A chance to be heard

As I try to unpick the relationship between the people and the politicians in post-war Britain I’m reflecting on some of the key events when the populace had a chance to express their opinion.

Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, had enjoyed five years of leading a majority government, following Labour’s landslide victory just two months after the end of the Second World War. At that stage, in 1945, voters were desperate for change, seeing a Labour government as one that would ensure the country was rebuilt after the devastating effects of six years of war. Labour were focused on social reform, having been instrumental in pushing forward the welfare reforms outlined in the Beveridge report during their time in the national coalition wartime government. And it was that desire for a more fair and equal life that voters supported Labour’s pledges.

The Beveridge report had called for a dramatic turn in British social policy; expanding state-funded education, introducing a National Insurance scheme that would fund healthcare for all, and exploring a new approach to housing. It was the Labour Party who showed the strongest support for the report, which proved so popular it had become a best seller. The Conservatives, however, while accepting some of the principles of the report believed they were unaffordable.

And so, the people chose Labour to govern them during the five years from 1945 to 1950. But wartime debt and the heavy costs of rebuilding Britain took its toll. These five years were a time of austerity with continued rationing of basic foodstuffs, such as bread and eggs. The housing situation was still dire, when the costs of the national debt eating away at the funds needed to rebuild demolished properties and clearing away outdated slums. Working and middle class voters had had enough and so when Atlee asked for the country’s opinion in the 1950 general election he found that the Labour Party had lost their shine. They won the election, but this time with the slimmest of majorities, just five seats separating them from the Conservatives.

It seems that King George played a part in the timing of the 1951 election. He was due to go on a lengthy Commonwealth tour early in 1952 and was worried about doing so when his Government had such a slim majority that it could mean a change of government during his absence. As a result Atlee chose 25 October 1951 as the election date. As it was, the King was unable to travel as he was taken ill. His daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, took his place and it was during the early part of her Commonwealth rip that the King died, bringing Elizabeth to the throne in February 1952.

And so both chance and circumstances played their part in an election that resulted in a surprise result. While Labour won the popular vote – winning the most votes of any political party in any election in British political history – the Conservatives won the greater number of seats. They formed the next government with a majority of seventeen. It’s difficult to be certain about the extent to which voters were persuaded by the Conservative promises to continue support for Labour’s new National Health Service and welfare provision. However, although 48.8 percent of voters wanted Labour to continue what it had started over the previous five years, it seems that 48 percent of voters believed the Conservatives could offer something different and perhaps better.

And so Winston Churchill was returned to the position of Prime Minister, at the age of seventy-seven, remaining in office until his resignation, after several bouts of ill health, in April 1955.

Winston Churchill, UK Prime Minister
1940-1945 and 1951-1955

Once again, chance and circumstances played a hand in determining Britain’s political future, but in my next post I intend to explore the background to some of the individuals and groups who, through the groundswell of opinion, managed to achieve significant change.

It’s fascinating to be reminded how so much of our present and future is caught up with our past…if you enjoyed this post feel free to leave a comment below…

From top down to bottom up…

To help me get into the mindset of my fictional characters I have spent the last few years researching recent history. Those of you who are familiar with my novels will know they are all set during the iconic decade of the 1960s, a time when Britain experienced a significant cultural shift. To explore the backstory of those characters, I extended my research to read about family life during the span of years when the Second World War raged and everyone had to reconsider every aspect of their lives.

The more I read, the greater my fascination was for the way that life changed for individuals and families after the war – during the post-war decades of the late forties, the fifties, and sixties. On this blog I have already fleshed out many of the aspects that affected day-to-day life in Britain during the late 1940s. I hope to continue with blog posts moving on through the 1950s, when Britain moved from a period of austerity to a time, when according to Harold Macmillan’s speech in 1957, the nation had ‘never had it so good’.

