Monday, September 03, 2012

Not the Man in the Empty Cab

Did somebody just reprint it?    This morning I've run across a couple of different people recalling the chestnut about how " 'An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened [Clement] Attlee got out.'
For those of you with no memory of World War II, that would be Clement Attlee, British post-war prime minister and the architect of "socialist Britain"--and perhaps equally important the man who, as deputy prime minister, ran the country while Winston Churchill ran the war.
I don't doubt that somebody said it--hey, I just said it. But the near-universal attribution of this jibe is to Churchill himself.  I'll give a chocolate cigar to anyone who can show that Churchill actually did say it.  Grant that Churchill had a scabrous tongue.  Grant also he had plenty of reason to blow his top at Attlee: they worked cheek  by jowl through the war years, and it must have seared Churchill's soul when he lost to Attlee in the 1945 election.

Yet there is abundant evidence that Churchill had the greatest respect for Attlee's abilities, and seriousness of purpose (however much they may have disagreed on substance).  Start with the wartime coalition where, by any decent appraisal, Attlee did a spectacular job--"spectacular" in the sense of "almost totally invisible, at a time when the last thing the war leadership needed was the distraction of domestic politics."  Churchill clearly understood; after all, at least after the turning of the tide, he probably could have had Attlee removed with the snap of a finger if he chose.

But don't take it from me; listen to Attlee's biographer:
After the war one quip which went the rounds of Westminster was attributed to Churchill himself. 'An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened [Clement] Attlee got out.' When [John] Colville repeated this, and its attribution, to Churchill he obviously did not like it. His face set hard, and 'after an awful pause' he said: 'Mr. Attlee is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anyone who does.'
--Harris, Kenneth. Attlee (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (1982)

It's reprinted here, with a cross-cite to  Augarde, Tony, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations (Oxford University Press, 1991).  I believe I read essentially the same story in Roy Jenkins;' biography of Churchill, though I can't put my finger on it just now (might be from the same source). 

Grant that Attlee the man was the very picture of modesty and humility, particularly compared to Churchill's drama and flamboyance.    Still he ran what was almost certainly the best single British government since the war.  And he was not entirely bland; Wiki has a selection here. Including this just self-appraisal:
There were few who thought him a starter,
Many who thought themselves smarter.
But he ended PM,
CH and OM,
an Earl and a Knight of the Garter.
 For non-British readers, that would be "prime minister,"  "companion of honor" and "order of merit."   Fun Fact:  Attlee's grandson John, inheritor of his earldom, is a hereditary member of the House of Lords and a conservative.

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