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The 1945 General Election Reconsidered Henry Pelling The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2. (Jun., 1980), pp. 399-414. Stable URL: The Historical Journal is currently published by Cambridge University Press.

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The Historical Journal, Printed in Great Britain

23, 2

(1g80),pp. 399-414

T H E 1945 G E N E R A L E L E C T I O N



St John's College, Cambridge

I t may be thought surprising that one should attempt to reassess the 1945 general election, in view of the attention which has already been paid to it. T h e election was, as is well known, the subject of the first of the Nuffield election surveys, which have continued thereafter to the present day; and although that book, unlike more recent Nuffield studies, contained no account of the politics of the period preceding the election, such accounts have appeared in more recent years, most notably, perhaps that by Dr Paul Addison entitled The road to 1945.' Addison's work, however, full though it is on the politics of wartime, stops short a t the election itself; and the Nuffield study, being the first of its series, was also, it is fair to say, the crudest and least adequate - although when it was published it marked a n enormous technical advance on any previous rapid study of a British general election.

First the outline of political events in Britain in wartime must be sketched. All the parties in the House ofcommons a t the outbreak ofwar in September 1939, with the exception of the tiny Independent Labour party with three M.P.s and the Communist party with only one, accepted the necessity for going to war.2 Consequently, although Neville Chamberlain's attempts to form a coalition government failed, all major parties - i.e. Conservatives and National Government supporters, and also the Labour party and the Liberal party - agreed to an electoral truce, as they had done in the First World War. This meant that a t by-elections, the parties agreed that the party whose member had vacated the seat had the right to nominate a candidate without opposition from the other parties to the agreement. This did not mean that there were no contested by-elections in wartime: it meant only that the candidate or candidates opposing the official nominee had to be independents or representatives of minor parties. The works referred to are: R. B. McCallum and A. Readman, British general election of 1945 (London, 1g47), and P. Addison, The road lo 1945 (London, 1975). I may also mention here the brief treatment in my own Britain and the Second World W a r (London, 1970). The Communist party opposed the war only until the invasion of Russia in June 1941.See my Brttish C o m m u n i s t p a r ~(rev. edn, London, 1g75), pp. 109-19.



I n May 1940, after the failure of the Norwegian campaign, Chamberlain resigned office in favour of Winston Churchill, who commanded the support, vital for a coalition, of the main opposition party, namely the Labour party. After consultations between the Labour leader Clement Attlee and his deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, with the national executive committee of the party, which was meeting a t Bournemouth during an annual conference, Labour's support for the new coalition under Churchill was agreed, and with the Liberal party also joining in, Churchill's government got off to a good start - which was just as well, considering the gravity ofevents with which it was confronted : the rapid collapse of the French army, the Dunkirk evacuation, and the threat of a n invasion of British soil. This is no place to recount the events of wartime in the military sphere. So far as politics went, let it suffice to say, first, that Churchill by means of his broadcast addresses - which usually each contained a titbit of information not previously reported in the newspapers - was able to establish a remarkable degree of rapport with popular opinion. As a London tenant remarked to a housing manager during the Battle of Britain, M r Churchill 'takes such a n interest in the war, doesn't he'.3 The result was that from 1942 onwards, whenever the Gallup Poll published its findings about whether or not people approved of Churchill as prime minister, those affirming their support for him hardly ever fell below 80 per cent. But on the other hand, there was no equally warm support for the government as a whole, and when there were serious setbacks overseas, as for instance by the fall of Singapore or the loss of the North African fortress of Tobruk in 1942, satisfaction with the government fell below 50 per cent4. The other index of popular feeling was by-elections: increasingly, Left-wing independents began to challenge government, or a t least Conservative, nominees; and the new Socialist organization founded by Sir Richard Acland and entitled 'Common Wealth' won one seat in April 1943, another in January 1944, and a third in April 1945. Meanwhile within the coalition government ministers of all persuasions found that they could work quite well together, and party politics of the old type rarely reared its head a t cabinet meetings. Richard Casey, the Australian diplomat who had been appointed British minister in the Middle East, with the right to attend cabinet meetings when he was in England, noticed that 'practically all the Labour Ministers integrate loyally and helpfully with the Tories, particularly B e ~ i n 'Ernest Bevin, of course, was a trade-union leader .~ who had joined the coalition on Churchill's invitation without ever previously having been a member of parliament, although his Socialist sympathies were well known. So far as relations with the Soviet Union were concerned, it was Beaverbrook, the Conservative newspaper proprietor, who was keenest upon the early establishment of a Second Front, and it was Attlee who threatened to resign if the Soviet annexation of territory a t the expense of the pre-war Hansard CCLXIII, 1530 ( 1 Aug. 1940).

See the graph in my Britain and the Second World W a r , p. 307.

