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Centenary of the End of the Great War: The Western Armistice of November 1918 and its Aftermath in Britain & its Empire.   Leave a comment

Celebrating the Armistice in Britain:

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Londoners celebrating the Armistice.

Even before the Armistice was signed on the Western Front, there was a clattering down of thrones in Europe, and the world was a little dazed by the sound and dust which this created. But to those thrones that endured – in Britain, Belgium and Italy – the peoples turned, as they had always done, to the symbols of liberty for which they had always fought. On 11th November great crowds assembled outside Buckingham Palace, following a common impulse, and the King and Queen appeared on the balcony to receive such an acclamation as had rarely greeted the sovereigns of an unemotional people. The writer H. G. Wells described military trucks riding around London picking up anyone who wanted a ride to anywhere, and ‘vast vacant crowds’ consisting mostly of students, schoolchildren, the middle-aged and the old, and home-front soldiers choking the streets: Everyone felt aimless, with a kind of strained and aching relief. A captured German gun carriage was thrown on to a bonfire of ‘Hun’ trophies in Trafalgar Square.  Vera Brittain, who had left Oxford University to be a Red Cross nurse witnessed the jubilant atmosphere of Armistice Day, drawn out from the hospital where she was working to observe the celebrations with mixed emotions, including a chilly gloom resulting from the realisation that almost all her best friends were dead and that she would be facing the future without them. She later wrote about her memories of it, and those she had lost in the war, in her biography, Testament of Youth (1933). She noticed that…

When the sound of victorious guns burst over London at 11 a.m. … the men and women who looked incredulously into each other’s faces did not cry jubilantly: “We’ve won the War!” They only said: “The War is over.”

From Millbank I heard the maroons crash with terrifying clearness, and, like a sleeper who is determined to go on dreaming after being told to wake up, I went on automatically washing the dressing bowls in the annex outside my hut. Deeply buried beneath my consciousness there stirred a vague memory of a letter that I had written to Roland in those legendary days when I was still at Oxford …

But on Armistice Day not even a lonely survivor drowning in black waves of memory could be left alone with her thoughts. A moment after the guns had subsided into sudden, palpitating silence, the other VAD from my ward dashed excitedly into the annex.

“Brittain! Brittain! Did you hear the maroons? It’s over – it’s all over! Do lets come out and see what’s happening!” …

Late that evening … a group of elated VADs … prevailed upon me to join them. Outside the Admiralty a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis. … Wherever we went a burst of enthusiastic cheering greeted our Red Cross uniform, and complete strangers adorned with wound stripes rushed up and shook me warmly by the hand. …

I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I should have no part. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were my contemporaries.

For the first time I realised, with all that full realisation meant, how completely everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey. The war was over, a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.   

On the late afternoon of Armistice Day, in the wet November dusk, the King and Queen drove in a simple open carriage through the city of London, almost unattended and wholly unheralded. The merrymakers left their own occupations to cheer, and crowds accompanied the carriage through the newly lit streets, running beside it and shouting friendly greetings. It was an incident which interpreted the meaning of a ‘People’s King’. Next morning, 12 November 1918, ‘Victory’ dawned upon a western world too weary even for comprehension. The crescendo of the final weeks had dazed minds as ordinary people could not grasp the magnitude of a war which had dwarfed all other, earlier conflicts, and had depleted the world of life to a far greater extent than centuries of invasions, conflicts and wars put together. There were some eight million dead combatants in addition to twenty-five million non-combatants worldwide. In Britain, the figures were too astronomical to have much meaning – nearly ten million men in arms from the Empire as a whole, of whom over three million were wounded, missing or dead. At least seven hundred thousand British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another hundred and fifty thousand were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some three hundred thousand children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out.

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But the statistics of the conflict, meticulously recorded by the War Office to the very last man and the very last minute of the war, convey nothing of the sheer agonising misery of the limbless, blinded, deformed and shell-shocked survivors from the Western Front. John Buchan, journalist and war correspondent, commented that the ordinary citizen…

… could only realise that he had come, battered and broken, out of a great peril, and that his country had not been the least among the winners of the victory.

The newspaper headlines from around the world were:

 

Great War Ends

Chicago Daily Tribune

Armistice Signed, End of the War!

The New York Times

Germany Gives Up: War Ends at 2 p.m.

New York Journal

Germany Signs Armistice

Sydney Morning Herald

The World War At An End

Yorkshire Telegraph and Star

Allies Drastic Armistice Terms to Huns

How London Hailed the End of War

The Daily Mirror

Peace!

Greatest Day In All History Being Celebrated

The Ogden Standard (Utah)

World Celebrates Return of Peace, End of Autocracy

Oregon Journal

Germany Surrenders

New Zealand Herald

War is Over

The Washington Times

Armistice Is Signed

The Toronto Daily News

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Britain’s fleet had conducted the blockade which sapped the enemy’s strength and had made possible the co-operation of Allies separated by leagues of ocean. Its wealth had borne the main financial burden of the alliance. Its armies, beginning from small numbers, had grown to be the equal of any in the world, in training, discipline and leadership. Moreover, the resolution shown by the British forces and people had been a bulwark to all her confederates in the darkest hours. Such had always been Britain’s record in European wars. At the beginning of the war, Germany had regarded it as a soft, pacifistic power already on the decline. It had come to a decision slowly, entered the war unwillingly, but then waged it with all the strength and determination it could muster and did not slacken until its aims had been achieved.

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The next few days and weeks were pregnant with ceremonial events. On the 12th the King and Queen went solemn procession to St. Paul’s to return thanks to the ‘Giver’ of victory. In the following week, they drove through all the districts of London and paid a brief visit to Scotland. On the 27th, the King visited France. He had been on the battlefield during the final offensive of 8th August and was now able to examine the ground on which victory had been won and to greet his troops as they moved eastward to the German frontier, or westward to return home to Britain. In Paris, at banquets at the Élysée and the Hotel de Ville, he spoke words of gratitude and friendship to the French people. On Tuesday, 19th November, in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster, he replied to the addresses of the two Houses of Parliament. In the presence of political leaders, and the great officers of State, and representatives of the overseas dominions, he expounded in simple words the debt of the nation to its fleets and armies for their achievement; the pride of Britain in her Allies; the unspectacular toil of the millions at home who had made victory possible, and the task still before the nation if a better world was to be built out of the wreckage of the old:

In what spirit shall we approach these great problems? How shall we seek to achieve the victories of peace? Can we do better than remember the lessons which the years of war have taught, and retain the spirit which they have instilled? In these years Britain and her traditions have come to mean more to us than they had ever meant before. It became a privilege to serve her in whatever way we could; and we were all drawn by the sacredness of the cause into a comradeship which fired our zeal and nerved our efforts. This is the spirit we must try to preserve. … The sacrifices made, the sufferings endured, the memory of the heroes who have died that Britain may live, ought surely to ennoble our thoughts and attune our hearts to a higher sense of individual and national duty, and to a fuller realisation of what the English-speaking race, dwelling upon the shores of all the oceans, may yet accomplish for mankind. For centuries Britain has led the world along the path of ordered freedom. Leadership may still be hers among the peoples who are seeking to follow that path. … 

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He was entitled to exhort his people in this way because he and his family had played their part in the struggle, performing hard and monotonous duties, sharing gladly in every national burden. John Buchan commented that it was also beginning to dawn on the British people that they had also been well-served, in the end, by the military leader to whom they had entrusted their ‘manhood’:

Haig could never be a popular hero; he was too reserved, too sparing of speech, too fastidious. In the early days his limitations had been obvious, but slowly men had come to perceive in him certain qualities which, above all others, the crisis required. He was a master in the art of training troops, and under his guidance had been produced some of the chief tactical developments of the campaign. He had furnished the ways and means for Foch’s strategic plans. Certain kinds of great soldier he was not, but he was the type of great soldier most needed for this situation, and he succeeded when a man of more showy endowments would have failed. Drawing comfort from deep springs, he bore in the face of difficulties a gentle and unshakable resolution. Gradually his massive patience and fortitude had impressed his efforts for the men who had fought with him won their deep and abiding affection. The many thousands who, ten years later, awaited in the winter midnight the return of the dead soldier to his own land, showed how strong was his hold upon the hearts of his countrymen.

