Twelve weeks after the Nazi surrender, the leaders of the Soviet Union, the UK and the United States met in Potsdam to discuss the establishing of a new post-war political order. Winston Churchill was centre stage, embarking on the next phase of “his job”. He sat alongside President Truman and Joseph Stalin, his equals, and posed for photos designed to represent their future world leadership.
Instead they proved to be Churchill’s goodbye photos.
The next day he left Germany and returned to the UK for the outcome of the 1945 General Election. Voting had taken place on July 5, and Churchill believed he would win easily. But, sensationally, he lost, and badly.
His main rival, Labour, triumphed with 47% of the vote, winning 393 parliamentary seats in the biggest party swing ever, a record that stands to this day. Labour leader Clement Attlee formed his party’s first ever majority government, saying, “I believe that the voting at this election has shown that the people of Britain are facing [a] new era with the same courage as they faced the long years of war.”
Churchill and the Conservatives were stunned. Despite the wartime leader’s “finest hour”, however, there were a number of reasons why the UK turned its back on Churchill, and had he paid more attention to public opinion he might have seen his downfall coming.
The Conservatives’ pre-war record of high unemployment, economic depression, and the policy of appeasement didn’t help their reputation, but the party believed Churchill had reinvented their image during the war. “Let him finish the job,” said their campaign slogan, reminding the nation of Churchill’s rousing victory.
But as Alun Wyburn-Powell says, reputation alone wasn’t enough: “After World War II, most people wanted a complete break with the past”, not a return to pre-war rule, and Churchill failed to promise substantial change. Instead the Conservative Party continued Second World War rhetoric, warning of a third world war, the menace still posed by Japan, and of course the large budget deficit, a sure sign that austerity was to follow.
Most thought that the government should focus instead on the new job of rebuilding the country following the bombs, the bloodshed and the collapse of normality. After the hardships of war, rationing, and the lack of freedom, people wanted a positive view of the future, and Labour were able to offer it.
In 1945 Britain’s attitude towards social welfare had drastically changed from fifty years earlier, when unemployment and poverty were often regarded as the inevitable consequences of individual laziness. Now, largely due to the collective narrative of war and the economic difficulties of the 1930s, the nation supported the idea of “social citizenship”, whereby the state would take responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.
This change was evident after The Beveridge Report of 1942, which was greeted with overwhelming public support. “Opinion polls reported that the majority of the British public welcomed the report’s findings and wished to see them implemented as quickly as possible” – evidenced by the fact that over 600,000 citizens bought and read it.
The report recommended that Britain should establish a post-war welfare state, a comprehensive system of social insurance that supported citizens from “cradle to grave”. Labour leader Clement Attlee was in agreement and took inspiration from it for his 1945 campaign “Let us face the future”, a slogan that offered a “complete break” from the Second World War.
If elected, Labour promised to implement the report’s recommendations and build a system that would support the unemployed, the sick, those having babies and the elderly. They also pledged to found a National Health Service free for all – perhaps their most resounding, significant and popular promise. Labour’s guarantees echoed the sentiments of the population at large, many of whom had supported similar initiatives during the war, such as the provision of free school meals.
It didn’t draw similar praise from Churchill, who described the report as just “false hopes and airy visions”, even saying during a radio broadcast that Attlee would need to set up a “Gestapo” to implement the “socialist” policies he was promising. This was widely seen as a tasteless remark.
If Churchill had been the man for 1940 then Labour were the party for 1945. Their landslide victory was announced on July 26, three weeks after the vote. The delay was to allow time for soldiers abroad to cast their ballots – quite different to today’s 24/7 world of politics. It meant that Clement Attlee became Britain’s new Prime Minister and that Churchill resigned; Labour won a parliamentary majority of 146, unseating more than 200 Conservative MPs.
Labour’s emphasis on domestic issues had paid off, while the Conservatives’ focus on foreign affairs – plus their inability to offer change – had failed. If it had been a personality contest then maybe Churchill would have won, Attlee being widely regarded as timid and not a natural leader, but in 1945 it was ideas that counted, not character.
And so, the day after the result Attlee boarded a plane to Potsdam to continue talks with Truman and Stalin – neither of whom could quite believe that Churchill had been replaced.