Steven Fielding

Boris Johnson is repeating Churchill’s campaign mistake

In one of Boris Johnson’s opening salvoes of the 2019 campaign he said of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party:

‘they detest the profit motive so viscerally…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.’

Boris Johnson is no Winston Churchill. But in making that claim, the Prime Minister evoked one of his most illustrious predecessor’s greatest campaigning mistakes.

For in a radio broadcast during the 1945 election campaign Churchill claimed a ‘socialist government’ led by Attlee, aimed to control ‘the entire life and industry of the country … [and] would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo’.

Churchill’s speech is now remembered as one of the most misjudged in political history. It did not change the result: Labour was probably always going to win. And it certainly did not make voters see Attlee as the monster the Conservative leader’s rhetoric implied he might be. But in the eyes of many contemporaries, the speech did transform Churchill’s own image, from being the statesman who won the war to being just another party hack.

Given what we know about Attlee and the government he led – introducing the National Health Service didn’t require torturing of Labour’s opponents – Churchill’s rhetoric sounds absurd. But all he was doing was mobilising the kind of tropes Conservatives at the time believed were useful in persuading voters that Labour’s desire to expand the state posed a terrible threat to their lives and liberty. ‘Remember Belsen’ one party poster warned prior to Churchill’s speech. Making comparisons with the Nazis owed much to the war, of course. It was however more usual for Conservatives to stoke apocalyptic fears about Labour by drawing parallels with the blood-stained Russian Bolsheviks who grabbed power in 1917; this culminated in

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Written by
Steven Fielding
Steven Fielding is Emeritus Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. He is currently writing a history of the Labour party since 1976 for Polity Press.

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