The war in Europe was already over when Britons went to the polls in July, 1945. Germany was defeated and, on the other side of the world, Japan was on the brink. After six years of blood, sweat and tears, voters could finally turn their eyes to the future. And what those voters turned to was a surprise to just about everyone.
Instead of rewarding Winston Churchill – the saviour of their green and pleasant land against the Nazi menace – they turfed him.
In came Labour with a thumping majority, led by the unassuming Clement Attlee, a man whom Churchill reputedly called “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
Why didn’t the prime minister who won the war win the postwar election? For voters, it was a decision of head over heart, focusing on the challenges of tomorrow rather than the triumphs of yesterday. Labour promised to build a generous welfare state, while the Tories waffled about their postwar plans.
Churchill was still beloved, his approval rating hovering around 80 per cent. But British voters had other things on their minds: In a reflection of how badly Attlee’s welfare programs were needed, the Labour-created National Health Service doled out around five million pairs of glasses in its first year.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s provincial election in Nova Scotia – and what it means for the Sept. 20 federal election.
Over the course of the pandemic, this page repeatedly pointed to Nova Scotia as Canada’s model COVID-fighter. Its Liberal government used smart and aggressive public-health measures to suppress the virus, keeping hospitalizations and deaths low, and schools and the economy mostly open. It was a superb performance.
And yet, on Tuesday night, at the end of a provincial election that was supposed to have been something between a coronation and a cakewalk, Nova Scotians gave the Liberals their walking papers, and handed a majority to the Progressive Conservative Party.
The result echoes the lessons from Britain in 1945: Politician, lead forward, not back. Incumbent parties are not guaranteed points for leading during the crisis, even if their leadership was effective, and even if they got things mostly right.
Each election is, of course, unique – and as we’ll get into in a moment, Nova Scotia’s was particularly so. History rhymes, but rarely repeats. And unlike Britain in the summer of 1945, our war is not over. Nova Scotia’s vote wasn’t a postwar election, and neither is next month’s federal vote.
But no matter the times, the future is what’s at the forefront of everyone’s mind. In 1945 Britain, the top issue for voters wasn’t the denouement of the war; it was housing. An exhausted people just wanted a fair chance at a decent quality of life. Churchill, misreading the moment, warned that a Labour government aiming to expand social programs would need a “Gestapo” to deal with political dissidence. He thought the global clash of good-and-evil was still the prism through which his people saw the world. Instead, they were haunted by the fear of domestic poverty.
The federal Liberals called an election this summer in part to capitalize on goodwill earned as the face of help during a difficult ordeal. There’s been much to criticize in the Liberal response, including endless rounds of incompetence at the border. But in the key area of emergency support for Canadians, the Liberals mostly got it right. And when it came to acquiring vaccines, the Trudeau Liberals overcame their own terrifying early stumbles, and ultimately delivered the goods.
But whatever grade you give the federal Liberals for their pandemic performance, you’d have to raise it, and then raise it again, when describing Nova Scotia’s Liberal government.
Yet, as in Britain in 1945, Nova Scotia voters turn out to have been less interested in handing out rewards for the past and more interested in assessing promises for the future.
The Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives captured that future by, surprisingly, running to the left of the Liberals. Leader Tim Houston, now the premier-designate, promised to balance the budget two years later than the Liberals, and to spend more on voters’ top worry: health care.
The lesson in all this? People tend to focus on what comes next, whether hopes for the postpandemic era or fears of the next pandemic wave. Hopes and fears are both about the future. Lifetime service awards are for retirement parties – not elections.
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