The history of working-class struggle during the Second World War that transformed Britain for the better should be remembered on VE day, writes John Westmoreland
“It so happens that this war, whether those at present in authority like it or not, has to be fought as a citizen’s war … They are a new type, what might be called the organised militant citizen. And the whole circumstances of the wartime life favour a sharply democratic outlook. Men and women with a gift for leadership now turn up in unexpected places. The new ordeals blast away the old shams. Britain, which in the years before the war was rapidly losing such democratic virtues as it possessed, is now being bombed and burned into democracy.” J.B. Priestley, Out of the People.
These are the words of J.B. Priestley in 1941. On his tours of Britain, Priestley encountered the “organised militant citizens” making monumental sacrifices. Workers who put in 15 hours a day at the machine, then turned out at night as part of the Home Guard, A.R.P, neighbourhood fire service and many other voluntary organisations.
The collective spirit required to defeat and defend against Nazism, was imbued with a democratic need to defend the interests of the workers on the Home Front. Workers feared the coming peace that might discard their sacrifice, and return them to the nightmare of the 1930s.
When we remember VE Day, we need to remember the workers who won the war and shaped the peace that followed it. The real working class contribution to victory in World War Two has been largely obscured in favour of the idolisation of Churchill.
In the war years the industrial and political weight of the working class increased massively because it was an industrial war; and because in this war citizens' morale would be tested by aerial bombardment. The Mass Observation reports, gleaned from snooping on working class conversations in pubs and canteens, reveal that the government was obsessed with what workers were thinking, because they knew that victory on the war front depended on the Home Front.
World War One had produced revolution in Russia and Germany, the fall of monarchies and the demand for workers’ democracy that ended the conflict in 1918. The fear of revolution combined with the need to maintain production led to the climax of reformism in this country.
The Labour Party
When Michael Foot recounted the war years in 1973 he said that the collective spirit of the war years was the nearest thing to a socialist society that he could imagine.
However, the war years were not socialist. The war demanded a unity of purpose, but within that unity the working class weighed far more heavily in the needs of the hour than did their lords and masters.
In 1940, after a period of ‘phoney war’, Churchill became Prime Minister. Churchill was still remembered with utter hatred for his role in the General Strike in many areas, and he knew it. This doesn’t mean that the working class didn’t accept Churchill’s leadership. As one wartime socialist put it, “Churchill was a bastard, but we needed a bastard”. However, neither Churchill nor his Tory ministers could lead on the industrial front.
The Labour Party held the three most important roles on the Home Front. Clement Attlee was made Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison was initially Minister of Supply before becoming Home Secretary. The trade unionist Ernest Bevin was appointed Minister of Labour and National Service. Of course the purse strings, as well as foreign affairs, were in the hands of Tories. As Tony Cliff has observed, the tasks within the Cabinet of this so-called National Coalition were distributed along class lines.[i]
It is difficult to capture in a few words the significance of these developments. For Labour politicians, it was a revolution. As Ernest Bevin himself wrote, “Individualism is bound to give place to social action; competition and scramble to order, and the role of law has to be applied in the place of anarchy”. Bevin was no revolutionary. He saw his role as overcoming the deficiencies of British capitalism in order to secure victory, not tamper with the established order’s right to rule.
The outlook of workers was affected too. Manny Shinwell wrote after the war that ‘a revolution had taken place in the minds of the people’. The break with the market led chaos of the 1930s was necessary and celebrated. And the Tories knew it too.
Anthony Eden declared that 'the old world is dead; none of us can escape from revolutionary changes, even if we would'.
This is the political atmosphere that produced the Beveridge Plan of 1942, the blueprint for the modern welfare state. William Beveridge constantly referred to his social security scheme as a 'British revolution'; a 'revolutionary moment in the world's history is a time for revolutions, not for patching'.
However, a break with the 1930s necessitated by the outbreak of war was not a revolution. Labour policy was always a synthesis of class and nation, and wartime conditions gave this reasoning huge impetus.