For many others, however, his name became synonymous with the way the war was waged with a contempt for human life on a scale unparalleled in history, as well as being stamped on billions of artificial poppies. For them, his name became a byword for stupid butchery. He himself felt that every step in his plan was taken with divine help. After the Armistice, the higher ranks were rewarded with knighthoods and peerages, while the ‘other ranks’ were lucky if they had been lucky enough to survive intact, while the families of every member of the armed forces who were killed were given what became known as the ‘Death Penny’. This was actually a four-and-a-half-inch circular bronze plaque depicting Britannia, a lion and the name of the deceased. The disabled faced the future on pitiful pensions and some were reduced to the helplessness of the wounded soldier being pushed around Leicester in a pram in the picture below, taken in 1918.

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A Fit Country for Heroes? The Political Aftermath of the Armistice in Britain:

As the new minister for ‘war and air’, Winston Churchill understood the strange mix of emotions the country was feeling. He was responsible for demobilization which, before he took office, had already become a source of great anger and distress for all those who had survived the inferno. They were supposed to be discharged according to industrial and economic priorities, which inevitably meant slowly. Judging this inhuman, Churchill speeded up the rate of discharge and made wounds, age and length of service the priorities instead. But there was an outpouring of meaningless platitudes from politicians. Lloyd George proclaimed the fruits of victory with his usual eloquence in speeches like the following as the General Election approached at the end of the year, the second made in Wolverhampton on 23 November:

“Let us make the victory the motive power to link the old land in such measure that it will be nearer the sunshine than ever before and that at any rate it will lift up those who have been living in dark places to a plateau where they will get the rays of the sun.”

” … the work is not over yet – the work of the nation, the work of the people, the work of those who have sacrificed. Let us work together first. What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”

‘Never again’ and ‘homes fit for heroes’ fell easily from the tongues of those who had ‘kept the home fires burning’ while persuading others to do the fighting.

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The purpose of the politicians to maintain the same corporate national effort as had been successful in the war did them credit, but it was shallowly interpreted and led to the blunder of the 1918 Election in Britain. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. A fresh mandate from the people was required for the work of peacemaking and to continue, the war-time coalition of all parties; both worthy aims to tap the patriotism of the country. But for sitting MPs the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons from the previous May on a criticism of the Coalition Government by a distinguished staff officer, a criticism which may have been ill-timed, but was fair. Those who supported the government in that vote had been given ‘coupons’, whereas the malcontents were ‘outlawed’ as far as their candidature in the forthcoming election was concerned. The immediate consequence of this was a descent from the Prime Minister’s high words after the Armistice about a peace based on righteousness, and the need to put away base, sordid, squalid ideas of vengeance and avarice. The coupon candidates swept the board in the election and gave the government a huge working majority with 484 members (see the caption above). Labour returned fifty-nine MPs and the non-Coalition Liberals were reduced to a little more than a score.

But the mischief lay more in the conduct of the campaign than in its result. Responsible statesmen lent themselves to cries about “hanging the Kaiser” and extracting impossible indemnities from Germany. Britain stood before the world as the exponent of the shoddiest form of shallow patriotism, instead of the reasoned generosity which was the true temper of the nation. The result of the election produced one of the least representative parliaments in British political history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, more like a chamber of commerce than a House of Commons. It did not represent the intelligence, experience or wisdom of the British people since it was mainly an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. It also left out certain vital elements of opinion, which as a consequence were driven underground. It mirrored the nation at its worst and did much to perpetuate its vengeful mood. The feverish vulgarities of the election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and engineers, and made infinitely harder the business of economic reconstruction. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been held in abeyance during the War and which could not afford any decline in esteem at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutional politics to more revolutionary ideas, attitudes and methods, as apparent on the continent.

The returned prime minister’s aspirations and promises were not met or fulfilled, and by 1919, the euphoria of victory was replaced by reality as the ex-servicemen found that their old jobs in fields and factories were no longer available. There followed a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst returning servicemen who often found themselves unemployed, as did many women who had worked in the munitions factories and other engineering works during the war. At the same time, the number of trade unionists had risen to its highest level since 1912 and the second highest since figures were kept in 1893. Trade Unionists in Belfast and Glasgow fought bravely to reduce the working week to help absorb the ‘demobbed’ servicemen. The post-war boom was suddenly replaced by a trade slump, throwing many more out of work. The number of unemployed reached two million in 1921, and ex-servicemen stood on street corners selling matches, playing the barrel organ and singing for pennies. Some remembrance events were disrupted by protesting ex-soldiers as the year turned, and especially on the anniversary of the armistice, which had become ‘Poppy Day’. The picture below was taken outside the British Legion offices on 11 November 1921, showing a protest by the Discharged Soldiers and Sailors’ Federation.

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Dominions, Colonies & Mandates:

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John McCrae was born in Canada in 1872 and died of pneumonia in January 1918. He was a distinguished doctor who wrote an important book on pathology. He went to Europe in 1914 as a soldier, a gunner, but was transferred to the medical service and served as a doctor in the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His famous poem, In Flanders Fields, appeared anonymously in Punch on 8 December 1915. He was appointed to take charge of a hospital in Boulogne but died before he could take up his appointment. Although written and published in the early years of the war, it is one of a number of poems that in various ways manage to look at the War from a distance. McCrae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died.

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McCrae’s poem also serves to remind us of the contributions of the British Empire’s dominions to the war on the Western Front, and the effects it had upon them. But while the British only have to be reminded of the contributions of the ANZACs and the Canadians to the war in Gallipoli and on the Western front, their ‘gratitude’ to those from what Simon Schama has called the ‘off-white empire’ has been a lot less apparent. Nearly a million Indian troops were in service, both in the ‘barracks of the east’ in Asia itself, on the Western Front and in the ultimately disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia. Official estimates of Indian losses in that campaign were put at fifty-four thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. At least forty thousand black Africans had served as bearers and labourers in the British armies in France, as well as a larger force fighting in the colonial African theatre; their casualty rates were not properly recorded, but they are likely to have been very high.

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The contribution of Indians made it less likely that the promise of Liberal reforms to India, when it did come, would suffice to stem the nationalist tide, which Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India (pictured right), had described in November 1917 as a seething, boiling political flood raging across the country.  For a while, the Montagu Declaration and the Montagu-Chelmsford Report had held it back; if he had done nothing else, wrote Montagu in February 1918, I have kept India quiet for six months at a critical period of the war. The reforms represented the biggest concession Britain had yet made to the demands of the nationalists.

In the middle east, a whole gamut of British interests which previously had rested fairly heavily on Turkish neutrality was imperilled, chief among them, of course, the Suez Canal and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. The Arab Revolt which began in 1916 had helped to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east, and so take the pressure off the Suez Canal and the oil fields. But this did not solve Britain’s longer-term problems of how to safeguard its middle eastern interests now that the old Turkish buffer was gone; or the short-term problem of how to avoid quarrelling with its friends over it. To settle these problems, the British had come to a secret arrangement with France in April 1916 – the Sykes-Picot Treaty – which was supposed to determine how the Ottoman Empire would be partitioned after the war.