R. G. Casey, Personal experiences, 1 9 3 ~ 4 (6London, 1962), p. 168.


40 I

Poland and Baltic States was officially recognized by Britain. For a time, in the three months or so after the publication of the Beveridge report in December 1942, the problems of post-war reconstruction appeared to threaten the unity of the government. But a compromise was patched u p within the cabinet, and not until Germany appeared on the point of collapse in late 194.4 did the prospect of peace revive the conflict of party. This was exemplified in October 1944, when there was a debate on the renewal of the electoral truce for a further year. T h e existing House of Commons had been elected no less than nine years previously, in 1935, and it was naturally the minority parties that were most discontented with the existing state of affairs. Churchill himself was constrained to make a formal statement to the effect that 'it would be wrong to continue this Parliament beyond the period of the German War'.6 At this time it was assumed that the war against Japan, in view of the almost fanatical resistance of the Japanese forces, might well last for another eighteen months. T h e 'end of the German War', as Churchill had put it, or, as people spoke ofit more commonly at the time, VE Day, came on 8 May I 945. I t had already been agreed by the cabinet that there should be no rushed election - that is to say, that the events of November-December I g I 8 should not be repeated. But Churchill's Conservative advisers favoured a n early election in order, if possible, to capitalize upon his reputation as the architect ofvictory. This meant June or early July. T h e Labour leaders, on the other hand, preferred the lapse of a few months, for precisely the same reason. Herbert Morrison, who was home secretary, pointed out that by October a new register of votes would be available, which in view of the fact that people were moving rapidly from place to place, would be far more accurate than the existing register. T h e issue came to a head at Whitsun, 18-21 May 1945, when the Labour party was meeting a t Blackpool for its annual conference, and when Attlee had just returned from attendance at the San Francisco conference which had founded the United Nations Organization. Some of the evidence for developments that ensued is to be found in the prime minister's official papers, which are in the Public Record Office.' Churchill's personal private secretary T . L. Rowan, made a 'Note' on the sequence of events a t this juncture. O n Friday 1 8 May Attlee was in London, but was preparing to leave for Blackpool. At I o a.m. the prime minister's letter, offering him either a n early dissolution or a continuation of the coalition until the end ofthe war against Japan, was sent to him by hand from No. 10Downing Street. At 3 p.m. Attlee called upon Churchill and suggested to him an amendment of the letter, so as to make the idea of continuing the coalition more agreeable to the National Executive Committee of the Labour party. T h e amendment involved the addition of the sentence: I n the meantime [i.e. during the continued Coalition] we would together d o our utmost to implement the proposals for social security and full employment contained in the White Papers which we have laid before Parliament. W. S. Churchill, The daujn of liberation (London, 1g45), p. 233 Public Record Office.

' PREM 4/65/4,



At this point, as Dalton's personal diary records, ' C R A [Attlee] was in favour of going on. EB [Bevin] and I were inclined to agree. Rut we doubted whether the conference would take it'.8 At all events, with the revised version of the letter Attlee set off for Blackpool on the ~ g t h which , was the Saturday, but the decisive meeting was on Sunday the aoth, in the council chamber of the town hall. T h e minutes of this meeting are very uninformative. ( I n this they resemble the minutes of most cabinet meetings.) They record: Mr Attlee then read the letter received from the Prime Minister and indicated his views regarding the proposals contained therein. The Chairman [Ellen Wilkinson M.P.] then threw the matter open for discussion and intimated that she thought it desirable that every member of the Executive should express his views one way or the other. After considerable discussion it was RESOLVED: That Mr Attlee prepare a draft reply to be sent to the Prime Minister embodying the views of the National Executive Committee for submission to a further meeting. It was also AGREED that the letter should be read to the delegates on the following day at a private s e s s i ~ n . ~ W e have to piece together what actually happened a t the meeting from diaries and reminiscences. According to George Wigg, Shinwell repeatedly told him that he (Shinwell) and Bevan had been the first advocates of a n immediate election, but they had been opposed by Ernest Bevin, who was not a member of the executive but was attending by special invitation. Wigg's account continues : A critical point was reached when Morrison joined Shinwell and Bevan. The decisive voice, however, was that of the Labour Chief Whip, Willie Whiteley, who told the National Executive. . .'the lads will not stand for continuing the Coalition', the 'lads' being the rank and file of the Parliamentary Labour Party.lo From Dalton's diary we know that in the end Attlee formally proposed continuation of the coalition until the end of the Japanese War, but that only three members of the executive of twenty-seven - all of the three being trade unionists - were willing to support him. Dalton suggested a compromise: to continue the coalition until November, but to review it in October. But as he says