The anarchy of capitalist production was perhaps the major barrier to winning the war. The need for centralisation and planning, combined with the need for frenzied production of aeroplanes after Dunkirk, compelled change. It also compelled the direction of labour, and although Bevin was given dictatorial powers over the workforce, he nevertheless had to include the trade unions as far as was possible if strife was to be avoided.
Trade union representatives had to be included on works committees. This was common sense because the workers were the best people to organise production. The obvious need to let the workers have a say became a much stronger sentiment after Russia joined the war.
After Russia entered the war in 1941, the Communist Party changed from denouncing the war on Russia’s ally, Germany, to become the most fervent supporters of a war to save the Communist fatherland.
When the Russians defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, feelings of co-fraternity with Russia were enthusiastically celebrated in a way that would thoroughly embarrass the Tories today. Russian victory was evidence of the superiority of planning, and what people imagined was a workers’ state. The Russian will to win was thought to have come from the Communist way of life.
Both Stafford Cripps and Lord Beaverbrook advocated giving support to Russia. Beaverbrook spoke for the same cause as the Communist Party when he campaigned for a Second Front in Western Europe, to match the Russian campaign in the east.
The role of the state as the agency of reform, always dear to Labour politicians, got a huge boost. Whether the reforms would be simply about the modernisation of capitalism or about meeting the needs of the working class depended on the organisation and militancy of the workers.
The weight of the organised working class was the most important factor in understanding the ‘climax of British reformism’.
The advance of organised labour
The view of the war as a ‘People’s War’ is only partially justified. Support for the war effort led by Churchill did not mean an end to class hostilities.
The World At War series, filmed in 1973, shows brilliantly what many workers were thinking as the war got underway. Government propaganda films had to include the concerns of the working class. In one, a Jarrow shipyard worker describes the 1930s and how his town was devastated. He feared the peace as much as the war. Similarly, a soldier (Bernard Miles) in a Roy Boulting film says to his mate something like, “You know, old Hitler’s got me thinking. If there’s money for war there should be money for peace when this is over.”
And of course the sacrifices being made were not shared equally. Newspapers were full of anecdotes of black market activity. Government contracts favoured the sharp-witted entrepreneur. In the little town I grew up in after the war, I often heard people say of this haulage contractor or that builder, “He made his money in the war, robbing bastard.”
Memories of the 1930s and profiteering came on top of the super-exploitation workers faced. The result was the growth of trade union membership, which grew from 4.5 million in 1939 to over seven million at war’s end.
The increase in strike days also tells a story. Strikes were outlawed by the Emergency Powers granted to Bevin as ‘dictator of labour’ in 1940. All strikes therefore were unofficial, and against the wishes of the Labour Party and Trade union bureaucracy. The figures below gives a clear indication of working class anger and determination.
On 9 January 1942, miners at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent struck over the level of allowances for working difficult seams. The Ministry of Labour decided to prosecute 1,050 miners for contravening Bevin’s Order 1305. Three local union officials were imprisoned, the men working difficult seams were fined £3 each, and 1,000 other miners were fined £1 each. Betteshanger continued their strike and other pits came out in sympathy. On 28 January they won, and in February the Home Secretary dropped the prison sentences. By May, only 9 miners had paid their fines. Most fines were never paid.Basic pay and working conditions in both the mining and engineering sectors were still at 1920s levels. Miners struck over production targets that their depleted manpower could simply not achieve. They had to defy the law.
And there was a political argument at the heart of the miners’ cause. As a report from the South Wales coalfield records, “The argument that a strike would let our soldiers down was countered by men who had brothers and sons in the forces who, had urged them to fight and … that they must retain something for those absent ones to come back to.”
The strikes in the pits shaped government policy. The recruitment of ‘Bevin boys’ to the pits from all social classes is often remembered as evidence of the dissolution of class differences in the people’s war. But it was forced on the government by the striking miners.