Then, in November 1917, the Balfour Declaration had given the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It was the kind of commitment which could only have been made in wartime when political geography was so fluid that such an artificial creation could be considered. To reassure both the Arabs and the growing number of critics at home, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arab leaders in a series of ‘declarations’ from January to November 1918.

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By the end of the war, the middle east was a tangle of promises which Britain had made to the Arabs, to the Jews, to France, and to itself. They were contradictory, although no-one knew quite how contradictory, or how intentional the contradictions had been. Words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation in the middle eastern context as much as they were in the European one. The British believed that Arab ‘independence’ was quite consistent with a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon said at the end of the war that he was quite happy to accept ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the Arab people would ‘determine in our favour’.

In October 1915, the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon had promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to encourage the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire which had begun with British military and financial help in June 1916. But in one of the reservations to Arab independence contained in ‘the MacMahon Letter’ there was ambiguity in the use of one word, which in Arabic could refer either to a district or a province, and on that ambiguity hung the fate of Palestine. The most ambiguous term of all was in the Balfour Declaration, however, because although Balfour himself was subsequently clear that he had intended the promise of a national home in Palestine for the Jews to refer to a Jewish state, on the face of it the term could be taken to mean a number of lesser things. Yet no-one pretended that all the pieces of the diplomatic puzzle could be put together in such a way as to make them fit. Curzon was sure that MacMahon had promised Palestine to the Arabs, but Balfour read the exclusion of Palestine from Arab control into MacMahon’s ‘reservation’. These were contradictions of interpretation which led, after the war, to accusations of ‘betrayal’.  T. E. Lawrence (…of Arabia), who was to accompany the Arab delegation to Paris in January 1919, claimed that it had always been evident to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would be ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he was complicit in deliberately misleading them:

I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. 

The African-Near Eastern empire was much shakier in its loyalty after the war than before. In 1918, partly driven by the accumulating momentum of post-Khalifa Muslim nationalism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals and politicians – the wafd – asked the British authorities to set a timetable for the end of the protectorate that had been in force since 1914. The high commissioner in Egypt did not dismiss them out of hand but was not optimistic. Even this degree of cooperation was laughed at by Curzon in London as being deeply unwise. When the rejection became known, the Egyptian government resigned and there were strikes and riots, precisely the same kind of demonstrations which occurred contemporaneously in India, and with even more tragic results. Some fifteen hundred Egyptians were killed over two months of fighting between the British army and the nationalists. As in Iraq, the anti-wafd monarchy was established on the understanding that Egypt would be ‘protected’, along with the Suez Canal, by British troops. The resentment caused by these events towards the British created the context for future conflicts over Egypt and Suez, and therefore in the middle east more widely.

In themselves, the pledges Britain made during the war did not determine anything that happened afterwards. Britain gave no one self-government after the war simply because she had promised it to them. It might keep its promise and very often it did, but if it could prevaricate or break a promise with impunity, it would. The colonial settlement when it came after the war, and as it was modified subsequently, was determined much more by the immediate post-war conditions – the interests, strengths and weaknesses of the different parties at that time – than by pledges and declarations made, cynically or irresponsibly, in the course of the war itself. The conditions which existed at the end of 1918 determined that, in colonial terms at least, Britain would get a great deal out of the war for itself. Britain and its allies had won the war, Germany and Turkey had lost. This meant that there were a number of colonies ‘going begging’ in the world, and only Britain and France were in a position to ‘snaffle them up’, as Porter (1984) has put it. Japan would be satisfied with expanding its empire in the north Pacific, the USA did not want colonies, and Italy, whose contribution to the Entente victory had been negligible, was considered by the other allies not to deserve any.

The ‘Khaki’ election of December 1918 had returned Lloyd George’s wartime coalition with an unstoppable majority; Balfour, Curzon and Milner were all in it, and they were not the kind of men to exercise self-restraint in colonial matters. Neither was Churchill, the jaw-jutting, table-pounding belligerent defender of empire, as Schama has characterised him. Nor were the leaders of the Dominions. For his part as their Prime Minister, Lloyd George was not bothered about the empire either way and put up little resistance to his imperialists accepting whatever fell into their laps. In the final days of the conflict, Leopold Amery had soothed his conscience by emphasising that while the war had been fought over Europe, incidentally …

… if, when all is over, … the British Commonwealth emerges greater in area and resources … who has the right to complain?

This was probably the interpretation of Britain’s position that most people in Britain and the Dominions shared. The first result of the war for Britain was, therefore, a considerable augmentation of its empire. The middle east was divided up almost according to the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf states and Iraq, which may at first have looked like ‘annexations’ but were not called that at the time. In 1919 at Paris, they became ‘Mandates’ under the League of Nations, which meant that they were entrusted to Britain and France to administer in the interests of their inhabitants, and with a view to their eventual independence. Nevertheless, in the short-term these territories, together with Britain’s existing protectorates in Egypt, Cyprus and Aden made up, in Porter’s words, a tidy little middle eastern empire. As a result, the British Empire was larger than it had ever been. But in adding new territories to Britain’s collection of colonies, the war had also weakened her grip on old ones. The fact that the self-governing dominions had co-operated in wartime did not necessarily mean that they wished to be shackled to the empire in peacetime. In all of them, not just in India, the experience of war had stimulated local nationalism just as much as did a common imperialism, whether among Afrikaners or French-speaking Canadians.

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The war had provoked or provided an opportunity for, a more vigorous assertion of forms of nationalism with a harder edge than had existed before it. In India, the war had given the Muslim League over to Congress, and Congress over to the extremists. Before the war there had been violence and terrorism both in India and Ireland, but the mainstream of colonial nationalism had been represented by Gokhale’s Congress or Redmond’s Irish Home Rule Party: moderate in their aims, generally not in favour of absolute independence, and in their methods, which were constitutional. Sinn Féin in Ireland shared with Gandhi’s campaign of ‘non-cooperation’ a willingness to work unconstitutionally, outside the system. Many had assumed that the shared experience of fighting for a common cause would unite the Irish, but the unexpectedly long duration of the war changed everything. Support for the war by constitutional nationalists, and their willingness to compromise in the preceding negotiations exposed them to criticism from more extreme nationalists when the war dragged on. Dissatisfaction with the Irish Party – who sought Home Rome by constitutional means at Westminster – was galvanised by the events of Easter 1916. Ireland might possibly have accepted old-fashioned ‘Home Rule’, self-government in domestic affairs only, which had satisfied the constitutional nationalist leader, John Redmond, in 1914, had it not been for the fifteen punitive executions carried out after the ‘Easter Rising’, as depicted above. Moderate ‘Home Rulers’ were appalled by the heavy-handed reaction to the rebellion, the executions and the thousands of arrests which followed it.

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This alienation from British rule of any kind, combined by the willingness of the Irish Party to compromise and the looming introduction of conscription in Ireland turned the population away from the Irish Party to the more revolutionary objectives of Sinn Féin. This became increasingly apparent in the increasingly daring nature of the actions of the reorganised Irish Volunteers, but even clearer in the 1918 general election. The Republican party almost swept the board in the 1918 election, winning seventy-three seats compared with just six won by the constitutional nationalists, all of them in the North, though Sinn Féin actually only won forty-eight per cent of the vote, conducted on an all-Ireland basis. It was also clear that in Ulster, the contribution made by Irish regiments in the war had strengthened the determination of Protestants to remain within the United Kingdom. The Republicans refused to take their seats in Westminster and instead set up their own Irish parliament, called Dáil Éireann, in Dublin. The electoral success of Sinn Féin was subsequently used to justify the republican’s violent campaign for independence, but their 1918 manifesto did not suggest the use of physical force but rather had strongly advocated passive resistance and an appeal to the Versailles Peace Conference. When this failed, the Irish Volunteers, who now called themselves the IRA (Irish Republican Army) became increasingly violent, leading to the outbreak of the bloody Anglo-Irish War in 1920.

