Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

Britain Sixty Years Ago (V): With Love and Laughter.   Leave a comment

In mid-fifties’ Britain, political satire, exuberantly popular in Georgian times, now returned in full force with the advent of the new media of radio and TV. It also featured savage cartoons in the newspapers, staged lampoons and fortnightly mockery in the magazine Private Eye. Among the two million regular listeners to The Goon Show in the mid-fifties were key members of the next generation of comics, men like Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook. The Goons passed the baton to Beyond the Fringe, which passed it to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, from where it went to Little Britain. Each generation built on the humour of the previous one, changed it and then passed it on. Peter Cook, Spike Milligan’s only rival as the outstanding comic genius of his age, sent a schoolboy script to Milligan at the BBC which was good enough for him to be invited up to London for lunch. In turn, the group of comedians who became known as The Pythons were transfixed by Cook and his friends. In the decade that they grew up after the war, Britain was still dominated by the private schools, which were often bleak institutions. The austerity years meant little heating, poor food and few modern facilities, a life conditioned by brutal customs and petty hierarchies often dating back before the Edwardian years to the founding of many of the ‘public schools’ in mid-Victorian times.

Peter Cook’s school, Radley in Oxfordshire, still ’employed’ a régime  which deployed frequent beatings, cold showers, complicated dress codes, compulsory star-jumps, thumpings with hockey sticks for minor transgressions, and a great deal of other forms of bullying, all of which went undeterred by the staff. This forced bright but vulnerable children like Cook to develop mimickry and mockery to deflect bullies. He would make people laugh so that they wouldn’t hit him. Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, attended Shrewsbury School, whose new boys were called ‘douls’ after the Greek for slave; its day started with cold baths; it too had a byzantine dress code, involving different colours of scarf, tie and waistcoat, and when the whole school was sent on cross-country runs, the boys were chased by men with whips. Ingram’s humour was less about mimickry and more about writing mock school magazines with Paul Foot, son of the Labour leader Michael, and Willie Rushton. In many ‘public-private’ schools, such as at John Cleese’s Clifton College in Bristol, boys developed underground languages to cope with their aggressive, closed communities. They knew little of women, which meant that the humour that emerged from them was often ridiculously naive about sex. They were rarely politically radical, since they were from a privileged élite. Cook’s father had been a colonial civil servant in Nigeria and Gibraltar. Ingrams was the son of an eccentric banker and intelligence agent, a one-time member of a pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship Society, and a Catholic mother whose father had been doctor to Queen Victoria. Both men were brought up to look down on the working classes as essentially inferior and comic. Their satire was biting, with underlying layers of anger and hurt. But it would be very public schoolboyish as well, involving much juvenile tittering and snobbery.

The brightest of these ‘boys’ then went on to Cambridge or Oxford, still then mainly male societies, and where in those days there was a direct line from the world of Oxbridge student reviews, like The Cambridge Footlights to the West End theatres. Future satirists mingled with fellow students who would go on to become politicians and business leaders. Peter Cook’s generation at Cambridge in 1957 included the later Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke (just returned sixty years later as an MP and ‘father’ of the House of Commons) and Leon Brittan, as well as various actors and impresarios. Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, has pointed out that:

One reason has traditionally produced so many political satirists is that its undergraduates come face to face with their future political leaders at an early age, and realise then quite how many of them are social retards who join debating societies to find friends.

It could be added that the same could be said of those joining theatrical societies and satirical magazines. At Cambridge, Cook simply transferred his monotone sketches about the Radley School butler to his new environment and eventually had half the undergraduates mimicking him and repeating his one-liners. Cook found his voice as a schoolboy and maintained the same deadpan drawl at Cambridge to Edinburgh’s Beyond the Fringe review, to London, New York and global success. Similarly, Ingrams and Rushton transferred their jokes and cartoon characters to the pages of Private Eye. There were, of course, many other comics and satirists from other backgrounds, including Alan Bennett, the Yorkshire grammar school boy and Dudley Moore, the working-class boy from Dagenham who became the other half of the comedy duo with Peter Cook in the TV series Not only… but also… There was also David Frost, the son of a Methodist preacher from Kent. But it was the dominant personalities of Cook and Ingrams which gave them so strong a hold over the satire boom which began in the second half of the fifties. If Cook had any politics of his own, they were difficult to discern, and always took second place to a good punchline, though Fluck and Law, who went on to create the latex satirical puppetry of Spitting Image, were socialist friends of Cook. At the time of the satire boom itself, there was no organic link between the left of British politics and the wave of comedians, mimics and journalists who tore down the facade of Tory Britain towards the end of their thirteen years in power. There could not have been, since too many of the satirists were public schoolboys,  getting their revenge on the nation’s authority figures for the way they had been bullied. Macmillan for them was the image of the head of a decaying prep school, but Labour was also worthy of snobbish ridicule – full as it was with lower middle-class and working-class people with funny accents and petty, mundane concerns.

Ian Fleming was also a fine example of how the British society was tightly twisted at the top. He was yet another Etonian, and yet another character who flitted between journalism, intelligence and high society. From a Scottish banking family, he had tried Sandhurst, foreign correspondence – including in Stalin’s Moscow – and the City, before joining Naval Intelligence during the war. There his wild schemes for sabotage and dirty tricks were widely considered more fit for novels. After the war he ran a network of foreign correspondents and tried to work out ways of moving out of the dreary reality of austerity London. He eventually built a house in Jamaica, then still a colony, which he called Goldeneye. It was here that the Edens fled after the Suez Crisis to recuperate. In different ways, all these people, from Nöel Coward to the newspaper barons, Hugh Gaitskell to the Flemings, were struggling with time warp lives and challenged patriotism. Morals were becoming more fluid and new kinds of pleasure were seeping in. Gaitskell in particular was able to appreciate Fleming’s books, writing of the Bond books in the New Statesman that:

I am a confirmed Fleming fan – or should it be addict? The combination of sex, violence, alcohol and – at intervals – good food and nice clothes is, to one who lives such a circumscribed as I do, irresistable.

There’s probably no better testimony to the way in which the austerity years gave way to the affluent society. James Bond became one of the most successful if mildly ironic symbols of recovering British pride after Suez. From Russia, with Love, first published in Britain in April 1957, is the fifth novel by Fleming to feature his fictional British Secret Service agent. Fleming wrote the story in early 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica; at the time he thought it might be his final Bond book. The novel deals with the East–West tensions of the Cold War, and the decline of British power and influence in the post-Second World War era.

Fleming’s sketch showing his concept of the James Bond character.

