The Second World War offered Britain the chance to imagine an egalitarian future, says Lara Feigelby Lara Feigel / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-41 by Daniel Todman (Allen Lane, £30)
In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt met on the Prince of Wales in the middle of the Atlantic to determine whether the United States was going to help Britain win the war. During the voyage, Churchill had prepared by reading the heroic naval exploits of Captain Horatio Hornblower in a novel by CS Forester, while eating caviar that Roosevelt’s emissary had brought from Moscow. Both leaders had high expectations but only Roosevelt remembered that they had shared an enjoyable conversation 20 years earlier. Awkwardness overcome, they cheerfully exchanged tales of military and political life, attended a Sunday church service and agreed that Roosevelt would provide naval aid to Britain and make a statement of common purpose. It wasn’t as much as Churchill felt he was entitled to expect, but it laid the groundwork for America’s entry into the war a few months later.
This is the kind of moment that Daniel Todman illuminates well in his new book Britain’s War. Todman, a historian at the University of London, has undertaken the ambitious task of combining histories that, he says, “are usually told separately—strategic, political and economic, military, cultural and social—to build a broad and coherent picture of the country as it prepared for, fought and emerged from a total war.” Volume one, which is 700 pages long, takes us from the first rumblings of war in 1937 to America’s entry as a full combatant in December 1941; volume two will take us to the end of the war.
Despite the book’s great length, Todman’s claims for it aren’t quite accurate. There is almost no cultural history here. JB Priestley is the only writer represented and there is nothing on wartime film or, even more crucially, on wartime broadcasting. The little social history there is tends to be top down, with the experience of the “ordinary person” generally drawn from the much-used Mass-Observation archive. Nonetheless, what Todman does very impressively is to deftly tread a line between national and international events, and explore the impact of internal politics on war policy. The account of the Atlantic Conference is one of many points where he elucidates helpfully the relationship between the personalities of the politicians and the failures or triumphs of their wartime campaigns.
At home, certain politicians proved crucial. Herbert Morrison, the Labour Home Secretary, was instrumental in providing the mass shelter that enabled Londoners to remain resilient during the Blitz. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood paid for the war with the budget he presented in April 1941, raising the basic rate of income tax to 50 per cent and surtax up to an extraordinary 97.5 per cent. As Minister of Labour and National Service, Labour’s Ernest Bevin was responsible for mobilising the country for war. He later wrote that as a result of the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act in 1940 he found himself “a kind of Fuehrer with powers to order anybody anywhere.”
Churchill rose to power in spite of his policies rather than because of them, before leading Britain to victory. Even before he took over as Prime Minister, he impressed, maddened and mystified onlookers in equal measure. His policies in India (Todman describes him as a “savage racist”) made him unpopular in the 1930s and his bellicose ambitions in Norway in 1940 provoked anxiety in those around him. But the newspaper executive Cecil King decided that he was the right man for the job of deposing Chamberlain and took him out for a boozy lunch where he half-persuaded him to join his campaign. “He thinks we’re going to win,” King wrote afterwards. “He doesn’t know how, or why, or when—so why worry?”
This was Churchill’s policy for the rest of the war. He sent in foolishly large numbers of troops to help France in 1940 because he was upset to lose such a close ally to a German occupation, while he failed to help the Soviet Union swiftly in 1941. He intervened over questions of uniforms and weapons, longing to return to the frontline himself, while refusing to formulate policies on larger questions. When strategy documents on the Far East were presented to him, he refused to read them, later explaining that “much of the contents rapidly became out of date, and statements were often falsified before they were read.”
His determination to maintain a strategy based on a lack of strategy frightened those around him. “I’m not sure that Winston isn’t the greatest menace,” complained John Dill, his new Chief of Imperial General Staff, in the spring of 1940. “No one seems able to control him. He is full of ideas, many brilliant, but most of them impracticable. He has such drive and personality that no one seems able to stand up to him.”
