To what extent was Britain a divided society at the beginning of the Second World War?
After the First World War came to an end, Britain, as were many other countries, was in a rather fragile state. Unemployment was as high as 70% in some areas of the country and the British Empire was fast receding. Due to factors such as these the 1930’s have been referred to as ‘The Devil’s Decade’, insinuating hardship for everyone involved. However, I would argue that not everyone was having a hard time in Britain in the 1930’s, in fact some were having a better time than ever, meaning Britain as a society was indeed divided.
The state of the British economy in the 1930’s was far from the best it had ever been. After the Great Depression of 1929 unemployment had risen in Britain, in some areas as high as 70%., “for almost twenty years there were never fewer than one million people unemployed in Britain” (1).
This was due to the fact that there was many single-industry towns dotted around Britain (particularly in the north).
This segregation contributed to the division of society in Britain as because these areas were often isolated, there was a lack of knowledge about these problems in upper class society. As Priestly put this “we do not know these districts” (2), it was often unknown to different sectors of society just how much the working class struggled. Priestly (2) also talks of his experiences meeting those who were lucky enough to have a job, and says that the wage was often “two pounds with luck”, which today equates to around £121 per week (3).
I would like to start this essay by saying that mental illness is an issue that hits extremely close to home. Both of my uncles on my fathers side developed schizophrenia in their 20's. One of them, upon being diagnosed, committed suicide. This happened before I was born, but the fall-out is still visible in my family. The other now lives in a home for those with mental illness. He is on ...
This demonstrated the huge difference between wealth of classes in Britain in the 1930’s, which creates an obvious divide in society. To further matters, the existence of the welfare state and the bitterness created due to the ‘testing’ of people’s eligibility to receive government benefits widened the societal gap. It seems as though there was a sense of injustice amongst the poorer sectors of society, and quite rightly so. This class divide is not specific or unique to the 1930’s of course, as we still experience this is today’s Britain.
One aspect of division in Britain that was much more evident in the 1930’s than today was the gender divide. As it is well known women in the 1930’s suffered outrageous inequalities much mores that in today’s Britain. Most women were destined to live a life of housework, however due to the effects of the First World War more women than ever were in employment, in order to replace men who were required to go to war and serve their country. This can also be seen in the Second World War, where in 1939 27% of the total labour force was made up of women, rising to 38.5% in 1945, a rise of 11.5% in just six years. Despite this indicating better opportunities for women to earn their own money, this figure dropped again almost immediately after the Second World War ended, to 31% in 1946 (4).
This shows that although the gender divide appeared to have lessened during the years of the war, in fact nothing permanently changed at all for women, it was simply a necessary move to ensure the safety of industries, as Braybon & Summerfield explain “there was a stubborn reluctance at the heart of government to introduce any policy that would change the conventional role of women at home, even at the height of total war” (5).
For those women who didn’t work, the more ‘traditional’ roles, there was heightened pressure to keep stability within the Home. One of the most prevalent issues was the ‘make do and mend’ attitude lingering from World War 1. Women were expected to stretch resources to the absolute maximum as the effects of the economic downturn after the First World War remained. As mentioned before surviving on the equivalent of £121 per week to feed, clothe and shelter a family would be extremely difficult, but it was simply assumed to be the women’s role. In comparison with today’s society it is more unusual than not to see a woman whose ‘duty’ it is to stay at home and look after the house and children, this divide is monumental, to a very large extent indeed.
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Due to the 1930’s having localised mass unemployment levels, a clear divide in wealth and most prominently in my opinion, gender, I think it is fair to say that Britain was a divided nation to a fairly large extent at the beginning of the Second World War. I do not believe it was unique is this way as a decade, but in comparison with today’s Britain, and the existence of the NHS and lower unemployment rates, coupled with vastly improved women’s rights, there was a much greater divide in society that what we experience today.