Assorted facts about post-war Britain
I recently read ‘History of Modern Britain’ by Andrew Marr. Marr is a prominent political journalist and that’s evident in his writing — the book is more of a fly-on-the-wall account of the lives of Britain’s postwar leaders than a catalogue of events. This led to some excessive focus on the personal histories of a few above the overarching trends of the period but I still learned a lot.
Below are some assorted facts and quotes from the book that I found surprising or interesting. I haven’t checked the citations on these so I’d guess only 75% are totally accurate.
- Several senior British politicians in the War Cabinet, including Lord Viscount Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, were in favour of making a deal with Hitler. Washington had even been privately told by its London ambassador that the British would surrender. Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood, Labour politicians, supported Churchill in opting to fight, ultimately giving him a thin majority in the cabinet.
- Britain was by far the largest recipient of US aid during the war, getting more than $30 billion of the $50 billion spent. 1/5th of food needs in the UK was provided by the US.
- When US fiscal support was suddenly ended in 1945, Britain was virtually bankrupt, exporting only around a fifth of what it had before the war, yet non-military imports were five times higher than in 1938.
- In 1946, the US gave the UK a 50-year-loan of $3.75 billion, at 2% interest. The loan wasn’t paid off until 2006.
- Ernest Bevin, a Labour politician and UK foreign secretary 1945–1951, was pivotal in the formation of NATO. In 1948, he began calling in private letters for “an Atlantic approaches pact of mutual assistance”. Its purpose was “to consolidate the West against Soviet infiltration and at the same time inspire the Soviet government with enough respect for the West to remove temptation from them and so ensure a long period of peace.” This is still approximately what NATO does today.
- The British Nationality Act of 1948 declared that all subjects of the King were British citizens. This gave ~800 million people around the world the right to enter the UK. The UK weren’t concerned about mass migration because it was generally assumed that most subjects of the King would have neither the means nor the desire to travel to live in the UK.
- Meat in the UK was rationed from 1940 until 1954.
- A summary of what the postwar Labour government did for Britain:
The post-war Labour government did the following things. It created the National Health Service. It brought in welfare payments and state insurance ‘from the cradle to the grave’. It nationalized the Bank of England, the coal industry, which was then responsible for 90 per cent of Britain’s energy needs, and eventually the iron and steel industry too. It withdrew from India. It demobilized much of the vast army, air force and navy that had been accumulated during the war. It directed armament factories back to peaceful purposes and built new homes, though not nearly enough. It oversaw a rationalization and shake-up in the school system, raising the leaving age to fifteen. It kept the people fed, though, as we have seen, not excitingly fed. It started to fight Communism in Korea and to develop the atomic bomb.
- In the 1950s, Britain built a higher proportion of state-subsidized houses than almost any comparable country, including Communist-run countries of Eastern Europe (I have no idea what “comparable” means).
A few interesting (and mostly unsupported) claims about the Korean war
- During the Korean war, the US military contemplated using their new atomic bombs to lay down an irradiated dead zone between Korea and China. In 1953, President Eisenhower did raise the possibility of using nuclear strikes directly against China (this is wild but there’s no citation for this).
- Mao reportedly thought of the Korean war as a ‘meat-grinder’ war. He hoped the huge numbers of Western deaths would break the morale of the capitalist West and gain him vital credit with Stalin. He hoped to then persuade Moscow to share nuclear secrets with Beijing.
- In October 1950, Stalin apparently told Mao that a Third World War should not necessarily be avoided: “If a war is inevitable, then let it be waged now, and not in a few years’ time”.
Back to Britain
- Punishment for homosexual behaviour increased dramatically after the war in Britain. In the last full year before the war there had been 320 prosecutions for ‘gross indecency’. By 1952 the number had risen to 1,626. The prosecutions for attempted sodomy or indecent assault (also terms for homosexual behaviour at the time) were up from 822 to over 3,000.
- Barbara Castle’s Road Safety Act of 1967 is a strong contender for one of the most impactful peacetime policy interventions — the act brought in the breathalyser to combat drunk driving, extended the trial 70mph speed limit and made it compulsory for all new cars to have seat belts. 8,000 people a year died on Britain’s roads in 1965. By 2000, despite there being nearly three times as many cars on the roads, road deaths had been halved.
- Before the Big Bang of 1986, when financial markets were suddenly deregulated by Margeret Thatcher, Britain was exporting £2 billion of financial services a year. After the Big Bang, Britain was exporting 12 times that amount.
- When 52% of British Telecom was sold off in 1984, ~5% of the adult UK population bought shares, almost doubling the number of people who owned shares in a single day.
- Much of Thatcherism in the 1980s was largely funded by oil revenues. Tax revenues from oil soared from 0 in 1975 to nearly £8 billion in 1982–3, at which point they accounted for almost 8.5 per cent of all tax revenues.