. . .this was thought to be too cunning and compromising and I got no support. It was finally agreed that Attlee should reply to Churchill that we could not accept the end of the Japanese War as the limit of the Coalition, but that we would go on until October." T h e reply to Churchill was therefore drafted by Attlee and Morrison in this sense. I t was read to the conference delegates in private session in the afternoon; it was approved by the entire conference with only two dissentients;12 and H. Dalton, MS diary, Brit. Lib. Pol. & Econ. Sci., 18 May 1945. NEC minutes, 1945, p. 256, Labour Party Archives. Lord Wigg, George Wigg (London, 1g72), p. 119. l1 H. Dalton, T h e fatefulyears (London, 1957), p. 459. l2 Labour Party Conferences report, 1945, pp. 8&8, @




Rowan's Note records that it was telephoned to Chequers, the prime minister's weekend residence, at 8 p.m. I t will therefore be seen that Attlee was overruled by his executive over the question of continuing the coalition. T h e point was missed by the Press and public at the time, except for one very well-informed article in the Daily Telegraph in mid-June, which pointed out that the only explanation which fits the fact is that the Socialist leaders themselves, or some of them, wanted ammunition to support a fight for acceptance of Mr Churchill's offer. . .The dog was clearly not kicked out of the Coalition, but wagged out by its own tail.13 Meanwhile, within the national executive of the Labour party, there were those who thought that the situation called for the replacement of Attlee as leader by some more partisan anti-Churchillian. Ellen Wilkinson, the retiring chairman of the executive, favoured Herbert Morrison as his successor, and asked Dalton to persuade Attlee to retire. But Dalton 'said it was impossible to change now'.14 This did not deter Professor Harold Laski, the new executive chairman, from drafting what he described as ' a very difficult letter' to Attlee, inviting him to step down before the election campaign. Laski wrote: I have been acutely aware for many months, and especially during the Blackpool Conference, of the strong feeling that the continuance of your leadership in the party is a grave handicap to our hopes of victory in the coming election.

As a professor of political science it was not difficult for him to present a number of historical parallels to justify his argument: Lord John Russell giving way to Palmerston, Arthur Balfour to Bonar Law, Asquith to Lloyd George, were some of them. H e also cited Churchill changing General Auchinleck for General Montgomery before the battle of El Alamein. Attlee's successor, he argued, could be chosen by the parliamentary party before the dissolution of the existing parliament in mid-June. T h e letter ended: I am convinced that you are selfless and single-minded enough to put the party's cause first, and yourself second, in your reflexion on the grave issues we have to face.

An undated holograph of this letter appears in the Laski correspondence a t Transport House.15 It was obviously prepared after 23 May, when Churchill announced the termination of the coalition and the arrangements for the dissolution in June and the election in July. And it had been received by Attlee on the 28th, when he showed it to Whiteley, who advised him to ignore it.16 There is no reply to it in the Laski correspondence: but Attlee's terseness is well known, and he had already been defending himself against charges of ' MacDonaldism' made by Laski in the previous year, as Laski's biographer, Kingsley . Martin, has recorded." T h e subject was not raised at the final meeting of the retiring parliamentary Labour party on 29 l3 l5


" l8

Daily Telegraph, I r June 1945. l4 Dalton, MS diary, 19-13 May.

Laski correspondence, 38/20, Labour Party Archives.

Chuter Ede diary, XII, 1 3 (28 May 1945). B.M. Add. MSS 59701.

Kingsley Martin, Harold Laski (London, 1g53),p p 158-62.

Ede diary, xrr, 14 (29 May 1945).


When Churchill resigned as leader of the coalition government on 23 May he at once took office again as prime minister of a caretaker government, consisting mostly of Conservatives, but with a sprinkling of National Liberals and also non-party men such as the former civil servants Sir John Anderson and Sir James Grigg and the former business-man Lord Woolton. T h e dissolution of parliament was not to be until 15June, and in the meantime and during the election the affairs of government, including the arrangements for British representation at the Potsdam conference of the great powers, had to be carried on. O n 4 June, that is, eleven days before the dissolution, Churchill made the first and most famous of his four election broadcasts, and took the opportunity to assert, to the surprise and anger of his Labour former colleagues, that a Socialist government 'would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance'. This was an astonishing accusation, at a time when the horrors of the German concentration camps had just come to public notice as a result of the forward movement of the Allied armies. Attlee replied on the following evening, saying in his broadcast that: 'The voice we heard last night was that of M r Churchill, but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook.' Although the Labour party was allotted ten broadcasts during the campaign, which was the same number as the Conservatives had, Transport House had arranged for Attlee to give only one, the first, whereas Churchill gave altogether four. But Attlee was generally thought to have got the better of his initial exchange with Churchill. T h e parliamentary Labour party gave him 'quite a stirring ovation' when he entered the House next day.lg All the same, these public disagreements did not prevent Churchill from inviting Attlee to accompany himself to Potsdam as an observer, in case before the end of the conference a change of government took place in Britain. I n this way Churchill and his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, hoped to commit any future Labour government to the policy which they were pursuing in their negotiations with Truman and Stalin. O n 8June Attlee accepted the invitation to join Churchill a t Potsdam as an observer. They saw eye-to-eye on foreign policy; and from Chuter Ede's diary we know that Attlee had been 'much perturbed by the San Francisco Conference' - presumably, that is, by what he took to be Russian obduracy over Poland and over the United Nations veto - and this was probably, one reason why he did not want an early election.20 But the commitment aroused Laski's interest and concern: he himselfwas now chairman of the party's national executive, and he may have thought that he himself should have been invited to attend, or at any rate that exponents of a distinct and 'Socialist' foreign policy should be sent. At any Ibid. XII, 16 (6 June 1945). Ibid., XII, I 1 (24 May 1945). Cf. Dalton, Fatefulyears, p. 457: ' I saw Attlee alone on the 17th, and he told me of difficulties arising already with the Russians in Europe.' lQ




