Not Pleasing the Tidy-Minded

Ross McKibbin

  • Austerity Britain, 1945-51 by David Kynaston
    Bloomsbury, 692 pp, £25.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 7985 4

As a child in an Australian kindergarten in the 1940s one of my first memories is of wrapping up dried fruit to send to the children of Britain. Since I strongly disliked dried fruit and thought no one would eat it unless they had to, I felt deeply the level of deprivation to which British children had been reduced. These memories were refreshed by reading Austerity Britain, David Kynaston’s huge history of the country between 1945 and 1951. It is difficult for anyone familiar only with the shimmering prosperity of contemporary Western Europe to realise just what it was like in the years immediately after the Second World War. In Britain, conditions were, if anything, even more stringent than they had been during the war itself. Rationing of most things was severe and after each balance of payments crisis became even more severe. Indeed, the Attlee government was obliged to ration bread, something which hadn’t happened during the war. Americans in Britain could be recognised by the quality of their clothing, and the contrast between American opulence and British immiseration was responsible for considerable anguish. (Princess Elizabeth, in common with other brides, was given 200 extra clothing coupons to use for her wedding dress.) Apart from dried fruit, my other main memory of this period is of the ‘dollar gap’ – a phrase then on everyone’s lips. Today the world is awash with dollars, but in the 1940s they seemed as rare as hen’s teeth and the stringency of British life was due in part to this. To bridge that ‘gap’ the government did everything it could to maximise dollar earnings and minimise dollar spending. This even led to a major dispute with Hollywood. American movies were among Britain’s most expensive imports and in 1947 the government attempted to impose a 75 per cent duty on the receipts of American films. It was a dispute Britain predictably lost. Domestic consumption was consistently held down in order to divert resources to exports. Nature, however, conspired with scarcity and so when, in 1947, Europe had its coldest winter in living memory, a combination of utter dependence on coal for electricity and heating and too few coal-miners produced a season few forgot.

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