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Churchill - 1945

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The wind of change blew strongly over the British Isles in 1945. The great wartime hero, Winston Churchill is no longer the country’s leader, in spite of his great effort and success overseas during the war. The right-wing Conservative leader thought to remain prime mister, expecting public gratitude. However, the English vote for parties, not people. There was a demographic impact within Britain that led to the swing of leadership from a more capitalist based party to a more socialist based party. The people of Britain were haunted by the 1930s, a world in which “seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market gardeners”, as described by Orwell. A time in which the poor were overlooked and undermined, a land in which the people “bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums.”

Why was Churchill, being the national hero that he was, rejected by the Britons? Was it the failure of the Conservatives, which gave rise to Labour; or was it the rise of Labour which led to the failure of the Conservatives? These are some key aspects that this essay will attempt to consider. This paper will focus on how the rise of Labour, through their efforts locally, won over the population in order achieve a significant victory. Conducive to that change in leadership was the lack of Tory focus on social-policy and attention towards the working-class, which emanated from the lack of party politicking on the part of Churchill himself.

Churchill was the leader of the Conservative Party, who governed the country in 1940. The Conservative Party is essentially a capitalist based polity; they are very much opposed to the idea of socialism. However, in 1939 Britain goes to war for the second time in just after two decades. It is a difficult period, so for the sake of national unity, in May 1940, the Conservatives invite Labour to share office in a coalition government. Difficult for a capitalistic government to do, but nonetheless, they accepted that ‘war socialism’ was a patriotic necessity which had to be tolerated for the duration of the war.

What is meant by their accepting ‘war socialism’? It was socialism because, it was the socialist Labour party who practically governed the country whilst Churchill took care of external affairs – Churchill is the Rhetorician, leading the country abroad, whilst Atlee becomes the doer, when it comes social matters. In fact, the Labour Party becomes the party, which is actually doing anything significant at home. Three key government positions were held by Labour party members: Clement Atlee, the leader of the Labour party, was the deputy prime minister – he practically ran the country; Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Labour and National services; Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary. This was fundamental to the Labour appeal, that it is a party which is ‘able to govern’, not a mere child in a house of adults, but rather an experienced and mature political party.

Furthermore, Labour seized this opportunity to put into practice, within its local constituencies – who were primarily working-class - some of its procedures; such as, establishing the ‘proto-welfare state’. This was, essentially, paying more generous levels of aid to the poor and jobless, encouraging the building of clinics, houses, and public baths, which also provided employment opportunities. This also afforded Labour members with crucial experience in office; they were able to improve living standards through measures such as improving housing and health care, providing maternity clinics and free milk and meals for school children.

Labour regarded the war as an opportunity for converting wartime conditions into the basis of a new social order, which it then demonstrated to be the solution for evading another 1930s like depression. The Left were appropriating all opportunities that lay in their midst, much to the dissatisfaction of the Right “Every trade union and the cooperative movement and the rather cowardly ...pseudo-intelligent left movements are using every minute to promote their pestilential views”, as clamoured by Sir Tufton Beamish.
However, Labour was only able to do this due to the Vacuum of post-war policy left open by Churchill. This emptiness was really filled by William Beveridge with his famous report.

Churchill dwelled, though little, over post-war policy and the implementation of the Beveridge report. Churchill, along with the majority of conservatives, had serious reservations about the report. Though he bore hesitation - he needed to keep Labour within the coalition government - he struck a compromise: preparations for post-war legislation may begin but without implementation during wartime; and the implementation of a churchillised Beveridge report. Churchill incurably slipped when it came to addressing social-policy and the Beveridge report, even when he did address the issues of post-war policy – like announcing on radio the four-year-plan of social reform - he did so wearing his Prime Ministerial hat and not the hat of the Tory party leader; he missed the opportunity of appropriating Beveridge for the Tories. Labour, however, planned a full implementation of the Beveridge report within three years.

