A great leader defeated

Winston Churchill is arguably Britain's greatest wartime leader, having led his country through its 'Darkest Hour' all the way to victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. So why, just months after VE Day, did he lose the 1945 General Election?

This is a photograph of the big three at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945.

The Allies had defeated Nazi Germany just two months previously and Japan, too, was very close to collapse. In this photograph you can see Soviet leader Joseph Stalin U.S. President Harry. S. Truman and ,of course, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill had led Britain through its darkest hour in 1940 all the way to victory over Nazi Germany. He was a very popular leader whose approval rating never dropped below 78%, yet just a few days later someone else was sitting in his chair.

On the 26th of July Churchill learned that his Conservative Party had suffered a crushing general election defeat to the Labour Party. Now Britain's new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, took Churchill's place at the Potsdam Conference table. So what happened? How did Britain's greatest wartime leader lose the 1945 General Election?

"I think the key reason for Churchill's defeat is that he's seen above all as war leader." That's James Taylor - Assistant Director of Narrative and Content at Imperial War Museums.

James Taylor: "Churchill's overriding priority was victory over Nazi Germany and then Japan. But British voters wanted real social change as well, they wanted a leader who would win the peace and they did not see Churchill as that leader."

Others were upset that fighting happened in the first place. Many people in Britain blame the Conservatives for not standing up to Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, and his territorial demands before the war - a policy known as appeasement.

James Taylor: "Churchill had been appeasement's loudest and most outspoken opponent, but in 1945 even if people admired Churchill they were still angry at Neville Chamberlain and the guilty men of the Conservative Party in the 1930s."

Unlike Churchill's Conservatives, the Labour Party seemed to offer a vision of a new social order in Britain. Labour promised better housing, full employment and free health care.

James Taylor: "The British people wanted real change when the war was over and the blueprint for that change came in the form of a 300-page government document written by the economist Sir William Beveridge."

The report had the rather dry title of Social Insurance and Allied Services, but it became known as the Beverage Report. Its author recommended huge, radical social reforms that would take care of citizens from the cradle to the grave, including the creation of a Welfare State and National Health Service.

James Taylor: "Well, the Beverage Report went as close to viral as anything could those days and it really inspired the press and the public. I mean, people actually queued to buy this, you know, rather dry document which is incredible to us today. People had been at war for over three years now and Beveridge offered a picture of real hope for Britain. The Labour Party enthusiastically supported Beveridge's ideas and that made them look like the party of the future, the Conservative Party was less enthusiastic and that made them look like the party of the past."

If we focus in on the two parties campaign strategies you can clearly see the differences between them. Labour's whole manifesto emphasised public ownership, the nationalisation of industry, as the way to prosperity and a better future. The war had been fought by the people, and the people would now fight for the peace.

James Taylor: "Churchill was no fan of this scheme of public ownership and in a speech in June during his election campaign he said that in order to implement their policies Labour would have to "fall back on some kind of Gestapo", so a reference to the Nazi secret police and that kind of scare mongering did not go down well at all with voters."

The Conservatives took a very different tact in their campaign. They focused on Churchill's personal appeal as you can see from this poster, it implores people to help Churchill finish the job by winning the war against Japan.

James Taylor: "The campaign's emphasis on the war just seemed to emphasise that Churchill's only interest was, well, war. So while people celebrated Churchill's efforts in winning the war in Europe they saw him as a Prime Minister for wartime and not for peacetime."

On the 5th of July 1945 the big day finally arrived and the people of Britain went to vote. The results were delayed until July 26th to allow votes to come in from those servicemen and women who were still overseas. Churchill expected to win, the Conservatives expected to win, but they were to receive a huge shock. It was a landslide victory for Labour, who had won nearly twice as many seats as the Conservatives.

James Taylor: "I'd say that it wasn't so much Churchill himself, but the Conservative Party that lost the 1945 General Election. He was still very popular, but he became the victim of a new dawn for British politics. If you think about it, this new Labour Government in 1945 created much of the social fabric of the Britain that we know today. So, from the National Health Service to National Insurance, it changed Britain forever."

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