Attlee and Churchill – Allies in War; Adversaries in Peace

by Leo McKinstry

Atlantic Books London 2019

ISBN: 9781848876606

$49.99 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

Extraordinary times can produce extraordinary outcomes. None quite so unusual or extraordinary as the partnership during the Second World War of Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his Labour parliamentary colleague and National government deputy Clement Attlee. Under the duress and peril of the war, with Britain in 1940 being on the brink of defeat by Nazi Germany, Attlee and Churchill made a partnership of opposites which saw Britain survive. In the post war years they became parliamentary opponents, continuing to balance extremes in novel ways.

Leo McKinstry’s more than 700 page Attlee and Churchill – Allies in War; Adversaries in Peace more than does justice to this complicated partnership. It is a masterpiece of tale telling and analysis of some of the most crucial years of British history and the leaders at the helm. The only flaw is in the copy editing – something not crucial but at times irritating where occasional words are left out – for example “his family in Downing” rather than “his family in Downing Street”. And to have allowed “Sulva Bay” stand instead of “Suvla Bay” is quite an oversight. Perhaps this says more about the strains on publishers these days than scholastic weakness.

Taking on such a project saw McKinstry tackle an enormous load of researched detail to produce, over time, a bulky manuscript which he thanks his publishers for never losing faith in and which was ultimately turned into “a manageable draft”. It is a study that sheds new light on a much written about era of twentieth century history.

McKinstry has left readers of British history a portrait of the Westminster system of government at its most vulnerable time, and one that continues to endure. Led by two men who could not have been more different.

Thrust into the prime ministership in May 1940, Churchill had been a colourful patrician MP surfing highs and suffering lows until it was assumed his best years were behind him. At the same time, with a new national government and never one to inspire like the wordsmith Churchill, Attlee suddenly found himself the backbone for the leadership of a risk taking senior officer.

As McKinstry writes, where Churchill was bold and imaginative, Attlee was cautious and limited.  “If Churchill was an erratic hand at the wheel of the Government machine, Attlee was the safe reliable driver.” Where Churchill was able to turn his ego driven indulgences into endearing anecdotes, Attlee seemed indifferent to his own lack of presence. The jokes abounded re Attlee’s colourless personality – “An empty cab drew up and Clement Attlee got out.” – and so forth. It is McKinstry’s achievement that neither man overpowers the other in this account of their lives together.

The differences or opposites in the backgrounds and personalities of these two men who would dominate mid twentieth century British history were numerous. From personal preferences to style. Attlee drank little alcohol while for Churchill alcohol lubricated his days from morning till night. Where Attlee barely read newspapers, Churchill read them copiously from the start of his day. As Robert Menzies once declared: “Churchill, the Conservative, always looked and sounded like a crusader. Attlee, the socialist, looked and sounded like a company director.” Jock Colville, who worked for both leaders, opined: “Temperamentally Churchill remained a radical just as Attlee by temperament was a conservative.”

As Britain faced the behemoth struggle of war and privation in the early 1940s, life at Westminster saw little change in the bureaucratic tussles behind the scenes. While cliffhanging moments like the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the sinking of the French fleet by the Royal Navy played out, the age old jockeying among civil servants and departmental influencers went on. In the jockeying, Attlee and Churchill played a deft hand as they supported each other until the peace.

Churchill’s long time friend Lord Beaverbrook when made Minister of Supply in mid 1941 clashed with Labour’s Ernest Bevin who was then Minister for Labour and National Service. In seeking Attlee’s agreement for a Cabinet reshuffle that involved removing Labour’s Arthur Greenwood, Churchill was determined to make Attlee Deputy Prime Minister, which Beaverbrook opposed. As McKinstry writes”

[T]he battle over the reshuffle came down to a choice between Attlee and Beaverbrook. Churchill sided with the socialist Leader against one of his oldest political allies simply because he could not afford Attlee’s resignation whereas Beaverbrook’s would have had little political fallout. Had Attlee gone, almost all the other Labour ministers would have followed, breaking up the Coalition and probably bringing an end to his premiership.

At significant moments over decades, the chalk and cheese competition between Attlee and Churchill played out. In the 1930s, as Churchill worked to shore up British rule of India, Attlee was pressuring colleagues on both sides of the House to recognise more should be done to appease India’s movement for self-rule. His efforts contributed to Labour’s support for the Government of India Bill. It would be as post war prime minister that Attlee appointed Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy of India.

At the time of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, Winston Churchill would carry the blame for the disaster it became while Clement Attlee would distinguish himself for protecting thousands of Allied troops at Suvla Bay as the successful evacuation drew to a close. In spite of their differing parts in the campaign, Attlee would never accept that the Dardanelles was an ill-conceived strategy.

As war approached in the late 1930s, Attlee downplayed the need to confront Nazism and Germany. Opposite Attlee on the benches, Winston Churchill was the leading voice opposing appeasement, warning of the dangers of Germany as early as 1933. He remained isolated among Conservatives until 1939.

It is to McKinstry’s credit that he rightly acknowledges Labour’s role in the lack of preparation for the war during the 1930s, arguing that none more than Labour resisted policies aimed at rearmament. McKinstry points to Labour’s and Attlee’s opposition in the 1930s to defence spending estimates for the armed forces, something Churchill would taunt Attlee with in post war years. Not until July 1937 did the Parliamentary Labour Party abandon its policy of voting against defence spending estimates. On the eve of war, Labour would oppose national service.