rate he sought to whittle down the extent of Attlee's commitment. I n a statement on the 14th he declared: It is of course essential that if Mr Attlee attends this gathering he should do so in the role of an observer only. . .Labour has a foreign policy which in many respects will not be continuous with that of a Tory-dominated Coalition. Next day, Churchill wrote again to Attlee, seeking clarification, and saying: Merely to come as a mute observer would, I think, be derogatory to your position as the Leader of your party, and I should not have a right to throw this burden upon you in such circumstan~es.~~ But Attlee replied with much firmness, on the same day: There seems to be great public advantage in preserving and presenting to the world at this time, that unity on foreign policy which was maintained throughout the last five years. I do not anticipate that we shall differ on the main lines of policy which we have discussed together so often.22 Attlee did not, however, attempt publicly to rebuke or to silence Laski; and the Conservative newspapers naturally enjoyed keeping the issue alive. An article by the political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph on 18June, for instance was headlined: 'Major Crisis in Socialist Party. Pre-Election Split on Caucus Control. Foreign Policy Issue: M r Attlee's Status.' Churchill himself took u p the issue in his third election broadcast, on 2 1 June: referring to Potsdam, he said that It was my conception that I should enjoy 1Mr Attlee's counsels at every stage of the discussions. . .However, a new figure has leaped into notoriety. The situation has been complicated and darkened by the repeated intervention of Professor Laski, Chairman of the Socialist Party Executive. He has reminded all of us, including Mr Attlee, that the final determination of all questions of foreign policy rests, so far as the Socialist Party is concerned, with this dominating Socialist E x e c u t i ~ e . ~ ~ Now it is true that Churchill always enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of the hustings, and to some extent he had to reassert his Conservative credentials after the years of coalition. But on this occasion his emphasis upon the peculiarities of the Labour party constitution was more than just a n election 'stunt'. First, he knew that the extra-parliamentary party had committed itself to many loose generalities about foreign policy which were not shared by those who had served him as colleagues during the coalition. Secondly, he knew from several incidents, of which the last, a t the Blackpool conference, was the most impressive, that Attlee could be and sometimes was overruled by the executive; and he therefore thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that this might occur if and when he was prime minister. Churchill also thought that this issue was one which would interest the electorate: but in this he was mistaken. Naturally most of those who took the 22 23

W. S. Churchill, Victory (London, 1946)~ p . 212. Attlee to Churchill, 15June 1945, PREM 4/65/4/518. Churchill, Victory, p. 203.



trouble to follow the a r g u m e n t assumed t h a t the L a b o u r leaders knew m o r e a b o u t the points concerned t h a n Churchill d i d ; a n d the L a b o u r leaders allowed Attlee to a c t as their spokesman - thereby strengthening his position as Churchill's obvious rival for the premiership, which h e h a d hardly appeared to b e d u r i n g the coalition years. O n 2 July, just three days before polling day, Churchill wrote again to Attlee: We have learnt a great deal more than we knew before about the powers vested in the National Executive Committee, of which Mr Laski is the undisputed Chairman. It certainly appears that they are very wide in their terms and, from your silence, very real. It would appear that a Labour or Socialist Government would be subject to the directions of this Committee and that matters of foreign affairs and, I presume, if they desired it, military affairs, would have to be submitted to them.24 Since these letters were clearly for immediate publication, Attlee m a d e a point of replying the same night, in time for the following day's newspaper^.^^ H e replied also o n 2 July: The constitutional relationship between the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Party has existed unchanged for years and is set out in an appendix to the reports of the Annual Conference published every year. Neither by decision of the Annual Party Conference nor by provision in the Party constitution is the Parliamentary Labour Party answerable to or under the direction of the National Executive Committee. Churchill was not to be p u t off. Next d a y , the grd, h e returned to the attack: Under your Party's constitution it is provided that 'The work of the Party shall be under the direction and control of the Party Conference. . . ' and the Executive Committee shall 'subject to the control and directions ofthe Party Conference, be the Administrative Authority of the Party'. T h e letter continued a t some length, b u t all its contents need not b e repeated here. Attlee replied a t once, rather sharply:

