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International Socialism, May 1977


Penny Summerfield

The Home Front, the British
and the Second World War


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 98, May 1977, pp. 30–31.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Home Front, the British and the Second World War
by Arthur Marwick
Thames and Hudson (1976)

ARTHUR MARWICK’s book is worth buying for the wartime photographs researched by Harold Chapman. But a flavourless text surrounds them. There is an occasional surfeit of oil to help us swallow whole the bland simplification of a complex issue.

For instance, some of the most interesting pictures are those which did not pass the censor. Most photographs were submitted to the Censorship Bureau before publication. Editors were sensitised by the government to areas over which it wished to exercise control. Marwick gives us no analysis of these areas, merely the comment: ‘As far as such things can be determined, most of the censorship and control seems to have had the support of most people.’ It seems to have escaped Marwick that the point of censorship is that ‘most’ people’ are not in a position to know what has been censored and are therefore unlikely to object.

Censorship is one way in which the state attempts to control consciousness. During the War there were many others, for instance the overt propaganda campaigns which frequently stressed British liberty, e.g. ‘Lend to Defend the Right to be Free, buy Defence Bonds’, and educational programmes such as those of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs and the Army Education Corps. Plate 56 is of a queue waiting for water to be painfully extracted from a street standpipe in Elephant and Castle in May 1941. It was banned. So were other pictures which demonstrated the failings of either the pre-war or wartime governments to provide basic essential services or adequately to protect the population, for instance pictures of the school bombed in the Baedeker raids of January 1943, (Pl. 102–4). What was the context in which such censorship took place?

The 1920s and 1930s were decades in which British capital was restructured. The change was from reliance on labour-intensive heavy industries such as cotton, shipbuilding, heavy engineering and coal, successful only for as long as Britain could dominate world trade, to the development of industries orientated towards the domestic consumer (automobiles, chemicals, synthetic fibres, consumer durables), and those supplying them (machine tools and building). The restructuring involved the development of monopolies. Given the inadequate demand for British products, excess capacity was reduced by the formation of trusts and syndicates which closed down rivals and fixed price and output levels. A high level of concentration characterised both old and ‘new’ industries. The state encouraged this process of ‘rationalisation’ by raising protective tariffs against foreign imports and encouraging the formation of some cartels, e.g. the British Iron and Steel Federation. The success of this restructuring, known as ‘recovery’, depended on large numbers being expelled from the labour process—both to reduce costs to maintain prices at a competitive level (the labour movement having demonstrated the political danger of attempts to reduce wages in 1926), and to discipline the labour force, to ensure acceptance of deskilling and work at any price. Unemployment remained over 10 per cent till 1940. The rate of exploitation, measured in the rate of growth of output per man hour, increased more rapidly than in any other European country during the 1930s.

’Recovery’ was accompanied by government policies of protectionism and the non-resistance of fascist expansionism. (This could be seen as part of the stabilisation and integration of Europe after the decimation of the First World War and the slump of the twenties). By 1939–40 however, this acquiescence was curtailed because of the danger it was starting to present to Britain itself. Nazi expulsion of British troops from Europe and direct attack on Britain, required a state managed economy, in which productive capacity had to be maximised and the entire labour force mobilised for industrial and military purposed, including its reserve armies of the chronically unemployed and women. The process of concentration of ownership and control aided state direction of industry, and the dependence of over 1.5 million on dole administered through state agencies aided its direction of labour.

But the co-operation of the people in the process of mobilisation for the defence of a society in which the interests of capital had so clearly contradicted those of labour could not be guaranteed. Voluntary registration for war service was sluggish. Compulsion had to be introduced for both men and women. There were signs of more active resistance in the strikes in the coal and engineering industries 1942–4, and in the development of the Common Wealth Party, and the CP’s People’s convention, both in 1941.

The struggle was not against the war itself as it had been among some groups of workers in the 1914–18 War. This was supposedly a war against fascism. But there was questioning about the way in which it was being fought and the objectives of those in power, many of whom had been in power during the interwar years.

In the interests of the defence of the restructured capitalism of the thirties, the state had to present that system as one which would no longer operate against labour. The inclusion of Bevin as Minister of Labour in May 1940 Cabinet was a symbol of this. Concessions such as an integrated health service, family allowances and worker participation in industrial management were made during the war. It was promised that they would be lasting features of a future more truly democratic Britain.

To some extent the commitment was real. Provision of social services meets the needs of capital in that it is necessary for the reproduction of labour power and for the reproduction of a disciplined, acquiescent working class as a whole. Collective provision ensures that the cost will not be borne by individual capitalists as philanthropists or through the local rates, but will be spread across all taxpayers. The ‘social wage’ subsidises the real wage. Worker participation may extend industrial peace. But at the same time there was a withdrawal within the ruling class from making a firm commitment to a programme of social services which might result in the redistribution of wealth and power. Churchill’s attitude to the Beveridge Report, which recommended the establishment of the NHS, is a case in point. A pamphlet on it was recalled after circulation by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs. Churchill set up the Phillips Committee to review its provisions in 1943, and recommended reduction in the scope of all of them.

A tension existed. On the one hand some critical assessment of the past was allowed. The film of Love on the Dole was given general release in 1940 whereas it had been banned in the 1930s, and progressives like W.E. Williams were instructed, within limits, to educate the troops in the principles of democratic citizenship. This meant the development of a sense of responsibility to create a humane society in contrast explicitly to the totalitarianism of German society under the Nazis and implicitly to British society in the thirties. On the other hand, such critical assessment was kept in check, especially where it openly questioned the competence of the government to win the war, and its commitment to the objectives for which it claimed the war was being fought. Priestley was taken off the air, the Daily Worker was banned, Cassandra of the Mirror was posted, Picture Post was not permitted in the Middle East and North Africa in January 1942, because of their criticisms of the running of the war, and their ideas of the sort of society a more truly democratic Britain would be.

An ABCA poster by Abraham Games possibly illustrates the danger felt by the government of too great an awareness of the relationship of past, present and future. A rickety child playing in a dank yard depicted the squalor and poverty experienced by the working class in the thirties. Death was symbolised by a tumbled cross in one corner. Superimposed were the clean fresh lines of a Health Centre representing preventative care for the working class. The poster was banned.

This, then, was the context in which the Censorship Board was operating. Marwick’s comments do not help us understand it. For instance, he writes ‘the war gave a tremendous boost to the whole idea of social service’, and ‘although Bevin’s policies for the direction of labour were tough his presence in the Government was some guarantee that the problems of the poorer sections would not be totally ignored’, etc. The photographs and the contemporary quotations in the text could usefully be re-examined, in the light of a different history from the one which Marwick provides.

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