May 23rd

On May 23rd 1945 the British World War II Coalition came to an end, shortly after Germany’s surrender on May 8th.

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May 8th 1940 saw Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ask Labour and the Liberals to join him in a coalition government in an act of National Unity, after narrowly surviving a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons following the ‘Norway Debate’. The current Conservative-dominated coalition was widely disparaged by the public and Opposition, together with a quarter of Conservative MPs, especially in the midst of a failing Nordic campaign against Nazi Germany. Labour leader Clement Attlee and his deputy Arthur Greenwood insisted that they would only serve under a new Conservative Prime Minister. Chamberlain initially preferred Lord Halifax as his successor, but Halifax did not feel he could lead a War government effectively from the Commons. On May 10th, Nazi Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and Chamberlain resigned. King George V invited Churchill to form a cabinet, and within six hours it was fully established, with Attlee as Deputy PM.

I beg to move, that this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.

(Churchill 13th May 1940, the war cabinet is endorsed unanimously by the House)

The war cabinet was a victory for Parliamentary unity in a time of unprecedented national crisis. Churchill swallowed his distain for socialist views and trade unionism to allow Labour MPs key roles in his cabinet. For example Attlee as Lord Privy Seal, Greenwood as Minister without Portfolio and Ernest Bevin (leader of the Transport and General Workers Union) in the very influence role of Minister of Labour. As Foreign Secretary he appointed the Conservative Anthony Eden, a strong critic of Chamberlain. Churchill himself established himself as Minister for Defence and head of the Defence Committee, as well as Prime Minister. He was clearly showed an intent to break with his cautious predecessor and aggressively push for military victory. Furthermore, Churchill’s robust persona allowed him to deal with a strengthened Labour party.

However, the rapid fall of the coalition signified that it was only in place to defeat Hitler. The good personal relations between Churchill and Attlee had ensured the coalition was effective around their fixed goal. Churchill had offered a continuation of the war arrangement, but post-war the Labour Party wanted to pursue a radical reformist agenda, and Churchill would never have accepted this. Churchill was soon to accuse Attlee of attempting to establish a British Gestapo in the 1945 General Election campaign, in which Labour won a landslide victory. Although Churchill had the heroic status of war victor, in the public’s eyes it had become clear that a socialist Labour government would be better at rebuilding Britain after the war than the Conservatives.

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