As I try to unpick the relationship between the people and the politicians in post-war Britain I’m reflecting on some of the key events when the populace had a chance to express their opinion.
Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, had enjoyed five years of leading a majority government, following Labour’s landslide victory just two months after the end of the Second World War. At that stage, in 1945, voters were desperate for change, seeing a Labour government as one that would ensure the country was rebuilt after the devastating effects of six years of war. Labour were focused on social reform, having been instrumental in pushing forward the welfare reforms outlined in the Beveridge report during their time in the national coalition wartime government. And it was that desire for a more fair and equal life that voters supported Labour’s pledges.
The Beveridge report had called for a dramatic turn in British social policy; expanding state-funded education, introducing a National Insurance scheme that would fund healthcare for all, and exploring a new approach to housing. It was the Labour Party who showed the strongest support for the report, which proved so popular it had become a best seller. The Conservatives, however, while accepting some of the principles of the report believed they were unaffordable.
And so, the people chose Labour to govern them during the five years from 1945 to 1950. But wartime debt and the heavy costs of rebuilding Britain took its toll. These five years were a time of austerity with continued rationing of basic foodstuffs, such as bread and eggs. The housing situation was still dire, when the costs of the national debt eating away at the funds needed to rebuild demolished properties and clearing away outdated slums. Working and middle class voters had had enough and so when Atlee asked for the country’s opinion in the 1950 general election he found that the Labour Party had lost their shine. They won the election, but this time with the slimmest of majorities, just five seats separating them from the Conservatives.
It seems that King George played a part in the timing of the 1951 election. He was due to go on a lengthy Commonwealth tour early in 1952 and was worried about doing so when his Government had such a slim majority that it could mean a change of government during his absence. As a result Atlee chose 25 October 1951 as the election date. As it was, the King was unable to travel as he was taken ill. His daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, took his place and it was during the early part of her Commonwealth rip that the King died, bringing Elizabeth to the throne in February 1952.
And so both chance and circumstances played their part in an election that resulted in a surprise result. While Labour won the popular vote – winning the most votes of any political party in any election in British political history – the Conservatives won the greater number of seats. They formed the next government with a majority of seventeen. It’s difficult to be certain about the extent to which voters were persuaded by the Conservative promises to continue support for Labour’s new National Health Service and welfare provision. However, although 48.8 percent of voters wanted Labour to continue what it had started over the previous five years, it seems that 48 percent of voters believed the Conservatives could offer something different and perhaps better.
And so Winston Churchill was returned to the position of Prime Minister, at the age of seventy-seven, remaining in office until his resignation, after several bouts of ill health, in April 1955.
Once again, chance and circumstances played a hand in determining Britain’s political future, but in my next post I intend to explore the background to some of the individuals and groups who, through the groundswell of opinion, managed to achieve significant change.
It’s fascinating to be reminded how so much of our present and future is caught up with our past…if you enjoyed this post feel free to leave a comment below…