Lecture Notes: The general election of 1945

(health warning: these are notes, not the definitive text on the subject!)


Why was the general election called when it was called?

Late in 1944, Churchill had said that he believed it would be wrong to prolong the current Parliament any longer after the defeat of Germany than was absolutely necessary.

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 31 October, 1944, quoted in CHARLOT, Monica, British Civilians, p. 165

Most Conservatives favoured such an early election. However, when the end of the war with Germany (8 May 1944) actually came, Churchill wanted the Coalition government to continue until the war with Japan had been won, and indeed he proposed this to the Labour and Liberal parties. Churchill wrote to Attlee: " It would give me great relief if you and your friends were found resolved to carry on with me until a decisive victory has been gained over Japan " (quoted CHARLOT 166) Many Labour ministers in the Coalition were inclined to accept (Attlee, Bevin, Dalton, though not MorrisonÉ). It was believed that it would take at least six months, if not more, to defeat Japan. (Churchill knew by then that the Allies possessed a new weapon in the Atom bomb, though of course this was top secret and no-one else, not even Attlee, had been told. Nobody really knew quite how destructive this new weapon of mass destruction actually was. The bitter resistance which Japanese forces had put up against US troops Òisland-hoppingÓ towards the Japanese mainland suggested the struggle would be protracted and hard.) However, the Labour party as a whole wanted a general election sooner than that: the question was put to the Labour party conference on 20 May 1945 and was overwhelmingly rejected. Attlee wrote to Churchill (May 21 1945):

Attlee wanted an election in October, arguing that it would be impossible to compile a sufficiently accurate register if the election was held any earlier.He was probably also influenced by the feeling that an early election would allow the Conservatives to benefit from Churchill's prestigious position as war leader, just as Lloyd George had done after the First World War at which Lloyd George gave 'coupons', i.e. letters of personal recommendation, to a number of candidates. Another precedent was what became known as the khaki election of 1900, at which the Conservatives were triumphantly elected as the 'patriotic party' in the Boer War. Indeed Churchill even tried to raise the ban on candidates wearing military uniform during the campaign.

Churchill, who almost certainly saw himself as the leader of a peace-time coalition which would carry on after the war along the same lines as it had done during the war, was perhaps itrritated at seeing his plans frustrated, and called for an election much earlier than Labour had wanted. He resigned as leader of the Coalition government on 23 May, and agreed to form what became known as the 'Caretaker government' from then until dissolution of Parliament on June 15. The election was to be held on 5 July 1945. Because of the complications involved in collecting service votes, the count would not take place until 26 July; until that date the ballot boxes would remain sealed in police custody.

The caretaker government

None of the Labour ministers agreed to continue, and only one Liberal. There were also a few non-political functionaries.

The election manifestos

Labour's manifesto Let Us Face the Future (click here to read the full text) set out comprehensive plans to Òwin the peaceÓ as their electoral posters put it. It proposed nationalisation of the Bank of England, fuel and power, inland transport and iron and steel. Planning would continue, with controls on raw materials and food prices, government intervention to maintain employment, a National Health service and social security, and controls on the location of industry.

The Conservatives relied very much on Churchill's personal prestige: indeed their manifesto was entitled Mr Churchill's Declaration of Policy to the Electors(click here to read the full text). It also included plans for post-war reconstruction as agreed by the Coalition: employment, social security and a health service.

The election campaign

Much of the campaigning as done within the constituencies, generally in a rather disorganised way. Many candidates had had to return to Britain at relatively short notice. The party's electoral machines were relatively disorganised. Labour was in a crusading mood.

The leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties made a limited number of election broadcasts on the radio. Churchill made two rather extreme claims in his broadcasts. The first, and most famous, was made in his first election broadcast on June 4. He suggested that Labour would ultimately need some kind of Gestapo to impose its socialist ideas. The whole broadcast was a broadside against the idea of planning, and in this he was undoubtedly influenced by Professor Friedrich von Hayek of the LES whose book The Road to Serfdom had been published in 1944, arguing that planning would lead to totalitarianism. Churchill said (bold added by myself, passages of particular interest):

My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist policy is abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom. Although it is now put forward in the main by people who have a good grounding in the Liberalism and Radicalism of the early part of this century, there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State. It is not alone that property, in all its forms, is struck at, but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conceptions of Socialism.

Look how even to-day they hunger for controls of every kind, as if these were delectable foods instead of war-time inflictions and monstrosities. There is to be one State to which all are to be obedient in every act of their lives. This State is to be the arch-employer, the arch-planner, the arch-administrator and ruler, and the archcaucus boss.

How is an ordinary citizen or subject of the King to stand up against this formidable machine, which, once it is in power, will prescribe for every one of them where they are to work; what they are to work at; where they may go and what they may say; what views they are to hold and within what limits they may express them; where their wives are to go to queue-up for the State ration; and what education their children are to receive to mould their views of human liberty and conduct in the future?

