Above: British propaganda poster, ‘On to Japan!’, 1945 (The Bridgeman Art Library).
Fighting Back in Malaya & Singapore:
The State Opening of Parliament, which took place on 15th August 1945, saw a return to the pomp of pre-war years, with thousands of people lining the streets of London as the King and Queen travelled to parliament in the royal coach. There was an extra cause for ‘celebration’: earlier that day, following the USA’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Emperor Hirohito of Japan announced his country’s surrender (pictured below). The second world war was finally over. But in the Far East, the Japanese advance had swept aside the British armies in Malaya and Burma in 1941-42. On 9 February 1942, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Under Secretary of State to the Foreign Office had written in his diary about the situation in Singapore:
‘Very gloomy. Japs have penetrated five miles into Singapore island. Our generals are no use, and do our men fight? As PM says, what will happen if the Germans get a footing here? I shudder to think. Our army is the mockery of the whole world.’
British troops were outflanked and forced into a series of retreats. They attempted to make a stand in central Malaya, around Kampar, but the area was overrun on 2nd January, just before reinforcements arrived from Singapore. When these troops finally arrived, they added to the scale of the disaster: the attempts to hold onto Singapore proved hopeless since there were no landward defences worthy of the name. British forces in Malaya finally surrendered to a much smaller Japanese force that had suffered trivial casualties, after a campaign of just fifty-five days.
Above: Drawing by illustrator and Molesworth creator Ronald Searle, imprisoned by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942.
The Road to Mandalay:
It was in Burma, from which they had been ejected after a gruelling fighting retreat from January to May 1942, that British and empire forces could hope to regain the initiative. First, however, they had to regain their badly shaken confidence, receive realistic training and be supplied with adequate resources. This was slowly achieved, largely under the direction of Lieutenant-General William Slim who was appointed to command the British troops in Burma on 19th March. He wrote:
A limited offensive in Arakan in December 1942 was unsuccessful, but operations by ‘Chindit’ forces behind Japanese lines from February to April 1943 showed at least that Allied forces could master jungle fighting as effectively as their enemies. When Japanese forces, at last, launched a major offensive against Kohima and Imphal from April to June 1944, intending to create a defensive position in the Naga Hills on the Assam border, British and Indian forces were able to reply with a crippling counter-attack. After hard fighting, the offensive brought the recapture of Mandalay in March 1945 and Rangoon in May and the ambushing of three Japanese armies as they tried to escape into Siam.
The recapture of Burma saw savage fighting, but with adequate resources, the British proved a match for the Japanese in jungle warfare.
Victory over Japan, August 1945:
The British high command had intended to recapture Malaya by sea, but the Japanese surrender in August 1945 robbed them of their chance to avenge the events of 1941-42. While Churchill was eager to contribute towards the final assault on Japan, the Americans, confident in their ability to defeat Japan alone, had no intention of allowing Britain a say in the future of what was seen as the USA’s preserve; British naval forces were given only a minor role in the war’s final campaigns.
Britain’s Coming of Age:
In 1940, an American journalist at the New York Herald Tribune commented that in his attempt to bomb Britain into surrendering, ‘Hitler is doing what centuries of… history have not accomplished – he is breaking down the class structure…’ In his English History, 1914-45, the historian A. J. P. Taylor saw the Second World War as the period when the British people came of age. … a brief period when the British people felt they belonged to a truly democratic community. Another historian, Arthur Marwick, agreed that this was true in the sense that at the end of the war…
… the majority had a clearer idea than ever before of what it was they expected of a modern, civilised, industrial society: decent living standards, income and health security, a taste of the modern luxuries of life: once the idea was defined it became itself an agent of further change. In addition to this the war hastened the scientific, technological and economic processes which… were transforming… society. The ‘wireless’ had become a national property during the war… ; mass television was on the way. A National Health Service with new drugs at its disposal would be twice as effective in stamping out the diseases that had been a special affliction of the lower classes…A. Marwick (1968), Britain in the Century of Total War. Oxford: Bodley Head (Penguin, 1970), pp 322-3.
Long before victory was in sight all sections of society began thinking about the post-war world, dreaming of a new order quite different from the old. In fact, these dreams had begun back in the late thirties, partly due to the massive internal migrations which had taken place in Britain over the previous decade since the General Strike and the fall of ‘old King Coal’ as the major employer in favour of the lighter engineering industries. Rearmament accelerated the influx of workers into the manufacturing centres of the Midlands and especially to cities like Coventry. When the local ‘shopocracy’ lost control of the city council in 1937, Coventry became the first major midland manufacturing town to fall to Labour.
The defeated Conservative-Liberal alliance claimed that they had been beaten by ‘the sweepings of the nation’, the immigrants from the depressed areas who had voted for Labour. This was only partly true, as many of the newcomers struggled to find places to live and were not yet on the electoral register. Coventry had one of the highest rates of owner-occupation for a town of its size and these Coventrian owners increasingly voted Labour in the 1930s. Later in 1937, the city elected two Labour MPs for the first time. Certainly, it must have helped the Labour cause that the first point in the local party’s manifesto in 1937 was a promise to accelerate the building of council housing. Education and health provision also presented huge challenges. In the late 1930s, it was the Labour Party that had the forward-looking ideas which were eventually grouped together as ‘municipal socialism’ and these were already spreading in cities like Birmingham and Oxford before the onset of the war.
But it was out of total war and all its horrors, enormous hope was born, and the idea of a New Jerusalem was conceived. From 1945 to 1951, the Labour Governments attempted to implement a number of radical reforms, often (but not always) opposed by the Conservatives. The new optimism can be traced back to the publication of the Beveridge Report in November 1942, which coincided with the ‘turning of the tide’ in the war at El Alamein. The first symbolised the idealism of social reconstruction, while the latter was seen as the beginning of the road to total victory. There was unanimous agreement about two things. First, there should be no repeat of the fiasco which followed the previous war – a nightmare of slump, unemployment and distress. Secondly, a set of very basic requirements was laid down: work for all, social security, a right to a decent standard of living, and genuine international cooperation. Famously, Beveridge wrote in his report:
‘Poverty is only one of the five giants on the road to reconstruction. The others are Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’
It was not just Labour, but Liberal and even Tory supporters who were behind this desire for change and reform. It is significant that the pillar of the Establishment, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was the originator of the term ‘Welfare State.’ High-minded Christian Socialism, as articulated by Temple, had become the order of the day for many at home, and as the carnage continued overseas, an almost Utopian determination to build a more Christian country took root. Temple called for ‘extreme inequalities of wealth to be abolished.’ Going rather further, his Council for Clergy and Ministers for Common Ownership declared private ownership of industry ‘contrary to Divine Justice.’
A strong sense among ordinary voters that it was time for a fresh beginning had been reflected in a series of by-election defeats of Tory candidates when vacancies were caused by the deaths of sitting members. Twenty-two MPs were killed in action, all but one of them Conservatives. At Maldon in Essex, the left-wing journalist Tom Driberg had won, standing as an independent. As the war went on, there had been a strong movement towards the Labour Party which could be detected in both by-elections and opinion polls. In April 1945 in Tory Chelmsford, Wing Commander Ernest Millington, a pre-war pacifist and socialist who had ten joined the RAF and took part in the bombing of Germany, defeated the Conservative candidate. Standing for the socialist Common Wealth movement and supported by local vicars, Millington had fought a campaign whose tone can be summed up by a banner he put up in the middle of the market town which read, ‘This is a fight between Christ and Churchill.’ Yet The Times found ‘nothing remarkable’ in the Conservatives losing Chelmsford or Motherwell in the same month.
The General Election Campaign of 1945:
The Labour Conference that kick-started the election campaign was held in Blackpool that summer. Among the youthful delegates were future leaders like Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins, both in army uniform (see the photo below). Jenkins had helped crack the German codes at Bletchley Park. Healey was preaching socialist revolution at that time. Across Europe, he railed, the upper classes were ‘selfish, depraved, dissolute and decadent.’ Most Labour leaders, especially those who like Attlee remembered the inter-war years of Conservative dominance, continued to assume that at the general election, the first in a decade, Churchill would be returned.
Clement Attlee, Labour leader 1935-55 & Prime Minister, 1945-51.
