The odd couple who kept up Britain’s spirits

Attlee and Churchill
By Leo McKinstry
Atlantic, 737pp, £25/$28

Talk about the descent from the sublime to the ridiculous. From Attlee and Churchill to Corbyn and Johnson, we have come down in the lift. Leo McKinstry’s study of the two most significant prime ministers of the 20th century is a delight to read, but one closes it sadly conscious of the decline of Britain and the deterioration in the quality of our public life since their time.

Churchill was marked for greatness from his youth, and nearly fell off the ladder. The historian Robert Rhodes James sub-titled his account of Churchill’s career up to 1939 A Study in Failure. Attlee had then been leader of the Labour Party for four years, but was regarded as a stop-gap, a dim and mediocre figure. The war made them both: Churchill as the defiant national leader, Attlee as his loyal deputy who held the Coalition together, and had responsibility for the Home Front. They had little in common except determination, patriotism and a commitment to democracy.

Churchill was a brilliant, flamboyant aristocrat, fertile in ideas, a man of many words, often magnificent ones; Attlee was laconic and self-effacing. Distrustful of Churchill before the war, he came to admire him immensely, while adding that Winston always needed somebody at hand to tell him “not to be a bloody fool”.

Churchill had switched parties twice and was a Tory because there was nothing else left for him to be. He feared socialism, but was nevertheless a radical with a penchant for coalitions. Attlee, utterly committed to the Labour Party, was intensely conservative. McKinstry remarks on his loyalty to every institution he had belonged to, beginning with his old school and then his regiment (he had extensive war service at Gallipoli and on the Western Front).

Attlee was abstemious, Churchill a drinker. Attlee was suburban, a man who took the Tube to Westminster. Churchill may never have been on the Tube or a London bus; he had a chauffeur to drive him everywhere. When Attlee was summoned to the Palace to be invited to form a government in 1945, his wife drove him there in her little Hillman and waited in the forecourt while he had his audience with the king.

Both men had happy marriages from which neither seems to have strayed. Churchill’s was sometimes stormy, his wife, Clementine, being strong-minded and ready to reprove him (she was a lifelong Liberal who disliked and distrusted the Tory Party). Violet Attlee was probably a Conservative when Clem married her; she joined the Labour Party five years after husband became its leader.

There were, of course, strains in the war-time coalition, but it held together remarkably. For this, Attlee deserves most credit. Never blind to Churchill’s faults, he nevertheless developed an affection for him.

If they were never boon companions, Churchill came to respect Attlee, and was severe in reprimanding Tories who thought to please him by denigrating the Labour leader. When after the war one MP spoke of “silly old Attlee”, Churchill smacked him down and said if he repeated that remark he would not be welcome at Chartwell again.

In the 1945 election Churchill made his now notorious broadcast in which he warned listeners that in order to impose socialism on the nation, the Labour Party would establish some sort of Gestapo. Attlee in his rejoinder said he “realised what was his object: he wanted the electors to understand at once how great was the difference between Winston Churchill, the great leader in war of a united nation, and

Mr Churchill, the party leader of the Conservatives … The voice was that of Mr Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.”

Exchanges in the Commons between the two after 1945, when Attlee was prime minister and Churchill the somewhat erratic leader of the opposition, were often sharp. But this did nothing to impair their personal relations or diminish the respect they felt for each other.

Both probably stayed on too long, Churchill in his last premiership nursing his vain hope that in a summit conference he might ensure world peace; Attlee, by remaining leader of the opposition from 1951 until after the 1955 election, in order to prevent Herbert Morrison from succeeding him as Labour leader. Then, unlike Churchill, he went to the House of Lords, another institution he became fond of.

It was by Churchill’s expressed wish that Attlee was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Though 82 and in failing health himself, he insisted on playing his part. The effort left him exhausted.

This is an entrancing book. Yet it is also a melancholy one. Comparing these titans, both devoted to the service of country and nation, with the pygmies of today is to be constantly remind of our national decline.