Churchill’s Successor Left a Lasting Mark on Great Britain

A gelatin silver print of Winston Churchill, 1941, by photographer Yousuf Karsh sold for $11,352 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Clement Attlee was asked if he wanted to comment on the campaign of 1945, his response was a simple “No.” During this election for Prime Minister of Great Britain, he and wife Violet traveled the countryside extensively in their modest (battered) family car, advocating for a totally new, post-war social policy. One of his more effective political slogans was “You Can Trust Mr. Attlee.” It worked surprisingly well as he led the Labour Party to an upset, landslide win over the venerable Winston Churchill.

Attlee became one of the most successful leaders in modern Britain, despite being habitually shy, laconic, self-deprecating and excessively modest. As Churchill once quipped, “Clement Attlee was a modest man who had much to be modest about.”

Churchill respected Attlee for his basic honesty and firm dedication to accountability. They had served together during World War I and Attlee was even part of the British Army during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, which Churchill had conceived while the First Lord of the Admiralty. The strategic premise was to knock Turkey out of the war by attacking the Dardanelles. The campaign went so badly that Churchill was demoted, resigned from the Conservative Cabinet, and ended up commanding an infantry battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.

Clement Attlee

Attlee naively believed that the plan had been sound strategically and had only failed due to poor military execution. In Attlee’s own words, “There was only one brilliant strategic idea in WWI and that was Winston’s ‘the Dardanelles.’” Historians still argue over this yet today, but it was enough to form a bond between the two future prime ministers … one a pure socialist and the other an imperialist of the first order.

During the Second World War (which was just a continuation of the first with a 20-year pause), Attlee served under Churchill in the coalition government of 1940-45 and was the first person to hold the office of Deputy Prime Minister. He somehow held the Labour Party together despite numerous divergent viewpoints and personal ambitions. The colossal egos of Herbert Morrison, Sir Stafford Cripps (reputed to have the finest mind in England), and union strongman Ernest Bevin (dedicated to absolute equality throughout the British Empire) required a rare blend of political leadership – perhaps unique to Attlee.

It is here (in my humble opinion) where we start to witness the real decline of the British Empire. Independence in India, the partition of Pakistan, independence in Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Palestine and Jordan and exiting Greece. This was followed by the inevitable nationalization of the Bank of England, along with the iron, coal and steel industries. Then, importantly, there was the creation of a comprehensive welfare state. To the United States, the phrase “British socialism” signified economic and political bankruptcy; one of the few things Democrats and Republicans could agree on.

In Attlee’s rationale, these Labour Party policies were merely measures to ensure full employment and welfare based on managed capitalism; “accomplishments” that remained in place until his death in 1962 and beyond. Fortunately, a research chemist-turned-barrister was elected to Parliament in 1959, and 20 years later became the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister in the 20th century. Her name was Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher.

The small island that had once ruled the seas and oceans of the world – along with much of its land – was about to enter an era known now as “Thatcherism.” Many, including me, appreciate strong, enlightened leadership grounded in economic and political freedom. She fit the model perfectly.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It’s Hard to Overestimate the Role of Washington in our Independence

A 1776 $1 Continental Dollar, the first representation of the basic unit of the U.S. coinage system, sold for nearly $1.53 million at a January 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From Sept. 4 to Oct. 26, 1774, a group of delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia in response to the British imposition of the Intolerable Acts. Although declaring independence was not the purpose of the meeting – sympathies ranged from loyalty to rebellion – they did pass 10 resolutions enumerating their rights and agreed to meet again if their grievances were not addressed by the Crown.

They met again in May 1775 and in June they appointed George Washington commander of a newly founded Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Congress issued a Declaration of Independence.

This upset King George III, who was an insecure man of average intelligence, but bewildered by the rash of constitutional arguments the Americans were asserting. He was the third of the Hanoverian Kings (his father had died and his grandfather still spoke with a deep German accent) and was firmly convinced the welfare of Great Britain was heavily reliant on the American Colonies.

The Colonies had become a major importer of British goods, surpassing even the West Indies, and his greatest nightmare was any interruption of this trade. “If we lose the American Colonies, we shall sink back into obscurity and be just a small, insignificant island once again.” He was adamant about not letting this occur.

George Washington by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

By then, the population in America was 2.5 million (500,000 slaves, of which 200,000 were in Virginia), living in 13 Colonies and uniting for independence, despite the government being in total disarray. Some had colonial governments in place, but in colony after colony, revolutionary leaders had supplanted official British rule.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 in Philadelphia right after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and soon evolved into a national entity. After the formal Declaration of Independence, all that was left to do was defeat a vastly superior British Army, which was supremely confident its 5,000 soldiers could march the entire length, quashing any resistance as they went. We all know how this ended, but the tribulations of an underfunded, out-manned army are still inspiring.

It would be hard to overestimate the personal contributions and leadership that George Washington provided, and to call him “indispensable” is an understatement. Absent his presence, a very different outcome was highly likely. The “Father of Our Country” is one individual who will not be lost in the sands of history.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].