Politicians and media speak of the ‘Blitz spirit’ in response to the riots – John Rees looks at the reality of class divisions in wartime, from his forthcoming book Timelines, essays in the origins of the modern world (Routledge, 2012).

BlitzThe insufferably smug calls for us all to summon up the ‘Blitz spirit’ as a response to the riots really is something that deserves a ‘robust response’. Not perhaps the water-cannoning of those who advocate it but at least a swift reality check.

First of all the comparison is ridiculous because it diminishes the sheer scale of loss of life and destruction during the Blitz. The Blitz began with 57 nights of consecutive raids on London, although one of the most devastating raids was on Coventry on 14 November 1940. Hour after hour of bombing induced near panic and destroyed the city centre. By the time the Blitz ended in May 1941 some 43,000 civilians had been killed, half of them in London.

Secondly, the Blitz was not a moment of ‘national unity’ but exposed deep class fissures on wartime Britain. The government feared that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop if people were provided with central deep shelters in London. Instead they encouraged people to construct weak, shallow ‘Anderson shelters’ in their back gardens. The rich faced no such problems. One American journalist went to the Dorchester Hotel where he discovered the management had converted the cellars into expensive luxury shelters. Nine peers slept there each night. One of them was Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary. Throughout the night, he stayed well-supplied by a waiter with his favourite brand of whisky.

Ordinary people started taking matters into their own hands. In some places those taking refuge published their own magazines, such as the Hampstead Shelterers’ Bulletin. A network of contacts throughout London grew up. In November 1940, a conference was held. A total of 79 delegates from 50 shelters decided to form the London Underground Station and Shelterers’ Committee. They elected two implacable socialists Harry Ratner and Alfie Bass (later to become a well known television comedian) as secretary. The authorities in London, after being put under very considerable pressure from public opinion, did make use of about 80 underground stations to shelter about 177,000 people.

Thirdly, even more than now the government laboured to keep dissenting views out of the mainstream media. J B Priestley was a nationally known novelist, columnist and playwright. The BBC offered him a Sunday evening radio programme, Postscripts.  Priestley developed the vision of a People’s War – one championing not only the military conflict against Hitler and the Nazis, but also the struggle to build a society where the ‘festering sores on the body of a diseased world’ would not return. At the programme’s peak, about 40 percent of the population tuned in to hear Priestley’s broadcasts. The message was not welcomed by Winston Churchill. He argued Priestley’s message was a diversion from the need to focus on the military effort, and leading Tories were angered by his ‘socialist ideas’. The BBC booted Priestley off the slot after only six months. A second series, in early 1941, lasted for just eight broadcasts.

Fourthly, the chaos of war, the endemic poverty that had mounted during the inter-war years, the destruction caused by the Blitz all meant that there was widespread looting during the war. In 1940 there 4,584 cases of looting in London alone. People would come back to their bombed out houses to find their belongings stripped from the rooms. The black market in stolen goods and ration coupons was so widespread that the ‘spivs’ who operated it became a national obsession.

All this was of a piece with the disastrous appeasement policy of the British ruling class in the run-up to war. They left Republican Spain to fight fascism alone. And they allowed Hitler to build a European Nazi empire without serious opposition. The fundamental reason for this was that in the inter-war years Britain was past its peak as a great power and it was fearful of the economic damage that another war might cause. Importantly it was also terrified of losing its Empire which was now even more extensive than it had been under Queen Victoria. Germany was a rising power. To the majority of British politicians it seemed as if the best way to hang on to what they had was to appease Hitler.

Moreover, there was considerable sympathy for the Nazis among Britain’s rulers. And it came right from the top. King Edward VIII was a supporter of appeasement and an admirer of Hitler. After his abdication in 1936, a result of his decision to marry an American divorcee, he and his new wife visited Hitler. During the widely publicised visit Edward gave full Nazi salutes. Hitler was certainly saddened by Edward’s abdication:  ‘If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.’ But pro-Nazi sympathies ran much more widely among Britain’s rulers. The Cliveden Set, so called because they met at the Buckinghamshire stately home of Tory MP Lady Nancy Astor, were famously pro-Nazi. They included Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and the editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson. While Dawson edited the Times it was forbidden to make any mention of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany.

Labour MP Hugh Dalton accused the wealthy of the City, Tories and members of the peerage of being the main supporters of appeasement. In 1940 Michael Foot, the future leader of the Labour Party, and two other journalists, Frank Owen and Peter Howard, issued a pamphlet called Guilty Men under the pen name Cato. It called for the resignation from public life of 15 public figures, including Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin. W H Smith and other major wholesalers refused to distribute the book and it was sold from news stands and barrows. It sold more than 200,000 copies in a few weeks. Appeasement was dead for the majority of people in Britain.
One final point: working people were so sick of the pre-war mess that free market economics and Tory politicians had made of the country that as soon as they had the chance they booted them out of office, not excluding ‘wartime hero’ Winston Churchill, and returned Labour with a landslide in 1945.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.