On May 8, 1945, a Mass Observation investigator overheard two women complaining about the way in which the end of the war in Europe had been announced the previous day. The peace declaration had been signed at 2:40 a.m., but it had not been announced in Britain until sixteen hours later. At that point, legend has it, the country went wild, and the citizens of London poured into the streets to celebrateor at least some of them did. As the opening chapters of the first volume of David Kynaston’s magisterial new history of postwar Britain, Austerity, show, most people stayed quietly at home or expressed disappointment at the nature of the boisterous celebrations in their local area. As Mass Observation’s research revealed, “riotous abandon was the exception rather than the rule.” In fact, many were apprehensive about what the future would bring. Already people were starting to remember the aftermath of World War I, when, not twelve months after it ended, men were out of work and desperate to scrape out some sort of living. As it turned out, they were right to be concerned, though unemployment would be less of an immediate worry than the lack of housing and the continued rationing of practically everything. For anyone who had imagined that the end of the war would mean an immediate return to prewar normality, there was a rude awakening.
In postwar Britain, there were so many problems to be tackled, it was difficult to know where to begin. Nearly a million houses had been destroyed or severely damaged by bombing, while public services were suffering under the strain. Britain had a national debt of 3.5 billion pounds, a record sum. However, many of Britain’s problems were far older. Life expectancy had risen and many diseases, formerly killers, were coming under control, but access to medical services was at best patchy. Many people lived in appalling conditions, with no running water, indoor sanitation, or adequate heating, and indeed many shared houses with parents and grandparents. After the economic slump of the 1930’s, poverty was endemic. Britain needed a plan, and during the war people had begun to work on one. The Beveridge Report of 1942 had effectively formulated a plan for a welfare state, attacking “the five giant evils” of “want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness.” As war came to an end, the Labour Party produced a manifesto for the election that must surely follow called “Let Us Face the Future.”
When the election did come and, as seemed inevitable, the Labour Party did win, a new and, for many, worrying era of British life began. For the conservatives and the Conservative Party, the Labour Party was simply the acceptable face of communism, and they feared a Labour victory, assuming that the old ways would immediately be overturned. As it happened, change proceeded slowly, more slowly than many ardent Labour supporters might have wished, and the old guard found less to complain about than they might have expected. Those with enough money and black market contacts...
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