The nationalist struggle in India and Ireland had shifted into a higher gear and this foreshadowed danger for the empire as a whole. By the end of 1918, it seemed secure from attacks from outside but was now more vulnerable than ever before to threats from within. It might be able to contain one of these at a time, two – as with India and Ireland – with difficulty, but if it were challenged on three or four fronts at the same time, it could collapse. With the troops back from the western front, the empire should have been in a position to contain trouble in Ireland or/and India. Its armies were big enough if they could be kept in ‘khaki’, but they could not, not because of the expense alone, but because of the very real threat of mutiny. Many of the soldiers were restless at not being demobilized immediately, and there were strikes and mutinies both in Britain and France. When they had beaten Germany the British soldiery felt they had done their job. They had not joined up to police the empire.

Churchill argued that the government had no choice but to speed up demobilization and in this, as in so many other matters in the immediate aftermath of the war, he was right. Looked at from the twenty-first century, the post-First World War Churchill was proved correct in almost all of his positions and prophecies – on Russia, Ireland, the Middle East and even on the issue of German reparations and the blockade put in place by Balfour to force assent. Often he would swerve from a hard-line to a soft one, so that having banged away like Lloyd George in the election campaign about making Germany pay through the nose, he then made appeals for greater flexibility and leniency, as did Lloyd George, in opposing the blockade. After all was said and done, the Great War was a war which Britain only just won, with the help of its empire but also that of the USA. There had been many defeats along the way, as Lloyd George himself noted: the prestige and authority of the British Empire were still intact, even if dented and damaged.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1936), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

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

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

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

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

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

Centenary:
Armistice & Aftermath, 1918

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Britain Seventy Years Ago, 1948-49: Race, Class and Culture.   1 comment

The Windrush Experience: Commonwealth Immigration.

During the Second World War, men from the Caribbean began to arrive in Britain, serving with the British Forces. There was a Jamaica Squadron and a Trinidad Squadron in the RAF and a West Indian Regiment in the British Army. Others came to work in factories, in the countryside and on radar stations. But once the war was over, most were sent straight home, leaving an estimated permanent non-white population of about thirty thousand. But almost unnoticed by the general public and passed in response to Canadian fears about the lack of free migration around the Empire, the 1948 British Nationality Act dramatically changed the scene. It declared that all subjects of the King had British nationality, reaffirming their right to free entry to the United Kingdom to all Commonwealth citizens and colonial subjects, without restrictions. This gave some eight hundred million people the right to enter and settle in the UK. At that time, this was uncontroversial, since it was generally assumed that the Caribbean and Asian subjects of the King would have neither the means nor the desire to travel to live in uncomfortable, crowded Britain. Travel remained expensive and slow, but, in any case, until the fifties, so few black or Asian people had settled in Britain that they were often treated as local celebrities and it was not even considered worthwhile trying to count their numbers. But as growing numbers of Caribbeans and South Asians began to take up their right to abode, most famously those who arrived aboard Empire Windrush (above & below), the British authorities became increasingly alarmed.

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Paradoxically, therefore, Commonwealth immigration became an increasingly salient issue in British domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. The census of 1951 recorded 74,000 New Commonwealth immigrants. By the end of that decade, nearly half a million had moved to Britain, 405,000 of them from the ‘West Indies’. Immigration from the New Commonwealth was driven by a combination of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Partition of India and the construction of the Mangla Dam in Pakistan displaced large numbers, many of whom had close links with Britain through the colonial connection. In Britain, postwar reconstruction, declining birth rates and labour shortages resulted in the introduction of government schemes to encourage Commonwealth workers, particularly from the West Indians, to seek employment in Britain. Jamaicans and Trinidadians were recruited directly by agents to fill vacancies in the British transport network and the newly created National Health Service. Private companies also recruited labour in India and Pakistan for factories and foundries in Britain. As more Caribbeans and South Asians settled in Britain, patterns of chain migration developed, in which pioneer migrants aided friends and relatives to settle. Despite the influx of immigrants after the war, however, internal migration within Britain and Ireland continued to outpace immigration. The importance assigned to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens.

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There were other immigrant communities: There had been a substantial Jewish presence in London, Leeds and Manchester, making itself felt in retailing (Marks & Spencer), the food business and banking (Rothschild’s). In the five years before the war, since the advent of the Nazis to absolute power in Germany in 1934, some sixty thousand refugees had arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. As Germany’s Jews were hounded from office in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933, the Cabinet agreed to secure for this country prominent Jews who were being expelled from Germany and who had achieved distinction in science, medicine, music and art. No fewer than twenty of them later won Nobel prizes, fifty-four were elected Fellows of the Royal Society, and ten were knighted for their academic brilliance. Despite these contributions and the recent revelations of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still endemic in British society. In particular, there was a widespread assumption that ‘they’ somehow got the best of scarce or rationed goods.

Potentially more serious in this respect was the re-emergence, in February 1948, of the fascists on the streets of London. Sir Oswald Mosely, the leader of the pre-war British Union of Fascists, had re-emerged into political life, forming the new Union Movement. For some time his former henchmen had been holding open-air meetings in the East End market at Ridley Road, Dalston, where many of the stallholders were Jewish. Not surprisingly, the meetings were the scene of violent opposition as the old fascists appeared under their new name. When Mosely announced his intention to march from Ridley Road through Stamford Hill to Tottenham, thousands of ex-servicemen, Jew and Gentile, gathered in Kingsland High Road to prevent the provocation. East London mayors called upon the Home Secretary to ban the marches and on 22 March 1949, Chuter-Ede announced a ban on all political processions. An assurance was sought that trade union marches did not fall within the compass of the ban, but a week later the Home Secretary confirmed that the forthcoming London Trades Council march was included in the ban. For the first time since 1890, London trade unionists were deprived of their freedom to march on May Day, the ban being imposed by a Labour Home Secretary. The photograph below shows a section of the vast crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square to defy him and march with banners flying.

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The Irish were also a big group in British life in the late forties, following a century of steady immigration, the vast majority of it from the south. It continued through the war, despite restrictions, as Irish people moved to Britain to cover the labour shortages left by mobilization. Ireland’s neutrality made it very unpopular with the British, and prejudice against its citizens in Britain continued for a long time after the war. Yet this did not seem to affect immigration, which continued at a rate of up to sixty thousand per year. Although The Republic of Ireland Act, of June 1949, confirmed the ending of Eire’s dominium status, the Republic was not to be regarded as a foreign country. The British government took the view that the Irish were effectively internal migrants and therefore excluded them from any discussion about immigration. There was also a large Polish presence resulting from the war since many refugees decided to settle permanently in the UK. It would be wrong to portray British society in the late forties as relaxed about race. More widely, the trade unions were bitterly hostile to ‘outsiders’ coming in to take British jobs, whatever their nationality. Even the Labour government itself spoke with self-consciousness and a legacy of inter-war eugenics about the central importance of the British race in its public information campaigns.

Country and Class:

Patriotic pride cemented the sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and destiny. But to be British in the forties was to be profoundly divided from many of your fellow subjects by class. By most estimates, a good sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class; factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. They worked by hand and muscle and were paid weekly, in cash (cheque-books were a sign of affluence). Most of them would spend all their lives in their home town or village, though some had migrated from industrial Scotland, Wales, Lancashire and the North East of England to the English Midlands, London and the Home Counties in the thirties. The sharp sense of class distinction was identified with where you came from and how you spoke. The war had softened class differences a little and produced the first rumblings of the future social revolution of the sixties.

With skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war. The trade unions were powerful and self-confident, particularly when the new Labour government repealed the laws that had hampered them ever since the General Strike of 1926. In 1948, they achieved their highest ever level of support. More than forty-five per cent of people who could theoretically belong to one did so, and there were some 8.8 million union members. In other European countries, trades unions were fiercely political, communist or socialist. In Britain, they were not, and the Communist Party spent much of its energy building support inside the unions, and winning elections to key posts. In general, British trades unionism remained more narrowly focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. Yet, a new generation of shop stewards was taking control of many workplaces, sowing the seeds of the great trade union battles of the seventies.

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It wasn’t obvious at this time that the jobs in coal, steel and heavy manufacturing would be under threat by the seventies. The shipyards of the Clyde, Belfast and the Tyne were hard at work, the coalfields were at full stretch, London was still an industrial city, and the car-making and light engineering centres of the West and South Midlands were on the edge of a time of unprecedented prosperity. In 1945, only 16,938 cars had been manufactured in Britain; by 1950, the figure had reached a record 522,515. Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from Turkey, was the design genius of post-war British car-making. His first huge success was the 1948 Morris Minor (above), which was condemned by Lord Nuffield (William Morris) as that damned poached egg designed by that damned foreigner. But it supremely popular as an affordable family car. Gone was the split windscreen (see the older version below).

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Britain was also, still, a country of brick terraces. It was not until the next two decades that many of the traditional working-class areas of British cities would be replaced by high-rise flats or sprawling new council estates. The first generation of working-class children to get to university was now at school, larger and healthier than their parents, enjoying the free dental care and spectacles provided by the young National Health Service, which was founded and began operating in the summer of 1948 (see below). For the most part, however, working-class life in the late forties was remarkably similar to how it had been a decade or more earlier, and perhaps even more settled. Politicians assumed that most people would stay put and continue to do roughly the same sort of job as they had done before the war. Rent acts and planning directives were the tools of ministers who assumed that the future of industry would be like its past, only more so.

The class which did best was the middle class, a fast-growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown hugely and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State would require hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs, administering national insurance, teaching and running the health service. Studies of social mobility, such as the one carried out in 1949, suggested that while working-class sons generally followed their fathers into similar jobs, there was much more variation among middle-class children. Labour’s priority might have been to help the workers, but education reform was helping more middle-class children get a good grammar-school education. Fees for attending state schools were abolished and the school leaving age was raised to fifteen. A steadily growing number stayed at school until eighteen. Increasing numbers would make it to university too, an extra thirty thousand a year by 1950. The accents of Birmingham and Wales, the West Country and Liverpool began to challenge the earlier received pronunciation of perceived middle-class respectability. Churchill himself had told Harrow schoolboys that one effect of the war was to diminish class differences, that the advantages and privileges that had previously been enjoyed by the few would be far more widely shared by the many. Old distinctions were therefore softening, and the culture was slowly becoming more democratic.

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Yet there was still a long road ahead since the ruling class was still the ruling class. Despite the varied backgrounds of the 1945 Labour cabinet ministers, Britain in the late forties was still a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools like Eton and Harrow, or at Oxbridge. A public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the Civil Service or the higher ranks of the Army. These schools might only educate some five per cent of the population, but they continued to provide the majority of the political leaders, including many of Labour’s post-war cabinets. Briefly, it had seemed that such schools would not even survive the war: boarding schools had been in enough of a financial crisis for some to face closure through bankruptcy. Churchill’s own Harrow was one, along with Marlborough and Lancing, but all managed to survive somehow. More generally, there was a belief that the public school system had contributed to the failure of political leadership in the thirties right up to the military defeats of the first half of 1940. But Churchill had fought off the demands from Butler and others in his war cabinet that all or most of them should be abolished. Attlee, devoted to his old school, had no appetite for abolition either. Grammar schools were seen as the way to get bright working-class or middle-class children into Oxbridge, and a few other universities, where they would compete with and thereby strengthen the ruling élites. One civil servant described the official view as being that ‘children’ could be divided into three kinds:

It was sort of Platonic. There were golden children, silver children and iron children.

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Under Clement Attlee, pictured above being driven by his wife Violet, Britain remained a country of private clubs and cliques, ancient or ancient-seeming privileges, rituals and hierarchies. In the workplace, there was something like the relationships of pre-war times, with employers’ associations assuming their old roles as ‘cartels’ though some, like Captain Black at the Standard Motor Co. in Coventry, were successful in breaking out of the wage-controls which the Engineering Employers’ Association attempted to set. Inside the newly nationalised industries, the same sort of ‘bosses’ continued to manage, and the same ‘them and us’ mentalities reasserted themselves remarkably easily. In the City, venerable, commanding merchant bankers would still be treated like little gods, younger bankers deferring utterly to their elders and ‘betters’. Lessons in speaking ‘the King’s English’ were given to aspiring actors and broadcasters; physicians in hospitals still swept into the wards, followed by trains of awed, frightened, junior doctors. At the Oxbridge colleges, formal dinners were compulsory, as was full academic dress, and the tenured professors hobbled around their quads as if little had changed since Edwardian days. All this was considered to be somehow the essence of Britain, or at least of England.

The King and Queen also ran what was in all essentials an Edwardian Court.  After the national trauma of the abdication crisis, George VI had established a reassuringly pedestrian image for the family which now called itself simply ‘the Windsors’. There had been cautious signs of royal modernisation, with Princess Elizabeth making patriotic radio broadcasts. On the other hand, the Royal Presentation of rich young debutantes to the monarch continued until 1958 when Queen Elizabeth put an end to it, prompted by Prince Philip, who with characteristically candid brevity, labelled it “bloody daft”. Initially, it was very unclear as to how the monarchy would fare in post-war Britain. The leading members of the family were popular, and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, but there were demands from many of their backbench MPs for a less expensive, slimmed-down contemporary monarchy, such as existed in Scandinavia.

Yet the Windsors had triumphed again in 1947, with the wedding of, as they were then, Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. For the ordinary British people, the wedding was a welcome but transient distraction from their daily struggle to feed and clothe their families. Because rationing affected the quantity of clothes you could have, but not their quality, it hit the poor harder. Government ‘make-do and mend’ campaigns about how to repair, reinforce or reshape old clothes, did nothing to improve the general public mood. For women, faced with an almost impossible struggle to replace laddered stockings or underwear, the wartime fashions felt unattractive – short skirts and masculine jackets, what was called ‘man-tailored’. If pregnant, they were encouraged to adapt their ordinary clothes. Yet the Hollywood films showed women immaculately dressed icons and the newspapers showed men the richest, flashiest Britons, like Anthony Eden and, of course, the King, both beautifully tailored. But they could not afford to look smart. Some men avoided drinks parties because they were ashamed of the state of their clothes and women avoided brightly lit restaurants when their stockings had gone, replaced by tea-stains and drawn-on seams. It was not until 1949 that clothes, boots and shoes were taken off ration.

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For most ordinary people, too, food rationing was the primary example of the dreary colourlessness of wartime life. It continued long after the guns had stopped. It was still biting hard at the end of the forties, meat was still rationed as late as 1954, and though the poor were better fed, most people felt hard done-by. Many doctors agreed. Shortly after the horrific winter of 1947 was over, the British Medical Press carried a detailed article by Dr Franklin Bicknell which argued that available foods were four hundred calories short of what women needed each day, and nine hundred short of what men required: In other words, everyone in England is suffering from prolonged chronic malnutrition. This was angrily disputed by Labour politicians, eager to point out the effect of all that free juice, cod liver oil and milk on Britain’s children. But the people were on the side of Dr Bicknell. The fact that the ‘good things’ were still in short supply had left the way open for the growth of a black market (complete with ‘spivs’) and therefore for the demand for a restoration of the free play of market forces and, at least, something like a free market in food.

