‘What did Attlee ever do for us?’ The 1945 Election

At the end of WWII, Britain’s national prestige was back at the level that it had been in 1919. She was a core member of the newly founded international organisations like the United Nations Security Council; she retained her strategic role as the main ally of the USA and had survived the war with her Empire still intact; pound Sterling remained the international currency; and the British people enjoyed some of the highest living standards in Europe.

From this position of apparent greatness, how was it that by 2000 Britain had a GDP per capita lower than that of either of the defeated nations? Why was her total GDP only $200,000,000 greater than France (12%), despite the average Frenchman working 16% fewer hours over the course of one year? Why did Britain no longer have an Empire, and why was the post-1945 world the ‘American’ half-century, pax americana as opposed to pax britannica?

Our ’20th century correspondent’, Tom Mitchell, addresses these questions in a series of articles looking at Britain’s first socialist government under Clement Attlee.


  1. The 1945 Election

Winston Churchill had governed Britain for the majority of WWII. A staunch opponent of appeasement and Hitler, he had taken over from Neville Chamberlain in 1940 following the Norway crisis and immediately formed a coalition Government. By the end of the war, it had been 10 years since the last General Election, and Churchill had made clear when he moved the Prolongation Act of October 1944 that this would be the last of its kind. Indeed,  polling day was set for 5th July 1945. In the words of Herbert Morrison, Britain would return to ‘politics as usual’.

Most observers assumed that the result would be a comfortable Tory victory. Churchill, having admitted his distress at being relegated from the leader of a National Government to a ‘mere’ party leader, was determined to go to the country as a ‘national leader’. Even Stalin seemed to believe that a Tory victory was inevitable, telling Churchill at Potsdam that Russian sources expected a Conservative majority of 80. This figure was also expected domestically, despite opinion polls for a couple of years prior showing consistent Labour leads. The Conservatives had lost by-elections at Chelmsford and Motherwell in April 1945, but a leader in The Times suggested ‘there was nothing particularly unusual about the result’.  Many Labour commentators accused the leading figures of their party of seeking to lose, with Greenwood having to publically declare ‘I am not a defeatist’.

When the votes had all been counted, the verdict represented a 154 seat majority for the Labour party. This was an achievement unique in Europe at the time; whilst there was a strong left-wing vote in many European countries, it tended to be split almost equally between Communist and Socialist parties, allowing centre-right parties to predominate. In Britain, however, First Past the Post voting encouraged many who might have stood as Communist candidates to work alongside Socialists in the Labour party, presenting a unified front. Research group Mass Observation had found that by 1943 25% of people said their views had shifted to the left. The Beveridge Report of 1944 (proposing widespread reform to the system of social welfare) was very enthusiastically received, particularly by the troops abroad, and Labour’s wholehearted commitment to enacting the report’s proposals contrasted with the tepid hedging of the Conservatives, who claimed that the proposals were too expensive to be enacted immediately. Whilst this proved to be true, it wasn’t what the public wanted to here at that time. Although when asked about wartime leadership, Mass Observation found that Churchill scored 9 out of 10 popularity, only 2 out of 10 picked him as their preferred post-war leader. Too many people associated the Conservatives with the mass unemployment of the 1930s. Lord Hailsham later confessed that the result was ‘the consequence of a long, pent-up and deep-seated revulsion against the principles, practice and membership of the Tory party’.

So, with victory against Japan still three weeks away, Britain’s first genuinely Socialist government came into power and prepared to enact its manifesto. Seven days after the Japanese were defeated, President Truman abruptly cancelled the Lend-Lease agreement of March 1941 in a precipitate act which has since been described as ‘one of the greatest and least defensible mistakes made by a US president in the 20th Century’. The government’s plans for social housing, social welfare, a national health service and nationalisation would require significant resources which were beyond the capability of the country to generate internally. It was a high-risk policy to assume that the country would be able to generate sufficient resources of its own to fund such policies before the tap of American aid was turned off.

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