Both the Labour and Conservative parties put forward manifestos promising major reforms along the outlines set out by Beveridge. The ‘Education Act’ had already been piloted through Parliament by R. A. ‘Rab’ Butler, a Tory minister, in 1944. The Tories concluded their manifesto commitment to education by declaring:
… Our object is to provide education which will not produce a standardised or utility child, useful only as a cog in a nationalised and bureaucratic machine, but will enable the child to develop his or her responsible place, first in the world of school, and then as a citizen. …
In recent generations, enormous material progress has been made. That progress must be extended and accelerated not by subordinating the individual to to the authority of the State, but by providing the conditions in which no one shall be procluded by poverty, ignorance, insecurity, or the selfishness of others from making the best of the gifts which Providence has endowed him.
Our programme is not based upon unproved theories or fine phrases, but upon principles that have been tested anew in the fires of war and not found wanting. …F. W. S. Craig (ed.)(1975), British General Election Manifestos 1900-1974. London: MacMillan, pp. 117-19, 122-3.
The Conservative campaign was based largely on Churchill’s war leadership, as the last paragraph above and their poster Let us Go Forward Together, shown below, clearly reveal. This time, however, unlike with Lloyd George, the personality cult of the man who won the war was not sufficient to win over a more mature electorate. Partly because of the political consensus between the main parties, most observers expected the Conservatives to win the General Election of 1945. Nevertheless, most well-informed City experts, in-touch trade unionist bosses, the self-assured press and the diplomatic observers passing back the latest intelligence back to Washington or Moscow, all were sure that Churchill, the great war leader, would be returned to power with a substantial majority.
Above: Let us Go Forward Together. The Conservative Party Election poster in 1945.
On Education and Recreation, the Labour Party Manifesto, Let us Face the Future while recognising that the passing of the Education Act was an important step forward, promised that it would put it into more practical effect by raising the school leaving age from fourteen to sixteen. Added to this, it would also provide free secondary and tertiary education for all. However, importantly, it warned the electorate against trusting the Tories, in bad times, not to cut these social provisions on the plea that the nation could not meet the cost. That was the line, they pointed out, the Tories had adopted on at least three occasions between the wars. Their manifesto concluded with the bold statement:
There is no good reason why Britain should not afford such programmes, but she will need full employment and the highest possible industrial efficiency in order to do so. …
… the effective choice of the people in this Election will be between the Conservative Party, standing for protection of the ‘rights’ of private economic interest, and the Labour Party, allied with the great Trade Union and Co-operative Movements, standing for wise organisation and the use of the economic assets of the nation for the public good. …Craig, op. cit. pp. 128-30, 131.
Labour’s manifesto, well written and designed, would be distributed to nearly two million people, backed by powerful posters, twelve million leaflets and huge numbers of party volunteers. Its most popular passages relied on the blueprint for a fairer, more planned country which had been worked out by the coalition government before the war ended. Labour had the support of only a minority of the national press. Apart from the Daily Mirror and the in-house Daily Herald, the big circulation papers were all pro-Tory and the two left-leaning upmarket newspapers, the Manchester Guardian and the News Chronicle, both backed the lost-cause Liberals.
Different parts of the country found very different audiences for Labour’s meetings. Attlee was rushing about in his little Standard car, rapping out an average of eight speeches of a terse twenty minutes apiece each day. He thought his reception was excellent. In some towns, the election seemed quiet. In others, huge and attentive crowds turned up to listen and argue back. In Birmingham, Roy Jenkins recalled…
‘… seas of faces looking up in the twilight, a mixture of exhaustion, hope, some kind of doubt. …’
Churchill, meanwhile, was fighting one of his ‘flawed’ campaigns, this time a political rather than a military one. His theme was that there was a sinister socialist conspiracy behind the Labour campaign. In an ill-judged radio broadcast kicking off his campaign, he let his florid wartime language loose and struck entirely the wrong note. He said that no socialist system could be established without a political police, a British Gestapo. Mixed with this, he offered a vision of bucolic good cheer which seemed to belong to a bygone era:
“Let us make sure that the cottage home to which the warrior will return is blessed with modest but solid prosperity, well-fenced and guarded against misfortune …”
Attlee countered with gentle irony. The Gestapo association was grossly offensive, but the Labour leader disarmingly replied that it was no doubt Churchill’s way of demonstrating the gulf between his qualities as a great war leader and those of a mere party leader and that the attack had probably been devised by the press baron Lord Beaverbrook. In fact, it was all Churchill’s own work. His wife Clemmie had warned him against it and his party’s chief whip had commented that ‘it is not my idea of how to win an election.’ The second line of Tory attack was that Attlee was the mere frontman for extremists.
The Labour chairman, Harold Laski, was portrayed by Conservative candidates as hell-bent on revolution. Laski did use some extreme language and was on the left of the party, but his father had once campaigned for Churchill and had recently suggested that a public fund should be raised to show Churchill the nation’s gratitude for his war leadership. The PM had said that better than a monument, a public park for the children of London on the south bank of the Thames ‘where they suffered so grimly from the Hun.’ This was never taken up, however, though the Labour government left office after ensuring that the Festival of Britain took place on the South Bank when Battersea Park was transformed into the Festival Gardens. The National Film Theatre was also opened there in 1952, joining the newly-built Royal Festival Hall.
Before the election results were declared, Churchill and Attlee (then Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government) had been together at Potsdam in Germany negotiating the future of post-war Europe with Marshal Josef Stalin and President Harry Truman. At the Potsdam Conference, Stalin told Churchill that his intelligence sources indicated a Tory majority of eighty. Returning to London for the results, Churchill had not even bothered to say goodbye to either the Soviet dictator or the US President, or even to pack properly. By then, Attlee was somewhat more optimistic than he had been at the beginning, or at any stage of the campaign. He thought that the result would be close. He was wrong. There was a long delay for the votes to be brought back from around the world where the troops were still serving if not actively engaged in battle.
The Democratic Bombshell and the Labour Landslide:
When the final tally was made on the 25th of July, it was as if a ‘democratic bombshell’ had been dropped. Labour won with an absolute majority of 154. In every area of the country, Labour swept to victory and the size of the national swing towards it was twelve per cent. In 1935 Labour had won only 213 seats compared with 585 won by the mainly Conservative National Government. Now Labour had won more votes than the Tories for the first time ever and it was the Tories had just 213 seats as compared with the 393 won by Labour.
Above: Clement Attlee accepting victory at Transport House. Arthur Deakin, acting General-Secretary of the TGWU is in front of him, facing the camera.
When Churchill was abruptly replaced on 26th July by his successor Clement Attlee, after the results of the British election were announced, and Attlee returned to Potsdam without Churchill, Molotov was incredulous. He suspiciously questioned the Labour leader about why he had not known the result in advance. Such democratic sloppiness would not have been tolerated in elections further east. Stalin soon found that he had a new British PM with whom, from now on, and for almost all his remaining years, he would have to deal. The results of the General Election totally confounded Stalin and almost all observers at home and abroad.
In his (1948) autobiography, The Gathering Storm, Churchill, referring back to the beginning of his premiership in 1940, described the sudden downturn in his electoral fortunes in dramatic terms:
Thus … I acquired the chief power of the State, which … I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.
He also recorded that, on the morning of the 26th of July, he had woken up, with a ‘sharp stab of almost physical pain,’ to a feeling of certainty that he and the Conservatives had lost the general election. Churchill was at the very pinnacle of personal triumph, outshining both the King and the Royal Family when he appeared on the balcony of the Palace on VE Day. Never in British history has military success been so personally associated with a civilian leader, not even with David Lloyd George. Churchill would have liked the wartime coalition to go on longer, at least until Japan had been defeated. It had been Labour that insisted on an election. No one knew what was coming; the scattered nature of the electorate meant that accurate polling was impossible. The new electoral role was inaccurate, too, having been based on ration book records.
Yet, there were intimations of what was about to happen. In the forces, compulsory discussions about Britain after the war had been led by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA), organised by W. E. Williams, a left-leaning educationalist. Conservative-minded officers complained about the tone of the pamphlets sent around the army and that Williams had ‘smothered the troops in seditious literature.’ One general burned ten thousand of the ‘wretched pamphlets’ in front of his men and warned that they were ‘rank treason’. Many Conservatives believed that socialist propaganda foisted on the troops was to blame for their defeat in 1945. In fact, though, the numbers do not add up; the minimum voting age was twenty-one, which cut out many of the more malleable troops and in any case, there were fewer than two million service votes cast in a total electorate of thirty-three million.
