The Labour Party swept to power at the 1945 general election. Huge changes followed, particularly in the further development of the welfare state which had been brought to quite an advanced point by Neville Chamberlain in 1930s (now largely forgotten). How did the Conservative Party under Winston Churchill come to lose so badly? Alistair Lexden explains what happened in the following article written to mark the election’s 75th anniversary.
On the day before the Tory election disaster, 25 July, Churchill and his superb Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had flown back to London from Potsdam, where they had been taking part in the last great conference of the Allied leaders of the Second World War. For security reasons, they used separate aeroplanes.
So too did the Labour leader, Clem Attlee, whom Churchill had invited to Potsdam to show (in his words) “we were a united nation”, despite the end of war-time coalition in May. Many Conservatives had wanted to extend it until after the defeat of Japan, or even longer, and defer the election. Churchill argued for this strenuously, suggesting a referendum to get the nation’s approval for delay , but the Labour Party refused to agree. He formed a new government without it, and prepared for an election.
Everywhere a resounding Tory victory was expected on 26 July 1945. No one was more confident of it than “Uncle Joe” Stalin (the war-time affection would soon wear off). Wholly unable to understand that an election might be free and fair, Stalin told Churchill’s Private Secretary, Jock Colville, at Potsdam that the British poll would of course be “fixed” to ensure a Tory majority.
All leading British politicians (with the single exception of Rab Butler) anticipated such a result without any sinister helping hand for the Tories. On the flight from Potsdam, Eden speculated: “would the government get a majority of fifty or more; or perhaps less?” as his Private Secretary, Nico Henderson, recorded. Labour did not dissent. Attlee told Jock Colville that “in his most optimistic dreams he reckoned that there might be a Conservative majority of only some forty seats.”
When Ernie Bevin arrived in Potsdam as the new Labour Foreign Secretary on 28 July, he told his stunned colleagues that the “result of the general election was quite unexpected. He thought that Mr Churchill’s popularity would have assured him of a majority of 50”, as an official Foreign Office minute noted.
Churchill himself never had the slightest doubt that “the British people would wish me to continue my work.” The campaign strengthened that conviction. He was acclaimed wherever he went. He spent four days touring constituencies in the Midlands, the North of England and two great Scottish cities by train and open-top car. “He addressed vast and enthusiastic crowds at Leeds, Bradford and Preston”, Colville recorded in the final stages. “The train moved to Glasgow where he made ten speeches to deafening applause. He drove to Edinburgh along roads thronged with cheering men, women and children, and when he finally returned to the train, after a reception in Edinburgh as warm and moving as in Glasgow, he said to me that nobody who had seen what he had that day could have any doubt as to the result of the coming election.” Conservative Central Office promised him a majority of 211.
The votes that confounded the confident predictions of Tory victory, and gave Labour an overall majority of 146, had been cast three weeks earlier on 5 July. The count was delayed to enable the postal ballots of servicemen and women spread across the globe to be collected and delivered to their constituencies. The Times reported that “the task of carrying the ballot papers and election addresses to and from[ their destinations] was performed by R.A.F. Transport Command. The loss in transit of completed papers was negligible.”
Over half of those in the armed services also voted through proxies. The Times explained that “the dual system of service voting involved a check before the count to eliminate proxy votes where the elector had also voted by post.” This seems to have been completed successfully, thanks to the use of coloured paper for proxy votes.
In the aftermath of their shock election defeat, many Tories came to believe that men and women in the services, indoctrinated by left-wing lecturers in the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, had contributed decisively to their humiliation. The diarist and MP, Harold Nicolson, noted on 13 June that “the Tories feel that the Forces will all vote Labour.” “This cannot be true”, Professor John Ramsden concluded in his detailed history of the Conservative Party in this period. “The total number of service votes cast was far less that Labour’s lead in the national popular vote, and since some of these anyway went to Conservative and Liberal candidates, the votes of servicemen may contribute to an explanation of the result, but they cannot explain it on their own.”
