The United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland numbered nearly 48 million people. The nation had been battling the worldwide economic depression and, although the government had belatedly begun rearmament, much of the economy remained stagnant, and unemployment was high. Britain sustained few casualties in the early fighting, although the war was brought home by the mass evacuation of children from the cities, especially London, and imposition of a blackout at night. On the whole, however, domestic life was not much disturbed.
Although Parliament passed an Emergency Powers Act in September 1939 granting the government control of the economy, Chamberlain sought a more limited effort than was essential to bring victory. Aerial attack was a great concern, and the government endeavored to relocate families, especially those in London, to rural areas of the country. But Britain was slow to mobilize its assets for the war, especially its land forces. In the spring of 1940, Britain was still producing civilian automobiles, and unemployment was at 1 million people. Not until the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940 did the government and the people discover the true seriousness of the situation.
The Allied debacle in Norway precipitated a political crisis. Despite the fact that the Conservatives held a large majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Chamberlain was forced from office on 10 May 1940, the same day the German Army invaded France and the Low Countries. Former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston L. S. Churchill became prime minister. Completely committed to total victory, Churchill was one of history's great war leaders. Perhaps more at home in the nineteenth century, as far as spheres of influence and his attitude toward colonialism were concerned, Churchill was both eloquent and effective in rallying the British people behind the war effort. Flashing his famous "V for victory" sign, he later took it on himself to visit the bombed-out areas of London (unlike German leader Adolf Hitler, who never mingled with the German people). To the rest of the world, Churchill was the embodiment of British pluck and resolve.
Despite the efforts of his service chiefs to keep him at arm's length, Churchill insisted on a hands-on approach to the war, often intervening in military matters. The one sin for Churchill was inaction, but his decisions often had deleterious effects. Churchill also took a lively interest in scientific developments, in code-breaking, and in a wide range of schemes and gadgets that might be employed against the Axis powers.
Early on, Churchill developed a close relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, but the British leader's vision of the world, in which Britain was a major imperial power, was fading. Churchill's influence over strategy also waned in the course of the war as the military strength of the United States grew dramatically vis-à-vis that of Great Britain.
With the German invasion of the west in May 1940, all the "phoniness" of the war disappeared. The government rapidly expanded the Emergency War Powers Act of the year before, giving it "complete control over persons and property." The nation survived the debacle of the German conquest of Western Europe and the subsequent Battle of Britain, thanks to the English Channel, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Air Force (RAF). Citizens were proud of their defiant stand against Germany—what Churchill referred to as the nation's "finest hour." Despite depredations by Axis submarines, Britain continued to access world resources, and the next year both the Soviet Union and United States entered the war on its side, ensuring an eventual Allied victory.
With the nation at last committed to total war, economist John Maynard Keynes supervised a survey of British resources. Completed in 1941, it greatly aided the government in assuming the direction of the entire economy. The government introduced strict price controls and rationing and mobilized its civilian population fully for the war effort. The National Service (Armed Forces) Act of 2 December 1941 authorized conscription of all males ages 18 to 50 for the military, industry, or other national service. In June 1944, some 22 percent of adults were in the military and another 33 percent were in civilian war work. Women played a key role; by 1944 they comprised 37.9 percent of the civilian labor force.
The British government enjoyed great success increasing its production of armaments. In 1940, for example, Britain produced more aircraft than Germany (15,049 to 10,249). Labour Party member Ernest Bevin was a highly effective minister of labor. There was little unrest among British workers, especially as burdens were seen to be shared, and the standard of living was not seriously depressed.
About half of national resources went into the war effort, as exports dropped off and imports, especially of food, rose. The government sharply raised taxes to avoid as much borrowing as possible. The basic tax rate was 50 percent, whereas excess business profits were taxed at 100 percent. Some called this tax policy "war socialism." Without Lend-Lease from the United States and assistance from Commonwealth nations, however, it would have been very difficult for Britain to survive.
Britain suffered far less material damage than most other warring states. It sustained in the war 244,723 military and 60,595 civilian deaths. But Britain's massive wartime effort, the expenditure of capital at home, the recall of overseas investment, the disruption of trade, and deficit spending all hastened a national economic decline already in progress. The hardships of war that imparted a sense of a shared national effort also heightened interest in reform at the end of the war. As early as 1942, the Beveridge Report called for establishment after the war of a minimum income level, medical insurance, and cradle-to-grave security for all citizens. Even during the war, Parliament extended to the entire population the right to a secondary school education. Popular interest in wide-ranging reform was not understood by Churchill, who focused almost exclusively on the war, but this mood led the Labour Party leadership to demand elections after the defeat of Germany. Held in July 1945 while the war against Japan was still in progress, the elections produced a surprising Labour upset; the party won 393 of the 640 seats in the House of Commons. In a nearly seamless transition, Labour leader and Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee replaced Churchill in the midst of the Potsdam Conference.
Although the United Kingdom experienced the exhilaration of victory, the country was hard hit economically and socially. Indeed, to finance long overdue social legislation, the Labour government was forced to cut in many other areas. The government also began a program of retrenchment abroad, and this meant giving full independence to much of the British Empire—India being the most dramatic example. The Labour government also soon determined that Britain could no longer continue as the world's policeman, and by 1947 it had largely passed that burden to the United States. Spencer C. Tucker
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Spencer C. Tucker