Despite the warning signs, the ‘brutal’ rejection of Churchill for Attlee caused amazement around the world. Brooding at home, Churchill found it a terrible personal shock. But he eventually found comfort in the thought that Labour would be better left to cope with the disappointments to come. Rediscovering the generosity of spirit that had gone absent without leave during his election campaigning, he rebuked one of his aides with the words:
“This is democracy. This is what we have been fighting for.”
Churchill tried to be realistic about the difficulties ahead, in a tone which, over the years ahead, would begin to grate:
‘The problems and pressures of the post-war world threaten our security and and progress as surely as – though less dramatically than – the Germans threatened them in 1940. We need the spirit of Dunkirk and of the Blitz sustained over a period of years.’
What had Labour been fighting for? The party’s new MPs arriving in London to take up their seats by train, bus and car were a mixed bunch. Most were inexperienced in the ways of Parliament, as they would soon show by the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ in the temporary chamber of the House of Commons, the permanent one having been badly damaged by the Luftwaffe. There were Fabian intellectuals, wartime rebels, trade unionists and civil servants such as Harold Wilson, soldiers and teachers, cautious moderates and, so the Communist Party believed, at least nine of their ‘infiltrators.’ Some of the new Labour MPs believed they had been elected to overturn the class system, while others simply that they had a list of domestic reforms to get through. Hugh Dalton recalled the euphoric atmosphere among Labour colleagues:
‘There was a new society to be built; and we had the power to build it. There was exhilaration among us, joy and hope, determination and confidence. We felt exalted, dedicated, walking on air, walking with destiny.’
All of them had stood on the manifesto written by Herbert Morrison. As they introduced themselves to each other for the first time, a sizeable minority already thought that they should try to get rid of the conventional Attlee and elect a proper Labour leader. Herbert Morrison, a popular minister who had organised London’s defence against the Blitz, had warned Attlee that he would stand against him in a leadership contest. The plot gathered force in the corridors of Westminster Central Hall, while Attlee, Morrison, Bevin and the party secretary met at Transport House, the party HQ a few hundred yards away. As Morrison nipped out to make a call to one of his supporters, Bevin gave Attlee the best advice of his life: “Clem, you go to the Palace straight away.” Clem followed the advice, met his wife and family at Paddington, hopped into their little car and drove to the Palace where the King, taken aback by the turn of events, duly made Attlee PM. Morrison and the other Labour plotters had underestimated Attlee, as many others had.
Labour in Power – Building the New Jerusalem:
So, the general election of 1945 produced a landslide victory for the Labour Party. As the brutality of warfare gave way to visions of a fairer society, the electorate turned its back on Churchill, and on foreign adventures and imperial glory. Better housing and a welfare state topped the new agenda. Many believed that Labour would be in power for a generation. Instead, Clement Attlee’s ministers had only six years to build their New Jerusalem. During that time his government set up a welfare system which could benefit everyone. It gave women more rights, especially those widowed.
In this context, the content of the speech written for the King to deliver to Parliament that August was one of the most dramatic in decades. The Labour Government returned in the election of the previous month had a mandate for a programme of sweeping social, economic and political change that would transform the face of Britain. Among the major reforms to which the new administration was committed were the nationalisation of the mines, the railways, the Bank of England and the gas and electricity companies, as well as the reform of the welfare and education systems and the creation of the National Health Service (NHS). The King declared:
‘It will be aim of my ministers to see that national resources in labour and material are employed with the fullest efficiency in the interests of all.’
A natural conservative, the King was concerned at the potential impact of some of his new government’s more radical measures. He was also saddened by the defeat of Churchill, with whom he had formed a close bond during the war. Yet whatever his misgivings, he was a constitutional monarch and had no alternative but to accept his new government. On a personal level, he developed good relations with Clement Attlee, as well as several of the new Labour ministers. He had some of a natural affinity with the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, even though he was on the Labour left. Bevan, too, had long suffered with a stammer and told the King during his first audience of his admiration for the way he had overcome his speech defect.
‘Nye’ Bevan was rebellious, radical and, above all, Welsh. He was also flamboyant and divisive as a minister. Born into a mining family in Tredegar in the Monmouthshire valleys, he was largely self-taught. Like Ernest Bevin, he had been a trade union organiser at the time of the 1926 General Strike. After entering Parliament a few years later, Bevan became one of the few truly great orators of his time, rare in being a worthy opponent of Churchill, who Bevan described as ‘suffering from petrified adolescence.’ Unlike Attlee, Cripps, Bevin or Dalton, he had been outside the wartime coalition government and on many issues had seemed like a one-man opposition to it. Partly because of this, he had a far fiercer attitude to the Tories than his colleagues and a clearer determination that Labour must build a completely new world. His aim was the nationalisation of public control of almost the whole economy.
Nye Bevan spoke for the grassroots of the Labour Party, the people who expected a genuine socialist future for Britain. He did not believe in compromise where capitalism was concerned. In his 1952 In Place of Fear, he wrote that the House of Commons was:
… an elaborate conspiracy to to prevent the real clash of opinion which exists outside from finding an appropriate echo within its walls. It is a social shock absorber placed between privilege and the pressure of popular discontent.
Unlike most of the other leading Labour figures, Bevan was, at least in theory, dangerous to the established order, even if in office he would turn out to be more shrewd and subtle than his rhetorical public performances suggested. People prejudiced against him often came away from a first meeting seduced and bewitched. Like Bevin, he showed how a trade unionist could become a successful national leader, but he also had a vision of what Britain might become which went way beyond better pay and free spectacles. Beautifully dressed, witty, satirical and poetic, Bevan represented everything that the old upper classes feared the most after the 1945 election.
As Minister of Health, Bevan also faced a good deal of opposition from within the health services. Many richer doctors, both general, especially specialists and hospital consultants but also some general practitioners (GPs) did not want to join the NHS because to do so would limit their potential earnings. To solve the problem, Bevan allowed them to treat private patients as well as NHS ones. The National Health Service was founded in 1948, providing free health care for all. People no longer had to pay for treatment by doctors and dentists, prescription medicines or for spectacles. Hospitals were brought under the control of the Ministry of Health.
In the photo above, Bevan is shown visiting a hospital on the first day of the new ‘NHS’.
In 1946 the first family allowances were paid whereby mothers could collect five shillings a week for each child except the eldest. In 1948, a new National Insurance scheme started to cover workers for periods of sickness and unemployment. The very poor could also claim an extra payment called National Assistance. For Labour, there had been no conflict between the inspiring story of an old nation rallied against Hitler, and the rational organisation of a future society; they were one and the same thing. As Orwell had written in 1941, in his famous essay describing ‘England’ as a family with the wrong members in control, …
This war, unless we are defeated, will wipe out most of the existing class privileges. There are every day fewer people who wish them to continue. … The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten, but England will still be England, an everlasting animal.George Orwell (1941), ‘England Your England,’ from Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Victor Gollancz, reprinted by Penguin, 1962.
Of course, the Stock Exchange, the Eton match and the country houses (mostly) survived. But his dream of a third way, building on British parliamentary traditions, plus a national instinct for reserve and fair play to make a new kind of socialist society, unknown in Russia or elsewhere, was widely shared among Labour supporters. A vision of Britain as an unregulated place whose people got on with their lives had also survived but in 1945 it was buried if not yet dead under a plethora of identity cards, ration books, regulations and high taxation. The mood, at least initially, was for big government intervention in people’s lives in order to improve them.
Confronting the realities:
Although the war had ended, life remained tough for ordinary Britons; the economy had been dealt a serious blow from which it would take many years to recover. Britain had larger debts by the end of the war than any other nation in history and was precariously dependent on American aid, and these two factors ultimately crippled the new government.
Above: Bread queue, Streatham, July 1946
Shortages persisted after the war and the British soon wearied of ‘austerity.’ Rationing, far from being ended, actually became stricter: bread, which had been freely on sale during the war, was rationed from 1946 until 1948; this was deeply unpopular and very damaging to the new Labour government. Potato rationing was introduced for the first time in 1947. It was not until 1954 that rationing was finally abolished, with meat and bacon the last items to go. The photograph below shows children enjoying the end of sweet rationing in April 1949. Sweets had been rationed since 1940, along with many goods that remained in short supply long after the war had ended. Coal and other heating fuel were scarce, causing much hardship, especially during the bitterly cold winter of 1946-7 (see below).
