Towards the end of the Second World War, the Common Wealth Party produced a striking leaflet – ‘Again?’ – to play on the widespread fear among British voters that victory over Nazism was merely the prelude to a return to mass unemployment at home and continued international insecurity. The ‘old order’ had failed. A ‘new society’ was necessary. ‘The 60,000,000 colonial peoples, fighting against exploitation’, were ‘our allies in the struggle for a new society’ and must be given self-government at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, the war itself was ‘part of a world revolution of the common man, aimed at a new world of plenty and security’.
Paul Addison, in Now the war is over, an excellent book derived from a good TV series, sees Common Wealth as representing a ‘strand of socialist utopianism, to be found mainly among the professional middle classes, that ran through the Forties’. Yet Richard Acland, figurehead of the Party, had been a Liberal MP before the war, and Common Wealth might be placed on the far left wing of that broad informal alliance of reformers which produced what Addison calls ‘Forties collectivism: the belief in the capacity of the State to reduce social injustice, expand the economy and create a fuller and more spacious life for all’. Labour’s victory in 1945 brought opportunity to high-minded persons from more than one political tradition. Boyd Orr the medical reformer and Julian Huxley the socially-conscious scientist helped to set up Unesco. William Beveridge, a Liberal, saw his Welfare State largely enacted; Creech Jones, chairman of the Fabian Colonial Bureau which had been founded in 1940, became the minister responsible for the colonies; and the ‘garden city ideal’ of the Town and Country Planning Association shaped the ‘architecturally modest and socially humane’ redevelopment schemes of the late Forties.
The tone was suburban and even traditional. Bevan’s ideal council house, of which hundreds of thousands were built, had a bourgeois look. Coventry Cathedral and the Royal Festival Hall were modern architecture on a human scale. Though a high proportion of Londoners were being rehoused in flats, the LCC forbade the construction of blocks more than six storeys high.
So there wasn’t a visible ‘social revolution’, or an invisible one. Ellen Wilkinson, the former ‘scholarship girl’ who became the Attlee Government’s first Minister of Education, presided over the temporary triumph of the ‘Tripartite’ system which ensured that, under the 1944 ‘Butler Act’ dispensation of secondary education for all, the majority of schoolchildren were divided into quasi-‘scholarship’ grammar-school sheep and rejected ‘sec. mod.’ goats – comprehensive education in most places came many years later. The opening of the National Health Service in July 1948 was marked by the symptoms of a ‘great emancipation’ as people who for years had needed new spectacles, trusses and dentures rushed to supply themselves. Addison quotes a District Nurse who rejoiced that at last she could dress patients properly: ‘It didn’t only uplift us, it was the patients as well, it was just fantastic ... Suddenly you’d got it all, this gorgeous soft cotton wool, beautiful clean bandages.’ But the NHS treated the results of social inequality, not its causes. By the mid-Seventies the gap between upper and lower in terms of ‘mortality experience’ would be two or three times wider than before the war.
In 1945 a long tradition of liberal social reform converged with what was left, after the war effort, of the energy of politicised trade-unionism, in an atmosphere of socialist expectancy. In Addison’s view, ‘an era of structural change’ ended in 1951. The victorious Conservatives had no intention of overturning the reorganisation achieved (or consolidated) by Labour’s high-mindedness. They would, however, benefit from a new cycle of social change associated with ‘consumerism’ and ‘affluence’. These had began to make their mark in the more prosperous – mostly southern – parts of Britain during the Thirties. But visions of a car outside every home, a fridge in every kitchen and a chicken in every fridge had remained remote. As the vision began to seem tangible in the Fifties, idealism would lose ground. In 1951, the Labour Party was rewarded for its honest efforts with the largest vote given to any single party in British electoral history, but still lost – and it had begun to lose the elections of the Fifties in the Forties. As Addison puts it,
Labour politicians had been inclined to interpret the 1945 Election results as a mandate for public goods and services. Whether as dogmatists bent on socialism, or high-minded improvers of the masses, they were slow to recognise that voters hankered after the New Look or ‘pleasure motoring’ ... Attlee still held to the old public school ideal, common among families with a hereditary commitment to the Empire or the Army, of a society dedicated to service rather than competition for wealth. History was not on his side. Cultural change was rapidly undermining the high rationalist humanism of Late Victorian social reform.
