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National politics

Attlee biographer’s made up quote on charity

In the context of the BBC’s Big Night In charity show and the efforts of Captain Tom Moore to walk around his garden to fund raise for NHS charities I have been seeing a lot of people rather grumpily repeating a quote of Clement Attlee’s, the post war Labour Prime Minister. I am afraid it is made up.

These two examples were directed at Captain Tom Moore:

This quote is one of those quotes that circulates social media, especially the Leftie Twitter bit of social media. It is always unreferenced but sounds kind of authentic. We know Attlee was involved in social welfare as a young man and famous as the leader of the post war Labour government that put in place most of the welfare state. I say most because because various elements were put in place by the wartime coalition government and the caretaker Conservative administration that followed it.

Where did the quote come from? It was written by Francis Beckett the author of “Clem Attlee” his 1997 biography of the same. I have a Politico’s 2007 paperback edition. On page 63, oddly half way through a paragraph describing an unemployment demonstration, Beckett starts a two page excursion on how Attlee’s ideas on charity can be divined from the book he wrote in 1920 called “The Social Worker”.

The famous quote comes at the end. But, it is not a quote from Attlee it is a quote from Beckett. He is trying to paraphrase what he thought or hoped Attlee was saying in his book about charity. The next two pages of the book are an attempt to justify this paraphrasing. I think it is a dishonest job myself.

I am indebted to my friend Bill Ellson (@BillEllson on Twitter) who pointed me to the Internet Archive which has an online version of Attlee’s The Social Worker which can be quickly and easily searched.

Charity is indeed a pre-occupation of Attlee’s own book. The word appears 116 times and there is a chapter on “Charities”.

The word “cold” appears only once in a totally different context talking about the “fluidity of labour”. On page 17:

….but to the man in touch with the sufferings of the unemployed this was cold comfort, for he knew that the long run was often fatal to the man with the short purse.

The word “grey” does not appear in the main body of the book. The word “greyness is used in relation to drunkenness on page 15:

Thus the prevalence of drunkenness would be asserted as a prime cause of poverty, without considering whether in fact drunkenness itself was not due to bad conditions of work, a degrading environment, or the general greyness of life.

“Grey” appears in a place name in a list at the back of the book.

The word “loveless” appears once on page 77 in a quote from an essay of Robert Louis Stevenson’s on beggars:

We should wipe two words from our vocabulary – gratitude and charity. In real life help is given out of friendship or it is not valued; it is received from the hand of friendship or it is resented.

Here then is the pitiful fix of the rich man; here is the needle’s eye in which he stuck already in the days of Christ and still sticks to-day, firmer, if possible,than ever: that he has the money and lacks the love which should make his money acceptable. . . .

And yet there is one course which the unfortunate gentleman may take. He may subscribe to pay the taxes. There were the true charity, impartial and impersonal, cumbering none with obligation, helping all. There were a destination for loveless gifts; there were the way to reach the pocket of the deserving poor, and yet save the time of secretaries! But, alas! there is no colour of romance in such a course; and people nowhere demand the picturesque so much as in their virtues.

So the word “loveless” and the sentiment that Beckett expresses in his paraphrasing is only second hand. He is paraphrasing Stevenson not Attlee and passing it off as a direct quotation of Attlee himself.

Attlee does mention “taxes” three times.

Attlee only mentions the word “gladly” once and the context will give the modern reader a chuckle at its condescending tone. On page 141 Attlee says:

It is hardly necessary to add that the work of social service requires great patience and tolerance, a sense of justice, and an infinite capacity for suffering fools gladly.

Finally, the phrase “dole out” does not appear in the book. Neither does the word “whim”.

It is clear the quote has no relationship whatsoever to Clement Attlee. It is a paraphrasing by Francis Beckett of a quote used by Attlee from Robert Louis Stevenson. Many of the words Beckett uses come from neither Attlee nor Stevenson so the paraphrasing is of the very loosest sort.

I think the problem for Beckett is that the Attlee book is a hard read for the modern reader. A worthwhile one certainly as it is something of a personal manifesto and gives some insight into a key figure. In keeping with Attlee’s own style though it lacks quotable quotes. In his attempt to humanise Attlee and explain the (great) man he has strayed into pious fiction.