When Labour's pioneering 1945 government lost power despite winning most support at the ballot box

It was the election when Labour reached its peak popularity yet the Tories returned to power – with fewer votes but more seats – and a future minister in Margaret Thatcher's government stood in West Lothian arguing for Scotland to have more control of its own affairs.

Monday, 25th October 2021, 4:55 am

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Seventy years ago today the 1951 general election saw the end of the groundbreaking post-war Labour government which created the National Health Service and the Tories' return to power led by the 76-year-old Winston Churchill.

Labour won the most votes – in fact, the highest number of votes it has ever won before or since – but the electoral system handed the Tories an overall majority of 17 seats.

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Winston Churchill gives his famous V-sign gesture on the campaign trail Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Clement Attlee's Labour government had completed most of the programme on which it was elected in 1945, including establishing the NHS and nationalising industries like rail and coal.

They had been re-elected in 1950 with a majority of just five seats, which meant almost every Commons vote was on a knife edge and the prospect of a fresh election never far away.

On top of that, several of the key figures were sick or dying. Chancellor of the Exchequer Stafford Cripps resigned in October 1950 suffering from terminal cancer, and six months later Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin died. Attlee and Home Secretary Herbert Morrison were in and out of hospital.

And there were serious tensions inside the government. NHS creator Nye Bevan resigned, along with future prime minister Harold Wilson who was then president of the Board of Trade, in protest at new Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell's determination to introduce charges for dentures and spectacles in order to fund the UK's involvement in the Korean war – a conflict many feared could escalate into a third world war.

Clement Attlee with his wife Violet - she was his campaign chauffeur Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When George VI voiced worries about a political crisis blowing up while he was away on a thee-month Commonwealth tour planned for early 1952, Attlee called an election for October 25.

Humphrey Atkins, who would later serve in Margaret Thatcher's first Cabinet, was adopted at the last minute as the Unionist (Tory) candidate in West Lothian after the previous candidate resigned for business reasons.

Atkins was married to the daughter of Kirkcaldy linoleum magnate Sir Robert Spencer-Nairn and had been working for the firm for three years.

In a newspaper advertisement he set out eight key policies with “More local control of Scottish affairs” at number five.

Humphrey Atkins, future Cabinet minister, was Unionist candidate in West Lothian

"I fully agree with the demand that Scotland should have a greater control over her own affairs," he declared. Unionists would create two extra ministerial posts in the Scottish Office.

He continued: "We shall return to the local authorities much of the power that has been taken from them by the Socialists and we will set up a Royal Commission to investigate the economic and financial relationships between Scotland and England.”

And intriguingly he added: "I think that these are steps in the right direction, but if they are not sufficient I will press for further action."

It was a straight fight in West Lothian, Atkins against new Labour candidate John Taylor. Atkins increased the Tory vote but Taylor won with a majority of over 10,000 and held the seat until his death in 1962 when the legendary Tam Dalyell was elected in his place.

Harold Wilson and Nye Bevan - they resigned in protest at NHS charges Photo: Central Press/Getty Images

Newspaper reports noted well-attended meetings. One said: "The question of Scottish Home Rule did crop up in the course of heckling at several meetings but it certainly did not seem to dwarf what were regarded as the main issues in the election – the cost of living, housing, foreign affairs and the maintenance of peace.”

Scottish self-governance was a popular cause at the time. The National Covenant – a cross-party petition calling for a Scottish Parliament – collected two million signatures and a group of nationalist students caused a stir by stealing the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey in December 1950.

But at the election, the SNP did not have the money or organisation to contest more than two seats in the whole of Scotland.

The Liberals, their resources drained by the previous election just 18 months earlier, also fielded a much-reduced number of candidates, which meant in many seats – including all those in and around Edinburgh – the contest was a straight fight between Labour and the Unionists.

Six years after the end of the Second World War, foreign affairs featured prominently in the campaign. As well as the Korean war – where the UK had sent troops to support the US defence of South Korea after it was invaded by the communist North – there was trouble in Iran, where a new prime minister had nationalised British oil assets. And during the election campaign, the Egyptian government announced it was reneging on treaties over the Suez canal, presaging the crisis there in 1956. The Tories played up Churchill’s wartime leadership and Labour accused them of warmongering.

Attlee toured the country, driven by his wife while he did crosswords in the back of the car.

Hugh Gaitskell was the Chancellor who introduced NHS charges

A week or so before polling day, Churchill was greeted by cheering crowds at Waverley station as he stopped off on his special train travelling from Newcastle to Glasgow. "One more heave and out with the lot," he told them.

Anthony Eden, who would succeed Churchill as prime minister three and a half years later, visited the Capital too, speaking at the Usher Hall.

And Gaitskell was among the Labour big names also to appear in Edinburgh.

Polling day saw bright sunshine and temperatures mild for the time of year.

The closest result in Scotland came in Leith, where Labour's James Hoy held on by just 72 votes against Eoin Mekie, standing as National Liberal and Conservative.

Unionist Sir William Darling – great uncle of Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling – increased his majority in Edinburgh South, as did fellow Unionists Ian Clark Hutchison in Edinburgh West, James Clyde in Edinburgh North and John Hope in Edinburgh Pentlands.

Edinburgh Central elected a new MP, with Labour's Tom Oswald replacing party colleague Andrew Gilzean, who had first become an MP at the age of 67 in 1945. Oswald would hold the seat for 23 years, handing over to Robin Cook in 1974.

In Edinburgh East, John Wheatley, the Lord Advocate, held the seat for Labour with a reduced majority over Unionist William Grant, who would himself serve as Lord Advocate nearly a decade later.

Labour also held Midlothian and Peebles with David Pryde returned.

But the Unionists won Berwick and East Lothian, where Wiilam Antruther-Gray overturned a Labour majority of 1,728 and went on to hold the seat until 1966.

The Unionists narrowly outpolled Labour in Scotland but they each ended up with 35 MPs north of the border.

And despite Labour’s record 13,948,605 votes across the UK, the election began an unbroken 13 years in power for the Tories.

Looking back:

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Results are chalked as the votes are counted Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images