How on Earth Did Winston Churchill Lose the Election Directly Following Germany’s Defeat?
Nazi Germany officially surrendered on May 7, 1945. With the war still raging in the Pacific against Japan and sporting a popularity rate at around 83%, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill seemed a shoe-in to maintain his position as Prime Minister of the British Empire. Just before the announcement of the results of the election, Churchill had been at the Potsdam Conference with U.S. President Truman and Joseph Stalin, only intending to travel home briefly to accept his victory, and then back to the conference. Yet a funny thing happened on July 26, 1945, the voting populace of the UK, which had turned out in record numbers of 73%, had decided to collectively say “Thanks for your service, Winston, but we’ve decided to go in a different direction,” in a landslide defeat that shocked the world.
While in more modern times you might think some sort of scandalous affair or offensive comment may have whipped up the mob on the interwebs precipitating such a massive electoral fall in the span of just a couple months, there was no such issue here either. So what happened? How did this wildly successful politician, frequently named among the top Prime Ministers ever in the nation, at the height of his popularity no less, and who had just helped successfully guide Britain through one of its most harrowing periods of its storied history, not just lose, but lose in a landslide?
And not only this, making the whole thing even more inexplicable, he lost to a man who one of said man’s own party members, Aneurin Bevan, stated “seems determined to make a trumpet sound like a tin whistle.” Or as chairman of the Daily Mirror, Cecil King, would remark in 1940, he was “of very limited intelligence and no personality. If one heard he was getting £6 a week in the service of the East Ham Corporation, one would be surprised he was earning so much.” Or, let’s not stop there, as famed social reformer Beatrice Webb would remark, “He looked and spoke like an insignificant elderly clerk, without distinction in the voice, manner or substance of his discourse. To realize that this little non-entity is… presumably the future Prime Minister, is pitiable.” Or how about as Churchill himself would allegedly quip about his opponent, he is “a modest man, but then, he has so much to be modest about.”
The demeaning quotes about the man Churchill lost to go on and on and on, and his own party before, during, and after the election likewise tried to oust him as their leader…. Only to see this quiet, oft’ forgotten individual who rapidly rose from a middle class background to the heights of power, defy them all and go on to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers in the history of the nation, often even ranked above Churchill himself, despite only serving in the position for a handful of years.
As ever, of course, the devil is in the fascinating details, so let’s dive into it, and what specifically happened to see a titan of history defeated by a man likely no one outside of the UK even knows the name of, yet shaped the Britain we have today arguably more significantly than Churchill ever did.
To begin with, a brief background for the uninitiated. Leading up to becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill had had a rather notable career. Born in his family’s Blenheim Palace on November 30, 1874, Churchill was a member of the prominent Spencer aristocratic family on his father’s side. As for his mother, she was the daughter of wealthy American Businessman Leonard Jerome. In the interim between his birth and 1940, Churchill’s exploits included variously serving as a soldier in British India, as well as taking part in the Second Boer War, and even at one point became a famous war correspondent and author. On this latter, an oft’ forgotten factoid of history is that he once even wrote a fictional novel with romance undertones called Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Laurania, serialized in 1898, and later published as a complete book in 1900. Later in life, Churchill would even win a Nobel Prize in Literature. As for his prolific writing, he would variously note this was one of his methods for staving off his “black dog”, or frequent bouts of depression. Back to his political life and 1900, it was in October of 1900 at the age of just 25 that he first was elected as a Member of Parliament, and things more or less took off rapidly from there, including by WWI selected as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position he briefly reprised during WWII, which for the uninitiated means he was the political head of the Royal Navy.
In the years leading up to WWII, fascinatingly with regards to some things we’ll be discussing later, despite being a member of the conservative party, Churchill was an outspoken opponent of his party’s policy of appeasement when it came to Hitler, stating, ”A country like ours, possessed of immense territory and wealth, whose defence has been neglected, cannot avoid war by dilating upon its horrors, or even by a continuous display of pacific qualities, or by ignoring the fate of the victims of aggression elsewhere. War will be avoided, in present circumstances, only by the accumulation of deterrents against the aggressor.”