At this stage, one of Toryism’s least secret weapons was the Young Conservative organisation. Anthony Bailey, then a schoolboy in Hampshire, recalls: ‘I did a number of things purely because they provided a way of meeting girls. I joined the local branch of the Young Conservatives for that purpose. Labour continued to govern the nation, but I was less interested in promoting the downfall of Mr Attlee than in attending events organised by the young Tories for the entertainment of Portchester youth.’ At Young Tory Saturday-night socials in this and many other places, it was still the era of foxtrot, rumba and Veleta, but at least they provided a chance of ‘holding onto someone else’. Bailey’s England, First and Last is a book for future social historians as well as nostalgic reading for his contemporaries. Nine years younger, I grew up in what used to be Surrey, and Bailey’s evocation of the minutiae of post-war life in the Home Counties gives me a not wholly pleasant feeling of being sucked back into my own childhood. Windfall apples from the garden were carefully stored. You put Tate and Lyle syrup on your porridge. ‘Scrambled eggs’ were made out of yellow powder and water. At school, the smell of the Government’s free milk competed with the reek of disinfectant and urine from ‘the bogs’.
Perhaps Bailey’s exceptional power of recall has to do with the contrast which even then he could draw with a very different way of life. In September 1940, at the age of seven, he had been evacuated to the USA and had spent four years with a prosperous family in Dayton, Ohio. When he got back to his parents’ modest middle-class home, ‘everything was smaller. It wasn’t the suddenly reduced “standard of living” so much as it was that everything was closer, denser, more tangible. Like Gulliver in Lilliput, I found it hard not to bump into things.’ Yet he was glad to be home. His father, a bank employee, quite soon returned too, from an unheroic commission in the Pioneer Corps:
My mother no longer concentrated her anxieties on Bridget and myself. After several years of being cooped up alone with first one child and then two, trying to ‘make do’, ‘make ends meet’, ‘put up with it’, and generally ‘cope’, as most people were struggling to do, she must have been very happy to have him home. Apart from the pleasures of the married state resumed, there was the simple delight of having an adult companion again: someone to share some of the responsibilities (which school should Bridget go to next year?) and make some of the decisions (should Tony see a doctor again about his feet?); someone to carry in the coal, peel the potatoes, and make her a cup of tea in the mornings. My father’s renewed presence was brought home to us by sound as well as sight; wherever he was in the house, snatches of singing, humming or whistling came from him.
Mother was, in effect, demobbed as well. The war had paved the way for the Welfare State by making it necessary for officialdom to step in to support the family with expanded social services, as husbands and wives, mothers and children, were separated. After the war, the passionate recoil into domesticity of Britain’s younger adults made for a profound reinforcement of ‘family’ values. In uniform or in ‘vital’ work, people had yearned for family life as it had been before the war – only better. They wanted full employment, they wanted improved educational opportunities, they wanted cradle-to-grave social security and good modern housing. Labour, elected to bring these to pass, did its best to comply. But the ideal of the state as the daddy of one vast caring family ran into self-contradiction – ‘the family’ was private – and into opposition from housewives. Women workers were badly needed to sustain a post-war export boom, but a publicity campaign in mid-1947 failed dismally to bring housewives back into factories, and the Government shrank from providing the day nurseries which might have lured young mothers since it, too, believed ‘a housewife’s first duty was to the home.’
Even before Labour’s 1945 victory was known, the Housewives’ League had been formed. The impetus came from revulsion against queuing, and was then reinforced by the Minister of Food’s withdrawal of dried eggs from the shops (they were now reserved for schools and institutions). It was swiftly exploited by the Conservative opposition, and came to stand for the reduction of state control over the family. Yet as Paul Addison notes, it had ‘a strand of authentic feminism ... Paradoxically, the League propelled women out of the home and into public life. In order to defend their traditional role in the home, they had to leave the kitchen and attend a meeting or demonstration instead.’