I am surprised that you, who are apparently becoming acquainted with the Constitution of the Labour Party for the first time, should on the authority of an unnamed informant seek to attach to its provisions meanings other than those accepted by myself and others who have spent years of service in the Labour Party. Much of your trouble is due to your not understanding the distinction between the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party. I t should b e emphasized here that Churchill's so-called 'trouble' also afflicted m a n y of the pioneers of the party, not to speak of the trade-union leaders who later attempted to force u p o n H u g h Gaitskell the acceptance of unilateral nuclear disarmament a t Scarborough i n 1960, o r the present left wing of the executive w h o a r e in rebellion against the parliamentary leadership. As for Laski, h e was somewhat distracted b y a n accusation, across the front page of the Daily Express o n 20 June, that i n answering questions after a speech 24 25

Churchill to Attlee, 2 July 1945,PREM 4/6j/+/j07. C. R. Attlee, As it happened (London,19j4),p. 145.



at Newark he had argued for 'Socialism even if it means violence'. Laski was at once persuaded to issue a writ for libel, and this imposed a measure of restraint upon any discussion ofhis views, although when the case came to court in November 1946, after a vigorous cross-examination by Sir Patrick Hastings, K.C., Laski lost the action and found himself saddled with a debt of E13,ooo for costs, which his friends rallied around to pay. I t is perhaps not surprising that after the election had come and gone and after another indiscretion by Laski concerned with foreign policy, Attlee wrote to him to say: ' . . . a period of silence on your part would be welcome'.26

Considering that the voting took place on 5 July, and that the plans for it had been announced on 23 May, the election campaign was quite prolonged. In spite of the Labour accusations of a 'rushed' election, Dalton himself wrote in his diary that 'it was very long drawn I t certainly lasted twice as long as that of February 1974,which took place in the minimum period of three weeks. But after the voting on 5 July, the ballot boxes were sealed for three weeks, to allow the Service votes to be assembled from stations overseas and distributed by constituency: thus the election count did not take place until 26 July. T h e Labour Manifesto for the election, entitled Let us face the future, was skilfully drawn u p by Herbert Morrison, who was the chairman of the party's policy committee. I t was designed to draw in the uncommitted voter: each proposed measure of nationalization was justified in terms of practical arguments for efficiency. T h e pamphlet made no mention of Attlee, and it might be thought that this was due to Morrison's jealousy of Attlee's leadership, which was indeed to come to the fore after the election. But after the crisis of 1931, when the party had, as so many of its members felt, been 'betrayed' by its then leaders, the omission caused no comment. T h e Conservatives, on the other hand, naturally felt that they must make what capital they could out of their own leader's reputation in the country. Consequently, the Tory manifesto was entitled M r Churchill's declaration ofpolicy to the electors. I t was this issue ofleadership which made contemporary observers expect an outcome of the election favourable to the Conservative Party. There was the precedent of Lloyd George's immense success in I g I 8 ; and there were few who noticed that Lloyd George had won in alliance with the principal opposition party of I g I 4, which ofcourse bore no responsibility for bringing about the war or preparing the armed forces for it; whereas Churchill's colleagues were the men of ' appeasement' and of reputed military unpreparedness. There was still a certain amount of old-fashioned plural voting: business-men had a vote for their business premises as well as a residential vote, if the latter was in a different constituency; and there were twelve university seats, where 26 ?'

Martin, Laski, p. 182. Dalton, Fatefulyears, p. 463.