He also proposed a mutual defense pact for European nations that stood in the way of Germany expanding, and urged Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to declare if Germany were to invade Czechoslovakia as seemed imminent, that Britain would declare war on Germany. Going the other way, instead Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. Churchill’s efforts, however, were not totally in vain for his own popularity, with more and more supporters who also felt the British Empire’s policy of appeasement was the wrong tack rallying behind him.
Things picked up for him from there when, after Germany occupied Norway, the now named Norway Debate, resulted in a call for a vote of no confidence in Chamberlain’s government. Ironically during this, Churchill, as a member of said government, had to defend it, even as arguments were being made for him to lead the next government. We’ll spare you the lengthy details, but needless to say ultimately Churchill was chosen as Prime Minister of the eventual coalition government. He would state of this, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
That said, nothing was smooth from here, and after France fell, there was a strong push to simply sue for peace with Germany, something Churchill strongly opposed, but with the help of Chamberlain, he was able to keep his position and use his talents as a public speaker to good use in convincing the public the right choice was to continue to fight. As did he- even after a heart attack on December 26, 1941, which was supposed to leave him bedridden for a few weeks to recover, but instead, he simply soldiered on, and a mere two days later was giving a speech to the Canadian Parliament.
Fast-forward to the victory over Germany in 1945, and at no point during his time as Prime Minister had Churchill’s popularity ever dipped below 78%, and his efforts and actions during it have since generally seen him consistently ranked in the top 3 Prime Ministers in the history of the nation.
Of course, with the end of the war with Germany, there was pressure to hold a general election. Comfortable in his popularity and the job his party had done throughout the war, Churchill did not fear defeat. However, he nonetheless felt it would be better to continue the Coalition government until the war with Japan was over, something that was notably supported by a man by the name of Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor party and Churchill’s deputy prime minister who during the war had been tasked with managing matters on the domestic front so Churchill could focus on the war effort.
In stark contrast to Churchill’s aristocratic background, Attlee was born the seventh of eight children to an upper middle class family in Surrey on January 3, 1883. After brief work as a lawyer and then economics lecturer, Attlee jumped into politics, before having that all interrupted by WWI. After, however, his rise was rapid, first as mayor of Stepney, then Member of Parliament, and by 1935 the leader of the Labor party, all despite widespread criticism of the man himself with many a demeaning quote as previously alluded to. But while Attlee may not have been your typical larger than life stereotypical Alpha type leader, Margaret Thatcher would later note of him very accurately, “Quite contrary to the general tendency of politicians in the 1990s, he was all substance and no show.”
Going back to Churchill’s wish to continue the coalition government until the war with Japan was ended, as noted, his deputy prime minister in Attlee agreed that would be best. And so it was that Attlee brought this proposal before his party to see how to proceed. Par for the course of his leadership style, however, Attlee did not give his opinion on the matter either way, and let discourse about it proceed unguided from the top. Ultimately his party almost unanimously decided to oppose the continuance.
But that wasn’t all. There was strong sentiment within the party that, with an election looming, Attlee should step down, with the Chairman of the National Executive of the Labour Party, Harold Laski, writing to him that many within the party felt that, “the continuance of your leadership is a grave hardship to our hopes of victory in the coming General Election… Your resignation of the leadership would now be a great service to the Party. Just as Mr Churchill changed Auchinleck for Montgomery before El Alamein, so I suggest you owe it to the Party to give it the chance to make a comparable change on the eve of this, the greatest of our battles.”
Rather than argue or really give any opinion at all on the matter, Attlee simply replied, “Dear Laski, Thank you for your letter, the contents of which have been noted.” And then wrote to Churchill of the rejection of continuing the Coalition government.
Thus, an election was called for and Churchill resigned on May 23, 1945 to await a vote. In the interim, King Geroge VI charged Churchill with forming a new government, often called the Caretaker Ministry today, to oversee things during the election, with this ministry lasting from May 23 to July 26th.
And so it was that the unassuming Attlee, who wasn’t even popular within his own party, and said Labor Party, which had never won a majority in their history, was pitted up against one of the most popular men in in Britain, and against the Conservative party which had dominated for years and had just seen the nation through one of its more harrowing periods in history and come out the other side on top.
What could go wrong?
Everything, it turns out. And, in fact, the election was already lost about three years before it even started thanks to one document, which we’ll get into in a bit, that would change British history. Just nobody, not even the Labor party members, realized it until the day the votes were tallied.
