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State control

Published: April 8, 2011 at 8:29 am
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This week's Friday funny, brought to you by author and journalist Eugene Byrne features an amusing, and popular, joke about former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the toilets in the House of Commons and the history of nationalisation.

The joke

One day in the late 1940s, Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his predecessor Winston Churchill found themselves standing together at the gents' urinals at the House of Commons.


Churchill immediately moved away to the urinal furthest away from Attlee.

"What's the matter? Feeling stand-offish today Winston?" asked Attlee.

"No," said Churchill. "Frightened. Every time you see something big, you want to nationalise it."

The story

Churchill's quips and put-downs are legion ("Winston, you're drunk!" "And you, madam, are ugly. In the morning I shall be sober.") so this might, just might, be a true story.

Attlee the socialist had ousted the Conservative Churchill in the 1945 general election, and his government proceeded to build the welfare state, and take several key industries into state ownership.

Nationalisation has long-since gone out of political fashion, but in 1945, it was seen by all on the left, and even some on the right, as an extension of wartime economic controls which were now necessary to "win the peace". While mainstream Conservative opinion was never comfortable with state-run enterprises, it was not until the arrival of Mrs Thatcher in the 1970s that wholesale return to the private sector began. The major exception to this was the road haulage industry, which was quickly de-nationalised when Churchill returned to power in 1951.

Churchill is supposed to have called Attlee "a modest little man, with plenty to be modest about," but this doesn't ring true. They had worked together well in the wartime cabinet and there's plenty to suggest that Churchill respected Attlee, a far stronger and more resilient character than his demeanour suggested. The "modest" jibe is far more likely to have been made by one of Attlee's Labour colleagues.


According to Alistair Campbell's diaries, several world leaders were relieving themselves at a row of urinals at a NATO summit in 1997. US President Bill Clinton said to everyone: "Isn't this the greatest picture that was never taken?" whereupon Tony Blair related the Churchill/Attlee joke.


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