polling was by single transferable vote. Consequently it was not surprising that most political observers expected that though the result would probably be closer than in 1935, the Conservatives would have a lead in the end. They had had a majority of 150 in the 1935 parliament, but this had been somewhat reduced by by-election losses. During the later war years, from 1942 onwards, a series of carefully constructed Gallup Polls had been appearing in the News Chronicle, a Liberal paper, and they had always been predicting a heavy swing to Labour on the part of the electorate. Little attention was paid to them, even by members of the News Chronicle staff: the period when political polls were accepted as part of the electoral scene still lay in the future. In fact, the final Gallup prediction was accurate to about I %. Gallup expected Labour to obtain 47 % of the total poll, whereas the figure was actually 47'8; he expected 41 % Conservative, whereas the result showed 39.8 % ; the Liberals were predicted a t 10.0%, but in the end scored 9.0 %.2s T h e Daily Express, Beaverbrook's paper, as usual was more optimistic for the tories: it predicted a Churchillian majority of over sixty; 29 and Churchill told the king that he expected a majority of 'between thirty and eighty'.30 Even on the Labour side the expectations were similar: Dalton foresaw 'either a small Tory majority or a deadlock'.31 In the actual result, the Labour party secured 393 seats, the Conservatives and their allies 2 I 3, the Liberals I 2, and there were 2 2 Independents. Thus the overall Labour majority, which has never been exceeded since, was 148. I t had been Churchill's intention to remain in office until the dust had settled on the battlefield of politics; but as a result of the overwhelming nature of the Conservative defeat, he went to the Palace to resign on the evening of the day that brought most of the results, and before they were complete - that is to say, 7 p.m. on 26 J u l y O n his advice, Attlee was immediately summoned by the king and thereupon undertook to form a government. T h e king noted in his diary that Attlee was 'very surprised that his Party had won'; but he had already been thinking about the formation of a ministry, and he informed the king that he would probably appoint Dalton as his foreign secretary. T h e king, however, demurred at this and recommended Ernest Bevin, who had found favour with Churchill during the war and who carried such weight with the trade-union movement.32 Next day, the 27th, saw two important decisions by the new prime minister. T h e first was a rejection of an attempt by Herbert Morrison to delay the formation of a government until the parliamentary party had met, and a new leader had been chosen. Morrison was justified in making this demand, in accordance with the constitution of the party; but, as Attlee pointed out in his draft memoirs, in a passage removed from the published edition, 28 McCallum & Readman, 1945, p. 242; D. E. Butler and A. Sloman, British political facts, 1goe1g75 (London, 1 9 7 5 ) ~p. 184. 28 McCallum & Readman, 1945, p. 240. 30 J. W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VI (London, 1 9 5 8 ) ~ p. 635. 31 Dalton, Fatefulyears, p. 466. 32 Wheeler-Bennett, George VI, p. 638.



I h a d . . .received the King's commission and had just emerged successfully as the leader at a general election. The idea was fantastic and certainly out of keeping with the feeling of the Party.33

But Attlee acknowledged that Morrison deserved to be 'number two' in the government, and offered him the post of lord president of the Council and leader of the House of Commons, which after some hesitation he accepted. T h e other major decision by Attlee was to make Bevin his foreign secretary and Dalton his chancellor of the exchequer, instead of the other way about. Again in a passage left out of his published memoirs, he indicated that this was because Morrison's relations with Bevin had always been 'strained' and for that reason they had to be kept in spheres 'where they were not so likely to clash'.34 T h e switch was made well after he had seen the king, for on the morning of the 27th he advised Dalton to 'pack, and put in a thin suit' in preparation for the trip to P ~ t s d a mLater . ~ ~ that day, though, and in time for the first announcement of the names of six leading ministers, Attlee's change of mind took place. Next morning - 28 July - the six new ministers went to the Palace for the formality of 'kissing hands' on appointment, and then they a t once attended a first meeting of the new parliamentary party, which took place not in Westminster but at the Beaver Hall in the City. A motion of confidence in Attlee as Leader was moved by Bevin and seconded by Greenwood, and after his apparently almost gladiatorial success against Churchill there could hardly be any question of opposition. Bevin emphasized his support for the new prime minister, saying: 'The Labour Party is fortunate in its Leader, and he merits our fullest confidence.' T h e motion, we are told, 'was received with unanimity and enthusiasm', and on rising to reply Attlee was greeted by a ' three-minute ovation'. After his speech he and Bevin left for Northolt Aerodrome, 'where they boarded separate Berlin-bound Skymasters as a precautionary measure'. I t had been the custom for Churchill never to travel in the same aircraft as his foreign secretary, for fear of a mishap. Behind the two Labour ministers, the meeting of the parliamentary party continued, and Morrison took the chair as Attlee's deputy.36 Chuter Ede thought 'it was perhaps significant that he had not spoken to the resolution just passed'.37

Various reasons have been adduced for the success of the Labour party in the general election. T h e immediate reactions saw the results in terms of the immediate campaign. The Times thought that Churchill's tactics were wrong, 33

34 35 36 37

Attlee papers I / I 7/ 1, Churchill College, Cambridge.

Ibid. I f.

H.Dalton, High tide and after (London, 1962), p. I I .

Town-Crier (Birmingham), 4 Aug. 1945.

Ede diary, xIr, 26 (28 July 1945).



and that he was to blame for 'emphasizing the narrow animosities of the party fight'. T h e Manchester Guardian took a similar view; the mistake was Churchill's attempt 'to turn the election into a personal plebiscite'. Later on, when Churchill published his own wartime memoirs, these interpretations not surprisingly did not appeal to him. He thought that the defeat was due to the weakness of Conservative organization, for the tory agents had gone off to serve in the forces, whereas the Labour agents went merely into the factories, where they were readily at hand for political activity: They all did work on the home front which no one else could have done, and at the same time they maintained - and who could blame them? - their party affiliation^.^^

