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1945 - when Britain said no to Churchill
Geoff Jones (Socialist Party Wales) reviews 'Churchill - When Britain Said No'. (BBC2 TV 25 May)
Seventy years ago, at the general election of 5 July 1945, a historic Labour landslide swept Winston Churchill out of power, and gave Clement Attlee's government a big majority.
"Churchill - When Britain said no" tried to show why the 'great war leader', often called 'the greatest living Englishman', was unceremoniously turfed out of office at the first opportunity.
Establishment historians including Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, by no means left-wingers, analysed the facts using interviews and contemporary film, alongside the words of Churchill and his contemporaries in re-enacted scenes.
How did Churchill become 'the great war leader'? By doing the 'right things', for all the wrong reasons. In 1940, after Nazi armies smashed France and drove out the British Army, there was no way that Britain alone could dream of winning the war.
Rational members of Britain's ruling class already saw this. Some had always been sympathetic to Hitler's aims of crushing workers' organisations.
Others, like Lord Halifax (who had nearly defeated Churchill to the Premiership) were already putting out feelers for a deal with Hitler.
Although not unsympathetic to Hitler, Churchill would have none of this, fearing that any deal would mean the end of the British Empire. For Churchill the Empire, carrying the "white man's burden" of 'civilising' - and exploiting - 'inferior' races had to be fought for at all costs.
This determination to fight on mirrored the attitude of the mass of working people.
Having seen workers' organisations being smashed in Germany, and mass executions of trade unionists in Spain, they knew a similar fate awaited them under any Nazi puppet regime.
So they, and Churchill, were for fighting on - for diametrically opposite reasons!
But the dictates of war imposed a form of 'war socialism' under Churchill's nose - planning for war production required government control of major industries, while rationing meant a far fairer distribution of food than during the impoverished 1930s.
The feeling of 'we're all in it together' led workers to a determination after the war that 'we're not going back to the bad old days'.
This mood among the mass of workers, especially in the industrial areas, as well as among working class conscripts serving in the forces, was exacerbated by memories of Churchill's wars against strikers in the past, when he was prepared to use the army against them.
A newsreel showed Churchill trying to speak at a mass meeting in Walthamstow in 1945 and being booed off the platform. In cinemas in the Welsh Valleys, newsreels of Churchill's tours were booed off the screen.
Neither Labour, Liberal nor Tory parties, who had been in the coalition National Government throughout the war, expected the result.
At the Labour conference before the election, the delegate moving a successful resolution calling for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy was told by a Labour right winger that his speech had "just lost us the election."
Quite the opposite! Constituencies which had never seen a Labour candidate fell to Labour. The number of Tory MPs was halved.
Even in Churchill's constituency, where the other parties had not stood candidates, a last minute Independent, whose election material was in poetry, gained some 10,000 votes against Churchill's 25,000.
All this was spelled out in the programme, mainly by historians with impeccable establishment credentials and accents. It aroused howls of "character assassination" in papers like the Daily Telegraph - a recommendation in itself!
However, to view history from the working class angle and to understand the successes and failures of the 1945 Labour government, socialists should see Ken Loach's excellent film 'Spirit of '45' and the article in the Socialist issue 858.
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