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3.17.2004

Winston Churchill Vindicated or George Bush Beware: Ingratitude in Parliamentary and Presidential Democracies
-S. Schudy

This ends not so much with a conclusion about what Machiavelli called Ingratitudine in politics but several questions left for more knowledgeable individuals as to whether British elections for the House of Commons are more generally referendums on the Party or the Prime Minister, and more particularly Winston Churchill in 1945.

The questions stem from Andrew Sullivan’s column "The Churchill Paradox: Why Bush Could Lose," in the March 1 edition of Time Magazine where he argues that President George Bush, despite his successes in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, may be in a similar situation as Winston Churchill who after leading Great Britain to victory in the European Theater did not retain the Office of Prime Minister after parliamentary elections in July 1945.

Sullivan writes-

"Wartime leaders have always faced the worst fear: defeat in battle. But in democracies at least, war-leaders also confront another danger: success. The qualities that make for great statesmanship in wartime - determination, a single focus on victory, a black-and-white conviction of who is friend and foe - can often seem crude or overbearing when peace comes around. The most dramatic example of this in Western history is, of course, Winston Churchill. It is no exaggeration to say that, without him, Britain may well have been destroyed by Hitler. He was the difference between victory and defeat. But almost the minute that victory was declared, the voters turned on their hero. He lost the post-war election. Even more striking, he lost it in one of the biggest electoral landslides in Britain's parliamentary history. He wasn't just defeated. He was buried."

To some British readers, this may make perfect sense; it may make less sense to an American reader. Contrary to the literal sense, Churchill did not lose his election to parliament but was instead returned by the electorate of Woodford by 17,000 votes over his Independent opponent. His Conservative Party however received fewer seats in the House of Commons than the Labour Party which won 393 seats to Conservative's 197.

Sullivan goes on to say-

"The British people ejected Churchill not because they disapproved of his war, but because they didn't think he was the man to lead them in peacetime. Churchill's opponent in 1945, Clement Attlee, was, like John Kerry today, no heavy-weight. In Churchill's words, Attlee was a 'a very modest man with a great deal to be modest about.' But he still crushed Churchill at the polls."

Here it should be noted that the British electorate could not vote for Churchill directly or his deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee nor did the two run against each other the way Presidential contenders like Bush and Kerry will run in this November’s election. Under Britain's Parliamentary Democracy, the party with a majority of seats that forms the cabinet normally selects the Prime Minister from its own party while the main minority party takes over the Opposition and chooses its own leader. In many respects, the selection of Prime Minister is similar to the selection of the Senate Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House both of whom are elected by the majority parties. Because Labour in 1945 had 196 more representatives than the Conservatives, they picked the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.

It should also be noted that unlike Presidents who have gone down in defeat like Herbert Hoover and George Bush Sr.--with John Quincy Adams a notable exception--Churchill did not retire from politics after his party's defeat. He not only remained a Member of Parliament but also became the leader of the Opposition until Conservatives took the majority in 1951 and reinstalled him as Prime Minister.

Historians, hagiographers and statesmen disagree as to why the Conservative Party lost so many seats in 1945 and the effect Churchill as Prime Minister may have played. Some put the blame squarely on the Conservative Party while others put some blame on Churchill. Lord Beaverbrook could write that "the unpopularity of the party proved too strong for the greatness of Churchill and the affection in which he is held by the people" while Anthony Eden could write that though there was "much gratitude to W(inston) as war leader, there is not the same enthusiasm for him as PM of the peace."

Where Churchill's prolific biographer Martin Gilbert mentions in passing that Churchill had been reelected by Woodford with a majority of 17,000--perhaps leaving the impression of a substantial victory--another, more critical biographer John Charmley could look at his election differently. "Even in his own constituency where an 'independent' had stood against him," Charmley wrote, "10,488 votes had been cast against Churchill."

But most historians do not draw the stark conclusions that Mr. Sullivan draws in part because of the indirect way the Prime Minister is chosen. Furthermore, according to Martin Gilbert, many of the British electorate hoped to vote in a Labour government and keep Churchill. "There were many reasons for the Conservative defeat, not least the feeling among many voters that they could vote out the Conservative Party but that Churchill himself would remain Prime Minister." Though possible, it became unlikely that Churchill would have been picked especially after Labour won its huge majority, the extent of which convinced Churchill to resign as Prime Minister soon after.

