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Bombed into Democracy

Front cover of Britain's War
Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941
Daniel Todman
Allen Lane
848pp  £30 

Daniel Todman is a first-rate military historian, but in Britain’s War he has written an economic and social history, as well as a political and military story. Its heart is the story of the people’s war, wonderfully illustrated from the magnificently rich Mass Observation Archive, with anecdotes from Preston to Portsmouth. This is history in the round, with detail on production outputs alongside the story of the Battle of Britain and where employment levels are as important as the Battle of the Atlantic. 

Britain’s War is the first of two volumes. It does not begin in September 1939, nor even at Munich in September 1938, but in May 1937 with the coronation of George VI, when most people assumed that another war with Germany could be avoided. Decisions made that year helped to determine Britain’s fate, such as the plans for the major rearmament of her defences.

This is not just the same old story about Britain with its back to the wall, struggling on through the ‘Spitfire summer’ and experiencing its ‘Finest Hour’. First, Todman points out that in 1940 Britain was militarily and economically strong, with the Empire standing firmly behind the mother country. Second, for Todman, 1941, not 1940, was the pivotal year. It was the mobilisation of the British economy and workforce for war that led to lasting change in Britain. During 1941, Churchill was totally preoccupied with fighting the war in the Mediterranean (‘Every single one of our plans has failed’, he complained to the chiefs of staff in June 1941) and in trying to persuade President Roosevelt of the urgent need to provide more generous support for Britain’s war effort. Meanwhile, bombing had revealed the great class divisions in Britain (working-class areas near industrial centres had suffered the worst damage) but it had also brought people together. Civilians were in the front line and suffered twice as many deaths in the second year of the war as all the armed forces combined. But morale did not collapse. People in the main felt the struggle was just and the rationing system was fair, so that everyone was enduring the same level of difficulties. Although some local community structures collapsed under the pressure of bombing, most provincial cities recovered within a week of a heavy raid.

Slowly, many people began to think that the huge state effort required to supply the armed forces, manage war strategies and to help those who had lost their homes could be used to everyone’s benefit. After Sir Kingsley Wood’s radical budget of April 1941, the standard rate of income tax was raised from 42.5 to 50 per cent and the combined marginal rate of income tax and surtax on the top slice of the taxable earnings of the very wealthiest to 95 per cent. Three and a quarter million workers began paying tax for the first time, dramatically increasing the fiscal reach of the modern British state. All of this, Todman argues, helped to sow the seeds for a debate about ‘A Plan for Britain’ after the war (the title of a Picture Post special in January 1941). Moreover, it was not just socialists and radical dreamers who began to see the positive role the state could play in the postwar world. Rab Butler at the Ministry of Education and Malcolm MacDonald at Health began to draw up plans for a new schooling system and a nationalised health service. In 1941, the term ‘welfare state’ was first used in print. It seemed that, as J.B. Priestley put it, Britain had been ‘bombed into democracy’.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 widened the war and further transformed life in Britain. As the bombing largely came to an end, more people died in road accidents than air raids. Churchill increased his wooing of Roosevelt but still could not persuade him to enter the war on the side of the allies. The government carried on fighting the war in North Africa and struggling with U-boats in the Atlantic. Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the US. Churchill later said that on the night he heard news of Pearl Harbor, while his staff flapped anxiously around him, he slept ‘the sleep of the saved’. Within a few days he left for a long trip to Washington.

This is the point at which the first volume of Britain’s War ends. It is a very enjoyable book to read. Almost every page brings a new insight or new information to bear on a chapter of history that is very well known. I look forward to the second volume.

Taylor Downing is a documentary maker and military historian. His latest book is Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme (Little, Brown, 2016).

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