The General Election of 1945 threw up, arguably, the greatest surprise in modern British electoral history. Few can comprehend, especially in the modern era, how it could have been possible for Winston Churchill – inspirational war leader and national hero – not to be returned to Downing Street having just overseen a gargantuan victory for Britain and its allies in the Second World War. And yet that is precisely what happened. On 5 July 1945, Clement Attlee and his Labour Party stormed to victory, winning 393 of the Commons’ 640 seats, while Churchill and his Conservative Party won just 197 seats. The Tories lost 190 of the seats they had won in the previous ballot, ten years earlier. To begin to understand how this was even possible, it is appropriate to start by looking at the British people and their political attitudes in the immediate aftermath of the war. Only by understanding what the British people wanted in 1945 can we come to have a grasp of why Attlee and Labour were so enthusiastically propelled into Downing Street, at the expense of a supposed national treasure. After six years of war, and an almost-equally turbulent decade prior to that, the overriding feeling amongst the British people was a desire for, above all else, change. Contrary to a strong body of thought, aptly termed the ‘apathy school’, the people of Britain were not apathetic towards politics at this time. They were cynical, most of all about the integrity and competency of the politicians of the day, but they were far from politically indifferent. They knew what they wanted, and what they wanted was change. They wanted a new approach, which emphasised the role of the ‘state’ and ensured that the excesses of capitalism could be successfully mitigated. And they wanted key issues that affected their everyday lives – such as healthcare, jobs, pensions, insurance and housing – to be addressed by their elected representatives. It is for this reason that they so strongly backed the Labour Party at the polls, because this was the party which truly offered them what they so desired. Indeed, the strength of the support for Labour – they won 49.2% of votes and over 60% of seats – means that it is not unreasonable to discern, to a large extent, what the British people wanted by looking at what the Labour Party offered.
A desire for change was not simply the consequence of a demanding and exhausting war, but a feeling that had existed since the mid-1930s, when Britain was ravaged by mass unemployment after the Wall Street Crash of the late 1920s. People had wanted change before the war, and the conflict served only to delay the expression of this desire. With the war over, an election ensued which “was fought in a mood of ‘never again’ amongst electors, who sought guarantees that the unemployment, stagnation and defeatism of the thirties would not return”, and Labour was elected due to the fact that, unlike the Conservative Party, they were actually offering change; a fresh start. That this desire for change existed before 1945 is evidenced by Gallup polls conducted during the war, which showed Labour support consistently more than ten percentage-points higher than support for the Conservatives. This is further supported by a number of Conservative defeats in mid-war by-elections. Understandably, the British people never wanted to return to these strenuous times, and thus they had a natural hankering for change.
What exactly the people wanted this change to entail was in no way clear, and indeed it is perfectly plausible that they themselves did not quite know, but what was for certain was that something new was better than what had gone before. Ultimately, in practise, this change involved a hugely enhanced role for the state in economic affairs, with the establishment of “extensive public ownership” and the adoption of a policy of central economic “planning”, as well as a commitment to the idea of ‘full employment’ and the establishment of a ‘welfare state’, moulded on the recommendations of the ‘Beveridge Report’, to provide a safety net for citizens. Though these ideas were almost universally embraced by the general public – the commitments to pursuing ‘full employment’ and implementing Beveridge’s proposals were particularly popular – the real key to their popularity was that they marked a break with the past. The “free enterprise” policies of the Conservatives, blamed by so many for causing the mass unemployment of the 1930s, were discarded and in their place was established a new mode of operating and governing, particularly in the management of economic affairs. That the public so enthusiastically endorsed this programme of reform is less evidence of a commitment to the exact policies, though they were undoubtedly popular, and more proof that the British people just wanted change. The heart of the matter is that, in the 1945 general election, Labour offered a set of policies that marked a truly decisive break from what had gone before, while the Conservatives tabled proposals for a Britain based, largely, on ‘tried and tested’ principles from the past.
The people’s desire for change in 1945 is, admittedly, an abstract aspiration, and it is only part of the story. This was their broad, overarching desire; what they ultimately wanted in the long-term. But they also had, as all electorates do, smaller, short-term wants; practical and specific policies, and in 1945 these were, on the whole, social reform and housing. They wanted the things that would make them feel secure and comfortable in their everyday lives. At this particular moment in time, this involved social reform; the establishment of an NHS ‘free at the point of delivery’ which would protect them ‘from the cradle to the grave’, pensions and insurance which gave them a safety net in difficult times or in their later years, and protection, in the form of state benefits, in the event of being made unemployed, something so many Britons had experienced in the 1930s. This was all contained within the Beveridge Report of 1942, which was almost universally supported within the general public across Britain. It was Labour who “concentrated on the ‘people’s war’ theme of emphasizing housing, social insurance and full employment”, and who “enthusiastically endorsed” the entire Beveridge Report whilst the Conservatives “quibbled about the details”. For all its support of ‘change’ – in a broad, vague sense – the British people of 1945 were also very clear about the specific policies that they wanted from their government.
In 1945, ‘the people’ knew what they wanted, both at a specific policy level and at a wider, broader level. They wanted social reform and housing – in practise the full and unconditional implementation of the widely-supported Beveridge Report of 1942 – and this was to be the biggest and most central tenet of a wider policy, one of change. This, above all else, was what the British people wanted in the immediate aftermath of the war, both because of the war and because of the dreadfully taxing decade, the 1930s, that had preceded it. The Labour Party under Clement Attlee offered exactly these things, and that is why – to the shock of twenty-first observers – Winston Churchill was so resoundingly defeated in 1945.