From Russia, with Love received broadly positive reviews at the time of publication. The book’s sales were boosted by an advertising campaign that played upon a visit by the British Prime Minister’s visit to Fleming’s Goldeneye estate. Fleming’s first work of non-fiction, The Diamond Smugglers, was also published in 1957 and was partly based on background research for his fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever. Much of the material had appeared in The Sunday Times and was based on Fleming’s interviews with John Collard, a member of the International Diamond Security Organisation who had previously worked in MI5. Even before they were transformed into the endless films, the novels provided a glorious fantasy for a nation in trouble, and in his earlier Bond stories Fleming worked to satisfy the almost pornographic lust of the British for the richer, more colourful consumer culture over the Atlantic. But though Fleming was a connected member of the élite, and had pictured his hero as an Old Etonian, it was a Scottish working-class body-builder, Sean Connery, who was chosen to play him in the first films. After that, Bond became, ironically, something of an outsider figure in the popular imagination, which perhaps helps to explain his endurance as a British cultural icon. Fleming’s original establishment character might not have appealed to a mass film audience in the more egalitarian atmosphere of the sixties.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (IV): Global ties & ‘A little local difficulty’.   Leave a comment

Looking more broadly, in the mid-fifties Britain was still a world-wide player, connected and modern. Her major companies were global leaders in oil, tobacco, shipping and finance. The Empire was not quite gone, even though the new name of ‘Commonwealth’ was more widely used in official circles. Britain was not a country closed to foreign influence, whether from America or Italy or Scandinavia. Something first promoted as ‘Italian Welsh rarebit’, later known as ‘pizza’ was in evidence. The idea of a powerful, self-confident Britain, independent of American cultural influence, seemed not only possible but likely. Per capita, Britain was still the second richest country in the world.

However, after the Suez Crisis, Britain would no longer possess independent power or influence in the Middle East. The age of American power there, based on support for Israel and the oil alliance with the Saudi Royal Family, took the place of British hegemony. Suez also provoked the arrival of the Mini car, designed in the wake of the petrol price shock caused by the seizure of the canal. Macmillan replaced Eden as PM and decided to remain in the tiny nuclear club as a cheaper alternative to imperial swagger. He authorised the first British H-bomb explosion at Christmas Island in May 1957. It was partly a fake, a hybrid bomb intended to fool the US into thinking its ally was further ahead than it really was. The next year, at a crucial showdown between British and American scientists in Washington, the British Aldermaston team persuaded Edward Teller’s Los Alamos men that Britain was just as far advanced as the US in the field of nuclear weaponry.

The major international event of 1957 was the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the beginning of what we know today as the European Union.The continental negotiators were shocked and disappointed by Britain’s lack of serious interest, but the six founding members shrugged off Britain’s attitude. They were still rebuilding shattered cities and healing torn economies, and for them the coming of the ‘community’ was manifest destiny. Coming so soon after Suez it provoked increasingly agitated head-scratching in Whitehall.

For Britain, the world was still differently shaped. The Commonwealth was then more than a worthy outreach programme for the Royal Family. Its food and raw materials poured into Britain and there was an illusion that Britain’s manufacturing future would be secured by selling industrial goods to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Out would flow engines, cars, clothing, aircraft and electronics, in exchange for butter, oil, meat, aluminium, rubber, tobacco and wood-pulp. The poorer members of the sterling club kept their reserves in London, so Britain acted as banker as well as manufacturer for much of Africa and parts of Asia. Most people believed that to cut adrift the Commonwealth and join a new club would be economically ruinous as well as immoral. For Labour, Harold Wilson told the Commons that if there has to be a choice, we are not entitled to sell our friends and kinsmen down the river for a problematical and marginal advantage in selling washing machines to Dusseldorf. Later, Hugh Gaitskell told the Labour Conference that membership of the European Economic Community would mean an end to a thousand years of history:

How can one seriously suppose that if the mother country, the centre of the Commonwealth, is a province of Europe… it could continue to exist as the mother country of a series of independent nations?

At the same time, the European market, thirsting for new consumer goods, was growing spectacularly fast, while the Commonwealth trading group was by comparison falling behind. Most of the smaller countries did not want Britain anyway and the richer nations of the Commonwealth would soon turn to the United States for their consumer goods.

Yet membership of the EEC would subordinate Britain to the continent in other important ways. It was recognised from this earliest date that sovereignty and independence would be lost. Other forms of subordination and loss of independence had already happened, however. The foundation of the United Nations and the establishment of NATO had involved the relinquishing of traditional freedoms of action. Nevertheless, Europe was something different. Those who had looked clearly at the Treaty of Rome were struck by its overwhelming ambition. Lord Kilmuir, Macmillan’s Lord Chancellor, told him that Parliament would lose powers to the Council of Ministers whose majority vote could change British law; that the Crown’s power over treaties would partly shift to Brussels and that British courts would find themselves in part subordinate to the European Court of Justice. Macmillan himself tended to brush these concerns aside with reassuring words, trying to keep everyone happy, but Kilmuir was joined by Lord Home, the future  PM, in giving outspoken warnings.

Had Britain been involved in the European adventure from the start, as the French had initially wanted, the EEC and the EU might well have evolved differently. There would certainly have been less emphasis on agricultural protection and more on free trade. ‘Europe’ might have appeared to be a little less mystical and a little more open and democratic. Even after the shock and humiliation of Suez, the Commonwealth and Anglo-American relations still took precedence for London. Macmillan’s team, centred on Edward Heath, hoped that somehow the trading system of the Commonwealth supporting English-speaking farmers from across the world could be accommodated by the protectionist system in Europe. They seem to have thought that any loss of sovereignty would be tolerable if such a deal could be struck. Macmillan had nothing like the reverence for the House of Commons felt by Enoch Powell, on one side of that House, or by Hugh Gaitskell on the other. Meanwhile, Britain’s struggle to keep up in the nuclear race led to private Anglo- American negotiations which infuriated the French. After the Treaty of Rome took effect at the beginning of 1958, French attitudes hardened with the return of General de Gaulle as President, determined that the new continental system would be dominated by France and would exclude the Anglo-Saxons.