British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan 1957-1963

However, my reading and research has led me to frame a question, which I plan to explore in greater depth. Much of what has been written about the post-war years by eminent social historians focuses on what I would describe as a ‘top down approach’. I have read several marvellous books that look at the detailed political, economic and legislative changes during those decades and how they affected life in Britain. But I would like to turn that on its head! My question is, to what extent did popular opinion and action drive those changes?

We often hear nowadays about popular uprisings across the world, but what of the popular uprisings from the late 1940s through to the end of the 1960s? People took to the streets to protest against the Vietnam war, the threat of nuclear war, laws that made homosexuality and abortion illegal. Women fought for equal pay, equal educational opportunities, and equal rights. Of course, the electorate could have their say each time there was a general election, but in-between those election years people weren’t silent. And I’m intrigued to explore to what extent the accumulation of voices made a real difference to the lives we live today.

There’s a lot to unpick, but I’m certain I’ll enjoy the journey. I’d love to hear your thoughts and if you have memories to share about those post-war years, it would be great to hear them. You can leave a comment below, or if you’d prefer, you can email me at: theisabellamuir@gmail.com

Calm your nerves…

With the knowledge we have now about the dangers of smoking, it’s hard to believe that in 1940s Britain even doctors might advise lighting up as a way of calming a patient’s nerves.

Outset Publishing

With the knowledge we have now about the dangers of smoking, it’s hard to believe that in 1940s Britain even doctors might advise lighting up as a way of calming a patient’s nerves. It would be a common sight to see GPs smoking in a surgery, doctors and patients smoking in hospitals. Figures show that around eighty percent of adult males were smokers – cigarettes were popular, but so were pipes. Many women also smoked – estimates show around forty percent took up the habit in the late 1940s.

A hospital patient being offered ‘a little extra comfort’.

It was only when medical research began to show a link between smoking and lung disease that attitudes gradually began to change. In the early 1950s reports in medical journals highlighted the link, but the tobacco industry was powerful and it took many more decades until legislation started to support the findings…

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What’s a teenager?

Back in 1940s Britain the concept of the ‘teenage’ years had barely been thought of – children stepped into adulthood once they left school at 13 or 14, and headed for the workplace…

Outset Publishing

It might be strange to think about a time not so very long ago when the term ‘teenager’ didn’t exist. Now we accept it, but in 1940s Britain young people aged between thirteen and nineteen lived a very different life to the life they might live today.

School leaving age was fourteen, with many leaving at thirteen. Their priority was to get a job – often unskilled – to bring in money to a household that would inevitably be struggling to pay all the bills. Popular jobs for young teenage boys might be as a butcher’s or baker’s boy, cycling around their local area, delivering goods to families. It’s likely that young girls would have been relied on to help with household chores, washing, cleaning, cooking and perhaps looking after younger siblings. The war years saw a significant rise in women taking jobs in a wide range of occupations, leaving…

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Don’t stop for breath

In 1940s Britain thousands of workers – in factories, or down mines – were sadly unprotected against occupational diseases and industrial accidents – ‘health and safety at work’ was still a long way off…

Outset Publishing

Factories offering no protection to their workers might be something we associate with Dickensian Britain. Workers subjected to long hours in harsh, polluting conditions – surely this belonged to the 19th century? Sadly, no. Thousands of factory and mine workers in 1940s Britain were subjected to dangerous working conditions that resulted in terrible preventable diseases from which many perished.

A link between lung disease and asbestos was highlighted during the 1920s, resulting in legislation in 1931 that required factory owners to monitor the health of workers who were in direct contact with asbestos. But the use of asbestos in many industries actually expanded during and after the Second World War – it was widely used on ships, steam engines and in power generating plants. Sadly it would be more than thirty years before the authorities really began to take notice of the dangers. In 1955 British physician and epidemiologist, Richard…

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What’s your number?

