‘The man who hated Britain’: why there was a lot to hate about 1940s Britain

Five things any right minded person SHOULD have hated about 1940s Britain.

A few days ago, the Daily Mail published an article in which it referred to Ralph Miliband, late father of Labour leader Ed, as the “man who hated Britain”.

Using a quote from 1941 in which a 17-year-old Miliband senior laments the ‘nationalism’ of England, his adopted homeland, the Mail has attempted – let’s not mince words here – to smear Ed Miliband as a politician who wishes to “achieve his father’s vision” of “uncompromising Marxism”.

Admirably, Ed Miliband has responded to the Mail’s execrable piece, and you can read his response here, which is entitled ‘Why my father loved Britain’.

Let us say for a moment, purely for the sake of argument, that Ralph Miliband really did “hate” the Britain of 1941. Wasn’t there in fact quite a lot to hate about the Britain at this time? In fact, would it not mark one down as a particularly uncaring person to have been comfortable with the status quo in 1941?

Here are five things we would (we hope) have hated about Britain in 1941.

1. Racism

In 1940s England, and in London in particular, signs were known to appear in the windows of Bed & Breakfasts and lodging houses reading ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, or, alternatively, Irish Need Not Apply – known as ‘INNA’ signs. Black workers arriving in Britain in the 1940s also very often faced discrimination and ‘colour bars’ preventing them from entering pubs and clubs.

Racism directed at non-white Britons went on for many years. A Tory candidate in the 1964 General Election even ran on the slogan ‘if you want a ni**er for your neighbour, vote Labour’.

2. Homophobia

In the 1940s, the police enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men, and gays and lesbians were prohibited from joining the military. Gay people were often treated like child molesters, with an attitude not so much ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ as ‘don’t do, don’t be, and don’t think about it’.

3. Sexism

The stigma attached to single mothers in the 1940s was so severe that many women were forced to seek dangerous backstreet abortions or give up their babies to adoption. Women were pressured to assume roles as wives and mothers and, apart from the brief interruption caused by the War, were excluded from the world of work.

Once the war ended, the male female division of labour reasserted itself once again, with employers forcing many women being laid off and others pushed back into lower-paying ‘female jobs’.

4. Empire

In the early 1940s, Britain presided over an empire which still spanned a large area of the globe. Forced Labour was common, and the imposition of steep taxes pushed many people into low paying jobs working for white-owned companies. During this period many had started to rebel against British rule, provoking in response severe repression on the part of the colonial authorities. In just one example of repression, in 1941 student protesters in Burma were charged by the British mounted police and shots were fired into a crowd of protesters led by Buddhist monks, killing 17 people

5. Inequality

1940s Britain was a society riddled with class prejudice and inequality. In 1936, six years before publication of the Beverage Report, which laid the foundations for today’s welfare state, the income of the best-off 1 in 1,000 peaked, before gradually falling relative to average incomes until 1979. As professor Danny Dorling puts it: “In the early 1940s, the ‘nine per cent’ – the rest of the best-off ten per cent less the richest one per cent – were paid an average salary of 2.4 times average incomes, the same as in 1959, 1969 and 1973. But as inequalities rose, by 1990 this ‘nine per cent’ were paid three times average incomes and that continued until 2007.”

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20 Responses to “‘The man who hated Britain’: why there was a lot to hate about 1940s Britain”

  1. Selohesra

    When you refer to the 17 year old Miliband is that to excuse his naive/dangerous views at the time because of his youth? – If so it seems a bit daft if Ed now wants to give vote to 16 year olds

  2. Colin A

    If reminiscing about the past is a-ok for this newspaper, let us remind ourselves that the proprietor of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothmere, cheered for Hitler and Franco. How very British, hmmm?

  3. Harry Leslie Smith

    I was 18 in 1941 and served with the RAF but thankfully not as “one of the few.” I’ve got news for the Daily Mail, like today, many people in 1930s and 40s Britain were brassed off about their standard of living, the empire, racism and prejudice. I know I whinged about the injustices I witnessed and endured during that difficult decade. I know that I made provocative statements when I was a lad in 1940 and had a skinfull. I also know that most of my mates weren’t happy with the lot we got from the ruling class. We had to accept a shoddy education system that trained us for low wage jobs. We had to accept that our health care was dependant upon our personal wealth. Moreover, back then most of working class Britain kipped in houses that a dog wouldn’t be kennelled in today.

