Skip to main content Accesibility Help

War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War

  • Jose Harris

This article reviews interpretations of the history of British society during the Second World War. Traditionally the Second World War has been viewed as a period of outstanding national unity and social solidarity, and the social arrangements of wartime have been seen as a unique catalyst of administrative ‘collectivism’ and the growth of the ‘welfare state’. More recent historiography has presented a more diffuse picture, emphasising the elements of continuing diversity and conflict in British society during the war period, and the importance of more long-term social trends that were shared by all western European countries.

Cet article discute les interprétations de l'histoire de la société britannique durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. La Seconde Guerre mondiale est traditionnellement considérée comme une période d'unité nationale et de solidarité sociale particulierement fortes. On attribue à l'organisation sociale prévalant pendant la guerre un rôle catalyseur dans le ‘collectivisme administratif’ et la croissance de l'‘Etat providence’. L'historiographie récente présente cependant une image plus contrastée. Elle souligne en particulier le caractère divers et conflictuel de la société britannique, qui se prolonge durant les années de guerre, ainsi que les tendances à long terme que l'on retrouve dans toutes les sociétés occidentales.

Dieser Beitrag beschäftigt sich mit den verschiedenen Interpretationen der Entwicklung der britischen Gesellschaft während des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Normalerweise wird diese Periode der britischen Geschichte als eine Periode ausserordentlicher nationaler Einigkeit angesehen. Die sozialen Intiativen der Kriegszeit werden als einen einzigartigen Anreiz zum ‘Verwaltungskollektivismus’ und zur Entwicklung des Wohlfahrtsstaates gewertet. Neulich ist die Geschichtsschreibung nuancierter geworden. Jetzt wird Elemente der Meinungsvielfalt und des Sozialkonfliktes stärker betont, wie auch die Wichtigkeit langfristiger sozialer Prozesse, die alle europäische Länder gemeinsam hatten.

Hide All

1 Ernest Bevin, The Job to be Done (1942), 10.

2 Quoted in Hamilton Fyfe, Britain's Wartime Revolution (1944), 5.

3 Social Insurance and Allied Services, Cmd. 6404, 1942, p. 6.

4 Hammond, R. J., Food, Vol. 1 (1951), 353–9, Vol. 2 (1956), 753–9; Sayers, R. S., ‘1941 – the First Keynesian Budget’, in Charles Feinstein, ed., The Managed Economy (1983), 108.

5 Richard M. Titmuss, Problems of Social Policy (1950), 506–8. Thereafter Titmuss, Social Policy; and idem, Essays on the Welfare State, 91958, 2nd ed. (1963), 84–5.

6 J. S. Revell, ‘Income and Wealth 1911–50’, paper to the International Economic History Congress, 1970; Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War (1986). Thereafter Barnett, Audit; Penny Summerfield, Women Workers in the Second World War. Production and Patriatchy in Conflict (1984). Thereafter Summerfield, Women Workers; Howard, Anthony, ‘We are the Masters Now’, in M. Sissons and P. French, The Age of Austerity 1945–51 (1964).

7 Harold L. Smith ed., War and Social Change. British Society in the Second World War (1986). Thereafter Smith, War and Social Change; Lowe, Rodney, ‘The Second World War, Consensus, and the Foundations of the Welfare State’, Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 1, no. 2 (1990), 152–82. Thereafter Lowe, ‘Welfare State’.

8 Lawrie, J. S., ‘The Impact of the Second World War on English Cultural Life’, PhD thesis (Sydney University, 1988). Thereafter Lawrie, ‘Impact’; Philip M. Taylor, ed., Britain and the Cinema in the Second World War (1988); Neil Stammers, Civil Liberties in Britain during the Second World War. A Political Study (1983). Thereafter Stammers, Civil Liberties; T. Harrison, Living Through the Blitz (1976); Summerfield, Penny, ‘Mass Observation: Social History or Social Movement?’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 20, no. 3 (1985), 439–52.

9 Barnett, Audit; Harold Smith, War and Social Change; Jeffreys, Kevin, ‘British Politics and Social Policy during the Second World War’, Historical Journal, Vol. 30, no. 1 (1987), 123–44 thereafter HJ; idem, The Churchill Coalition and Wartime Politics, 1940–45 (1991).

10 Stammers, Civil Liberties, 24–5, 34–62, 66, 69–70, 117–20; Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe (1979), 81–133.

