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Books Attlee and Churchill by Leo McKinstry

Revealing account of two politicians who were allies in war and adversaries in peace

THIS fascinating study of Clement Attlee and Winston Churchill focuses on how their lives became intertwined almost from the very beginning, leading to a great linkage during the second world war and separate, but still in many ways parallel, lives thereafter.

Author Leo McKinstry has certainly done his homework in discovering those parallels. In 1911, Churchill had one of his periodic rushes of blood to the head when, as Home Secretary, he personally supervised the “Siege of Sydney Street” in east London.

At the same time Attlee, working at a charitable organisation where his experiences saw him move from his early conservatism to socialism, wandered by as the Sydney Street drama reached its climax, a gunfight between two Latvian revolutionaries and the police and army.

Later, Churchill was forced out of the WWI government after the failure of his Dardanelles campaign, culminating in the Gallipoli disaster, which Attlee fought in.

The two crossed swords in Parliament during the inter-war years and what McKinstry expertly reveals is how they came to complement each other perfectly — Churchill the brash maverick, who could be brilliant or reckless, and Attlee the organised administrator, in charge and gaining influence through his quiet efficiency and good management of situations.

Their relationship immediately before and during WWII provides a fascinating insight. It shows the vital role Attlee and the Labour Party played in first refusing to serve in coalition with Conservative Prime Minister Nevillle Chamberlain and then taking major roles in the coalition government itself. Too often over recent years, the key role that Attlee and the Labour Party played in the war effort has been virtually airbrushed out.

Attlee continued to push hard during the war for the implementation of social reforms, along the lines of the recommendations made in the Beveridge Report of 1942. Churchill was more resistant which, when it came to the 1945 election, cost him dearly.

McKinstry singles out two actions by Churchill that helped Attlee. Churchill gave him more and more responsibility, including being Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition, and the pursuit of a total-war strategy against Germany meant that social and economic life in Britain was almost brought under total state control. The basis of a command socialist-based economy was thereby normalised by 1945.

But the leadership of both men came under attack — in Churchill’s case, when the war appeared to be going badly. Attlee was under pressure before, during and after the 1945 election, primarily from Herbert Morrison, who thought he should be leader and Prime Minister.

Even a year or two into the Labour administration of 1945, Attlee was being questioned by President of the Board of Trade Stafford Cripps and Morrison over his leadership.

Churchill and Attlee had a close bond, without ever really being friends. The niceties of congratulations on birthdays and the like continued over the years but the battles were fierce between the two during the Attlee administration, with Churchill staying on as Tory leader just to win back office.

McKinstry opens up a truly fascinating period of recent British history with this excellent book. It is one of a number of recent works that have begun to bring to prominence the role of Attlee and Labour in the war and the achievement of the post-war government, a period often grossly misrepresented.

Attlee and Churchiil are shown to be two towering figures of the 20th century who, at time of war came together to build an unstoppable team, then became adversaries in peace.

Hopefully, the work of bringing the truth of this period to light can continue to the point where the popular consciousness as to what really happened over those years might at last be truly pricked.  

Published by Atlantic Books, £25.

 

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