Despite the delights of radio listening, the home was still not the main sphere of entertainment. People went out to seek fun, and they found it. Addison points to a gross element of distortion in the received impression that 1945-51 was an era of snowdrifts and fuel shortages, whalemeat, ‘hardship and high endeavour’. The summers, he reminds us, ‘were long and hot. And whatever the season, peace brought with it a sustained outbreak of pleasure.’ There were jobs for all, but few could yet afford even a little Standard or Morris Ten, and most had never dreamt of Mediterranean tours. Seaside holidays boomed. ‘The late Forties marked the peak of the Victorian resorts.’ Billy Butlin, who had invented the holiday camp and had opened two in the late Thirties, had provided three further camps for service personnel during the war, and had bought them back from the Government afterwards. In 1947 about half a million people flocked to his five demotic Xanadus. Skilled workers mingled with professional people. ‘The habit of mixing with all types, characteristic of the Army and the Home Front, had not yet worn off.’ But Gentlemen were still marked off from Players as first-class cricket enjoyed golden years of huge gates and crowd-pleasing stroke play. There was nothing austere in the manner in which London’s favourite pro, Denis Compton, amassed runs in 1947, and by the end of the decade rare ‘class’ was being shown by such public-school amateurs as Peter May and David Sheppard.
In 1949, such was the craze for sport, 90,000 people turned up to watch the FA Amateur Cup Final. As Anthony Bailey, who watched Portsmouth when they won the League Championship two years running, fondly remembers, ‘football shorts were long and baggy, and goalies usually wore cloth caps.’ Such great pros as Tom Finney and Jimmy Dickinson remained in aura (and even in income) supremely talented artisans. Greyhound racing and speedway enjoyed their brief heydays, and as Paul Addison observes, these were also sports ‘with a strongly working-class character. Their vitality, like that of the labour movement, signalled the ascent of traditional working-class culture to a summit of influence in the mid-20th century.’
Yet Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook don’t mention sport at all in A World Still to Win, their eloquent but also irritating and unconvincing tract on the ‘reconstruction of the post-war working class’. For them, it seems, the working class must be downtrodden, duped, or both at once. Astonishingly, they claim that Thatcher has hijacked working-class values, absorbing ‘the heroic journey of labour, and all the potent images which sustained an outcast working class in its wretchedness’. In support of this they adduce, among other debatable evidence, her rhetorical echoes of Chapel culture, through which, they aver, ‘the development of capitalism is assimilated to the burning necessities of an absolute religious creed.’ Well, it’s clever to spot that her cry, ‘We saved our living standards; our jobs we could not save,’ is a crib from Matthew 27:42, but I don’t believe that this gives it ‘irrefragable authority’. It would be more use to point out that the current snooker boom attracts workers to watch on TV prize-money bonanzas sponsored by various capitalist firms, and that Steve Davis, the biggest winner, is a lad from East London who votes Tory. It may be that one Davis does more than fifty Tebbits to invest capitalism with glamour and a sense of opportunity. On the other hand, Bob Geldof has perhaps done more in a year to make ‘compassion’ fashionable than any Labour leader has managed in twenty. The complex and shifting interactions of pleasure and ideology, performers and spectators, regional accents and metropolitan values, within the popular media are not to be simplified into a model whereby capitalism easily penetrates and remoulds the thinking of a helpless, undifferentiated proletariat.
Blackwell and Seabrook are typically fatalistic about the Beatles. The ‘illusion’ of the Sixties was ‘that the working class was present at its own re-making, just as the first working class had been present a century-and-a-half earlier at its own bloody, if less showy, birth ... The whole working class had become performers, with all the glamour and self-confidence that only showbiz can confer.’ This contrick gained ‘their acquiescence’ in the ‘social horrors’ produced by the system which created ‘the wealth by whose bounty the images were made possible’. But the skiffle craze, through which the Beatles got together, was an early example of how home-made popular music could express oppositional attitudes, even ideas. Aldermaston marchers, among others, enjoyed the first Beatle records. A World Still to Win begins with the entirely plausible case that ‘far from having “disappeared”, or become middle class, the working class has undergone a profound reconstruction in accordance with the modified imperatives of the new global division of labour’, but leaves one with the unpleasant feeling of having failed to digest fifty Guardian ‘Agenda’ items in succession. Blackwell and Seabrook insist that other commentators have got the working class wrong conceptually without really making it clear how they themselves define it. However, we learn from them that this imperscrutable entity – and ‘not the genius of Beveridge’ – gave us the Welfare State, which was ‘the English (sic) working class’s great existential protest against the way they were told life had to be’. Wider reading in the history of countries other than ‘England’ might have sharpened analysis here. Are we to assume that the emergence of Welfarism in Scandinavia and New Zealand in the Thirties was similarly the product of ‘existential protest’? These examples suggest that even the shock of world war is insufficient to explain such a widespread phenomenon.
