VE Day in Britain was a typically bright and sunny late spring day, cloaked in a certain air of unreality. It had been obvious for several weeks that Germany was collapsing and that the war in Europe was drawing to a close. Hitler was dead and it was just a matter of time before the end. Over the radio came a stream of announcements in German, accompanied by martial music, that were later revealed to be false messages put out to spread confusion in a Germany that was sinking into chaos. In fact the choice of day was bungled. It had been intended to announce the final surrender on 9 May—the day the surrender was to be ratified at a stage-managed ceremony in Berlin—but the news was leaked by an American reporter and so the Western powers celebrated a day earlier.
People went through a repeat performance of 1918. Church bells were rung, floodlights were turned on, there was dancing in the streets and street parties, and the usual crowds outside Buckingham Palace. The mood was more realistic than in 1918. Just as in September 1939 there had been an absence of the hysteria of 1914, so in 1945 there were no wild expectations. People had at least learned enough to realise that this was not going to be a World Fit for Heroes and there was a complete absence of the Hang the Kaiser type of nonsense, the overwhelming feelings were of relief and concern about what lay ahead. After all, the first World War had only ended 27 years before, so people in early middle life could clearly remember what had followed it: a brief period of full employment and a slump that lasted, with fluctuations, until 1939. During all that time there were never less than a million unemployed, which served to keep down workers’ wages, and even those who were children in the 1920s had vivid memories of the heroes of yesterday, often minus limbs, singing and playing for money in the streets. In 1945 prophesies were rife that there would be a couple of million unemployed, and war with Japan still had some time to run.
Wartime censorship was still in operation and decisions which were to shape future events hidden from the public. People who had grown up with the concept of an “Empire on which the sun never sets” had no idea that in not much more than a generation only a few distant outposts would remain. And while Hamburg and Dresden were in the past, the dropping of the atom bomb was still to come: an event that would make total annihilation a possibility. But perhaps the most important unknown fact was the deterioration of the relationship with Russia.
This latter was to present the authorities with one of their most difficult problems that of convincing people that those gallant, smiling heroic soldiers were in fact a menace to be feared. But they had had practice in such things in 1941, when they had to undo the propaganda efforts of the previous two years. From the signing of the Non-Aggression ‘Pact with Germany just before the outbreak of war, through the invasion of eastern Poland and the attack on Finland, the Soviet Union was portrayed as a tyranny. The British Communist Party opposed the war and the Daily Worker was suppressed. When, in June 1941, the Germans invaded Russia, a complete change around took place. The propaganda machine was turned on full blast and for four years everything Russian became not only fashionable, but admirable. Russian faces looked down from hoardings and out from our news papers and magazines, Russian tunes poured from the radio, with dance-band singers trying to sound like Cossacks. while Russian films drew long queues to the box office. Russia was portrayed as a kind of democracy, different from the West but still a democracy. Joseph Stalin was really a kindly old chap who smoked a pipe and had a sense of humour. The purges and show trials were portrayed as being aimed solely at Nazi Fifth Columnists. The Daily Worker was restored and used the same strip cartoons that had opposed the war to support it.
But on VE Day the public were blissfully unaware of this and Russian flags were carried with the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. The media—newspapers and magazines, radio and films—consciously sought to create a feeling that the war had blown away much that was stuffy and stale and that we were about to emerge into an exciting new world. This had started quite abruptly at the end of 1940 after the collapse of France and the beginning of the Blitz. With no introduction or build-up, just as if they had turned on a tap, the authorities started to talk about a new world. This was not the crude old stuff of the 1914-18 war, but much more subtle. Committees were set up and reports were issued covering every aspect of the economy. The most famous was the Beveridge Plan which, even from a capitalist point of view, hardly merited the claim to be “the hope of salvation for the future of the people of this country”. However the propaganda machine pushed it until it became part of modern folklore. Planning Boards were set up for the development of town and country and to prevent the ugliness of pre-war urban sprawl. The bombing had laid bare large areas of the City of London and grandiose schemes were drawn up to lay these out with wide boulevards and open up a vista of St. Paul’s from the Thames, with gardens and walks. But capitalism does not allow some of the most expensive land in the world to become flowerbeds. The result can be seen today in the City’s forest of gigantic office blocks.
Alongside this, throughout the war, every effort was made to encourage discussion and education as a morale booster, and to allay the boredom of the troops who during the build-up to D Day had been kept in comparative inaction. Radio programmes like the Brains Trust and the lunch-time concerts in an empty National Gallery were part of this, as was the effort of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, who sent out fortnightly pamphlets to Army units for discussion. One result of this was to produce a swing to the Left in political thinking, which helped to produce the Labour victory at the 1945 General Election.
During the war a political truce had prevailed and government was by coalition, on VE Day the truce was still intact but behind the scenes it was breaking up. Party leaders began to make veiled political speeches and after VE Day a General Election was called. This took place on 5 July but the count was delayed until 25 July to allow time for postal votes from the Armed Forces to come in. It was a quiet affair conducted on an out-of-date register and it resulted in a sweeping Labour victory. This was greeted by exaggerated hopes and fears. The Left saw it as the beginning of socialism which would sweep away the problems of the world, while some of the sillier Tories feared that they would be dispossessed, or at least lose their savings. Neither fears nor hopes were justified as all the Labour government could do was to run the country in the interest of the British capitalist class. Not that they had the slightest intention of doing anything else.
The Conservative Party were badly shaken by their defeat. For twenty years they had had things their own way; they had undoubtedly lost touch with grassroots feelings and their organisation had become obsolete. After a period of sulking because the electorate had had the cheek to throw them out, they began a steady climb back. They did what they would have shunned before the war and went out on to the streets. We were treated to the sight of top Tories slumming and ex-Cabinet Ministers were prepared to debate with anybody. They even found a few Tory working men who could be relied on to drop their aitches at the right place and address Tory women delegates in flowered hats as “mate”. They went over big with the well-heeled delegates at the annual conference. Once they began to pick up again, the Tories dropped all this kind of stuff.
The Labour government began with a massive programme of nationalisation, which they called socialism, and found it difficult to get the British economy going again after the war. They gradually became more and more unpopular. Fascism had been discredited during the war but was soon to rear its ugly head again.
There is no doubt that many men coming back from active service were determined that their children should grow up in a better world and that what they saw as the errors of the past should not be repeated. Unfortunately it was the inevitable workings of capitalism with which they were dealing. Slowly this political interest faded and for some years, once the immediate post war shortages had eased. things on the surface appeared much improved. Mass unemployment did not appear for many years and during the “never had it so good” era many people thought that the world had learned how to deal with such things as slumps. There were other problems of capitalism, principally the chronic housing shortage. People had jobs but nowhere decent to live. Love on the Dole
was replaced by Cathy Come Home
—and In Which We Serve
by The War Game