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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
The wartime battle for welfare?
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News website

Clement Attlee
Attlee had no charisma, says Tony Benn
War is 90% boredom and 10% danger, says Tony Benn. And the 1945 election came against a backdrop of troops talking between fighting about how to solve Britain's problems.

The former Cabinet minister was in the RAF when Clement Attlee's Labour Party won a landslide victory, setting the course for establishing the post-war welfare state.

This was an election which defied the trend for post-war poll "bounces" and saw that most famous of wartime prime ministers, Winston Churchill.

It took three weeks to collect and count the votes from the thousands of troops across Europe, with the result declared on 26 July.

There was not a single man in my squadron who voted Conservative
Lord Carrington

This unique poll saw Tony Benn making campaign speeches aboard the troopship Carthage, where he organised a hustings.

He says the wartime experience helped shape the national mood which swept Labour into government, although stresses there was not "anti-Churchill" feeling as such.

Mr Benn says people noticed how the mass unemployment seen in the 1930s had disappeared with the onset of war.

They said to themselves: "If we can have full employment by killing Germans, why can we have it by building houses and schools?"

"There was a belief that if we can plan for war we can plan for peace," says Mr Benn. "It was about just tackling people's problems by doing something, never going back to the slump and building a new Britain."
Mr Benn says Attlee had no charisma but people believed what he said and saw him as a practical man.

"I never thought we would win for a moment because Churchill was so popular," he admits.

One of his abiding memories of the campaign was campaigning with actress Peggy Ashcroft, whose husband Jeremy Hutchinson was a Labour candidate.

"These woman in their curlers looked out of their windows and Peggy Ashcroft said we must have a national theatre."

Election reading

Lord Carrington, later to be a Conservative foreign secretary, was stationed in Germany during the election campaign.

He recalls having to read to his squadron parts of a leaflet about the election written by Richard Crossman, then a civil servant but later a Labour Cabinet minister.

"It was to say the least of a rather left-wing slant," he laughs.

Winston Churchill
Churchill was denied another victory

Asked if he tried to persuade his troops to vote Tory, he replies: "Good God, no" - explaining that he was not in any case politically active at the time.

"There was not a single man in my squadron who voted Conservative. The reason why was because a great many of them had been unemployed before the war and had had a pretty rough time.

"When I joined the Army in 1939, a lot of them were in the Army because it was the only way to get a square meal."

Churchill's tour

Lord Carrington says the wartime vote was not anti-Churchill but anti-Conservative.

And he says he was "not a bit surprised" at the result "not that we had the smallest idea what was happening in England".

In some ways, the election campaign must have resembled a victory procession for Churchill, who was cheered by crowds as he toured the country.

In stark contrast, Attlee went to his election meetings in a Hillman with his wife Vi at the wheel.

Labour's campaign was very much centred "winning the peace" through new welfare laws.

One of the party's election leaflets declared "total war on bad housing, unemployment, poverty, ignorance and ill health".

Churchill had in fact warmly welcomed Beveridge's report on welfare measures in 1942 and the National government he headed in 1944 moved to introduce comprehensive education.

But he had also said there should be no attempt to implement Beveridge's recommendations during the war and no guarantee afterwards as it might not be affordable.

Gestapo speech

The Conservatives were keen to draw on Churchill's personal popularity and the prime minister warned an audience in Coventry that they should "not run away with the idea that you can vote [against the Conservatives] without voting against me".

His first election broadcast, however, was seen as a blunder as his rhetoric became overly partisan.

He said no Socialist government could afford to allow "free, sharp or violently worded expression of public discontent".

"They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance."

His wife Clementine had begged him to leave out the "odious" Gestapo reference and Attlee seized on it, saying Churchill was showing the difference between being a great leader of a united nation and being leader of the Conservatives.

When the results were announced, Labour had 393 seats in the new Parliament, an overall majority of 146, with the Conservatives on 213 and the Liberals 12.

The 1945 election has been seen as showing a broad consensus behind the post-war welfare state. Sixty years later, that was not a consensus shared in this year's general election as debate on today's challenges gathers pace.


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