Christopher Thorne’s The Issue of War is a brave and immensely erudite attempt to consider the effects of the Allied-Japanese war of 1941-1945 on all the societies involved, including New Zealand’s. One point that emerges unquestionably is that the failure of socialists to achieve their goals despite apparent advances in wartime was not a purely British phenomenon. As Common Wealth and other British radicals assumed, there was indeed a world-wide leftward trend. But the dreams of socialist activists in the European resistance, where they were not realised as Stalinist nightmares, were stifled in the post-war aftermath. So were those of generous American liberals who had backed Roosevelt and his New Deal – which the President himself had begun to kill off well before the war ended. The prosperity which war brought to the USA revived the prestige of big business. The country’s ‘marked shift to the right’ made it, as Thorne notes, a case apart. Yet its effects were felt all over the world, and help to explain features of post-war Britain which Blackwell and Seabrook rightly find deplorable. The earth’s biggest industrial nation emerged from the war with its power enhanced both absolutely and relative to Britain, which lost control of its own destiny. No post-war Labour government could have given institutional form to any protest, ‘existential’ or otherwise, of any ‘English’ working class, beyond what was permitted by US capitalism.
Britain’s position in the East had in any case been increasingly shaky before the war. Exports to India, for instance, had fallen from 1175 million rupees in 1914 to 480 million in 1937. Japan by 1933 had been producing nearly half India’s imported piece goods and the following year had ‘displaced Britain as Australia’s largest supplier of textiles’. The almost instantaneous collapse of British arms from Hong Kong to Singapore in 1941-2 showed even sympathetic Asian subjects the hollowness of Empire’s pretensions. The Australian Minister to China observed in May 1942 that ‘the British Empire in the Far East depended on prestige. This prestige has been completely shattered.’ When the Japanese invaded Burma, the British scrambled out of the country as fast as they could, giving priority to the safety of Europeans and leaving the impression that they cared nothing for the welfare of Burmese assistants and subjects. Meanwhile even left-wing American publicists, such as Henry Wallace and Owen Lattimore, proclaimed China and India the ‘new economic frontier’ which the post-war American economy would need. The USA’s apparently idealistic and democratic condemnation of British, French and Dutch imperialism, and American pressure for Indian independence, were not unrelated to a shrewd eye for business opportunity. When the USA bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 it was serving notice to colonisers as well as to colonised that hence-forward it was supreme in the East.
The Japanese, of course, had themselves aspired to just such supremacy. The Great East Asia Conference convened in Tokyo in November 1943 was, according to their propaganda, designed to ‘bring out in clearer light Japan’s lofty aims in the moral war she is waging against the Anglo-Americans’, and to forge a new East Asia alliance, based on what Prime Minister Tojo called a ‘superior order of culture’, which would save mankind ‘from the curse of materialistic civilisation’. Materialism had a swift revenge:
When student workers around her began chattering about an airplane, Toyoko Morita looked up; the next thing she knew she was waking up on the ground and it was utterly quiet, as though she had fallen asleep in a forest. She had no idea how much time had elapsed, and at first the only indication that something eventful had happened was that a cloudless summer day had turned into an overcast day. But when she moved to stand up, with a start she discovered her clothes were torn and she was naked from the waist up. And when modesty caused her to look quickly about, she saw that all the houses around were levelled as though the demolition crews had completed their work while she slept, and not a single member of the student work-force remained – she was alone.
That was 6 August 1945.
