Despite a succession of victories during the Second World War, Conservative leader Winston Churchill faced a crushing defeat in Britain’s 1945 general election – one of the most astonishing political events in British history. Churchill’s approval rating was 83% just months prior to his loss, but in an unexpected landslide victory Clement Attlee’s Labour party swept to power with a majority of 145 seats. The question is: how did Churchill, a popular and battle-hardened political stalwart, fail to win the support of the British people in July 1945?
1. The hangover of pre-war ‘appeasement’
Despite Britain’s victory over Nazism under a Conservative-led coalition, the post-war Conservative Party was held to account for its pre-war policy of ‘appeasement’ towards Britain’s fascist enemies. Guilty Men, a hugely popular book published in 1940, accused the pre-Churchillian majority-Conservative National Government of submitting to Hitler’s bullying and of failing to adequately equip Britain for war. Although he was initially praised for staving off another war in Europe, Neville Chamberlain was soon criticised for negotiating with Hitler and for signing the 1938 Munich Agreement, which sanctioned Germany’s annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia. Churchill himself had opposed the Agreement, calling it ‘a defeat without a war’, but in the public mind of 1945 his party was still closely linked with the policy from which it was born.
2. The Conservatives concentrated too much on Churchill
By 1945, Churchill had established himself as the face of British victory, and the Conservatives had been trusted with national security and foreign policy for years. After the war’s end, however, the public grew increasingly worried that Churchill might still be too focused on foreign policy in the aftermath of the conflict. To its detriment, the Conservative Party’s campaign revolved too much around Churchill as a war hero and cult figure, and not enough around rebuilding Britain.
3. The need to ‘face the future’
In contrast, Attlee offered peace and prosperity at home. The Labour Party’s policies – geared towards social reform, workers’ rights, housing, low unemployment, and ‘cradle-to-grave’ healthcare in the form of the NHS – ultimately proved more attractive than the Conservative Party’s argument that such changes were not affordable.
4. Ill-judged campaign rhetoric
Churchill’s speeches are legendary models of fine oration, but his words weren’t always on point. Early in his election campaign, he sneered that the implementation of Attlee’s socialist policies would require ‘… some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance’ – a badly placed comment considering the serious horrors of the recent past.
The jibe may not have destroyed Churchill’s sky-high personal popularity among the British people, but it did provide Attlee with fodder for his own campaign. Responding to Churchill the next day, he accused the Conservatives of being elitist and reasserted that the Labour Party stood for the rights and freedoms of ordinary working people: ‘The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others.’
5. Predictable political forces
A party in power is one under constant scrutiny, and it is not unusual that public support for a sitting government should diminish over time. Nevertheless, the 12% swing from the Conservatives to Labour remains the largest ever witnessed in a British general election.