The report laid great emphasis on insurance as an instrument of redistribution - as a means of not just ‘spreading wages over good times and bad’, but of effecting a positive re-allocation of resources from single people to families and from the rich to the poor. This was significant, in that, the level to which the report was to be implemented was the very stuff that decided the outcome of the 1945 elections. People were tired and afraid of again facing the difficulties of the 1930s. Labour was able to show how the state can take care of those issues, as it had been clearly doing so locally, and simply offered: you have seen what we have been doing in wartime, we can continue that, but bettering it, in peacetime. As Labour continued in this way there was no real response from the Tories. Some tried, mostly backbenchers - when 116 of them voted against Bevin’s Catering and Wages Bill, for example - but, they lacked a leader, a party leader that is. Not only was there no response on the part of the Tories, Churchill further suppressed social policies; such as, forbidding any British war aims, which was to deal with unemployment, equal educational opportunities, etc. For this reason many considered Churchill to “seldom have the long-term interests of the Conservatives at heart.” Another instance of Churchill’s curbing of social policy is marked when some leading Tories, such as Anthony Eden, R. A. Butler and the Tory Reform Group, wanted to see the party adopt a progressive strategy at home, based on the expansion of the social services. This might have succeeded, some would say, under a leader who recognised that the domestic future was at stake. Churchill was far too busy with international matters. If he had turned his attention towards home he would have noticed that the Conservatives were associated with most of the ills of the inter-war years: unemployment, depression, failure to prevent war, unreadiness for when it came. It is irrelevant that these criticisms may have been ill-founded and that no other plausible alternative policy was ever put forward by anyone who had a chance of forming an alternative government. Nonetheless, it was the Tories who were leading and they were sure to take the rap for it.

Labour were now experienced in office, popular and serving as a positive alternative, and beyond that, they could no longer have hurled at them, by Tory media, abuse of being dangerous cranks and pacifists; as they had proven themselves patriotic and crucial within Churchill’s war cabinet. A war cabinet which Churchill wished to be extended, post 1945 and concluding of the war, until Japan was defeated, which he supposed would take place within six months – perhaps, his confidence stemmed from his knowledge of America’s Atomic bomb. Labour, however, did not favour any such a proposition.

The elections ensued, and Labour received 393 seats in Parliament, the Conservatives 208 seats and the Liberals 12 seats. The Labour Party had a majority of 173 over both opposition parties. This was, quite remarkably – though not surprisingly - an overwhelming electoral victory for Labour, and a harsh defeat for the Conservatives.

We may conclude by suggesting that there was no one single factor that influenced the stark shift of power in the 1945 general elections; however, relentless effort on the part of Labour, who were meticulous and persistent in their campaign against the Tories, a campaign to which the Tories failed to respond, were all key factors. Historians, many of them, quite frankly attribute this Tory defeat and Labour triumph to the man of the moment, Churchill. I suppose, this entire essay can be summed up thus, Churchill a great wartime leader, and not so great peacetime leader.


Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Pan Books, 2002

Rose, Norman. Churchill: The Unruly Giant. New York: The Free Press, 1994

Mandler, Peter. The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006

Hennessy, Peter. Never Again: Britain 1945-1951. England: Penguin, 2006

Tiratsoo, Nick. From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939. London: Orion Publishing Group, Limited, 1988

Blake, Robert. The Conservative Party from Peel to Major. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 2010 |
Harmer, Harry. The Longman Companion to the Labour Party, 1900-1998, Longman, 1999

Worley, Mathew. Labour Inside The Gate: A History of the British Labour Party Between the Wars. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2008

Fox, Kate. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 2005

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier, (accessed 16 March, 2014)

Beveridge, William. The Beveridge Report: 'The Way to Freedom from Want', (accessed 16 March, 2014)

[ 1 ]. George Orwell, The road to Wigan Pier, New York (Harcourt Bruce, Brace and Company, 1958), 91-92
[ 2 ]. Ibid, 18
[ 3 ]. Nick Tiratsoo, From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939, (Orion Publishing Group, Limited, 1988) Chapter 3, 59
[ 4 ]. Harry Harmer, The Longman Companion to the Labour Party, 1900-1998, (Longman, 1999)
[ 5 ]. Mathew Worley, Labour Inside The Gate: A History of the British Labour Party Between the Wars, New York (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2008)
[ 6 ]. Nick Tiratsoo, From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939, (Orion Publishing Group, Limited, 1988) Chapter 3, 57
[ 7 ]. Ibid
[ 8 ]. Ibid, 72
[ 9 ]. Ibid
[ 10 ]. Ibid
[ 11 ]. Ibid
[ 12 ]. Peter Hennessy, Never Again: Britain 1945-1951, England (Penguin, 2006), 122
[ 13 ]. Ibid, 129
[ 14 ]. Ibid
[ 15 ]. Nick Tiratsoo, From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939, (Orion Publishing Group, Limited, 1998), 70
[ 16 ]. Peter Hennessy, Never Again: Britain 1945-1951, England (Penguin, 2006), 74
[ 17 ]. Ibid
[ 18 ]. Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Major, London (Faber and Faber Ltd, 2010), 255
[ 19 ]. Nick Tiratsoo, From Blitz to Blair: A New History of Britain Since 1939, (Orion Publishing Group, Limited, 1998), 67…...

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