11 Paul Addison, The Road to 1945 (1975), chs 2–5; D. N. Chester, Lessons of the British War Economy (1951); Gowing, Margaret, ‘The Organisation of Manpower in Britain during the Second World War’, J. Cont. Hist., Vol. 7, nos. 1–2 (Jan.-Apr. 1972), 147–67; Alan S. Milward, War, Economy and Society 1939–45 (1977), chs 4, 7, and 8.

12 Titmuss, Social Policy, 324–31, 462–3, 557–61.

13 Ibid., 183–202, 442–505.

14 Hammond, Food, Vol. 2, passim; H. M. D. Parker, Manpower. A Study of Wartime Policy and Administration (1957), 416–23.

15 Titmuss Social Policy, 17, 199, 275, 315–8; J. M. Lee, Reviewing the Machinery of Government 1942–1952 (1977), 114–16, 129–36. Thereafter Lee, Machinery.

16 Jose Harris, William Beveridge. A Biography (1977), 380–1. Thereafter, Harris, William Beveridge; J. M. Keynes, How to Pay for the War (1940); Tawney, R. H., ‘The Abolition of Economic Controls’, Economic History Review, Vol. XIII, no. i (1943), 130; Kopsch, H., ‘The Approach of the Conservative Party to Social Policy during World War Two’, Ph.D thesis (London 1970); Brooke, Stephen, ‘Revisionists and Fundamentalists: The Labour Party and Economic Policy during the Second World War’, HJ, Vol. 32, no. 1, 157–75.

17 Harris, William Beveridge, chs 16 and 17.

18 Educational Reconstruction, Cmd. 6458, 1943; A National Health Service, Cmd. 6527, 1944; Social Insurance, Cmd. 6650–1, 1944; Report of the Care of Children Committee, Cmd. 6922, 1946.

19 R. K. Kelsall, Higher Civil Servants in Great Britain (1955), 146–60; Roger Eatwell, The 1945–51 Labour Governments (1979), 45–8.

20 Lee, Machinery, 114, suggests that ‘suspension of regular elections to both the House of Commons and local authorities for the duration of the war may … have surprisingly done something to strengthen loyalties to traditional constitutional practice’.

21 A. M. Carr-Saunders, D. Caradog Jones and C. A. Moser, A Survey of Social Conditions in England and Wales (1958), 136–53.

22 Ibid., 173–82.

23 Summerfield, Women Workers, 185–91.

24 Sheila Ferguson and Hilde Fitzgerald, Studies in the Social Services (1954), 103–9. Thereafter Ferguson and Fitzgerald, Studies; J. M. Winter, ‘The Demographic Consequences of the War’, in Smith, War and Social Change, 176; FR 64, Weekly Intelligence Service, 29 Mar. 1940, 76, Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex.

25 Harris, Jose, ‘Did British Workers Want the Welfare State? G. D. H. Cole's Survey of 1942’, in J. M. Winter, ed., The Working Class in Modern British History (1983), 200–14. (The archives of the Reconstruction Survey are in the library of Nuffield College, Oxford.)

26 Lowe, ‘Welfare State’, 174–80.

27 Beveridge Papers, IXa, 15, Employment investigation, report of a meeting with the TUC, 9 Feb. 1944; Harris, Jose, ‘Some Aspects of Social Policy in Britain during the Second World War’, in W. J. Mommsen, ed., The Emergence of the Welfare State in Britain and Germany, (1981), 247–60; Webster, Charles, The Health Services since the War, Vol. 1 (1988), 107–20.

28 Lionel Robbins, Autobiography of an Economist (1971); Spender, Stephen, ‘September Journal’, in Journals 1939–83, ed. John Goldsmith (1985).

29 e.g. FR 510, diaries for Dec. 1940, Mass Observation Archive. A notable exception was the diary of Naomi Mitchison, Among You Taking Notes: The Wartime Diary of Naomi Mitchison, ed. Dorothy Sheridan (1985), 62–3.

30 Mannheim, Hermann, Comparative Criminology, vol. II (1965), 597–8; idem, Social Aspects of Crime between the Wars (1940), esp. pp. 105–22; idem, War and Crime (1941), 129–44.

31 Edward Smithies, The Black Economy in England since 1914 (1984), 64–84.

32 As demonstrated by innumerable cartoons of the period. See Andrew Sinclair, The War Decade. An Anthology of the 1940s (1989), 21. Thereafter Sinclair, War Decade.