1957 was also the year in which some Tories first began to break with the Keynesian economics of the post-war consensus in favour of a return to their older doctrines of economic liberalism. Antony Fisher, a chicken-farmer and utterly self-certain individualist and anti-socialist, had made enough money to found the Institute of Economic Affairs, undoubtedly the most influential think-tank in modern British history. Set up by Fisher and the Liberal, Oliver Smedley, the IEA was intended to combat the socialist influence of the Fabians. It first began to influence British politics during the winter of 1957-8, when inflation was rising above 4% and wage settlements were in double figures. Macmillan was worried about the confrontation which might emerge from cut-backs and unemployment, and he had many spending ministers, taking care of the armed forces, hospitals and welfare who were strongly opposed to cutting back. On the other side of the argument were the Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, and his two junior Treasury ministers – Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell. They insisted that it was vital to control the money supply, a position advocated by the IEA. They put together a planned series of cuts which included a fifty per cent rise in the cost of school meals, freezes on pay rises and the removal of family allowances for the second child.  It would have hit five million families, including millions of middle-class mothers whose support the Tories needed. In the end, the Treasury team lost the battle in cabinet and all three resigned. Macmillan dismissed the whole matter as a little local difficulty. Yet it marked a turning point, away from the ideas of free marketeers and towards the last phase of the planning economy and, eventually, to Thatcherism. In the Thatcher Government, Lord Thorneycroft became Chairman of the Conservative Party.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (III): Never so good or ‘candy-floss culture’?   Leave a comment

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Despite the evidence of the destruction of traditional social relations brought about by high-rise housing developments, there are plenty of other sources which suggest that, behind the new consumer goods and gadgets, the stubborn continuities of working-class life and culture survived the 1950s. But ‘community’, a notion which is unthinkable in English social experience without the context of the typical working-class neighbourhood, became a matter of widespread and fundamental concern. Behind the clear manifestations of change there emerged the question as to whether, as the conditions and patterns of social life for working people changed, with their increased wages being poured into the new consumer goods, people might be uprooted from the life they had known and largely made for themselves, and transplanted in another one largely made for them by ‘others’. This might involve a move not just from one social class to another, but also from the class ‘ideal’ of solidarity, neighbourliness and collectivity to that of individuality, social struggle to ‘keep up’ and ‘get on’. People became visibly and audibly more middle class, determined to ‘keep themselves to themselves’.

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Above: The Willenhall Estate in Coventry, in its early days in the late 1950s. By the 1980s, it was commonly considered one of the poorest, most run-down estates in the city.

Were working-class people losing their ‘togetherness’? Did a bit of ‘do-it-yourself’ around the house signify ‘privatisation’? There were still many working-class families living in one room, with damp walls, no running water, no bathrooms, and with three or more families sharing one outside toilet (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above-top, now part of a tourist attraction!) Composite social images, constructed out of a very partial experience of one corner of the South-east, utterly failed to represent how far a ‘prehistoric age’ still survived in most other places. Entering a sort of ‘affluence’, Britain was, at the same time, trying to comprehend what ‘affluence’ was all about. It was tempting to associate it with the visible indices of change on the surface of society, rather than with any ‘real movement’ underneath. It was a temptation which almost everyone fell into. In this way, the ‘myths of affluence’ became inextricably interwoven with the contradictory experience of affluence.

The other reason for this confusion was the advent of television. The spread of BBC television had happened only in the early fifties, followed by the opening of the commercial ITV channel in 1955. This development fed the confused situation in two ways. First, by monopolising the channels of public discussion and debate in society, television also centralised the power to make its images of social life stick. It communicated, at very rapid speed, highly selective and distorted images of one community or section of society to the others. It also helped to promote an overall image of where the whole society was headed. Secondly, it gave an almost tangible visibility to the quite limited rise in consumption and in spending money. It promoted the new consumer products seeking markets among the working classes by creating the spectacular world of commodities. Advertising and the spurious social images which it portrayed represented only one way in which television helped to disguise the deeper sources of change which underlay society.

The extent to which this imagery of consumption entered the lives and imaginations of ordinary men and women now seems, in retrospect, to have been wildly exaggerated. Where people could test ‘images’ against ‘experience’, life may have felt glossier than before, but Richard Hoggart, writing in The Uses of Literacy, called it a candy-floss culture. It is doubtful whether many people thought they were on the threshold of a new Utopia of affluence. The ‘telly’ made a difference, but it did not suddenly dismantle working-class culture, rooted as it was in the persistent structures of the British class system.

In one section of the population, however, change was registering in a strong and visible way: among the young. For ordinary young people, the war – which they had experienced, if at all, as young children – really did divide history into ‘before’ and ‘after’; they, of course, belonged to ‘after’. This made for a strong generational division between adults and ‘youth’. While incomes had improved only a little for many working people, they had increased at a faster rate for young adults; and since their families had greater economic security than before the war, a higher proportion of what they earned was left over for spending on themselves, their own recreations and pursuits. ‘Affluent Britain’ was not a society which allowed spare cash to accumulate in anyone’s pockets for very long. The surplus in the pockets and purses of young working-class people was quickly funnelled into the new industries servicing working-class leisure, and distinctive youth styles marked the late 1950s, and ‘youth’ itself became a metaphor for social change.  Yet no-one changed their life-situation by becoming a Teddy Boy or a Mod. The more permanent route up and out of the working class into the professional ranks was via the ‘Eleven Plus’, the Grammar School and University, but far fewer could take this route. The social and personal costs for the first generation ‘scholarship’ boys and girls were punishing – the loss of roots, of a sense of connection with the life of the community and even with their own families.

For the ‘modern Conservative’, these changes represented the de-proletarianisation of British society, changes which would transform social and industrial attitudes of mind. One ‘old’ Conservative who fully absorbed this message was the Prime Minister himself, Harold Macmillan, who uttered the following memorable words during a speech at Bedford in July 1957:

Indeed, let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go round the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my life-time – nor indeed in the history of this country.

When he went to the country two years later, it was behind the slogan, You’ve had it good. Have it better. Vote Conservative. This was a clever illusion, but it contained just enough truth to cut through to ordinary voters. By the late fifties, almost everything had changed for the better – but, in reality, only a little. No segment of society, no corner of the nation, no aspect of life remained untouched. One part of the story was the story of change, of emergent patterns, of new relationships and conditions of work and life for ordinary men and women, of a, of a sense of discontinuity with the past. Change is not always comfortable to live with, and not always easy to understand; in the ‘affluent’ society which threw up such paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotypical remedies. But in doing so it revealed that this was not yet a social revolution. The change of the late fifties left so much exactly where it was. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Ordinary men and women were caught somewhere inside this paradox, between two worlds.

Source:

Theo Baker (ed.) (1975, ’78), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (II): Prisons in the Sky   Leave a comment

The middle and late 1950s in Britain was the period of ‘affluence’. Slowly at first, after the defeat of the post-war Labour government, Britain entered a period of rapid change. It was a period of growing prosperity, when a great deal of money flowed into the purchase of newly available consumer goods, underpinned by the revolution in welfare, and by full employment. The rebuilding and reconstruction of the urban and suburban environment – made necessary, partly, by large-scale bombing and by the massive social neglect of the inter-war period – got under way.

