Churchill Gets the Boot

It is my choice for the quintessential example of a people saying, “But what have you done for me lately?”  Less than three months after leading his country to victory in World War II, Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party were voted — nay, swept — out of office in Britain’s first general election in a decade. This week (July 26) in 1945 Churchill was replaced as prime minister by Labour leader Clement Attlee, of whom Churchill had once famously remarked, “He is a modest man … with much to be modest about.”

As Churchill might have put his defeat, “What a colossal reversal of fortune!”  Just 10 weeks earlier, on May 8, he had addressed adoring crowds throughout England, proclaiming that the war in Europe was won.  Later that day, when Churchill entered the House of Commons to formally announce V-E Day (Victory in Europe), he was, by most accounts, given the greatest ovation in Parliament’s long history. And when he grinned and flashed his famous “V” sign, House members ignored time-honored rituals of Parliamentary custom by jumping up on their benches, waving and shouting in appreciation. They knew that no man alive was more responsible for the defeat of Hitler and Nazi Germany than was Churchill.

So what caused Churchill’s speedy downfall?  Opinions vary, but there is little doubt the electorate felt that Churchill represented the past, and that the future called for a leader—and party—better equipped to deal with what were sure to be massive social and economic problems, including unemployment, wealth redistribution, social inequality (and the real possibility of class warfare), and the government’s role in ameliorating the ravages of five years of war.  Churchill, by birth and temperament, was seen (not altogether inaccurately) as strictly a war leader, an imperialist, an aristocrat and a hopeless romantic, who still had visions of a return to the Victorian Age.  The only “return” the British people wanted was a return to normalcy, and Attlee and Labour seemed better suited to that goal.

Churchill was stunned by defeat (although his customary wit soon returned. When offered the Order of the Garter, a great honor in Britain, he originally refused, reportedly saying, “Why should I accept the Garter, when the people have just given me the boot?”). But he quickly became leader of the opposition, working tirelessly on behalf of what he thought was best for his country.  And in 1951, having tired of Labour’s flirtation with Socialism, the British people re-elected him Prime Minister, where he served until deteriorating health forced him to retire in 1955.  In 1953 he was, most deservedly, both knighted and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is one of my heroes of history.