McKinstry’s Churchill and Attlee: A Vanished Age of Political Respect

McKinstry’s Churchill and Attlee: A Vanished Age of Political Respect

Churchill and Attlee: Allies in War, Adver­saries in Peaceby Leo McK­instryNew York: Lon­don, Atlantic Books, 736 pages, £25, Ama­zon $25.66.  Excerpt­ed from a book review for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text, click here.

The McKinstry Epic

Leo McKinstry’s book 738 pages—twice the size of the pre­vi­ous Attlee-Churchill book and is riv­et­ing from cov­er to cov­er. Scrupu­lous­ly fair, McK­instry tells the sto­ry, backed by a volu­mi­nous bib­li­og­ra­phy, exten­sive research and pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence. Thus he cap­tures Churchill’s gen­eros­i­ty of spir­it, and Attlee’s great­ness of soul.

“Some­times tur­bu­lent, often fruit­ful, theirs was a rela­tion­ship unprece­dent­ed in the annals of British pol­i­tics,” McK­instry con­cludes. It was part­ly “a reflec­tion of Churchill’s great­ness, and part­ly of Attlee’s patience.” Attlee was the longest-serv­ing par­ty leader of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Churchill one of the longest-serv­ing prime min­is­ters. In 1940-55, one of them was always PM.

There have been oth­er great rival­ries, but the bond between them was unique, espe­cial­ly for per­sons with such oppo­site views. One spoke for lib­er­ty and a “min­i­mum stan­dard” guar­an­teed by the State. The oth­er declared him­self a social­ist, but prac­ticed a far milder form of social­ism than dialec­tic Marx­ists. In the war, Churchill had but one goal: defeat­ing Hitler. Attlee, as Deputy Prime Min­is­ter (a posi­tion Churchill cre­at­ed express­ly for him) ran the coun­try. In doing so, he set him­self up for his own pre­mier­ship.

Contrasts and similarities

McKinstryChurchill lived lux­u­ri­ous­ly; Attlee mowed his own lawn and cleaned his roof gut­ters. Churchill drank cham­pagne and spir­its; Attlee went to bed with a cup of cocoa. Churchill hol­i­dayed in Monte Car­lo, Attlee in Frin­ton. WSC had an exalt­ed lin­eage, was hailed as a genius and pro­nounced a future prime min­is­ter. “No one,” says McK­instry, “ever dis­cerned such a prospect for Attlee.” Clemen­tine Churchill once called him “a fun­ny lit­tle mouse.”

Both wrote auto­bi­ogra­phies, but Churchill’s My Ear­ly Life is a tri­umphal progress com­pared to Attlee’s As It Hap­penedThe lat­ter was described as “lame­ly writ­ten, clum­si­ly constructed…as bor­ing as the min­utes of a munic­i­pal gas under­tak­ing…. Not [exact­ly] Alcib­i­ades or Churchill.”

Both were devot­ed to wives who were much alike: “fierce­ly loy­al but often exhaust­ed by the strain of pub­lic life.” Clemen­tine suf­fered from neu­ri­tis, Vio­let from sleep­ing sick­ness. Clem­mie was a life­long Lib­er­al. Vi only joined Labour five years after her hus­band became par­ty leader.

Independent thinkers

Attlee and Churchill were Con­ser­v­a­tives in their youth, and soon dis­il­lu­sioned with the Con­ser­v­a­tives. H.G. Wells inspired Churchill’s belief in the need for the State to act as reserve employ­er and pro­vide wel­fare assis­tance. But while Churchill joined the Lib­er­als, Attlee joined Labour. Churchill became a cru­sad­ing reformer, Attlee a wel­fare work­er and activist in London’s East End. There he helped imple­ment Churchill’s labor exchanges and Nation­al Insur­ance. Decid­ing that East Enders were “decent peo­ple who had been denied fair oppor­tu­ni­ties,” Attlee began ques­tion­ing the whole orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety. “The seeds of his social­ism had been sown.”

Attlee and Churchill were patri­ots with faith in Britain and the Empire. Both fought in World War I, Churchill in Bel­gium, Attlee in Gal­lipoli. The lat­ter always approved of that cam­paign. “I have always regard­ed the strate­gic con­cep­tion as sound [but] it was nev­er ade­quate­ly sup­port­ed,” Attlee said in 1960. Gal­lipoli made Attlee admire Churchill as a strate­gist. This paid div­i­dends when they worked togeth­er a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry lat­er.