The new housing schemes – the development of urban flats, of new housing estates and of the new towns – and the slow processes of rehousing certainly did not destroy the typical and traditional urban working-class environment, but they seemed to be making inroads into it, to undermine it, robbing it of something of its corporate stability. For the first time, there was an emergence of contrasting images of the ‘extended family network’ of the old working-class neighbourhoods, and the ‘family-centred’ or ‘nucleated family’ life of the new working-class estate.

Phil Cohen, a sociologist writing in 1972, commented on the effect of high density, high rise schemes:

The first effect… was to destroy the function of the street, the local pub, the corner shop, as articulations of communal space. Instead there was only the privatised space of the family unit, stacked one on top of each other, in total isolation, juxtaposed with the totally public space which surrounded it, and which lacked any of the informal social controls generated by the neighbourhood. The streets which serviced the new estates became thoroughfares, their users ‘pedestrians’, and by analogy so many bits of human traffic, and this irrespective of whether or not they were separated from motorised traffic. It is indicative of how far the planners failed to the human ecology of the working class neighbourhood that they could actually talk about building ‘vertical streets’. The people who had to live in them weren’t fooled. As one put it – they might have hot running water and central heating, but to him they were still prisons in the sky…

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(It was demolished in the 1980s)

The second effect of the redevelopment was to destroy kinship networks; nuclear families of marriage were separated from their families of origin, especially during the first phase of redevelopment. The isolated family unit could no longer call on the resources of wider kinship networks, or of the neighbourhood, so the family itself became the sole focus of solidarity. This meant that any problems were bottled up within the immediate relationships within the family unit, and those relationships were invested with a new intensity in order to compensate for the wider diversity of relationships previously generated through extended kin and neighbours. Although these traditional kinship and neighbourhood networks had broken down, the traditional patterns of socialisation, communication and control continued to reproduce themselves within the nuclear family. The working class family was therefore not only isolated from the outside, but also undermined from within. Women became ‘housebound’ wives and mothers, since they could no longer send their children out to play in the street under ‘neighbourhood’ supervision. Mum or Auntie was no longer just around the corner, able to look after the kids for the odd morning. The only safe play-space for the kids was the home, and the young mother was the sole supervisor. Cooped up with the kids, and cut off from the outside world, it was hardly surprising that she occasionally took out her frustration on her husband, if not on her new washing machine, and possibly aided by her non-stick frying pan.

Source:

Theo Barker (ed.)(1978), The Long March of Everyman, Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

Britain Sixty Years Ago (I): The Wolfenden Report   Leave a comment

Wolfenden report.jpg

In 1957, the Wolfenden Committee, after three years of private hearings in the Home Office, produced its report recommending a change in the law, legalising private homosexual activity between consenting adults aged over twenty-one. The committee, formed in 1954, was headed by a former public school headmaster and university vice-chancellor, and included Tory politicians, a senior official in the Girl Guides and a judge. When Wolfenden later discovered that his own son was gay he wrote asking him to keep out of his way and to wear rather less make-up.

The committee, however, had taken evidence from Peter Wildeblood, among other declared homosexuals. Prosecuted for gross indecency, Wildeblood had declared openly and unashamedly in court that he was a homosexual or, in the language of the day, an invert, and demanded the right to be treated with respect. He declined to apologise for his indecent behaviour. His language was very far from the gay pride rhetoric of more recent decades, but it was clear and dignified:

I am no more proud of my condition than I would be of having a glass eye or a hair lip. On the other hand, I am no more ashamed of it than I would be of being colour-blind or of writing with my left hand. 

He pointed out that Lord Montagu, the bisexual old Etonian who would go on to become famous for his national motor museum at Beaulieu and his co-founding of English Heritage, had done patriotic service in the Grenadier Guards and that Montagu’s co-accused cousin, Pitt-Rivers, had also served bravely in the war, while he himself had served as a meteorologist in Africa. They were all, apart from their sexuality, entirely normal members of the upper middle-class Establishment, about as different in from the Cambridge spies in their views as it would be possible to be. Since homosexuality was, then as now, spread throughout society, some of the Establishment was gay, too.

By 1957, the attitude of the country as a whole towards homosexuality seemed to have changed. There was a feeling that the prosecution’s tactics used against Montagu, Wildeblood and the others, which included forging an entry in a passport, illegal tapping of phones, grooming and intimidating ‘witnesses’ and searching without warrants, were underhand and unfair. Added to this, the growing hostility towards all forms of government meddling which had contributed to the downfall of the Attlee Government, was beginning to extend to private lives. When Wildeblood was released from prison, he found his working-class neighbours in Islington were cheerily friendly. When Montagu was released from Wakefield prison, he got a similar reception. This was, however, by no means a universal shift, especially among their own social circles. Out to lunch at the fashionable Mirabelle Restaurant in London’s West End, he recalled:

…one or two of the neighbouring tables disapproved. The atmosphere became unpleasant and remarks were made which were obviously meant to be overheard with intent to wound.

At this point, however, the then leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskill, who was also lunching there, came to the rescue:

He could see perfectly well what was going on. After a while, he laid down his napkin and crossed the room to our table. “How nice to see you back,” he said, holding out his hand, which I shook with surprise and gratitude. The action silenced the surrounding hostility.

There was continued hostility to homosexuals, but the so-called permissive society of the sixties was already being forged by public reaction in the late fifties to cases such as these. For the time being, the law-makers disagreed. In the first debates on homosexual law reform, the Home Secretary, Maxwell-Fyfe, said he did not think the country would wear such a change. Had he been present with Hugh Gaitskill in the Mirabelle restaurant, he might have realised that he himself was already out of date.

Source:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War – Spring into Summer, 1917.   1 comment

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The tale of the Allied Campaign of 1917 in the West was one of difficult beginnings, successes which led nowhere, and desperate battles which all but broke the hearts of their participants. As a diversion from the imminent French Nivelle Offensive, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander troops attacked Arras on 9th April. They captured the Vimy Ridge which was strategically important and proved to be an invaluable gain the following year. The first days were successful, but as so often on the Western Front, Haig’s offensive slowed and was only continued for political reasons, to support the ailing French. He was compelled to continue long after the attack was fruitless.

On 16 April, French commander Robert Nivelle struck on the Aisne, with a poor tactical scheme and no chance of surprise, since the enemy had captured his papers and knew his plans in detail. The Germans had been able to strengthen and position their forces accordingly. The French suffered a costly check and for a little it seemed as if their strength might melt away. Nivelle had promised a breakthrough at Chemin des Dames that would finish the war. It was not to be, with the French Army suffering 90,000 casualties on the first day’s fighting.

