July Days: Memories of Britain's 'Modern Revolution.' (1945 Elections That Changed the Ruling Elite of the United Kingdom after World War II to the Labor Party)

By Mitchell, Austin | History Today, July 1995 | Go to article overview

July Days: Memories of Britain's 'Modern Revolution.' (1945 Elections That Changed the Ruling Elite of the United Kingdom after World War II to the Labor Party)


Mitchell, Austin, History Today


Was the 1945 election Britain's only modern revolution? George VI told President Truman it was not. 'We don't have those here'. The authors of the very first Nuffield Election Study agreed, viewing revolution as a forcible transfer of power. Yet by throwing out a party and a class which had ruled for decades, by bringing in a new elite and a new government to build a welfare state and a new post-war settlement, the election certainly triggered massive changes. The underdogs bit back and most of those who took part in the election viewed it in suitably radical terms when I interviewed survivors as part of the Fabian Society's celebrations for July 5th, the fiftieth anniversary of the poll. Of 1,683 candidates, 110 were alive at the time of writing, and forty-three of the 640 MPs -- half of them, incidentally, in the Lords. I interviewed thirty-three, and two score other candidates and activists sent in their memories.

What stood out for them was the drama and pace of the election. It came suddenly out of the blue: after a long political drought, not so much as a shower but a deluge of politics. No long build up, no media hype, just a pressure-cooker campaign, so hectic it is remembered as a political outward bound course, then the people speaking their mind, untutored by the media. The election was announced on May 23rd, as the wartime Coalition Government ended, with dissolution on June 15th and polling on July 5th. The count was on the 26th. Winston Churchill who had just returned from the Potsdam Conference, never went back. The first majority Labour government came in with a majority to do anything.

Britain had two electorates. Five million were in the forces, mostly overseas. They understood the radical change in opinion which had taken place in the war. Hostility to the Tories who had taken Britain into it and the growing support for Labour were most evident there. Suspicious Tories put this down to the activities of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs under George Wigg but though many ABCA lecturers certainly became Labour and Liberal candidates, the real motive was the widespread determination never to go back to the world before the war.

That mood was less visible at home. There politics were just re-emerging from the cold storage into which the prolongation of the 1935 Parliament, and the political truce on the formation of the National Coalition had plunged them. Party organisations were run down to a 'care and maintenance' basis. For once the Conservative Party machine was in a far worse state than Labour's, having been substantially mothballed, while Labour was kept ticking over and boosted by freelance activists in the Fabian Society and other organisations further Left, as well as the unions acting as political, as well as industrial, machines.

The mood was changing but the symptoms were straws in the wind. The Gallup Poll gave Labour a lead fluctuating between 20 and 15 per cent in its three 1945 polls, but was little regarded. The parties had agreed not to fight by-elections, so opinion was not tested. The Common Wealth Party had deliberately broken the truce and won four Tory seats, most dramatically Skipton in January 1944 when its MP, Hugh Lawson, became a spearhead for complaints from the forces and the new radicalism. Similarly the Cavendish family's seat in West Derbyshire threw out the Duke of Devonshire's eldest son, the Marquess of Huntingdon, in 1944 making him one of the few to anticipate 1945. The present duke recalls:

My father as a result of this foresaw a Labour victory because he realised the trend was going Labour's way. I'm not sure he didn't make a bit of money in bets on it too.

The lesson went no wider. The 'National Tories' complacently assumed that all this was wartime aberration. They would win easily as the nation showed its gratitude to Churchill.

Only the election, scheduled for the end of the war, could bring everything into the open. …

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