For all their differences, however, it was Clement Attlee who gave Labour’s support for Churchill to replace Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940. This began a partnership that would endure through Britain’s worst years in modern times. In June 1940, Attlee supported Churchill’s decision to sink the French Fleet at Oran in North Africa after Nazi Germany’s takeover of France. Attlee saw no reason to trust the German pledge that “they had no intention of using units of the French Fleet for their own purposes”. Attlee saw this as “illusory”.

The partnership was vital for both leaders. Churchill’s mercurial style and obsessive but also indifferent overlordship needed constant administrative smoothing behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Attlee came under attack from the left of Labour over the lack of any progressive policy decisions for a post-war Britain. As McKinstry writes:

While sympathising with a call for socialism, Attlee was reluctant to do anything that would undermine the Coalition. In fact in January [1941], he remonstrated with the perennially outspoken [Harold] Laski, telling him that “I am sufficiently experienced in warfare to know that a frontal attack with a flourish of trumpets, heartening as it is, is not the best way to secure a position.

After the US entered the war and with a reversal of fortune for the UK with victory at El-Alamein, Churchill was often absent from the UK travelling to meetings as far away as North America, northern Africa and Russia. Practical politics at home was left to Attlee and Eden who began to feel Churchill was out of touch with British politics and overly seduced by the global mission. Attlee’s pressures within Labour intensified while Labour popularity in the polls increased. But Attlee knew the Coalition was vital for Labour while there was no defeat of Hitler.

McKinstry gives a cameo moment as something of a summary of Coalition relations and Churchill’s pomposity at the time. Churchill had made a day’s visit to northern France to inspect the ongoing success of the D-Day invasion. A couple of days later he dined with the King. After dinner at the Palace, Churchill subjected his dinner colleagues to a long monologue about his trip to northern France. Tommy Lascelles summed up the scene: “This lasted until 2am, Winston talking without a break for long periods while Smuts and Attlee, on either side of me, slept unashamedly.”

For all Churchill’s dominance of the action, it was Attlee who kept the ship of state afloat. At the end of 1944, as the settlement of Greece turned into a tussle between a pro-monarchist Churchill and those who opposed any restoration of the Greek monarchy, the fragility of the UK Coalition reached a crisis point. When a settlement was reached satisfactory to both Churchill and the pro-democracy groups in Greece, shortly after Christmas, it was left to Attlee to bring some order to the messy state of affairs Churchill had created in the Coalition at Westminster.

Attlee was not one to spend many words on serious matters – it was said that he rarely used one syllable where none would do. However, as tempers frayed over Churchill’s bull-at-a-gate approach to Greece, and the government in general, Attlee penned a 2000-word letter of censure to Churchill which he typed himself in order to keep it private. As a memo it gave Churchill a no holds barred lecture on his failings as an administrator, what McKinstry calls a “formidable catalogue of remonstrance”.

As the last year of the European war played out, part of Churchill’s distraction from domestic politics was his sense that Communist Russia was about to seize Eastern Europe. He was not wrong there. The summit at Yalta began the process where a very sick Roosevelt and a weakened Churchill were no match for Stalin.

On VE Day in May 1945, Churchill led the celebrations while Attlee was far away representing the UK at the conference in San Francisco from which came the Charter of the United Nations. Churchill’s government papers and work in general were at the time what Jock Colville described as “in a ghastly state”, the result of the fact that “he does little work and talks far too much”. VE Day was all talk from Winston with his other vital half – his Deputy Prime Minister – not to be seen.

But, as post war domestic politics came back into play, however, it would be Attlee’s turn to shine. At the general election on 5 July 1945, the first for a decade, Labour led by Attlee won a landslide victory. At this election campaign, Attlee and Churchill had yet again contrasted in style with Churchill travelling about in his fitted out train and Attlee being driven all over by his wife in their 1938 Hillman sedan.

After the hypertension of the war years, Churchill’s overly dramatic speeches and florid language no longer held sway. The saying went about “Cheer Winston. Vote Labour”. The electorate was ready for that post-war progressivism Attlee’s colleagues had pressed for during the latter years of the war. Sent to lead the Opposition benches, Churchill turned down the King’s offer of the Garter saying he could not accept it as he had just been given the “Order of the Boot”.

It is McKinstry’s achievement that his second part of the Attlee/Churchill tale does not lose any pace as the excitement of the war years fade. Peace is never as exciting as war for historians but the tussle between Attlee and Churchill helps absorb McKinstry’s reader no less in the years of Attlee’s premiership than those of Churchill.

The personalities are the thread. Attlee surviving his own party intrigues as much as Churchill surviving his demise and frailties of age. In these opposition years Churchill found solace in writing and accumulating a comfortable fortune. Attlee would never seek such indulgence – either in output of words or comfort of lifestyle. Yet, for all Churchill’s largesse and style, a sharp rejoinder from Attlee could upset Churchill’s full-blown pomp. They were like an Abbott and Costello or Two Ronnies comedy team without the laughs.

Never the best of friends, Attlee and Churchill were respectful colleagues each in their own way appreciating what each owed the other. Even in domestic policy, when Churchill managed (narrowly) to win again in 1951 and resume his role as Prime Minister, he happily accepted most of the Attlee Labour government’s socialist leaning policies. It would be left to Margaret Thatcher 30 years later to start rolling back government excess and balancing the budgets.

For those interested in the history of the twentieth century, Leo McKinstry’s  Attlee and Churchill – Allies in War; Adversaries in Peace is a remarkable achievement – as well as an absorbing and revealing read.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History