Disgruntled at yet another defeat and more lives lost needlessly, troops mutinied in over half the French divisions. The front line was left weakly defended but French commanders were able to keep the unrest secret from both their allies and the enemy. At one point, it was believed that there were only two loyal divisions between the Germans and Paris.

Meanwhile, Hill 145 was the highest part of the Vimy Ridge and the objective for the Canadian Corps, fighting as a complete unit for the first time, Their careful preparations, accurate artillery fire and tenacious fighting found success where other offensives had failed. In 1915, the French had lost 150,000 casualties there. On this occasion the Canadians suffered 10,000 casualties, half that of the Germans. Their success was a major boost for the Allies and it had a longer-lasting effect in helping engender a feeling of nationhood amongst Canadians.

Nivelle was replaced by Pétain, who restored confidence and order, the greatest achievement of a fine soldier. Forty-three mutineers were shot and the French soldiers were marched past the executed men as an incentive to keep their discipline. But it took Pétain all summer to nurse his armies back to health, and in the meantime the British troops had to bear the brunt of campaign alone. On average, they lost 4,175 men every day at Arras, the highest experienced in any single battle.

By the summer of 1917, on the home front, the British Women’s Land Army had over 260,000 women working as farm labourers, allowing male agricultural workers to be released for military service. This enabled the strength of the British Army on the Western Front to reach 1,700,000 that summer. At a Conference in May, a confident Lloyd George had promised the French that no respite would be given to the Germans.

At Messines in June, the British Army carried out a perfect model of a limited advance. The battle was a preliminary to a major offensive planned for Flanders. It began with a week-long heavy bombardment by the British artillery before large underground mines were detonated. Lloyd George, who was staying in Surrey, asked to be woken early on 7 June, in time for ‘zero hour’ detonation of the 19 mines, containing 420 tons of explosives. He heard the ‘tremendous shock’ at 3.10 a.m. Ten thousand German troops were estimated to have died in the explosion, which created craters of between 140 and 260 feet in diameter. British troops then advanced alongside tanks, supported by closely controlled artillery. It was a major success for the British Army with the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge easily taken and German counter-attacks repulsed. However, there was a cost of over 26,000 British and ANZAC troops. It was soon after described to John Buchan as the only true siege-warfare attack made throughout a siege war. But neither the politicians nor the generals would allow the Army to rest on its laurels for a while, so Haig turned the offensive towards the Belgian coast, which had always been his main plan.

In a united front, the 16th (Irish) and the 36th (Ulster) divisions, comprised respectively of Catholics and Protestants from the island, fought side by side to take the town of Wytschaete. In 2007 two memorial stones were placed on either side of the road, inscribed with the name of each division and the words Irish comrades-in-arms. In total around 140,000 Irishmen enlisted, with over 35,000 fatalities. The battle ended on 14 June.

In the meantime, following a raid on the English coastal town of Folkestone towards the end of May by Zeppelins, 162 people were killed in a raid on London on 13 June by 26 Gotha bombers. Over four hundred were injured in what was the worst raid of the war. The Gothas were heavy bombers able to fly in the daytime or at night and were a bigger threat to the civilian population than the much-feared Zeppelins, which were susceptible to bad weather and presented a larger and less well-defended target to British fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft artillery. During the war as a whole, the number of people killed in aircraft raids on Britain totalled 857 with a further 2,058 injured, whereas 557 were killed by Zeppelins, with 1,358 wounded. Losses and injuries would have been greater had it not been for ‘The Black Flight’, a highly successful unit of the Royal Naval Air Service, which shot down 87 German aircraft. Each Black Flight aircraft’s forward fuselage was painted black and given an individual name, such as:

Black Maria-Black Roger-Black Death-Black Sheep-Black Prince.

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The specifications and details of ten German and Allied aircraft are given in the table below, followed by the statistics relating to the top ten ‘aces’ of the war:

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On 17 July a royal proclamation was issued:

We out of our Royal Will and Authority, do hereby declare and announce, Our House and Family shall be styled and known as the House and Family of Windsor.

The previous name, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha arose from the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840, but it felt insensitive for the royal family to have German names amidst a world war in which Gotha aircraft bombing London. On hearing the news, the German Kaiser, Queen Victoria’s grandson, joked that he wanted to see the Shakespeare play, The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Compared with the stories of the events of 7-14 June, the story of the battle of a hundred days which began on 31 July was a far more melancholy one. The battle is known as Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. There was some merit in its conception, but little in its execution, wrote Buchan. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German lines and drive northwards to the coastal ports from which the German U-boats were reported to be operating and to take railway hubs.

On the first day it started to rain heavily. The bad weather continued, turning the battlefield into a quagmire; artillery fire had destroyed the field drainage systems. This made early success, as at Messines, impossible, and it continued long after the mud-holes and ridges aimed at had lost all strategic relevance. The battle dragged on, with Field Marshal Haig determined to persevere despite little being achieved. This time the German defence showed great tactical ingenuity, but their strength was strained to its utmost and their fangs against France were, for the moment, drawn, since this cruellest action of the war cost them 300,000 men. Buchan commented, with perhaps not  an insignificant touch of irony:

Whatever the reason for the tragic prolongation – the uneasiness of the French, the inelasticity of our military machine – one alleged cause may be ruled out, the personal vanity of Haig. Such was not the nature of the most modest and single-hearted of men.

The mud at Passchendaele made for atrocious living conditions. If a soldier slipped off wooden duckboards into a shell hole it was difficult for him to be extricated and orders were given that men who got into such difficulties were to be left. One soldier fell and was abandoned. When the platoon returned a few days later they found him, still alive but having suffered a nervous collapse, with the mud now up to his neck.

It wasn’t until 6 November that the ruined village of Passchendaele was finally taken by the Canadians. It was claimed that the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but at a cost many found too high. The British Army suffered 275,000 casualties for five miles of territory. One piece of land, ‘the Inverness Copse’ changed hands nineteen times over the course of the battle.

At 4.45 a.m. on 16 August, Allied forces attacked at Langemarck. Amongst the troops was Private Harry Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He survived the battle but was wounded a month later by shell shrapnel when three of his Lewis machine-gun team were killed. He returned to Britain, where he convalesced until the end of the war. He went on to become the last British survivor of the trenches. Private Patch refused to talk about his experiences of war until he reached the age of a hundred, and then his forthright views on the war and its futility made him a popular figure and the focus of much attention even after his death as the last Tommy, aged 111, in 2009. He once said, War isn’t worth one life.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Somersdale.

