s socialism. Again he was to anticipate many of the later New Left concerns. Historians such as Christopher Hill with the ‘Norman Yoke’, and Thompson on what it is to be ‘freeborn’, sought out a radical patriotism within a more democratic socialist constituency. In this you could also include George Orwell.

On taking the leadership role Attlee was central to Labour’s retreat from pacifism and in the reconstruction of a new Labour patriotic sentiment. Events in Spain and European fascism were critical, but so to was his own certainty and personal heroism, the product of enlisting in 1914, driven by a specific idealist conception of England’s institutions and virtues. We all owe the man an extraordinary debt.

And so do the poor.

One of the most fearful fates of the dispossessed was the paupers’ grave. Reclaiming the dignity of the person at the moment of death was central to early ethical socialist traditions, part of a deeper story about the dehumanising effects of capitalism and also of resistance.

Peter Hennessey and Frank Field both cite a profoundly revealing conversation between Attlee and Jim Griffiths, his welfare minister, whilst steering the national insurance reforms through the Commons. He asked Griffiths if he could move the clause to introduce the death grant.

Prime ministers do not move bill clauses, or indeed bills. But this detail is allegorical – it tells of his deeper passions, his sense of duty to the poor as humans and his resistance to other left variants which have always sought a demonisation of the poor as in some sense deserving.

It anchors Attlee within a specifically working class search for respectability, one he knew in Stepney. It takes us back to the Minority report on the Future of the Poor Law, arguably the most important public document of the last century, to which Attlee was a young campaign secretary in 1909. And it goes back to when Tommy Williams recruited him to the ILP on the basis of a burning indignation in the face of charity and the workhouse.

He rejected the high handedness of the Fabian approach to the working class and assorted eugenic elements around the rational left. Welfare, to him, was essentially ethical not transactional; more Lansbury than Webb; more ILP than Fabian.

Attlee gave unstinting support to Griffiths against those who sought to dilute his post war welfare policies. He was consistent and resolute.

‘The orthodox Attlee’ is deemed a centraliser and statist; overseeing a culture where the ‘man in Whitehall knows best’ and nationalisation is an end in itself. Indeed, it has been powerfully argued that the problems for Labour really began in 1945 because of these beliefs. Yet Attlee’s approach was more thoughtful and nuanced, driven by an ILP training that consistently sought a routemap between the guild socialist and Fabian traditions.

He backed the Poplar rebels in the twenties in stark contrast to Morrison who was to lead the later nationalisation programme. In his writings he attacked municipalisation and statism within Labour and was central to ILP policy-making with its emphasis on industrial democracy, the living wage and devolving power.

Francis Packenham stated that ‘Attlee didn’t care a damn for nationalisation’, although as leader he felt obliged to implement the party manifesto. He entered politics to build just institutions to allow people to flourish and to confront poverty. Institutional politics, parties and remedies were not the priority; he liked political rebellion.

And what of the nature of leadership itself?

What is astonishing is the way the man learnt how to lead – literally on the battlefield – through a specific combination of factors drawn from family, school and college. Duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage were the four core values he sought to uphold in the public and private domains.

He was to remain leader of the Labour Party for some 20 years, seeing off a number of challenges. In the 1950s he handed the party on in good shape, holding on, in effect, to stop Morrison. Like Lansbury before him many were resistant to him going. He commanded great loyalty, most obviously from Bevin. He was curt yet prone to acts of great kindness. He built a notion of leadership on the foundations of a conception of the human condition which he cherished.

‘True judgement is found, in my view, only in men of character. Judgement, indeed, presupposes character. Judgement comes from the capacity of learning from one’s mistakes, which requires humility.’

He steered through by managing large personalities and egos with great skill – Morrison, Dalton, Cripps, Bevan and Laski. Harold Wilson was of the belief that Attlee would have been able to keep Bevan in the cabinet in 1951 if he had not been in hospital.

It is the persona – the ‘death mask’ – that really intrigues, the way Attlee managed to lead the most radical government without exposing his own radicalism. He believed the party should be run from the left; quietly he backed Bevan over Gaitskell, yet he was cornered on a hospital bed and Bevin was dying. He felt Bevan lost the chance for leadership which he might well have supported. He refused to expel the Bevanites in 1952 and was against Gaitskell’s crusade on clause 4. He later described Wilson’s government as lacking radical fire.

The final element I want to point to again comes from Stepney – his ability to understand the essential decency and virtues of working people. It reminds you of the John Updike quote: to ‘give the ordinary its beautiful due’.

He was never the public school do-gooding charity worker. Despite his own background he genuinely became part of that working class ILP tradition of a lived socialism, romantic and utopian. I don’t see these as criticisms rather as virtues that give the left hope and meaning.