The end of sweet rationing, April 1940.
In 1949, clothes, boots and shoes were taken ‘off ration’ following the lifting of restrictions the previous year on bread, potatoes and preserves. Remaining on ration were milk, tea, sugar, meat, bacon, butter, fats and soap, the fresh meat allocation being a microscopic eight pennyworth a week. Austerity was a word reiterated remorselessly by the anti-government press, and bombed sites and derelict buildings remained as dusty and ugly reminders that post-war reconstruction was still at the beginning.
Above: Bombsite in London dug up for planting, 1950.
The immediate postwar years were undoubtedly a drab time for Britain. Nonetheless, Labour’s achievements were substantial. Over a million new houses were built, and surveys suggested that, by 1951, poverty had been all but eliminated. In addition, Labour nationalised a number of industries and services, including coal, railways, road haulage, gas and electricity. The postwar years also saw full employment, although unemployment again (temporarily) touched 2.5 million in 1947. Overall industrial production increased by a third between 1946 and 1951, and special ‘development areas’ were established to avoid a return of the depressed areas of the 1930s. Half the new buildings of the late 1940s were sited in these areas. A dozen new towns were created, designed to draw the population away from overcrowded cities like London and Glasgow and create more planned, balanced urban communities.
Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946:
The photo gives a glance at the boom in production that was already underway by 1950. In 1945, only approximately seventeen thousand cars were manufactured in Britain; by 1950 the figure had reached a record 522,515.
Yet under Attlee’s governance, Britain remained a country of private clubs and cliques, ancient privileges, traditions, rituals and hierarchies. In the City, venerable, commanding merchant bankers with famous names continued to be treated like little gods, and the uniforms of medieval livery companies were still to be seen against the grey background of post-Blitz London. Lessons in speaking ‘the King’s English’ were given to aspiring actors and broadcasters; at the Oxford colleges, full academic dress and formal dinners were compulsory, and tenured professors hobbled around their quads as if little had changed since Edwardian times. All of this was considered somehow the essence of Britain, or at least of England.
The Last Grand Monarchy of Europe – the essence of Britain?
So too was the last grand monarchy of Europe, the only remnant of the extended family of German princes and princesses that had, only half a century before, held court from Siberia to Scotland. George VI had established a reassuringly pedestrian image of the Windsor family. In private, he expressed ultra-conservative views, falling into rages or ‘gnashes’ at the pronouncements of socialist ministers. In public, though, he was a diffident patriarch, much loved for his tongue-tied stoicism during the Blitz. There had been cautious signs of Royal modernisation, with Princess Elizabeth making patriotic radio broadcasts and joining the ATS towards the end of the war, photographed in uniform and mingling anonymously with the crowds on VE Day. The King and Queen, though, ran what was essentially an Edwardian court into the early fifties. Royal presentations of aristocratic debutantes, dating back to 1780, continued throughout King George’s reign until they were eventually ended by Queen Elizabeth in 1958.
Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy itself would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public. Indeed, there is almost no sign of it in their private diaries either, but there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian or Dutch lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amount of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers through the civil list to the Royal Family. Yet the Windsors cheered up the drab lives of many of their subjects with an exuberant display of pageantry for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947. Philip was the son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and the British-born Prince Alice of Battenburg. He and Elizabeth had met for the first time in 1939 when Philip was eighteen and the future Queen was just thirteen. The King had travelled on the Royal Yacht to visit the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.
The photo above appears to have been taken in the late thirties, around the time of the visit to Dartmouth.
Lord Mountbatten, the King’s ambitious aide-de-camp, made sure that of all the young men present, it was his nephew Philip, a tall, strikingly good-looking man who had just graduated as the top cadet in his course, who was given the task of escorting Elizabeth and her nine-year-old sister Margaret. Philip was their third cousin through Queen Victoria and second cousin through Christian IX of Denmark. Princess Elizabeth was smitten. ‘Lilibet never took her eyes off him’ observed Marion Crawford, her governess, in her memoirs. Philip and Elizabeth soon began to exchange letters. What appeared to have started as a crush on Princess Elizabeth’s part soon turned into a full-blown romance, encouraged at every stage by Mountbatten, who was keen to see his family linked with the House of Windsor. Besides writing to each other, they even managed to see each other when Philip was on leave, but so long as the war continued, there was little chance of their relationship going any further. That changed when peace came.
King George had mixed feelings about the romance, especially considering his daughter’s age. He was concerned that she had fallen for the first young man she had ever met. Philip was also seen by many at ‘court’ as far from ideal as a future consort to a future monarch, not least because of his mother’s German family; the Queen was said to refer to him privately as ‘the Hun’. Hoping their daughter might find a more suitable match, the King and Queen organised a series of balls packed with eligible men, to which Philip, to his great annoyance, was not invited. Yet Elizabeth remained devoted to her prince charming. Eventually, in 1946, Philip asked the King for his daughter’s hand in marriage. George agreed but insisted that any formal announcement be postponed until after Elizabeth’s twenty-first birthday the following April. By the month before this, at Mountbatten’s suggestion, Philip had renounced his Greek and Danish titles, as well as his allegiance to the Greek crown, and had become a member of the Church of England. He also became a naturalised British citizen, adopting the name Mountbatten, an Anglicised version of Battenburg, from his mother’s family.
Amid the gloom of the immediate postwar years, the Royal wedding was the one glimmer of light. This was the first time that a Royal wedding had been planned as a public event. It was to be an explosion of colour not seen since George VI’s Coronation ten years previously. There had also been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism, complaints about the silk having come from Chinese worms, and a rather over-effusive insistence on Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was ‘sold’ to the public as ‘thoroughly English by upbringing’ despite being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters, all married to German aristocrats with Nazi connections, were not invited to the wedding.
Philip showed himself wryly prepared to accept all this, though he was reported to have annoyed the King by curtseying to him when he saw him customarily wearing a kilt at Balmoral. The couple married on 20th November 1947 at Westminster Abbey in a ceremony attended by representatives of various surviving royal families. On the morning of the wedding, Philip was made Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich; he had already had the title His Royal Highness bestowed upon him by the King. The wedding was a radio event still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel films of it packed out cinemas around the world, including in devastated Berlin. In its lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding and the later Coronation reminded the club of European royalty just how few of them had survived as rulers into the post-war world. Princess Margaret remarked that ‘people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.’
End of Empire; Continuity of Commonwealth:
The government’s imperial and commonwealth achievements were initially successful. As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but now there were other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.
The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India, the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in Punjab, and Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to an independent state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.
In reality, Mountbatten came down on the side of the Hindu-dominated Congress by bringing forward the transfer of power. Perhaps one factor in this was Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with Jawaharlal Nehru. In particular, Mountbatten put pressure on the supposedly neutral Boundary Commissioner, Sir Cyril Radcliffe to make critical adjustments in India’s favour when drawing the frontier through Punjab. Nevertheless, the last Viceroy’s achievement was only surpassed by those of Gandhi and Nehru, to whom he paid tribute in his address to the India Constituent Assembly in New Delhi on what the India Independence Act referred to as the appointed day:
‘The tasks before you are heavy. The war ended two years ago. In fact it was on this very day two years ago that I was with that great friend of India, Mr Attlee in the Cabinet Room when the news came through that Japan had surrendered. That was a moment for thankfulness and rejoicing, for it marked the end of six bitter years of destruction and slaughter. But in India we have achieved something greater – what has been well described as ‘A Treaty of Peace without a War.’ India, which played such a valiant part… has also had to pay her price in the dislocation of her economy and the casualties to her gallant fighting men… Preoccupations with the political problem retarded recovery. It is for you to ensure the happiness and ever-increasing prosperity of the people, to provide against future scarcities of food, cloth and essential commodities and to build up a balanced economy…
Above: Cover of Gandhi’s Autobiography, edited by Bharatan Kumarappa (1952). Ahmedabad.
‘At this historic moment, let us not forget all that India owes to Mahatma Gandhi – the architect of her freedom through non-violence…
‘In your first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, you have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. His trust and friendship have helped me beyond measure in my task. Under his able guidance, assisted by the colleagues whom he has selected… India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the community of nations.’