Historians have looked for more general reasons for the Conservative Party's defeat. Henry Pelling cites several: Conservatives had been in power for 10 years; the electorate were hostile to the Conservatives whom they thought had left England undefended in the 1930's and whom Churchill himself had battled; the promises of a socialist-Labour economy.

What does this mean for George W. Bush? First, the democratic people in Great Britain may not have been as ungrateful to one of President Bush's heroes as suggested by Mr. Sullivan. Second, and perhaps more importantly, if the United States voters are to show ingratitude, they may be more likely than the British electorate to show it since they vote more directly for their President.

This is because a presidential election may be more likely to center on the candidate than the party, perhaps more than parliamentary democracies, due to the division between the executive and legislative branches. Voters can elect representatives to enact majority party ideas in the Congress while electing a candidate from the opposite party as President based on his personal qualities.

Dwight Eisenhower could very likely have captured the White House in 1952 as a Democrat over a Republican rival like Sen. Robert Taft even with the scandals and low popularity of the outgoing Democratic President Harry Truman. Other examples are the military generals of the 19th century who more often won the Presidency based on their standing as heroes than their party affiliation. Had Ulysses S. Grant been a Democrat, he may still have defeated his Republican opponent only three years after Appomattox simply because of his popularity, even though the nation still would have returned Republican majorities to both Houses of Congress.

If presidential elections were about the parties, one would expect at least the majority party in the House of Representatives to match the party of the newly elected or reelected President. Yet a popular Eisenhower who was reelected in 1956 and overwhelmed his Democratic rival Adlai Stevenson was unable to win back the House of Representatives or the Senate from the Democrats who had retaken it two years earlier. Similarly Ronald Reagan faced a Democratic House throughout his two terms as President while Democrat Bill Clinton saw a House Republican majority reelected in 1996 despite his own reelection by a comfortable margin over Republican Bob Dole.

But while the US electorate could show the ingratitude described by Mr. Sullivan more directly than the British, US history suggests they do not.

Instead, they have traditionally rewarded their leaders with election and reelection for military victories: Washington in 1788 and 1792 following the Revolutionary War; Lincoln in 1864 in the closing months of the Civil War; McKinley in 1900 after the defeat of Spain in Cuba, the Philippines and its revolutionary aftermath; Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 after declaring the Philippine War over two years earlier; Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 while US armies were marching to victory in Europe and the Pacific.

In the end, George W. Bush doesn’t need to keep Winston Churchill in mind. The loss of his own father in 1992 Presidential election after the victory in Gulf War I should provide plenty of motivation.

Having said this, I am the first to admit my lack of more particular knowledge on the British electoral system as well as the parliamentary elections of July 1945. For this reason, there are these three questions:

Can it be concluded that the British electorate is more likely to vote for his or her Commons representative, based on personality or party platforms, rather than for the party with the primary purpose of electing or re-electing the Prime Minister?

In contrast, is the electorate in a presidential democracy, with a division of the executive and legislative duties, more likely to vote for the successes or failures of the President himself rather than that of his party?

With these two questions in mind, is a Presidential democracy more likely to reflect its ingratitude with the executive than a Parliamentary democracy, but less likely to see its executive removed after a military or domestic success since the election of its executive is more direct? Would a Parliamentary coalition government make any difference?

In passing, one should also take note of Machiavelli’s comments on Ingratitudine in The Discourses, where he praises the errors of republics that offend citizens who should be rewarded and suspect citizens who should be trusted. “In an uncorrupted republic, they are highly beneficial and promote the cause of freedom, for owing to the fear of punishment men stay better and less ambitious for a longer time.” ("In una republica non corrotta sono cagione di gran beni, e fanno che la ne vive libera, piu mantenendosi, per paura di punizione, gli uomini migliori e meno ambiziosi.”) This, of course, is not intended to be an indirect endorsement for Bush, Kerry, Churchill or Attlee.


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