In June 1945, Britain resumed competitive politics for the first time since 1931. Churchill, who had spent five years surrounded by sycophants, reverted to toxic reactionary Victorian conservatism. His wartime rhetoric had been inspirational but his first peacetime broadcast demonstrated hostility to change. Five years of unendurable stress with complete immersion in foreign affairs meant that Churchill was a ‘stranger’ in Britain. He was oblivious to the impact of war on Britain’s political psychology. The British people demanded a new social order and Churchill was demonstrably not the person to deliver that change. His ‘Gestapo’ speech was born in ignorance and hubris, amply demonstrating the truth of that belief.
Churchill’s use of ‘Gestapo’ (see appendix below) was vitriolic abuse. As he spoke, former Gestapo officers were being hunted throughout Europe. Their crimes were widely publicised and the horrors that their victims suffered were daily news. Churchill was attacking the leadership of the Labour Party and, as he saw it, their over-weaning undemocratic tendencies.
Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, was a First World War hero. He was an Oxford graduate, a barrister and a London university lecturer. He carried the Labour Party through each and every twist and turn of the politics of war. Adding to British incredulity was the fact that the leader of the Labour Party was, as Churchill spoke, the de facto deputy Prime Minister. Churchill’s trusted deputy Prime Minister, throughout the war, was being libelled a Nazi! This was so bizarre as to appear demented.
So why did Churchill make this catastrophic error of judgement? Churchill was a functioning alcoholic and a narcissistic rhetorician who believed this broadcast was a golden opportunity to halt the electoral tide sweeping Labour to victory. Unfortunately for Churchill, the British public had a long electoral memory. Those memories included Churchill’s bellicose behaviour during the 1926 General Strike, means tested unemployment benefits and fatally, the Conservative policy of appeasing Hitler. His speeches are now seen as masterpieces but they sounded like bombastic preachy monologues to many people at the time**. Labour was a modern political party dedicated to sweeping away failed pre-war politics. It had a worked-out social and industrial policy, which was bold and imaginative. Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ rhetoric was the flailing about of a politician entering the gutter.
Churchill was castigated for his emotional spasm and the Conservatives rightly lost the 1945 election. But it wasn’t Churchill that lost the election. The Conservatives had no chance of winning as they had too much negative baggage. This speech reminds us that even the greatest of politicians suffer from hubris.
*The modern (2015) comparison would be for David Cameron to declare that the Labour Party is synonymous with Muslim ISIS including public decapitation.
**Richard Toye The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches 2013. For a full discussion of both the content and impact of Churchill’s wartime speeches.
Winston Churchill, 4th June 1945, this is the relevant paragraph from his speech
“No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.”
Clement Attlee’s response (5th June 1945)
“The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.”