It would have been an ideal arrangement if Mountbatten had been able to continue as Governor-General of both Dominions. But even as Governor-General of India, he could still be of immense service. It was his personality that had helped to bring about some measure of common action and had prevented a bad situation from getting worse. His presence would be of great help in solving the problem of the Indian States. It would also have a reassuring effect on serving British officers, particularly in the Armed Forces, where their retention for at least some time was indispensable. The communal rioting and the two-way exodus of refugees provided the Government of India with a task which was as stupendous as any nation ever had to face. If in its initial stages the situation had not been controlled with determination and vigour, the consequences would have brought down the Government itself.
Next, the state of Israel was established in 1948, ending the British mandate over Palestine given to it by the League of Nations thirty years earlier. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin negotiated Marshall Aid for Britain from the USA in 1949 and in the same year helped to organise NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). But the price of such security was high, as was the maintenance of Britain’s place at the top table of international diplomacy. Not only were American B-29 bombers stationed in East Anglia from 1948 (with a nuclear capacity from 1950), but in 1951 Britain followed the USA into the Korean War. The added spending on defence led to cuts in welfare spending and a balance of payments crisis.
Austerity into Affluence – Revolution or Evolution?:
Between 1945 and 1951, the Labour Governments undertook a programme of massive social and industrial reform. Faced with the aftermath of six years of war it had embarked on its ambitious programme. The scale of these reforms led it to be characterised as the quiet revolution or the peaceful revolution. The confidence and the determination of Labour to act after their electoral success can be seen in the phrase, ‘we are the masters now!’ shouted by Harvey Shawcross, the Labour MP and Attorney General during a debate in 1946. He added the words, soon forgotten, ‘… and for some time to come.’
The extent to which the reforms were revolutionary, or rather evolutionary, is still a debatable issue. But the debate in the manifestos was not about whether a Welfare State was needed, however, but about the means by which it would be achieved in practice. The issues of individualism versus collectivism, central versus local control, competition versus cooperation, and reality versus illusion can all be identified in those documents. The degree of success that historians see in these reforms depends on what they define the Welfare State to be from the perspective of long-term views of postwar Britain. But if life was austere, it was better for the majority of Britons than it had been in the years before the war and Britain’s industry was expanding.
Alec Issigonis, an immigrant from Turkey, was the design genius of the postwar British car-making industry. His first huge success, the 1948 Morris Minor, was condemned by his company boss, Lord Nuffield (William Morris) as ‘that damned poached egg designed by that damned foreigner.’
One conclusion that historians have agreed is that a period of unprecedented affluence followed the achievements of Attlee’s first government, especially its economic policies. With the development of new universities, television, motorways, nuclear power stations and national parks, Britain seemed to be entering a new age of wealth and prosperity, social and technological progress in the 1950s, as shown on the map below.
Logue’s Practice, the King’s Health & the Deep Freeze of 1947:
Meanwhile, George VI’s speech therapist for the past twenty years, Lionel Logue, having lost his wife Myrtle as the result of a heart attack in June 1945, continued with his practice. In a letter to his brother-in-law, he wrote,
‘Life goes on and I am working very hard, harder than I should have to at my age, 66, but work is the only thing that lets me forget.’
Above: Lionel Logue
Of Logue’s various cases, a particularly poignant one was that of Jack Fennell, a thirty-year-old stammerer from Merthyr Tydfil, who in September 1947 had written to the King pleading for his assistance. Unemployed, penniless and with a child to feed, Fennell was despondent and suffered from an inferiority complex brought on by years of discrimination over his stammer. Tommy Lascelles, at the Palace, forwarded Fennell’s letter to Logue on 24th September, asking him to take a look at him and give an opinion on his condition. Logue reckoned he might need as much as a year of treatment, which Fennell couldn’t afford. After trying in vain to get help from various welfare bodies, Fennell eventually found a sponsor in Viscount Kemsley, the newspaper baron who owned the Daily Sketch and The Sunday Times. With lodging in an army hostel in Westminster and the offer of a job at the Kemsley newspaper press in London, Fennell began his treatment in January 1948.
By April of the following year, Logue was able to report back positively to Kemsley of the progress his patient had made: Fennell had grown in confidence and passed ‘with flying colours’ an interview to work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Logue continued to see him for another year, although their appointments were reduced to one per month. By August 1949, things were going so well at work that Fennell had moved to a house in Wantage; in January the following year he enrolled at the Oxford College of Technology and by May was offered a permanent job at Harwell.
With Myrtle gone and his sons now grown, Logue sold his house on Sydenham Hill in April 1947. It was not just that it was far too big for him now; as he wrote to the King that December in his annual birthday greetings, it held too many memories of his married life. He moved into a ‘comfortable little flat’ in Knightsbridge, just opposite Harrods. The King wrote to him at Christmas 1947, noting how pleased he was with the speech he had made at his father’s memorial, but he expressed concern that his Christmas message that year would not be easy because everything is so gloomy. Logue was still finding it difficult to come to terms with Myrtle’s death. They had been married for forty years, during which she had been the dominant influence on him, and her death left a massive hole in his life. Although otherwise a rational man, he became attracted to spiritualism in the hope of making contact with her on the ‘other side.’ His sons, however, were appalled when he used to tell them that he was going off to get in touch with his late wife.
The King’s public speaking was getting better and better, but his health was taking a turn for the worse. He was still only forty-nine when the war ended, but he was in poor physical shape: the strain he suffered during the war is often given as a prime reason, yet it is difficult to see how this strain was any greater than that suffered by the millions of men who served on the front line or indeed by the civilian population left behind. Another factor was his chain-smoking: in July 1941 Time magazine reported that, in order to share the hardship of his people, he was cutting down from twenty or twenty-five cigarettes a day to fifteen. After the war, however, he increased his smoking again.
Despite his poor health, the King set off in February 1947 on a ten-week tour of South Africa. He had already been to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but had never visited South Africa and was keen to see it. The itinerary was a gruelling one and the King tired easily; a warm reception from the Afrikaners, especially those old enough to remember the Boer War, was by no means guaranteed. There was also an added psychological strain: Britain was in the grip of one of the bitterest winters for decades, if not a century, and the King suffered pangs of guilt at not sharing his subjects’ suffering. At one point he even suggested cutting short his trip, although Attlee strongly advised against this, warning that this would only add to the sense of crisis.
The heavy snows of January formed drifts, cutting off many roads and railway tracks. There was a shortage of coal and many power stations were shut down. The cold weather continued into February with no sign of a thaw. Temperatures were at their lowest for a century and there were fears of a food shortage, as many vegetables were frozen in the ground. Even when the snow began to melt, the ground underneath was still frozen so that the melt-water ran directly into the rivers causing them to flood.
The floods that came with the thaw in March wrought further destruction on the nation’s agriculture. The popular mood sank even lower and the winter of January-February 1947 remained scarred in the popular memory acute for half a century following. On her twenty-first birthday on 21st April 1947, Princess Elizabeth made a radio broadcast to the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and Empire in which she tried to raise the nation’s mood. In her clear, firm tones, she spoke the now famous lines:
‘I declare to you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.’
Meanwhile, within two months of his return from South Africa, in April, her father the King was beginning to suffer from cramps in his legs, complaining in a letter to Logue of ‘feeling tired and strained.’ By October 1948 these had become painful and permanent: his left foot was numb all day and the pain kept him awake at night; later, the problem seemed to shift to the right. He was examined the next month by James Learmonth, a vascular expert, who diagnosed early arteriosclerosis. At one stage it was feared that the King’s leg might have to be amputated due to the possibility of gangrene. A few weeks later, on 24th November, Logue wrote to him:
‘As one who… had a glimpse of the enormous amount of work you did, and saw the the strain that was constantly made on your vitality, it is very evident that you have driven yourself too hard and and at last have had to call a halt…’
The King appeared to have recovered by December, but the doctors remained cautious and ordered continued rest. A trip to Australia and New Zealand planned for early the next year had to be abandoned. Lionel Logue, fifteen years senior to the King, was also having a bad year health-wise and was confined to his eighth-floor flat for some of this time. At Christmas, the King decided on a new type of broadcast… from a more personal angle for which he did not need Logue’s help in the preparation, although he asked Lionel to call him afterwards to give his opinion. The King delivered the message from Sandringham, returning to London only at the end of February 1949, resuming a limited programme of audiences. In March, however, it was decided that his recovery had not been as complete as everyone had thought; Learmonth advised a right lumbar sympathectomy, a surgical procedure designed to enhance the flow of blood to his leg. The operation, carried out at the Palace, went well but the King was under no illusions that he would be completely restored to health. He did continue to improve throughout 1949 and the Christmas broadcast brought another message to the nation, the Commonwealth and the Empire. He wrote to Logue:
‘How difficult it is to find anything new to say these days. Words of encouragement to do better in the New Year is the only thing to go on. I am longing to get it over. It still ruins my Christmas.’