A Socialist State once thoroughly completed in all its details and its aspects - and that is what I am speaking of - could not afford to suffer opposition. Here in old England, in Great Britain, of which old England forms no inconspicuous part, in this glorious Island, the cradle and citadel of free democracy throughout the world, we do not like to be regimented and ordered about and have every action of our lives prescribed for us. In fact we punish criminals by sending them to Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor, where they get full employment, and whatever board and lodging is appointed by the Home Secretary.

Socialism is, in its essence, an attack not only upon British enterprise, but upon the right of the ordinary man or woman to breathe freely without having a harsh, clumsy, tyrannical hand clapped across their mouths and nostrils. A Free Parliament - look at that - a Free Parliament is odious to the Socialist doctrinaire. Have we not heard Mr. Herbert Morrison descant upon his plans to curtail Parliamentary procedure and pass laws simply by resolutions of broad principle in the House of Commons, afterwards to be left by Parliament to the executive and to the bureaucrats to elaborate and enforce by departmental regulations? As for Sir Stafford Cripps on "Parliament in the Socialist State," I have not time to read you what he said, but perhaps it will meet the public eye during the election campaign.

But I will go farther. I declare to you, from the bottom of my heart, that no Socialist system can be established without a political police. Many of those who are advocating Socialism or voting Socialist to-day will be horrified at this idea. That is because they are short-sighted, that is because they do not see where their theories are leading them.

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil. And where would the ordinary simple folk - the common people, as they like to call them in America - where would they be, once this mighty organism had got them in its grip?

I stand for the sovereign freedom of the individual within the laws which freely elected Parliaments have freely passed. I stand for the rights of the ordinary man to say what he thinks of the Government of the day, however powerful, and to turn them out, neck and crop, if he thinks he can better his temper or his home thereby, and if he can persuade enough others to vote with him.

But, you will say, look at what has been done in the war. Have not many of those evils which you have depicted been the constant companions of our daily life? It is quite true that the horrors of war do not end with the fighting-line. They spread far away to the base and the homeland, and everywhere people give up their rights and liberties for the common cause. But this is because the life of their country is in mortal peril, or for the sake of the cause of freedom in some other land. They give them freely as a sacrifice. It is quite true that the conditions of Socialism play a great part in war-time. We all submit to being ordered about to save our country. But when the war is over and the imminent danger to our existence is removed, we cast off these shackles and burdens which we imposed upon ourselves in times of dire and mortal peril, and quit the gloomy caverns of war and march out into the breezy fields, where the sun is shining and where all may walk joyfully in its warm and golden rays.

Winston CHURCHILL, The First Conservative Election Broadcast, 4 June 1945. Quoted in CAPET, CHARLOT & HILL, p. 201-2

Churchill also made allegations that a Labour government would in fact be controlled by the National Executive Committe of the Labour party, and in particular by its Chairman Harold Laski, somehow suggesting some sinister plot to take sovereignty from Parliament and the country and place it in the hands of a little-known group of men and women. Attlee, in short, according to this criticism, was little more than a puppet in their hands. The accusation was groundless, but it is difficult to assess what impact it may have had.

Churchill went on a tour of the country in late June, and was generally received with warm applause. However, on one occasion he was booed by a large crowd in Walthamstow. Overall he was popular, considered as a great man rather than as a politician. The Conservative campaign slogans played on this: 'Help Him finish the job'. Indeed it has been suggested that many people who voted Labour did not fully realise that that meant voting against Churchill: they either somehow expected he would still be there in a coalition or had not fully taken in the implications.

However Churchill's priorities in his election campaign were not the same as the people's, as Paul Addison points out convincingly (p. 267).

He spoke, on 13 June, of five tasks: completing the war with Japan, demobilization, restarting industry, rebuilding exports, and a four-year plan of 'food, work and homes'. Yet homes, which came last on Churchill's list, consistently came first on the list of voters' expectations: homes, jobs, social security and nationalisation.

Labour was much closer, putting the material needs of the people higher on its list of priorities.

Results:

Labour won a landslide victory: with 393 seats (1935, 154) to the Conservatives' 213 (1935 432). The Liberals won only 12 seats (1935 20). The CPGB won 2 seats, Common Wealth 1.

In terms of percentage of votes cast, Labour's victory was less overwhelming:

Con 39.8, Lab 47.8, Lib 9 (1935 Con 53.7, Lab 37.9, Lib 6.4)

The service vote, between one and three-quarter and two million votes, was predominantly Labour (though there are no official statistics for this, merely informed hearsay)

There had been indications which, in retrospect, show that the Labour victory was fairly predictable: B.I.P.O., ther British Institute for Political Observation (?) made regular surveys during the war, and these pointed to a consistent Labour lead. Polls from 1943 to the end of the coalition illustrate this very clearly:

Voting intention in %

Con Lab Lib
June 1943 31 38 9
July 1943 27 39 9
December 1943 27 40 10
February 1944 23 37 10
February 1945 24 42 11
April 1945 24 40 12

(table from The Road to 1945)

Churchill, however, was not aware of these until after the war. However, Gallup also conducted regular polls, but Churchill and others did not pay much attention to them.