Of course, Churchill and the Conservative party’s campaign practices didn’t exactly help matters. While it seems they’d already lost before they’d begun, their shockingly tone-deaf campaign certainly did nothing to turn the tide, and Churchill himself, known for his amazing oration, continually put his foot in his mouth in remarkably boneheaded ways more akin to political discussions on the artist formerly known as Twitter than what we usually think of when conjuring up thoughts of Winston Churchill.
The most famous instance of this was Churchill’s infamous “Gestapo” speech against Attlee and Labor. Leading up to the speech, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and several others, had advised him to take that “Gestapo” part of the speech out, but he doggedly soldiered on. So what exactly did Churchill say?
“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…. [They will] 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.”
Needless to say, comparing his own Deputy Prime Minister in Attlee, and the Labor party Attlee led who’d done a bang up job during the war handling the domestic front so Churchill could focus on the war, to members of the Gestapo didn’t sit well with people for reasons outlined by Churchill’s own daughter, Sarah, who would also try to reason with her father on this point.
She stated, they will “certainly not tolerate totalitarianism. But they will not understand why socialism leads to this, because socialism as practised in the War did no one any harm and quite a lot of people good. The children of this country have never been so well-fed or healthy. What milk there was was shared equally. The rich did not die because their meat ration was no larger than the poor, and there is no doubt that this common sharing and feeling of sacrifice was one of the strongest bonds that unified us. So, why, they say, cannot this common feeling of sacrifice be made to work as effectively in peace?”
As for Attlee himself, the next day after Chuchill’s little early form of Godwin’s law, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”, Attlee would state, “When I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech last night, I realised at once what was his object. He wanted the electors to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill, the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr Churchill, the Party Leader of the Conservatives. He feared lest those who had accepted his leadership in war might be tempted, out of gratitude, for having followed him further. I thank him for having disillusioned them so thoroughly.”
Nevertheless, seemingly not reading the room, Churchill would double down on this sentiment in later speeches, in the following broadcast stating, “In the socialist system, all effective and healthy opposition and the natural change of parties in office from time to time would necessarily come to an end, and a political police would be required to enforce an absolute and permanent system upon the nation.”
And yet again in his next, “Under socialism, central government is to plan for all our lives and tell us exactly where we are to go and what we are to do, and any resistance to their commands will be punished.” And that no change of government would be allowed under them, because their executive, “could not allow itself to be challenged or defeated at any time, in any form of Parliament they might allow.”
The level of tone-deaf this was to the people of the nation cannot be understated. As to why, first, as Churchill’s daughter Sarah had pointed out, the people had just seen how even in the worst of times some of these so-called socialist ideals instituted by the Labor party during the war kept things running relatively smoothly regardless of the otherwise extreme circumstances. But there was another huge factor, which brings us back to the aforementioned Empire changing document- The Social Insurance and Allied Services (Cmd. 6404), aka The Beveridge Report, publishing in November of 1942, written by economist William Beveridge with contributions by his wife, mathematician Janet Beveridge.
Among other things in the report, it proposed after the war the establishment of a national health service, social security, a number of full employment policies, and other similar measures, in all of it providing its citizens a type of base support from the “cradle to the grave” for the benefit of all society. So popular was the document that over 600,000 copies of it were sold and its ideas disseminated, near unprecedented for what was, after all, just a government document on recommendations to help heal and rebuild the nation after the war.
In essence, the people of the nation who’d just had their lives upended for years were seeking some security and a return to normalcy. And this report showed how this could be achieved quite quickly. They’d also just seen what the government could accomplish in war and how working together in this way and focussing money and efforts on the goal produced extraordinary results. So why not focus a fraction of the amount of money and efforts that the war cost on homefront improvements and stability?
As one contemporary commentator stated, “We have shown, in this War, that we British don’t always muddle through. We have shown we can organise superbly. Look at these invasions of the Continent, which have gone like clockwork. Look at the harbours we have built on those beaches. No excuse anymore for unemployment and slums and under-feeding! Using even half the energy and invention and pulling together of what we have done in this War, what is there we cannot do? We have virtually exploded the arguments of old fogies and “better-notters”, who have said we cannot afford this and we must not do that. If we can do it in war, why can’t we do it in peace?”
