Splashes of red on a postwar canvass

Election '45
October 6, 1995

Few human urges are more universal than the urge to say "I was there". It drives people to spend much time and money attending sporting or royal events that also receive blanket television coverage. And corresponding to it is the evocative power of the eyewitness account, conferring vicarious contact with events otherwise seen only second-hand.

Realisation of this is well established. Film-maker Ken Burns deployed it to brilliant effect in his Civil War series. A similar impact is being made by the BBC's People's Century series. The Institute for Contemporary British History's "witness seminars" apply the same principle. The past year has seen brilliant recreations in print of two landmark sporting events: Rugby League historian Robert Gate's engaging There Were More There Than That, vividly evoking the day in 1954 when more than 100,000 people converged on Odsal Stadium, Bradford, and The Day of the Hillsborough Disaster, an intense, detailed and intolerably moving reconstruction by Rogan Taylor, Andrew Ward and Tim Newburn.

The Fabian Society's contribution to the 50th anniversary of Labour's 1945 landslide is not only a happy surprise from a body of somewhat austere traditions, but a worthy addition to the genre. Those who seek the definitive analysis must still look elsewhere, to McCallum and Readman's pioneering Nuffield election study and Addison's The Road to 1945.Which is not to say that Election '45 lacks analysis. As the ICBH seminars, the Burns films and, in the negative sense, People's Century show, the genre needs a firm but unobtrusive guiding contextual hand. Austin Mitchell, a distinguished academic historian in his early days, fills the role well. A historian's sense shows in the opening chapter on wartime politics - essential if the election is to be understood.

But the magic is in the voices sounding across 50 years to recreate one of the most extraordinary political events of the century. There are inevitable biases: it is natural that many are Fabians, perhaps unavoidable that candidates bulk larger than party workers and inevitable that most were young in 1945.

These voices speak from a different world, not just in the simple fiercely held faith in a better world that shines in particular through the Labour accounts, but in the way elections were fought. There were a few polls, but they were disregarded, even by the News Chronicle, the paper that carried them, because few really believed their message of a Labour victory. No spin-doctors, and precious little national campaigning. As Mitchell puts it: "This was the last election where the weight of activity and excitement was more local than national."

More than anything this book confirms how much has been lost by the demise of the public meeting. There is no use pining for its return in a TV age, but it is impossible to avoid smiling at the account by then-Tory candidate Lord Lambton of challenging a heckler to come up on to the platform and squirming as he delivered a lucid five-minute summary of Labour's aims. Modern electioneering makes this all but impossible.

A further strength is that an essentially Labour story has its Tory and Liberal voices, and allows them some of the better lines: Laddie Lucas's mild disorientation as a candidate; Andrew Cavendish speculating that his father, the duke of Devonshire, may have won money betting on a Labour win; and Ashe Lincoln good-humouredly canvassing the Attlee household.

A Tory voice provides the most revealing line, too, in Woodrow Wyatt's account of Churchill surveying the new House of Commons and saying: "And they've got all these officers too." If a picture is worth a thousand words, so sometimes is a quote: this one epitomises just how little in 1945 Churchill understood the country he ruled and the conscript army that had won the war.

Huw Richards is a reporter, The THES.

Election '45: Reflections on the Revolution in Britain

Author - Austin Mitchell
ISBN - 1 85725 109 1
Publisher - Bellew Publishing
Price - 12.95
Pages - 128

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