THE INTERVAL at any theatrical performance is usually marked by the fall of a curtain, to be raised again at the start of the next act. Nothing of note occurs during the interval, which is merely a gap between the first half of the action and the second. But it was the other way about in twentieth century British history. When a four-year period of darkness ended in 1918, the curtain rose, to reveal a new Age of the Common Man which should have celebrated its coming-of-age after twenty-one years in 1939 but, instead, died – as darkness and the curtain fell again. The military and political cataclysms of two world wars naturally capture all the historical interest, but to the regrettable neglect of the social, industrial, commercial and cultural revolutions that quietly took place during that long intermission.
The Great War had brought about the end of four Empires – Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian – coinciding in Britain with the demise of the aristocracy and the church as powers in the land. That war had been fought by Officers and Men, the ruling classes having controlled government ever since the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, until the overthrow of that hierarchy liberated government and people alike in another, very British revolution, which effectively transferred power to politicians and the popular press. So WWII was embarked upon, not so much out of a sense of duty, as had been the case a hundred years ago, but with a sense of purpose, as a War of the Common Man.
For the transformation of society and the economy during that interval promised a true marriage between government and people. Their flirtation throughout the 1920’s and ‘30’s might indeed have led to a long-term union if the inter-war idyll had not been brutally curtailed.
It had already produced enfranchisement of women, the first Labour Government, national trades unions; creation of the BBC, mass-circulation newspapers, cinema, public telephones, paper-back books and gramophone records; Woolworth’s and chain stores, advertising and mass production of consumer goods and motor-cars; building societies and house-building for sale, the creation of suburbia, insurance policies sold door-to-door and provident clothing clubs; boy scouts, girl guides and garden allotments; evening classes and correspondence courses, workingmen’s and women’s institutes. All this and more, crammed into those two short decades and through the worst financial crisis and economic depression of modern times. Like the industrial revolution a century earlier, this transformation was brought about entirely by private enterprise or voluntary association, with no interference or support from government: no grants, subsidies, benefits, councils, committees, commissions or consultants.
Hence the disillusionment upon realisation that the old order of lords and landed gentry, bishops and colonials, owners of coal-mines, shipping lines, cotton mills and breweries that used to run the country was actually replaced, not by the promised partnership of the public with government but by government alone; that the upper classes were simply supplanted by the political classes. This is the cause of the souring of relations in Britain today between government and governed, all the more embittered by both sides’ unawareness of the background.
The game is given away every time officialdom refers, as it is so fond of doing, to a “public-private partnership”, where ‘public’ no longer means the general public as it formerly did, but only government itself. It is the common people now who are the private sector, relegated to the subordinate role. The ultimate absurdity is that alongside the mass of population corralled within the ‘private’ sector are the giants of industry, whose shares are available for purchase nation-wide, whereas every inaccessible quango or EU satellite is ‘public’! This misappropriation of ‘public’ by the state apparatus is the greatest achievement of post-war socialism. Why bother nationalising industry when you’ve nationalised the people? The old means of repression have merely been replaced by new means of regulation and control.
So the unacknowledged tragedy of WWII, beyond the human, physical and economic devastation, is the additional cost – incalculable yet even greater in its consequences for future generations – of the loss of that preview of real democracy which a few free Western nations had enjoyed in the 1920s and 30s, when the people were master of the state; only to be replaced, in a reversal of roles throughout the seventy years since 1945, by a new bureaucratic autocracy. Consequently, that nostalgic pastiche, ‘The Boy Friend’, turned into George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’, while Noël Coward’s ‘This Happy Breed’, which captured the spirit of that inter-war idyll – of what ordinary people thought they were fighting for – turned out to be a ‘Brief Encounter’.
As Brexit has reaffirmed, it is against the proliferation of government and its identification with the establishment that the people are rebelling. But how, in order to liberate the people, can government be required to execute cuts upon itself? That indeed is the challenge which every administration of our time has shirked.
© Vivian Linacre March 2017