What a year that was: Britain and the World in 1947: Part II.   Leave a comment

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The Winter of 1947 has gone down in history and personal memory as a time of almost unbearable bleakness. For three months, Britain endured not only the shortages of almost everything in the shops, and a virtual medieval peasant diet, heavily based on potatoes and bread, nor only the huge state bureaucracy bearing down on so much of daily life, with its 25,000 regulations and orders never heard of in peace time before. Neither was it just the smashed and broken homes, and the irreplaceable war dead. The crisis of 1947 was also the product of that most common of British complaints, the unpredictable weather.

Towards the end of January, a great freeze had swept across from Siberia and covered the country in thick snow, a bitter cold which brought the exhausted British people very nearly to their knees. The country still ran on coal,  newly nationalised under the National Coal Board, but the piles at the pits froze solid and could not be moved. The collieries’ winding gear ceased to function and drifting snow blocked roads and rail lines. At the power stations, the remaining stock piles ran down swiftly until, one by one, the stations were forced to close. Lights went off, men dug through snow drifts, tamping for miles to find food to carry back to their families and neighbours. Cars were marooned on exposed roads. Factories across the Midlands and South of England had to stop work and within a week two million people were idle. Electric fires were banned for three hours each morning and two in the afternoon. As people ran out of coal, they had only blankets to keep them warm. Around London, commuters were unable to reach the capital. Scotland was cut off from England.

Government ministers were not immune to the health problems which resulted. Herbert Morrison was nearly killed by thrombosis when new drugs given to him caused his kidneys to pour with blood. While he was still in hospital, Ellen Wilkinson, the education minister who adored him and may have been his mistress, died from an overdose of barbiturates. Wilkinson, a small flame-haired woman who had led the pre-war Jarrow Crusade for most of its length to London, was much-loved in the party, but became increasingly depressed by the slow pace of change, particularly in education. On 25 January, in the middle of the blizzard, she insisted on opening a theatre school in a blitzed, open-to-the-sky building in south London. Ellen became ill and seems to have muddled up her medicines, though others believed she killed herself, out of a mixture of frustrated love and political disappointment. In some ways, her death was symptomatic of the strain Attlee’s government was under.

Then things deteriorated further as the coldest February for three hundred years began. Another half million people had to stop work. The sun was so little seen that when it came out, a man rushed to photograph the reassuring sight for the newspapers. The greengrocers ran out of green vegetables. After a short thaw, March brought terrible storms and snow-drifts thirty feet high. There were ice-floes off the East Anglian coast. Three hundred main roads were impassable. These conditions were then followed by the worst floods in living memory, cutting off towns and drowning crops in huge areas of low-lying England. Sheep were dying on the hills, unable to be brought down to lower-lying pastures. Their carcasses had to be burnt in huge pyres, causing foul-smelling smoke to hang over the hillsides of rural Wales.

As people were digging out frozen vegetables from fields and despairing of the empty shops, the run on the pound resulting from Keynes’ Washington ‘deal’ and the balance of payments crisis meant that the Treasury was running out of dollars to buy help from overseas. This was the moment when the optimism of 1945 died for many voters. But the summer did come, and it was a good one, the sun blazing away with the cricketers at Lords as the nation sweltered. However, the pound continued to fall dramatically against the dollar, and with the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton, unable to buy food from the USA, secret preparations were made for a ‘famine food programme’ which included a provision to take children out of school to help with the harvest. It was never instigated, but the rationing of bread, which had not been necessary during the war, was put in place, as wheat supplies could no longer be bought from the United States. At the same time, British ministers had to ensure that there was no famine in other parts of the world for which they were responsible, including India, Germany and Palestine. Bread rationing at home was hugely unpopular and long remembered.

As Aneurin Bevan’s visit to Coventry had demonstrated, housing was the most critical single social issue of the post-war era, remaining at the top of the political agenda throughout the early fifties. Half a million homes had been destroyed or were made uninhabitable by German air-raids and a further three million were badly damaged. Overall, a quarter of Britain’s 12.5 million homes were damaged in some way. London was a capital with a background of ruins and wrecked streets. Southampton had lost so many buildings that during the war officials reported that the population felt the city was finished and ‘broken in spirit’. Coventry had lost a third of her housing in a single night in the November Blitz of 1940. Birmingham had lost 12,000 houses, with another 25,000 badly damaged. Together with the impact of demobilization of young men eager to marry and start families, the government estimated that 750,000 new houses were needed urgently. In addition, there was a need for further slum clearances in London and the older industrial cities, the grimy terraces lacking proper sanitation, gas and electricity supplies.

The demand was for more than bricks and mortar, since the war had separated husbands and wives, deprived children of their parents and, in general, shaken the familial fabric of the country.  Some 38 million civilians had changed addresses a total of sixty million times. Despite the break-up of many marriages under the strain of war, most people wanted a return to the security of family life. There were more than 400,000 weddings in 1947 and 881,000 babies were born, the beginning of the ‘boom’ that would reshape British life in the decades ahead. In all, a million extra children were added to the population in the five years after the war. Since there were not nearly enough individual homes to go round, hundreds of thousands of young people found themselves living with their parents or in-laws, deprived of privacy and trapped in inter-generational conflict.

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It was, in positive terms, a time when people were prepared to live more communally than would be the case later. Wartime queuing had revived a kind of street culture which lingered among women, as they spent hours standing together. Cinemas and dance halls continued to be crammed with people trying to escape the cold of their homes which as yet had no television (only 0.2 per cent of the population owned a television in 1947) or central heating, and not much by way of lighting. People really were in real austerity together, managing without much privacy and with the ongoing effects of wartime requisitioning, evacuation and the direction of labour, lodging in unfamiliar rooms. The sharing of toilets and kitchens in the late forties was therefore just a continuation of conditions they were already used to, like the meagre food and dreary clothing.

The most dramatic government response was the factory-made instant housing, the ‘prefabs’. Although designed only for a few years’ use, many of them were still lived in forty or more years later. Between 1945 and 1949, under the Temporary Housing Programme, a total of 156,623 prefabs went up, a welcome start in the provision of mass housing. They were more than huts, but a prototype bungalow, with a cooker, sink, fridge, bath, boiler and fitted cupboards. It cost fractionally more than a traditional brick-built terraced house, it weighed a fraction of the latter and was prefabricated in former aircraft factories using a fraction of the resources, then unloaded and screwed together on a concrete plinth, ready for families to move into within days. They were all weatherproof, warm and well-lit. The future Labour leader Neil Kinnock lived in one, an Arcon V, from 1947 to 1961, and remembered the fitted fridge and bathroom causing much jealousy among those still living in unmodernised colliers’ terraces in the south Wales valleys: Friends and family came to view the wonders. It seemed like living in a spaceship. They came to be regarded as better than bog standard council housing. Communities developed on prefab estates which survived cheerfully well into the seventies; I remember visiting these, homes to many of my teenage friends at that time.

