O’Neill: A lesson in Winston Churchill’s defeat

John O'Neill

Imagine the world’s oldest democracy voting out of office its greatest leader ever. It happened 70 years ago this month when Great Britain ousted Winston Churchill, the Conservative prime minister who had just led the nation to allied victory over Nazi Germany.

Not that the election was necessarily a renunciation of Churchill. He retained his seat in Parliament and popularity throughout Great Britain. Indeed, his opposition ran on the slogan “Cheer for Winston and vote for Labour.”

On the other hand, that Churchill remained popular throughout the country makes his 1945 defeat at the polls even more baffling. Historians have since wrestled with the reasons.

A common theory is that Churchill was too identified as a war leader to adapt to peacetime. But this theory overlooks the fact that Great Britain was still allied with the United States in the war against Imperial Japan.

More likely is the theory that having experienced wartime rations and sacrifice, the middle and upper classes could for the first time identify with the lower classes, who had always lived under austere conditions, and found that Labour was more apt to address these matters than were Churchill’s Conservatives. This sentiment was also bolstered by Labour’s promise of a welfare state that would include nationalized health care.

But in making sense of Churchill’s ouster, it is necessary to grasp the somber mood behind the jubilant celebrations at the end of the war with Germany. After all, it was no secret that Great Britain was emerging from World War II much reduced from its pre-war eminence.

While the British electorate accepted this reality, Churchill was trying desperately to keep the British Empire intact. Voters were concerned he was ill-equipped to address post-war needs.

Not that Churchill had no grasp of post-war realism. He saw more clearly than either his British colleagues or his American counterparts the threat the Soviet Union would pose to the free world. Indeed, he was out of power in 1947 when he delivered his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri.

Churchill was also able to eventually reconcile himself to the welfare state and decline of the British Empire. He returned to power in 1951.

But Churchill’s defeat in 1945 is instructive. It was a unique example of an electorate turning out of power a popular and proven leader so as to address more immediate concerns and anxieties.

John O’Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.