    But, we all, like Ed’s father, did our bit and served the nation when it asked us to defend the King and our country, with our lives. I’ve been around long enough to know that through its publishing history, the Daily Mail has been an opponent to free speech, equality, democracy and human decency. It is a shameful publication that attacks the innocent, the dead and the powerless to increase its revenues.

    I’d say that if a reader wants to find examples of patriotism or fair play, you won’t find them between the pages of the Daily Mail, because their prose is written to incite, to divide and to play upon our baser natures.

    Back in 1941, I wanted to live in a country that was democratic, forward thinking and was willing to make sure that their was greater economic equality between the classes which would allow Britain to develop into a great nation. Funny thing is that at 90 years of age I am still waiting and hoping it will come to pass before I leave this mortal coil.

  4. David Lindsay

    People are making the point about the Daily Mail and “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” But an official phone number for Iain Duncan Smith’s Leadership campaign was in fact for the house of Nick Griffin’s father, a Vice-President of that campaign, who answered that phone with the words “British National Party”. That was not in the 1930s. It was not even in the 1960s. It was in the present century.

    Then there are the youthful ties of numerous members of the present Government to apartheid South Africa and to Pinochet’s Chile. And then there are the Nazi sympathisers in the aristocratic backgrounds of many an MP from either Coalition party. Cameron himself is related by marriage (so, a matter of his choice) to none other than the Astors.

  5. Alan Ji

    I’m not against a Beverage report but I think the author meant Beveridge.

  6. Alan Ji

    Forgot to mention that one adult one vote elections hadn’t arrived; one of the great reforms of the first Labour Government to have a majority in Parliament.

  7. whs1954

    What irrelevant drivel. Who in 1941 gave a damn about Buddhist monks and the Labouchere Amendment? There were more important things to care about.

    As for your smear about Griffiths and Smethwick, we both know it’s false. There’s no proof for it and a link to Workers’ Liberty doesn’t count.

  8. Tam Francis: The Girl in the J

    You bring of very good points. Whenever I talk to my father-in-law and he expounds on how terrible our generation is I remind him of these points. I touch on it a little in my fictional novel and blog girlinthejitterbugdress.com. Oh and it wasn’t just in Britain. I believe you could say the same about the Yanks. I’m glad you put racism at the top of the list. That is my fave argument to use with my father-in-law.Thanks for this observation and reminder.

  9. TAB

    Why stop at the 40’s ? The signs of “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” were still in force in the early 70’s in London that is why lots of Irish and Afro-Caribbean migrants ended up in places like Notting Hill and Brixton and the overspills of Kilburn and Stockwell to be left at the mercy of the likes of Rachman.

  10. Two Bob

    Sounds like the article of some kind of ethnic extraction from bongo bongo land (!)

  11. franwhi

    Now you are all full of outrage at the odious DM when the leftish Scottish Govt have been facing a barrage of hostile right wing and often spiteful and personally hateful press from this paper’s so-called journalists for 5 years or more. Wake up and align yourselves and your party to the progressive forces in UK politics instead of being Better Together with the dark side of reactionary and anti-democratic views as espoused by Dacre et al. YES Scotland and anyone else who wants to join us in creating a fairer more representative democracy …or democracies across these islands.

  12. Evan Smith

    Just a few little quibbles with an otherwise good piece. Large scale ‘black’ immigration didn’t really start until the late 1940s, so the ‘no blacks…’ signs were more a feature of the 1950s. They were technically prohibited by the Race Relations Act in 1965.

    Also there origins of the ‘n****r neighbour’ slogan is not as straightforward. I have written more about it here: http://hatfulofhistory.wordpress.com/2013/01/04/looking-for-origins-of-racist-tory-slogan/

  13. henrytinsley

    Thank you for that excellent contribution. Nice to get a perspective from someone who lived through these great events. You should become a regular writer for LFF!

