It was Attlee - speaking with the brusque frankness which was his trademark - who made it possible for Churchill to become Prime Minister. Even after the debate on the failure of the Norwegian campaign - in which 40 Tories voted against their government and another 70 abstained - Neville Chamberlain believed that he could hang on. When Attlee saw him, he seemed "to have no idea that he was finished" and offered the Labour Party seats in the coalition which he proposed to lead. Hard truth was Attlee's speciality. "Our party won't have you and I think that the country won't have you, either."
Still not quite convinced, the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition to put two questions to his colleagues. "Are you prepared to form a government led by Chamberlain?" and "Are you prepared to serve under somebody else?" Attlee's answer was a model of brevity. "The answer to the first question is No. To the second, Yes." Within 72 hours, Winston Churchill was in Downing Street, the coalition had been created and the nation was united for victory. Attlee remained admirably frank about his war aims. He explained, in a radio broadcast, his reasons for working with the Conservatives: "Labour must do all it can to save Britain and the world for democracy; but it must deploy in war to prepare for a socialist peace."
It was in pursuit of the second objective that, with the War in Europe won, Attlee insisted on the dissolution of the coalition and a general election. The campaign revealed - even to Labour Party members - a new side to Attlee's character. It was displayed to devastating effect when, in a party political broadcast in June 1945, Churchill warned the floating voters that "socialism is inseparably woven with totalitarianism and worship of the state". Labour in office would find it necessary to create "some form of Gestapo - no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance". Attlee seized his moment. "How great is the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader, in war, of a united nation and Mr Churchill, the party leader of the Conservatives." It was exactly the right combination of magnanimity and contempt - in ten minutes, Attlee both established himself as Churchill's political equal and convinced the voters that the man who defeated the Nazis was not necessarily the man to create a new Britain.
Attlee was able to tackle Churchill head on because, although he admired "the greatest living Englishman", he did not feel in awe of him and he was certainly never afraid of either the Prime Minister's blistering sarcasm or the open brutality with which he treated some of his subordinates. When Churchill's reputation was at its absolute zenith, at the beginning of 1945, with the War already won, Attlee addressed the Prime Minister in a way he had not experienced since he left Harrow.
"I have for some time had it in mind to write to you about the method, or rather lack of method, of dealing with matters requiring Cabinet decisions... I should have thought that you would have reposed some confidence in your Cabinet colleagues; but, on the contrary, you exhibit scant respect for their views... More often that not you have not even read the notes prepared for your guidance."
The reproof went on for page after page, leaving Churchill too astonished to construct a coherent reply. Encouraged by his wife, who was "saying what everybody else is thinking", the Prime Minister began to feel a new admiration for "the modest little man with plenty to be modest about". He told his private secretary to disassociate him from jokes about Attlee's character and courage.
Churchill had realised that Attlee was the embodiment of the quiet virtues - brave without being flamboyant, determined without being stubborn and principled without feeling the need to "hawk his conscience" around the Labour Party in the style of George Lansbury, his predecessor as leader. He was the least flamboyant - but at the same time the most resolute - Prime Minster this century. Unlike Stanley Baldwin, he never tried to make capital out of his stolid personality. Nor did he, in the manner of John Major, pretend that if necessary he could produce thunder and lightning.
Had Attlee not been as hard as he was unostentatious, he would not have become Prime Minister. Even after he led Labour to power - by a landslide and against all pre-dictions - most of the party wanted to replace him with Herbert Morrison. George Strauss (a Morrison lieutenant who was still in the House when I was elected to Parliament in 1964) told me that "if there had been a vote, Clem would have been out. It would have been a terrible mistake. But it would have happened." Attlee beat the rebels to the punch. He arrived at the victory rally and announced, "I have come from Buckingham Palace, where I accepted the King's commission to form a Government." The rebels were too late to challenge his leadership. The greatest of all Britain's peace-time Prime Ministers recorded his rendezvous with history as a "quite exciting day".Reuse content