I like the term “Greatest Generation”. Not only is it accurate, it is something that – in these hideously divided times – most Britons can agree upon. I feel enormous pride in the fact that our forebears faced down the greatest ever threat to this country’s freedom, withstood the Blitz (which claimed 67,000 civilian lives) . . . and then completely changed the way that British society was organised.
It is this last bit I want to discuss.
In July of 1945 (a mere two months after the Nazis were defeated) there was a general election in Britain.
It was a typically eccentric thing for the British to do – the Potsdam Conference was in full swing, during which the most important issues of the century were being discussed and resolved . . . but our forebears decided to complicate things by sending the entire war-weary country to the hustings.
The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill – who had proved to be a superb war leader – assumed it would be a slam dunk for his Conservative Party, and concentrated on hammering out the future of Europe with Truman and Stalin. So certain was Churchill of victory, he barely even bothered to campaign.
But there was a problem on the horizon, one that the normally acutely canny Churchill should really have noticed: He and his Conservatives were not offering what Clement Atlee’s Labour Party was offering . . . which was a huge programme of social reform based around the 1942 Beveridge Report (one of the driest, least-readable documents ever to become a best-seller). The Labour manifesto promised the creation of a National Health Service, state-funded education and a system of social security.
The result of the election was a landslide Labour victory, which saw a 10.7% swing away from Churchill’s Conservatives towards Labour, still the largest swing of its kind in any British election.
But it is important to realise that this was not a “political” issue in the usual sense of the word: once Clement Attlee’s Labour party had come good on its promises (which it did) support for his party drained away, and by 1951, Churchill was prime minister again.
I think this serves to highlight just HOW much the Greatest Generation wanted these social reforms – they wanted them so badly that many were prepared to switch political allegiance temporarily in order to achieve them. And once Labour’s social reforms were enshrined in Law, very few politicians of the time were stupid enough to try to tamper with them.
Of course, not everything was perfect with Labour’s reforms, and they contained the seeds of many problems that were later to plague Britain; but without them there would be no NHS, no free education, and no Welfare State (despite what some people say, not ALL benefits are handed out to immigrants and shirkers).
Fast forward now to 2019. The sacrifices and actions of the Greatest Generation are still venerated – but their legacy seems held in utter contempt: the NHS is being picked apart, state-funded education is hammered, and the newspapers are filled with stories of men and women who, despite having months to live, are being declared fit for work.
So, next time you don a poppy, or tune in to watch the ceremonies at The Cenotaph, remember those who gave their lives – but remember also PRECISELY what the vision was that those who survived had for British society . . .