Social history

Until the early 1960s it was widely believed that the war had profoundly reshaped British society. In its most general form, social change is fostered by social welfare and that the extent of social welfare varies with the degree to which groups within society have to be mobilised to wage war. Government attitudes changed profoundly during the war, especially in 1940 when Dunkirk and the threat of invasion created an unprecedented sense of national and social solidarity. This new mood found expression in egalitarian measures (such as the extension of the hospital service and food policy) and proposals for social reform. This work will consider how wartime experiences explain British government concern with welfare policies during the 1940s and 1950s.

Learning the lessons of 1914-18, the government was well prepared in September 1939 with plans for control of key sectors (railways, shipping and agriculture) and the allocation of important resources (raw materials and labour). Its grand strategy was based upon time, naval strength and financial power: British plans depended on holding a German blitzkrieg in northern France. The strength of the Royal Navy was needed to guarantee British and restrict German essential imports and Britain’s overseas financial assets could be liquidated to pay for imported food, raw materials and armaments. Britain and its allies needed time to rearm in depth. At the outbreak of war Britain’s annual output of steel was barely 60 per cent of that of Germany and machine tool production was a meagre 20 per cent. The grand strategy thus implied steady progress to a full war economy, with the first priority an enormous expansion of munitions-making capacity and then rearmament in depth financed by a phased reduction of foreign currency reserves (Booth 1996).

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Everything changed in the early summer of 1940 when Germany conquered most of western Europe. Much of the equipment of the British army was left on the beaches of Dunkirk. With German forces only twenty miles from the coast the government’s meticulous plans had to be shredded. Imported munitions and materials were needed no matter what the cost in foreign currency. At home, all production plans were sacrificed to the need for air defence. In the short term, the new mood of urgency was successful. Enough Spitfires and Hurricanes were produced and repaired to win the Battle of Britain and make invasion less likely (Hopkins 2000). However, these methods were ill-suited to longer-term needs. In aircraft production, for example, giving priority in resource allocation to fighter production slowed bomber production, which was equally important to the war effort. Tighter central control of the allocation of resources was needed once the immediate danger of invasion and defeat had begun to recede.

In 1941-2 Britain developed what is usually called a ‘planned economy’, but the term is misleading as planning usually implies concern with the medium as well as the short term. British wartime policy-makers had little interest in anything but short-run ‘programming’ of resources to ensure that the maximum output was achieved (Leith 1997). The main strategic questions (such as the size of the army or the balance between munitions production and the output of civilian consumption goods) were decided at cabinet level and turned into economic plans by a network of Cabinet committees, dominated from 1941 onwards by the Lord President’s committee. This system attempted to reconcile the demands of politicians and military commanders with the supplies of available resources and is most successful when it allocates resources in scarcest supply. During 1939-41, reserves of gold and foreign currency, munitions capacity, specific raw materials, the volume of imports and supplies of labour were all constraints on production and had to be considered by economic planners. After 1941, the labour famine emerged as the single most serious constraint on production and the ‘macro-economics of war’ were dominated by the allocation of labour.

Labour policy had been stalled by the mutual suspicion between Chamberlain’s government and unions opposed to government attempts to regulate labour. When Churchill came to power he made the inspired choice of Ernest Bevin, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, as Minister of Labour with powers to help organise wartime welfare. The Churchill government imposed far-reaching controls over the labour market, notably with the Essential Works Order of 1941 which made it impossible for essential workers to be dismissed or leave without the minister’s consent. As the EWOs were not popular with workers, Bevin used them as sparingly as possible and ensured that workers affected received adequate wages, working conditions and welfare. He gave the labour movement confidence and, in sharp contrast to the First World War, wartime production proceeded without major disruption from industrial unrest, except in the coal industry.

Wartime labour supply was an immense problem. Men and women had to be withdrawn from the civilian labour force into fighting services but at the same time the output of munitions had to rise to equip those forces. There were limits to the extent that the civilian economy could be drained of labour. The war cabinet knew only too well that the maintenance of civilian morale depended on the ability of the government to provide adequate supplies of food, clothing and shelter to all its citizens. The optimum mobilisation had each soldier matched by roughly one worker in the defence industries and two more in the civilian economy to produce necessities for war workers and soldiers. In March 1941 the government introduced the compulsory registration of females for employment, the first of a series of measures to steer women into the munitions factories. Bevin also improved workplace welfare to enable married women to enter factory work. The policy was enormously successful, with a significant rise in the number of women employed and substantial changes in the age profile.

