BBC 2 at 9.00 O’clock tonight is showing a documentary on how Britain rejected Churchill for the Labour party in the 1945 general election.
The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state
Surprise election results are nothing new. As this documentary explores, a few weeks after celebrating VE Day in 1945, Britons went to the polls for the first general election in a decade. The Conservatives were widely expected to win, a grateful nation rewarding Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership. Instead, Labour won by a landslide and set about creating the Socialist welfare system Churchill had warned against.
As historians relate, there were good reasons the electorate delivered a humiliating snub to their wartime hero. And we’ve forgotten how unpopular he was with sections of the public: striking footage shows crowds jeering a perplexed Churchill at Walthamstow stadium. “Most people saw him as a Boris Johnson-type figure,” claims one contributor. “A buffoon.”
Just weeks after VE Day, Winston Churchill went to the polls confident that the nation would reward him for his leadership through the dark days of the Second World War and re-elect him prime minister. In the event, he suffered a humiliating defeat by Labour under Clement Atlee. Historians including Max Hastings, Juliet Gardiner and Antony Beevor explore what prompted the nation to reject its great war leader in such vehement fashion.
This will no doubt annoy the Churchill family, who have been effectively living off the great man’s legacy since the War. They got very stroppy a few months ago with Paxo, for daring to state that Churchill was not some kind omniscient, super competent superman.
In fact, Churchill was and still is bitterly despised by certain sections of the working class, despite his status as the great hero of World War II. His own career in the armed forces effectively ended with the debacles of the battle of Jutland and he was widely blamed for Gallipolli. He fervently hated the trade unions and anything that smacked of socialism and the welfare state. Originally a Liberal, he crossed the floor to join the Tories when Balfour’s government introduced pensions and state medical insurance based on the model of contemporary Germany. ‘It was Socialism by the backdoor’, he spluttered.
This continued after the War, when he fiercely attacked Labour’s plan to set up the NHS and unemployment benefit. Because the latter meant that the state become involved in the payment of NI contributions by the employer, he denounced it as a ‘Gestapo for England.’
He is widely credited with sending in the army to shoot down striking miners in Newport. According to the historians I’ve read, he didn’t. Nevertheless, this is still widely believed. It’s credible, because Churchill did have an extremely aggressive and intolerant attitude towards strikes. During the 1924 General Strike he embarrassed the Tory administration by stating that the armed forces would stand ready to assist the civil authorities, if they were called to do so. This effectively meant that he was ready to send the troops in. When it was suggested that he could be found a position in the Post Office, the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, readily agreed on the grounds that it would keep him out of the way. The hope was that without Churchill’s militant intransigence, the Strike could be settled peacefully.
And despite the mythology of the country uniting under a common foe during the War years, there was still considerable working class disaffection. Indeed, according to one programme, there were more strikes during the War than hitherto. I don’t find this remotely surprising, given that the sheer requirements of running a war economy meant rationing, shortages and, I’ve no doubt, the introduction of strict labour discipline.
Nor was Churchill a particularly staunch supporter of democracy and opponent of Fascism. Orwell wrote in one of his newspaper pieces that the spectre of war was doing strange things, like making Churchill run around pretending to be a democrat. According to the historian of British Fascism, Martin Pugh, Churchill was an authoritarian, who actually quite liked Franco and his brutal suppression of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. His opposition to the Nazis came not from a desire to defend democracy from tyranny – in that respect, Eden was a far better and more convinced anti-Fascist – but from the fear that a re-armed and militarised Germany would be a danger to British power and commercial shipping in the North Sea and the Baltic. He did, however, have the decency to consider privately that Mussolini was ‘a swine’, and was not impressed when the Duce declared that his Black Shirts were ‘like your Black and Tans’ when he visited Fascist Italy.
The British working class therefore had every reason to reject Churchill and his reactionary views after the War. And scepticism towards Churchill and his legacy was not confined merely to the working class. Nearly two decades later in the 1960s Private Eye satirised him as ‘the greatest dying Englishman’, and attacked him for betraying every cause he joined. Churchill was all for a united Europe, for example, a fact that might surprise some supporters of UKIP. He just didn’t want Britain to join it.
Even now there are those on the Right, who still resent him. Peter Hitchens, the arch-Tory columnist for the Daily Mail, has frequently attacked Churchill for bringing Britain into the War. His reason for this seems to be his belief that if we hadn’t gone to War against the Axis, we’d still have an Empire by now. This is moot, at best. Writing in the 1930s about a review of Black soldiers in Algiers or Morocco, Orwell stated that what was on the mind of every one of the White officers observing them was the thought ‘How long can we go on fooling these people?’ Orwell came to Socialism through his anti-imperialism, and so represents a particularly radical point of view. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the only one. When the British authorities set up the various commercial and industrial structures to exploit Uganda and the mineral wealth of east Africa, Lord Lugard cynically stated that they now had all the infrastructure in place to pillage the country for a few decades before independence. Despite Hitchens’ nostalgia and wishful thinking for the glories of a vanished empire, my guess is that many, perhaps most of the imperial administrators and bureaucrats out there knew it was only a matter of time before the British Empire went the way of Rome and Tyre.
In his book attacking atheism, The Rage Against God, Hitchens also attacks the veneration of Churchill as a kind of ersatz, state-sponsored secular religious cult. It’s an extreme view, but he’s got a point. Sociologists of religion, like Clifford Geertz, have a identified the existence of a ‘civil religion’, alongside more normal, obvious forms of religion, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, for example. This civil religion is the complex of beliefs and values that shapes civil society as a whole. In America, this is a belief in democracy, centred around a veneration of the Constitution. In Britain, you can see this complex of beliefs centring around parliament, the Crown, and also the complex of ceremonies commemorating the First and Second World Wars. Including Churchill.
The programme looks like it could be an interesting counterargument to the myth of Churchill as the consummate politician, the great champion of British freedom and democracy. He deserves every respect for his staunch opposition to the Nazis, regardless of the precise reason for doing so, and his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is one of the main texts that have created the belief that the British are uniquely freedom-loving. Nevertheless, he was also deeply flawed with some deeply despicable authoritarian attitudes. AS the blurbs for the programme point out, the British were quite right to vote him out at the post-War elections.