Apart from Ellen Wilkinson’s tragic death in 1947, other ministers falling ill, and still others becoming disillusioned, the Labour leadership had also begun to fracture along ideological lines in 1948.  The economy had been doing rather better than in the dark year of 1947 and though still short of dollars, the generosity of the Marshall Plan aid in 1948 had removed the immediate sense of crisis. By 1949, it was estimated to have raised the country’s national income by ten per cent. Responding to the national mood of revolt over restrictions and shortages, Harold Wilson had announced a ‘bonfire of controls’ in 1948 and there seemed some chance that Labour ministers would follow the change in national mood and accept that the people wanted to spend, not only to queue. The restrictions on bread, potatoes and preserves were lifted first, but milk, tea, sugar, meat, bacon, butter, fats and soap remained on ration, the fresh meat allocation being a microscopic eight pennyworth a week. Sweets had been rationed since 1940 and were not taken off ration until April 1949 when the picture below was taken.

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‘Austerity’ was a word reiterated remorselessly by the anti-Labour press. If life was austere, however, it was better for the working-class majority than it had been in the years before the war and Britain’s industry was expanding. Full employment, never achieved until the Second World War, stimulated the private expectations and aspirations of large numbers of people who had been ‘deprived’ before 1939, though they themselves had not always recognised it. For those who preferred society to operate according to plan on the basis of one single aspiration, like winning the war or after the war achieving socialism, the new pluralism of motives and pressures and the growth of business agencies which could influence or canalise them were dangerous  features of the post-war world which contained as yet unfulfilled potential. One thing was clear: No one wished to return to the 1930s, and no one talked of returning ‘normalcy’ as they had done during the 1920s. That way back would have been deliberately closed even if it had proved possible to keep it open.

Culture and Society:

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Some of the most eloquent cultural moments in the life of post-war Britain had religious themes, like the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, with its tapestries by Graham Sutherland. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written for the consecration of the new Cathedral building. This did not take place until 1962, but the story of the reconstruction began in the years after the war when a replica of the cross of nails made from the ruins (seen above in 1940) was given to Kiel in Germany as a sign of friendship and a symbol of reconciliation. A stone from the ruins of Kiel Cathedral was given to Coventry in return. This is the Kiel Stone of Forgiveness, now in the Chapel of Unity in the New Cathedral. Also in the late forties, a group of young Germans arrived in Coventry and helped to clear the rubble from one corner of the ruined cathedral. It became the Centre for International Understanding, where young people from all nationalities met through the work of the Community of the Cross of Nails. Through this work, Coventry soon became twinned with fifty-three cities and towns throughout the world. Post-war Britain’s major poet, the American-born T. S. Eliot, was an outspoken adherent of the Church of England. His last major work of poetry, The Four Quartets, is suffused with English religious atmosphere, while his verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral addressed an iconic moment in English ecclesiastical history. In 1948, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It could fairly be said that during these years there existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful, Christianity, with its own art and thought. It was, in the main, a limited and élite movement, but it did sometimes connect with wider currents in British Society.

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In the Britain of the late forties, the continuing influence of the established church was in evidence in the way that divorce still carried a strong stigma, across classes and reaching to the highest. Divorced men and women were not welcome at court. Homosexuality was still illegal and vigorously prosecuted. People clung to their traditional values since the war had shaken everyone’s sense of security, not just those who had served in it, but the bombed, evacuated and bereaved as well. The beginning of the Cold War underlined that underlying sense of the fragility of life. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there was a profound turn towards the morality of hearth and home and a yearning for order, predictability and respectability, in the street and neighbourhood, if not in the wider world. There was certainly a demand for political reform, but the British people were still, fundamentally, socially conservative.

In the summer of 1948, the Labour Government tried to cheer up ‘Austerity Britain’ by staging the Olympic Games in London. The games were a triumph in a war-scarred, rubble-strewn city, during which the athletes were put up in old army camps, colleges and hospitals. The Union Jack was missing for the opening parade, but cost overruns were trivial and security was barely an issue. The games involved nearly five thousand competitors from fifty-nine countries. Though the medal count for the British competitors was very meagre, holding the games was a genuine sign that Britain was back. For all its fragility and frugality, this was still a country that could organise itself effectively. Football was back too. By the 1948/49 season, the third since the resumption of top-flight football after the second world war, there were more than forty million attendances at matches. There was a general assumption that British football was the finest there was, something seemingly confirmed the previous May when a Great Britain team had played against a team grandly if inaccurately described as The Rest of the World (it comprised Danes, Swedes, a Frenchman, Italian, Swiss, Czech, Belgian, Dutchman and Irishman), thrashing them 6-1. That illusion was soon to be dispelled in the early fifties, with the emergence of the ‘golden team’ of the ‘Mighty Magyars’ among others.

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But at a club level, this was a golden age of football. The stands were open and smelly, the crowds were unprotected, there were no floodlights and the greatest stars of the post-war era were still to emerge. But football was relatively uncorrupt and was still, essentially, about local teams supported by local people. On the pitch, play was ‘clean’ and honest: Stanley Matthews, the son of a barber from Stoke, already a pre-war legend who went on to play in the cup final of 1953, aged thirty-eight and whom I saw play in a charity match in the early seventies, only a couple of years after his retirement from top-flight football, was never cautioned throughout his long career. In June 1948 Stan Cullis, who in contrast to Matthews, had retired as a player in 1947 at the tender age of 31, became the manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers, literally the ‘old gold’ team of the then first division, according to the colour of their shirts. Cullis was a tough, uncompromising and inspirational manager who steered ‘Wolves’ through the most successful decade in their history. In 1947/48 Wolves ended the season fifth, and a year later were sixth, also winning the FA Cup, beating Leicester City in the final at Wembley. Two of the ‘legends’ of this period are shown in the pictures above and below, the little ‘winger’, Johnny Hancocks and captain Billy Wright, who also captained England.

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Another great footballer of the late forties was Arsenal’s Denis Compton, who was still more famous for his cricket, which again became hugely popular after the interruption caused by the war. Some three million people had watched the ‘Test matches’ against South Africa in 1947 and Compton’s performance then and in the following seasons produced a rush of English pride. The cricket-writer  Neville Cardus found in Compton the image of sanity and health after the war: There was no rationing in an innings by Compton. In cricket, as in football, many of the players were the stars of pre-war days who had served as Physical Training instructors or otherwise kept their hand in during hostilities; but with the Yorkshire batsman Len Hutton also back in legendary form at the Oval Test, cricket achieved a level of national symbolism that it has never reached since. As with football, the stars of post-war cricket could not expect to become rich on the proceeds, but they could become national heroes. Hutton went on to become England’s first professional cricket captain in 1952; Compton first came int decent money as the face of Brylcreem adverts. The new rules of the Football League meant that players could earn up to twelve pounds per week.

The Welfare State Established:

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In summer of 1948, on 5th July, the National Health Service, the brainchild of Aneurin Bevan (pictured below), opened its doors for business. There was a flood of people into the surgeries, hospitals and chemists. The service was funded directly from taxation, not from the new National Insurance Scheme which also came into being that year. That too was a fantastic feat of organisation, providing for a comprehensive system of social security, family allowances, and compensation for injury at work. A new office to hold twenty-five million contribution records plus six million for married women was needed. It had to be huge and was built in Newcastle by prisoners of war; at the same time, a propeller factory was taken over to run family allowances. The work of six old government departments was brought into a new ministry. Jim Griffiths, the Labour minister pushing it all through wanted a thousand local National Insurance offices ready around the country, and after being told a hundred times that all this was quite impossible, he got them. The level of help was rather less than Beveridge himself had wanted, and married women were still treated as dependents; there was much to be argued for over the next sixty years. Nevertheless, the speed and energy with which this large-scale task was accomplished represented a revolution in welfare, sweeping away four centuries of complicated, partial and unfair rules and customs in just six years.

