Winston Churchill? Clement Attlee? Emmanuel Shinwell? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There was an extraordinary and ribald conversation between Winston Churchill and his political opponent Clement Attlee that supposedly took place in the men’s room of the House of Commons. Was this event authentic or apocryphal?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a letter dated December 22, 1958 that was written by the statesman Dean Acheson who recorded an anecdote about Winston Churchill and Labour Party Leader Clement Attlee. But Acheson did not hear the story directly from either of the participants; instead, the colorful vignette was presented by the journalists Scotty Reston and Stewart Alsop who were relaying a tale told by the politician Hubert Humphrey. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
. . . the situation reminded him of a story of Attlee’s that in the War Cabinet days he and Winston had had to be excused, and found themselves at opposite ends of the stalls. “Isn’t this unusual modesty for you, Winston,” said Clem. “Not at all,” said Winston, “I’m just suspicious of you Socialists.”
Clem asked why. “Because,” said Winston, “whenever you see a means of production in good working order you want to nationalize it.”
In subsequent years the anecdote evolved. For example, in 1965 a politician named Emmanuel Shinwell was identified as the conversational partner instead of Attlee. In modern times Attlee is usually specified.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order
In 1965 Harry Bannister who was an executive in the radio and television broadcasting industries in America wrote a memoir titled “The Education of a Broadcaster”. Bannister’s version of the anecdote featured Churchill and Emmanuel Shinwell who was a prominent Labour politician and British trade union official. The Labour party nationalized the mining industry and other important segments of the British economy during the 1940s: 2
I can’t help but be reminded of what Winston Churchill said to Emmanuel Shinwell. Shinwell had been a member of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet, but there was never any love lost between them. One time Shinwell was in the men’s room of the House of Commons when Churchill entered. There was no one else there, but Churchill walked right by Shinwell to the farthest end.
“I say, Winnie,” said Shinwell, “I hope there’s nothing personal between us.”
And Churchill replied, “I don’t take chances, Mannie. I know you. Any time you see anything big and working well, you want to take it over.”
In 1979 “The Journal of the Chartered Institution of Building Services” published the following instance: 3
There is a story of Churchill entering the men’s room in the House of Commons when Clement Atlee was already using it. When Churchill carefully went to the far end Atlee remonstrated that this was a little unfriendly. “Trouble with you lot,” said Churchill, “is that the moment you see anything big you want to nationalise it.”
In 1980 the “Monthly Economic Letter: Citibank” printed an interestingly bowdlerized instance of the anecdote which focused on a cigar. In a prefatory comment, the writer labelled the tale apocryphal: 4
Just after the Labor Party landslide of 1945, Winston Churchill, seated in the bar of Commons, was about to light his cigar when he looked up, saw Clement Attlee standing before him, and then quickly stuffed the big Havana into his breast pocket.
“Oh come now Winston,” said the new Prime Minister, “surely you’re not going to permit my mere presence to spoil your pleasure.”
“No, Clem,” said Churchill slowly pulling out the cigar, “it’s just that whenever you socialist fellows see anything that’s large or in good working order, you want to nationalize it.”
In 1983 the first volume of William Manchester’s multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill was published, and Manchester included an instance of the anecdote. The accompanying footnote indicated that the story was told to Manchester by Sir David Pitblado in 1980. 5
Attlee, arriving first, had stepped up to the urinal trough when Churchill strode in on the same mission, glanced at him, and stood at the trough as far away from him as possible. Attlee said, “Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?” Churchill said: “That’s right. Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it.”
A comprehensive compilation of Churchill quotations has been constructed by top expert Richard M. Langworth and released under the title “Churchill By Himself”. Langworth placed the anecdote in an appendix called “Red Herrings: False Attributions”, and he labelled the tale apocryphal: 6
[Attlee: “A bit stand-offish today, are we, Winston?”]
Every time you socialists see something big, you want to nationalise it.
Alleged remark when WSC, seeing Attlee approach the trough in the House of Commons toilet, ostentatiously shuffled a few feet away. Recorded by Manchester and others, but not attributed. Verdict: Apocryphal Churchill.
In conclusion, the earliest instance located by QI appeared in a letter dated 1958 and involved Clement Attlee. The conversation supposedly occurred in the 1940s; hence, the delay reduced credibility. In addition, the testimony was relayed through multiple intermediaries. On the other hand, the bawdy tale may have been considered unprintable and may have circulated by word-of-mouth. Currently, the evidentiary support is not strong. The tale may have been constructed or embellished by a humorist.
Image Notes: Cropped image of Winston Churchill giving ‘V’ sign circa 1943. Photograph of Emmanuel Shinwell created by the United Kingdom Government. The artwork Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Matthew Namee and an anonymous person whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
Update History: On April 21, 2016 the 1980 citation containing the 1958 letter from Dean Acheson was added. The conclusion was updated.
- 1980, Among Friends: Personal Letters of Dean Acheson, Edited by David S. McLellan and David C. Acheson, Letter dated December 22, 1958 from Dean Acheson to Felix Frankfurter, Quote Page 153, Dodd, Mead, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1965, The Education of a Broadcaster by Harry Bannister, Quote Page 279, Simon and Schuster, New York. (The name “Emanuel” was misspelled as “Emmanuel” in the original text)(Verified on paper) ↩
- 1979 July, The Journal of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Sideliner by Ted Happold (Professor of Building Engineering at Bath University School of Architecture & Building Engineering), Quote Page 15, Column 3, Building Services Publications Ltd, Fleet Street, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 October, Monthly Economic Letter: Citibank, The zero sum and other games, (Review of Lester C. Thurow’s book “The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Economic Change”), Start Page 13, Quote Page 13, Published by Citibank, New York, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1983, The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 by William Manchester, Preamble: The Lion at Bay, Quote Page 34 and 35, (Footnote 47, Quote Page 892), Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2013, Churchill by Himself: Winston S. Churchill In His Own Words, Edited by Richard M. Langworth, Kindle Location: 19879, Electronic Edition, RosettaBooks. (Kindle Ebook) ↩