Seventy years ago yesterday the results of the 1945 General Election were declared. Although the poll had been held on 5 July, the results were only announced on the 26th because of the time needed to return the ballots of service men and women from overseas. The result – a Labour landslide – had a dramatic impact on British politics. The new government led by Clement Attlee introduced legislation to extend the welfare state (including the creation of the NHS) and to nationalise many British industries. This programme defined British politics until 1979. The election result was a considerable shock to many political commentators at the time, few expected wartime leader Winston Churchill to lose so decisively, including Churchill himself.
For many of the MPs interviewed for our oral history project, the 1945 general election was a significant event in their political lives. For the generation born before the Second World War the election not only defined the political landscape that they grew up in but – as the first general election held in ten years – stood out for many as a major event in their developing political consciousness.
In some ways our interviewees’ reaction to 1945 mirrored that of the wider country. There was shock, from those of all political views but especially from those on the right, that Churchill had lost the election. Our interviewees were ‘absolutely stunned’ (Robert Maclennan, later leader of the SDP), or ‘astounded’ (Sir Edward du Cann, future Chairman of the Conservative party) that Churchill had been ‘rejected’. Several who would later become Conservative MPs were serving in the army as the votes were cast, which gave them a different perspective. The future peer Peter Carrington was unsurprised at Attlee’s victory because he knew how the men in his squadron felt about the election. Sir Philip Goodhart, later MP for Beckenham, remembered the split between officers and men when the results were announced:
Having been commissioned, I went to the regimental depot in Winchester when the war came to an end, and there was the election result some weeks’ later. When the result came through the whole of the depot echoed to unceasing chants of: “move to the left in threes, left turn”. This happy view was not reflected in the officers’ mess.
Some Conservative MPs remember that they soon consoled themselves by criticising the government’s mistakes, for Patrick Ground (MP for Feltham & Heston, 1983-1992) ‘they soon became a laughing stock in our household’.
For those on the left of British politics, they remembered the excitement around the election victory, as well as the impact that it had on their political consciousness. John Cartwright, Labour MP for Woolwich East (1974-1983) is one example:
I remember 1945 very sharply – the Labour landslide of 1945 – and the sense this was a new start, a new beginning, something very dramatic and unusual, and that the world would never be quite the same again. That really had an impact on me I think because I would be, what? 12 I suppose…There wasn’t any politics in the war in any sort of meaningful way, so it was a sudden release of the tensions in 1945.
Ivor Richard, MP for Baron’s Court (1964-1974) also enjoyed his first experience of an election, playing truant from school to see what was happening:
For many MPs across the political spectrum the 1945 election was the first time they remembered having an active involvement or interest in politics. For some this was through school, for example David Mudd, Conservative MP for Falmouth and Camborne (1970-1992) remembered both organising and standing in his school’s mock election (under a ‘patriotic’ banner and using the slogan ‘don’t be muddled, be Mudd-led’!) Dick Taverne, Labour MP and Liberal Democrat peer, remembered being one of only three boys in his school pleased with the result of the election.
Others took an active part in politics for the first time. Peter Pike, Labour MP for Burnley (1983-2005) remembered that his aunt told him, aged 8, that he should go in to parliament because of his interest in politics. The Labour MP and journalist Richard Leonard acted as a teller at his local polling station, aged just 14 he was delighted to be mistaken for someone old enough to vote. Labour, SDP and Liberal Democrat Bill Rodgers remembered how heckling the Tories led to a surprising invitation:
One of our interviewees – the former Labour Chancellor Denis Healey – was old enough to stand in his first election in 1945, in the safe Conservative seat of Pudsey and Otley. He may not have won the seat, but his standing was indicative of the result across the country, reducing the Conservative majority from over 11,000 in 1935 to just 1,651.
You can also read about the 1945 election in Devon on our ‘From the Grassroots’ website, also using extracts from oral history interviews.