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Winston Churchill and the media in the 1945 British general election

Seventy-five years ago this week, the House of Commons in Britain began debating the legislative programme of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, elected by a landslide at the end of the previous month. John Freeman, one of the fresh intake of socialist MPs, declared boldly: “Today, we go into action. Today may rightly be regarded as “D-Day” in the Battle of the New Britain.” The roots of Labour’s victory can be traced back to the point where the party joined Winston Churchill’s Coalition government in May 1940. However, Churchill and the Conservatives made a series of campaigning missteps and failed to control the media narrative – despite the considerable press firepower that was available to them.

In the aftermath of VE Day in May 1945, Labour and the Liberals withdrew from the coalition; Churchill formed a new caretaker government which was to run the country until the upcoming general election. On 4 June, he launched the campaign with a broadcast in which he made the notorious claim that, if elected, a Labour government would have to “to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”  This, like all the other election broadcasts that year, was recorded and retransmitted at four different times the following day via short-wave, in order that overseas servicemen would have the same opportunities to listen as voters at home.  All speakers were asked to provide the BBC with advance copies of their scripts, but the BBC checked the recordings carefully too. “The value of this precaution was proved when an enquiry was received from No. 10 Downing Street as to what had actually been said in a very contentious passage in the prime minister’s speech of 30th June.”  This was probably a reference to Churchill’s claim that socialist ministers might be obliged to disclose state secrets to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, which he portrayed as a sinister and undemocratic body.

Churchill’s decision to focus on the rather obscure issue of Labour’s constitution may seem surprising. But he had been handed a weapon by Professor Harold Laski, a well-known socialist intellectual who happened to hold the rotating chairmanship of the party’s National Executive Committee in this particular year. Out of courtesy, Churchill had extended an invitation to Attlee, as Labour leader, to attend the Potsdam meeting with Joseph Stalin and President Harry Truman, which would begin after polling day but before the election results were announced. Laski put out a press statement which said that the Labour Party could not be committed to any decisions taken at the conference, as it would be discussing matters that the National Executive Committee and the Parliamentary Labour Party had not yet debated. Laski was much less important than he thought he was or than the Tory press professed to believe; but his action gave Churchill the chance to paint him as Attlee’s puppet-master.  The battle was fought out to a great extent in letters between Attlee and Churchill published in the press. On one occasion Churchill released his text shortly before 11.30 pm, apparently to ensure that his opponent’s reply could not be published side-by-side the next day.

Churchill’s friend and ministerial colleague Lord Beaverbrook, a powerful press baron, lent his papers’ full-throated support. Beaverbrook was a major figure in the campaign, which he thought should concentrate on exploiting Churchill’s personal popularity with the public.  Journalist Albert Hird noted in his diary: “We at the D.E. [Daily Express] are apparently to take the same (or even a more prominent) part in this election as the Mail in old Rothermere’s time did after the last war, for we are taking on extra reporters to cope with the work – a quite unnecessary thing if we were merely playing the part of an ordinary newspaper.” Moreover: “The Beaver is having a great time. He is stumping up and down the country and most of the opposition credits him with being the real leader of the Tory party and the evil (that’s what they call it) genius behind Churchill. All of which he finds entirely to his liking.”

The support of the Daily Mail was somewhat less ardent than that of the Express, but Churchill could also depend on the backing of a range of other Conservative newspapers. However, in contrast to previous contests, Labour now had truly substantial press support too. Pro-Labour London-based papers between them had six million readers, and Tory ones 6,800,000; The Times, for its part, “was peculiarly detached about the election.” Churchill, who obtained much coverage for his apparently triumphal national election tour, himself published one newspaper article during the final days of the campaign. This was in the News of the World, and he sought to explode the popular notion that people could vote Labour and nonetheless somehow retain him as prime minister. Churchill’s newsreel election pitch – which may have been seen by as many as 20 million people – revealed, if nothing else, his sheer physical exhaustion. Attlee’s much snappier effort was no rhetorical masterpiece, but it demonstrated the no non-nonsense competence of a man who had long been overshadowed by rivals within his party.

As Conservative opinion poll ratings actually improved during the course of the election battle, one should not be too harsh about the party’s strategy – except to say that by the time the campaign started the Tories had already lost the initiative to Labour on the key issue of post-war reconstruction. There were many factors that contributed to the election result, but the most important was Churchill’s inability to find a compelling message to counter the themes of modernity and hope put forward by an ideologically astute and media canny Labour Party.

Featured image: public domain via Unsplash.

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