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The creation of the National Health Service, which Beveridge thought essential to his wider vision, was a more confrontational task. Britain had had a system of voluntary hospitals and clinics before the war, which varied wildly in size, efficiency and cleanliness. Also, a number of municipal hospitals had grown out of the original workhouses in the late twenties and thirties. Some of these, in progressive cities like Birmingham and Nottingham, as well as in London, were efficient, modern places whose beds were usually kept for the poor. Others were squalid. Money for the voluntary hospitals came from gifts, charitable events, direct payments and a hotchpotch of insurance schemes. By the time the war ended, the majority of Britain’s hospitals had been brought under a single national emergency service. The question was, what should happen next?  Should they be nationalised or allowed to return to local control? A similar question hung over family doctors. ‘GPs’ depended on private fees, though most of them also took poor patients through some form of insurance scheme. When not working from home or a surgery, they would often double up operating in municipal hospitals where, as non-specialists, they sometimes hacked away incompetently. But the voluntary insurance schemes excluded many elderly people, housewives and children, who therefore put off visiting the doctor at all unless they were in great pain or grave danger. The situation with dental care and optical services was similar; they were not available to those without the means to pay for them.

Labour was, therefore, determined to provide the first system of medical care, free at the point of need, there had been in any Western democracy. Although comprehensive systems of health care existed elsewhere, most notably in Germany, these were funded by national insurance, rather than through direct taxation. ‘Nye’ Bevan’s simple idea and his single biggest decision were to take all the hospitals, voluntary and municipal, into a single nationalised system. It would have regional boards, but would all come under the Ministry of Health in London. This was an act of heroic self-confidence on his part. For the first time, a single politician would take responsibility for every hospital in Britain, with the exception of a few private ones. Herbert Morrison, a municipal socialist, was against this centralisation of power but was brushed aside by Bevan.

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A far more significant threat to Bevan’s ‘project’ was posed by the doctors themselves. Their opposition meant that the implementation of his simple idea was a far more complicated process than ever Bevan himself could have anticipated. The doctors, led by the Conservative-leaning British Medical Association (BMA), had it in their power to stop the NHS dead in its tracks by simply refusing to work for it. They were genuinely concerned about their status in the new service; would they be mere state functionaries? They were also suspicious of Bevan, and not without good reason, as he effectively wanted to nationalise them, making them state employees, paid directly out of public funds, with no private fees allowed. This would mean a war with the very men and women trusted by millions to cure and care for them. Bevan, a principled but pragmatic socialist, was also a skilful diplomat. He began by wooing the senior consultants in the hospitals. The physicians and surgeons were promised they could keep their lucrative pay beds and private practices. Bevan later admitted that he had stuffed their mouths with gold. Next he retreated on the payment of fifty thousand GPs, promising them that they could continue to be paid on the basis of how many patients they treated, rather than getting a flat salary. This wasn’t enough, however, for when polled only ten per cent of doctors said that they were prepared to work for the new NHS. As July approached, there was a tense political stand-off. Bevan continued to offer concessions, while at the same time fiercely criticising the doctors’ leaders, labelling them a small body of politically poisoned people who were sabotaging the will of the people, as expressed through Parliament. In the end, Bevan was backed by a parliamentary majority and, after more concessions and threats, they gave way. Yet it had been a long, nasty, divisive battle between a conservative professional élite and their new socialist ‘masters’.

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Almost immediately, there were complaints about the cost and extravagance, and about the way the provision of materials not previously available produced surges in demand which had not previously existed. There was much anecdotal evidence of waste and misuse. The new bureaucracy was cumbersome. It is also possible to overstate the change since most people had had access to some kind of some kind of affordable health care before the NHS came into being. However, such provision was patchy and excluded many married working-class women in particular. The most important thing it did was to take away fear. Before it, millions at the ‘bottom of the pile’ had suffered untreated hernias, cancers, toothache, ulcers and all kinds of illness, rather than face the anxiety and humiliation of being unable to afford treatment. That’s why there are many moving accounts of the queues of unwell, impoverished people surging forward for treatment in the early days of the NHS, arriving in hospitals and doctors’ waiting rooms for the first time not as beggars but as citizens and taxpayers. As Andrew Marr has commented,

If there was one single domestic good that the British took from the sacrifices of the war, it was a health service free at the point of use. We have clung to it tenaciously ever since and no mainstream party has dared to suggest taking it away.

Nationalisation: Political Idealism and Economic Reality.

The same could not be said of some of Labour’s other nationalisation ‘projects’. The first, that of the Bank of England, sounded dramatic, but it had no real impact. Exactly the same men stayed in power, following the same monetary policies. I have dealt with the nationalisation of the coal industry and the establishment of the NCB on 1 January 1947 in a previous article. In the case of the gas and electricity, these utilities were already part-owned by local authorities, so their nationalisation caused little controversy. Labour had talked about nationalising the railway system from 1908, almost as soon as it became a political party in the wake of the Taff Vale case. The railway system had, in any case, been rationalised in the inter-war period, with the creation of four major companies – London & North-Eastern; Great Western Railway; Southern Railways; London, Midland & Scotland. Periodic grants of public money had been needed for years for years to help the struggling companies out, and the government had taken direct control of the railways at the beginning of the war. The post-war train system was more powerful than the pre-motorway road network, but it was now in dreadful condition and because of the economic crisis and shortage of steel, it would be starved of new investment. Nationalisation without investment was no solution to any of these basic problems. The only people who did well out of it were the original shareholders of the railway companies who were, to their surprise, well compensated. In other forms of transport, road haulage and airlines were also nationalised, as were cable and wireless companies.

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By the time the last big struggle to nationalise an industry was underway, the steel debates of 1948-9, the public attitude towards nationalisation was already turning. The iron and steel industry differed from the coal industry and the railways in that it was potentially highly profitable and had good labour relations. The Labour Government had worked itself up, proclaiming that the battle for steel is the supreme test of political democracy – a test which the whole world will be watching. Yet the cabinet agonised and went ahead only because of a feeling that, otherwise, they would be accused of losing their nerve. In the debates in the Commons, Labour backbenchers rebelled. The steel owners were organised and vigorous, the Tories were regaining their spirits and Labour were, therefore, having a torrid time. Cripps told the Commons: If we cannot get nationalisation of steel by legal means, we must resort to violent methods. They did get it, but the industry was little shaken. It needed new investment almost as much as the coal mines and the railways – new mills, coke ovens, new furnaces. Again, nationalisation did not deliver this.

However hard the Tories tried, they failed to make Clement Attlee look like a British Stalin. The Labour Government was, in any case, at pains to make its collectivist programme look patriotically legitimate. After all, taking twenty per cent of the economy into public ownership was called ‘nationalisation’, and the proposed new public enterprises were likewise to be given patriotic corporate identities: British Steel, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, British Railways. The effort was to recast the meaning of being British as a member of a community of shared ownership, shared obligations and shared benefits: Co-op Britain. And because the Labour Party had such huge majorities in Wales, Scotland and the most socially damaged areas of industrial England, it would, at last, be a Britain in which rich southern England did not lord it over the poor-relation regions. It would be one whole Britain, not a nation divided into two, as it had been in the thirties. George Orwell, who wrote 1984 in 1948, had vividly described the divided Britain of that decade, and he now had great hopes that if the British people…

… can keep their feet, they can give the example that millions of human beings are waiting for. … By the end of another decade it will finally be clear whether England is to survive … as a great nation or not. And if the answer is to be ‘Yes’, it is the common people who must make it so.