In 1940s Britain barely ten percent of households had a landline telephone and public phone boxes were on every street…

Outset Publishing

Nowadays telecommunication is considered so vital that even some children have mobile phones. Yet in 1940s Britain a landline telephone was so rare that barely ten percent of households had one. And if you did decide to have a phone installed you might choose to have a shared line to help reduce the cost. This would mean that when you went to make your phone call you may well hear another caller’s conversation and have to wait until they finished before you could be connected.

An example of a 1940s telephone.

But the iconic red public telephone boxes could be found on every street – in fact, there were around 52,000 of them. Alongside the coin-operated telephone, users would find a telephone directory where you could look up the number of anyone lucky enough to be on the phone. You put your coins in the slot, dialled the number and…

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Combatting polio

The dreadful effects of polio struck thousands in 1940s Britain, so when a vaccination emerged in the 1950s, leading to a nationwide immunisation programme, gradually the numbers fell…

Outset Publishing

There were many horrors to contend with in 1940s Britain and cruelly it was often children who suffered, despite adults’ overwhelming desire to protect them. For during the latter part of that decade there were annual polio epidemics, striking down thousands of people in Britain – many of them children.

This viral infection, which begins with a fever, affects the nerves in the spine and the base of the brain, which in turn can lead to paralysis in the legs and for some people affects their ability to breathe.

For many this meant treatment in a device called an ‘iron lung’, which works on the basis of air pressure controlled by bellows, helping the patient’s lungs to breathe in and out when their own ability to do so is severely restricted because of the loss of muscle control. Most patients having to use an iron lung would remain in one…

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No more than 2.4

There were plenty of reasons for a baby boom straight after the Second World War – happy times – but difficult times too – as families dealt with the challenges of day-to-day life in the late 1940s…

Outset Publishing

I’m sure there are many things that might trigger a rise in the birth rate – but consider these particular influencing factors for post-war Britain:

  • couples were finally able to celebrate the end of six years of war
  • wives and girlfriends could welcome the return of a loved one from the horrors at the front
  • British women had a chance to meet and marry a military man from the US or Canada who had come to Britain to help the Allied Forces.

Perhaps it was not surprising, therefore, to see the UK birth rate jump from around 795,000 in 1945 to over 955,000 in 1946. Quite a rise! But that wasn’t the real height, perhaps because there was a lag in the timing of demobbing, with some military men not arriving home until well into 1946. And so we see a further leap in numbers in 1947 to well over…

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This will do nicely…

Post-war Britain experienced such a dreadful housing crisis that many families had no choice but to take matters into their own hands…

Outset Publishing

Consider how it must have been after the Second World War for millions of families who were all desperate for somewhere to live – somewhere ‘fit for purpose’, many having lost everything during the wartime London Blitz and similar devastation across the country. House building on a grand scale was promised by the post-war Labour government, but it was taking too long and in many ways falling short of what was needed.

It should be no surprise then that some people chose to take the situation into their own hands. Shortly after the war ended – in the summer of 1945 – a group of people in Brighton decided to solve the housing crisis by ‘commandeering any house that is empty and installing in it a family in need of accommodation.’ These squatters called themselves the ‘Vigilantes’.

A year on, what had started as small-scale developed into something much more…

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Lessons to learn

The Butler Education Act, brought in after the Second World War meant many controversial changes to schooling, not least the 11-plus examination. A ‘negative experience’ for many, including Cliff Richard …

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‘A landmark has been set up in English education’

Times Educational Supplement, 1944

Such was the general reception to the Butler Act of 1944. The paper’s editor went on to comment that ‘there shall be equality of opportunity, and diversity of provision without impairment of the social unity’.

So why did the Butler Act promise such wide-reaching changes to education and how successful were they in reality? Up until this point state education provided for children aged five through to fourteen in one ‘elementary sector’. Butler, however, recommended a division in education between ‘primary’ (five to eleven) and ‘secondary’ (eleven to fifteen). Some local authorities were already offering state funded secondary education, but with this Act the intention was to ensure fairer and widespread access, particularly for girls and, more broadly, children from working class families.

Although the Act was passed during the Second World War, it wasn’t until…

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