Nailed to their respective masts

By the time the India issue arose in 1930, Churchill had returned to the Con­ser­v­a­tives. Attlee believed in Britain’s role in India, but sup­port­ed the reforms of the India Act, which Churchill stri­dent­ly opposed. From across the aisle, Attlee offered a sym­pa­thet­ic appraisal. “Trou­ble with Win­ston: he nails his trousers to the mast and can’t climb down.”

Nei­ther were they of the same mind about rearmament—particularly air pow­er. Call­ing Churchill a “bril­liant errat­ic genius,” Attlee referred to a Churchill book, The After­mathIn it, he said, Churchill’s “bril­liant imag­i­na­tion” envi­sioned con­trol of mil­i­tary air pow­er by the League of Nations! Churchill snort­ed that the Nazi threat demand­ed a nation­al response. “I dread the day when the means of threat­en­ing the heart of the British Empire should pass into the hands of the present rulers of Ger­many.”

But Attlee had to mol­li­fy his left, which con­sid­ered Churchill an “uncom­pro­mis­ing right-winger.” Mean­while, Absent Eden and Duff Coop­er, McK­instry writes, “only Churchill was ready to stand with Labour.” But “that just empha­sized how bad­ly iso­lat­ed he still was from the Tory polit­i­cal main­stream.”

The Great Coalition

World War II threw them togeth­er. McK­instry accu­rate­ly describes the fate­ful May 1940 meet­ing when Attlee refused to join a nation­al gov­ern­ment under Neville Cham­ber­lain. This effec­tive­ly made Churchill prime min­is­ter. Attlee took crit­i­cism from his left, but respond­ed: “I nev­er believed that Win­ston had been hos­tile to the work­ing-class­es.”

They joust­ed con­stant­ly,” writes McK­instry, “though Churchill, with his quick­sil­ver tongue, usu­al­ly had the last word against the lead­en Attlee.” They fre­quent­ly dined togeth­er. Yet Churchill did not invite Attlee to join The Oth­er Club, say­ing he was not real­ly “club­bable.” Polit­i­cal­ly, McK­instry explains, Attlee had “to per­form a bal­anc­ing act between the left of the par­ty,” but would do noth­ing to under­mine the Coali­tion. “I am suf­fi­cient­ly expe­ri­enced,” he told the out­spo­ken social­ist Harold Las­ki, “to know that a frontal attack with a flour­ish of trum­pets, heart­en­ing as it is, is not the best way to secure a posi­tion.”

Critic in chief

Their con­fronta­tions were point­ed, but amus­ing. Once Churchill told the Cab­i­net: “Well, gen­tle­men, I think we can all agree on this course.” Attlee shot back: “You know, Prime Min­is­ter, a mono­logue by you does not nec­es­sar­i­ly spell agree­ment.” Sir David Hunt, a pri­vate sec­re­tary who served both, said Attlee would accept the expla­na­tion, “This is the way we have always done it.” But “you wouldn’t dare say that to Churchill.” He would instant­ly reply, “That is a very good rea­son for doing it dif­fer­ent­ly this time.”

Attlee was not averse to telling off the PM in the bluntest lan­guage, albeit pri­vate­ly. By him­self, he once banged out a let­ter on his bat­tered type­writer. Churchill’s habits at meet­ings were dis­rup­tive, he com­plained. He was often unpre­pared, refus­ing to read the rel­e­vant doc­u­ments. “I would ask you to put your­self in the posi­tion of your col­leagues [and ask your­self whether] you would have been as patient as we have been.” Instead of blast­ing back, Churchill con­sult­ed his “famil­iars.” They all said Attlee was right. Clemen­tine wrote: “I think that’s very brave of Mr. Attlee and I’m sure he’s rep­re­sent­ing the views of the Cabinet…and indeed all your friends and well-wish­ers.”

Tactics and strategy

They were unit­ed on the big things, but some­times dif­fered in detail. Ear­ly on, Attlee urged Churchill to repeal the 1927 Trade Dis­putes Act, which Labour hat­ed. Churchill as Chan­cel­lor had helped pass it. He was sym­pa­thet­ic, but resist­ed, because he knew it would nev­er get by the Tory-dom­i­nat­ed House of Com­mons. In 1941, Attlee want­ed to dis­miss Horace Wil­son, Chamberlain’s appease­ment toady, as head of the Civ­il Ser­vice. Churchill calm­ly passed. He let Wil­son retire grace­ful­ly in 1942—reversing the usu­al image of an impul­sive Churchill vs. a care­ful Attlee.

McK­instry cor­rect­ly rep­re­sents (this writer is hon­ored to be quot­ed) that it was Attlee, not Churchill, who autho­rized the fire-bomb­ing of Dres­den. He cites Stalin’s first ques­tion to Churchill at Yal­ta: “Why haven’t you bombed Dres­den?” Attlee, McK­instry writes, had advo­cat­ed mass bomb­ing since 1940. He “had few qualms about this deci­sion,” but lat­er believed con­cen­trat­ing on spe­cif­ic tar­gets would have been bet­ter.

By the last wartime sum­mit con­fer­ence in Pots­dam, the elec­tion was on. Votes would be count­ed before the meet­ing end­ed. Churchill, con­fi­dent of vic­to­ry, cour­te­ous­ly invit­ed Attlee to accom­pa­ny him. By the way, would Attlee like the ser­vices of one of his valets? McK­instry writes: “Attlee, social­ly con­ven­tion­al if polit­i­cal­ly rad­i­cal, felt no guilt about accept­ing the offer.”

Attlee’s triumph

Before Pots­dam in a cam­paign broad­cast, Churchill said a Labour gov­ern­ment would need to enforce its pro­grams with “a kind of Gestapo.” The coun­try dis­ap­proved of that lan­guage and Attlee took advan­tage. His respons­es con­trast­ed Churchill the war leader and Churchill the par­ty leader.

Attlee’s elec­tion vic­to­ry shat­tered Churchill. Yet his basic decen­cy tri­umphed over morose­ness. “We have no right to feel hurt,” McK­instry quotes him. “This is democ­ra­cy.” To a pri­vate sec­re­tary he advised: “You must not think of me any­more; your duty is to serve Attlee, if he wish­es you to do so.” The sec­re­tary wept.

Like Churchill, Attlee had no com­punc­tions about using the atom­ic bomb to end the war. He also con­sult­ed with Churchill over Anglo-Amer­i­can joint nuclear research. From Lake Como, nurs­ing his regrets after the elec­tion, Churchill wrote Attlee: “My concern…is what the Amer­i­cans will do. I appre­hend they will be increas­ing­ly shy of impart­ing fur­ther devel­op­ments.”

In the 1950s

Ardent social­ists were not con­tent with Attlee’s mild, busi­nesslike lead­er­ship. Soon they were attempt­ing to replace him. Attlee qui­et­ly pushed on with social restruc­tur­ing and nation­al­iza­tion. Like Churchill, he sup­port­ed the foun­da­tion of the State of Israel and opposed British mem­ber­ship in any form of fed­er­al Europe.

After the 1951 elec­tion Churchill returned to Down­ing Street. He regard­ed the Labour domes­tic record “a mess,” but would brook no crit­i­cism of his old deputy. Once at Chartwell, a local MP referred to “sil­ly old Attlee.” Churchill thun­dered: “Mr. Attlee is a great patri­ot. Don’t you dare call him ‘sil­ly old Attlee’ at Chartwell or  you won’t be invit­ed again.” His rival reciprocated—and then some. Churchill, Attlee said, was “the great­est leader in war this coun­try has ever known, [who] stood like a bea­con for his country’s will to win.” Once, after a 1962 Roy­al Acad­e­my din­ner, Harold Nicol­son record­ed that Churchill, aged and fee­ble had almost to be car­ried out: “‘We may nev­er see that again,’ said a voice behind me. It was Attlee.”

Ave atque vale

Attlee was in the Lords when Churchill died. Aging and enfee­bled, he stood to address the House. “We have lost the great­est Eng­lish­man of our time,” he said. McK­instry quotes the Dai­ly Mail: “Emo­tion choked Earl Attlee’s voice to near inaudi­bil­i­ty as he described the tears rolling down Sir Winston’s cheeks when he spoke of the Nazi atroc­i­ties.”

Attlee and Churchill rais­es a ques­tion worth con­sid­er­ing. Must pol­i­tics always be a vicious cycle of name-call­ing and vitu­per­a­tion? Churchill and Attlee declare oth­er­wise. They flung polit­i­cal charges back and forth, but nev­er insult­ed each oth­er. Whether on the same or oppo­site side, they went out of their way to share their views. They didn’t use the media to blud­geon each other—and like­wise the media didn’t use them. Cour­tesy and respect do not mean sur­ren­der. We may learn from their exam­ple. We have a way to go.

Further reading on the Hillsdale College Churchill Project 

Clement Attlee, “The Churchill I Knew,” Part 1.
Clement Attlee, “The Churchill I Knew,” Part 2.
Bradley P. Tolp­pa­nen, “Two Views of Churchill’s Rela­tion­ship with Clement Attlee”

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