Was It Right That Churchill Lost The 1945 Election?

On 26 July 1945, Winston Churchill lost the general election in a shock landslide defeat against Labour. Were the people right to rise up against their once-beloved leader?

Winston Churchill

IT WAS WRONG THAT CHURCHILL LOST

How is it possible that Winston Churchill, the iconic wartime leader who marshalled the nation, who kept us in the good fight against Nazi horror, who boosted our morale during Britain's darkest moments, could be unceremoniously booted from power just weeks after finally triumphing against Hitler in 1945?

Good question. And one argument we can make is that the landslide victory for Labour in the '45 election amounted to an unfair dismissal of Churchill. The man had, by every measure, lived up to his responsibilities during the carnage of the war. Not just as a figurehead for the country, not just as a symbol of defiance, but as a strategist and diplomat, keeping strong and crucial alliances with the US and the Soviet Union.

A large part of his downfall was the Conservative Party's general approach on the campaign trail. Understandably, they chose to make it all about Churchill the man. After all, he was their big trump card - or so they thought. They didn't really appreciate how war-weary the nation was, and how Churchill represented the years of turmoil rather than the years of reconstruction ahead.

Yes, this was a failure of understanding on Churchill's part, but not a dereliction of duty. In many ways, he was punished for his association with the war he had just won. He was also partly punished by the electorate because he was a Conservative, pure and simple.

It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election, it was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain.

Many people still blamed the Conservatives for trying (and failing) to appease Hitler in the late 1930s. Neville Chamberlain had infamously promised "peace for our time", despite the blunt facts of Nazi aggression. Now, in 1945, Churchill was tarred with the same brush as his old Tory colleagues. As future PM Harold Macmillan put it, "It was not Churchill who lost the 1945 election, it was the ghost of Neville Chamberlain."

Some writers have argued that Churchill's vehemently anti-left-wing views also cost him the 1945 election. It's true that he detested socialism, and (notoriously) referred to Labour's welfare proposals as "Gestapo-like", but this was the climate of the time. Remember, the Cold War was just beginning, and there was huge suspicion about left-wing ideologies being a pathway to Stalinism.

Churchill may have lacked vision, and he may have handled the election campaign badly, but to have given marching orders to the leader who saved the nation while the dust was still settling in Europe was wrong, and the mark of an ungrateful nation.

Statue of Winston Churchill overlooking Westminster.

Statue of Winston Churchill overlooking Westminster.

IT WAS RIGHT THAT CHURCHILL LOST

Here's the alternative view: that Churchill lost for completely sound reasons, and that he had totally outlived his usefulness.

It's hard to argue that he wasn't the right leader for the war. But the war in Europe was now over. The nation was ravaged, ruined, exhausted, and desperate for renewal. They didn't have the luxury of handing Churchill another handful of years simply out of gratitude. They needed big changes - the kinds of changes only Clement Atlee and the Labour Party wanted to provide.

It was the right decision because Churchill had completed the mission of winning the war and was ill-fitted to deal with peacetime.

As historian Paul Addison, author of The Road to 1945 and Churchill on the Home Front, puts it: "It was the right decision because Churchill had completed the mission of winning the war and was ill-fitted to deal with the peacetime issues of the future at home, which were now the main preoccupation of the electorate."

These issues had been outlined in a bombshell of a report whose shockwaves were felt even in the midst of the very real bombs of World War Two. Published in 1942, the Beveridge Report condemned the "giant evils" of life in Britain at the time, including "squalor", "want", and "disease".

The Beveridge Report was devoured by a public hungry for change, and the Labour Party was ready to act on its recommendations. As for Churchill and the Conservatives... they had a rather different point of view of social reform. Churchill dismissed Beveridge himself as a "windbag and a dreamer", and was more focused on foreign policy issues than fixing his broken country.

No wonder that the once-popular wartime leader was viewed with such scepticism on the campaign trail. It wasn't simply because the public didn't want reminding of the war years. It was because they knew he wasn't committed to social reform and the welfare state. This is why he met such incredible hostility - during one campaign speech at Walthamstow Stadium he even "endured half an hour of booing" according to a newspaper report.

Ultimately, Labour was the force that the nation needed in 1945. Atlee's government would help pick the country back up and get on with the messy business of peacetime. Churchill had done his duty, and it was right that Atlee was then picked to do his.