Going back to Churchill and the Conservative party’s campaign messages, they didn’t just not focus on these very real issues in the nation at the time, and vilified the party that was, continually comparing them to the Nazis, but also continued to press the message that just because Germany was defeated, the time for sacrifice and fighting abroad was still at hand. With Churchill stating,
“Five years ago, I promised you blood, toil, tears and sweat, and your untiring response brought us, in the end, victory over Germany. Today, we still have tears, not so many, thank God, but the conquest of Japan, hand-in-hand with our American allies, is a formidable undertaking which we must, and will, see through to the end.” But he didn’t just stop with Japan, stating, “And we must still look forward, alas, to blood and sweat. We have a terrific task ahead of us. We have a shattered world around us, and we must help to rebuild it. We must strive for a sane and just peace, which will save us all and our children from the constant fear of war… That is why I am asking today for the support of all men and women of goodwill. During the War, I rested my trust in the British people. Time after time, I warned them of the dangers ahead, and they never failed. Once again, now, today, I must tell you that, in spite of all our victories, a rough road lies ahead. What a shame it would be and what a folly to add to our load the bitter quarrels with which the extreme socialists are eager to convulse and exploit these critical years. For the sake of the country and of your own happiness, I call upon you to march with me, under the banner of freedom, towards the beacon lights of national prosperity and honour, which must ever be our guides.”
In contrast to a message still focussed on sacrifice for matters abroad, Atlee stated, “The Parliament of 1935 had a big Conservative majority, and the policy pursued by the Conservative Government landed this country into war. It was due to the action of the Labour Party that this Conservative Government resigned. Mr Churchill, who had opposed his own Party, formed an all-Party Government which successfully brought us to victory. Now, a new Parliament must be elected. The choice is between that same Conservative Party, which stands for private enterprise, private profit, and private interests, and the Labour Party, which demands that, in peace, as in war, the interests of the whole people should come before those of a section. Labour puts first things first: security from war, food, houses, clothing, employment, leisure, and social security for all, must come before the claims of the few for more rent, interest and profit. We have shown that we can organise the resources of the country to win the War; we can do the same in peace.”
These contrasting messages were, indeed, at the heart of the two campaigns. With the conservatives using slogans like “finish the job”, in contrast to Labor’s “Let us face the future”.
On that future, Labor had a very defined planned for fixing the war torn nation suffering from a massive housing crisis after all the bombings and a number of other extreme issues. Labour was promising to solve all of this, including full employment, in part by nationalizing staple industries like coal, steel, railways, electricity, aviation, etc. They also proposed social security, health care for everyone, more workers’ rights and affordable housing. What’s more, once again, given how well they had done at managing similar things on the home front during the war, the people believed they had the skills to do it.
Going back to the conservatives, while they did propose some things like improved housing and even a national healthcare, the promises were vague and ill-defined, as well as emphasizing letting the private sector, not the government, figure it out, and otherwise completely drowned out by the rest of their message of focussing abroad. With a nation sick of war and on the verge of bankruptcy, talk of continuation of the war indefinitely wasn’t exactly popular as you might imagine. Afterall, at this point, nobody knew how much longer it would take to defeat Japan. The Allies had more or less defeated Nazi Germany a couple years before Germany actually was forced to surrender.
Further, another line in the conservatives’ campaign was to illustrate the potential threat the Soviets and communism held, on the whole all of this seemingly giving the impression of a party bent on war indefinitely. And, indeed, Churchill was extremely concerned about the Soviets, stating without Germany, “what will lie between the white snows of Russia and the white cliffs of Dover?” And asking his military leaders to devise plans to counter the Soviets should they push further into Europe, as well as making plans to ally with Germany and the U.S. against the communist threat.
On top of this, as alluded to in Attlee’s aforementioned speech, many were angry at the conservative party for their policy of appeasement before the war which ultimately led to the disaster that followed. That Churchill had been leading the charge against such at the time didn’t matter- his party was still deemed responsible.
Thus, with the Conservative party’s perceived mismanagement of events leading up to WWII vs Atlee and the Labor party’s own extreme successes at managing domestic matters during the war within the coalition government, combined with the conservative party as a whole seeming to have no real hard plan that appealed to anyone for how things would be managed after the war other than continually pushing the specter of fear of more wars, all along with the general consensus that the conservative party would win in a landslide because of Churchill’s popularity, ultimately led to its rather stunning defeat.
