Winston Churchill and the Wartime Coalition 1940-45

By Jefferys, Kevin | History Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Winston Churchill and the Wartime Coalition 1940-45


Jefferys, Kevin, History Review


In examining British politics from 1940 to 1945, Kevin Jefferys explains why the man who was widely perceived as winning the war lost the 1945 election.

In the summer of 1945 Winston Churchill confidently looked forward to election victory. As Britain's revered war leader -- the man who had come to the nation's rescue in the dark days of 1940 -- Churchill hoped to reap the benefit of presiding, five years on, over the final defeat of Nazi Germany. In asking voters to return him at the head of a new Conservative administration, the Prime Minister claimed that he alone was suited to dealing with the legacy of six years of `total war'. Among colleagues and political commentators, it was widely anticipated that Churchill would sweep back to power, just as Lloyd George had triumphed in 1918 as `the man who won the [First World] War'. Few believed that Britain's premier could be defeated by the low-profile Labour leader, Clement Attlee, who was the butt of many cruel jibes. `An empty taxi drew up', it was once joked, `and Attlee got out'. The best Labour could hope for, it seemed, was to limit the scale of an inevitable Conservative victory.

But the pundits were wrong. As the election results came through, it became apparent that the Labour party had won a landslide victory. At the last pre-war election, held in 1935, Labour trailed the Tory-dominated National government by more than 200 parliamentary seats. In July 1945, however, Labour secured nearly half the popular vote, winning 393 seats, compared with 210 for the Conservatives. The swing to the left was high in towns and cities across the country; scores of unlikely constituencies returned Labour members to the House of Commons for the first time ever. Hence it was not Churchill but Attlee -- looking `very surprised indeed', according to the King -- who went to Buckingham Palace to accept the royal invitation to form a new government. The enigmatic Labour leader was not the only one who was taken aback. `But this is terrible', a lady diner at the Savoy Hotel was overheard saying: `they've elected a Labour government, and the country will never stand for that!'

The explanation for this remarkable outcome lies in the history of the Churchill coalition, which governed Britain from 1940 to 1945 and which remains the only example in modern politics of the major parties working together over a sustained period. At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Labour turned down the offer of joining forces for the duration with the National government, led since 1937 by Neville Chamberlain. The outbreak of hostilities against Germany was a severe blow to Chamberlain, who had staked his reputation on preserving European peace. When the so-called 'phoney war' came to an end in the spring of 1940, British military failure in Scandinavia provoked an upsurge of criticism, even amongst some hitherto loyal Conservative MPs. After much pressure -- it was like `trying to get a limpet off a corpse', one critic said -- Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill. The new Prime Minister formed a broadly based coalition, giving the opposition Labour and Liberal parties a share in power and offering the likes of Attlee a place in the War Cabinet.

Churchill was to achieve lasting fame as an inspirational leader, renowned for his defiant speeches and his `bulldog' spirit. And in the fullness of time the coalition proved successful in achieving its overriding objective; it harnessed the desire of nearly all sections of opinion in Britain to see the defeat of Hitler. But it would be wrong to assume from the high degree of unity on external policy that a new era of co-operation opened up in Britain's internal politics. The coalition was essentially a marriage of convenience, a union that produced little in the way of domestic bliss. We need to bear this in mind when addressing the two main questions that have concerned historians of wartime politics. …

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