Sunny Days

Michael Howard

  • Never Again: Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy
    Cape, 544 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 224 02768 9
  • Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 by Paul Addison
    Cape, 493 pp, £20.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 224 01428 5

Peter Hennessy has chosen for the dust jacket of Never Again a picture that exactly captures the mood of 1945. A returning British serviceman is being welcomed home by his wife and small son. ‘Home’ is a pre-fab, decked for the occasion with Union Jacks. The wife is wearing a neat, knee-length utility-model dress. The little boy, in shorts, pullover and tie, looks healthy and well-fed. All three are ecstatic with the happiness of finding each other alive again after a war in which the family at home had been as likely to be killed as the soldier at the front. The war was over, the valleys would bloom again, and Johnny would go to sleep in his own little room again.

It was a good moment to be alive, and as Peter Hennessy constantly insists in his entertaining but none the less thorough survey, a good time to grow up. For people of his generation who had known nothing except wartime deprivation there seemed no way to go but up, and up they went for the next five years – indeed, for the next twenty-five years. The wartime coalition government had promised a home fit for heroes, and this time Labour delivered. Five years later, Sam Watson, leader of the Durham miners, was able to claim, not inaccurately:

Poverty has been abolished. Hunger is unknown. The sick are tended. The old folks are cherished, our children are growing up in a land of opportunity.

Further, this miracle (for so it seemed to those who, a little older than Peter Hennessy, had grown up in the Thirties) had been accomplished with a remarkable absence of friction. Grumbling, yes: as someone from an upper middle-class background, I could have added a few darker tones to his generally sunny picture. In the circles frequented by my own parents, resentment at loss of privileges, especially – a point rather overlooked by Hennessy – the virtual disappearance of domestic servants, was compounded by a suspicion that the Attlee Government was, economically speaking, flying blind without a compass. The suspicion was well founded, as Hennessy’s book shows. But six years’ experience of a wartime siege economy and residual guilt about the misery of the Thirties had softened up all but the most bloody-minded of the upper classes; and although the Labour Government can take proper credit for creating the Welfare State, it did so with a wide popular consensus, and was building on the achievements of the first Churchill Government. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, so far from dismantling the Welfare State, they increased welfare spending from 39.2 per cent of government expenditure in 1951 to 43 per cent in 1955. The second Churchill Administration, in Paul Addison’s words, was one of ‘Tory wets, for whom social harmony was a higher priority than economic sufficiency. The Prime Minister himself was soaking wet.’

Yet the very breadth of the consensus indicated the limited nature of the social transformation: something that doctrinaire socialists like Tony Benn constantly and rightly emphasise. ‘The commanding heights of the economy’ – gas, railways, coal, steel – were handed over to the civil servants, a measure of doubtful benefit to anyone, but nobody was going to the guillotine to protest about that. A system of national insurance had been created that benefited all classes, not simply the poor and unemployed. A National Health Service had been set up which Hennessy defiantly describes as ‘one of the finest institutions ever built by anyone anywhere’ (and after living in the United States for three years, I can say amen to that). The doctors grumbled, as did their better-heeled private patients, but no-one else. A national education system had been instituted, at least a century later than in any other European country, which the upper classes tolerated so long as their own schools (which were for the most part very good) remained intact. The slums were cleared and public housing became a priority for both parties. The grinding poverty of the Thirties – and indeed of every decade before that – had been abolished by free education, free health provision, family allowances, universal insurance and full employment.

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