Part 8: England in the 20th Century
The Post-War Years
The great social-leveling influence of the War meant that Britains were anxious for change. Countless thousands of returning soldiers and sailors wanted a turn-around in the status quo. Members of British armed forces were considerably better educated than they had been in World War I. The soldier returning from the war was no longer in awe of his leaders; he had mixed loyalties. He was resentful of unemployment, wishing for a greater share in the nation's post-war restructuring, and he did not trust a Conservative government to tackle the enormous social economic and political problems, that they had done very little to solve between the wars. He wished for a change.
As a consequence, Winston Churchill, who led Britain to victory during the war, found himself as a member of the opposition when the election of 1945 returned the Labour Party to power with a huge majority. Under the Parliament of Clement Attlee, the new government began some of the greatest changes in Britain's long history---nothing less than a reconstruction of the nation.
The Labour Government struggled heroically to deal with the problems: to improve standards of living, move to a "mixed economy." close the trade gap, maintain its armed forces in sufficient strength to meet a new threat from Communist Russia, and to keep of its overseas bases. It succeeded in these aims remarkably well. During the dark early days of the War, economist William Beveridge had put forward proposals for postwar "cradle-to-grave" social security. The Government had taken on an emergency welfare responsibility; it provided milk for babies; orange juice and cod-liver oil for children.
It was now time for Labour to put the Beverage Plan into full operation. Family allowances had already been introduced before the War's end. A National School Lunch Act was passed in June, 1946. In 1948, the government introduced the National Health Service to proved free medical treatment for all, from the spectacles and false teeth, to maternity and child welfare services. Nationalization of the hospitals made nationwide care available for the injured and seriously ill. The "Welfare State" had begun.
The second major change brought about by the Labour Government, under Attlee, was to take control of industry and public utilities, and a two-year period beginning in 1946, saw the nationalization of the Bank of England; the coal industry; electricity and gas; air transport, along with road, rail and waterways. A total of 20 percent of all British industry had been taken into public ownership by 1950. (In August, 1947, the government operated its first atomic pile, at Harwell). Central control of the economy, which had proved so successful in wartime, was now a major undertaking in peacetime. It was achieved under terribly adverse economic conditions. Another crisis occurred in 1947.
Stringent financial measures, imposed to meet the enormous war debt, caused undue hardship that was only made worse by one of the worst winters on record, monstrous gales and floods wiped out farms and destroyed agricultural products. A fuel shortage severely curtailed exports, food was still severely rationed, and in 1948 even bread and potatoes were rationed (both had been exempt during the War). The author remembers well the little ditty "It had to B.U." that parodied a popular song of the time by referring to the Bread Unit.
In 1947, relief appeared in the form of the Marshall Plan, introduced by the US to help the European Economy recover. Along with the devaluation of the pound and an expansion of world markets, there was a revival of the spirit that had united the country during the War. The introduction of the Land-Rover to world markets in 1948 was a godsend for British exports. Britain was even able to join with the US in ferrying supplies to Berlin in the famous "Airlift" that began in July of that year. By 1950, rationing began to be phased out, though not until 1954 was meat rationing abolished.
Though the Labour Government did very little to develop the private sector, it can take credit for the building of giant hydro-electric schemes in the later 1940's, especially in the undeveloped areas of Scotland and Wales. In 1951, the Conservatives resumed control of the government. Under its slogan "You've Never Had It So Good," led by the aging Winston Churchill, economic prospects seemed to be on the upturn. In less than one year, the balance of payments deficit had become a surplus.
Compared to those of the developing nations of Southeast Asia and the rebuilt economies of Japan and Germany, however, Britain's pre-war industrial strength was severely weakened. The much-heralded Festival of Britain, held in London in 1951 has been seen by many in retrospect, not as a demonstration of the nation's strength, but as a product of British postwar weakness and a signal pointing to further decline. A fashionable joke at the time was that, like the Festival's Skylon, the country had no visible means of support. The Nation and the Commonwealth mourned the death of King George VI, who along with his queen Elizabeth, had done much to bring back dignity and honor to the monarchy. Yet there was a mood of optimism that received an another upturn with the coronation of the young queen Elizabeth, the first such ceremony to be televised.
Chapter 8, Continued