They were part of an immense tide of votes that swept the Tories away. Nico Henderson watched it from the Foreign Office. “The results of the election started coming through by 10 o’clock on Thursday morning, 26 July. All of us in [Eden’s] Private Office were eagerly hanging on to the news. Never modish, the room still had no radio, but people kept dashing in saying, ‘[Brendan] Bracken’s out, Labour gains 30’, then 40 and so on. ‘Macmillan’s out’. By 11.30 it was clear what the overall result would be.”
Ten years earlier, the Tories, with over 50 per cent of the vote (never to be seen again in a British election), had won 432 seats. On this day 75 years ago, they fell to 213. For the first time in British history, the total Labour vote at just under 12 million was higher than that of the Tories who got just under 10 million. (The Liberals’ 2.2 million votes brought them just 12 seats.) Turnout at 72.7 per cent was only slightly above the 71.2 per cent of 1935 (it was to rise sharply in the 1950s).
At No 10, Mrs Churchill, a lifelong Liberal supporter, had a much-quoted exchange with her husband. “ It may well be a blessing in disguise”, she said. “At the moment”, replied Churchill, “it seems quite effectively disguised.” At 7 pm he was driven to Buckingham Palace where he tendered his resignation to the King, who offered him the Garter. Churchill declined it. “I felt that the times were too sad for honours or rewards.” His refusal was made public; Eden insisted that his decision to decline the Garter should not be made known.
After Churchill had departed in his chauffeur-driven Rolls, Mrs Attlee drove her husband into the Palace forecourt in their small family car at 7.30pm. A very different style of government was about to begin.
To what extent was Churchill himself responsible for his election disaster? During the campaign he pursed a baffling, erratic course, so common during his long career. At some points he was the epitome of moderation; at others he was the embodiment of right-wing recklessness.
On policy issues bipartisanship ruled. Churchill’s election manifesto (a personal, not a Party, document) made clear that he would implement the plans for peace formulated by the war-time coalition rather than striking out in a new distinctively Tory direction. The scene was set for co-operation between the Parties in the work of post-war reconstruction, ideally, in Churchill’s view, through another broad-based coalition government after the election.
He wrote that “my hope was that it would be possible to reconstitute the National Coalition Government in the proportions of the new House of Commons.” Having argued strongly for the retention of the coalition after the defeat of Germany, Churchill looked forward to remaining prime minister after the election at the head of another such government. Conservatives would share power again, just as they had done since May 1940 when he first gained the premiership. In all that has been written about the 1945 election, this crucial point has been missed, permitting the false assumption that his victory would have been followed by a purely Tory administration. “People liked the late Coalition Government”, he said on 30 June, “and would have been well pleased to give it a vote of confidence .”Churchill wanted to give them another opportunity to enjoy the benefits of coalition.
Agreement on a post-election coalition programme would have caused little difficulty. The Times noted that the Parties “fought the election on programmes which contained very much in common. [They were] at one in promising to give early legislative effect to the social reforms agreed by the Coalition Government, particularly those for a comprehensive and extended system of national insurance and for a national health service. All of them adopted the Coalition policy of accepting as a prime responsibility of the Government the maintenance of a high and stable level of employment; and all pledged themselves to apply emergency methods to the provision of houses.” These were the things that mattered most to the electorate.
It seemed that the election would be conducted in a mood of sweet reasonableness. Churchill, the arch-coalitionist, suddenly shattered it in a manner that was never to be forgotten. In four election broadcasts he attacked the Labour Party in fierce, lurid language. During the war families had become accustomed to gathering round the radio for the latest news. On 4 June, they were warned by their prime minister that in order to carry out plans to impose full-blooded socialism on Britain, Labour “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo“ (he pronounced the word as menacingly as he could) as they gathered “all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders.” To ensure that no one missed the parallel with evil regimes in Europe, he added that “ there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State.” Some blamed two reckless political buccaneers, Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook, who were alongside him during the campaign, but the notorious “Gestapo” speech was written by Churchill himself.
