Of all the Prime Ministers whom I most admire, one is a Tory (before the party was reformed as the Conservative Party), and one is Liberal, and one is Labour. The Tory is Sir Robert Peel, the Liberal is David Lloyd-George, and the Labour Prime Minister is Clement Attlee.
So I have, I suppose, a cross section across the political spectrum, but all three, in their own ways, helped the common people. Of those, the most influential has to be Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister who presided over the government which laid the foundations of the welfare state.
I have been reading “Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee” by John Bew, which was a winner of the Orwell Prize.
It confirms and increases my admiration for a man whom I have always regarded as a political hero of mine. Knowing more about him makes me admire him even more.
One thing that Rachel Reeves notes in an article is that:
“Clement Attlee was a romantic before he was a politician. He spent his years at public school immersed in Tennyson and Browning. At University College, Oxford, he admits to being distracted from his studies by 'poetry and history', becoming especially enchanted by the Pre-Raphaelites. He showed little interest in political or social issues; his default allegiance was Tory but he was too shy to get involved in the debates at the Union.”
In his book “The Social Worker”, 1920, 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.
'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?'.
It was this romantic aspect of Attlee – which he called “sentiment”, and what we may perhaps call “fellow feeling” – which he thought was at least as important as statistics, which was where he diverged from some of the drier, more intellectual socialists such as the Fabian Society. This was perhaps something he had in common with J.B. Priestley, another socialist who did not fit the mould.
And nowhere is this more apparent that in this poem by Attlee called “Limehouse”.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men 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?.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.
In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.