The British Housewives’ League, formed in 1945 by a clergyman’s wife to campaign against rude shopkeepers and the amount of time spent queuing, helped remove the hapless food minister Ben Smith over the withdrawal of powdered egg. Other foods brought into the country and foisted on consumers were regarded as disgusting. Horses were butchered and sold, sometimes merely as ‘steak’. Whalemeat was brought from South Africa, both in huge slabs and in tins, described as rich and tasty, just like beefsteak. It was relatively popular for a short while, but not long, because it had a strong after-taste of cod-liver oil. Then there was snoek, a ferocious tropical fish supposed to be able to hiss like a snake and bark like a dog. The young Barbara Castle was then working for the fish division of the Ministry of Food. She was quartered at the Carlton Hotel, which had generously sized baths which she filled with the fish, which she observed for experimental purposes. Her report on its behaviour must have been favourable because in October 1947 the government began to buy millions of tins of snoek from South Africa. So ministers tried to persuade the British people that, in salads, pasties, sandwiches or even as ‘snoek piquant’, the bland-tasting fish was really quite tasty. The people begged to differ and mocked it mercilessly, buying very little. Eventually it was withdrawn from grocers and sold off for almost nothing as cat-food.

The Labour government’s attempts to import alternative sources of protein became a great joke in newspapers and in Parliament. The Conservatives put out pamphlets showing pictures of a horse, a whale and a reindeer to show the wide choice of food you have under the Socialists. Labour tried hard to keep the country decently fed during the forties when most of the world was at least as hungry. But between the black market organised by ‘spivs’, the British Housewives’ League, whose rhetoric influenced a young student called Margaret Thatcher, and the spontaneous uprising against the snoek, the public was becoming fed up to the back teeth with rationing. From 1948, Labour ministers began to remove the restrictions and restore something like a free market in food.

It also took a long time for British clothes to brighten up. Well into my childhood in the sixties, children were still wearing baggy grey trousers and home-knitted jumpers throughout the week and all year-long. Our fathers were still dressing in heavy grey suits, with macs and hats, and older women still wore housecoats and hairnets. However, younger women did try to dress more fashionably. One of the women who attended the unveiling of Christian Dior’s New Look in London in 1947 said that she heard for the first time in her life, the sound of a petticoat, realising  at once that, at long last, the war was really over. However, the British Guild of Creative Designers complained that they did not have the materials to compete or keep up with French frippery. Yet from the young princesses downwards, women were ignoring matronly MPs like Bessie Braddock and doing everything they could to alter, buy or borrow to achieve the Dior look. Clothing became a powerful symbol of a return to the prosperity of the 1930s for many women, if not men.

001A Honeymoon Couple at Billy Butlin’s Hotel near Brighton, 1957

The Holidays with Pay Act, passed shortly before the outbreak of war, was another postponed pleasure, but few workers could afford to travel abroad for these in 1947. For one thing, total time on holiday was limited to a fortnight in total. For another, the amount of money a person could take out of the country was severely restricted. Just over three per cent of people holidayed abroad, the vast majority being wealthy. Few of these went further than Northern France or the Riviera. They didn’t drive around the British countryside, as they had done in the thirties. Nonetheless, in 1947 slightly over half the British did take some kind of holiday. Many took the train to one of the traditional Victorian-era seaside resorts, soon bursting with customers. Others went on cycling or camping expeditions, since the roads were almost entirely empty of traffic. Yet more began to take the ‘charabanc’ or train to one of the new holiday camps, run by such entrepreneurs of leisure as Billy Butlin. He opened his first at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936, and by 1947 he had become a millionaire. To begin with, he was targeting the middle classes as much as the better-off workers. Opera singers, Shakespearean actors, radio stars, sporting heroes, politicians, archbishops and royalty were all invited to his camps, and came. Although Butlin had his fingers burnt with an attempt to open a Caribbean camp in 1948, for millions of British people the camps remained a synonym for a summer holiday well into the age of cheap overseas tourism in the 1970s.

On reflection, and with the benefit of seventy years of hindsight, 1945-1947 was not the best time to set about building a new socialist Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed. The direction of factories to the depressed areas brought few long-term benefits to those areas. Companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets ahead. Inflation, a major part of Britain’s post-war narrative, appeared as an economic factor for the first time by the end of the forties.

Again and again, Britain’s deep dependency on the United States was simply underestimated by the politicians. Harold Wilson, for example, slapped import duty on Hollywood films in 1947, when the sterling crisis made saving dollars a priority. The Americans responded by simply boycotting Britain, a devastating measure for a population so reliant on film as its only real means of mass entertainment. Some wonderful British films were made to fill the gap, but already glamour was something that came from the Pacific coast. Could Labour’s 1945 dream of a socialist commonwealth, high-minded and patriotic, standing aside from American consumerism, still be built on Britain’s grey and muddy land? The reality was not only that she was dependent on her transatlantic cousins, but also upon an Empire which, paradoxically, she was having to let go, at least in piecemeal fashion.

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India and Pakistan had become independent on 15 August 1947, ten months ahead of Attlee’s original schedule. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy, had arrived in Delhi on 22 March. He appealed to everyone to do their best to avoid any word or action which might lead to further communal bitterness or add to the toll of innocent victims. He soon decided that the June 1948 transfer date was too late, as the communal rioting had reached a state of which he had no conception when he left England. In making this decision, he was also indulging his lifelong fondness for acceleration. It seemed to him that a decision had to be taken at the earliest possible moment unless there was to be risk of a general conflagration throughout the whole sub-continent. He had a remarkably careful yet quick and businesslike method of working. As soon as he finished an interview with a leader, and before proceeding to the next, he would dictate a résumé of the talk, a copy of which would be circulated to each member of his staff. He held staff conferences every day, sometimes twice and even thrice a day, to study and discuss how events were shaping.

Consultation with the Governors certainly gave him a good idea of the colossal administrative difficulties involved in a transfer of power based on partition. Within six weeks of his arrival Mountbatten had produced a plan which marked the first stage towards the transfer. In all his discussions with party leaders and others, despite their divergent views, which he was forced to adjust and reconcile, there was nowhere any evidence of an attempt to question either his own impartiality or the bona fides of His Majesty’s Government. The greater the insistence by Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, on his province-wide Pakistan, the stronger was the Congress demand that he should not be allowed to carry unwilling minorities with him.

