On September 3rd, 1939 Britain was a very different country from that of today. As she prepared to declare war on Germany, Britain was still struggling with the vestiges of an Empire upon which the “sun never set” and the world economic crisis triggered by the Wall Street Crash ten years beforehand. But by the end of the following gruelling six years of war, an exhausted Britain would have begun undertaking the profound changes that helped create the country as we know it today.
Three examples of momentous changes in British society triggered by events on that day.
The British Empire was a constantly changing amalgamation of colonies, dominions, protectorates, mandates, possessions, and trading posts that at its height made up almost one-quarter of the planet’s surface area and peoples.
"Britain would come to lean heavily on its colonies during the Second World War".
In 1939 a Londoner could go to bed confident that whatever his personal circumstances he lived in the exact centre of a web of political and economic influence that embraced 750 million people around the world. Britain would come to lean heavily on its colonies during the Second World War and the implied promise of independence was understood by all.
Immediately following the war, the process of “decolonization” began and within twenty years the number of people under British rule outside of its islands had shrunk from three-quarters of a billion to only 5 million people, most of whom resided in the colony of Hong Kong.
The legacy of the British Empire itself remains a contentious subject, but the dissolution of a project begun in the 15th century in such a short time marked a profound change to Britain’s influence and how it sees itself on the world stage; something it continues to address even today as a consequence of the declaration of war on September 3rd, 1939.
If you were a woman back in 1939 chances are that you were at home when you heard the news of Britain declaring war. Certainly, if you had a husband he was your career as only 10% of married women were working outside the house. Even fewer could find employment if they had children.
At the outbreak of War only 33% of women worked and almost half of those were in ‘service’ doing for others the kind of household menial tasks that awaited them at their own homes. As shocking as it may seem today about this waste of opportunity and talent it represented a huge improvement on earlier years before suffrage and labour shortages wrought by the First World War had their influence. The same dynamic would be felt at the end of the Second World War. Only this time women didn’t give up their factory jobs for the returning Tommy.
And after the war women didn’t go back so readily to the kitchen sink. Today women’s participation in the workforce stands at 67% as opposed to men at 76% reflecting the beginning of social change that was escalated by the declaration of war on September 3rd, 1939.
The Welfare State
In 1939 people knew their place. Social position largely decided your level of education, health, housing, and the prospects for your children getting a degree compared to today. The following 6 years of war required immense sacrifice and endurance. Conversely, it also mixed classes together, broke down barriers of mistrust between different social standings and created a sense that things couldn’t go back to the way they had been. The military vote was overwhelming for Labour and its promise of a better civilian life. Despite being hailed as a hero during the war Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) leader of the Conservative party failed to get back into No 10 as Prime Minister after 1945 until 1951 due to a momentous desire by the British public for political change.
The Welfare State envisioned wasn’t a single piece of legislation, but a series of laws enacted covering health, housing, education, employment, taxation, pensions and nationalization. Its effects were felt immediately. Infant mortality plunged, and longevity increased.
In the following 70 years successive governments have tinkered about its edges, but the basic premise that we take for granted today that the government should be involved in ensuring that the sick be cured, the homeless housed and unemployed helped to find work remains. The declaration of war made on September 3rd, 1939 eventually led to the expansion of these opportunities across all classes in British society.
80 years ago Britain was asked to pay a great price to defend democracy against fascism. But in paying that price it adapted and changed. Its citizens are healthier, wealthier and more secure than at any time in the nation’s history. They would likely have made it to this enviable position eventually but the Second World War, signified by the declaration of war made on September 3rd, 1939 pushed the nation to make difficult choices and momentous change.