Clement Attlee and the social service idea: Modern messages for social work in England

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Clement Attlee is most famous for being the Labour prime minister of the UK after the Second World War. It is less well known that he was a social worker and a social work lecturer on either side of the First World War, before he was elected to parliament in 1922. He had even written a book about it: The Social Worker, published in 1920. This paper describes Attlee’s time as a social worker and social work lecturer, setting his experiences and the book in the context of the times, especially the tensions and overlaps between ‘individualist’ and ‘collectivist’ understandings of society. It outlines Attlee’s vision of social work, and considers the ongoing relevance of his understandings of social work and society. In particular, the paper highlights Attlee’s notion of ‘the social service idea’. This brings together four essential elements of social work—that it should be radical, relationship-based, realistic and reciprocal. Attlee’s social service idea, and his individual example, still offer guidance and inspiration for social work today.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-20
Number of pages16
JournalBritish Journal of Social Work
Issue number1
Early online date21 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • Social work history
  • social policy
  • values

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