Given Churchill’s popularity in the war, why did he lose the 1945 election

On May 23, 1945, the coalition Government which Churchill had led for five years was dissolved, and he found himself fighting his first election as Prime Minister, and as leader of the Conservative party. He was 70 years old. He had already fought in 15 elections in a political career that had spanned 45 years.

Churchill was one of the greatest British leaders. He was the only ‘commoner’ to have been given a state funeral. Churchill was 65 when he became Prime Minister. During the 1930’s he was considered a vivid personality whose best political days were long since past, because, on the big issues, he had too often showed faulty judgement and took too many risks. As a young man, he had deserted the Conservatives to join the Liberals. No one denied that he had been a brilliant reforming minister in Asquith’s government but few forgot his part in the Dardanelles fiasco. Though Baldwin had saved his career in 1924 by making this recent Liberal his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill quarrelled with Baldwin in 1931 and took up so extreme a position against the government reforms in India that he lost any chance of leading the Conservatives in peacetime.

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Chamberlain, reluctantly obliged to resign in favour of Churchill in 1940. By temperament, Churchill was a warrior. When he became Prime Minister, he felt that “he was walking with destiny”. Driven by his passionate love for the British Empire and his equally passionate hatred of Hitler, he threw himself into the running of the war with an amazing energy for a man of his years. His was a war dictatorship, with him much more a dictator than Lloyd George had ever been. He was the grand strategist with his military chiefs clearly his subordinates.

Churchill was an inspirational war leader whose major achievement was to keep Britain fighting against the odds through 1940 and 1941. He united the British people in an unprecedented manner and ensured that Britain’s resources were effectively concentrated to win the war. He also established a valuable personal relationship with President Roosevelt. As a military strategist he made some mistakes., the worst of which led to the fall of Singapore in 1942.The 1945 election marked a watershed in British history. British general elections had already been postponed during the war. Churchill had wished to keep his coalition government going until the war with Japan was over.

Labour, however, withdrew from the coalition as soon as Germany had been defeated, and the general election was held in June with soldiers voting all over the world in special polling stations. “They day that started with high hopes had a falling note”. Though the world and to some extent Churchill himself were amazed that in the moment of victory, the British people could vote out such a leader, many British politicians were not. Since the publication of the Beveridge Report, opinion polls had been showing Labour well ahead of the Conservatives. The electorate was not so much against Churchill as the Tories, whom it held responsible for the unemployment of the 1930’s and for the election campaign struck the right chords, while Churchill’s negative attacks on socialism seemed out of place and out of date.

Clement Atlee’s Labour party defeated the successful wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill. The Conservatives focussed on Churchill as the leader who had won the war. Churchill reminded the overseas troops that there was “no truth that you can vote Labour or Liberal without voting against me.” As grateful as they were, many people expressed concern that the great war leader would not be a good peace leader. He was even heckled at Walthamston Stadium. He responded to that challenge by telling the hecklers that he forgave them because they were about to receive a thrashing.

Most observers, including the Soviet leader Stalin, believed the Tories would win. Although the Conservatives appeared to be in a promising position as they entered the election campaign, to many voters they remained the party of appeasement, unemployment and the means test.

The Conservatives appeal to the nation under the slogan “Vote National, Help him finish the job”, was based around Churchill’s personal popularity. The Tory party based much of their campaign rhetoric on the dangers posed to democratic institutions by Labours proposals for a welfare state and the nationalisation of key industries. Churchill even went as far to say that if Labour were elected it would need to fall back on some kind of Gestapo, “to implement its policies.” Ironically the Conservative manifesto, “A declaration of policy to the electors” offered many polices similar to those of Labour.

Churchill’s overall election campaign was poor. He tried to win votes by exposing the ‘evils’ of socialism. From the beginning he struck hard against his opponents. Controversy ensued when he said the Socialists “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo.” His daughter Mary later recounted how her mother begged Churchill “to delete the odious and invidious reference to the Gestapo. But he would not heed her.” His daughter Sarah told him that Socialism as practised in the war did no harm, and did quite a lot of people well.” Churchill’s views were influenced by the recently published “Road to Serfdom”, written by F. A. Hayek, which argued that economic planning resulted inevitably in totalitarian government and the extinction of personal liberty. Years later Churchill told the author of the book that while his ideas were good they would never work in Britain. As historian Lord Blake has written, “To most people these threats and this language about people who till a few weeks ago had been his Cabinet colleagues seemed ludicrous.”

