Wars often bring political change. But what made the events of July 1945 so remarkable was that the government toppled had led its country to victory and was headed by an immensely popular and seemingly untouchable leader.
When Winston Churchill’s Conservatives were defeated by a landslide, it ushered in a new era and a new Labour government. The latter would introduce the NHS and the welfare state, and drag Britain into a new post-imperial age.
The fact that three weeks passed between voting and declaration demonstrates the strange nature of the times. The war in the west was won, but the last shots of Nazi Germany had been fired only weeks ago and hundreds of thousands of British troops were still overseas.
It was their votes that would takes weeks to filter through. It also meant that the coalition war government was exhausted – not least its prime minister, hero and figurehead, Winston Churchill.
“Win the peace”
Churchill had wanted his alliance with the Labour Party to continue until Japan was defeated. But its leader, Clement Attlee, refused, arguing that the end of the war was nigh and that, after ten years without an election, it was time to test the public mood.
On 15 June, parliament was finally dissolved and electioneering began. The Labour Party, which had barely broken the Conservatives’ domination since 1906, had sensed a desire to “win the peace”, amongst the electorate.
Despite Labour’s important contribution to the war, the party had been considering its peacetime policies at least since the influential Beveridge report of 1942, which had proposed the creation of a welfare state.
After the report, polls had shown gradually increasing levels of support for Labour, particularly among the armed forces – which was a huge segment of the population by this stage of the war. They were cautious of the unemployment and misery that had followed demobilisation in 1918, and wanted new fresh ideas to avoid a repeat performance.
The hopeful messages that they yearned for formed the crux of Labour’s campaign throughout June, as the party vowed to eradicate unemployment, implement the NHS and the welfare state and follow Keynesian economic policies in order to avoid a repeat of the post-World War One economic difficulties.
For a nation exhausted by six years of war, and disillusioned by decades of Conservative rule (which had included the inglorious appeasement years and the Great Depression) these new and revolutionary socialist ideas based on the utopian idea of a more caring society were very welcome.
The problem with Churchill
The Conservatives, meanwhile, did their best to throw away what was seen as an unassailable position. Their campaign was – understandably enough – based around the towering figure of Churchill, who was rightly seen as the saviour of not only Britain but the western world after his heroic lone stand in 1940.
There were numerous problems with this approach, however, not least that Churchill was ageing, ill and utterly spent after six years of effort that might have killed lesser men with their sheer strain.
Signs that he was nowhere near his best were rife during the election. Furthermore, even at the best of times, the attributes that made Churchill such a magnificently unifying wartime leader made him ill-suited to normal party campaigning. He had changed sides twice in his political career, and exasperated his Conservative fellows by focusing remarkably little on furthering the party.
The prime minister did not listen, however. After his clashes with Stalin and Roosevelt, he saw parliamentary politics in a different light to his fellows, particularly after years of working in an excellent wartime coalition.
As a result, the Conservative campaign was hopelessly muddled; their overwhelming focus on the leader left little room for promoting any actual forward-thinking policies that might win votes. The fact that one of their main ideas was granting India the same dominion status as Australia or Canada spoke volumes.
Churchill’s performance didn’t help, and one infamous moment in which he claimed in a public broadcast that the Labour Party would need to resort to a form of “Gestapo” to implement their policies came to symbolise how out of touch he and his party were.
Despite all this, when the election results were finally announced on the 26 July few could have predicted the landslide that Labour would achieve. Labour won 393 seats to the Conservatives’ 197, a stunning swing of 12 per cent from the last election that is still a record in British politics.
Churchill was gloomy and when his wife Clementine called the result a “blessing in disguise”, he gruffly replied that it was “very effectively disguised”. He did, however, disagree with the claim that his electorate had been ungrateful, answering that “they have had a very tough time”. His 55-year career in politics was not over, and he would have one more spell as prime minister in 1951.
As for Labour, the party had a stable majority government under Attlee’s capable leadership for the first time in its history. For Britain’s lower classes and imperial subjects, this was an era-defining moment that promised a permanent change of the guard in British and world politics.
Attlee quickly left Britain to meet Stalin and Roosevelt at Potsdam, where they decided the fate of the post-war world. Though his government was savaged at the time to the extent that it crumbled in 1951, in recent years many historians agree that it was one of the most successful domestically in recent times.
The NHS and welfare state remain to this day, as well as reforms in housing, women’s rights and nationalisation.