Britain remained globalised and this was crucial to its successby Duncan Weldon / September 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Analogies between Brexit and the Second World War appear to be in vogue. References to Britons “surviving the blitz” and so “being able to get through a no-deal exit” are by now a staple trope of TV vox pops. In recent weeks a fair few commentators have argued that “a country which stood alone against the Nazis after Dunkirk” can surely handle some customs delays in the aftermath of a sudden Halloween Brexit.
Much of this talk is simple nonsense, some of it though is potentially damaging nonsense. And most of it appears to be based more on post-war myths and half remembered Sunday afternoon viewings of black and white films than on actual history.
There’s a reason that May and June 1940 crop up so much in our political discourse: they provide perhaps the founding myth of modern British history. Churchill’s assumption of power at the head of coalition government, Britain “standing alone” against a Nazi-dominated continent and the decision to fight on against German aggression. Low’s cartoon of the defiant British Tommy raising his fist to the sea and saying “very well, alone” is perhaps the canonical image.
But Britain never stood alone. The war was fought by the British Empire not by the United Kingdom. Indeed Churchill’s language at the time was almost always imperial. The notion that the British Isles stood alone in 1940 would have confused contemporary observers. And allied to that Empire in mid-1940 were many of the governments in exile (and their colonies and fleets) of western Europe.
The confusion though runs deeper. In the post-war years the story of the war and how it was fought has become more nationalistic. In reality Britain’s war, like Britain itself, was globalised.
Take, for example, the question of food. In the popular imagination, food in wartime Britain is framed around the idea of rationing and posters urging people to “dig for victory.” While rationing was implemented and domestic agriculture did step up its activities, the focus on this obscures as much as it reveals.
Only one quarter of food expenditure went on rationed food in 1940 and around one third from 1942 onwards. Staples like bread, potatoes and vegetables were never rationed—in sharp contrast to the continental experience.
As for domestic food production, yes it stepped up but Britain remained reliant on imports. The Britain of the first half of the 20th century was, in modern economic parlance, extremely “globalised.” Food was imported from Denmark and the Netherlands, from Australasia and South America. Food imports during the war were reduced, as measured by bulk, to save shipping space but more important was a switch in the types of food. The overall tonnage of food for human consumption imported was reduced by around a quarter but the number of calories per ton rose by about 25 per cent. Meat imports rose as fruit and vegetable imports contracted. Food imports remained crucial to feeding the British Isles.
Not that many Britons were actually “digging for victory.” Employment in domestic agriculture rose from around 800,000 to just below one million. A tiny share in a country of 46m. By contrast, in Germany around one third of the population was working on the land.
The key point is that Britain’s politicians and military strategists welcomed its globalisation and, in the main, rejected calls for national self-sufficiency (and even calls for imperial self-sufficiency). Britain’s reliance on imported food was seen as a strength not a weakness. It meant that fewer Britons had to work in fields and more could be put into military uniform or into factories producing the weapons and munitions needed to sustain the war effort. Britain possessed a large merchant navy—bolstered by the merchant marines of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece—and sufficient power to keep the sea lanes open.
Even in June 1940, after Hitler’s conquest of western Europe, the British elite remained confident of victory. At best Hitler could draw on the resources of Europe (and until June 1941 some vital economic support from the Soviet Union) while Britain retained access to the resources of the rest of the world including, even before she entered the war, North American industrial might.
Indeed the real moment of danger, when the British elite were at their most fretful, came not with the fall of France in mid-1940 but with the fall of Singapore and Malaya to Japan in 1942. The potential loss of control of crucial resources in Asia was a much bigger threat to Britain’s ability to sustain a total war and yet is nowadays almost forgotten in the popular narrative of the conflict.
The foundation myth of modern Britain, like all good myths, is rooted in actual events. But the notion of Britain as a self-reliant power standing alone is a dangerous one—and one that no member of 1940’s war cabinet would have recognised.