As the toxic furore over statues continues, a number of left-wingers yearn to see the monument to Winston Churchill in Parliament Square replaced by one to Clement Attlee. In their eyes, the austere, long-serving Labour leader is far worthier of veneration than the cigar-chomping imperialist. To them, Attlee is the man who not only helped win the war by taking charge of the home front but also created the socialist New Jerusalem in its aftermath. ‘Let’s have a statue to Attlee. He is the really great figure in our history,’ tweets one enthusiast. ‘He did more to build up the future of our country than Churchill,’ says another.
But this adulation is overblown. Contrary to progressive mythology, Attlee was no secular saint. The record of his long career would not pass any ideological purity test. Like Churchill, he was a complex figure whose outlook and actions would have caused outrage to modern woke sensibilities.
It is true that Attlee was invaluable to Churchill during the war after the coalition was formed, following the downfall of Neville Chamberlain. He was a reliable deputy: loyal, efficient and in command of the Whitehall machine. He also lent crucial support to Churchill in rejecting attempts to reach a peace deal with Nazi Germany in the dark days of May 1940.
But unlike Churchill, he had not been a consistent opponent of Nazism or appeasement before the war. Some like to heap all the blame on the Tories for Britain’s enfeebled response to the rise of Hitler in the 1930s but Labour was just as culpable. As the party’s deputy leader from 1931 to 1935, Attlee fiercely opposed re-armament and even downplayed the impact of Nazism. Soon after Hitler took power in 1933, he told the Commons, ‘we fully recognise Germany’s claims for justice,’ adding, ‘the Nazi revolution is very largely a demand for bread’. Extraordinarily, on another occasion, he criticised denunciations of Hitler’s regime. ‘I do not believe that it is very much use in this House to indulge in strong language against the Nazi regime,’ he said.
At this time, Attlee was a deluded idealist, opposed to the very concept of national defence and sovereignty. ‘We believe you have got to have the abolition of national fighting forces,’ he declared, reiterating his demand for ‘total disarmament’. That included the RAF, which turned out to be Britain’s saviour in 1940. ‘There is no defence against air attack,’ he said, wrongly. At the Labour Conference in Southport in 1934, he told delegates, ‘We are deliberately putting a world order before loyalty to our own country. We will be called very disloyal because we owe allegiance here to a world order rather than to what is called patriotism.’ Attlee changed his mind in the late 1930s when the reality of Hitler’s menace became stark, but Labour’s early posturing undermined a resolute, united approach by Britain.
Today the twitter mob likes to condemn Churchill for the darker episodes of the war, like the handling of the Bengal Famine in 1943 and the strategic bombing of German cities. But Attlee, as Deputy Prime Minister from 1942, was fully involved in those policies and raised no objections. Indeed, it was Attlee, in Churchill’s absence, who gave the order for the bombing of Dresden in February 1945, which killed 25,000 civilians. Nor was he then a firm supporter of Indian self-rule, which he feared could lead to ‘a brown oligarchy’. One Labour peer, Lord Listowel, complained that on India, Attlee was ‘a muted echo of his master’s voice’. Modern ideologues might also be interested to know that in 1944 Attlee fully backed Churchill in overturning an attempt by parliament to give equal pay to women teachers.
After the war, Attlee was no social justice warrior. In fact, he was the iciest of Cold War warriors. Without consulting either the cabinet or the Commons, he decided that Britain should have its own independent nuclear arsenal. A key architect of Nato, he approved of clandestine operations to undermine eastern European communism like an attempted coup in Albania. At home, he used 12,000 troops to smash a communist-backed dock strike in 1949. Fascinated by intelligence – he met the director general of MI5 more than any other post-war prime minister – he introduced anti-subversive security vetting for senior civil servants and also instructed that MPs, ministers and even their families be monitored for signs of disloyalty.
Attlee is rightly praised for giving independence to India, though the process of partition was a bloody one that left more than one million dead and 14 million displaced. He was far more ambivalent about the establishment of a state of Israel, partly because of concerns for Britain’s imperial interests. But there is also a suspicion that he harboured a streak of anti-Semitism. He once explained that he excluded two Jewish backbenchers, Ian Mikardo and Austen Albu, from his government because ‘they belonged to the Chosen People’ and he didn’t think he wanted any more of them. Just as revealingly, he described the Zionist cause in America as ‘a profitable racket. A Zionist is defined as a Jew who collects money from another Jew to send money to Palestine.’ Attlee’s stance led the Labour MP Dick Crossman, a passionate supporter of Zionism, to call him ‘a cold, brutal, small man with all the self-righteousness of the high-minded’.
In his background, Attlee does not fit the fashionable template of victimhood. Born into ‘white privilege’ as the son of a successful City lawyer, he attended prep school, Haileybury and Oxford. By an amazing coincidence, his affluent family employed a governess, Miss Caroline Hutchinson, who had once taught Churchill, though she had found young Winston an ‘extremely strong-willed child’. For all Attlee’s post-war radicalism in office, he remained deeply attached to Britain’s traditions, institutions and hierarchies. As the incoming Prime Minister in 1945, he appointed Geoffrey de Freitas as his new parliamentary private secretary on the grounds that the young MP had also been to Haileybury. ‘I concluded that the old school tie counted even more in Labour than Conservative circles,’ explained Downing Street aide Jock Colville, who worked for both Attlee and Churchill.
Attlee was certainly a great man, one of the leading figures in the pantheon of British premiers. But his richly-coloured story illustrates the absurdity of applying today’s monochrome, politically correct values to the past.
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Leo McKinstry’s latest book Attlee and Churchill is published by Atlantic