The most insightful pieces on Attlee I found were stories from Stepney printed in a short book published in Tower Hamlets – little testimonies from local people about the man, his celebration and respect for the ordinary things in life that give it meaning, and of a Labour Party embedded in that culture. The ‘death grant’ clause says it all.

A democratic patriotism

‘Attlee is a small person, with no personality, nor real standing in the movement,’ said Dalton. Vainglorious politicians often tend to lack a sense of self.

Those more grounded, disagreed. Jack Jones said: ‘His message was clear, forthright, honest, dignified and essentially humane… a great patriot and a true socialist.’

This week marks 60 years since the party defeat in 1951 and the removal of Clement Attlee as Prime Minister. Virtually 60 years before that the ILP was formed; 105 years ago Morris died.

Today the Labour Party sits, often listlessly, between poles of economic liberalism and remote cosmopolitanism, content within our abstractions and our belief in timeless values that few can readily identify. A festering English resentment builds, yet we recoil from patriotism often in the same way the left did 100 years ago.

Maybe we should return to a politics of virtue, romance and passion; maybe we should return to idealism, William Morris and the ILP.

Maybe we should turn to those enduring features of Clement Attlee – a democratic patriotism; a refusal to accept the poor as undeserving; a nuanced approach to the role of the state; leadership built on the notions of duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage – and to a party respectful of ordinary, parochial culture, not elite and remote.

Clement Attlee was arguably the greatest Prime Minister this country has ever had. But he was not the greatest Labour Leader of the Opposition – that is still reserved for Lansbury after 1931.

But neither of these was the most important individual member of the Labour movement. I suggest that accolade belongs to Tommy Williams, the fiery young Welshman who convinced the young Clement Attlee to join the ILP in January 1908. Many millions who have never heard of him are forever grateful.

Jon Cruddas picThis is a slightly edited version of the Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture given by Jon Cruddas MP at University College, Oxford on 28th October 2011.

Details of his series of Attlee seminars, ‘Patriotism, Fellowship and the Left: Explorations in British labour History’ are available from University College.

We are inviting your comments on the ILP’s history pamphlet, The ILP: Past & Present, which can be accessed here, including The Early Years, Great Expectations and Beginnings in Bradford.

For information about the Attlee Foundation go to:

‘I have never wavered…’, brief extracts from Attlee’s The Labour Party in Perspective, published in 1937.

See also: ‘Clement Attlee and the foundations of the British welfare state’, the 2014 Attlee Memorial Lecture, delivered by Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves and her advisor, Martin McIvor.


  1. […] was the rallying call that united people behind the great social reforms of that era. Attlee saw patriotism as a virtue and “the emotion of every free-thinking Briton”, arguing […]

  2. […] also: ‘Attlee, the ILP and Romantic Tradition’, the first Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture given by Jon Cruddas MP in October […]

  3. […] also: ‘Good old George’, published here in December 2012, and ‘Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition’, from 2011, both by Jon […]

  4. […] associated with the ILP. He has written two insightful, political reviews of George Lansbury and Clement Attlee, both published on this website. Both these Labour leaders had ILP backgrounds. Lansbury is perhaps […]

  5. Mike davis
    8 November 2012

    Just returned from a fascinating talk by Jon Cruddas on Lansbury and the suffragettes – much more on the former – to Tower Hamlets LP, and Fawcett Society.
    Much of what he said seems to be drawn from this speech and the one 18 months ago in Bow celebrating Lansbury. He suggested a revival of fire and drive radicalism associated with the ILP, even a refounding of the ILP.
    Chartist and the ILP today are seeking to promote a libertarian, ethical socialism with a genuine bottom-up, empowering, enabling, mutualist politics, critical of bureaucracy but supportive of democratic state provision. Scope here for much further discussion between us and Jon.
    But who is the much lauded Tommy Williams whom Jon credits with converting Attlee to socialism? A research project perhaps?
    Let me know if anyone is interested in finding out and writing about the Welsh London wharf man and Stepney ILPer.

  6. […] Read Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition by Jon Cruddas here. […]

  7. […] Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition by Jon Cruddas […]

  8. Jonathan
    6 November 2011

    Always touching to read about those times.However, I have yet to be fully convined that the monarchist Atlee – a war minister in Labour’s first government – was at heart an ILPer.

    Like all the early members of the Labour Party, he reflected the glow that the ILP gave to early socialism by presenting it as a moral crusade motivated by a deep love of humanity and belief in its potential. But I don’t think we can say much more than that.

    Arguably, he was more influenced by the traditions of Ruskin and Christian Socialism (which animated the ILP too). Let’s not forget that one of the characteristic stances of New Labour was a rejection of the Ruskin tradition in favour of a more utlitarian approach.

  9. […] ‘Attlee, the ILP and the Romantic Tradition‘, by Jon Cruddas MP Tags: ILP history, Socialists and Socialism, The Labour […]

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