To the victors, the spoils?

May 5, 1995

As the nation prepares to mark VE Day, The THES asked a group of historians born after the war to describe the significance of the events of 50 years ago for Britain today.

Great Britain was probably the belligerent European nation least affected by the second world war. It suffered a small loss of population, its people never starved, its borders were unchanged, its political system was unaffected. And yet the second world war rightly has a significant place in 20th-century British history. The traditional picture is of the war bringing about the rise of the welfare state, and the political left; indeed, after the war the historiography of 20th-century Britain was dominated by an account of the left and of welfare. In this view the second world war was good for Britain. As A. J. P. Taylor put it: "Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in; England had arisen".

Britain was not the only postwar welfare state, nor the only one to lose an empire. But in the British case there has been remarkably little feeling that the second world war was a bad thing. Nor has there been enough recognition that it created a peacetime Britain more militarised than ever before. Demobilisation was much less complete than after the Great War, and only five years after hostilities ceased a fresh bout of rearmament jacked up absolute defence expenditure to a level which persisted for more than 30 years. Conscription remained in force for more than a decade.

There is a strong case for arguing that the main effect of the second world war on Britain was not to create a welfare state, but rather a warfare state. This is something which one would barely guess from the literature: even that on the second world war itself dwells on the emergent welfare state, on Beveridge and Keynes, on the role of trade unions. The wartime warfare state, with its huge organisation for the production of armaments and its massive armed forces is curiously missing. The historiography of the late 1940s is still, overwhelmingly, about the welfare state.

A number of critics have made the point, largely in passing, that the postwar state did not spend much more on welfare than the National governments of the 1930s. We should go further: if we take public spending as a whole, and compare the interwar years with the postwar years, the most dramatic change is not in welfare spending, but in warfare spending. In the early 1930s the British state spent more on social security than defence; after the war the reverse was true. On some measures, the British state spent about the same on defence and health in the early 1930s, and about twice as much on defence as on health when the NHS was formed. Even in 1971, warfare expenditure was higher as a proportion of spending on social security, welfare, health, education and housing than in 1931. Both welfare and warfare spending increased, but warfare expenditure increased much more.

It may be objected that the early 1930s saw high unemployment, and dangerously low defence expenditure. But the point was that the state was funding the unemployed, and Britain spent absolutely more on defence than anyone else. Furthermore, defence spending was high by pre-Great War peacetime standards. In any case, whatever the cause, in the 20 years between 1931 and 1951 the claims of warfare became relatively more pressing than those of welfare. Indeed the world as a whole spent much more on armaments in 1951 than in 1931. A comparative analysis of European state spending in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is also instructive. Britain stands out as a relatively low spender on welfare, and a high spender on warfare. The fact that Britain spent more than European countries on defence after the war is well-known, but not the fact that it had a less generous welfare state. Not surprisingly, the victorious allies spent more on defence than their former opponents.

What were the consequences of the British warfare state? Warfare and modernisation were inextricably linked in the years after 1939. A. J. P. Taylor noted that the war had turned Britain from a 19th to a 20th-century economy. The claim has come to be seen as typical postwar complacency, but Taylor was essentially right. Yet this change came not as a result of the rise of the welfare state, or even of civil industrial policy, but rather as a consequence of state investment in warlike capacity.

After 1945, too, the needs of the warfare state, and the nationalistic state of mind they generated, were behind the state's huge efforts to promote manufacturing, research and development, and domestic high technology industries. Technological and industrial initiatives consumed money and ingenuity to no great effect. They are supposed not to have existed by the many historians not prone to give marks for effort. The barely-known key industrial ministries of the first 25 years after the war - the Ministries of Supply, Aviation and Technology - were the children of war production.

The warlike orientation of the state did not lead to the neglect of the domestic technological base. Up to 15 per cent of the defence budget was spent on research and development. However, defence R&D has been held responsible for a lack of R&D in the civil sector. In fact, British civil R&D was very high by international standards until the late 1960s.

The main effect of warfare spending was that it consumed national resources on a vast scale: over 6 per cent of GDP in the late 1940s, rising to 10 per cent in the early 1950s. Thereafter it fell slowly to a plateau of around 5 per cent. A considerable amount of this expenditure was abroad (in Germany, rather than the empire), which had serious consequences for the balance of payments. High defence expenditure, devoted in large part to high technology weapons, had important consequences for the nature of the state and its relation to politics. A vast section of the state operated secretly, and removed from the intrusions of Parliament.

It is striking, too, that even the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament did not concern itself with the nature and structure of the military-industrial complex: it was concerned with nuclear weapons, and the need for Britain to take a moral lead in getting rid of them.

It is one of the pathetic aspects of postwar British socialism that it celebrated the fact that it came of age in a war economy, which it proudly dubbed "war socialism". As late as 1983 Michael Foot told American correspondents that his vision of socialism was Britain in the second world war. By that he did not surely mean that he wanted Britain to raise defence expenditure to wartime levels. He was invoking the standard wartime Britain of social democratic historiography: its proto-welfare state, its vindication of arguments for planning; the "people's war" which led to the "people's peace". But wartime Britain had other more obvious features than a commitment to welfare. So, as we have seen, did postwar Britain. The second world war was a terrible tragedy and its effects on Britain were not all positive.

David Edgerton, age 36, is a reader in the history of technology at Imperial College, London.

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