This is something that should have been easily predicted even before the election, as polls had been showing for a few years that Labor, not the Conservatives, were leading the popular vote. And in fact, in February of 1945, polls showed it wasn’t even close, with an 18% lead by Labor over the Conservatives. However, as such polls at the time were something of a novelty, few took them very seriously.
And so it was, in a landslide victory of 47.7% to Labor, 36% to Conservative, the largest swing from Conservative to Labor in the history of British general elections, Churchill was out, and Attlee was in.
On this, neither Attlee, nor his party, had really thought they’d win either, and now that they had, they decided it was critical to give Attlee the boot. Thus, on the very day of victory, they told Attlee to wait to go to the King until they could elect a leader, even though publicly up to this point they had been putting Attlee forward as that leader throughout the election.
Attlee was having none of it, stating, “You cannot win an Election and then say the question of the premiership is open. If you are invited by the King to form a Government, you don’t say, you cannot reply for 48 hours, you accept the commission, and you either bring it off successfully or you don’t, and if you don’t, you go back and say you can’t and advise the King to send for someone else.”
His party did not agree, however. And continued to scheme. Once again true to his nature, rather than bother to argue further, he simply took action. Unbeknownst to his party, Attlee left and accepted the King’s invitation to the palace. Upon returning to his scheming party members’ victory party, he told them what he’d done and the matter mostly dropped from there.
As to the meeting with the King, apparently none too pleased with the change, when Attlee arrived, they both at first just stood in silence staring at each other. As things became awkward, Attlee finally broke the silence, stating “I’ve won the election.” The King then bruskly stated, “I know. I heard it on the six o’clock news.”
What would follow during Attlee’s reign were some of the most sweeping changes in British governing history, setting the table for many staples of the government and policy since, such as the National Health Service, expanding the 1944 Education Act, the National Insurance Act which provides unemployment and sickness benefits, and spearheading building over 1 million new homes in England, Scotland, and Wales in the next 6 years to replace those lost during the war despite material shortages. Further, with the focus more firmly on the home front rather than matters abroad, Attlee and his government’s policies also very intentionally saw the acceleration of the end of the British Empire and decolonization throughout the world. In all, his brief, only about a half a decade run, ultimately defined much of British politics for the next few decades.
Going back to Churchill, this wasn’t his end. You see, while the defeat sent Churchill into one of his occasional depressive spirals, and when the King had offered him the Order of the Garter, he declined stating the people had already given him “the order of the boot,” he ultimately accepted defeat cordially. When his physician quipped that the British people were ungrateful, Churchill reportedly replied, “I wouldn’t call it that. They have had a very hard time”. He would also state, “They are perfectly entitled to vote as they please – this is democracy. This is what we’ve been fighting for.”
And speaking of fighting, Churchill was still the leader of the opposition, and after Attlee and his government had done their thing and relative stability restored, Churchill and the conservatives managed to win in 1951, with the then 77 and ailing Churchill nonetheless once again resuming as Prime Minister despite a series of strokes preceding this. During office this time, he particularly focussed on continuing to strengthen relations between the U.S. and Britain as the best way to preserve peace in the face of the Soviet rise, as well as to attempt to negotiate an end to the Cold War. On the side, given all his work with the U.S. during his time as leader, in 1963, John F. Kennedy would declare Churchill, by Act of Congress, an honorary citizen of the United States, one of only 8 people in history to be given that honor.
As for Attlee, he would continue to lead the Labor party for a handful of years after his time as Prime Minister, before ultimately stepping down at the age of 72 in 1955. He was then elevated to Earl Attlee and took his place in the House of Lords, among other things notably helping to establish the Homosexual Law Reform Society, with the goal of decriminalizing homosexual acts.
Today, Attlee is almost always listed near the top of greatest Prime Ministers in UK history, often ahead of Churchill. Of this man who seemingly everyone had been underestimating his entire career despite the fact that he’d very quietly somehow managed to rise extremely rapidly from an upper middle-class background to the highest levels of government, and seemingly also very quietly doing an incredible job at every level, he allegedly wrote this limerick that aptly summed up his career: “Few thought he was much of a starter, There were many who thought themselves smarter, But he ended up PM, CH and OM, An Earl and a Knight of the Garter.“Expand for References
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