But this also made him adaptable. Churchill had embarked on a war that everyone expected to end quickly with a settlement, following the collapse of the German home front. Even during the Blitz, the Allied leaders hoped that through air and sea power their forces could ignite rebellions in occupied Europe and destroy the German army from within. Todman reminds us that “none of the men who led Britain into war imagined the campaigns of 1945.” Yet Churchill remained optimistic and resolute as the conflict escalated and this was surely due partly to his lack of a preconceived plan.
In illuminating the improvised nature of Churchill’s strategy, Todman’s book usefully combines the insights of Max Hastings’s Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord (2009) with a wider picture of the experience of the war. His focus on Britain enables him to be more detailed on the domestic perspective than Antony Beevor, Gordon Corrigan, Martin Gilbert or Richard Overy are in their more general histories of the Second World War. At the same time, he always places British events in the international perspective, which is something lacking in social histories of the home front such as Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime (2004). In some respects Todman’s book is a British counterpart to Nicholas Stargardt’s recent history The German War, although Todman does not share Stargardt’s interest in extending his analysis of the psychology of key political figures to elucidate the psychological states of combatants and civilians.
Todman’s strongest and most original strand comes in his focus on reconstruction, which was discussed even during the earliest parts of the war. He takes the question of what politicians, civil servants and prominent intellectuals saw themselves as fighting for back to the 1937 coronation of George VI, with which the book opens. This provides an enjoyable set-piece in which the sweaty crowds piled into the underground stations evoke the less jubilant crowds flooding the same subterranean spaces during the Blitz. It also enables him to introduce JB Priestley, distressed that “so much wealth, so much time, so much energy could be spared for the crowning of a king.” The people themselves, Priestley believed, needed to be crowned, and considerable wealth, time and energy would be required to make that happen. People “who would, after taking down the bunting and the lights, tear down the streets themselves and build a nobler, happier, beautiful Britain.”
“I’m not sure Winston isn’t the greatest menage…He is full of ideas, many brilliant, but most of them impractical”
Before the war, Priestley’s voice was not echoed in government, but during the conflict and especially once the Blitz had begun, these questions were asked more publicly and urgently. Hitler’s frightening vision of a new social order both for Germany and Europe required the formulation of an alternative, at the same time as the sacrifices being made across Britain necessitated the promise of a reward. In July 1940, the historian and diplomat EH Carr wrote a leader in the Times suggesting that if Britain claimed to be fighting for democracy, this could not be “a democracy which maintains the right to vote but forgets the right to work and the right to live” and that if they spoke of equality this could not be “a political equality nullified by social and economic privilege.”
These ideas proved popular in a country where even the habitually elitist had mellowed as a result of war. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen, who after the war would be rendered physically sick at the election of a Labour government, wrote in the autumn of 1940 that “we have almost stopped talking about Democracy because, for the first time, we are a democracy.” Indeed, she went on lyrically to suggest that London had become “almost a commune” because its inhabitants had come to see that rich homes and poor homes could be reduced to the “same grey mess.”
Bowen is one of the many novelists Todman ignores, but he does quote people responding to this kind of sentiment with demands for reconstruction aimed at egalitarianism. In December 1940, Carr suggested in a leader, republished as a pamphlet that would go on to sell 100,000 copies, that the sacrifices of war would require “better housing, more ample nutrition, better education, and more amenities for the leisure of the masses.” Speaking at a conference convened by the Archbishop of York, Richard Acland argued that “the private ownership of the major resources of our country is… the stumbling block which is making it harder for us to advance towards the Kingdom of God on Earth.”
Remarkably, the proceedings from this conference sold over a million copies. What’s surprising now is how accepted ideas about nationalisation and the sharing of wealth were at this time. There was broad consensus about concepts far to the left of anything proposed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Churchill himself wasn’t very interested in social change, though, and he was keen to eliminate any mention of socialism from official statements published on reconstruction. Nonetheless, he and his close advisers did see the need to promise something. In May 1941 Anthony Eden, his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave a speech aligning the British Empire with the “four freedoms” that had been proposed by Roosevelt that January: freedom of speech and worship, and freedom from want and fear. It was in this spirit that moves began to be made towards free education and free health care. By the end of the war the domestic and military aims of Britain and the US would coincide far more than Churchill or Roosevelt might have expected when they met for their mid-Atlantic caviar.