Rather than the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, let’s be guided by the spirit of the great 1946 housing movement, argues Alistair Cartwright
Boris Johnson wants his Churchill moment like an academically poor, sportingly average Etonian wants to be headboy: desperately.
Maybe we should let him have it. Churchill, after all, faced political humiliation at the end of World War Two, when a wave of popular demands delivered a 197 seat Labour majority at the 1945 election. Churchill – the man who starved millions to death in Bengal through his policies of denying emergency food aid and confiscating fishing boats as part of the war effort – did not see this coming. In the years after the war, he was eventually sidelined by reformers in his own party.
How the aftermath of a crisis unfolds can be just as important as the crisis itself. But as far as World War Two comparisons go, the famous Labour landslide marks only the beginning of the story. If 1945 was the year the electorate declared its preference for universal health care, public housing, and a guaranteed safety net over Churchill’s intimations of ‘free enterprise’ and the ‘spirit of independence’, as against the ‘docility of the state machine’, then 1946 was the year that working people decided to hold Labour to its promises, and, failing that, to take matters into their own hands.
In the summer of 1946, a series of mass occupations by working class families took over empty airbases and service camps across Britain. Over 30,000 people were estimated to be involved, seizing control of at least 920 camps. In London, thousands more occupied high class hotels in a set of coordinated raids that became known as the ‘luxury squats’. Faced with a terrible housing shortage that was exacerbated by bomb damage and exploitative landlords, people took collective action to provide shelter for themselves and – in the London case explicitly – to force the government to step up the building of public housing.
Don Watson has done us a huge service in better understanding this period through his book Squatting in Britain 1945-1955: Housing, Politics and Direct Action (published 2016). Much of this story would be lost without his research.
During the war, hundreds of camps were constructed to house troops and air force personnel, as well as prisoners of war, young men conscripted into coal mining, Auxiliary Fire Service staff and others. Local councils requested permission to convert the camps to housing at the war’s end, but the government refused, citing intentions from the military and other departments. After seeing rows and rows of nissen huts languishing empty for up to a year, groups across the country started to take matters into their own hands.
The action was apparently sparked off by a cinema projectionist from Scunthorpe, who was living in the theatre where he worked before one night deciding to try his luck at a nearby camp. Word spread quickly after a newsreel interview with him, but the copycat occupations that followed weren’t simply the acts of desperate individuals. Instead, they were organised collectively – through workplaces, Communist Party branches, local Labour activists, and neighbourhood committees.
Many of those involved were ex-servicemen. Wartime experience proved useful in this new civilian context. Swooping decisively on the poorly guarded bases, watchkeepers, according to one Junior Minister, were easily ‘brushed aside’. At Daws Hill in Buckinghamshire, an advance group of Communist and local Labour Party activists cut the perimeter fence. Similar scenes were witnessed at Blyth, Northumberland, where the squatters wheeled in carts full of furniture. Women led much of the organising effort. In Consett, County Durham, they organised ‘kitchen conferences’ to plan the occupation. Street meetings were held in the Maryhill area of Glasgow, again organised by women.
Once inside, committees were formed, street numbers laid out, water restored, coal deliveries arranged, and money pooled in case of future liabilities. At Bushy park, west London, the occupiers created communal cooking and laundry facilities. Many of those involved didn’t like the term ‘squatter’ and preferred to call themselves tenants, referring to the camps as ‘estates’. A camp at Sunderland was renamed ‘Liberty Villas’. Admiring the allotments and flowerbeds, a local reporter described it as ‘a most highly organised community’.
Forcing a Change
In London, the movement took a more militant turn. Mass occupations took over several empty blocks of flats and hotels that were under government requisition but due to be handed back to their former owners. It’s worth a (virtual) visit to one of them, the Ivanhoe Hotel at 9-13 Bloomsbury Street, which is now part of the Radisson Blu chain. Just imagine the scenes as food parcels were hoisted up by pulley over the police cordon.
As with the camps, these were well-organised actions, attracting broad layers of support, including among the builders' unions and even liberal groups like the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, which supplied food, oil stoves and camp beds. Support came despite the efforts of the press, which succeeded in reversing much of the public goodwill enjoyed by the camp squatters.
