75 years ago, on 26 July 1945, Britain’s first-ever majority Labour government took office. David Booth remembers.
My father, Albert, was born in 1897 in Hoxton, east London. His father had never been to school. He worked at the Army and Navy stores making ladies’ shoes. There were six children, two of whom died in infancy – average for the time – the youngest taking their mother with her. So Grandad worked shorter daytime hours and, after the kids were in bed, sorted mail at Mount Pleasant sorting office all night.
The working class was therefore our class and the Labour Party our party. Women’s suffrage was my mother’s political passion, and she despised woman who, having got the vote, did not use it.
The first world war took my father into the Navy and his elder brother Edward into the Army, where he was killed in 1917.
After the war, newly-wed Albert’s search for work took them to service in an East Yorkshire country house, to York where my brother was born, to Aberdeen where my sister was born and to London where my twin brother and I were born in 1937. They remember the 1930s hunger marches passing their door in Willesden and collections being made to bury those who had died on the marches.
In 1939, the Navy wanted their first world was wireless operators (“sparks”) back and recruited my father into his first permanent job since 1923. We moved from London to Winchester and then to Scarborough where he would be posted after the war.
The beach was wired off because of mines and the fear of an enemy landing. Schools did not have air raid shelters; when the sirens went we were told to run home, touch our gate and run back to school. Life was ruled by rationing. One week’s rations could be put on one plate.
My vivid memory is of asking my Mum, “Will we win the war?” and her face looking grey as she replied, “I don’t know”. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, she said, “The war is over”, not “We have won”.
While Churchill led the war effort, Clement Attlee, Labour Party leader since 1935 and Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition Government since 1941, had been running the country and preparing for peace. The Beveridge report had prepared for the National Assistance Act 1946, and the Education Act 1944 meant that my father, earning six pounds per week, no longer had to pay school fees for my sister who had passed the Eleven-Plus.
A general election was announced for 5 July. Labour campaigned for universal benefits and a national health service and independence for India, the Tories for the empire. There were no leaflets because paper was rationed, so we went round shouting “Vote, vote, vote for Mr Attlee, Chuck Winnie Churchill down the stairs”: I received a cuff from a policeman for my pains.
The count took three weeks because of Forces voting and Wakes Week holidays in the North. On 21 July, it was announced that Labour had gained a net 284 seats to have 393 of the 640 seats in the Commons. The Labour Party was due to have a conference to elect a leader who would then become Prime Minister, but Attlee got his wife to drive him to Buckingham Palace where he was asked to form a government and the rest is history.
My mother was ecstatic. “At last you kids will stand a chance!” She cried, and added. “Now we’ll show them”. There was a distinct sense that we were Labour and Labour was for us. There was a mutual loyalty and mission.
On 1 January 1948, when the NHS started, our family ceremonially took the doctor’s pot (containing half-crowns for his fee) off the mantelpiece. Mum got her first ever treatment for her thin blood (I suspect from malnutrition) and she got some specs and so could read the Daily Herald. My father got some pills for his “slight irregularity of the heart”. Now when we kids were ill, we were sent to the doctor instead of the pharmacist.
And so it proved: we did have a chance. The four children became a cabinet minister, a lawyer, a lecturer and a teacher. My mum was proud of the teachers. She was not so sure about politicians and lawyers.