‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

1945 – How Churchill won the war, but lost the election

It is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill and nearly seventy years since the 1945 election. Although he is remembered as a highly-successful politician, Churchill in fact failed to win a seat in five of the 21 contests which he fought, and as party leader he never led his party to win the most votes in an election. Despite this, he served as prime minister of three very different governments.

The first was the successful wartime coalition from May 1940 to May 1945. The second was the now almost-forgotten caretaker government, which was in power from May to July 1945 after the other parties withdrew from the coalition in advance of the general election. For thirteen of its members, the 1945 Caretaker Government gave them their only ministerial appointment. They included Ronnie Tree, son of Arthur Tree and Ethel Field, who was appropriately enough appointed as a minister in the Department of Town and Country Planning. One day David Cameron may look back and think that a two-month single-party caretaker government, with a brief reward of office for some of his overlooked MPs, might have been a good idea.

When the votes of the 1945 election were counted in July, Churchill’s Conservative Party had gone down to a crushing defeat at the hands of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Should Churchill have been surprised by his defeat in 1945? Not really. Opinion polls were available and had consistently been showing a solid lead for the Labour Party. But how did Churchill manage to lose the 1945 election after leading the allies to victory in the war?

Among the excuses which the Conservatives offered was that the Army Bureau of Current Affairs had indoctrinated service personnel to vote Labour. This excuse was at least plausible, but also probably fairly flimsy. Parties tend to cling on to strange excuses after a poor result. After one by-election in the 1950s the Conservatives blamed the size of the constituency for their lacklustre performance, although presumably it was the same size for their opponents!

In 1945 the Conservatives lost the ‘ground war’. The party was in a weakened state on the ground with a depleted band of agents. The Conservatives, in contrast to the other parties, had stuck rigidly to the spirit and the letter of the wartime electoral truce. They had only held one party conference during the war and had put little effort into policy development and constituency organisation.

Public memory had a bearing on the outcome of the 1945 election. Lloyd George was still considered to be the man who won the First World War, but his record as prime minister after the war was dismal, with broken promises, unemployment, industrial unrest and threats to start another war. The popular conclusion was that good war leaders do not necessarily make good peacetime leaders. In 1945 the Conservatives were also still tarred with the taint of being the ‘Guilty Men’, so-called after a book which had appeared in 1940, blaming the party for the policy of appeasement which had failed to prevent the war.

British society had changed during the war and voters had become less class-bound. Evacuation of urban children to rural areas, service of all classes in the armed forces, and civilians sharing bomb shelters with strangers, had all led to a new degree of social mixing. After the First World War many people had wanted a return to life as it had been. After the second, most people wanted a complete break with the past. The forward-looking 1945 Labour pledge: ‘Let us face the future’ generated more enthusiasm that the Conservatives’ plea to let Churchill ‘finish the job’.

Churchill bore much personal responsibility for the failure of the Conservatives’ election campaign, including mis-handling a party election radio broadcast in which he claimed that the Labour Party would have to employ a form of ‘Gestapo’ to implement its policies. Labour leader, Clement Attlee, a moderate and unassuming man, had been responsible for much of Britain’s domestic policy during the war – exactly the area on which most people wanted the post-war government to concentrate. Labour ministers had proved themselves capable in key domestic roles. Although all the parties supported the proposals of the Beveridge Report, the Labour Party was more enthusiastic about its implementation than the Conservatives.

After his 1945 defeat, Churchill remained party leader and led the Conservatives into the following general election in February 1950. But he lost again. However, he was given one more opportunity and he did win the following election in 1951 – at least in terms of seats. The Conservatives won fewer votes but more seats than Labour, and went on to form a government over which Churchill presided for three and a half years until he retired at the age of 80. He survived another ten years and died on 24 January 1965.

A shorter version of my article above appeared on the Conversation:

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