To mark 75 years after Nazi Germany’s surrender, the British government plans a “People’s Celebration” across the Bank Holiday weekend.
On Victory in Europe (VE) Day on Friday, a broadcast from the queen will be followed by a “national sing along” of Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again.
With the “golden generation” in lockdown, the BBC says it wants to “let them know that we have not forgotten the peace that they won for us”.
What the official VE Day celebrations won’t admit is that our rulers and ordinary people had fought for very different visions of peace.
On 8 May 1945, a million people took to the streets of London. Tory prime minister Winston Churchill, the king, queen and royal family waved to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
But within a few months, Churchill was booted out of office after a landslide victory for Clement Attlee’s Labour Party.
Churchill’s Conservatives had urged people to “vote National” for a return to the “normal” of the 1930s.
He wanted to focus on war against “another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire”—Japan. And, indeed, British, French and allied troops fought on to regain control of their colonies in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Outlandishly, Churchill claimed Labour’s plans for a welfare state “would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo”—a reference to the Nazi secret police.
But the old Tory nonsense didn’t wash with millions of working class people. They didn’t want to go back to the unemployment queues, overcrowded slums, hunger and poor health of the 1930s.
Labour rode to office on a popular wave. But it had not created that wave. As one writer puts it, “Labour won because of the colossal mood for change engendered by the war.”
Class differences weren’t put aside during the Second World War.
There were calls for national unity and social peace from Labour and union leaders. But workers in mines, car and aviation plants, shipyards and engineering walked out over low pay and working conditions.
Attlee had asked, “Is this country in peace as in war to be governed on the principle that public welfare comes before private interest?”.
His Labour government was the high point of social democratic reform in Britain and made considerable achievements such the NHS and welfare state.
But how far did it live up to hopes of radical change and putting public welfare over private interest?
Reforms weren’t just handed down from above by the Labour government or a continuation of wartime policy.
And working class struggles would be necessary to force reforms from the Labour after the war. One example was a squatters’ movement, sometimes led by the Communist Party, that erupted at the lack of council housing.
On the “Great Sunday Squat” on 8 September 1946, more than 100 families occupied buildings across west London.
The initial plan was for occupations in Kensington.
But so many people turned up, they took over buildings across Marylebone, Pimlico, and St John’s Wood.
The Labour government responded with repression. They arrested the squatters’ Communist leaders under “conspiracy to trespass”, and drafted new legislation. Cops laid siege to the buildings.
But the action forced housing up the agenda.
Some of the squatters left the plush west London buildings in defiant marches and were rehoused.
Other sites that had been squatted became part of new council housing developments.
Even at the height of social democratic reformism, its parameters are set by what capitalism is willing to concede while keeping up profits.
On the “Great Sunday Squat” on 8 September 1946, more than 100 families occupied buildings across west London.Reference
Take the NHS, a great advance on private and charitable health services before the war.
The architect of the NHS, Labour minister Aneurin Bevan, had put pushed the idea of public welfare more strongly.
“The essence of a satisfactory health service is that the rich and poor are treated alike, that poverty is not a disability, and wealth is not advantaged,” he said.
Unfortunately, Bevan said he had to “stuff their mouths with gold” to win the cooperation of GPs and consultants. They were allowed to split their time between NHS work and privately funded care.
So access to health was not equal for rich and poor.
When the Korean war began in 1951, Labour brought in charges for dentistry, spectacles and prescriptions to pay for the army.
The “cradle to grave” welfare state was another important step forward.
It built on previous, more limited welfare reforms in the 1900s that sought to address the worst of disease and squalor among working class people. A healthier and more educated workforce would help Britain compete with rivals.
In 1942 the Liberal Party’s William Beveridge issued a famous report on welfare.
It advocated a health service, improved education, mass council housing and benefits “from the cradle to the grave”.
These relied on an economy with high employment levels.
Beveridge’s ideas were enthusiastically received. People bought some 635,000 copies of his dry document. Opinion polls showed over 90 percent backing.
Labour promoted some universal benefits, however, it also followed Beveridge’s lead.
When providing “a national minimum” the state “should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility”.
The welfare safety net helped very poorest, but did not roll back a society based on private interest.
And it was kept as cheap as possible. Many other countries without social democratic governments were more generous.
The reforms after VE Day were the product of bosses fear of revolt and changes in capitalism.
There were Tory ministers with more foresight than Churchill who recognised what was going on.
As early as February 1943, Tory MP Quintin Hogg warned the House of Commons, “If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution.”
Many bosses agreed, one saying, “If industry doesn’t plan for revolution, there’ll be revolution.
“And we can only avoid it by adopting great changes that are going to be forced on us anyway if we don’t do it ourselves.”
These splits at the top of society opened up possibilities for radical change.
But in 1945, Labour was pushing at a partially open door. Some of its proposed reforms had already been adopted during the Second World War.
A war economy meant minimising the anarchy of the free market, state planning and control of private industry.
Sections of the ruling class could see how state intervention in the economy could be beneficial to capitalism.
And some bosses could tolerate public ownership.
Wartime focus on armaments production had left coal and other infrastructure dilapidated, and bosses didn’t want to foot the bill of repairs. The state saved them the trouble, buying them out with ample compensation.
Then many former private sector managers were reinstated to run the new nationalised industries.
Schooled in pursuing private interest, they continued to treat the workforce as in the past.
With the exception of iron and steel, Tory governments of the 1950s and 1960s left nationalisation intact.
But after 1947, British capitalism began faltering under the weight of debt from the war.
Labour accepted the need for austerity rather than go on the offensive against capital.
The government slashed food imports by £66 million and rations, meaning people had worse diets than during the war.
And they slashed overall spending eventually by £280 million—around £10 billion in today’s money. The government pushed through wage restrained—and, despite protest, the union leaders accepted it. When workers objected, they had troops break strikes.
There were two sides to the 1945 victory.
The defeat of Nazi Germany and the peace that followed certainly should be remembered, but we should not look at VE Day through rose-tinted glasses.
There was no victory for people in the colonies who would have to fight for their freedom.
Workers in Britain improved their position compared to the horrors of the 1930s.
But as soon as economic conditions worsened again the system clawed back many of the gains—under both Tory and Labour administrations.
The pandemic has cruelly exposed the consequences of years of austerity, low pay, and gaps in welfare.
Once again people don’t want to go back to normal. The lesson of 1945 is that it requires fights to wrest reforms from our rulers—and changing the system to stop them taking back the gains we make.