Wages in engineering increased during the war years because skilled workers did long shifts and worked weekends. Work was often on piece rates because this increased productivity, but basic pay was at the same rate as it was after the 1922 national lockout. (The Engineering Employers Federation had locked out engineers for four months during an economic downturn, to claw back gains made in the war years. The lack of basic pay was an insult to people who were making vital munitions, keeping transport running and generating the nation’s power.)
Women workers were central to the fight to gaining workers’ rights in the factories. The importance of women munitions workers was immortalised as a stereotype by Gracie Fields’ Thingummybob, who, as the title suggests, were doing important work, even if they didn’t really know quite what they were doing!
However, women workers generally, and in engineering in particular set the tone for the social reforms that the Beveridge Plan would articulate. These included the need for works canteens, on-site medical facilities, childcare and above all women fought a meaningful battle for equality.
In 1940, the engineering federation agreed that women would receive equal pay after 32 weeks in post. 20,000 women were employed at the Rolls Royce Hillington site in Glasgow. Hillington produced Merlin aero engines for Spitfires, Hurricanes, and other aircraft in huge quantities. Rolls Royce evaded the 1940 equal pay formula and were challenged by the engineer’s union, the AEU, in 1943. Rolls Royce settled. However, 16,000 women (and some men) refused to accept the deal and walked out for over a week. They won a new agreement which specified every machine in the factory, the work done on it, and the rate for the job, regardless of who was operating the equipment.
Once again the climax of reformism was underpinned by the actions of the organised working class.
The zenith of reformism
Churchill was concerned only with winning the war. He was not interested in reconstruction. On every front Churchill wanted to keep the old order in place. In India he opposed independence and at home he opposed nationalisation and welfare reform. His time was up. In the hastily called election of 1945, Churchill was booted out.
The Labour Party on the other hand, was massively strengthened by their place in wartime government. The field was cleared for the Labour Party, secure in its Commons majority, to set out its reforming agenda.
The opportunity to create a truly socialist society was there in 1945. The ideas of people like Nye Bevan now fitted the mood of the millions who had seen full employment in wartime, and the potential to use full employment in peacetime, to banish poverty, misery and victimisation. Even the armed forces, still swollen to massive proportions, began to mutiny in Egypt, India and Malaya, demanding to be released from service.
Labour had a tremendous opportunity to achieve that constitutional transition to socialism that it had talked about so ardently in the war years. But the Labour Party too had changed during the war. Its synthesis of class and nation remained, but it had a new twist: ‘what was good for the workers – fair wages, better housing, and better pensions – was good for the nation.’ The criticism of capitalism, and the acceptance of capitalism, were combined. The only reforms considered were those that benefitted the system, either through national efficiency, or social pacification.
The demands of the working class were factored into the post-war welfare settlement. These reforms were hard-won and were life-changing. The NHS was the crowning glory of the welfare state. Universal health care, social security and family allowance were transformative. And there is no doubt that these were the fruits of working class militancy. On VE Day we should celebrate that fact.
However, Labour was unwilling to challenge the established power, which has lorded it over us since 1688. Power remained safely out of the reach of democratic accountability. The nationalisation programme that took over transport, power, steel and coal was to be run by the same people who had run it as private enterprise. Pay and conditions still had to be fought for.
Established power was left untouched, and that same power torments us today.
The Tories are using VE Day as part of an ideological offensive to contain us, ‘the herd’. The role of the working class in shaping the post-war world for the better will not get a mention. Our memory of the struggles fought in those years is paramount.
The parallels between the war against Nazism and the war against the coronavirus are everywhere. But we weren’t all in together then, and nor are we now. Like his hero Churchill, Boris Johnson will want to win this war for the nation, but he doesn’t give a hoot for the people who are winning it. We can come out of the pandemic and return to normal, or we can establish a new normal.
Our celebration of VE Day is also a protest against capitalism, its wars, its chaos and its cruelty. That new normal is within our grasp.
[i]Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History, p.193
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.