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The People’s War

Britain’s Greatest Generation should have lived in the flourishing garden planted by the Nineteenth Century, breathing the air of peace and tasting the fruit of prosperity. But the garden was corrupted by imperial and financial calamity before its seeds were thirty years sown, planting the springboard for the evil War that concluded the disaster of the new Century’s first half. Indeed, so much of a catastrophe was the first half of the Twentieth Century that, according to Professor Kenneth Morgan, Bertrand Russell looked upon WWII and Britain’s approximately 375,000 military deaths (around half that of the Great War) as an ‘almost good war’. Europe’s self-esteem lay in tatters and reality was to advance from a different direction. America and the Soviet Union called Europe’s day and not since has Europe or Britain dominated the world, drastically altering the balance of power and our cultural experience.

Inside Britain, attitudes were apparently markedly different. There was a new birth of optimism and celebration for the future, however short-lived and, understandably, up-down during the War itself. Sometimes, it reduced to levels of pessimism quite forgotten on the path to the present, including by those at the time. Indeed, Mass Observation Report data twenty five years after the war found that it was typical for one’s memory to not correspond with their surveyed impression at the time (a piece of invaluable data for sure and an indicator of the difficulty of the study of historical mentalities even when you have the studied people in your grasp). Nevertheless, eyes were not so strongly fixed on the carvery shared by the US and Soviet Union in 1945 and beyond, but our own social improvement to not only rebuild Britain, but better it in peacetime. A peace that was worth it, a peace they deserved. After the Great War, there was an acute lack of home improvement fit for heroes, a pandemic and just over ten years before the Wall Street Crash. According to the popular and cherished belief in this country, it was the experience of the Second World War itself that bred deep social cohesion in Britain and the collapse of relevant class disparities, with self-interest decreasing along with social conflict. This paved the way for the Labour Party and their not far from ready-made plans from the wartime coalition to usher in the new welfare state.

The extent of the blitz had the effect of melding a home front more closely than had been the case in 1914. The resulting extension of the powers of the state had led to conscription and rationing that affected every household. Careers were disrupted, families and neighbourhoods broken. Except at the front, women came to be treated as equals in national adversity ... It had been a war of a united nation

The safe words of Simon Jenkins in the very much abridged Short History of England are tepid compared to some of the expressions given at the time, including from William Beveridge, who, as the liberal economist behind the blueprint for the welfare state, is firmly up there with Winston Churchill, Alan Turing and George Orwell as a major reference figure of the War:

[A] revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching. [My scheme is] a British revolution...

Emmanuel Shinwell of the Labour Party emphasised a revolution in the minds of the people. And the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, looked to the past with little nostalgia: The old world is dead; none of us can escape from revolutionary changes, even if we would...

Perhaps the most important researcher on the matter of social change in Britain during WWII was Richard Titmuss, who echoed a revolutionary tone and argued that public values had massively shifted because of events like evacuation. The people demanded obligations on the Government to care for the poorer and the poorest and not forsake the fundamentals of the social programme established in wartime to coordinate the national effort against the Nazis. The wartime social programme was an inspiration to tackle the toils of peace. Toned down were the days of Lockean governmental protection of individual rights and in came those of a desire for an added government role to enforce the shared social responsibility introduced by the new collectivist mentality occasioned by horrific conflict. This is the traditional interpretation. A considerable number of academic historians have since regarded Titmuss’ conclusion as significantly overstated and in need of revision. There were also some at the time, including Ralph Miliband, who did not think the resulting welfare state was extensive enough, criticising the Labour Party for failing to fully exploit the revolutionary spirit when they had the chance.

It cannot be denied that there were social disparities and injustices on the home front. An often overlooked fact is that expensive or rare food like game was effectively a ration for the majority anyway, so many wealthier persons, especially those on landed estates, could continue with their relatively lavish diets. Worse, there were reports that wealthier customers could jump the queues and claim the best produce on offer at market counters and butchers, or be the first with the chance to claim the small or rare bit of surplus stock. This is certainly believable. We know businesses needed (and need) sustained cash inflow and wealthier customers could afford to buy more products after the War, so preferential treatment during it could have paid off. Meanwhile, ‘spivs’ operated a black market in which the wealthier were again probably the favoured customers. However, we are here talking about a minority.

Class disparities were revealed by tensions during evacuation, too. Initially, one and a half million women and children were evacuated. Evacuated numbers increased to over four million in total, most of them travelling to the countryside. Of their and others’ homes, about four million were damaged in some way and nearly three hundred thousand destroyed out of a total housing stock of ten million. This means that nearly half of all homes were damaged in less than nine months - the Blitz - succeeding the ‘phoney war’ and Battle of Britain. Despite reports of looting and a decrease in morale not covered by propaganda, there were countless instances of heroism and sentiments of joint endeavour surrounding the Blitz, that, we must remember, was a time of German dominance before the Soviets and Americans helped turn the balance of the War. Nevertheless, some billeting officers did not opt for the collectivist sentiment and ignored prominent members of the community when allocating evacuees. Evacuees were also used by wealthier homeowners as evidence of maltreatment by their parents rather than contempt for any injustice in society, although much of these data come from voluntary organisations for evacuation made up of the middle classes. Surveys revealed that evacuees who lived with members of a more similar social class reported higher levels of satisfaction than those who were sent to very different households - the members of which some avoided as much as possible. It is arguable, then, that evacuation reinforced class division rather than alleviated it.

Reports also discovered that many evacuee families found it difficult to reside with their hosts, to the extent that two families sharing the same often lived almost completely separate existences, each family critical of the other - Mark Donnelly

However, those in the home of strangers, with fathers and husbands possibly shot in France and homes potentially destroyed may not have been in the best condition to entertain affluent society or be keenly received by all households, not that movement into another home with its unknown family still in it is guaranteed to be free of tension at the best of times. Yet the national union of teachers raised thousands to help feed evacuees, and worried reports to billeting officers about the health of evacuees is also surely evidence of at least some sense of caring in the hosts. Furthermore, speeches in parliament riding on the cause of the poor contributed to the zeal behind the budding wartime planning for welfare in peace. In sum, we should not be too ready to dismiss Titmuss’ argument that events like evacuation played a key role in raising the spirits to give the final push to substantial structural reform that helped make Britain at last a better and safer place for the masses.

At the start of the War, all hospitals in the country, including voluntary institutions and Poor Law infirmaries, were assumed by the state. Redistributed doctors and nurses became aware for the first time of the rundown conditions in inferior institutions. In 1940, the poor and homeless could be found filling the air-raid shelters. For the first time ever, the Government assumed direct financial responsibility for civilian medical care and the provision of hospital beds. Committees for reconstruction were set up, including in the Conservative Party, and drew up plans in which the wartime socioeconomic system with substantial state provisions acted as something of a template for the postwar system that included, of course, the NHS. I speak on behalf of everyone on this website when I say thank you for what you do at this time and all.

Jack Margetson

Donnelly Mark, Britain in the Second World War (1999)

Harris, Jose, ‘War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War’ Contemporary European History, I:I (1992)

Jenkins, Simon, A Short History of England (2012)

Lowe, Rodney, ‘The Second World War, Consensus, and the Foundation of the Welfare State’ Twentieth Century British History, I:II (1990)






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