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