February 29, 2024
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Boris beware, history has a warning for you …

Boris Johnson has got the general election he wanted and goes to the country buoyed by opinion polls which suggest he could score a landslide victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Be careful what you wish for, Mr Johnson. Theresa May thought she was heading for a landslide when she called a snap election in 2017. The voters had other ideas.

And there is another warning sign from British electoral history, more distant but just as relevant.

In 1945, Mr Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, went to the country confident of success.

And Churchill had every reason to be confident. He was the champion who had carried the country through World War Two – raised it from the depths of despair after Dunkirk, steadied its nerves during the Blitz, steeled it for sacrifice after sacrifice and set it on the road to victory.

He was, moreover, an extremely charismatic leader, an inspirational orator with a great turn of phrase.

His opponent, the Labour leader Clement Attlee, was a modest, mild-mannered man, a poor speaker who seemed more suited to running a shop than a country.

It looked like no contest.

And so it proved. Attlee wiped the floor with Churchill and Labour swept to a massive triumph with what remains the biggest swing ever recorded in a UK general election.

The British public had not fallen out of love with Winston Churchill. It revered and adored him and would continue to do so until his death 20 years later.

But World War Two was Churchill’s issue and World War Two was over. The electorate no longer valued his wartime skills and saw him as out of touch.

And it wasn’t just these rational considerations that drove the public mood.; there were deeper emotions at play.

Britain was thoroughly sick of war and wanted to be done with it. Churchill reminded voters of the war, Attlee offered a bright new future.

Today’s British voters are thoroughly sick of Brexit (as, indeed, is most of Europe) and that is a danger for Johnson who has built his career on Brexit and will be making it the main, if not the only, platform of his campaign.

There are, of course, limits to the comparisons with 1945. World War Two really was over then, whereas Brexit has still not been achieved and Johnson can, perhaps, gain some capital as the man to see it through, particularly since two of the parties opposing him (the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists) want to keep the UK in the European Union and the Labour Party doesn’t seem to know what it wants.

It also helps the Tory cause that Labour is lead by a man who is unfit to wear the mantle of Clement Attlee.

Attlee wasn’t much of a talker but he was a quiet revolutionary who understood the art of the possible and how to get things done. Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, can neither talk the talk nor walk the walk.

But if Corbyn is no Clement Attlee, Boris Johnson is certainly no Winston Churchill. December is a cold, hard month for an election and Mr Johnson may yet get a frosty response from the voters.

Any of our own politicians contemplating an early election should also bear that factor in mind. Voters rarely reward parties that go to the polls before their time and that is doubly true for parties that choose to do battle in mid-winter.




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  1. The 1945 UK general election was during, not after the Second World War.
    Few people in the UK were aware of the A bomb, none of them were aware that it would end the war. Japan was not expected to surrender and the invasion and conquest of Japan was expected to take another 12 – 18 months (from the time of the election.)
    Churchill did not go to the country, Labour withdrew from the coalition necessitating the long delayed general election.
    The election was a parliamentary election between parties, not a Presidential election between individuals. With Defence and Social Policy agreed across parties the election was fought over the ownership of industry.

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