The great British coalition against Nazi Germany

John Kane-Berman writes on the 75th anniversary of the German surrender in Europe

The 8th of May will mark the 75th anniversary of the German surrender in Europe. As a result of the Covid 19 crisis, VE Day will pass without great ceremonies paying tribute to the fallen. There is little doubt that without Winston Churchill, the outcome of the Second World War would have been very different. But the vital contribution of Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, is often overlooked.

Although he was not made deputy prime minister until February 1942, he was in practice No 2 to Churchill throughout their five years of wartime coalition. Not only that: it was Attlee’s motion of censure which precipitated the Conservative revolt that brought down Neville Chamberlain’s government in May 1940 and led to the coalition government headed by Churchill with Labour as full partners.

Later that month, when the British army was trapped at Dunkirk and some members of Churchill’s five-man coalition war cabinet favoured peace talks with Adolf Hitler, nobody was more determined than Attlee that the United Kingdom should fight on. Without his support, Churchill might not have survived as prime minister. This was ironic: Attlee and his party had strongly opposed rearmament until late in the 1930s. Now, having eventually woken up to the Nazi menace and denounced the 1938 Chamberlain-Hitler Munich deal, he favoured the policy of “unconditional surrender” by Germany.

Moreover, although the British and the Americans belatedly formed an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler after Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Attlee was as strongly opposed to communism as was Churchill. He also suspected that Stalin would use the war to extend Soviet control into Eastern Europe.

Not the least of the deputy prime minister’s achievements was to keep his ideologically divided party in the coalition. Some of his colleagues wanted to use the war to push for socialism, but Attlee resisted them on the grounds that it would bring down the government. The Observer once commented: “While Churchill wages war, [Attlee] keeps the peace behind the lines.”

Attlee chaired cabinet meetings and ran the government during Churchill’s frequent absences to confer with Stalin, Roosevelt, and their military commanders in America, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and North Africa. He chaired the cabinet and other committees more efficiently than Churchill did. He once typed out a long letter to Churchill rebuking him for the haphazard way in which he ran his government. This enraged Churchill, but Mrs Churchill told her husband: “I admire Mr Attlee for having the courage to say what everyone is thinking.”

After the German surrender, Attlee withdrew from the coalition, precipitating a general election in July 1945. Churchill made a fool of himself during the election campaign by suggesting that a Labour government would use “Gestapo” methods. When Labour won decisively, Churchill advised King George VI to send for Attlee, who at once accepted appointment as prime minister, even though many in his party wanted him first to submit to a leadership election.

Churchill once said that Attlee had a lot to be modest about. But he usually deprecated criticism of Attlee, whom he described as “an honourable and gallant gentleman and a faithful colleague who had served his country well at the time of her greatest need”. And: “He was my colleague and comrade for more than five years through the grim and awful ordeal of the war”.

Attlee for his part said Churchill was “50% genius” and “50% bloody fool”. But he was also “the greatest leader in war this country has ever known”. Having himself fought at Gallipoli in the First World War, he was among the few who defended Churchill’s strategy as “the only imaginative strategic conception as an alternative to the wholesale butchery” on the Western Front. And while some of his colleagues were hostile to Churchill because of his long crusade against socialism, Attlee did not see him as “hostile to the working classes”.    

In his recent magisterial study Attlee and Churchill: Allies in Peace, Adversaries in War, Leo McKinstry wrote that the two men had sometimes had “explosive clashes”. But their all-party alliance had “saved Britain and ultimately Europe from tyranny”. Without it, “there would have been no VE day.”  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.