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Europe at War:
UK 1939-45

On the 13th May 1940, just days after the beginning of the Nazi attack on France and Low Countries, Winston Churchill the recently appointed Prime Minister, formed a new coalition government which was to have significant long-term political implications for post-war Britain. The decision to bring senior Labour MPs into key positions in the government was immortalized the following day by a David Low cartoon ‘All Behind You Winston’ and ended a decade of Labour Party division and political impotency.

Winston Churchill – 1874-1965

Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. The son of a prominent Conservative politician, Lord Randolph Churchill, he began his career in the army serving in  India and South Africa and supplemented his income as a successful war correspondent.

His long political career began in 1900 when he became a Conservative member of parliament, but his first experience of government came as a Cabinet minister in the reforming Liberal government of Herbert Asquith from 1908-1916.  Churchill was a controversial figure. As Home Secretary he would be remembered for having used soldiers to break a strike in south Wales and as First Lord of the Admiralty for his resignation after the failure of the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. Back in government from 1919 to 1921 he was Secretary of State for War and Air, and from 1924-1929 Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Conservative government.


The 1930s in contrast were a difficult time for Churchill. In what he described as his ‘wilderness years’ his opposition to Indian Home Rule and support for King Edward VIII during the ‘Abdication Crisis’ made him unpopular.

 As he made his attacks on the appeasement policies of Baldwin and Chamberlain from the House of Commons back benches, many assumed that Churchill’s long political career was over. Yet it was to be his unfaltering wartime leadership and inspirational speeches that would ultimately make his reputation. Unexpectedly defeated in the General Election of 1945, he remained an influential figure on the world stage warning of the dangers of Soviet expansionism in his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech on 1946 and writing his own six volume history of the Second World War. He returned to power in 1951 finally resigning as a result of ill health in 1955. He remained as an MP until his late 80s. Amongst many honours, Churchill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953, he became only the second ever Honorary Citizen of the USA in 1963 and on his death in 1965 he was given a state funeral, usually only reserved for British monarchs.

Whilst Churchill concerned himself with military and foreign business, the Labour leader Clement Attlee became Britain’s first Deputy Prime Minister, with significant responsibility with domestic affairs.   Bringing Labour into coalition government had two significant consequences. Firstly, it gave Labour valuable experience of governance, which in turn reassured the public of the ‘socialists’ respectability. Secondly, in order to keep the coalition together, Churchill was forced to concede part of the domestic agenda to Labour’s plans for social reform in the post-war world.  The key document in this regard was an official report produced by the progressive economist William Beveridge in December 1942, which outlined the plans for a post war welfare state in which housing, health and social insurance would be provided by the state for the citizen ‘from the cradle to the grave’.  Wildly popular - 88% of the surveyed public supported the reforms - this new consensus for the post war world was to fall, as historian Paul Addison was to claim, ‘like a bunch of ripe plums, into the lap of Mr. Attlee’. (Addison, The Road to 1945, London Cape, 1975, p.14)

Beveridge Report

Commissioned in June 1941, the Beveridge Report was a governmental committee established to examine the state of Britain’s social service provision. Going beyond these limited terms, Beveridge argued that a ‘revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching’. The resulting recommendations were a call for the state to tackle the five ‘giant evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness i.e. poverty, poor health, poor education, poor living conditions and unemployment. Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living "below which no one should be allowed to fall".

Also into government came Ernest Bevin, Britain’s most powerful trade union leader, as Minister for Labour and National Service. Under Bevin, the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of 1939 was exploited as a wartime necessity requiring from the state a degree of control and regulation over peoples’ lives that had long been a socialist goal. Britain’s wartime planned economy redistributed labour and investment from non-essential industries to wartime industries like arms manufacture (2 million workers entered the munitions industry) and vital support industries like mining.  Most notably 48,000 military conscripts found themselves not at war but down coal mines as conscripted colliers or ‘Bevin Boys’.  Restrictions in individual rights and liberties were justified in terms of the needs of the war effort and rewarded with improvements in working conditions. From July 1940 strikes were made illegal, but as a consequence the number of days lost through strikes was a third lower than in World War I.  At the same time, the wages of six million factory workers were improved; doctors and welfare officers were introduced into the factories and the BBC was encouraged to produce entertainment programmes for the workers.  In addition to the interventionist industrial policy, the government also directed the economy through ‘fiscal’ measures.  The first Keynesian budget of 1941 used the annual budget to raise taxes and channel resources into the war economy whilst avoiding the inflation that had damaged morale during the First World War.