33 Travis Crosby, The Impact of Civilian Evacuation in the Second World War (1986), passim; John Macnicol, ‘The Effect of the Evacuation of Schoolchildren on Official Attitudes to State Intervention’, in Smith, War and Social Change, 3–31.

34 Ferguson and Fitzgerald, Studies, 104.

35 People in Production. An Enquiry into British War Production. A Report by Mass Observation (1942), 24–5.

36 Compare, for example, Paul Addison, The Road to 1945 (1975), with Brooke, Stephen, ‘Revisionists and Fundamentalists: The Labour Party and Economic Policy during the Second World War’, HJ, Vol. 32, no. 1, (1989), 157–75, and Kevin Jefferys, The Churchill Coalition and Wartime Politics 1940–1945 (1991).

37 I have discussed Barnett's interpretation more fully in my Enterprise and Welfare States: A Comparative Perspective’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Ser. Vol. 40 (1990), 175–95.

38 See e.g. Richard Titmuss, Income Distribution and Social Change (1962), and Titmuss's contribution to Morris Ginsberg, ed., Law and Opinion in England in the Twentieth Century, (1959).

39 Middleton, Roger, ‘The Treasury and Public Investment: A Perspective on Interwar Economic Management’, Public Administration, Vol. 61, no. 4 (Winter 1983), 352; Whiteside, Noelle, ‘Private Agencies for Public Purposes: Some New Perspectives on Policy-making in Health Insurance between the Wars’, Journal of Social Policy, Vol. 12, no. 2 (1983), 165–83.

40 Harris, William Beveridge ch. 17; Chapman, R. P., ‘The Development of Policy on Family Allowances and National Insurance in the United Kingdom 1942–1946’, MPhil thesis (University of London, 1990).

41 John Macnicol, The Movement for Family Allowances 1918–45 (1980), 156, 169, 183–6, 202.

42 John Veit-Wilson, ‘Genesis of Confusion: The Beveridge Committee's Poverty Line for Social Security’, paper for a seminar at the Suntory-Toyota International Centre for Economics and Related Disciplines, London School of Economics, 1 Nov. 1989. I am grateful to John Veit-Wilson for permission to cite his paper.

43 In, for example, the essay on war in Essays on the Welfare State, where Titmuss the subtle and finely nuanced social historian was less in evidence than Titmuss the didactic social theorist.

44 Cited in Sinclair, War Decade, 14.

45 Lawrie, ‘Impact’, passim; People in Production, parts C, D, and E; FR 1364, ‘Reconstruction, People's Hopes and Expectations’, July 1942, Mass Observation.

46 ‘A Review of Some Conclusions Arising out of a Year of Home Intelligence Reports’ by Stephen Taylor, Oct. 1941 PRO. INF 1/292; People in Production, 63–7, and passim.

47 Julian Symons, Notes from Another Country (1972), cited in Sinclair, War Decade, 76.

48 People in Production, 54–5, in the autumn of 1942 wrote about the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ nostalgically, as though it were an episode in a distant and irrecoverable past.

49 Cited in Sinclair, War Decade, 90–3.

50 Summerfield, Women Workers, passim.

51 Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert and Lee Horsley, Churches and Churchgoers. Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700 (1977), 27, 30, 35–7, 62, 114–15. Mass Observation recorded a decrease in church-going but a ‘strengthening’ of faith, particularly in 1942 (FR 1200, Mass Observation Archive).

52 People in Production, 178–9.

53 Minutes of the Social Insurance Committee, March–Aug. 1942, PRO, CAB 87/ 76–8.

54 ‘Certain things go inevitably with war and are war’, commented an anonymous member of the Mass Observation team in April 1940. ‘The main thing is fighting, winning, killing and being killed, being masculine and aggressive and abnormally vigorous, violent and physical.’ FR 89, ‘Morale Now’,30 Apr. 1940, Mass Observation Archive.

55 Graham Smith, When Jim Crow met John Bull. Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain (1987).

56 Peter Fryer, Staying Power. A History of Black People in Britain (1984), 330–67.

57 Peter Flora, State, Economy and Society in Western Europe 1815–1975. Vol. 1: The Growth of Mass Democracies and and Welfare States (1983); and Peter Flora, ed., Growth to Limits. The Western European Welfare States since Second World War, Vols I, II and IV (1987–8).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed