Scott Cresswell begins a new series looking at the relationship between Labour leaders and the monarchy
Destiny is a strange force. Sometimes, politicians and leaders rise through the ranks to power as if they were created both ambitious and hungry for it. For others, power is an accidental gift. Both King George Vi and Clement Attlee were accidental leaders.
When King George V died at the start of 1936, the crown immediately went to Edward, his eldest son. A playboy known for his affairs, King Edward VIII was on the throne for less than a year and was forced to abdicate. This was the biggest crisis in the monarchy’s long history. And what’s more, the crown was now in the hands of a meek, nervous, and stuttering man named Albert, soon to be crowned King George VI. The future of the monarchy after 1936 appeared shaky.
Five years previous, Labour had lost office and were left with just 52 seats in the Commons. In response to the new National Government, the party moved to the left, and under pacifist George Lansbury, Labour seemed a long way away from power. During the 1935 election, in a desperate move, Lansbury was deposed and replaced temporarily by his unexciting and bland deputy, Clement Attlee. Although the party made gains in the November election, the National Government romped home to victory. Attlee’s brief time seemed over.
So, what changed? George VI and Attlee were survivors of a grand kind – leaders who grew up with privileged lives but came to hope and strive for an egalitarian Britain. Whether he realised it or not, the King’s accidental rise to the throne was not a curse, but a gift. He restored the standing of his family and died in 1952 a loved national treasure. Meanwhile, Attlee grew up in the last decades of the Victorian era, describing himself in his youth as “a good old fashioned imperialist conservative.”
But through his charitable work in East London, Attlee saw first-hand the poverty and poor conditions suffered by the working classes. He turned to socialism and rose through the Labour ranks.
The position of an elected party leader is always more precarious than the crown. Attlee survived not because of a character or popular personality (he was once described by Churchill as “a modest man with much to be modest about”), but because the alternative leader in Hebert Morrison was too controversial. What’s more, Attlee ensured to get the support of those newly elected Labour MPs in 1935 on his side.
Britain’s accidental King and accidental Labour leader were faced with the biggest attack on democracy in history with the Second World War. With the replacement of appeaser Neville Chamberlain with Winston Churchill in Number 10, Attlee saw it as his patriotic duty to lead his party into a National Government to defeat the Nazis. Meanwhile, the King refused to leave the country; he stayed at Buckingham Palace as the Blitz terrorised London.
After the war, Churchill lost the July 1945 election to a Labour landslide. This event leads to perhaps the most famous interaction between Prime Minister and Sovereign. From 26th July 1945:
Attlee: I’ve won the election.
George VI: I know. I heard it on the Six O’Clock News.
While this event may or may not be fictitious, the unclubbable relationship and lack of emotional dialogue between the two summed up the relationship. In his dual biography of Attlee and Churchill, Leo McKinstry writes (page 509) of the former that:
“So stilted were his audiences with King George VI that both Downing Street and the Palace had to prepare speaking notes in advance for each of them.”
The relationship between the two men never developed or became particularly warm. No doubt, when Attlee lost the 1951 election to Winston Churchill’s Tories, the King was pleased to have a livelier Prime Minister to speak with. It says much about Attlee that a man nearing his ninth decade of life was more remarkable company than he.
Unlike, George V and MacDonald, George VI and the King were not personally close, nor did they enjoy one another’s company. However, they were similarly fuelled by duty. Their roles during the Second World War were proof of their patriotism.
Scott Cresswell is a commentator and writer of political history and current affairs. Currently a student at Middlesex University. Uses Twitter (@ScottCresswell8) whenever he remembers it exists. His website is https://scottpcresswell.co.uk
You can follow his new series on Labour and the Monarchy each week on this site.