When the fighting, the struggle and even the eventual rejoicing were over, post-war Britain faced some hard decisions. It was clear the country, and the world around it, had changed forever. A return to ‘business as usual’ was impossible.
In an attempt to remain a major player on the world stage, Britain maintained a mighty air force and a huge conscript army, but when the US cut off the Lend-Lease money, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy and went cap-in-hand back to the US for a low interest loan of $3.75bn – worth roughly $50bn today.
That money, combined with the income from the Marshall Plan – which committed the US to aid the rebuilding of Europe in return for modernised business practices and the removal of trade barriers – would help stabilise post-war Europe. Even with these funds, however, the continent now endured what became known as the Age of Austerity.
The political, economic and brick-by-brick reconstruction of Europe started after VE Day. The United Nations Charter was signed by 50 countries pledging to uphold international security and peace, and the millions of refugees displaced by the war started the long and arduous road home. In addition, leading Nazis were hunted and tried for their unspeakable crimes.
On the home front, rationing was still very much in force. Petrol, bread and clothes were the hardest hit. In fact, it wasn’t until 1953 that sugar and confectionery rationing ended, with meat following a year later. The manufacturing industry and public transport faced severe problems and, with a shortage of fuel, at times people had literally nothing to cook with.
The Labour government that won the 1945 General Election was frustrated. Their nationalisation policies of electricity, gas and water were expensive but, famously, they did manage to usher in the National Health Service in July 1948.
However, rather than the sweeping changes in Westminster, perhaps the greatest change in Britain in the post-war years was the shifting social make-up of the nation.
As prosperity returned in the early 1950s, so expectations rose, as did the numbers. Demand for homes and vehicles increased with the population, and we became more mobile and independent. Medical research was well-funded, and people were living longer. In addition, large-scale immigration starting in the 50s, largely from the West Indies, India and Pakistan, bought diversity not witnessed before.
The progress of the nation’s moral code, primarily with the legalisation of homosexuality and abortion and the abolition of capital punishment, also brought about widespread changes in attitudes and cultural continuity that had lasted in one form or another since the stiff-collared days of Victorian England.
While the British people battled through, armed with endless cups of tea and a bulldog spirit, a grim new reality was emerging in Europe. The infamous Cold War with Russia had begun.
The US and the Soviets had formed what turned out to be a very temporary alliance during the Second World War, and the Potsdam Conference in July and August 1945 was ostensibly convened to decide how to mete out punishment to Nazi Germany and to organise the complex dismemberment and subsequent occupation of the country.
As they struggled to reach any sort of agreement, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the US – which started showing cracks as early as 1942 – was becoming increasingly strained. With Britain struggling to rebuild and largely out of the political picture, these two ‘superpowers’ emerged with ideologically, politically, economically and diametrically opposed views on how to move their respective nations forward.
At Yalta, Stalin had agreed to free elections in Eastern Europe, which in reality he was never going to see through. He wanted a single-party Marxist-Leninist state, while the US was a capitalist nation which treasured free elections and freedom of speech. While the two never engaged in armed combat, both developed a nuclear capability that prevented attack from the other side under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Churchill chillingly foresaw what was happening in the Soviet Union and coined a famous phrase: ‘‘From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.’
When the US entered the Second World War, Churchill assumed that the war would be won and the British Empire would remain intact. However, the British capitulation in the Far East dramatically weakened Britain’s hand and, when Singapore fell, it became clear that Britain couldn’t defend its empire as it once had, pushing nations such as Australia and New Zealand into closer ties with the US.
Post-war, Britain was penniless and the Empire’s future was far from certain. As the colonies switched to more stable, non-Communist rule, Britain started a policy of peaceful disengagement. In the 20 years from the end of the war, the number of people around the world living under British ‘colonial rule’ dropped from 700 million to just five million, with 60% of those in Hong Kong.
As the British Empire was slowly broken up, the Commonwealth of Nations emerged. Fifty-three member states were signatories, many of which were former territories of the Empire, and HRH Queen Elizabeth II remains to this day as the titled Head of the Commonwealth. She reigns as monarch over 16 Commonwealth nations; 32 are republics, and the remaining five are monarchies in their own right.
As Britain returned to prosperity throughout the 50s and 60s, Europe got closer. The European Economic Community (EEC) was established, which eventually morphed into the European Union via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993.
Having fought, and won, the war together, Britain remained the strongest ally of the US – tied together by a common language, culture and legal system – and these links were solidified during the Cold War. This ‘special relationship’ aligned political affairs as well as financial, commercial and military cooperation.
On VE Day, the British people could finally mark the end of the existential threat to their nation. Through the long years of war, the nation had been severely weakened: drained of resources, money and political power on the world stage. Yet the decades which followed the war saw Britain emerge again in a new guise, as a creative cultural powerhouse in the fields of fashion, music, art, architecture, medical science and across all fields of technology.
The Second World War left a permanent impression on Britain, and forever changed the nation’s place in the world. But Britain emerged as a free nation, with a populace who would forever treasure the great struggle and eventual victory which VE Day signifies year after year after year.