The government and the press branded the London occupations ‘queue jumping’. Aneurin Bevan was said to be furious, warning in Cabinet that ‘the government will be in the hands of others soon’. At the time, housing came under the brief of the Minister of Health. For all his monumental achievements in that role concerning the NHS, when it came to the housing question Bevan’s performance was lacklustre, if not obstructive. Shortages of materials and labour posed serious difficulties for house building. But the Labour government’s determination to rearm and the privileging of exports to restore the balance of payments worsened the situation.
Bevan also refused to consider using emergency powers in all but a marginal way to solve the housing crisis – that is, until the luxury squats caught him off guard. While tenants groups and certain councils had pressed throughout the early ’40s for greater requisitioning powers, at the war’s end large quantities of property currently in government hands were set to be handed back to their original private owners. By the summer of 1943 at least 1,752 hotels and boarding houses had been requisitioned under emergency defence regulations. What was to become of these properties?
Bevan argued that the government musn’t tolerate people taking action to house themselves in advance of the state’s careful ordering of priorities. At Bevan’s insistence, water and electricity were cut off from the occupied buildings. The luxury squatters were evicted after twelve days’ occupation. The next day, on 21 September 1946, Bevan announced that he would aim to complete 30,000 houses by Christmas. Was this simply coincidence? That seems unlikely. At the same time, in a swift about-turn, Bevan now argued with his Ministerial colleagues that requisitioned hotels should be offered to councils for housing. Less radical Ministers carried the debate against him. Nevertheless, at least one large West End hotel was converted to council housing.
As Britain recovered from the war, public house building increased. From a mere 25,013 dwellings in 1946, output leapt to 97,430 in 1947, and then 190,368 in 1948. Material factors beyond the control of any movement had a lot do with this. But there can be little doubt that the movement steeled the nerves of Aneurin Bevan and pushed the Labour government leftwards. Moreover, it raised deep questions about the rights of private property and the balance of power in society. If private property could be subordinated to the interests of fighting a war, why couldn’t it be subordinated to the interests of providing homes for people?
Under a very different government and with any chance of a leftwing Labour Party fading quickly, parallel questions are nevertheless being raised today. Like World War Two, the Covid-19 crisis has not only exposed the huge inequalities in society, it has also exposed the myth that there’s nothing we can do about these inequalities. The homeless can be given shelter; a hospital (even if it lacks staff and equipment to treat the most critical cases) can be built in a matter of days; employees can be paid not to work (even if the funds are directed through corporate bailouts); and while the government deceives and delays, people can organise themselves to deliver practical solidarity and force a change in the political agenda. If a crisis can so quickly turn impossibilities into necessities, why can’t we reorder society more fundamentally?
Myths vs Movements
Like so much of the truth about World War Two and its aftermath, the great housing movement of 1946 has largely been written out of history. What Angus Calder called ‘the Myth of the Blitz’ has buried the history of resistance and class inequality that runs through this period. Today we’re asked to recapture the Blitz spirit by donating to Captain Tom Moore’s charitable efforts for the NHS – forgetting that on the front cover of the official leaflet for the new health service, it says: The National Health Service ‘is not a charity’.
Meanwhile a consortium of businesses that aims to ‘utilise the innovation and flexibility of the private sector to… take pressure off the front-line NHS’ has called itself ‘project little boat’. The founders say they were inspired by the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’, the small private vessels that sailed across the channel to support the Navy’s rescue mission. The same talk of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is being used around current testing efforts. They all seem to forget that Dunkirk was a disaster. Returning soldiers were so humiliated they threw their rifles out of train windows and changed into civilian gear so they wouldn’t be recognised. Britain refused multiple requests for air cover from its French allies. Meanwhile the head of military intelligence briefed journalists to blame the French and declare the British forces undefeated. The ‘little ships’ lifted just 8% of total evacuees.
So rather than the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, let’s be guided by the spirit of ’46 – by a politics that sees clearly through the myths, and yet senses the unrealised promise held within every moment of history, including our own.
 These figures on requisitioning are from my own research. See the National Archives, NA LAB 30/39. Figures collated from various reports.
 This was the St. Regis Hotel on Cork Street. The recently formed British Overseas Airways Corporation lobbied hard to take over the hotel from the Air Ministry. Bevan’s Ministry of Health eventually won the argument and the building was handed over to Westminster Council to turn into housing. National Archives, NA BT 217/553.
 Figures from Peter Malpass, Housing and the Welfare State: The Development of Housing Policy in Britain (2005), p. 68.
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Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.
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