Things Fall Apart for Labour:
In the early 1950s, under pressure from the Truman administration in Washington, the Labour government had to accept inflated defence estimates that not only produced cuts in welfare spending, and the resignation of Aneurin Bevan but also helped fuel a balance of payments crisis. In this context, Attlee set the date of the general election as 23rd February 1950, and the Labour Party fought the election on the manifesto Let us win through together, an endorsement of Cripps’ economic policy. Despite polling a record 13.2 million votes, the Labour majority was cut to six and the future was set for the development of consumer capitalism first with Gaitskell as Chancellor and then under the Conservatives.
Nevertheless, although the General Election in February 1950 resulted in Labour’s majority being cut significantly, to single figures, this was largely due to the recovery in the Conservative vote. The extraordinary thing was that, within a period of five years, Attlee’s ‘peacetime revolution’ had lost nearly all the momentum it had begun with. The optimism shrivelled under economic and physical storms, and though much of the Attlee legacy survived for decades, it was nothing like the social transformation Labour socialists hoped for.
Despite the understandable triumphalism of the poster above, a 1951 report from Rowntree and Lavers followed up on Rowntree’s famous 1936 survey of York, Poverty and Progress, showing how much more there was to do in transforming the lives of working-class women through the Welfare State:
On the whole, the practice of women going out to work has, except in time of war, traditionally been restricted to widows, spinsters and wives living apart from their husbands. …
… Since 1936 however, the situation has changed in three respects. First there is now virtually no unemployment. Second, large increases in the prices of clothing and household sundries have in many cases been accompanied by a considerable decline in quality so that housekeeping has become very expensive. Third, the fact that, on the whole, the working class is more prosperous than it has ever been, has created a desire in many families for goods that would formerly have been rejected without consideration, as being entirely beyond their means. All these factors have combined to induce many women to go out to work even though their husbands are in full-time employment.B. S. Rowntree & G. R. Lavers (1951), Poverty and the Welfare State. p. 54.
British women of all classes were hectored constantly by the government to make do and mend rather than buy new clothes. In the next decade, their daughters would revolt against the effects of this drabness. Warfare had also changed marital relationships and many women found themselves feeling estranged from their returning husbands, as revealed in the following personal account:
As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the second Labour government, elected in 1950, Hugh Gaitskell cut back investment in order to maintain and increase consumption. In 1951 he introduced a budget deliberately designed to ‘soak up’ excess purchasing power by allowing prices to rise. In taking action to curb excessive demand, the government was acting contrary to people’s natural desires. As a result, it encountered all kinds of friction. The inflation produced by the budget led to the sweeping away of the edifice of wage constraint built up under Gaitskell’s predecessor, Sir Stafford Cripps and to the bringing about of a massive round of wage claims.
How Far did Labour Succeed in Transforming Britain?
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 transformation with vigour and attempted to establish a new social order. Yet their success in this area must be viewed against their economic failures and inept 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. In 1979, the historian F. Bérarida argued that there were various possible meanings for the enigmatic concept of the Welfare State, each providing a different assessment of the success of the Labour governments of 1945-51:
They had started with boundless ambition. They had envisaged a total transformation of society, but they were only able to fulfil a fraction of their programme, namely the achievement of what came to be known as the Wefare State, i.e. a new social set-up that guaranteed a minimum of security and benefit to all. The expression soon acquired official status, appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary as early as 1955 as ‘a policy so organised that every member of the community is assured of his due maintenance with the most advantageous conditions possible for all’. …
… But this is a narrow, rather technical definition … amounting to little more than an enlargement of the social services. The phrase may be allowed a rather wider sense. In this it stands as the symbol of postwar 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 is ‘social justice’. Without in the least denying the collectivist principles inscribed on Labour’s tablets, the revolution found its main ispiration 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 militants of the Independent Labour Party, … with the Fabians, the Nonconformist conscience with Christian Socialism. …
But in stamping on any frail aspiration towards a libertarian organisation of society, Labour laid itself open to a charge of that would weigh heavily on it in the future, namely that of wanting to impose a bureaucratic form of socialism. …F. Bédarida (1979), A Social History of England, 1851-1975. Methuen. pp. 191-2, 195-6.
The Lion Roars Back:
The Conservatives came back to power in the 1951 General Election largely because the electorate was disillusioned by Labour. In the election campaign, the exigencies of continuing ‘Austerity’ were remembered more clearly than the benefits of the Welfare State. Attlee’s Labour Party had seen its landslide majority of 1945 eroded to a handful in the 1950 election and struggled to stay in office in the year following. The general election in October 1951 brought a change of government and the return of the seventy-four-year-old Winston Churchill as PM of his first peacetime administration.
The promise of the removal of the symbols of austerity, especially rationing, and the housing programme masterminded by Harold Macmillan had been key promises in the Tory victory. By sacrificing a certain degree of quality, the Tory government was able to build 300,000 new houses a year. The programme of creating new towns also continued, though market forces were allowed to override the previous government’s regional policy. Most of the country’s electrical power was produced by coal-fired stations, though hydroelectric schemes were increasingly important in Scotland. It was Attlee who took the decision to build Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, which was successfully tested in 1952, leading to the setting up of a reactor at Windscale in Cumbria to produce the necessary plutonium.
The boom of the early fifties presaged well for the Conservatives. Broadly speaking, they continued the policies of the Labour governments, building on their achievements. Substantial economic growth continued, with industrial production rising by a third in the decade after 1951. It took the Conservatives longer to remove rationing than they had hoped, but even so, the years from 1951 are seen as a period of affluence. Real wages grew by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964. Many British people were at last able to experience the affluence they felt was their due after the shortages of the war and the period of austerity. Sked & Cook, writing in 1979, characterised this popular view as follows:
Superficially, the thirteen years of Conservative rule … appear to have been fairly successful ones. … at home people experienced ‘the affluent society’… After years of austerity they could afford to relax, and if they spent their money on bingo or beer, who could blame them? Had they not risen to the most supreme of challenges in the World War and had they not, therefore, earned the right to take things easy for a while and to take advantage of the opportunities which Macmillan’s hire purchase scheme offered them? … Everyone from the middle-aged mum with her domestic appliances to teenagers with their transistor radios agreed on that; besides, was there anything with adopting the lifestyle of the television set or movie screen? The public evidently thought not. …A. Sked & C. Cook (1979), Post-War Britain – a Political History. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
The Tories were aided in this by the continuing internecine struggles within the Labour Party between Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan over the succession to Attlee. For Labour, the next thirteen years became known as ‘wasted’ ones, but by 1970, Vernon Bogdanor and Robert Skidelsky challenged these near-contemporary political views, which they claimed were based on faulty economic ones:
The illusion with the most profound consequences was the economic one. In his book ‘The Affluent Society'(1958), J. K. Galbraith intended to sketch an outline of a developed society which had in large part solved the problem of production, and could concentrate its energies on other things. The class struggle was obsolete; so also were the ideologies which sought to justify it. Politics would no longer involve large general choices but disagreement over more limited and piecemeal issues.
Uncritical transference of Galbraith’s thesis into the British context helped obscure the fact that Britain… had not solved its economic problems. The optimism of the early 1950s is, however, perfectly understandable. … But this miracle was built on temporary and fortuitous circumstances. … It is now possible to see that Britain the years 1951-64 were neither a period of continuous and uninterrupted expansion as the Conservatives would have us believe, nor the ‘Thirteen Wasted Years’ of Labour mythology. …V. Bogdanor & R. Skidelsky (1970), The Age of Affluence 1951-64. Macmillan, pp. 7-11, 15.