  14. Guest

    Good piece? It’s a display of cloying smugness that the author is so much more enlightened and tolerant than people who were born, lived and died decades before he was born.

    Then the double think evident in the very title. Namely that the Daily Mail was wrong to say that Miliband Père hated Britain, but even if he did he had good reason to, but… wait!… I said the Daily Mail was wrong… what? White isn’t black, and am I on a zebra crossing?

    It’s not a “little quibble” that the accompanying photograph isn’t even a first-hand image but a reconstruction of events purported to have taken place a quarter of a century later, or that the cited black workers didn’t arrive for at least another decade. It fatally undermines that claim.

    In early 1940s, when Miliband Père arrived and wrote that Adrian Mole type diary entry, the general population’s first mass exposure to non-white faces had been from “tan Americans”… and were far more likely to be besotted by them, and enamoured by their extreme courtesy (especially to the women) over the often abrasive and Anglophobic white counterparts… to the latter’s violent disgust.

    When the latter attempted to enforce Segregation on British streets and impose color (sic) bars in the pubs, the locals were more likely to weigh-in on the side of the former: up to and including all out street brawls.

    As for sexism, homophobia and intolerance, bit weak. These were different times and the rest of the world wasn’t of a 2013 Britain level of tolerance either (in fact, a lot of it was worse than 1940s Britain… continental Europe for a start, never mind the US’ treatment of blacks).

    Onto Empire, it was administered and served as profit for only a tiny proportion of the British population. This had been on its way out for some years beforehand, not just from outside forces but the complete enfranchisement of the British public which reached 100% only in 1929 (and ceased to be more than 100% – double votes from the university towns – in 1948), and didn’t above 30% until 1918.

    It is nonsense to hold responsible for Empire people who never set foot outside Blighty or received any of the profit, and is redolent of someone who doesn’t feel any link to that period.

    There was plenty of domestic criticism of Imperial policies at the time, but the best the author can do is find a single example of 17 deaths of Buddhist monks in Burma.

    Two reasons this is a hostage to fortune:

    i. The current situation of the Rohingya in Burma shows Buddhists – even ethnic Buddhists – are not necessarily unerringly tolerant social democrats.

    ii. Miliband Père, rightly or wrongly (I say wrongly), was a committed supporter of the USSR. To date, their death toll had been closer to 17 millions… not all Stalin’s doing, as the anti-Stalinist RM might have insisted.


  15. Colin A

    You need to learn to separate your Judean People’s Fronts from the People’s Front of Judeahs. Miliband the elder was against Stalinism and the USSR.

  16. Alec

    My final sentence was garbled, and I couldn’t get in to edit because for some reason I posted as a guest. Still, it can be seen that I specified he was against Stalin.

    What about the rest?


  17. venyanamore

    Pathetic. Smug, self-satisfied, Whiggish nonsense from start to finish. 4 and 5 are good, not bad things, from many regards (not unqualified, of course), and 1, 2 and 3 are frankly more than a bit spurious, and in no way justify the treachery inherent in becoming a Marxist or endorsing Marxist positions during the Cold War, which was only just getting underway, but by which time the barbarism and intense cruelty of Marxist societies and systems of governmental organization had already become abundantly apparent. .

  18. Alec

    Point 4 was, mercifully, on its way out. All the same:

    white-owned companies.

    For goodness sake! Not only is it factually wrong to say than non-Europeans weren’t in positions of high commercial power, but the Euros who were weren’t necessarily amenable to giving the same clout to all their supposed brethren and sistren back in Blighty.

    Fifty years previously, when 70% of the population didn’t have the vote, there were two Indian MPs in London.

    Maybe the author’s forebearers were colonial bwanas and he feels he has something to atone for. Sins, however, are personal.

    (I write as someone whose grandparents were in British East Africa, albeit well away from Happy Valley; and whose grandfather was a colleague of – and could easily have gone the same way as – David Steele Père.)


  19. bluecatbabe

    That was interesting. I’d missed it – but here it is, you’re absolutely right.


  20. Guest (Yes, again)

    Oh, wow, a report on racism in lagers.

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