The Beveridge Report, which was introduced to review, the existing welfare provisions identified five “giants” which would have to be overcome if Britain were to rebuild as a better society. They included; want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. Sir William Beveridge who was chairman of the committee suggested a number of ways in his report to slay these giants.

The panoramic vision of the Beveridge report and the huge public attention it received made social welfare a high profile issue and demanded a response from the nation’s political leaders. A great deal of support was voiced by M.P.’s, particularly those in the Labour camp. But Churchill was not so enthusiastic, he warned of a “dangerous optimism” which was developing in the country and was concerned about the cost of implementing the proposals. He wished for attention to concentrate on the winning of the war.

The Labour party offered two convincing programmes, whereas the Tories offered the same but gave the impression they did not believe it. Both parties accepted Keynesianism, an economic system that bridged capitalism and socialism, arguing for full employment brought about by government intervention in the economy. There was cross-party support for the report by William Beveridge calling for a ‘Welfare State’.

The Labour government of 1945, led by Clement Atlee introduced policies in six key areas, which became the foundation for the post-war consensus. These were – the commitment to full employment, using Keynesian economic ideas to achieve it; to have a mixed economy, including both publicly and privately owned industries; the introduction of a ‘Welfare State’, with the establishment of the NHS and benefits for those in need; the formalisation of links with Trade Unions, involving them in policy making; the commitment to reducing the gap between the rich and poor and to help regions with economic problems; the commitment to NATO and to make Britain a nuclear power, maintaining close ties to America.

Britain had millions of men and women in uniform in 1945, scattered over Europe, the Far East and elsewhere. They, more than any other section of the electorate, yearned for change and for a better civilian life. The military vote was over-whelming pro-Labour.

After reading copies of the ‘Daily Mirror’ in a library, which was then the biggest selling paper in Britain and easily the most popular among the armed forces, published on V.E. (Victory in Europe) day, I noticed the Mirror had published an immensely powerful cartoon by ‘the brilliant’ Philip Zec. It showed a battered, bandaged Allied solider holding out to the reader a slip of paper marked Victory and Peace in Europe. Under the drawing was the caption ‘Here you are! Don’t lose it again.” After reading into this in more depth, I discovered that many students of the 1945 election believe this image in the Mirror played a ‘key role’ in Labours success.

Churchill’s great popularity as a wartime leader did not carry over into peacetime. In the minds of a good part of the electorate his conservative party was associated with the grim depression years.

In 1945 there was also a powerful feeling in Britain that effective post-war social and economic reconstruction was both vital and deserved and that the tired old Conservative establishment that had dominated the interwar years would not be capable of providing it.

People’s interpretations of the reasons why Churchill lost the 1945 election differ. As Clive Ponting tells us, “Churchill lost because he was interested in foreign affairs”. Lord Beaverbrooks of the Express Newspaper thought “It was Churchill that I was endeavouring to return to office, and not his party”.

The general reason why Churchill lost the 1945 election which applied to most voters, was the fact that Churchill and his party were associated with war and the grim depression years. People needed change. Another important factor was The Beveridge Report and the huge public attention it received. The Labour Party offered two convincing polices and believed in them unlike the Conservative Party. A factor criticising Churchill himself, was the campaign. The Conservative Party campaign was poor. Churchill tried to expose the evils of socialism, hence the Labour Party, voters didn’t find this helpful. Also a factor that may have influenced voters, which has been considered more relevant in the past than I believe is necessary was the cartoon in the Daily Mirror.

In my opinion, Churchill had been given the office in order to try and win the war this had been done. As Martin Gilbert states, “the electorate did not want the pre-war Conservatives back; their domestic policy seemed negative and inadequate for the needs of post-war recovery. Labour came to power to carry out a plan of social and economic reconstruction. Although hi party lost the election Churchill was re-elected as an MP.

Controversy over Churchill will continue. “Despite many blunders and hasty, impetuous decisions, only one verdict is possible. He was a great war time leader”, and as he said himself “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

However it is clear from the Labour landslide victory that the electorate regarded him as such but did not feel that he and more importantly the Conservative party could carry out the post war reform which was so urgently needed.

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