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Attlee and Churchill: leaders united through war

Winston Churchill said Clement Attlee was a modest man who had much to be modest about. But they worked together to help save their country.

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In today’s polarised Britain, where discord resounds not only between but within political parties, Leo McKinstry’s biographical pairing of Attlee and Churchill serves to hymn a vanished golden age of bipartisan collaboration and respectful rivalry. Winston Churchill led the Tories from 1940 to 1955, while Clement Attlee was Labour leader from 1935 to 1955 and Churchill’s trusted deputy in his wartime coalition government. Notwithstanding the alarms that accompany their entwined life stories – the carnage of two global wars, poverty and class conflict, empire and racial oppression, the nightmare of atomic weaponry – the dominant theme here is almost pastoral, a dewy fondness for a world we have lost. Cosiness prevails.

Although both men had financial worries from time to time, they were fundamentally secure: Attlee solidly middle class, Churchill a sprig of the aristocracy. Both went to public schools – Churchill to Harrow, Attlee to Haileybury, to which he was deeply attached throughout his life. Both had strong marriages to resourceful women, Clementine Churchill and Violet Attlee. Both also had hinterlands beyond politics: Churchill’s flamboyantly in adventurism, literature and painting; Attlee more modestly in voluntary work, cricket and as odd-job man around house and garden. Above all, the volume stresses the comradeship and esteem between the two political opponents – tinged, inevitably, with the occasional touch of exasperation or asperity, but which formed unbreakable bonds that endured to the end of their lives.

Yet obtrusive, nagging reminders of our current political plight punctuate this scene of wistful remembrance. A bumbling, no-more-than-semi-scary ghost from the future haunts these pages. The reader cannot help wonder how our own cod-Churchill Boris Johnson, himself a preening biographer of the great man, measures up against his role model. While their shared cavalier propensities are unmistakable, Churchill, as he emerges here, had an intensity of concentration and a cast-iron dedication to paperwork – at least in the fields of international relations, warfare and strategy – which Johnson has never so far evinced.

To be sure, Churchill as opposition leader and in his final period as prime minister after a stroke in 1953 could be indolent and disengaged, but for the most part he was – despite eccentric work habits, self-centredness and a childish side – an ultra-conscientious minister who put in enormously long hours on the job; in Johnson’s idiom, a girly swot. The comparisons, so obvious that McKinstry need never allude to them, are highly unflattering to Johnson’s hammy and unconvincing tribute act. Regardless of the delight he shared with Churchill in the well-turned phrase and the vivid rhetorical trope, Johnson stands revealed in most other respects as an empty mannequin of the original.

There are, moreover, recurring problems that steer us back to the present. During his premiership Attlee had to deal with crises in Korea and Iran, and, of course, he was faced with the option of whether or not to join the earliest, most tentative steps towards European integration. Churchill and Attlee responded very differently to the issue of postwar Europe. Almost a caricature of respectable, Little English insularity, Attlee remained profoundly sceptical of abroad and the wiles of Continentals, although he had earlier been an idealistic proponent of the League of Nations, disarmament and – in an uncharacteristically hasty moment – the federation of Europe.

Churchill, on the other hand, eagerly played the European card. In 1948 he expressed the desire that Attlee’s government would “find it possible to place themselves more in line with western European opinion”. Nevertheless, his proclaimed zeal when opposition leader for a United States of Europe was vague and lacking in specifics, and when back in office further clouded with caveat, qualification and imperial recalcitrance. His Europhilia was loud but, as McKinstry notes, “shallow”.

We are reminded too that certain features of British politics are less new-fangled than they may appear. Churchill had to face down a rank-and-file rebellion in his constituency party at Epping over his outspoken dissent from Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Several branches of the constituency association endorsed a formal rebuke: “We feel increasingly uneasy at Mr Churchill’s growing hostility to the government and to the prime minister in particular.” Fortunately for Britain, the Tory party of the 1930s was more tolerant of principled disagreement than the Johnson-Cummings regime.

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On the other side of politics, the reader discerns intimations of Corbynism and its discontents: the left-wing intellectual Harold Laski and the Welsh firebrand Aneurin Bevan put up uncompromisingly radical challenges to Attlee’s centrist-dad Labourism. Electoral pacts – and winter elections – abound: from David Lloyd George’s mid-December “coupon” election of 1918 to the Woolton-Teviot pact of 1947, which took effect before the election of February 1950 and brought about the longer-term absorption of the Liberal Nationals within the Conservative Party. Churchill indeed preferred coalition-mongering to stifling party orthodoxies; a “Whig coalitionist”, in the disparaging words of his Tory colleague Leo Amery, he had changed parties twice, from Conservative to Liberal, and then back again, and not until he had vanquished Hitler did he largely quell Tory doubts about his soundness. It was Churchill’s wife Clementine who was more unequivocally partisan – but a committed Liberal, not a Conservative.

However, there are other resonances – some spookily precise. In the latter stages of the war, when Hitler had been defeated and the wartime coalition was beginning to fray, Churchill proposed asking the British people in a referendum whether they wished the coalition to remain in government until the war against Japan was concluded. But Attlee was unable to consent “to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as a referendum, which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism”.

Yet the recent lessons of Hitlerism notwithstanding, Attlee’s Labour Party was not immune from anti-Semitism. The leader himself held the unthinking prejudices of his class and era. His chancellor, Hugh Dalton, claimed Attlee had excluded two Jewish MPs, Ian Mikardo and Austen Albu, from government because – Dalton paraphrases the prime minister’s words – “they belonged to the chosen people and he didn’t think he wanted any more of them”. Zionism, Attlee wrote in a letter to his brother Tom, had become “a profitable racket” in the US.

