Wednesday, 6 May 2015

What if Winston Churchill fought the general election of 2015?

The world in which Winston Churchill lived out his political career was very different from that we live in today. He fought his first parliamentary election in 1899, at the close of the Victorian era, and his last in 1959, at the dawn of the space age. There were many changes across that period, of course, but there were also continuities. One of the most significant of these was the importance of public meetings to electioneering. These were often rowdy and sometimes even violent affairs. Politicians were expected to be able to defend themselves against hecklers with a quick wit and to be able to hold their own against noisy barracking. Now, by contrast, the public meeting is all but dead and even a single jibe directed to the Prime Minister by a voter can be headline news. So if Churchill was fighting in this year’s election he might feel that the electorate is rather passive and perhaps even that politicians are getting a surprisingly easy ride.

What, though, if Churchill were to look at what people are saying on Twitter and other social media? He was always fascinated by technology and would certainly take a strong interest in the new methods of campaigning. But he would perhaps not be shocked by the level of vitriol and recrimination that is to be found online. During the period he was politically active, harsh invective was part and parcel of  the electoral process. Indeed, Churchill indulged in it himself, most notoriously in the 1945 election speech in which he alleged that a Labour government, if elected, would have to rely on ‘some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.’ Contrary to popular belief this remark, however misguided, was not some sort of wild aberration. At this time, comparing one’s opponents to the Nazis was quite a popular habit, engaged in by Labour and Liberal figures as well as by a number of Churchill’s fellow Conservatives. Nonetheless, the level of debate has arguably declined somewhat over the last seventy years, but abusing the enemy is nothing new.

Equally, Churchill might well be appalled by the quality of today’s press, but then again he was not particularly impressed by the activities of the Fourth Estate within his own lifetime either. The attitude of the newspapers played an important part in his 1945 defeat at the polls, and the Daily Mirror famously branded him as a warmonger during the 1951 election campaign. Indeed, we have to remember that of the three elections that Churchill fought as leader of his party, he lost two and narrowly won another. If he struggled then he might well struggle now, especially in an age that has become obsessed with youth and glamour and seems to care little for maturity and experience. Still, he almost always rebounded from setbacks, and Churchill were defeated in 2015 he might still have battled on and emerged as a serious contender in the election of 2020.

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