Rating: 4 out of 5
Both Attlee and Churchill were the giants of their time, there is no doubt about that. One might doubt which one of them was the greater: for many, I guess, the wartime heroics of Churchill make him rise higher than the solid statesmanship of Attlee. For me, my respect for what Clement Attlee achieved both as Deputy Prime Minister as well as Prime Minister is boundless—and he certainly ranks higher than Winston Churchill.
Mr McKinstry’s view at the two men really starts in the 1920’s though he offers an overview of their previous life, including the Great War, in fair detail. However, it’s only after the fall of Lloyd George’s national government that Churchill’s sentiments appear clearer. The interwar governments of Baldwin and MacDonald are therefore quite an interesting period, with Attlee learning the ropes while Churchill gets thrust into the political hinterlands.
It is also clear from how Mr McKinstry approaches the subject how much more detail oriented at every stage Attlee was—in great contrast to Churchill. While this is apparent in the early considerations over India, it only becomes clearer when the war-time contributions of both men are compared. The notes by the generals as well as other ministers are a joy to behold where the Attlee is described in glowing terms because of how he administered.
Meanwhile, the difficulties in keeping the Labour movement together that have plagued every historic leader of the party were just as troublesome for Attlee. Nye Bevan comes through very poorly, especially given the chances he would have had had he stuck to Attlee’s party line. Churchill’s troubles with his party were far more his own creation, especially the unwillingness to succeed—Eden’s long period as heir apparent can only done him ill as was later the case with the Suez Affair. Yet, when the Conservatives were arguing which old man should replace the other—even if Macmillan had a solid victory—a far more dynamic young Labour leader in Wilson is seen on the sidelines.
In this one can deduce that Attlee left his party far stronger—though he also resigned in very old age—than Churchill did. The Conservatives’ apparent early electoral success in the post-Churchill period did not really translate from their own glories rather than the weakness of Labour, and in the post-Attlee period one can understand that.
One of the weaknesses of this book was the author’s rambling style. Every paragraph was about three times longer than it should be, and I like to read a paragraph at a time if I’m doing something. This was nearly impossible for this book as the author left barely any logical pauses into the text.
From a more substantive side, relations with other Dominions were not touched at all. Knowing that Churchill stepped on some Dominion’s Prime Ministers’ toes during the war, directing their troops directly, this would have been an interesting interlude. Similarly, the not-a-Dominion-at-this-time of Newfoundland is not mentioned though Churchill, Attlee, and Beaverbrook were instrumental in pawning off the independence of that once-proud country. It seems that these choices were made due to the author’s topic preferences which makes it even more shameful that such themes were disregarded.
Nevertheless, this is quite possibly the best political British overview of the war, and well ahead of a mindless glorification of either leader as one might find in many other biographies.