Toyoko was one of the ‘Hiroshima Maidens’ whose story has prompted two good books. My quotation comes from Rodney Barker’s. In 1955 a group of young Japanese women, most of whom had been schoolgirls when the bomb dropped, all of them badly disfigured by the explosion, were taken to New York for reconstructive plastic surgery. Barker was a young member of one of the Quaker families which gave home care to the Maidens while they endured operations and the attention of the US media. His book profits from this privileged viewpoint, his researches have been longer than Anne Chisholm’s, and he has talked to more of the surviving Maidens. Nevertheless, Chisholm’s Faces of Hiroshima impresses with its more restrained style and a fresher sense of shock. Both concentrate on the individual cases of these women exposed first to blast and radiation, then to neglect and social isolation in busily redeveloping post-war Japan, and finally to the culture-shock of middle-class America. But neither ignores the political dimensions of their extraordinary story. Norman Cousins, the journalist who organised the Maidens’ expedition, was known as an anti-nuclear campaigner, and the US authorities didn’t initially like his project. Yet it became clear that the gesture might symbolise US friendship for Japan, and US superiority in medical science – and forestall any Soviet gesture towards Japanese H-bomb survivors. In the event, the New York cosmetics manufacturer who gave the Maidens a lifelong supply of special make-up may have done more, for some at least, than the skilled and devoted surgeons who worked on them. But on balance the ‘Maidens Project’ must be adjudged a human success. Twelve of the 25 later married and between them bore 19 healthy children. Ironically, the Maidens exemplified in extreme form the rapid post-war adjustment of their culture to Western values and ‘materialism’.
As ‘victors’, the British have adjusted more slowly. Only under the present government has the conflict within post-war Conservatism between ‘free-market’ values, which favour capitulation to US dominance, and nationalistic and paternalistic reflexes come fully into the open. One factor helping to obscure Britain’s real position has been the aura of pathos and self-satisfaction surrounding the nation’s seemingly noble relinquishment of the world’s largest territorial empire. Even now, Brian Lapping, producer of Granada TV’s End of Empire series, whose related book presents, somewhat laboriously, a great deal of intelligent research, cannot forbear to cheer on some occasions, and on others to pipe his eye.
Positive points in Britain’s favour should of course be recorded. While in France and Holland, as Christopher Thorne points out, even Communists in the Resistance had demanded full recovery of imperial territories lost to the Japanese, in Britain the recognition that independence was coming was shared even by some Conservatives. The hasty British handover of power in India can be seen as an overdue concession to the inevitable, and cost many lives through the arguably non-inevitable Partition, but when the Raj ended its servants were not targets of local hatred. In Malaysia, the British successfully contained and then defeated Chinese Communist insurgency by winning over ‘hearts and minds’, and conceded independence at a speed which almost bewildered local politicians. Nowhere did British arms suffer the fate of the French in Indo-China or the Portuguese in Africa – humiliating defeat after a long all-out campaign.
That said, End of Empire tells on the whole a shabby story. Britain’s Great Power status had depended on India, and attempts to maintain it after 1947 involved the ignis fatuus of a powerful British presence East of Suez. As late as 1965, Harold Wilson declared that Britain’s frontier was on the Himalayas. Cruel mayhem in Palestine, the debacle at Suez, inglorious doings in Cyprus and Aden, were all largely the result of this mirage. Brutality and illegality marred the superficially successful suppression of Mau Mau in Kenya; and their diplomatically discomforting exposure helped to persuade Harold Macmillan that the ‘wind of change’ was irresistible. Hypocrisy, indecision and ineptitude characterised British handling of ‘Rhodesia’ before and after UDI.
There were, of course, civil servants and politicians who were inspired by genuine passion for self-determination, freedom and justice. And human relations with ‘natives’ were not determined by the racist geopolitics and economic exigencies which have made British governments, Labour as well as Tory, quaver at the thought of Apartheid’s overthrow. Young Anthony Bailey did his National Service in the Gold Coast as it was moving, not without violence, towards independence. He left just as he started to show symptoms of that helpless love of Africa and African ways which after a time seemed liable to unman any sensitive Brit:
The week before, a British sergeant had been discovered ... dressed in an African cloth, going into the soldiers’ lines to drink palm wine and join them in the gods knew what else. A short-service lieutenant had recently had what was called a nervous breakdown and had been shipped to England. As he was loaded into the plane, he was reported to have shouted ‘Africa! Africa!’ as he might have cried the name of a lost loved one ... Soon, obsessed with the toes and ankles of the farmer’s daughter, I might be found prowling among the cocoa plantations.