Tonics to the Nation – the new Royal Family & the Festival of Britain:
As early as 1943, the Royal Society of Arts suggested privately to the Wartime Coalition Government that an international exhibition should be held to commemorate the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851. The suggestion was based on the hope that 1951 would have seen not only the end of the war but also a country well on the way to recovery. The early Executive meetings were held at the Royal Society of Arts, where the first public announcement of the 1851 Exhibition had been made in the presence of Prince Albert. It was also there that the Festival Council met for the first time on 31st May 1948, when it was addressed by the Society’s President, HRH Princess Elizabeth. Towards the end of her speech, she said:
“I hope that in emphasising our achievements of the past and present you will stress no less sharply our responsibilities to the future. Then the Festival of Britain, 1951, may prove to be not aimply an end in itself but a beginning of many good things; and it may be an event which by its excellence permanently raises the regard in which British artists, scientists, cratsmen and technicians are held.”HMSO (1952), The Story of the Festival of Britain, pp. 2-3.
With these words, some of her first in a public speech, the Princess launched the Festival of Britain. Clearly, Elizabeth was preparing herself for her role as monarch. But having just married the previous autumn, she cannot have expected this responsibility to fall on her shoulders quite as soon as it did.
Less than six months after making this speech, the Princess gave birth to the newly-married royal couple’s first son on 14th November 1948. An enthusiastic crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the announcement of the birth of the second-in-line heir to the throne. Two years later, his sister, Princess Anne was born (see the photo below). After Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, two more boys, Prince Andrew (b. 1960) and Edward (b. 1964) were added to the new Royal family.
Prince Charles, aged two, with newly-arrived sister, Princess Anne (1950).
On 3rd May 1951, Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West were among the first visitors to the Festival of Britain. Harold recorded the following comments, with a note of irony, in his diary the next day:
‘Vita and I go to the South Bank Exhibition. We are entranced from the first moment. It is rather a nuisance that we keep on running into the King and Queen, but nonetheless we enjoy it uproariously. It is the most intelligent exhibition I have ever visited. I have nevere seen people so cheered up, or amused, in spite of a fine drizzle.’Harold Nicolson (1968), Diaries and Letters 1945-62. p. 206.
This exhibition of modern inventions, buildings and designs, plus a funfair, was held on London’s South Bank as “a tonic to the nation”. Donald Gibson, Coventry’s town architect, appointed in 1937, exhibited his plans for the rebuilding of the city centre. Many of these were drawn up and exhibited before and during the war, but they were not completed until 1951. The proprietor of the ‘establishment’ Coventry Evening Telegraph became a keen advocate of the Gibson scheme and financed the building of a large model for a touring exhibition. It was first exhibited at the Festival and was featured in the Pathe newsreel made about it. Coventry was presented as a snapshot of life in post-austerity Britain. Droves of Coventrians were among those who visited the model exhibition at the Festival. During the still dark days of postwar austerity, there was great enthusiasm for the bountiful retail outlets of the new precinct shopping centre from among a predominantly working-class population that had recently suffered so much. The newsreel commentary accompanying the viewing of Gibson’s model posed the postwar planner’s propaganda:
‘Coventry is going to be a place to live in where people can believe how pleasant human life can be … It must be not every man for himself, but every man for the good and happiness of all people living … Every man must believe in the good and happiness that is to be shared … to be shared equally.’
The King had been well enough to open the Festival, riding with the Queen in an open carriage through the streets of London, escorted by the Household Cavalry. ‘This is no time for despondency,’ he announced from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘I see this festival as a symbol of Britain’s abiding courage and vitality.’ But many who saw their monarch at close quarters during the service remarked to each other on how ill he looked, and that same evening he took to his bed with influenza.
Labour may have lost the 1951 General Election in part because its achievements in the postwar years had been accompanied by continued, and in some ways, intensified austerity, for Britain’s people, but the Festival of Britain celebrations were at least one sign that the drabness of the period was coming to an end. Commentators, including Winston Churchill, newly returned as PM, soon began to talk of a ‘new Elizabethan age.’
The King’s Slow Recovery & Sudden Decline:
The King was slow to recover from his bought of influenza which followed his opening of the Festival of Britain in 1951. He also suffered from a persistent cough; he was initially diagnosed with catarrhal inflammation of the left lung and treated with penicillin. The symptoms persisted, but it was not until 15th September that he was found to have a malignant growth. Three days later, Clement Price Thomas, a surgeon who specialised in such problems, told the King the lung should be removed as soon as possible, although, as was the practice of the day, he did not reveal to his patient that he was suffering from cancer. The operation carried out on 23rd September, went well. It had been feared that the King might lose certain nerves in his larynx, which could mean he would be unable to speak in more than a whisper. The fear proved unfounded and by October he was writing to his mother expressing the relief that he had not suffered complications.
He was, nevertheless, still a very sick man. During the State Opening of Parliament that November, his speech was read for him by the Lord Chamberlain. There were suggestions, too, that he step aside for the Christmas broadcast, in favour of his daughter Princess Elizabeth. This would certainly have spared the King considerable discomfort, but he refused. ‘My daughter may have her opportunity next Christmas,’ he told them, ‘I want to speak to my people myself.’ The King’s determination to deliver his message in person, although he had always dreaded doing so, showed the extent to which, during the course of his reign, those ten minutes on the afternoon of the 25th of December, had been turned into one of the most important events in the national calendar.
To the millions of people in Britain, the Commonwealth and the Empire who gathered around their radios on Christmas Day 1951, the voice they heard was both familiar and worryingly different. George VI was delivering his traditional Christmas message, but he sounded uncomfortably husky and hoarse as if he were suffering from a particularly heavy cold. At times, his voice dropped to almost a whisper. He also seemed to be speaking slightly faster than usual. Yet few of those listening could have failed to be moved by what their monarch had to say. After beginning by describing Christmas as a time when everyone should count their blessings, the King struck a deeply personal tone:
‘I myself have every cause for deep thankfulness, not only – by the grace of God and through the faithful skill of my doctors, surgeons and nurses – have I come through my illness, but I have learned once again that it is in bad times that we value most highly the support and sympathy of our friends. From my peoples in these islands and in the British Commonwealth and Empire as well as from many other countries this support and sympathy has reached me and I thank you now from my heart. I trust that you yourselves realise how greatly your prayers and good wishes have helped and are helping me in my recovery.’
The King’s five doctors telephoned their congratulations, but the newspapers both in Britain and beyond were shocked by what they heard. Although commentators and leader writers were relieved to hear the King speak for the first time since his major operation three months earlier, the wavering tone of his voice brought home to them quite how ill he was. The Daily Mirror commented two days later:
Millions of people all over the world, listening to the King’s Christmas Day broadcast, noticed with concern the huskiness in his voice. The question at many Christmas firesides was: Is the King just suffering from a chill, or is the huskiness a sequel to the lung operation he had three months ago?
For the first time since he had delivered his first Christmas message in 1937, the King’s words were not being spoken live, as Sir John Reith had always insisted they should be during his long tenure as director-general of the BBC. It had been pre-recorded, and the explanation for this innovation lay in the further worsening of the King’s health. After the various medical crises he suffered in the late 1940s, the King had been ordered by his doctors to rest and relax as much as possible. The doctors warned that a live broadcast could prove too much of a strain, so a compromise was found: the King recorded the message in sections, sentence by sentence, repeating some over and over again until he was satisfied. The result was barely six minutes long, but recording it took the best part of two days. It was far from perfect: what seemed to listeners an uncharacteristically fast delivery appears to have been one of the side effects of the editing process. As far as the King was concerned, it was far better than any of the alternatives. He told the sound engineer and a senior BBC official, ‘the nation will hear my message, although it might have been better.’
The King stayed on at Sandringham into the New Year with the Queen, as was customary. The note of hope and confidence in his Christmas speech appeared to be justified. He was well enough to begin shooting again, and when he was examined by his doctors on 29th January, they pronounced themselves satisfied with his recovery. Two days later, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh set off for their tour of East Africa, Australia and New Zealand. As the New Year progressed, further strain on the King’s health came from the continuing unstable economic and political situation.
But on 5th February, a cold, but dry and sunny day, the King enjoyed a day of shooting. He was, according to Wheeler-Bennett, his official biographer, as carefree and happy as those about him had ever known him. After a relaxed dinner, he retired to his room and, about midnight, went to bed. At 7.30 the following morning, a servant found him dead in his bed. The cause of death was not cancer, but rather a coronary thrombosis, a fatal blood clot to the heart, that he had suffered soon after falling asleep.