His wife and senior colleagues were horrified. Nevertheless, there was more in a similar vein in his subsequent broadcasts. Amongst the wider radio audience, the reaction of the poet and novelist, Vita Sackville-West, was not untypical. “You know I have an admiration for Winston amounting to idolatry”, she wrote to her husband, Harold Nicolson, “so I am dreadfully distressed by the badness of his broadcast election speeches. What has gone wrong with him? They are confused, woolly, unconstructive and so wordy that it is impossible to pick out any concrete impression from them. If I were a wobbler, they would tip me over to the other side.”
Churchill’s defence was that politicians should be free to insult one another during an election without harming their prospects of working together in government thereafter. His critics were not disarmed. Despite his war-time glories, the view persisted at Westminster, particularly among Tories(some of whom always distrusted and disliked him), that Winston had no judgement when it came to domestic politics. The 1945 election reinforced that view.
Churchill did not of course plunge from what seemed inevitable triumph to disaster simply because of a bad campaign. Colin Coote, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, said that he had “seen ten elections, but never one conducted with more phenomenal imbecility than this”, and yet judged that defeat represented “a vote against the Tory party and their records from 1920 to 1939”, by which he meant appeasement and unemployment. An addiction to condemning the inter-war Tory governments retrospectively was in 1945 to be found everywhere. No one seriously contested it, least of all Churchill himself with vivid memories of his “wilderness years”. But it was a gross travesty all the same. It could only be sustained by ignoring Neville Chamberlain’s great inter-war social reforms (which gave the country the most advanced social services in the world), Britain’s economic recovery in the early 1930s on a scale that dwarfed Roosevelt’s New Deal, house-building at the rate of 350,000 homes a year and the rearmament programme of the 1930s carried through in the teeth of Labour opposition. All were indeed ignored, and swelling anti-Tory sentiment went unchecked.
Within days of defeat on 26 July, the conviction that Churchill could not lose was replaced by an equally strong conviction that he could never have won. People woke up to the fact, hitherto largely unremarked, that the Party organisation was in many places virtually non-existent; Labour, for the only time before 1997, was in much better shape. Rab Butler, ever perceptive, added a further key factor: “six years of left wing propaganda accompanied by a virtual cessation of right wing propaganda”, so very different from the years before 1939 when Chamberlain, Butler’s mentor, had carried all before him.
Eden, then at the height of his powers and ready to take over the Tory leadership (which Churchill had said he would give up), reflected judiciously in his diary on this day 75 years ago: “We fought the campaign badly…It was foolish to try to win on W’s personality alone instead of on a programme. Modern electorate is too intelligent for that, and they don’t like being talked down to. Finally, while there is much gratitude to W as war leader, there is not the same enthusiasm for him as PM of the peace. And who shall say that the British people were wrong in this?”
BIBLIOGRAPHY – Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (Jonathan Cape,1992). Lord Butler, The Art of the Possible (Hamish Hamilton,1971). John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, Volume Two October 1941-1955 (Septre edition,1987). Martin Gilbert, ‘Never Despair’: Winston S. Churchill 1945-1965 (Heinemann, 1988). Nicholas Henderson, The Private Office: A personal view of five Foreign Secretaries and of government from the inside (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984). Scott Kelly, ‘ “The Ghost of Neville Chamberlain”: Guilty Men and the 1945 Election’ in Conservative History Journal (Autumn 2005), pp 18-24. Alistair Lexden, Neville Chamberlain: Redressing the Balance (A Conservative History Publication, 2018). Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939-1945, edited by Nigel Nicolson (Collins,1967). John Ramsden, A History of the Conservative Party: The Age of Churchill & Eden 1940-1957 (Longman,1995). The Times House of Commons 1945 (The Times Office, 1945). D. R. Thorpe, Eden: The Life and Times of Anthony Eden First Earl of Avon, 1897-1977 (Chatto & Windus, 2003). Victory: War Speeches by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill O.M.,C.H.,M.P. 1945, compiled by Charles Eade (Cassell, 1945).