Keir Starmer has again this week drawn parallels between our present situation and the run-up to the 1945 election, an election which, much to most people’s surprise, Labour secured a substantial majority, the first in the party’s history. 

In some ways, the parallels are uncanny. ‘We are living through the biggest threat this country has faced for a generation’ and ‘when this is over, I’m determined we will build a better society…because after all the sacrifices and loss we cannot go back to business as usual…we cannot go back to a society where we do not invest in our public services…We must go forward with a vision of a better society’. So said Starmer in May 2020. But if I hadn’t told you this, you would be forgiven for thinking this was an oration by Clement Attlee in 1945. 

Then, as now, the country was faced with a significant external threat. The parallels are heightened here by the war imagery regularly used by politicians and the media. Fighting the virus is a war against an invisible enemy and the battle is being fought on the front line by doctors and nurses rather than soldiers.

Then, as now, the Government’s response was to use the full power of the state to tackle the threat. Then, as now, the state intervened in the market economy necessitating huge increases in public spending. Then, as now, significant restrictions on personal liberty were instituted and largely accepted by a population that recognised the greater importance of defeating the enemy.

Not only this. There are also great similarities with the party leaders. Then, as now, the Government was led by a flamboyant and charismatic leader whose rhetorical flourishes were a strength but whose grasp of administrative detail left something to be desired. Moreover, Johnson, like Churchill, is regarded as a maverick by some in his own party, preferring to be above party politics. Johnson, like Churchill, is much more popular with the Tory rank and file than he is with the party establishment. Moreover, he has not come across as a ‘natural’ Conservative – in his roles as London Mayor and as Conservative leader – particularly when it comes to state intervention.

One is also struck by the similarities between Starmer and Attlee. Both were elected to succeed far left Labour leaders (George Lansbury in the case of the latter and Corbyn in the case of the former) but were themselves more moderate and pragmatic. Starmer, like Attlee, lacks the charismatic flamboyance of his main political opponent but, like Attlee, he is methodical and, as you would expect from a lawyer, is capable of a detailed grasp of his brief.

Of course, it is in Starmer’s interests to draw parallels with the aftermath of the Second World War precisely because Labour secured such a commanding majority at the 1945 election. There are, however, significant differences. 

For one thing, Starmer has little experience of high office whereas Attlee, by 1945, had been Labour leader for ten years and Deputy Prime Minister for half of that time. Moreover, unlike Churchill, Johnson did not become Prime Minister as a result of the crisis but won a General Election fair and square in ‘peacetime’. 

For another, Johnson’s association with the Tories is much stronger than Churchill’s was. The latter served in both Liberal and Conservative Cabinets in peace time as well as Coalition, or National, Governments during the two World Wars. In addition, he was largely ostracised by the party in the 1930s.

There was also little that Churchill could do to prevent an election in 1945, but it might have been a different story had he remained in office and stole Labour’s thunder on social reconstruction. By contrast, the Conservatives are likely to be in office for a few years after the pandemic crisis has waned, and Johnson may not be judged entirely on his Government’s handling of it. Had an election been due sooner, the result could have been very interesting. 

Far and away the biggest difference is that the sacrifices of the Second World War were, of course, that much greater. In addition, the demand for change in 1945 was based on a determination not to return to the poverty and unemployment of the 1930s. Whilst the pandemic has revealed, to some extent, the debilitating effects of inequality in British society, general standards of living, even taking into account the economic consequences of the lockdown, are infinitely higher than they were in the 1930s.  

Robert Garner 18th February 2020.

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