There were also a number of by-elections during the war. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties had entered into an electoral truce at the beginning of the war, according to which they would not contest by-elections, thus ensuring the seat remained under the same party, but this did not prevent other parties and independent canddates from challenging the coalition party candidate. In the by-elections which took place, results clearly suggest a move towards the Left.

The following seats changed hands during the war

Date Constituency General election MP MP elected at by-election
24/2/40 Cambridge University Con Ind Con
8/6/40 Newcastle N Con Ind Con
25/3/42 Grantham Con Ind
29/4/42 Rugby Con Ind
25/6/42 Maldon Con Ind
9/2/42 Belfast W Un Eire Lab
7/4/43 Eddisbury Con C.W.
7/1/44 Skipton Con C.W.
17/2/44 W. Derbyshire Con Ind
12/4/45 Motherwell Lab Scot Nat
13/4/45 Scottish Univs Con Ind
26/4/45 Chelmsford Con C.W.

(source BUTLER, D AND G. BUTLERBritish Political Facts, 1900-1994, Macmillan, 1994, p. 236

It will be noticed that most of the seats which changed hands during the war at by-elections were Conservative losses, and Labour's only loss was to a Nationalist candidate. However the significance of these results was not widely accepted at the time: Attlee tended to dismiss them as the somewhat unrepresentative protest vote which by-elections sometimes attract.

With hindsight it is apparent that the opinion polls and the by-election results (and see The Road to 1945 for a fine analysis of the swing in significant by-elections) both pointed to a shift to the Left and a Labour victory.

Labour in Power

Put very briefly, the Labour government did introduce the National Health Service, it did nationalise the industries it said it would (with some difficulty as regards iron and steel), it did carry out the provisions of the 1944 Education Act (the 'Butler Act') and it did ensure full employment. Ironically, in view of the priorities mentioned above, it was in housing that Labour's achievements failed to meet the targets they had set, though Bevan's insistence on quality in Council housing meant that the houses built during that period have lasted (and have often been among the more attractive council properties bought by their tenants under Margaret Thatcher's "privatisation" of so many council houses and flats. Numbers of houses built were below targets, for all sorts of reasons, including difficulty in mobilising raw materials and manpower.

Indeed Kenneth Morgan has suggested that the Labour government of 1945-1951 took the very dangerous course of keeping practically all its election promises: which meant that it had to look further at what to do next. This led to disagreements within the party: some, like Bevan, wanted more nationalisations (he wanted to nationalise "the commanding heights" of the economy, though not of course every company, corner shop and so on in the country), while others, like Morrison, wanted to "consolidate". This debate highlighted no doubt the ideological differences within the Labour party. Until Labour had achieved the very real advances it did achieve in the second half of the 1940's, there was agreement between those who wanted to nationalise the major infrastructural industires and no more, and those who wanted a fully socialist Britain with a much larger proportion of the national economy taken into public ownership. The former had a limited "shopping list" of sectors to be nationalised, while the latter was quite ready to start with that list before going further. Until all the items on the shopping list had been ticked there was agreement; but beyond that there were divided views.

It is tempting to wonder what would have happened if the Conservatives had been elected in 1945 under Winston Churchill, and not Labour under Clement Attlee. There is little doubt that there would have been some legislation to implement Churchill's promise of protection "from the cradle to the grave", but it is likely that other priorities would have meant that resources for "social security" would have been smaller. The Conservatives might have done more to encourage exports, and perhaps even to re-establish the ties within the Empire. It would also no doubt have set up some kind of health service, but it is unlikely that it would have been prepared to go as far as Bevan did in his struggle with the British Medical Association. All of this is, however, pure speculation.

Post-war consensus vs. post-war settlement

Much has been made of the fact that when the Conservatives were returned to power in 1951 they did not dismantle the "Welfare State" Labour had put in place. The similar approach adopted by the Attlee's last Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Gaitskell and the first Chancellor of Churchill's 1951 government, R.A. Butler has given rise to the term "Butskellism", but this expression need not be taken at face value. Churchill's 1951 government seemed intent on keeping the social peace, and it realised that the people wanted the Welfare State. Attacking the Welfare State head on would have been electoral suicide. It certainly does not mean that there were no differences between Conservative and Labour policies, but rather that there was a "settlement", in the sense that the Conservatives were ready to leave the Welfare State alone if that was what the people really wanted.


These are NOTES, some of which may have been corrected orally, modified during lectures and otherwise changed or improved. Please send me any comments or queries you may have on this.


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