Even the happiest reverberations from the past strike an ominous note. The Attlees socialised on numerous occasions with the Churchills, and sent a telegram to congratulate Churchill’s daughter Mary Soames on the birth of her first child, Nicholas Soames – the loyal cradle-Conservative who is retiring at this election, after having the whip removed and at the very last restored. And for connoisseurs of eerie coincidence, there is also mention of a ditch, on the problematic Irish border no less. When in 1948 Eire proclaimed its intention to leave the Commonwealth and become a republic, Churchill foresaw that “a ditch has been dug between Northern and Southern Ireland which invests partition with greater permanency and reality than it ever had before”.

Most of these weird chimes from the past are, of course, the purest happenstance. But they serve various useful functions. Not only do they illustrate the role of luck in history – so vital in the careers of both men – they also nudge us away from the condescension we all too often feel towards our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations: bowler-hatted, starch-collared and politically incorrect. Besides, a few of these uncanny foreshadowings do portend matters of substance and unnoticed continuities. As our politics deviates in unexpected ways from the familiar model of the two-party class-based system, we can see that the classic template was itself an aberration.

There have as often as not been three competitive parties as two, and fuzzy politics – alliances, fragmentation, fusion and coalition-style arrangements – have since the childhood of Attlee and Churchill, when the Liberals split in 1886, been almost as common as simon-pure partisanship. Today’s new politics faintly echoes the world in which Attlee and Churchill came of age: when Liberal Unionism provided a bridge between liberalism and conservatism, when divisions over Irish Home Rule and the incompatible calls of free trade and imperial tariffs left cleavages as deep and as bitter as those of Leaver and Remainer.

Churchill’s father Randolph tried to articulate a fourth way, distinct from Liberalism, Liberal Unionism and Conservatism, and his son maintained a fidelity, in spite of his Liberal defection, to a loosely defined but progressive “Tory Democracy”. He confessed that he saw scant “glory in an empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers”. Attlee too was initially more conservative, but went on to espouse socialist solutions when directly exposed to the lives of the East London poor.

Churchill’s ascent in politics was rapid, whereas Attlee – unashamedly pedestrian – was more of a tortoise, or, as the Tory diarist Chips Channon referred to him, “a black snail”. By the age of 35, Churchill had become home secretary. This posting tarnished his progressive reputation when in 1910 he sent in troops to south Wales as a reserve force while the Metropolitan Police quashed rioting during a strike in the coalfield at Tonypandy. Further blunders followed, with the launch of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915 when Churchill was lord of the Admiralty, and the return to the gold standard as chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925. However, Attlee, one of the infantrymen hunkered down for a time at Gallipoli, forgave Churchill for the former: at least one politician, he conceded, had ventured a strategic alternative to the mass slaughter on the Western Front.

What transformed Attlee’s career was the electoral wipeout of 1931, when the National Government, including National Labour’s Ramsay MacDonald, trounced the Labour Party. Labour’s biggest beasts had either defected to the National Government or been defeated at the polls. The uncharismatic Attlee was immediately promoted to deputy leader, and eventually became leader in 1935, though without ever gaining the confidence of the party’s brightest lights. He remained ever-after on uncertain probation with his leading colleagues.

Nor was Churchill trusted by his party when he finally reached the summit of political life. Rab Butler, a former Chamberlainite, complained after the 1942 reshuffle, when Attlee became deputy prime minister, that “there was no orthodox Conservative in the war cabinet”. Mistrust flowed both ways. Clementine Churchill, an arch-Liberal, was appalled when, after Neville Chamberlain’s death in late 1940, Churchill, already prime minister, assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party, in her eyes unnecessarily and mistakenly. In the midst of the war Churchill seemed far from securely ensconced in office. During the military disasters of early 1942 the Daily Mail, magnetically attracted throughout its history to the wrong answer if not also to the wrong question, issued a warning to Churchill that “no man is indispensable”. With Attlee’s unwavering support, Churchill survived a confidence vote in July 1942, and soldiered on. Indeed, by this stage Labour’s Aneurin Bevan began to fear “the complete fusion of the Labour and Conservative parties” – unrealistic perhaps in retrospect, but at the time a not entirely implausible sequel to the partial fusion of the 1931 National Government.

Churchill was absent from Whitehall so often during the war, whether attending summits with Roosevelt or Stalin, or overseeing his generals, that Attlee became a reliable fixture, brisk and efficient, at the helm of government. Whether or not the giant egos in the Labour Party trusted Attlee, Churchill certainly did. Not that the prime minister and his deputy were ever entirely on the same wavelength. There was too big a gulf in temperament and lifestyle for close friendship. But they were staunch allies.

Indeed, McKinstry argues, Churchill did a huge favour to his former deputy, now a forthright political opponent, in the immediate aftermath of the 1945 election. Notwithstanding Attlee’s landslide victory, a Labour plot was hatched by Herbert Morrison – deputy leader and future grandfather of Peter Mandelson – to prevent the uncharismatic and seemingly ill-equipped Attlee heading a Labour government. But in the event the hare helped the tortoise across the finishing line. By tendering his resignation from the caretaker government immediately, and recommending that King George VI send for Attlee, Churchill ensured that his steadfast and loyal adjutant became prime minister. 

Colin Kidd is professor of history at the University of St Andrews

Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace
Leo McKinstry
Atlantic Books, 752pp, £25

This article appears in the 04 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want