The Mood of Britain, 1945

By Briggs, Asa | UNESCO Courier, October 1985 | Go to article overview

The Mood of Britain, 1945


Briggs, Asa, UNESCO Courier


THE word "revolution" was sometimes used in Britain to describe the transformation of ways of life and, equally important, of attitudes since the beginning of the Second World War. The scientist Julian Huxley, who was to become Director-General of Unesco in 1946, had published a volume of essays in 1944 with the title On Living in a Revolution which caught the mood. Of course, not everyone shared the sense. There had always been people who were unwilling to chart plans for "reconstruction" until long after the War had been won, and there were some who in the year of victory stressed continuity rather than change, fearing change rather than welcoming it.

Huxley, well known to the war-time public through his broadcasts in the BBC's immensely popular programme the Brains Trust, in which everything was discussed except the War, had no doubts. The first of his essays, written as early as 1942, described how there had already by then been "a re-thinking of old problems" and a "transvaluation of values" in Britain since the War began. Social services were being extended, old class dividing lines crossed, and planning was being taken way to "social man". After the War was over people would not want to return to the way of 1939. "As a result", he concluded, "we now live in quite a different world."

Huxley had made his reputation as a writer on biological evolution. He concluded quite deliberately, however, in his essays that only the word "revolution" was adequate to cover what had been happening not only in people's minds but on the world stage. It was a world revolution which he contemplated, not just a "revolution" in Britain. Certain trends within the revolution were "inevitable" and "universal". One was towards "a more conscious social purpose". Another was towards "a fuller utilization of the resources of backward countries". The question was one not of trends but of methods. "The chief alternatives depend on whether the revolution is effected in a democratic or a totalitarian way."

nothing could have been more democratic than Britain's general election of July 1945 which displanted Britain's great war leader, Winston Churchill, and which brought the Labour Party into power with a massive over-all majority of 146 seats in the new Parliament. In one of the most readable of Britain's contemporary diaries Harold Nicolson, who lost his own seat, wrote simply "Churchill is out and Attlee has a clear majority! Nobody foresaw this at all." Yet there were people who foresaw it and had foreseen it for some years as the logical outcome of a "people's war" and the development of a "citizens' army" which had been encouraged to think. "This is the dawn of a new day", declared the new Minister of Labour with unsurprising enthusiasm, "and in the light of it we are going to march forward to those things of which we have dreamed for years past."

It is easy in retrospect to analyse the remarkable social and political conjunctions of 1945 in a more sophisticated fashion than was possible in 1945, although even in the immediate aftermath of the election its first academic analysts, R.B. McCallum, was at pains to insists that even if it might be called a revolution it was a well to avoid the word. "Revolution is a cant word of the day and is applied to almost any movement of human affairs."

Certainly there was no element of force or coercion in the domestic politics of 1945; the verdict was free. Nor was the Conservative Party overwhelmed in terms of the total number of votes cast nationally. In fact, Labour was in a minority of 47.8 per cent and the Conservative Party was to return to power, once more under Churchill, in 1951. Above all, the Labour Party itself was less radical in 1945 than Conservatives claimed during the heat of the general election campaign; it was wooing a broad spectrum of the electroate, and many of the policies it propounded had been forged as part of a war-time national consensus in which different parties shared and to which they all contributed. …

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