 Maintaining public support for the war also meant controlling the media through the Ministry of Information. In addition to wartime censorship which limited the reporting of bad news, the government’s message was conveyed by artists, poets and film makers who were commissioned to produce patriotic and inspiring works. One of the most notable examples of this was Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V; personally encouraged by Churchill and funded by the government, it was dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture.’ The level of state control was therefore, as Peter Hennessy has argued, unprecedented:  ‘Never before and never since has a British Government taken so great and so intrusive a range of powers over the lives of its citizens – where they worked, what they did in uniform or ‘civvies’ [civilian clothing], what they ate, what they wore, what they could read in the newspapers, what they could hear on the wireless sets [radio]’ (Peter Hennessy, Never Again Penguin 2006, p.40)

 Although the most tangible consequences of the war were the physical controls on people’s lives, for example the rationing of petrol or the direction of women into the war industries, the cultural and psychological impact of this experience were just as important.

 As in the First World War, women once again saw their horizons widened as they took on jobs that had become again the preserve of men.  Women took up work in aircraft manufacture, shipbuilding, engineering and the railways. Only 1 in 4 of the Labour force before the war was a woman; by 1943 this had become 1 in 3. Britain was the only country in World War II to conscript women into either essential industries or the armed forces. In December 1941, the National Service Act (no 2) made the conscription of women legal and by mid-1943, almost 90 per cent of single women and 80 per cent of married women were employed in essential work for the war effort. In addition, Women also volunteered in their millions for organisations such as the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) or the Women’s Land Army. The long term effects of the war experience for women are difficult to judge and there was little direct impact after the war. The average earnings of women were still half that of men and most trade unions had negotiated that woman would replace men only for the duration of the war. Mass observation surveys found that 66% of women still intended to give up work as soon as they got married. But as Annette Mayer argues, ‘the tenacity of women to cope with major upheaval to daily routines and to throw such energy into the war effort was undoubtedly instrumental in helping to erode some traditional perceptions of women.’  (Women in Britain, 1900-2000, Hodder and Stoughton (2002) pp.93-4)

 Perhaps the biggest cultural impact of the war resulted from collective experience and shared sacrifice of the war.  People from very different social and cultural backgrounds, who in peacetime would have no reason to know each other, suddenly found themselves working and living very closely together.  Many people no longer lived at home; their private worlds became subsumed in communal experiences of barrack rooms and lodging-house billets.  Similarly, communal air raid shelters brought strangers together under very difficult circumstances. The three and half million children and young mothers evacuated from the cities brought their urban attitudes and (more often than not) their shocking poverty to the attention of rural families that were often much better off.   And although the privation of rationing was a challenge for a number of families, for others the guaranteed and regular supply of food was a novelty. In short, people were brought face to face with the realities of poverty and what social inequality meant to people they knew.

 Recent historians like Angus Calder (The People’s War, 1992) have correctly challenged some of the enduring myths wartime solidarity in Britain, by drawing attention, for example, to the significant rise in crime levels and the black market. However, the overwhelming impression remains one of altruism and a country of volunteers: there were a million women in the WVS, a million men in the Home Guard and another million or so in the civil defence services, all of whom unpaid.  In contrast to the First World War which was fought for king and empire, the Second World War was a people’s war, fought for freedom, justice and democracy. Those who were killed were generally believed to have ‘died in a just cause: there was to be no equivalent after 1945 of the ‘anti-war’ literature of Owen and Sassoon.’ (Addison ‘The Impact of the Second World War’ in Addison, P. and Jones, H. A Companion to Contemporary Britain 1939-2000, Blackwell (2007) p.7)

 So whilst the wartime appointment of Attlee, Bevin and other Labour ministers was an important step towards the ‘Jerusalem’ of pre-war socialist pamphleteers, the real pressure for social change came from the people themselves. As Beveridge himself concluded, national unity was the great moral achievement of the Second World War, and that what was wanted after a people’s war was a people’s peace. (K. O. Morgan – Britain Since 1945, OUP 3rd ed. 2001 p.2)



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