Did the experience of the Second World War radicalise the British public?

It is not true that the British public become supportive of extreme political and social movements as a result of the cultural impact of the experience of the Second World War. Whilst it is evident that the experience of the Second World War radicalised the British public to a certain extent, it would certainly be more true to say that the change to the British public and sociopolitical circumstances that succeeded World War Two was more of a slow process that was in part a continuation of the alteration in mind set that accompanied the end of the First World War.

Arguably, the implementation of a form of total war in Britain during the Second World War is the greatest extent to which the British public were radicalised since as well as being conscripted to military activities, the home front played a large part in the effort to win the war. Historian Mark Duffield argues that to force a country into a state of total war is to instigate a state of environmental terror, which in turn revolutionises the participants by forcing them to fully experience the emotional state of war from the home front. Such as in the French Revolution of 1789, entering a mass of untrained, unprepared citizens – at worst, women and children – is likely to spark a newfound support for radical politics, often in resistance to whichever regime caused the trouble.

However, it appears that in the case of the Second World War the British public did not vote for the opposition in a radical resistance to the current government. Conversely, it appears that Labour’s 1945 landslide victory was a result of a long-approaching swing to the left which may have happened as early as 1942 with the publication of the Beveridge report according to historian John Barnes. In addition to this, the swing to the left, whenever it took place, cannot be considered a radicalisation of the entire British public. This is because at the time of the election, only 66% of the electorate actually registered to vote and an even smaller number of people turned out to vote. This obvious act of apathy towards the existing democratic system refutes any claims that the British public was radicalised in any political sense.

Furthermore, the Beveridge report of 1942 was a document that came out of the war experience that outlined improvements to the current socio-economic situation in areas such as the education, health and facilities of Britain. The report influenced the public in a less extreme manner than total warfare; it was deemed at the time ‘evolutionary rather than revolutionary’ by contemporary writer Eveline Burns since it simply suggested advancements for the entire country to take part in rather than suggesting any move towards political extremism as a means of producing a more efficient and effective Britain. Despite its huge popularity, with an estimated 92% of the population aware of it the day after its publication, the report’s impact cannot be considered radical or a radicalisation of the British public. In this, the experience of the Second World War did not radicalise the British public.

To conclude, the experience of World War Two radicalised the British public in the short term since the implementation of a state of total war was definitely an attempt to radicalise and militarise the entire British public. Otherwise, the slow gain in popularity accumulated by the Labour party, starting in the First World War and culminating in their landslide victory in 1945, proved to be anti-radical in that it was a definitive move towards peace government. Furthermore, the impact of the Beveridge report proved to be a major effect of the experience of the Second World War, though this too was both politically inoffensive and also longstanding.

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