Taking up Orwell’s theme, Asa Briggs has suggested that the forties need to be treated as one period of The People’s War and Peace. Britain had emerged from the War changed but not destroyed and this time, in Orwell’s terms, the right family members would be in control. From the very beginning, the Labour Government was not insulated from the perennial headaches and imperatives of twentieth-century British government – monetary viability, industrial over-capacity and, especially, imperial or post-imperial global defence. The only option it had, apart from shouldering those familiar burdens and getting on with building the New Jerusalem as best they could, was to plunge into a much more far-reaching programme of collectivisation, Keynesian deficit financing, disarmament and global contraction. But that was never actually on the cards because the Labour ministers were not cold-blooded social revolutionaries committed to wiping the slate clean and starting again. The ‘slate’ was Britain; its memories, traditions, institutions, not least the monarchy. Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison were emotionally and intellectually committed to preserving it, not effacing it. They were loyal supporters of what Orwell called The Lion and the Unicorn (1941). Perhaps appropriately, Orwell died, still young, as ‘his’ decade came to an end, in January 1950, after he had warned of the danger of a dystopian Britain elevating collectivism over individual liberty.

The decision to keep an independent nuclear deterrent, and to sustain the projection of British power in Asia (through Hong Kong) and even more significantly in the Middle East, came at a huge price: $3.5 billion, to add to the estimated cost of the war, $10.5 billion. In 1948, defence spending had risen to seven per cent of GDP, and four years later to 10.5 per cent, incomparably higher than for any other European state. American help was desperately needed, so Bevin’s goal of keeping Britain independent in its foreign policy of the United States actually had the effect of deepening its long-term economic dependence. But the capital infusion, according to Cripps and others, would jump-start the economy as well as pay for investment in new infrastructure, after which surging economic growth would take care of the debt burden. The most idealistic assumption of all was that public ownership of key industries, the replacement of the private profit incentive by a cooperative enterprise, would somehow lead to greater productivity.  There were periods in 1948 when, in expert-led mini-surges, it looked as though those projections were not as unrealistic a diagnosis as they were to prove in the long-term. Britain was benefitting from the same kind of immediate post-war demand that it had experienced in 1918-19; the eventual reckoning with the realities of shrinking exports, as thirty years before, was merely postponed.

Labour was always divided between ideological socialists and more pragmatic people, but there was no real necessity for the party to have a row with itself towards the end of its first majority government, having successfully negotiated so many rapids. The problem was a familiar one. As the bill for maintaining pseudo-great power status and welfare state benevolence mounted, so did doubts and misgivings about the premises on which it had been thought the armed New Jerusalem could be funded. The government’s foreign policy initiatives had encountered serious difficulties. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin negotiated Marshall Aid for Britain from the USA in 1949, and in the same year helped organise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). But the price of such security and the maintenance of a place at the top table of international politics was high. American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948, were set to acquire nuclear capacity in 1950. As a result, the government had to accept inflated defence estimates, which also included increased costs for conventional tanks and planes. Should money be concentrated first on Britain’s overseas commitments, especially her large armies in the Middle East and facing the Russians across the German border; or on protecting the social advances at home?

Britain could not afford to be a great power in the old way, but neither could she afford to spend the Marshall Plan aid windfall mainly on better welfare, while other countries were using it to rebuild their industrial power. In the end, the government had to accept the need for cuts in welfare spending, leading to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, who was determined to protect his ground-breaking achievement, the NHS, and Harold Wilson. The revised estimates helped to fuel a balance of payments crisis since the nationalisation programme had failed to provide the increased productivity the government had hoped for. Stafford Cripps, who had only a year earlier had been the most ardent ‘collectivist’ in the cabinet became, in 1949, an equally determined advocate of the mixed economy. He was forced to retire from the cabinet and the House in 1950 to replaced as Chancellor by Hugh Gaitskell. The socialist idealism of 1945-8 was put on hold, and Labour never returned to it, replacing it with ‘Gaitskillism’. With the benefit of hindsight, the post-war Labour years were a time almost cut off from what followed from 1950 onwards. So much of the country’s energy had been sapped by war; what was left focused on the struggle for survival. With Britain industrially clapped-out mortgaged to the hilt to the USA and increasingly bitter about the lack of a post-war ‘ dividend’, it was perhaps not the best time to start building The New Jerusalem. Most attempts at forced modernisation quickly collapsed; the direction of factories to the depressed areas produced little long-term benefit; companies encouraged to export at all costs were unable to re-equip and prepare themselves for tougher markets. In addition, inflation, which would become a major part of the post-war story, appeared, at three per cent in 1949-50.

Conclusion: A ‘Peaceful Revolution‘?

Between 1945 and 1949 the Labour Government undertook a programme of massive reform. It has been called ‘the quiet’ or ‘the peaceful revolution’. Just how far this is an accurate description and a valid judgement is debatable. It was certainly peaceful, but far from ‘quiet’. Jim Griffiths, Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps all had to use coercive methods at times against active and organised resistance both in Parliament and outside. Whether the reforms were revolutionary or evolutionary is an issue which needs careful consideration. The debate was not about whether a Welfare State was needed, it was about the means by which it would be achieved. The issues of individualism versus collectivism, central control versus local control, competition versus cooperation, and reality and illusion can all be identified.

The degree of success which historians ascribe to these reforms depends on what he sees as ‘the Welfare State’. As Bédarida (1979) argued, there are at least three possible definitions for this enigmatic concept. The ‘official’ definition, as it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955, was a polity so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all. As a historical interpretation, he refers to five points enunciated by Bruce in The Coming of the Welfare State which referred to the aims and objectives of a welfare state. He rejects this as a narrow, rather technical definition … amounting to little more than the enlargement of the social services. He argues that the phrase must be allowed to take on a wider sense, as a symbol for the structure of post-war Britain, a society with a mixed economy and full employment, …

… where individualism is tempered by State intervention, where the right to work and a basic standard of living are guaranteed, and the working-class movement, now accepted and recognised, finds its rightful place in the nation.

By its own admission Labour’s ‘revolution’ must be seen in the perspective of ‘evolution’. The key word (or phrase) is ‘social justice’. Without in the least denying the collectivist principles inscribed on Labour’s tablets, the revolution found its main inspiration in two Liberals: first Beveridge, then Keynes. These were the two masterminds whose ideas guided Labour’s actions. …

In seeking to determine the significance of the Welfare State one must bear three points in mind. Firstly, to use the word ‘revolution’  is to devalue its meaning. … In the second place, the arrival of the Welfare State was situated in the mainstream  of the history of democratic freedom, linking the pioneers of the London Corresponding Society with the militants of the Independent Labour Party, the Benthamites, with the Fabians, the Nonconformist conscience with Christian Socialism. … Finally, if the Welfare State was the grandchild of Beveridge and Keynes, it was no less the child of Fabians, since it concentrated on legislative, administrative and centralising methods to the detriment of ‘workers’ control’. But in thus stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism. …

The ‘Welfare State’ was not just a Labour ‘project’ or ‘programme’. Apart from its Liberal ‘grandfathers’, even Tory supporters were behind this desire for change and reform. It is significant that the inventor of the term was that pillar of the Establishment (and yet advocate of Christian Socialism), the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. No one would doubt that the achievements of the Labour Government of 1945-50 were considerable. They undertook the massive task of social reconstruction and social transformation with vigour and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures, not to mention their foreign policy. The creation of the Welfare State did not, really, involve a transformation of society. It was, to a considerable degree, a substitute for it.

Sources:

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

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

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

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against the World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1870-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Asa Briggs et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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

 

Posted May 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglican Reformation, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Birmingham, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Egalitarianism, Empire, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, Germany, homosexuality, Immigration, India, Integration, Ireland, Jerusalem, Jews, Literature, Marriage, Middle East, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Monarchy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Normalcy, Population, Poverty, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Second World War, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Welfare State, West Midlands, World War Two

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