Clement Attlee’s Noble Tribute to Winston Churchill

Clement Attlee’s Noble Tribute to Winston Churchill

My col­league Richard Cohen com­mends a eulo­gy to Churchill by the great Labour Par­ty leader Clement Attlee. It occurred in the House of Lords on 25 Jan­u­ary 1965, the day after Sir Win­ston died. It is notable for its fine words. More­over, it shows how their rela­tion­ship as col­leagues eclipsed that of polit­i­cal oppo­nents. At a time of great­ly strained rela­tions between the par­ties, on both sides of the pond, this is a thought­ful reminder that things could be different.

Attlee was the first prime min­is­ter of a social­ist gov­ern­ment with an out­right major­i­ty (1945-51). In 1940-45, he had served Churchill’s wartime coali­tion gov­ern­ment, chiefly as deputy prime min­is­ter. Attlee presided over the cab­i­net when­ev­er Churchill was abroad (which was a lot). In ear­ly 1945, it was he who gave the fate­ful order, lat­er much regret­ted, for fire­bomb­ing Dres­den. In May 1945, on behalf of his par­ty, Attlee told Churchill that Labour was with­draw­ing from the coali­tion. Churchill, who want­ed it to last until the Japan­ese sur­ren­der and end of World War II, was deeply dis­tressed. In the ensu­ing elec­tion of July 1945, Churchill’s Con­ser­v­a­tives were rout­ed, and Attlee took over as the head of British government.

Churchill regard­ed his wartime Labour asso­ciates with grat­i­tude and admi­ra­tion. In the dark days of 1940, when he thought it might come to some grim last stand against the onrush­ing Ger­mans, he said he had thought to fight it out with a tri­umvi­rate of Lord Beaver­brook and anoth­er Labour col­league, Ernest Bevin.

Domes­ti­cal­ly, Attlee and Churchill agreed on noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant. But both had fought as sol­diers in the dead­liest war in his­to­ry. And both had gov­erned togeth­er in the worst war in his­to­ry. The respect and col­le­gial­i­ty they shared is a mod­el for our time. Or any time.

The sup­posed Attlee gags—”an emp­ty cab drew up and Mr. Attlee got out”; “He is a sheep in sheep’s clothing”—do not track to Churchill. He did say, when Pres­i­dent Tru­man said that Attlee seemed a mod­est man, “he has much to be mod­est about.” But that was a pri­vate remark, which some­one on Truman’s staff over­heard and repeat­ed. When con­front­ed with the oth­er Attlee barbs, Churchill would vehe­ment­ly deny them. Some­times he would say, “Mr. Attlee is a gal­lant and faith­ful ser­vant of the Crown and I would nev­er say such a thing about him”—or words to that effect.

No won­der, then, that Mr. Cohen and I appre­ci­ate what Attlee said. He was tru­ly, in the words of the old song, one of the Giants of Old. It why so many, Churchill friends and oppo­nents alike, found Attlee’s speech deeply moving.

The Rt. Hon. The Lord Attlee

My Lords, as an old oppo­nent and a col­league, but always a friend, of Sir Win­ston Churchill, I should like to say a few words in addi­tion to what has already been so elo­quent­ly said.

My mind goes back to many years ago. I recall Sir Win­ston as a ris­ing hope of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry. I looked upon him and Lord Hugh Cecil as the two ris­ing hopes of the Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. Then, with courage, he crossed the House—not easy for any man. You might say of Sir Win­ston that to what­ev­er Par­ty he belonged, he did not real­ly change his ideas. He was always Winston.

The first time I saw him was at the siege of Sid­ney Street, when he took over com­mand there, and I hap­pened to be a local res­i­dent. I did not meet him again until he came into the House of Com­mons in 1924. The extra­or­di­nary thing, when one thinks of it, is that by that time he had done more than the aver­age Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment, and more than the aver­age min­is­ter, in the way of a Par­lia­men­tary career. We thought at that time that he was finished.

Not a bit of it. He start­ed again anoth­er career, and then, after some years, it seemed again that he had fad­ed. He became a lone wolf, out­side any par­ty; and yet, some­how or oth­er, the time was com­ing which would be for him his supreme moment, and for the coun­try its supreme moment. It seems as if every­thing led up to that time in 1940, when he became prime min­is­ter of this coun­try at the time of its great­est peril.

* * *

Through­out all that peri­od he might make oppo­nents, he might make friends; but no one could ever dis­re­gard him. Here was a man of genius, a man of action, a man who could also speak and write superbly. I recall through all those years many occa­sions when his char­ac­ter­is­tics stood out most forcibly.

Not every­body always recog­nised how ten­der-heart­ed he was. I can recall him with the tears rolling down his cheeks, talk­ing of the hor­ri­ble things per­pe­trat­ed by the Nazis in Ger­many. I can recall, too, dur­ing the war his emo­tion on see­ing a sim­ple lit­tle Eng­lish home wrecked by a bomb. Yes, my Lords, sympathy—and more than that: he went back, and imme­di­ate­ly devised the War Dam­age Act. How char­ac­ter­is­tic: Sym­pa­thy did not stop with emo­tion; it turned into action.

Then I recall the long days through the war—the long days and long nights—in which his spir­it nev­er failed; and how often he light­ened our labours by that vivid humour, those won­der­ful remarks he would make which absolute­ly dis­solved us all in laugh­ter, how­ev­er tired we were. I recall his eter­nal friend­ship for France and for Amer­i­ca; and I recall, too, as the most rev­erend Pri­mate has said already, that when once the ene­my were beat­en he had full sym­pa­thy for them. He showed that after the Boer War, and he showed it again after the First World War. He had sym­pa­thy, an incred­i­bly wide sym­pa­thy, for ordi­nary peo­ple all over the world.

* * *

I think of him also as supreme­ly con­scious of his­to­ry. His mind went back not only to his great ances­tor Marl­bor­ough but through the years of Eng­lish his­to­ry. He saw him­self and he saw our nation at that time play­ing a part not unwor­thy of our ances­tors, not unwor­thy of the men who defeat­ed the Arma­da, and not unwor­thy of the men who defeat­ed Napoleon.

He saw him­self there as an instru­ment. As an instru­ment for what? For free­dom, for human life against tyran­ny. None of us can ever for­get how, through all those long years, he now and again spoke exact­ly the phrase that crys­tallised the feel­ings of the nation.

My Lords, we have lost the great­est Eng­lish­man of our time—I think the great­est cit­i­zen of the world of our time. In the course of a long, long life, he has played many parts. We may all be proud to have lived with him and, above all, to have worked with him; and we shall all send to his wid­ow and fam­i­ly our sym­pa­thy in their great loss.

One thought on “Clement Attlee’s Noble Tribute to Winston Churchill

  1. Superb. A les­son for our time in how lead­ers should con­duct their affairs and ours.

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