While many General Elections have been hailed as ‘historic’, few can come close to the election held on 5th July 1945.
The UK had been ruled by a coalition government since 1940 but, following the German surrender, the Labour Party withdrew from the coalition, forcing an election while the war was still underway in the far east. The logistics of members of the forces voting meant that the results couldn’t be declared until 26th July and, when they came, they were a shock.
As the Prime Minister who had led Britain through the war, Winston Churchill was widely expected to win, but instead the result was a landslide victory for the Labour Party which took 47.7% of the vote and 393 seats. It was tremendous mandate and enabled the new government, headed by Clement Attlee, to embark on huge reforms, including the establishment of the National Health Service, a comprehensive welfare state, legal aid, education reforms and nationalisation of key industries including coal mining, steel making, railways and road transport, and shipping. The decolonisation process slowly started with the partition of British India and Wales was given a very moderate level of devolution through the establishment of the Council of Wales and Monmouthshire.
Due in part to the strength of the labour movement in Wales, many Welsh men and women were at the heart of this transformation, and the Welsh Political Archive at the National Library of Wales holds many archives which shed light on the drama and debates of the period.
Aneurin Bevan was Minister for Health and Housing; while there was cross party agreement on the provision of universal healthcare, Bevan created the model of a ‘nationally’ managed and centrally funded service. While many of Bevan’s papers are held by the Open University and the People’s History Museum, the papers of Bevan’s agent, Cllr Ron Evans, contain a great deal of interesting material.
Jim Griffiths was Minister for National Insurance, another key plank of the government’s reform programme. As well as reforming the systems for unemployment and pensions, Griffiths introduced family allowance and reformed the system for industrial injuries compensation.
David Rees-Williams, who was later elevated to the peerage as Lord Ogmore, was still serving in the military when he defeated the sitting Conservative MP in Croydon South. He was appointed as Minister in Colonial Office and travelled widely, advising on reforms leading to increased self-government and independence for countries in south Asia.
The Library also holds the papers of a number of MPs who were part of the 1945-50 Labour group in Parliament. Elwyn Jones was elected as MP for Plaistow in 1945 and acted as junior British Counsel during the Nuremberg Trials, and was Lead Prosecutor) at Marshal Erich von Manstein in 1948. He later served as Attorney General for England and Wales and Lord Chancellor of England and Wales.
George Thomas was also elected during the 1945 landslide for Cardiff West. He later served as Secretary of State for Wales and Speaker of the House of Commons before being elevated to the peerage as Lord Tonypandy.
Tudor Watkins held the rural constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire from 1945 until 1970 and during the 1950s was a strong supporter of the Parliament for Wales Campaign.
Goronwy Roberts was another who won his seat, Caernarvonshire, in 1945. He was also a strong supporter of the Parliament for Wales Campaign and later served as Minister of State in the Welsh Office and a number of other ministerial roles.
D Emlyn Thomas wasn’t elected in the 1945 landslide but in a by election in the Aberdare Constituency in 1946. In his maiden speech he spoke about compensation for injured miners; a topic which would be addressed by the government’s social security programme.
W. H. Mainwaring was the MP for Rhondda East, and unlike many sitting Labour MPs, he scraped to victory in 1945 over a strong challenge from the Communists
Robert Richards was the MP for Wrexham; during World War 2 he was Head of the Civil Defence Service for North Wales and in 1946, he led a parliamentary deputation to India.
Council for Wales and Monmouthshire
In response to demands for the establishment of a Secretary of State for Wales, the Attlee government instead established an advisory committee for Wales. Its first chairman was trade union official Huw T Edwards, who became known as the ‘Unofficial Prime Minister of Wales’ and who donated a substantial collection of papers to the Library. The official records of the council are also held by the Library, and include papers related to the decision to designate Cardiff as the Capital City of Wales in 1955.
Gordon MacDonald had been the Labour MP for Ince but resigned in 1942 to become Controller of Fuel and Power for Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales. He did however have a key role in government from 1946, but not in the UK. He was appointed by Attlee as Governor of Newfoundland, which was then a Dominion under a form of direct rule and oversaw the process of confederation with Canada before returning to the UK, being elevated to the peerage as Lord MacDonald of Gwaenysgor and serving as Paymaster General. The papers are in the process of being catalogued.
The Library’s collection of Illingworth Cartoons include many related to the 1945 General Election and the 1945-50 Labour Government, and some of the Library’s holdings of election addresses and posters have recently been digitised. The addresses of Labour, Conservative, Liberal, Plaid Cymru and Independent candidates can be browsed on our website.
Welsh Political Archive
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