Clement Attlee and the foundations of the British welfare state

Journal: 
Issue: 
Autumn / Winter 2014
Author(s): 

The early career of Clement Attlee reminds us that the welfare state was never intended to stand alone as a set of institutions. Its stability depends upon a set of ethical, economic, and political foundations.

The name of Clement Attlee is indelibly associated with the great leap forward in the construction of Britain’s welfare state accomplished by the 1945-51 Labour government: the implementation of William Beveridge’s blueprint for National Insurance, a Family Allowance, improved old age pensions, and the National Health Service. For many this moment marks the historic birth of a British welfare consensus whose contours are still clearly recognisable today, even after seventy years of social and economic change, and political controversy that has raged ever since.

As the Labour Party looks to win office in 2015 so that it can build on this legacy, Clement Attlee’s government is still somewhere to go to for inspiration and guid- ance. But our focus here will not be the events of the 1940s. Rather, we argue that to fully understand that breakthrough and what made it possible, and also to gain true historical perspective on the debates and developments of today, we need to dig deeper, beneath the Acts of Parliament and civil service committees, to the social underpinnings of this administrative achievement, and look further back into Attlee’s own life, and his involvement in what we might call the Edwardian pre-his- tory of Britain’s welfare state.

Renewal Vol 22 No3/4