Opinion

Postwar Britain was a place of renewal, opportunity and optimism for working-class people. What happened?

Early June offers a chance to reflect on the sacrifices made at D-Day, but we must ask what happened to the promise of postwar Britain

Pegasus cup

The Pegasus cup is a simple reminder of the sacrifice of so many

Here is a Pegasus cup. Cups are sold liberally at a cafe by the River Orne near Ranville in Normandy, northern France. At this time of the year, early June, the place is abuzz with tourists wanting to buy these cups and other memorabilia from the cafe, still in the family after a hundred years. Why? Because just before midnight on 5 June 1944 a number of gliders arrived silently and their passengers overwhelmed the German guard, capturing the strategic bridge the cafe sat next to.

The bridge that was taken was renamed Pegasus Bridge because of the insignia – on the shoulders of the liberating soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division – of the horse Pegasus being ridden by Bellerophon. 

The significance of the cafe’s location is that it was the first place in France to be liberated during the Second World War. A few hours later the largest amphibious force known to mankind began to land on the nearby beaches of Normandy. 

Perhaps because my uncles were there at D-Day and it was still talked about years after the war ended, there is never an early June when I am not moved by the sacrifices that many made to liberate Europe and the world from Nazism.

For the 50th anniversary in 1994 I flew in a small plane into Caen airport, a Norman town that was at the centre of the early D-Day attempts to begin breaking the German occupation of France. It was a frightening experience for me, with six of us packed into what seemed like a tin can. We took off and landed a few times as we flew to other parts of a tour around the D-Day landings. To the beaches where hundreds of thousands took their lives in their hands and risked everything. Fortunately my generation did not have to face what a previous generation had to. 

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Next year is the 80th anniversary and there will be enormous parades on that day. I am not so sure there will be many there who were on the beach on D-Day, because they would probably now have to be around 100 years of age. My uncles who were at D-Day have been dead many decades, they lived the kind of working-class life and consumed a diet that didn’t encourage the making of old bones. One uncle liked the drink too much and made it to his late 50s. He was a restless and lost man after he came out of the army; he always insisted that the war was the only thing he ever did that made sense.

Incidentally he lived in one of the streets that was torn down to build Grenfell Tower, a local slum boy where slums spread all over North Kensington and into Paddington and Kilburn.

As I like to remind people, 90% of postwar working-class housing was substandard, only a tad away from semi-derelict. 

It is interesting to reflect on what that the war was all about. It certainly wasn’t one that led to the ending of poverty, and the First World War was equally incapable of providing homes fit for heroes. There was a strong feeling among working-class people that life had to look up after the war – else what was that war for? The welfare state was built largely with the aid of money from the US taxpayer, but with an enthusiasm and drive among the many to turn their backs on their former poverty.

Astonishingly, 18 years after the war was over you got The Beatles. Though they later enjoyed stupendous wealth, they were from a part of society that would in an earlier generation been employed as the semi or unskilled labourers of British industry. The 1960s may not have turned into the utopia many hoped for, but there was more money and social mobility about for working-class people.

Grenfell Tower was built in the late 1960s and early 70s to replace the slums with good housing for the local working poor. But of course, it turned into the tragedy that today haunts social housing and poverty, almost as a symbol of the missed opportunities and municipal neglect. Where did we go wrong with the promises of the war and the promises of the welfare system that burst out of the belly of postwar expectations, like the birth of a more promising era?

Such thoughts ­– of a lost promise – inhabit the mind of a man born nine months after that war ended, into the slums of Notting Hill. I though was one of the blessed, like The Beatles. My blessing took the form of a youth offender’s custodial system that gave me a better education and skill base than if I’d remained hardworking and honest. 

Certainly, a reconstruction of our economy and society is on the cards. If only by contrasting what was possible with what was actually achieved. Our NHS, so eaten up with trying to keep poor people as healthy as possible, has never been so overwhelmed. Housing that people can afford has evaporated for an eternity for the many. Unliveable-with inflation stalks the land. 

Isn’t it time to plan to do better? Is this going to be decided at the ballot box? Or will there need to be a greater social groundswell that pushes for more deep change around the need to reinvent; break the logjams around housing, health and happiness?

Pegasus, D-Day and the welfare state should not have been in vain.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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