Saturday, 5 September 2009
How Socialism Won The War
The tabloids and I agree on one thing: the Britain that won the war is very different to the one that we live in today.
True, kids generally respected their parents, who were generally married for life and Policemen were not afraid to give a miscreant a clip around the ear. But equally we were a country where child abuse was rife, homosexuality was illegal and possibly up to 5% of the prison population was actually innocent of the crime they were convicted of.
The tabloid press isn't too fond of digging up the dark side of 1940s Britain, but they are also usually ignorant of the good side too. We were as much a nation of immigrants then as now, only the Poles were pilots rather than plumbers. We respected human rights, even though the word wasn't used, and we neither waterboarded captured Nazi spies nor turned a blind eye whilst others did so. We had a Home Guard, but it was founded by a communist and conscientious objectors were treated well.
Perhaps the most striking difference between what we remember and the reality though was in how we ran the wartime economy. The Second World War may have been a victory of freedom over tyranny, but it was hardly a victory for free market capitalism. The Britain that won the war was not only the more socialist than we've ever been before or since, we were one of the most socialist countries that has ever existed.
Britain had tried to fight the First World War on Victorian principles. Laissez faire economics would provide the money and a volunteer army led by aristocratic officers would do the fighting. However by the end of 1916 it was clear this wasn't working. The military actually weren't the weak point. More volunteers signed up than could be equipped and the aristocratic top brass didn't do quite as bad a job as most people think, although their numbers had to augmented by the brighter members of the middle class.
The problem instead was the economy, and once Lloyd George was in charge the Welsh Wizard set about a policy of nationalisations that effectively turned us into a command economy. The Labour Party joined the coalition and did exactly what they said on the tin, putting the working class pretty much unanimously behind the war effort.
For the Second World War the same system was tried again, only this time it worked even better. The country was effectively run by an alliance of civil servants, industry and the trade unions. The mandarins were now rather more practical men with a knowledge of the real world that extended beyond the Classics, the Capitalists weren't just robber barons but were modern managers and the trade unionists weren't just soap box orators but skilled administrators. Laissez faire was well and truly dead and the economy was run on Keynesian lines.
Nowhere else before or since has there been such an alliance, and the results speak for themselves. Despite the Luftwaffe and the U Boats, the British war economy surged ahead, outstripping the Germans even though the Nazis had slaves and the plunder from occupied Europe. Until the Americans joined the fighting and introduced their own form of war socialism we were the arsenal of democracy.
We continued in this vein once the war ended, when we not only had to retool to a peacetime economy but also feed occupied Germany and garrison an Empire. The post war years are normally seen as a fall from greatness for this country, but in truth that was already gone by 1945. Instead it was Attlee's job to rebuild from almost utter ruin.
Then in 1950 Churchill was reelected and put us back on the Gold Standard. The great experiment with Keynesian Social Democracy was over and we started the march towards the world as it is now.
Sources: A.J.P. Taylor "Politics and the First World War" and "English History 1914-1945" and various essays by George Orwell.