Don't mention the war: a response to Reeves and McIvor on the early career of Clement Attlee.

Author:Whiting, Russell
 
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Rachel Reeves and Martin McIvor have recently performed an important service with their account of the social work that featured prominently in the early career of Clement Attlee (2014). They show clearly how this social work was a significant element in the formation of the politician so driven to establish a fairer society and who went on to play a central role in the formation of the welfare state. They also draw extensively on Attlee's work as a lecturer and writer of one of the first textbooks on social work; this reappraisal is timely as the book has now been republished (Attlee, 2012).

This present response does not question Reeves and McIvor's account, but it does raise the issue of what is missing from their article: that is, any account of the other formative aspect of Attlee's life before he became a professional politician--his career as a soldier. There is no space in Reeves and McIvor's article given to Attlee's military experiences, but there certainly should have been--not only because they are important in themselves but also because Attlee's formation can only fully be understood if his social work is seen alongside, and even entwined with, his military identity. It is not that Attlee had two separate identities as the social worker and the soldier, but they were two facets of the same man and understanding the links within him can provide an insight not only into early social work but also the nature of public life in this period.

Basil Fawlty is invoked in the title of this article because, just as the hotelier in the 1970s television sitcom was embarrassed by the presence of Germans in his hotel, so it is suggested that the absence of the military element from the account of Attlee's early career provided by Reeves and McIvor (and also by Cruddas, 2011) may be explained by a sense of unease or embarrassment at Attlee's martial patriotism. At a time when we are marking the centenary of the beginning of the First World War it is frankly astounding that nothing is being made of this aspect of Attlee's life by politicians of the left who are otherwise seeking to use a reconsideration of his achievements as one way of finding new direction and inspiration.

Socialists have not always been as squeamish. One of the most famous popularisers of English socialism in the 1890s, Robert Blatchford, spent part of his career as an army recruiting sergeant. Using martial language to describe his idea of socialism fell naturally to him. He wrote:

This question of Socialism is the most important and imperative question of the age. It will divide, is now dividing, society into two camps. In which camp will you elect to stand? On the one side there are individualism and competition--leading to a "great trade" and great miseries. On the other side is justice, without which can come no good, from which can come no evil... Choose your party, then, my friend, and let us get to the fighting. (Blatchford,1966, originally published 1894, 133) Subsequently, however, English socialists became reluctant to use such militaristic language and certainly even more reluctant to use the language of nationalism or patriotism. As one of Attlee's recent biographers has noted:

The Labour Party has often had its patriotism questioned. From its historic pacifism, embodied in the likes of MacDonald and Lansbury, to unilateral nuclear disarmament, and Margaret Thatcher famously dubbing Arthur Scargill and other trade union leaders as the "enemy within" British society, the party has allowed itself to be portrayed as anti-British. (Thomas-Symonds, 2012, 270) It appears that writers of the left down to the present day are comfortable with the history of welfarism but would prefer to ignore, as Reeves and McIvor have done, the patriotism and militarism of socialist pioneers, possibly because to engage with this history brings up difficult contemporary concepts of nationhood.

The problem with ignoring this topic is that any discussion on welfare state values, which is what Reeves and McIvor have started, can lead on to something broader regarding state values or even the values of the nation. Thomas-Symonds adds: 'Attlee personified Britishness--understated, unemotional in public, practical, unfussy and with a deep pride in his country and its history' (Thomas-Symonds, 2012, 270). It is these values lived out, as shall be seen, in Attlee's social work and his time in the army that can further inform the discussion that Reeves and McIvor have started. In order to obtain a fuller picture this article will describe Attlee's military career alongside his social work career and go on to locate his patriotism alongside his welfarism. As well as Attlee's textbook that Reeves and McIvor relied on, use will be made of Attlee's own autobiography (Attlee, 1954) and the work of his now numerous biographers (Jenkins, 1948; Harris, 1982; Burridge 1985; Howell 2006; Thomas--Symonds, 2012). All of these biographers, however, follow Attlee himself in...

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