Author’s note: this is the first of a series of brief essays discussing various aspects of British history, all referencing Walter Arnstein’s Britain Yesterday and Today: 1830-Present
The two world wars changed the British from a prosperous and energetic people, driven by economic innovation and a sense of national destiny into acquiring and ruling the greatest empire the world has ever known, into an exhausted and demoralized people seeking to hide from the world and to entrust the government with their personal security. The pre-World War One society that remained class-influenced, both socially and politically, acquired egalitarian traits that veered left through socialism and flirted with communism, while still paying homage to a national government headed by a monarch. This uniquely British hybrid of a socialist kingdom mirrored England’s unique experience in the two world wars.
Even before World War One the English had been discussing matters such as social security and health care initiatives, and while the trauma of that war lead to a coalition government between the wars that was led by Conservatives, after World War Two that was not enough. “…the Conservatives, contended the Labourites, had demonstrated during the 1930’s their ineptitude in combating unemployment as well as in preventing war” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 361). This contention cleverly combined the two chief concerns of a war-weary people that had seen more than one million men killed outright in wars that consumed ten of the previous thirty-one years, namely, the difficult change from a wartime economy to one of peacetime, and the dread possibility of future wars. After so much uncertainty the English people wanted surety and security, both personal and national. Nor was the collective security offered by the new United Nations much of a comfort, given England’s experience in the League of Nations. In 1945, a year of stupendous events, English socialists did something not done before. “For the first time in British history- and for the first (and only) time among the major democratic nations- a professedly socialist party had won an overwhelming parliamentary majority” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 362). When examining the political and social consequences of the two World Wars, it is hard to overlook that the winner of the first post-war elections was the political party of the Socialists, which virtually defines the answer to the question at hand.
For centuries class divisions had been central to English society. World War One might have been presumed to blur the lines of class as the country suffered nearly two million casualties, with the shared misery being so traumatic as to bring people together. This was not the case, however, as was apparent after the war ended. “…A spirit of class consciousness impressed many observers as more evident than ever before in British history” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 289). During World War Two this changed as the nature of warfare changed, forcing people of all classes to cooperate and live in close proximity. “In this wartime environment, class distinctions were submerged- air-raid shelters, emergency hospitals, and evacuation centers were made available to all; the rationing system played no favorites; and the tax system tended more than ever to equalize income” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 349). Egalitarianism by falling bomb, resulting in a postwar society that was far less interested in or influenced by class. By the 1960’s many of these once wealthy and influential families were barely scraping by. “The old aristocracy had not disappeared…although many a peer was making ends meet by charging tourists a fee to tramp through his ancestral halls” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 401).
England emerged from World War Two virtually bankrupt. The motivation for the American Lend Lease program in 1940 was that Britain was running out of money to pay for weapons, and there were still five years of war ahead. When the Second World War ended, England had few economic assets and the people were given a clear political choice between the Conservatives and Labour as to how to spend what little money remained to the exchequer, either on the empire or themselves. They chose themselves. As a result, before the 1950’s began the empire was beginning to crumble. The sweeping political revolution, and it is hard to consider it anything less than a revolution, immediately began dismantling as much of private enterprise as it could, with nationalization of the coal and aviation industries coming first. Government social guarantees, in the form of social security and the National Health Service Acts, were also immediate changes. Both show how badly the English wanted a secure environment and time to process the traumatic experiences of war.
The consequences of such rapid, drastic changes were extreme, both for good and for ill. And since all forms of socialism share certain characteristics, the British version actually took on mild versions of the National Socialism they had just defeated. The National Health Service ensured free medical care for all Britons, which was, as might be expected, immensely popular with the lower classes. It had its origins during the war and afterward the British wanted to expand it into a universal form, which was welcomed. “Within a year, 95 percent of the population had enrolled itself…” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 366). National Insurance protected everyone from a variety of life’s pitfalls, such as unemployment or illness, and paid pensions to retirees. A smorgasbord of social programs made the future seem as though Utopia were right around the corner.
Utopia came with a price, however. “All of the Labour government’s plans of nationalization and socialist planning were increasingly handicapped and often overshadowed by the grave economic problems inherited from the Second World War” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 367). Paying for all of the social programs meant ever more rigid government controls and rationing, until the restrictions of English citizens became worse than during the war, echoing limits placed on German citizens by Hitler’s regime. “In 1947 and 1948, food rations were reduced well below the wartime average…” (Arnstein, Britain Yesterday and Today, page 369). Desperate governments schemes to encourage people to grow peanuts, or eat the unappetizing imported fish snoek, failed, and predictably the government turned to compulsion to force obedience to its dictates. Civilian use of gasoline was entirely prohibited more than two years after the war had ended, newspapers were given rigid limits on how much paper they could use and it became a criminal offense to heat your apartment during summer. These were just a few of the consequences the British paid for their decision to use the postwar years to try and buy the security to offset the trauma of the two world wars.
The British people also divested themselves of empire, but as to the consequences of this, it seems imperative to first answer the question of what exactly the question at hands means by the term ‘British people.’ Does this mean only the people born and/or living on the island of England? Does it include the Scottish too, and the Northern Irish? What about colonials or ex-patriots? For purposes of answering the question without ballooning the answer into something so enormous that it cannot be answered in less than book length form, let us consider natives of Great Britain and those living in colonies not granted independence; more specifically, India.
India was granted independence in 1947 as a direct consequence of Britain’s sudden disinterest in everything except themselves. But while Indians may have wanted independence, it is doubtful they wanted it the way it came; not in an orderly way, but hastily, even irresponsibly. As early as 1942 a basis for Indian independence had been established, a guideline to allow as equitable of a separation as possible. The Attlee government, however, ignored the recommendations, packed up and left in less than a year. A separate Muslim nation of Pakistan was also created, but little or no provision was made for allowing transference of Hindus from Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan. Half a million people died in the subsequent chaos. If we grant those subjects of the Crown status as being part of the ‘British people’, then those deaths far exceed the battle deaths suffered during World War Two, meaning that the consequences of World Wars One and Two were, for those particular Queen’s subjects, as dire as the wars themselves, if not more so.
The results of this were that other colonies lost the fear of the home country while gaining contempt for its weakness. The resulting colonial rush to independence made it clear that the once-mighty British Empire was becoming irrelevant, with a consequent demoralizing effect on the British people. It is hard to quantify England’s loss of prestige throughout the world because the manner in which she lost her empire, but certainly Egypt’s seizure of the Suez Canal would never have happened if Nasser had feared the British, and both the bungled Anglo-French counter-attack and America’s public rebuke against them in the United Nations spelled out clearly that England was no longer a world power. On the surface of matters this topic may not seem to be either social or political but strategic, yet it is intricately woven into both. The Labour government eventually fell, at least partially due to England’s collapse in international affairs, and the national malaise, if not outright depression, caused by this loss of prestige would clearly be of a social nature.
England entered the first of the two world wars as the largest empire in the world, feared and respected, if not loved, by peoples the world over. Her population was proud and largely prosperous; a society filled with innovative energy that was evolving from a purely capitalist, class oriented one to something new, perhaps another English hybrid that might have contained the best of the emerging egalitarian world and the older, more paternalistic one. After the Second World War, however, such elegant dreams were lost in the dreary depression of bankruptcy and shortages, as English society tried to remove itself from world affairs and to reward its citizenry with what they believed to be a lifetime of personal security, in the meantime erecting political structures that would enact the social programs they desired regardless of the cost. What might be called a national case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder left English society dazed and exhausted and desperately looking to social programs and new political thoughts for a way forward into better days.