Peter Robins

Clement Attlee’s conversion

In the early 1960s, The Spectator ran a series called ‘John Bull’s first job’ – reminiscences by various prominenti about how they started out. One of the most startling, published in the 13 December 1963 issue, was by the former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, respectfully bylined ‘Lord Attlee’, on his time as a young barrister. His verdict on himself was characteristically terse and frank, and gives a vivid impression of a turning point in his life:

‘I got very few briefs and occasionally devilled for someone else, but made very little headway. I was at the time ridiculously shy. I was not really much interested in law and had no ambition to succeed.  

‘Furthermore by 1906 my interests had changed. I had become one of the managers of a boys’ club run by my old school in Limehouse, and next year left the family home in Putney and went to live in East London and learned something of local conditions. I could have been seen every morning in top hat and tailcoat walking to Stepney Green station to go to work at the Temple or, rather, to wait for work which never came. After a year the rather cynical young Tory had become a fervent socialist and a street-corner propagandist in the Independent Labour Party, which at least cured my shyness. 

‘In 1908 my father died and I left the Bar to take on a job as lecture secretary to Mrs Sidney Webb’s campaign for the break-up of the Poor Law. So ended my first job.’

Interesting, no? But I confess an ulterior motive for digging it up. I am very fond of the little Michael Health drawing that accompanied it, of a young Attlee beset by East End street-urchins, and I wanted an excuse to stick it on the new @SpecCartoons Twitter feed (do follow! We have many cartoons!).

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