Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee
“I woke suddenly with a sharp stab of almost physical pain. A hitherto subconscious conviction that we were beaten broke forth and dominated my mind,” he recounted in his war memoirs. The following morning his darkest fears were realised as the first reports began to come in from the constituencies. The 1945 general election was unusual in that there was a gap of three weeks between official polling day and the actual counts, in order to allow return of the ballot papers from the huge numbers of Armed Forces personnel serving overseas. But once all the votes were tallied, the scale of Churchill’s defeat was clear. “It’s a debacle,” admitted his trusted aide Jock Colville to Churchill’s wife Clementine.
Altogether, the Tories lost no fewer than 189 seats, giving them a total of just 197 MPs.
In contrast, Labour made 239 gains and, with 393 MPs, were able to form a majority government for the first time.
The party’s reserved, austere leader Clement Attlee, who had been Churchill’s deputy for most of the war, became the new prime minister at the head of a powerful Cabinet.
My new book, Attlee and Churchill, examines the unique relationship between these two giants who dominated British politics throughout the mid-20th century.
In the light of today’s bitterly divisive, often incendiary Westminster scene, it is fascinating to see how the two men maintained their civility and respect towards each other, despite very different outlooks.
Indeed, Attlee as a socialist represented the ideology that Churchill opposed throughout his career, yet they worked harmoniously during the great wartime coalition, a true government of national unity.
That was because they put national interest and British democracy above narrow party advantage, a lesson our current breed of scheming, shallow politicians ignore.
Even in the 1945 election which followed the break-up of Churchill’s coalition, they retained their cordiality in private as they attacked each other on the campaign trail.
Attlee recorded how, when they attended a post-war international summit in Germany immediately after the poll, they were “able to meet again on easy terms and to cooperate”, something that would
be unthinkable for Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s landslide was a sensation, perhaps the most extraordinary result in the history of British democracy. Despite some opinion polls suggesting a Labour lead, the consensus had been that Churchill was heading for an easy win.
On the eve of voting Ralph Assheton, the chairman of the Tory party, predicted a majority of at least 100, while the Daily Express claimed Labour had “already decided that they have lost the election”.
Attlee himself shared that analysis. In the week before polling, he told one official “the Conservatives were likely to obtain a majority of about 70”.
This widespread belief in Churchill’s inevitable triumph was based largely on his heroic record as the architect of Hitler’s defeat. Conventional thinking held that a wartime leader was bound to reap an electoral dividend from victory, as Lloyd George had done in the 1918 general election after the Armistice.
That argument was particularly strong in Churchill’s case, given how he had saved Britain in 1940 when the nation’s very survival was in peril.
A further factor was the contrast in the political characters of the two party leaders.
The two wartime leaders
Churchill was a titanic figure of unparalleled charisma, renowned for his eloquence, dynamism and sense of history. Born into the aristocracy, he had always seemed destined for the highest office despite his occasionally erratic judgment.
“He had this extraordinary power. He made you feel you were a great actor in great events,” recalled his wartime Cabinet colleague Oliver Lyttelton.
Churchill’s secretary Marian Holmes described him as a “multi-talented colossus” who “made us believe that we were unconquerable”. For all his admirable integrity and decency, Attlee – the son of a middle-class lawyer from Putney – never inspired such effusive language.
Whereas Churchill was a great orator, the Labour leader was a dry, terse individual and prosaic communicator, inhibited by his shyness. When told that Attlee seemed “a very modest man”, Churchill replied of his deputy: “He has much to be modest about.”
Yet it was Attlee who, against all expectations, won the electoral battle of 1945.
At the heart of his remarkable achievement was the fact that Labour was far more in tune with the public than the Tories. After six exhausting years of struggle, voters were yearning for national renewal.
With its promises to create a welfare state, embark on a house-building programme and establish a National Health Service, Labour captured the electorate’s imagination.
Nor were the Conservatives helped by their pre-war record of economic dislocation at home and appeasement abroad.
Churchill might have been the man to win the war, but Attlee was seen as the one who could build the peace.
Tory scaremongering about Labour’s economic plans had little impact. In a sense, Attlee’s peacetime socialism was simply the extension of Churchill’s wartime economy, with its emphasis on controls, planning, rationing and heavy expenditure.
Labour’s stature was further enhanced by the key part its senior politicians had played in the Coalition government.
Ministers like Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, and Ernest Bevin, in charge of labour, proved to be superb administrators.
Above all, Attlee was invaluable to Churchill in taking charge of large swathes of the Whitehall machinery so that the Prime Minister could concentrate on military strategy.
So deep was Churchill’s trust that in early 1942 he created the new post of Deputy Prime Minister especially for Attlee, the position never having existed before in the Cabinet system.
Churchill later paid tribute to Attlee as “a great patriot” who “played a great part in winning the war”.
That kind of praise made it all the more absurd when Churchill, giving his first radio broadcast of the 1945 election campaign, accused Labour of plotting to “fall back on some form of Gestapo” in their quest to impose socialism on Britain.
Directed at the party which had served him faithfully in the war, it proved a terrible blunder that alienated the public.
The mistake epitomised his party’s ill-judged, negative campaign and the Prime Minister’s fatigue.
But when the axe fell after his defeat, Churchill was at his chivalrous best. “We have no right to feel hurt. This is democracy. This is what we have been fighting for,” he said. To one of his Downing Street aides, he advised: “Mr Attlee is a very nice man. You will be well to work with him.”
The historic election of 1945 marked the end of Churchill’s incongruous but enormously successful partnership with Attlee, forged in the pit of crisis.
After the poetry of Churchill’s national defiance in war, voters preferred the prose of Attlee’s solid progressive governance n peace.
Despite advancing years, the two men remained leaders of their respective parties for another decade, Attlee winning another election in February 1950 before Churchill gained his revenge with a narrow victory in October 1951. He finally bowed out as Prime Minister, aged 80, in 1955, the same year Attlee retired from the Labour leadership. No two British statesmen ever left a richer legacy.
• Attlee And Churchill by Leo McKinstry (Atlantic Books, £25). For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310, or send a cheque/PO payable to Express Bookshop: Attlee Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or visit expressbook-shop.co.uk