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Today in history... Churchill suffers a rare defeat

12:00am | & News

In 2002 Sir Winston Churchill was named the greatest Briton of all time in a national television poll which attracted more than a million votes.

Hard to believe then, that on July 26th, 1945, with World War Two still being fought in the Pacific, Churchill was forced to resign as British Prime Minister when his Conservative Party suffered a landslide General Election defeat.

Despite being hailed as a great wartime leader – one who had roused and united a nation in its time of greatest adversity – Churchill could not persuade the British people to elect his Conservative Party in the first General Election for a decade. Instead the Labour Party swept to power, its leader Clement Attlee replacing Churchill at 10 Downing Street.

Churchill had led a coalition government throughout the war, party politics swept aside as the nation united to face the threat of Nazi invasion and world domination. He had replaced Neville Chamberlain, whose pre-war assurance of "peace in our time" had proved worthless and who himself proved an ineffectual leader during the first months of the war.

Churchill was already widely known, respected as a formidable leader and great orator. For a decade leading up to the war he had been an often lone voice warning of the threat of Nazi and Japanese aggression, but he was not universally popular. Although his own military career had been an illustrious one, Churchill had also made mistakes and was held at least partly responsible for the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns in World War One, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty.

Even so, he quickly came into his own as wartime leader. As Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany in the first years of the war, he resolutely refused to even consider the prospect of defeat, famously vowing that "we will never surrender". His now legendary wartime speeches are credited with boosting British morale at the times it was needed most. Above all, he seemed to epitomise the British bulldog spirit.

Even after America joined the war and the tide slowly turned in the Allies' favour, Churchill was seen as one of the key strategists helping to engineer the downfall of Hitler's Nazi Germany. When Victory in Europe (VE) Day came in May 1945, Churchill was feted as a great hero, the man who had led Britain to victory against all odds.

So how, just two-and-a-half months later, could his reward be a shock General Election defeat forcing his resignation as Prime Minister?

It seems that while the British people admired Churchill as a heroic leader, they also saw the imminent end of the six-year-long war as a time for fundamental change in society. And that is exactly what Clement Attlee's Labour Party promised them.

In particular it would implement the Beveridge Report and its pioneering plans to create a welfare state. Many voters had returned from the First World War to the promise of "a land fit for heroes" – a promise which proved to be hollow rhetoric. Perhaps they wanted a more solid assurance for those returning from the Second World War.

Whatever the reason, Labour swept to power with a 159-seat majority and, making good on its manifesto promises, set about implementing major social change, including establishing the National Health Service.

Attlee himself said: "We are facing a new era and I believe that the voting at this election has shown that the people of Britain are facing that new era with the same courage as they faced the long years of war."

Churchill, of course, was far from finished. He remained as leader of the opposition until 1951, when the Conservatives won the election and he became Prime Minister again, at the age of 77. He resigned in 1955 due to ill health and died a decade later, in January 1965, with 350 million people across Europe watching his state funeral on television.

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