In July 1945 a remarkable election took place in the United Kingdom. The war in Europe was just finished and the war against Japan was coming to an end. The national government, a mix of ministers from different parties, which had governed the country during most of the war, was no longer justified and it was time for politics as usual.
The election was, as ever since, dominated by two major parties: the Conservatives or Tories, led by the victorious and immensely popular wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and a Labour Party that had started gaining mass support only 20 years before and whose only experience at running a government was during the depression years.
It was an open and shut case. Winnie had won us the war, was the thinking. How could he lose?
First of all, the Tories misread the political awakening that had occurred since the previous election (which, because of the war, had been all of 10 years earlier). The British people had just had to defeat Germany a second time. There was a feeling that the Britain had won the First World War, at terrible cost, but then lost the peace. And it was Conservative incompetence that had sleepwalked the country into a second war.
There had also been a remarkable bestseller that came out in 1942. It was a government paper called the Beveridge Report and it outlined the kind of state that people had thought they had won in 1918. A that time, the returning soldiers had found not the ‘land fit for heroes’ that post-war propaganda had led them to expect, but the same social ills that eventually disintegrated into the Great Depression.
The Beveridge Report outlined a different kind of social contract. It foresaw a society freed from the five “Giant Evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Instead, a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state would be created of free universal education and health care, social housing, government old age pensions, workmen’s compensation and unemployment benefits. It would even pay towards your funeral.
Labour said it would implement the Beveridge Report. Immediately, even if the country was in hock to the US for wartime debt. The Tories said they too supported the idea, but the country couldn’t afford it. Not yet. They’d get round to it later. Maybe.
And if he was good at winning wars, Churchill was a clown when it came to winning elections. He claimed that if Labour was going to implement these social reforms, it would need ‘some form of Gestapo’, which, even if he honestly believed it, was an appallingly crass way of putting it.
The Tory Party was still seen as the representatives of privilege. It was unthinkingly insensitive of Churchill to turn up on battlefields smoking his cigars while the rank and file soldiers had been forced to smoke the vile ‘V’ cigarettes for the duration. The ‘khaki’ vote of yet to be demobbed soldiers went massively against the Conservatives.
Instead, the country turned to the likes of Attlee, Bevin and Morrison, Labour ministers who had spent the war in committees, but committees which actually made things work, churning out the weapons and goods and allocating scarce resources to greatest effect. For a country in desperate need of new houses, schools and hospitals, these were the competent hands that could be trusted to deliver.
The landslide saw the Tories lose almost half their seats in parliament and Labour more than double theirs.
So what didn’t the defeated Conservatives do?
Well they didn’t whinge about ‘populist policies’ that would bankrupt the country. They didn’t call the opposition voters ‘buffaloes’ who couldn’t be trusted to know their own interests. And they didn’t stage a hissy fit and refuse to run in the next election while calling for the electoral rules to be rigged in their favour.
They swallowed hard, recognized that the post-war electorate wasn’t perhaps as forgiving as in earlier times, and regrouped. After two more elections, they were back in power. Running the same welfare state that a whirlwind of Labour legislation had cemented into place.
Of course, it couldn’t happen here.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).