World War 2
Britain in WW2

How did World War 2 change life in Britain?

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July 15, 2015 6:28PM

After the start of World War Two, life changed considerably in Britain. To avoid giving the enemy visual reference points at night, full blackout curtains had to be used to keep light from escaping from windows. Vehicle lights had to be covered so that only a pinhole was left to allow light to escape. Fuel was rationed, especially gasoline. Food was rationed, especially meat and other animal products, also clothing. Young children were sent into the country from the cities to protect them from the air raids. There were shortages of all kinds of consumables, from liquor to cigarettes. New cars were unavailable, and practically everyone between the ages of 18 and 50 was in some kind of military service, unless their job was considered essential to the war effort. Childless women aged 19-30 were also subject to national service, though not in a combat role.

WWII changed Britain forever.

In WWI, Britain considered itself a great power. One reason for that war was the fear the British felt of Germany, a rising power. The British had twice beaten down the French who had tried to reach for colonial expansion. Before that, they had harrassed and eventually beaten the Spanish, taking many of their colonies in the process.Thus Britain saw Germany, a rising power that desired colonies, possibly at the expense of England, as a threat.

WWI saw Britain emerge a victor nation, appearing to be stronger than ever. Additional colonies were collected. Britain had no real rival for several years on the high seas. All seemed well on the surface. But in reality strains were beginning to show.

When WWII started, these stresses reached crisis status. Many leaders in Britain realized that the war would bankrupt the country, overstress its financial and industrial base, and likely cost Britain its position as a world leading nation. Churchill would hear no arguments however, and proceeded on a war path. Ultimately this led to the bankruptcy and collapse of empire predicted by wiser heads.

The two wars thus changed Britain in tremendous fashion. Britain turned from a nation with vast overseas possessions in mining, plantations and other assets, to a creditor nation. The colonies were quickly lost. The assets were mostly sold at distressed prices to finance the war.

The Britain that emerged from WWII was much poorer than the one that entered it. The government changed too in reaction to this increase poverty. The old conservative, industry/colony based governments of the past were swept aside. (Churchill didn't even get to stay in office until the conflict was over). The replacement government was socialist in makeup, controlled by labor unions, hostile to industry, agreeable to high taxes on capital, and shot through with communist influence.

Britain went into a long decline, until, incredibly, their standard of living fell below that of Germany and other European nations. The Thatcher government of the 1980s stabilized the situation somewhat but basically Britain today is just another minor nation on the map. The world leading nation that entered WWII is a thing of the past.

Addendum

The above answer (#2) is substantially accurate. I would like to add a few points.
  • In the interwar period Britain was overstretched. The heavy commitment to 'Southern Britain' (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) involved a huge commitment in the Far East, too (Singapore and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong). At the same time, Britain was heavily committed to India and in the Middle East. There were also colonies in Africa. With the rise of Nazi Germany, Britain faced the massive additional investment required to re-establish itself again as a great power **in Europe itself**. It's no wonder that this wrecked the country's finances. (In the 1930s Germany, by contrast, had no military commitments far from its home base).
  • [There is plenty of evidence that Britain was struggling to reconcile its various commitments and that the British Empire didn't have much of a future, anyway. I am convinced that Churchill's decision in 1940 to continue the fight against Nazism was right].
  • Despite the decline mentioned above, after 1945 living standards for ordinary people rose to levels that were way above those of earlier decades. One can argue that some of this wasn't soundly financed and that successive governments came close to killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.
  • Britain was ruled by the Conservatives from 1951-64. They feared social strife and chose to do nothing to reverse existing trends - in some ways quite the opposite.
  • The decline was worst in the late 1960s and the mid 1970s. According to some of the reports on the fall of Harold Wilson it seems that in 1976 Britain came dangerously close to the ultimate humiliation in domestic politics in a democracy - a military coup.
  • In retrospect, Margaret Thatcher did more much than stabilize the situation: she reversed the decline, though this probably wasn't obvious at the time and some of the key reforms predated her premiership.
  • A couple of examples. In 1974 the left-wing National Union of Mineworkers brought down the Conservative government of Prime Minster Edward Heath. (This followed very damaging miners' strikes in 1972 and 1974). Many of miners' leaders spoke and acted as it they thought they were perfectly entitled to behave like this. They overplayed their hand and in 1984, in a bruising confrontation, Margaret Thatcher smashed the power of the miners' union for ever.
  • In 1976 the very top rate of income tax was still close to WW2 levels at about 98%. (The mind just boggles!). By 1978, this was reduced to about 70% and soon afterwards to 60%. These rates, though high, were a vast improvement on 98%+. At last there was a recognition of the need to stop discouraging investment, entreprise, creativity and hard work.

Joncey