It seemed the quintessential example of a people saying to their beloved leader, “What have you done for us lately?” This week (July 26) in 1945, the Conservative Party headed by Winston Churchill, the man who just 10 weeks earlier had led Great Britain to victory in World War II, was decisively defeated by the Labour Party, headed by Clement Atlee, in the first general election since the war began. As a result, Atlee would replace Churchill as prime minister.
In one sense it was a huge shock. Churchill campaigned as “the man who won the war,” and most Britons, including most Labourites, thought that would ensure his return to office. At the war’s end Churchill was mobbed by his grateful countrymen everywhere he went.
But in another sense, it was the logical outcome of a series of hesitancies and missteps on Churchill’s part and bold brilliance on Labour’s, especially when it came to presenting their case to the British people. Labour was proudly Socialist, calling for public ownership of transportation, the coal industry, steel and iron production, and the continuance of war-time price controls to ensure that “every citizen shall get fair play.” In response Churchill said the Labour Party was full of “idiotic ideologies and philosophical dreams of absurd Utopias.” So while Labour was proposing solutions, Churchill was name-calling.
Further, Labour intuitively understood that British citizens felt they were owed for their wartime sacrifices, so Labour proposed government-funded social programs, financial assistance, and public-works projects, including public housing. Churchill, adhering to conservative free-market principles, countered that no such government spending could be guaranteed until the state of Britain’s post-war finances and future economic outlook were better understood. So while Labour was promising, Churchill was hedging.
In foreign policy Churchill was also out of step, especially with respect to the future of the British Empire. Most Brits preferred a devolvement of the empire into a commonwealth of independent nations, with Britain as first among equals. Churchill refused to even consider the end of the British Empire. So while Labour was offering a new, enlightened relationship with its former colonies, Churchill was reminding the voters that he was still an imperialist at heart.
Thus, the large crowds following Churchill’s campaign were somewhat misleading. “Just because we cheer the old bugger doesn’t mean we are going to vote for him,” one Britain voter said. And most didn’t.
To his credit, of his defeat Churchill said, “They are entitled to vote as they please. This is a democracy. This is what we have been fighting for.” And Churchill would keep fighting, becoming prime minister again in 1951, after Atlee was, as Churchill predicted, unable to deliver fully on his promises.
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is email@example.com.