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Why Churchill Lost the 1945 Election

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In Britain in 1945 an event occurred which still causes shocked questions from around the world: how did Winston Churchill, the man who had led Britain to victory in the Second World War, get voted out of office at the moment of his greatest success, and by such an apparently large margin. To many it looks like Britain was supremely ungrateful, but push deeper and you find that Churchill’s total focus on the war allowed he, and his political party, to take their eyes off the mood of the British People, allowing their pre-war reputations to weigh them down.

Churchill and the Wartime Consensus

In 1940 Winston Churchill was appointed Prime Minister of a Britain who appeared to be losing the Second World War against Germany. Having been in and out of favor over a long career, having been ousted from one government in World War One only to return later to great effect, and as a long standing critic of Hitler, he was an interesting choice. He created a coalition drawing on the three main parties of Britain – Labour, Liberal and Conservative – and turned all his attention on fighting the war. As he masterfully kept the coalition together, kept the military together, kept international alliances between capitalist and socialist together, so he rejected pursuing party politics, refusing to aggrandize his Conservative party with the successes he and Britain began to experience. For many modern viewers, it might seem that handling the war would merit re-election, but when the war was coming to a conclusion, and when Britain divided back into party politics for the election of 1945, Churchill found himself as a disadvantage as his grasp of what people wanted, or at least what to offer them, had not developed.

Churchill had passed through several political parties in his career, and had led the Conservatives in the early war in order to press his ideas for the war. Some fellow conservatives, this time of a far longer tenure, began to worry during the war that while Labour and other parties were still campaigning – attacking the Tories for appeasement, unemployment, economic disarray – Churchill was not doing the same for them, focusing instead on unity and victory.

Churchill Misses Reform

One area where the Labour party were having success campaigning during the war was reform. Welfare reforms and other social measures had been developing before World War 2, but in the early years of his government Churchill had been induced into commissioning a report on how Britain could rebuild after it. The report had been chaired by William Beveridge, and would take his name. Churchill, and others, were surprised that the findings went beyond the rebuilding they’d envisioned, and presented nothing less than a social and welfare revolution. But the hopes of Britain were growing as the war seemed to be turning, and there was vast support for Beveridge’s report to be turned into a reality, a great new dawn.

Social issues now dominated the part of British political life that was not taken up with the war, and Churchill and the Tories slipped back in the public’s mind. Churchill, a one-time reformer, wished to avoid anything which might fracture the coalition and didn’t back the report as much as he might; he was also dismissive of Beveridge, the man and his ideas. Churchill thus made it clear he was putting off the issue of social reform until after the elections, while Labour did as much as they could to demand it being put into practice sooner, and then promised it after the election. Labour became associated with the reforms, and the Tories were accused of being against them. In addition, Labour’s contribution to the coalition government had earned them respect: people who had doubted them before began to believe Labour could run a reforming administration.

The Date is Set, the Campaign Fought

World War 2 in Europe was declared over on May 8th 1945, the coalition ended on May 23rd, and the elections were set for July 5th, although there would have to be extra time to gather the votes of the troops. Labour began a powerful campaign aimed at reform, and made sure to take their message to both those in Britain and those who had been forced abroad. Years later, soldiers reported being made aware of Labour’s goals, but not hearing anything from the Tories. In contrast, Churchill’s campaign seemed to be more about re-electing him, built around his personality and what he’d achieved in the war. For once, he got the thoughts of the British public every wrong: there was still the war in the East to finish, so Churchill seemed distracted by that..

The electorate were more open to the promises of Labour and the changes of the future, not the paranoia about socialism that the Tories tried to spread; they weren’t open to the actions of a man who had won the war, but whose party had not been forgiven for the years before it, and a man who had never seemed – up to now – entirely comfortable with peace. When he compared a Labour run Britain to the Nazis and claimed Labour would need a Gestapo, people were not impressed, and memories of the Conservative inter war failures, and even of Lloyd George’s failure to deliver post World War 1, were strong.

Labour Win

The results began coming in on July 25th, and soon revealed Labour winning 393 seats, which gave them a dominant majority. Attlee was Prime Minister, they could carry out the reforms they wished, and Churchill seemed to have been defeated in a landslide, although the overall voting percentages were much closer. Labour won nearly twelve million votes, to nearly ten million Tory, and so the nation wasn’t quite as united in its mindset as it might appear. A war weary Britain with one eye on the future had rejected a party which had been complacent and a man who had focused entirely on the nation’s good, to his own detriment.

However, Churchill had been rejected before, and he had one last comeback to make. He spent the next few years reinventing himself once more, and was able to resume power as a peacetime Prime Minister in 1951.

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