In some consumer goods industries production was ‘concentrated’ into the most efficient factories to maximise the release of labour (Hopkins 2000). In furniture and clothing new ‘utility’ standards were adopted to produce plain, simple designs which minimised the use of materials and labour time. These measures, together with the reduction of unemployment to negligible levels and more intensive working, helped to alleviate the national labour famine. However, there were very severe local shortages, particularly in the Midlands and South East, and government established increasingly sophisticated methods of directing work elsewhere. There is no doubt that the government managed the tight wartime labour market with great success. It is less clear that labour was utilised effectively in the production process.

Shipbuilding output almost doubled between 1938 and its wartime peak, but losses of merchant shipping, especially during the Battle of the Atlantic, were considerable and shortage of ships was a threat to the war effort. British shipbuilding remained craft-intensive but shipyard workers, scarred by their interwar experiences, opposed dilution and interchangeability of craft work (Mingay 1990). They did not want to make concessions during wartime which might undermine their peacetime work prospects. The effects of the interwar slump were also seen in the poor quality of shipyard management, where levels of technical and managerial training were low, in the failure to modernise yards which were ill-sited, cramped and ill-equipped and in the fragmentation of the industry. During the war the employers had little incentive to sort out these problems as they had negotiated a system of contracts which brought satisfactory profits to all shipbuilders. It was left to an increasingly frustrated government to press for more urgency. In 1942-4, the government fostered the most ambitious programme of capital investment in the industry for at least half a century.

Both owners and miners had an eye to the post-war organisation of the coal industry: miners were reluctant to adopt more flexible working for fear that the owners’ profits would be augmented and so weaken the prospects for nationalisation; owners were reluctant to reorganise with the threat of nationalisation on the horizon. Accordingly the government had to cope with declining output of the major energy source. It gave miners substantial pay increases, sent conscripts to the mines to augment the work-force and produced both new mining equipment and technical advice when the owners would not invest.

In education policy, a series of official reports during the wartime had recommended the creation of a meritocratic system, with a split into primary and secondary stages, and the secondary stage in turn divided into various types of school to which children would be allocated on the basis of competitive examinations. The interwar Board of Education had accepted these proposals but had lacked the finance to implement change. The main responsibility for the running of the education system lay with the local authorities rather than with central government and the more progressive authorities continued to force the pace of change (as they had in the 1930s), leaving government with little option but to legislate. The 1944 Education Act was also profoundly shaped by lobbying from vested interests, determined to protect their own position. The net effect was that the Act maintained the status quo to a much greater extent than even the most lukewarm of reformers would have wished.

Public opinion thus became more radical and idealistic but it ran into the apparently firm opposition of sections of the coalition government. Labour ministers would have liked nothing more than to exploit these favourable currents but the Conservatives were wary of any attempts to make changes during wartime which would have implications for peacetime policies and institutions. Churchill, remembering the friction over reconstruction in Lloyd George’s War Cabinet during 1917-18, tried to ensure that the wartime government would concern itself only with the prosecution of the war and leave post-war questions to a post-war general election. Into this impasse stepped experts from pre-war academic or professional life who lacked formal party political affiliations. Their plans for reform, often honed in the debates of the 1930s, could be presented to the left as ways of resolving some of the problems of British economic and social life and to the right as ways of outflanking the demand for more radical change. A consensus on limited change was thus established during wartime and laid the foundations of government economic and social policy. There have been several occasions during wartime and post-war when the social problems of Britain might have been faced. The period of reconstruction planning from 1943 to 1945 was undeniably the best opportunity. Strategic planning with clear long-term goals and the machinery to implement them was carried out by Britain government in welfare policy-making. Moreover, welfare policies were the policy-tools of the British government. With these active welfare policies Britain government had erected tariff barriers, controlled industry and agriculture, and limited the free movement of the people.


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