Britain’s engagement in the Second World War is frequently referred to as ‘People’s War’, an expression which it is imagined best captures the nature of that enterprise. However, this heartfelt axiom was not widely adopted at the time; rather the use of this phrase came to prominence in the aftermath of the war, and with the benefit of hindsight. This expression implies that this was a war of the people, something which came from the bottom up, was free-flowing and voluntary rather than top down and imposed. There is also a hint of radicalism about it which, of course, made sense in the wake of the landslide victory of the Labour Party in the 1945 General Election and the promise of a far-reaching, reforming political agenda. Yet there is a suggestion of myth and ambition around this romantic idea that goes some way to deny this cosy evocation of that time.
The Divided Interwar Period
In the first instance, it ought to be recognised that the outbreak of war came at the end of a period in British society that was hugely divisive: the interwar period had witnessed pockets of great poverty and deprivation, alongside others who enjoyed a degree of wealth and comfort.
Crudely speaking, the nation was divided north-south, with the south benefitting from the new light industries that modernity ushered in whilst the old industries of the north went into a state of decline. This background frames the idea of popular engagement with the war in September 1939 and, ultimately, how it was regarded. For those who had witnessed the injustices of the interwar period, here was an opportunity for the renaissance of British society, a levelling of the playing field and recognition of the common man within modern society. In this context, the people were placed at the heart of ‘People’s War’: this was to be their war, to be fought by them and at its conclusion to serve in their interests. It depended on the resurgence of the British people and their more active engagement in the process of government.
A Government / People Contract?
The socialist activist, military theorist and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Tom Wintringham reckoned, ‘The essence of the People’s War is confidence in the common people, and their confidence in those who lead them’ (1942, 45).
For Wintringham, ‘People’s War’ depended on a two-way exchange of trust and confidence; this undertaking could not be arranged on the basis of cynical exploitation but depended on a state of mutual dependence. In effect, a contract was to be struck between government and people whereby the people undertook to make all necessary efforts in the pursuit of war on the understanding that the government would ensure that all bore that burden equally and there was equality across society.
The Government’s Real View
In contrast, the Government largely failed to share in that confidence or believe in the people. They doubted the willingness or natural disposition of the general populace to freely enter into such a contract. It was their belief that a degree of didacticism would be required in order to compel the people to act in the right way and do the right thing: it was believed there was a need to take command. To this end, it was understood at the outset that the people would need to be cajoled and deliberately drawn into the enterprise, actively driven to participate.
For the government, the notion of ‘People’s War’ was little more than a chimera and they believed that they were required to manage the nationalmass in the prosecution of the war rather than allowing the war to be the enterprise of the people with the people at its heart.
On this basis, the whole notion of ‘People’s War’ is a field of contention.
On the one hand, those who had suffered during the interwar period believed that they were fighting a war to restore British society, to ensure that at war’s end the people would get their just desserts and society would be more equal and equitable.
From the Government’s perspective, they appreciated that this modern war would require the mobilisation of all the nation’s resources, affecting all and drawing all in.
When Churchill spoke of the ‘whole of warring nations’ being engaged in the war (‘The Few’, 20 August 1940), he was more interested in the management of the people in the immediate service of the war, and less around them thinking what they would get out of it at the end.
The idea that the war witnessed a true coming together of society, all the people acting as one putting previous distinctions and divisions behind them is to some extent flawed. Whilst there were certainly times when this was achieved, there were also frequent occasions where a spirit of ‘us’ and ‘them’ prevailed. To this extent, ‘People’s War’ is a multi-faceted concept that depends which people are invoking it and to what ends.
Wintringham, Tom, Peoples’ War, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1942.