There was some truth in this observation, but probably not much. T h e Nuffield survey noted a n opinion poll which indicated that 84% of people had made u p their minds how to vote before nomination day.39I t was true, however, that the overwhelming bulk of full-time party agents who were in the forces were Conservatives. This was to a large extent because the overwhelming bulk of full-time party agents were Conservatives anyway; the number of full-time Labour agents was relatively small, and the party depended to a considerable degree upon the voluntary service of trade-union officials and other part-time workers. A further possible explanation of the left-wing tide was produced by the former Conservative minister ofeducation, R. A. Butler, in his memoirs, which were published almost a generation later. His view was that the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) had a 'left-wing influence', and was responsible for persuading many of the large number of men serving in the Army to side with Labour.40 But this is to place altogether too much emphasis upon the ability of army officers to indoctrinate their troops; it would be more likely, if anything, that the troops would vote against what any of them felt to be a propaganda line. I n any case, we know that the forces' vote was comparatively light, being less than 6 0 % of those qualified, as against a turnout of 72'7 % for the electorate as a whole.41 But perhaps the most conclusive piece of evidence against the idea that ABCA was of importance is provided by the Gallup Poll itself, which was necessarily conducted entirely among the civilian population, and which showed a marked left-wing lead from as far back as 942. I t is true that the service vote was more strongly pro-Labour than that of the country as a whole. This was observed by several candidates as the count took place, among them Mrs Leah Manning, who was elected Labour M.P. for Epping, part of Churchill's old constituency: 'When the constituency boxes were opened, I was well down. . .But when the soldiers' vote came to be counted, my pile crept up and But this may be explained by the



38 40 41 42

W. S. Churchill, Second World W a r , VI (London, 1954), 509

McCallum & Readman, 1945, p. 269.

R. A. Butler, T h e art of the possible (London, 197I ) , p. I 2.

McCallum & Readman, 1945,p. 43 n.

Leah Manning, A life for education (London, 1970))p. 164.



well-established feature of post-war elections, that Labour supporters have tended to be more numerous among the young than among the old, and among men than among women. O f course all governments have their ups-and-downs; and the fact that a party in opposition does well in by-elections does not necessarily mean that it will win a general election which occurs perhaps many months later. All the same, wartime seemed to show a steady strengthening of left-wing feeling, exemplified first in the reaction to J. B. Priestley's broadcast 'Postscripts', then in the 1941 Committee which he was largely responsible for founding, and finally in Common Wealth, which has already been mentioned, and which was able to win by-elections in seats that were previously Conservative. We must, therefore, look for some long-term factors to explain the sudden and dramatic change of 194.5. First of all must come the 'swing of the pendulum', which indicates the accumulation of discontent against any government which has been in office for a long time - and there had been a parliament with a Conservative majority ever since November 1931. I t was possible to blame 'the Tories' for the failures of British foreign policy in the I g30s, for the Munich Agreement, for the lack of effective rearmament, and for the weakness of British performance in the early years of the war: (Parenthetically, it may be added that in the First World War this discontent had been a t the expense ofthe Liberals.) I t was difficult for people to appreciate that their country by the late 1930s was no longer relatively as strong as it had been during the First World War, and that in peacetime it simply could not afford to keep up with the German army and air force, as well as to maintain a substantially larger navy. Linked with this was the fear of a return to the unemployment of the I 930s. This should not be over-emphasized, as economic historians have drawn attention, not only to the substantial recovery of the mid and late 1g3os, but also to the industries and districts which prospered amidst the distress around them.43 By what was almost an accident, the parliamentary Labour party managed to secure the credit for making a stand in favour of the full implementation of the Beveridge report, first published in December 1942, which simply 'assumed' the introduction of several major reforms, notably the maintenance of full employment, a system of family allowances and a comprehensive health service. Beveridge, a Liberal and retired civil servant of distinction, had been appointed to the task of surveying the social services by Arthur Greenwood, when the latter was in charge of post-war planning. (Churchill thought Greenwood a weak minister, and put him in charge of post-war planning so that he could not endanger the running ofthe war.) When the Beveridge report was debated in the House of Commons in February 1943, Churchill was ill with pneumonia, and although he had decided not to take part in the debate, it is possible that he would have intervened if he had seen or been told that the Labour backbenchers were in revolt against what sounded like excessive caution on the part of Government ministers such 43

See, for example, H. W. Richardson, Economic recovery in Britain, 1 9 3 (London, ~ 1967)



