Researching and writing a book on the 1945 General Election has made me acutely aware of the striking similarities between the political environment faced by politicians and political parties at the end of the Second World and the period since the advent of the Covid pandemic in 2020. In both cases, a Conservative Prime Minister faced by an international crisis threatening life and limb decided, against his party’s natural instincts, to tackle it by using the full power of the state spending huge amounts of money in the process.
During the Second World War, and again during the Covid pandemic, a right of centre government unashamedly sought to use the state to spend and control its way out of a crisis. Churchill’s war-time socialism was matched by Johnson’s ‘Covid socialism’. The parallels are uncanny. In 1945 and 2020, the country was faced with a significant external threat. War imagery was regularly used by politicians and the media during the pandemic. Fighting the virus was a war against an invisible enemy and the battle was being fought on the front line by doctors and nurses rather than soldiers. In 2020, as in 1945, the government’s response was to use the full power of the state to tackle the threat. The state intervened in the market economy necessitating huge increases in public spending. Significant restrictions on personal liberty were instituted and these were largely accepted by a population that recognised the greater importance of defeating the enemy.
The almost exclusive focus on Johnson’s character flaws has had the effect of directing attention away from the ideological character of his government. In economic terms, at least, Johnson presided over a government on the centre-left. By 2021, public spending had reached £1.3 trillion, almost 52% of GDP. Adjusting for inflation, this is over three times more than the figure faced by Thatcher in 1979, and almost double what it was when Labour last left office in 2010. The only comparable level of public spending occurred during the Second World War.
Who would have thought that a Conservative Government would spend billions to keep people at home away from work, that the police would be employed to stop people from engaging in their normal day-to-say activities and that health spending would increase by £50 billion in less than four years? Now, of course, much of this was a direct response to Covid. Pandora’s box, though, has been opened. Even though the Covid crisis has abated, there now seems to be a widespread expectation that governments are there to solve people’s problems, to help them out when things get tough. People increasingly feel entitled to the state’s help. Even the relatively well-off, for instance, received some help to pay their energy bills when they began to soar in 2022.
In 1945, as in 2020, 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, was regarded as a maverick by some in his own party. Both preferred to be above party politics. Johnson, like Churchill, was, at least in the early part of his leadership, much more popular with the Tory rank and file than he was with the party establishment.
Similarly, 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 (now former) 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.
In 1945, Labour benefitted hugely from war-time socialism. Public spending and government control became respectable. It had won the war, why couldn’t it win the peace? A Labour leader said: ‘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’. You might think this was uttered in 1945 – by Clem Attlee, or Ernie Bevin or Herbert Morrison – but it is actually Keir Starmer speaking in May 2020 at the height of the pandemic.
The parallels between 1945 and now do break down to some extent. Johnson, of course, will not be the leader that takes the Conservatives into the next election. Moreover, he did not become Prime Minister as a result of the crisis as Churchill had done in 1940 but won a General Election fair and square in ‘peacetime’. In addition, 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. 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 will be in office for several years after the pandemic crisis has waned and will be judged on more than just their handling of it.
In 1945, as now, the opinion polls gave Labour a big lead. The difference was that in 1945 few believed what opinion polling, then in its infancy, was telling them. In addition, as a result of an electoral truce between the major parties, Labour did not contest by-elections from 1940 to 1945. In the run-up to the 1945 election, Coalition candidates (principally Conservatives) did lose a number of by-elections in previously safe seats to left of centre independent or Common Wealth candidates. However, at the time, the defeat of Conservative candidates was regarded as a reflection of the unpopularity of the Coalition rather than a swing to the left.
It is often claimed that the Conservatives were hindered in 1945 by Churchill’s poor election campaign. He totally misread the mood of the electorate. The people wanted to hear about domestic reconstruction. He wanted to talk about the international situation – the continuing war in the Far East and the growing power of the Soviet Union. He also adopted the familiar Conservative red scare tactic comparing Labour to the Gestapo which was ridiculous given that Labour leaders had, for five years, served in a government which he led. Despite this, the evidence is that the Conservatives gained support during the campaign but nowhere near enough to substantially dent Labour’s lead.
Far and away the biggest difference between then and now 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 revealed, to some extent, the debilitating effects of inequality in British society, general standards of living, even considering the economic consequences of the lockdown, are infinitely higher than they were in the 1930s.
Labour won a landslide victory in 1945 because the people got used to, and accepted, a form of war time socialism. The pandemic has produced a similar outcome. Johnson’s Government instituted a kind of covid socialism in which, after decades in thrall to Thatcher’s emphasis on a small state, high taxation and high public spending has become respectable again. The clamour to bail people out of difficult economic circumstances, and the recognition that stark economic inequalities – highlighted by the pandemic – should be tackled, has become commonplace.
So, does this mean a Labour victory in 2024 is inevitable? Well, if the Conservatives maintain a commitment to a big state, they might still avoid defeat or at least avoid a Labour landslide. Even then, that might not be enough. High public spending and a big state is Labour territory. Churchill and the Conservatives went into the 1945 election accepting the need for greater state intervention. There wasn’t a huge difference between what the parties offered. But, the electorate concluded, why choose the imitator when you can have the genuine article? Liz Truss understood that, in the current climate, lower taxes cannot be achieved at the expense of public spending cuts and a smaller state. Sunak accepts the need for public spending cuts but these have been put on the back burner. The big question now, perhaps, is not whether Labour will win in 2024, but how will the party maintain high levels of public spending in extremely unfavourable economic circumstances. Here, the success of Attlee’s 1945 Government might serve as, if not an economic guide, then certainly an inspiration.