In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe  – cruelly mocked by W H Auden – to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through the Punjab.  Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as ‘the appointed day’:

The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…

At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…

In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations.

It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as General-Governor of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable.

The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was so stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself. It is to the eternal credit of Lord Mountbatten that he agreed to take over the helm of responsibility at that critical stage, and it redounds to the statesmanship of Nehru that he unhesitatingly and confidently offered it to him.

According to V P Menon, the Constitutional Adviser to the Governor-General from 1942 to 1947, reflected in 1957 that the main factor in the early transfer of power was the return of the Labour Party to government in 1945. The Attlee Government’s decision  to quit India not only touched the hearts and stirred the emotions of Indians, he argued, it also produced an immediate reassuring effect on the whole of South-East Asia and earned Britain universal respect and goodwill in the region. India and Pakistan both chose to remain in the Commonwealth and this was taken by a demoralised Britain as a tacit but welcome vote of thanks. Burma followed on India’s heels into the ranks of newly independent nations in January 1948, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February. Both of them had far too much independence already for the full version to be denied to them. Ceylon remained in the Commonwealth, but Burma did not. The first stage of Britain’s decolonisation came to an end there, with the letting go of what, after the war in the East, just could not be held.

In some ways, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out, the break-up of the British Empire happened with astonishing speed compared with the two centuries it had taken to build it. Once the British had made up their minds to get out, they aimed to catch the first boat home, regardless of the consequences in their former colonies. In the words of the Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton:

When you are in a place where you are not wanted, and where you have not got the force to squash those who don’t want you, the only thing to do is to come out.

This had its disadvantages. In their haste to get shot of India, they left behind a chaos that almost undid two centuries of orderly government.

For those colonies in other parts of Britain’s global empire who wished to pursue India to independence, it was not simply a matter of following along a path beaten flat by her. The hurdles she had knocked down Britain erected again for the others. To become free, they would need to fight. What was chiefly standing in their way was their value to an all but bankrupt Britain. That value was not quite what it had been, but Britain had plummeted quite disastrously in the world’s league table of great economic powers. She no longer had a significant surplus to send abroad. In 1900, she was responsible for a third of the world’s exports in manufactured goods. Sixty years later this share had declined to 18 per cent. Just before the war the empire had accounted for 40% of her imports and 49% of her exports. After the war the imperial proportion of what trade she had left was even greater. Between 1946 and 1949 it accounted for 48 per cent of imports and 58 per cent of exports.

It followed  that Britain’s political interests in the world were not so very different either, though her capacity to safeguard them may have been. Britain still had stakes in certain parts of the world, like Africa and south-east Asia, where security or stability seemed to depend upon her maintaining a political presence there, or nearby. In addition, these stakes and all Britain’s others in more reliable parts of the world, like North America and Oceania, together made up a network of interests which was thought to require continued political presences elsewhere to safeguard it; forts and garrisons at strategic points to protect the traffic between Britain and the world. For a colonial people ambitious to be free, either of these interests, or both, would continue to present a considerable obstacle to their independence.

In the years after the war African nationalism sprang very suddenly and very rapidly into full growth. Out of the plethora of welfare associations, tribal associations, community leagues, friendly societies, youth movements, trade unions and all the other vehicles for African discontent which had proliferated before the war, there arose in the 1940s most of the main colony-wide movements for national liberation which took the battle to Britain in the 1950s, and most of their leaders. They took encouragement from India, and from the general tide of world opinion at the time which seemed to be swimming with them. Very early after the war they showed their teeth. There was a six-week general strike in Nigeria in 1945, and another one in the Sudan in 1947.

The British could not afford to ignore these events, claiming that the nationalists were trying to push things too fast, to achieve in one jump what the government claimed to be preparing them for in easy stages, and far in advance of the bulk of the people they professed to represent. Some in Britain resisted the nationalists because they resisted the whole idea of colonial independence. But for many of those who did not, who had reconciled themselves to losing Africa, it was still to be some years before they would accept the ‘extreme’ nationalists, the ‘power-seekers’, as their ‘proper successors’.

In the  immediate post-war period, there had been various grand designs for a ‘new’ Empire. The Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was convinced that the road to domestic recovery began in Africa. As A H Poynton of the Colonial Office told the United Nations in 1947:

The fundamental objectives in Africa are to foster the emergence of large-scale societies, integrated for self-government by effective and democratic political and economic institutions both natural and local, inspired by a common faith in progress and Western values and equipped with efficient techniques of production and betterment.

There was a new Colonial Development Corporation and an Overseas Food Corporation, and marvellous-sounding schemes for growing groundnuts in Tanganyika and producing eggs in the Gambia. The Crown Agents travelled the world, selling old British trains and boats to any colonial government that could pay and some that could not. There were ambitious plans for the federation of West Indian colonies; of East Africa; of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland; of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Borneo. There was even talk of a new building for the Colonial Office. The old Empire meanwhile continued to attract a steady stream of migrants: from 1946 until 1963 four out of every five emigrants leaving Britain by sea were headed for Commonwealth countries.

The imperial renaissance might have led further if the United States and Britain had made common cause. Imperial recovery was dependent on American support and Clement Attlee certainly saw the need for it, although he was more realistic than Churchill about the future of the Empire as a whole. He recognised that the new military technologies of long-range power meant that…

 … the British Commonwealth and Empire is not a that can be defended by itself… The conditions which made it possible to defend a string of possessions scattered over five continents by means of a fleet based on island fortresses have gone. 

In their place, he had argued in 1946 that it was now necessary to consider the British Isles as an easterly extension of a strategic arc the centre of which was in the American continent, rather than as a power looking through the Mediterranean and the East. The North Atlantic ‘Alliance’ was, of course, mainly a product of the Americans’ growing awareness that the Soviet Union posed a far more serious threat to American interests than the British Empire. With the beginnings of the Cold War, the White House and the US Chiefs of Staff both agreed that there was something to be said for British imperial and maritime power after all, especially its network of military bases which could complement their own. All this made Bevin bullish:

Western Europe, including its dependent overseas territories, is now patently dependent on American aid… The United States recognises that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth… are essential to her defence and security. Already it is… a case of partial inter-dependence rather than of complete dependence. As time goes by (in the next ten to twenty years) the elements of dependence ought to diminish and those of inter-dependence to increase.

Of course, within that next decade, the Suez crisis was to reveal that the fundamental American hostility towards the Empire lingered on and the facade of neo-imperial power collapsed. 

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Sources:

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

Niall Ferguson (2003), Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson.

Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. London: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: MacMillan-Pan.

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