Queen Elizabeth’s Return from Africa & the Late King’s Funeral:
By this time, Elizabeth and Philip had reached the Kenyan stage of their trip: they had just returned from Sagana Lodge, a hundred miles north of Nairobi after a night spent at Treetops Hotel when word arrived of the King’s death; it fell to Philip to break the news to his wife. She was proclaimed Queen and the Royal couple quickly returned to Britain. On 26th February, Lionel Logue wrote to the King’s widow who, at the age of fifty-one, had just begun what was to be more than half a century as Queen Mother. He paid tribute to both their Majesties:
‘Since 1926 he honoured me, by allowing me to help him with his speech & no man ever worked as hard as he did, & achieved such a grand result. During all those years you were a tower of strength to him & he has often told me how much he has owed to you, and the excellent result could never have been achieved if it had not been for your help. …’
In her reply two days later, the Queen Mother was equally fulsome in her praise of Logue, not only for his help with the late King’s speech but through that his whole life and outlook on life. She added:
‘I did so hope that he might have been allowed a few years of comparative peace after the many anguished years he has had to battle through so bravely. But it was not to be.’
Above: King George VI’s Coffin
From 9 February George VI’s coffin rested in St Mary Magdalene Church, Sandringham, before lying in state at Westminster Hall on 11th February. After the King’s death and ahead of his funeral on the 15th, the newspapers gave a dramatic spin to the story, not then widely known, of his relationship with the King:
The King’s funeral took place at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, on the 15th. He was interred initially in the Royal Vault there until he was transferred to the King George VI Memorial Chapel inside St George’s on 26 March 1969.
The New Elizabethan Age:
Later that December, the Queen gave her first Christmas message from Sandringham. She began:
‘Each Christmas, at this time, my beloved father broadcast a message to his people in all parts of the world. As he used to do, I am speaking to you from my own home, where I am spending Christmas with my family. … My father and my grandfather before him, worked hard all their lives to unite our peoples ever more closely, and to maintain its ideals which were so near to their hearts. I shall strive to carry on their work.’
The Death & Legacy of Lionel Logue:
In May 1952, his daughter, now Queen Elizabeth II, mindful of how close Lionel Logue had been to her father, sent him a small gold snuff box that had belonged to the King. Shortly after New Year 1953, when he was looking forward to attending the Coronation in June, Lionel was taken ill for the last time. He remained bedridden for more than three months and a live-in nurse was employed to look after him, but he eventually fell into a coma. He died on 12th April 1953 of kidney failure, aged seventy-three. Among his effects were two invitations to the Queen’s Coronation, to be held that June. Logue’s funeral was held on 17th April at Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. Both the Queen and the Queen Mother sent representatives, as did the Australian High Commissioner. While Logue’s work with the King had brought him prominence and honours, it had not made him a wealthy man. He left a modest sum of about nine thousand pounds in his will.
Establishing exactly how Logue succeeded with the King still remains something of a challenge. The King seems to have believed that the various breathing exercises were important. Logue himself placed great emphasis on the effort he and the King put into going through the texts of the various speeches that had been written for him, editing words and phrases in order to avoid stumbling blocks in them. This was also important in helping to build Bertie’s confidence. The crucial factor, though, appears to be the way he managed to persuade Bertie that he had no deep-seated mental affliction, but rather an almost mechanical problem that could be overcome by hard work and determination, a feature of the relationship that developed between the two men, helped by Logue’s no-nonsense approach. Logue’s daughter-in-law Anne was a Consultant in Child Psychiatry at Middlesex Hospital. When asked about her father-in-law’s success, she was unable to give a definitive answer but thought it was largely due to the rapport that Logue had developed with the future King when his patient was still a young man, rather than to any particular treatment. She said:
“Anyone can do tongue-twisters and breathing exercises, but he was a first class psycotherapist. He was a super good daddy where George V had been a ghastly one. … (He) would never talk about what he did. But when you took a look at what happened and what he was dealing with, that can be the only answer. The King had heaps of other people who had been no use to him. Why else did he stay with him for such a long time?”
The People’s King:
Writing in 1954, Clement Attlee pointed to George VI’s sense of duty as being at the core of how he conducted himself as monarch. Like his grandfather, Edward VII, but unlike his father George and brother David, Albert was not brought up with the prospect of succeeding to the Throne always before him. His sense of duty was therefore rooted in a broader experience of what that term meant to a wider cross-section of ordinary society, rather than that of the upper echelons that, customarily, an Heir Apparent moved in. He was able to lead a freer life and mix more widely with ‘the people.’ For example, serving in the Navy in both peace and war, he lived the life of his fellow officers, sharing the same risks and enjoying the same comradeship. The Labour leader continued with an obvious interest in the King’s charitable work, no doubt born of his own work among the London poor before the First World War. (The volunteer work Attlee himself carried out in London’s East End exposed him to poverty, and his political views shifted leftwards thereafter). Bertie’s voluntary work had begun as Duke of York in the 1920s:
He took great interest in social questions, especially in the welfare of industrial workers. He grew to have a wide knowledge of social and industrial problems. He was never happier than when in the camps for boys of all classes which he organised, and when he joined in their games.C. R. Attlee (1954), As it Happened. pp. 210-11.
While still Duke of York, Bertie made a happy marriage and family life, but in the throes of the Abdication crisis, he was called upon to take up the burden of kingship. Attlee commented that he responded to that call with that high sense of duty which was, I think, his outstanding characteristic. … As his wife and Queen Consort, as well as mother to his children, Elizabeth won a firm place in the hearts of the people. Attlee concluded his remarks about King George by returning to the monarch’s sense of duty:
He was a very hard worker. Few people realise how much time and care he gave to public affairs, but visitors from overseas were often astonished at his close familiarity with all kinds of questions. With this close study went a good judgement, and a sure instinct for what was really vital. …Ibid.
Four years after Attlee’s tribute, J. Wheeler-Bennett wrote a biography of the King in which he drew the following conclusions about his life and character:
… From first to last, he was ‘The People’s King’. His concept of monarchy was two-fold; the mystical aloofness of the monarch combined with close identification of the Sovereign with the interests and problems and welfare of his peoples. This principle of royalty he had evolved and established for himself, as Duke of York, in his work for Industrial Welfare and it had been one of the basic ideas behind his annual Camp. … He carried it with him into his kinghood and thereby ensured for himself an unchallengeable position in the hearts of his subjects.
… King George was possessed not only of an inquiring intellect, which penetrated into unexpected recesses of a subject and retained every detail of what it discovered, but also of a most agile mind which, with the hovering volubility of a humming-bird, would dart from subject to subject, often with bewildering rapidity. …
But it was the King’s eagle eye which caused awe and sometimes fear to those about him. No sartorial irregularity, no unusual detail of dress escaped him, and he never failed to comment. On the occasion of the Gillie’s Ball at Balmoral the King had scarcely entered when he sent for the pipe-major and asked him if he saw anything amiss with the kilt of one of the pipers. The answer was in the negative. “Why, the pleats are pressed the wrong way round; I noticed it as soon as I came into the ballroom,” said the King.J. Wheeler-Bennett (1958), King George VI. pp. 733, 735.
Sources for the Series:
Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010), The King’s Speech; How One Man Saved the Monarchy (based on the recently discovered diaries of Lionel Logue). London: Quercus.
Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960). London: Hutchinson Educational.
Andrew Marr (2009), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke and Oxford: Pan Macmillan.
Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War; A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.
Denys Blakeway (2011), 1936: The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray.
Christopher Clark (2012), The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Penguin Books.
Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.
David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.
Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Second Edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors; Stalin, The Nazis & The West. London: BBC Books (www.randomhouse.co.uk).
Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (c. 1984), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico (Random House).
Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Philip Parker (2017), History of Britain in Maps. Glasgow: HarperCollins.
Briggs, Cunliffe, Morrill (eds. et al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.
John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.
René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
The Guardian/ The Observer: archive.guardian.co.uk/ First World War/ The Second World War.
John Buchan (1935 first ed.), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Irene Richards & J. A. Morris (1937), A Sketch-Map History of Britain, 1783-1914. London: Harrap.
Irene Richards et al. (1938), A Sketch-Map History of the Great War and After, 1914-35. London: Harrap.
Author unknown (c. 1938), These Tremendous Years, 1919-1938: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. Printed by Clarke & Sherwell Ltd., London & Northampton.