I spoke with my dad (pictured) about his memories of the 1945 general election ...
75 years ago when I was seven, I experienced the first of 22 general elections in my life.
My father, Albert Booth, was born in 1897 in Hoxton, just east of the city of London. His father, born in 1856, had never been to school. He worked at the Army and Navy stores making ladies’ shoes. They had six children, two of whom died in infancy – average for the time – the youngest taking their mother with her. So Grandad worked shorter daytime hours and, after the kids were in bed, sorted mail at Mount Pleasant sorting office all night.
The working class was therefore our class and the Labour Party our party. Women’s suffrage was my mother’s political passion, and she despised women who, having got the vote, did not use it.
The first world war took my father into the Navy and his elder brother Edward into the Army – Edward to the Somme and Albert to the Dardanelles. Edward was killed on 17 February 1917, Albert’s twentieth birthday and his body lies in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Grandcourt. Albert completed his naval service in 1923 and married Janet.
His search for work took them to service in an East Yorkshire country house, to York where my brother Albert was born in 1928, to Aberdeen where my sister Kathleen was born in 1930 and to London where my twin brother Alec and I were born in 1937. They have memories of the 1930s hunger marches passing their door in Willesden and collections being made to bury those who had died on the marches.
In 1939, the Navy wanted their first world war wireless operators (‘sparks’) back and recruited my father into his first permanent job since 1923. We moved from London to Winchester where I experienced bombing, shelters, flares and unexploded fire bombs. Then my father was sent to Iceland to monitor German submarines and we moved to Scarborough where he would be posted after the war monitoring the Russians.
There I started school, saw the beach wired off because of mines and the fear of an enemy landing. Schools did not have air raid shelters so when the sirens went we were told to run home, touch our front gate and run back to school. Life was ruled by rationing. One week’s rations could be put on one plate. We were not hungry but we regarded the 1930s as a golden age because we then had eggs AND bacon.
My vivid memory is of asking my Mum, ‘Will we win the war?’ and her face looking grey as she replied, ‘I don’t know’. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, she said, ‘The war is over’, not ‘We have won’.
While Churchill led the war effort, Clement Attlee, Labour Party leader since 1935 and Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition Government since 1941, had been running the country and preparing for peace. The Beveridge report had prepared for the National Assistance Act 1946, and the Education Act 1944 meant that my father, earning six pounds per week, no longer had to pay school fees for my sister who had passed the Eleven-Plus.
As soon as the German surrender was secured, a general election was announced for 5 July. Labour campaigned for universal benefits and a national health service and independence for India, the Tories for the empire. My childhood memory of the campaign was that there were no leaflets because paper was rationed and we went round shouting ‘Vote, vote, vote for Mr Attlee, Chuck Winnie Churchill down the stairs’ and receiving a cuff from a policeman for my pains.
The count took three weeks because of Forces voting and Wakes Week holidays in the North. On 21 July, it was announced that Labour had gained a net 284 seats to have 393 of the 640 seats in the Commons. The Labour Party was due to have a conference to elect a leader who would then become Prime Minister but Attlee got his wife to drive him to Buckingham Palace where he was asked to form a government and the rest is history.
My mother was ecstatic. ‘At last you kids will stand a chance!’ she cried, and added, ‘Now we'll show them’. There was a distinct sense that we were Labour and Labour was for us. There was a mutual loyalty and mission.
On 1 January 1948, when the NHS started, they ceremonially took the doctor’s pot (containing half-crowns for his fee) off the mantelpiece. Mum got her first ever treatment for her thin blood (I suspect from malnutrition) and she got some specs and so could read the Daily Herald. My father got some pills for his ‘slight irregularity of the heart’ which later killed him aged 64. Now when we kids were ill, we were sent to the doctor instead of the pharmacist.
And so it proved. We did have a chance. The four children became a cabinet minister, a barrister and Chairman of Employment Tribunals, a lecturer and a teacher. My mum was proud of the teachers. She was not so sure about politicians and lawyers.
In some ways I feel that now we fight not to move forward but to move back to the principles and sentiments which led us to take a war-battered country into the first and last really socialist government we had. But these are only childhood memories …
I look forward to the new year and 2020 vision.