The British behaved on balance no worse than others towards non-European subjects, but came to believe that they had always behaved relatively better and, indeed, absolutely well. After India was abandoned, moderate Left as well as moderate Right were less inhibited about steeping themselves in such ‘overwhelming complacency’ as Paul Addison detects in Humphrey Jennings’s last film, Family Portrait, made for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Since Jennings was a far from complacent man, and perhaps a not wholly lapsed Marxist, there must have been a powerful tide of self-satisfaction within his socialist-intellectual milieu to produce a disaster of which Addison can write not unfairly: ‘The cosy presentation of British society as a family divided, not by class, but by a rift between the imaginative and the practical sides of the national character is sentimental guff.’ It certainly takes something to wrest that last phrase out of a writer as charitable and elegant as Addison.
In the Festival as a whole Addison sees reflected a ‘sublime sense of insular content’. Yet it was a brainchild of Attlee’s Government, and this reduces our wonder that when the Falklands were invaded in 1982, Labour’s Front Bench reactions were confused by antique patriotic reflexes. Which is not to imply that Labour governments had in the meantime been solicitous or even scrupulous about the tiny remaining scraps of Empire whose people, except for those in Hong Kong, were now especially dependent on Britain. Simon Winchester recently made it his ambition to visit all 16 populated areas still formally under Crown control. He couldn’t get to Pitcairn in the end, but did manage to reach Tristan da Cunha, and he has many good anecdotes to tell. His occupation as roving journalist gave him his opportunity: but his degree in geology was useful, since so much of what is left consists of remarkable rocks.
Winchester’s view of Empire Past is conventionally nostalgic: ‘Our success in making an Empire, in running it, in handing it back and in winning the respect and, yes, the love even of those whom we had ruled ... came in no small part because we cared.’ From which we may infer that he’s a good-hearted paternalist, and this fires him to spasms of outrage over Empire Present. He is shocked that the few thousand St Helenans, so devoted to Charles and Diana, are, because coloured, denied settlement rights here under immigration laws which freely admit white Falklanders. He is distressed that Gibraltar’s dockyards have been privatised and allowed to run down without alternative employment being provided, and indignant that the salt industry of the Turks Islands, which collapsed in 1964, has never been replaced. The worst story which he has to recount is that of Diego Garcia, part of British Indian Ocean Territory. A Labour government began in 1965 to clear from this paradisal island a contented body of inhabitants whose stock had been settled there for generations. Britain leased the group to the USA as a base in return for a 14 million dollar discount on the price of some Polaris submarines, and natives would be a nuisance to the US. It was alleged that the Diego Garcians went ‘willingly’, but they were dumped, it seems, in Mauritius and the Seychelles with as little concern for their own views as was shown to the Highlanders ‘cleared’ by 19th-century lairds to make way for sheep.
The processes of imperialism affected our islands as those of neo-colonialism do the entire world today. Winchester does a good job in drawing attention to the varied plights of scattered small communities ruled from Whitehall, but his own account makes it seem that St Helena is a better place to live than many British housing estates, even if the slums of Port Louis, Mauritius (which island when I went there seemed mostly slum) are detestably worse than Diego Garcia. For our islands, the Forties and Fifties now seem like a blink in history when things for a while palpably got better for the poor and national self-satisfaction at least had some real grounding. The other day, on a train from Aberdeen, I heard a well-travelled young Scots engineer nattering about the world rather condescendingly to an Englishman who’d just come off duty on a North Sea oil rig. ‘They reckon the French have a higher standard of living than us now. I don’t believe it. In lots of France it must still be like living in a shitehouse, bad as the West of Ireland.’ The post-war conviction that the British way of life is secure and comfortable compared to that endured by Continentals seems to die very hard. Blackwell and Seabrook, brooding over all the obvious evidence to the contrary, might take heart from the success of Letter to Brezhnev, a romantic comedy film which flatly contradicts Ealing tradition, and dramatises in somewhat unanswerable fashion the obvious truth that, minus civil liberty, many Britons might actually be better-off behind that Iron Curtain which descended with a hideous clang on Utopian socialist and kindly liberal hopes alike, and has helped to pervert the legacy of Beveridge and Boyd Orr, Attlee and Bevan and Bevin.