as Kingsley Wood, the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, and Sir John Anderson, who sounded very much like the civil servant that he had been for so many years. After hearing the debate, the parliamentary Labour party decided, for the first time ever since the coalition had been formed, to put down an official amendment to a government motion. No Conservatives, but the overwhelming bulk of the Labour party supported this amendment in the lobby. Ironically enough, Anderson in his speech had accepted virtually all of the Beveridge proposals, at least in principle. A third reason for the success of Labour in 1945 was that the electorate, having been told, day in and day out, about the magnificent resistance of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, believed that Socialism must be efficient. T h e Eastern Front was front-page news in the British press for months at a time, and the Stalingrad victory for the Red Army was greeted with enormous enthusiasm. I t was King George V I who epitomized popular feeling by presenting to the Russian people the 'Sword of Stalingrad' in recognition of the victory which as he said 'turned the tide'.44 I t was on an altogether different scale from the previous much smaller success of the British and their Allies at El Alamein. Although American soldiers arrived in Britain in increasingly large numbers, they were not so popular in Britain, especially as they were not yet in contact with the enemy. A Gallup Poll in June 1942 established that 62 % of those questioned thought that Russia was 'more popular with the British' than the United States.45 I t may be asked why, if Russia was so enthusiastically supported, it was not the Communist party, rather than the Labour party, which won &hereflected glory. T o a limited extent the Communist party did gain credit: from a maximum of I 8,000, its membership rose to a total of 50,000 in 194.4.But many people could maintain that the Labour party represented the British form of Socialism, whereas Communism was the Russian form. And there were naturally other facts to assist the Labour cause a t this time. The 1935 election had placed the party in the indisputable position of being the main opposition party - for the Liberals had been reduced to a tiny fragment. There was the fact that the Labour party now had a group of successful ministers who had proved themselves during the war. Attlee's achievements were largely behind the scenes, and perhaps not many people knew of his skill as a chairman of cabinet committees. More prominent were Morrison, who was both home secretary and minister for home security (that is, in charge of air raid precautions); and Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour and national service, who had had to organize the call-up for the forces. Hugh Dalton had been first minister for economic warfare and then president of the Board of Trade; and Stafford Cripps, who now rejoined the Labour party after having been expelled in 1939, had been ambassador in Moscow and minister for aircraft production. Fourthly, the one demonstrable success in legislation by the inter-war 44 45

Wheeler-Bennett. George VI, p. 585.

H. Cantril, Public opinion, 1935-1946 (Princeton, NJ., 1951), p. 275.



Labour governments was Wheatley's Housing Act of 1924. Housing was now for most electors the most important social issue, because of the cessation of house-building during the war and the damage to the existing stock caused by air raids.46 Labour candidates stressed the importance of this issue, and many of them had served on the housing committees of their local councils, which dealt directly with the problem. Churchill organized what he called a 'Housing Squad' of ministers during the period of the caretaker government, but of course there could be nothing to show for its activity after a six-week period. Some of the electors must have recalled Lloyd George's promise of 'Homes for Heroes' after the First World W a r - a promise which appeared never to have been fulfilled. The point was mentioned in Labour pr~paganda.~' Finally, although Churchill could expect to gain something in the election from his personal role in the military victory, his habit ofvisiting the war-fronts in the latter part of the war dressed in military uniform meant that some politically unsophisticated voters began to assume that, like the king, he was altogether above the parties, and that it would be safe to vote for some party other than the Conservatives and their immediate allies, as Churchill would despite the results carry on as prime minister. In his last broadcast speech Churchill had to put in a disclaimer about this: Beware that you are not deceived about the workings of our political system at this Election. There is no truth in stories now being put about that you can vote for my political opponents at this election, whether they be Labour or Liberal, without at the same time voting for my dismissal from power.48

Although the Labour party did not secure a majority of the total votes cast in the election - a success which has eluded the party to this day - the result was decisive in terms of seats and also by virtue of the complete rejection that it indicated of the Conservative party and its leaders. As already mentioned, Churchill decided to resign a t once rather than to wait over the weekend, as he had originally been contemplating in the event of a less considerable setback. T h e king described their meeting as 'very sad': ' I told him I thought the people were very ungrateful after the way they had been led in the War.'49 Mrs Churchill, to console her husband, about whose health she was in grave doubt, suggested that it was a 'blessing in disguise'. His reply is well known: 'At the moment it seems quite effectively d i s g ~ i s e d .But ' ~ ~on I August, when parliament reassembled, the Conservatives, realizing that if it had not been for Churchill they would have suffered an even worse defeat, rose when he entered the Chamber and sang 'For he's a Jolly Good Fellow'. T o their surprise the massed ranks of the Labour party responded by singing ' T h e Red Flag'. 46




McCallum & Readman, 1945,p. 237 Ibid. p. 52. Churchill, Victory, p. 208. Wheeler-Bennett, George VI, p. 636. Churchill, Second World War, v ~583. ,



Oliver Lyttelton, Churchill's close friend and colleague, wrote later: ' M y complacency melted in a minute. I began to fear for my country.'51 This essay has tried to explain some of the reasons for the great turnabout of I 945, and how Churchill himself played an accidental part, if not in causing his own defeat as has been thought, at least in building up the hitherto almost unknown personality of his principal opponent, Clement Attlee. Needless to say, the turn-about was not a revolution, and with Attlee and Bevin in charge Oliver Lyttelton soon got over his fears.


Viscount Chandos, Memoirs (London, 1962),p. 329.

1945 reconsidered  
1945 reconsidered  

Article by Henry Pelling