Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.
The few months after an election are a strange time for someone in my line of work; the pre-election excitement is over, the predictions are a matter of pride (as mine were in 1992, 2001, 2005 and 2010) or blown away as dust by the eventual verdict of the electorate (as most of mine were in 1997 and 2015). The constituency numbers are there to be crunched in the spreadsheets, the hasty instant verdicts have been pronounced, but the more nuanced and complicated results of the British Election Study trickle out slowly.
I have spent a fair proportion of the summer walking around two long circuits in the London area – the Capital Ring, which follows a route mostly slightly further out from the North and South Circular Roads for around 75 miles, and the London LOOP, which is just inside the M25 barrier and is about 125 miles long. If one’s thoughts range to politics and history – as mine do, and as yours, gentle reader, probably do as well – the landscape of middle and outer London leads inevitably to thoughts about the 1930s, when so much of the great sprawl of Metro-land covered the blackthorns and lavender fields of Middlesex and Surrey in an uncontrolled splurge of housebuilding.
Look carefully, and you can see the physical traces of 1939 there on the ground – the mock-Tudor avenue that ends abruptly, giving out onto a patch of woodland or shrubbery; the unexpected sight, glimpsed from a tube train, of a sheepy pasture that was intended to become a suburb, but which has been preserved by the onset of the Second World War and the Green Belt.
Over two million dwellings were completed between 1933 and 1939, including half a million in the public sector – often high quality, and similar to the privately developed suburbs (which themselves tended, in the London area, to spring up as the public sector London Passenger Transport Board extended its tentacles into the country). The new private developments were also affordable to middle class and skilled working class families, thanks to rising incomes and base interest rates that remained at two per cent for most of the 1930s. This original owner-occupier housing boom differed from its successors (1973, 1988, 2007, watch this space) in that supply kept up with demand and the boom did not end in an enormous crash. The buildings were decent, too; there is a case that the interwar semi and the Georgian terrace are the apogees of popular domestic architecture; those new suburbs were pleasant places to live.
At the time, 1937-39 seemed benevolent to most of the electorate. Unemployment had returned to the (admittedly high) pre-crash levels, although the nation was divided between booming commuter, light industrial and car manufacturing areas and stagnant regions dependent on mining and heavy industry. There was plenty of misery and poverty, but much of it was hidden from view except when its victims protested, as in the Jarrow March of 1936. Incomes and production were on an upward trend – although there was a serious wobble in the second half of 1938. It was a better recovery than the one we have had since the 2008 crash. Surprisingly, the political geography of Britain was less starkly divided than the economic background. Labour only gained depressed Jarrow in November 1935 by 2,350 votes, but would have probably gained boom- town Coventry – marginally held by the Tories in 1935 – in a 1940 election.
The likely outcome of an election in normal conditions in 1939 or 1940 is of course unknowable. It is easier to imagine the outcome of a 1915 election (as I do here) because the onset of war in 1914 came as a surprise, and disrupted a political environment which had been shaped by the developing conflict in Ireland and such domestic issues as land reform, state pensions, women’s suffrage and industrial relations. By contrast, international affairs had dominated political discussion since the start of 1938 and it is impossible to extract what a normal 1940 election might have looked like absenting the onset of war. Chamberlain remained, on balance, popular in the Gallup polls that were taken at the time and, perhaps surprisingly, was neither boosted much by Munich nor greatly damaged by the collapse of the agreement when Nazi Germany occupied Prague in March 1939.
A ‘normal’ 1940 election, or even one influenced by Chamberlain keeping Britain out of the European war, would probably have produced a renewed Conservative-led ‘National’ government with a majority rather smaller than that which it enjoyed in 1935. By-elections were showing a consistent but not overwhelming swing of 3-4 per cent towards Labour throughout 1937-39. Labour did well in a number of municipal elections in the mid-1930s but slipped back in most places in the last pre-war set of local elections in November 1938, suggesting that if Munich had produced a lasting peace the swing might have been smaller.
If the by-elections can be taken as pointing towards an election outcome, then the Nationals would have won by 6-8 percentage points (49 per cent to perhaps 42 per cent for Labour), translating into a Commons majority of a little over 100 seats. Labour would have gained 60-70 seats and a record share of the vote, but still have been well adrift in many constituencies the party had won in three-cornered contests in 1929 and a long way from power.
Only in London, where Herbert Morrison had won control of the county council in 1934 and expanded it in 1937, was Labour nearing its pre-1931 position. The lopsided two-party system established in 1931, with Labour piling up massive majorities in its mining and industrial strongholds and the Conservatives sweeping up a lot of the old Liberal vote for a strong majority, showed every sign of durability in 1939. Despite the disparity in the size of many constituencies – depopulated inner urban areas and vast suburban seats like Harrow with its 168,000 electors - the distribution of the vote meant that even if Labour outpolled the Conservatives by a point or two, the Conservative majority would survive.
There were undercurrents beneath the unequal two party system of 1939. Both main parties represented oversized coalitions of support. The National Government benches contained a range of opinion from the pro-Nazi Archibald Ramsay, a number of fascists and fellow travellers, traditionalist conservatives, liberals, and statist modernisers, all the way to the dilettante socialist Harold Nicolson. Labour was troubled by the dilemmas of ‘Popular Front’ agitation; the party tried hard to repel Stalinist boarders but many of its own intellectuals were tempted by the idea of a pact with the Communists and the Liberals; Stafford Cripps was expelled from Labour for such heresies.
There were extraordinary departures from party unity on the Conservative side, such as the Oxford by-election of 1938 where the anti-Conservative, anti-appeasement candidate A.D. Lindsay was supported by no fewer than four future Conservative Prime Ministers (Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Heath). Churchill had to struggle against deselection in his own constituency at Epping. But probably without a massive shock to the system the alignments of 1939 would have persisted indefinitely, the smothering forces of the electoral system and conformity too strong even for the most determined individuals and social forces to overcome.
From the point of view of 1945, the British political world of 1938-39 looked inadequate, tawdry, unimaginative and cowardly, but as far as we can tell the majority of people liked it at the time – good, cheap housing, new jobs, new possibilities in travel and entertainment, despite the gathering storm in mainland Europe. In 1929 it had looked possible that Labour might, with that Fabian inevitability of gradualness, rise to dominance; by 1939 it looked possible that there might never, ever be a majority Labour government; by 1950 we were clearly in a competitive two party system and then again by 1959 people were talking about the inevitable decline of Labour.
It does not always take such a violent, total disruption as the Second World War to upend all our assumptions and predictions. Britain in the late 1930s had its redeeming features and its comforts, but it was indeed a time when we settled for mediocrity.