Home Arts & Culture What Churchill and Attlee have to teach us ?

What Churchill and Attlee have to teach us ?

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Despite their political differences the two men remained friends. While at the recent opening of parliament Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn could not even exchange a word as they walked from the Commons to the Lords to hear the Queen’s speech, Attlee and Churchill exchanged Christmas and birthday greetings …. Writes Mihir Bose. Review: Attlee and Churchill, Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace,  by Leo McKinstry, Atlantic Books, £25.

 by . You would think there is not much more to say about Winston Churchill. During his life time he was a prolific writer and journalist, his writings puts to shade the journalistic output of our modern day Prime Minister and Churchill disciple, and he famously fulfilled his promise of making sure history treated him kindly by writing the history of his life and times himself. Since his death writing about Churchill has become a British publishing cottage industry. Not a year goes by without a couple of books about him and every aspect of his life has been examined including some that should never have seen the light of the day for the simple reason they have added nothing to our knowledge of the man widely considered the greatest Briton.

It is against this background that Leo McKinstry has written a book that is both a joy to read and a lesson to every author on how to extract still more wonderful nuggets from a well mined seam. What is more, as this country faces the greatest crisis since the second world war, which provided Churchill his moment in the sun, he gives us prescient material to judge our times. He reminds us in effect that while certain things never change, many other things have indeed changed.

Attlee made no comments on the Hindus but wanted India to remain in the British empire as he feared domination by “a brown oligarchy”. It was the post-war events in India that forced his hand to finally let India go.

His trick has been to combine Churchill’s life with that of Clement Attlee, who served under him as deputy prime minister during the war, then defeated him in two elections before suffering defeat himself in the third. What many readers may not know, and I had not appreciated is, how interlinked the two men’s lives were. In the first world war Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign led to his downfall with Churchill bemoaning, “ I am finished.” His wife Clementine feared  he would “die of grief”. Yet Attlee, who fought in Gallipoli emerged from it with his reputation as a soldier enhanced,  always defended Churchill, calling it a great strategic idea which if successful could have saved a million lives.

The statue of former prime minister Winston Churchill overlooks the Parliament House

It is hard to see modern politicians who were such great rivals having such warm feelings for each other. Some of this may have been due to the fact that both their parties only reluctantly accepted them as leaders. Even during the war not all Tories supported Churchill and in 1945, despite Attlee leading Labour to  one of its great triumphs, there were attempts to remove him as leader with some saying he “appeared to lack completely the required charisma”.

The two men did not shy away from expressing their political differences but in very contrasting styles. Churchill during the 1945 election infamously said that a Labour government could not “afford to allow free, sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo”. The broadcast caused outrage and Attlee with a light but caustic touch debunked Churchill, describing the Tories as  representing “the forces of property and privilege” while Labour “most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.”

Despite their political differences the two men remained friends. While at the recent opening of parliament Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn could not even exchange a word as they walked from the Commons to the Lords to hear the Queen’s speech, Attlee and Churchill exchanged Christmas and birthday greetings. Even after his shattering 1945 defeat  Clementine helped Violet, Attlee’s wife, settle down in No 10 Downing Street. As Attlee’s daughter put it, “Clementine Churchill was very nice, very helpful, explaining everything to mother and helped her make the move”. It is hard to imagine had Johnson lost the election his girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, being so helpful to Corbyn’s wife.

Not surprisingly much of the book is taken up with the war years when, as McKinstry puts it, the two were comrades. Indeed it was Labour’s rejection of serving under Neville Chamberlain in a war-time coalition that forced his resignation and brought Churchill to power against the wishes of the Conservative party. There can be little doubt that had Churchill missed the boat in May 1940 then his life, as Robert Rhodes James put it in his book on Churchill, would have been “a study in failure.” If the war bought out Churchill’s greatness than it also helped Attlee prove that he could lead the nation. It helped Labour recover from its disastrous 1935 defeat and demonstrate that the sort of socialism that had won the war could also work in peace and it laid the foundation stone of Labour’s incredible 1945 triumph.

 by . Despite their differences on certain issues like India the two men could be closer than is generally believed. The broad view is that Churchill opposed India getting any form of dominion status let alone independence and told one of his friends that “Gandhi ought to be lain, bound hand and foot, at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” In contrast one of the major’s achievements of Attlee’s government was to grant India independence.

In reality there was not much difference between the two men. In the crucial decade of the 30s  Attlee did not believe that Indians were capable of ruling themselves and certainly not have the sort of dominion status that the white countries like Australia and Canada enjoyed. McKinstry does not shy away from reminding us of Churchill’s racist views of Indians. He once said, “I hate the Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” He does not mention the comments Churchill made to his secretary John Colville in 1945 when as Colville records,  “The PM said the Hindus were a foul race ‘protected by their pullulation from the doom that is their due’ and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”. Attlee never held such genocidal views but as the war demonstrated he could to an extent echo Churchill.

The fall of Singapore and with it the destruction of  white supremacy in Asia made the war-time government look again at what they could do to appease Indian call for freedom. Churchill was against such measures telling Attlee that Indian troops, who were giving such great service to the Empire, being “a fighting race” would never accept “the rule of the Congress and the Hindoo Priesthood machine”.

Attlee made no comments on the Hindus but wanted India to remain in the British empire as he feared domination by “a brown oligarchy”. It was the post-war events in India that forced his hand to finally let India go.

One thing McKinstry does not do is highlight how in contrast to his desire to destroy the Hindus, Churchill liked Muslims, his family at one stage feared he might convert. A firm believer in the Muslims being a warrior race during the war he even lied to President Roosevelt that Muslims outnumbered Hindus in the Indian Army and he also gave them the land on which the Regents Park mosque was built hoping this would please Middle Eastern Muslims. But given that the book is almost a door stopper, 737 pages long, it is understandable: McKinstry had to make a selection. The selections he has made could not be bettered, blending a whole host of private papers and published material and this is one Churchill book that will stand the test of time.

Attlee and Churchill, Allies in War,  Adversaries in Peace,  by Leo McKinstry, Atlantic Books, £25.  @Mihir Bose

 

 

 

 

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