Famously, when he lost the 1945 general election, Winston Churchill was told it was a blessing in disguise, to which he retorted it was very “effectively disguised.” He was understandably stunned and resentful, having singularly saved Britain from Nazi domination and led it to victory in history’s most terrible war. Britain was grateful but decided instead that Clement Atlee’s socialist Labor Party was readier for the postwar future.
Churchill had been prime minister for five years through a hair-raising conflict that would have crippled most even strong leaders. His Conservative Party had ruled for over 10 years and for much of the previous 30 years. He was, whether he realized it or not, exhausted, as was his party. His subsequent six years in opposition would in fact be a blessing in many ways. He wrote his magnificent multi-volume WWII history. He rested, painted, laid bricks in his garden and recharged. And he avoided direct responsibility for extremely difficult postwar decisions that entailed scarcity, rationing, blackouts, and dismantling the British Empire he loved.
Infamously, Churchill had warned during the 1945 election that Atlee’s socialism would have to resort to “some sort of Gestapo” to impose its will. Atlee, a distinguished WWI veteran, had been his loyal deputy prime minister throughout WWII. Churchill appreciated and admired Atlee’s service, which Atlee reciprocated. Suggesting Atlee would in any way replicate the tactics of Hitler’s secret police, which kidnapped, tortured and murdered, was absurd, as Churchill well knew. But nearly every politician, including great statesmen, at some point rhetorically exaggerates and distorts.
Atlee was a socialist, and a real one, not the kind of faux online socialist that exists today. He believed in and implemented the nationalization of industries and vast expansion of the social welfare state. He was also deeply committed to democracy and the British constitution. He was never an aspiring dictator. His statist economic policies were mostly popular although they ultimately would hinder Britain’s economy as post-war Germany and Japan surged economically ahead by pursuing more free market policies. Conservatives when returned to power, including Churchill, would dismantle some but not most of Atlee’s policies. Thirty years later Margaret Thatcher would more aggressively repeal nationalizations although even she did not dispute Britain’s socialized medicine.
Churchill returned to power after six years and served four more years as prime minister although elderly and not always at his best. Then the Labor Party returned to power under Harold Wilson twelve years later. Conservatives won again six years later, and so on. No defeat was final; no victory was complete. Democracy, and ultimately all politics, never conclude, they constantly unfold. Every policy provokes opposition and future revision. Every powerful politician and political movement ultimately is defeated or exhausts itself and is replaced.
The stakes were high in Britain’s 1945 election between a conservative and a socialist. But Churchill, as a deeply devoted student of British history and acolyte of the British constitution, despite his Gestapo remark, never feared for British democracy. Defeat was depressing for him personally but did not reduce his confidence in the resilience of Britain as a land of free people governed by laws and not by men. His nation had endured far worse than brief rule by democratic socialists. It would survive and again thrive, he knew.
We who are the beneficiaries of Anglo-American democracy are more fortunate than most of humanity for the continuity of our constitutional democratic traditions across the centuries. Democracy is always as flawed as the sins and frailties of its participants. But overall the British and American political systems, which include Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others, have enjoyed remarkable and historically even glorious progression.
Elections are often bitter and contentious, yet the results are respected, and government moves forward. Politicians come and go, but the laws endure, and the people, despite often overheated rhetoric, accept the democratic process. American democracy has survived invasion, civil war, depression, internal upheavals. British democracy continued unbroken even as Nazi bombs fell and German invasion threatened. “We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy, ” Churchill told the Canadian parliament, speaking for all the English speaking peoples. We are blessed that democracy and respect for the rule of law, including the outcomes of elections, are in our historical DNA. As parcel to a long transgenerational continuity, our own generation does not have the power, no matter our own mistakes, singularly to overthrow this legacy. We just are not ourselves that important.
The stability of the Anglo-American political tradition owes much to the historic Christianity of our culture. It helps us to understand that government and rulers are accountable to a Transcendent Authority who is no respecter of men. And we assume that each person has rights and dignity no matter their station in life because their bear God’s image. Our political systems assume that people are by nature sinners and rarely if ever consistent saints. So we do not assume universal virtue but instead match interests against counter interests so that all are invested in law, stability and prosperity.
Central to the stability of democracy is accepting defeat in elections, even to adversaries who might be feared and despised. The laws if they work will constrain the worst of human instincts. And there will always be another election, another round, another cycle. Electoral defeats are painful but they are ultimately healthy even for the losers, who can regroup and hopefully improve their message. No party or person will thrive if too long in power.
Our political traditions, and Christian Realism, counsel against overly investing in electoral outcomes. Elections in strong democracies won’t trigger the Apocalypse. They are part of an inevitable cycle, and are not the End Times. Electoral defeats should not be met with acrimony and bitterness, with denial, or with conspiracy theories, which are acidic to democracy and discourse among free people.
Christian Realism knows that people, in their virtue and their vice, are finite, rendering vast conspiracies involving countless turning wheels and thousands of direct participants unsustainable for long if even for a moment. Fallen people in their limitations are constrained even in the evils they can manage. And political adversaries, even if dangerous, are rarely altogether Satanic in intent, and never in supernatural power.
Churchill sadly but obliging accepted his defeat by his friend, colleague and adversary, the socialist Clement Atlee. He remained Atlee’s fiercest critic, denounced him in Parliament, socialized with him in the lobby, and competed with him amicably across many decades. They both achieved victories against and accepted losses by each other. Sometimes they liked each other. Other times they disdained each other. A frail and feeble Atlee, in a wheel chair, attended Churchill’s funeral, and Churchill would have attended his. They and their nation knew that their democracy was larger than any person or any one election. And they knew that losing elections was often as important as winning.