On 22 April it is 50 years to the day since the first archival collection arrived at the Archives Centre.
Not an especially impressive start, on the face of it; just five boxes of papers from the Labour politician Clement Attlee, consisting of incomplete drafts of Attlee’s memoirs, and some of his correspondence. Most of his papers went to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but Lord Attlee, as he was by then, dropped a few off here, as among the correspondence was some with Churchill during the war, when Attlee was Deputy Prime Minister in Churchill’s War Cabinet.
Churchill and Attlee did not always get on particularly well: Churchill remarked rudely of Attlee, whom President Truman had described as a very modest man, “He has much to be modest about”, though admittedly this was shortly after Attlee had replaced him as Prime Minister, so this was probably sour grapes talking.
Certainly, Attlee, along with his fellows in the War Cabinet, had much to bear from Churchill’s leadership style, and one of the most interesting bits in that first accession is an exchange of letters between the two men in January 1945. Attlee had taken the brave step of writing a six-page letter to Churchill protesting about his handling of Cabinet meetings, such as his habit of going on at length about papers which he had not actually read, and giving too much weight to the opinions of his personal advisers Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook. Churchill’s secretary Jock Colville remarked that there was much in what Attlee said, and admired his courage, adding that many Conservatives and Cabinet officials felt the same. Churchill, however, did not take the criticism at all well, exploding with rage over this “socialist conspiracy” and taking great pleasure in drafting a lengthy and sarcastic reply, which survives in the Churchill Papers.
Unfortunately for him, both Clementine Churchill and Beaverbrook supported Attlee, so this first draft remained unused, while what Churchill actually sent was this much more succinct (though equally sarcastic) version.
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