Tag Archives: Second World War

Shock of the Global: Post-War Britain and Globalisation

A 'make do and mend' poster, c.1942.

A ‘make do and mend’ poster, c.1942.

by Benjamin Sacks

The Second World War permanently altered Britain’s relationship with the rest of the globe. Before 1939 the empire, particularly India and the settler colonies, dominated Britons’ conceptions of international affairs. But nearly six years of global conflict incontrovertibly changed this mindset. Isolated from its dominions by Axis submarines, ‘austerity’ Britain quickly adopted severe rationing and a ‘make do and mend’ approach. Gardening, raising small animals, and comprehensive recycling and reusing of countless household items became part-and-parcel of daily life. The British government and various civil organisations promoted the ‘local’, not the ‘global’ (to borrow sociologists George Ritzer’s and Roland Robinson’s terminology), prioritising national entrepreneurship and ingenuity over importing and exporting of goods.

This radically – and painfully – changed after 1945. India and Pakistan’s independence in 1947 catalyzed the empire’s irreversible (but relatively ordered) disintegration. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as fierce economic competitors, with considerably greater physical resource assets. At home, voters ousted Winston Churchill in favour of Labour Party leader Clement Atlee, who promised to refocus government policies on domestic social welfare. Internationally, Britain was forced to contend with a radically-changing marketplace. By the 1950s, it was increasingly evident that it could no longer solely rely on domestic production and inter-Commonwealth trade to both satisfy consumer demand and maintain the state’s strong international profile.

In ‘Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturing’, Thomas Birtchnell (University of Wollongong) skillfully demonstrates how – in short order – the Board of Trade, private businesses, and public organisations sought to re-educate consumers and producers alike of the global marketplace. They widely circulated such advertisements as ‘how can cycles sent to Africa fetch us cotton from U.S.A.?’ (1947) (p. 437). Officials popularised a “container-ship culture” in schools, trade and commercial magazines, and businesses in an effort to ramp up exports and imports of both raw materials and finished goods. Birtchnell recalled how social economist Karl Polanyi’s 1944 study, The Great Transformation, was trumpeted to promote Britain’s long history of international trade alongside other ‘economic propaganda’ campaigns (pp. 437-438).

To accomplish this goal, the Board of Trade and its allies tapped into a culture of consumerism and luxury that had persisted despite the war’s enormous pressures. At partial odds with Guy de la Bédoyère’s 2005 study The Home Front, Birtchnell proposes that Britons were at first exorted to produce and export advanced luxury items (e.g. radios, clothing, automobiles) in exchange for essentials. But this found little favour with British audiences, who had quietly clamoured for higher-end goods during the war, and now demanded their availability in the post-war environment. From 1947 the language changed: the Board of Trade instead promoted the export of British goods in exchange for foreign luxuries – silks, perfumes, electronics, foodstuffs. Such historians as Llewellyn Woodward promoted this programme via their writings; in 1947 he pronounced that ‘An English housewife finds it odd that English china to match a tea-set shattered in the Blitz can be bought in New York but is not on sale in London’ (p. 439). Birtchnell’s study is a fascinating contribution to our knowledge of Britain’s immediate post-war recovery, and hints as well at how Britain’s manufacturing base gradually switched from mass production to luxury, bespoke goods.

books_icon Thomas Birtchnell 2013 Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturingArea 45.4: 436-42.

Also see:

books_icon George Ritzer 2004 The Globalization of Nothing (Thousand Oaks, CA and London: Pine Forge Press).

books_icon Llewellyn Woodward 1947 Middle EnglandForeign Affairs 25.3, 378-87.



Make Do and Spend

by Thomas Birtchnell

Board of Trade (1947) We Live By Exports: A Simple Explanation of Exports and Imports Illustrated by Picture Charts London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, p. 13. Copyright free.

Board of Trade (1947) We Live By Exports: A Simple Explanation of Exports and Imports Illustrated by Picture Charts London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, p. 13. Copyright free.

Slogans from the past can in some special cases carry through to the present. Some slogans even increase in value through having their meanings mutated. So, for example, it is common now to be told to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in the news, in the kitchen (on a mug), in the shop (on a poster) or in the high street (on a t-shirt) and recently even at a Royal wedding. Motivational slogans like this one utilise a well-worn methodology, which we are all very familiar with from marketing, namely the appeal to (and parody of) cultural pride.

Britain’s Home Front in the Second World War was a particularly productive period for motivational campaigns. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, like ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’, betrays the urgency and desperation of this period and summons up a comfortable and candid populism still popular today. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ is a slogan that brings to mind an imperial ‘Britishness’ (modesty, aloofness, prudence, resolve) and was conceived to promote a sense of resilience in times of austerity. Interestingly, many of the slogans from this particular campaign have mutated into a context that appears to be the polar opposite of the austerity of the Home Front, namely of consumerism. ‘Keep Calm and Have a Cupcake’ we are now told.

The threat of imminent invasion, widespread shortages of staple foods and commodities, and the Luftwaffe’s blanket bombing required an exceptional campaign response. The government unit entrusted with this social intervention needed to promote action in the face of adversity in spite of waning morale bordering on widespread panic. Ironically, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has only gained notoriety in hindsight, undoubtedly due to its anachronistic language. Nostalgia too has played a key role in the ongoing success of the Home Front austerity campaigns. Many people’s grandparents in Britain (including my own) continued to exercise the stoic values they had learned during the Home Front after the war (thrift, prudence, repair, reuse) in marked contrast to their baby-boomer offspring.

So then slogans are important historical sources in themselves. In my recent article for Area I consider another slogan from the period directly following the end of the war. ‘Fill the Ships and We Shall Fill the Shops’, I argue, was in fact a mutation of the popular austerity campaigns of Churchill’s government such as ‘Make Do and Mend’.

The Labour Party had inherited a looming catastrophe and so Sir Richard Stafford Cripps was appointed to lead another equally impactful campaign, this time targeting prosperity rather than austerity to encourage people to drop localism and become global again. Cripps, (who was haunted by the unfortunate malapropism ‘Stifford Crapps’ allegedly thanks to Winston Churchill) was a big fan of facts. Indeed the brochure he produced for the campaign is full of crisp statistics and quaint illustrations of little ships and stick-people. This campaign is fascinating for geographers principally because it represents the first serious imagining of geographies of manufacturing that we are all familiar with today and that we call ‘globalisation’.

The author: Dr Thomas Birtchnell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

books_iconBirtchnell T 2013 Fill the ships and we shall fill the shops: the making of geographies of manufacturing Area doi: 10.1111/area.12050

60-world2Bale T 2013 The rise of Ukip – more blip than permanent shift? The Guardian 12 June

60-world2New Home Front 2013 The New Home Front website

60-world2Roberts L 2011 Royal wedding: Kate Middleton and Prince William reinvent Cool Britannia The Telegraph 4 March

‘Othering’ Tropical Environments

By Benjamin Sacks

Castro Guevara by anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsWar changes everything. Societies and cultures, land and the environment, beliefs and approaches. Conflict establishes dangerous versions of ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’ – a timeless and effective means of dehumanising the enemy. Such distinctions are not only made between states or peoples, but between environmental types as well. In the thirty years following the Second World War, the tropics – from the Malayan jungles and Amazonia to East Africa – was ‘othered’ or, as Daniel Clayton (University of St Andrews) described, ‘tropicalised’ by Western powers and their Marxist enemies in counter-insurgency and anti-Communist wars.

American and British battles against Japanese forces in the Pacific and Asian theatres of World War Two introduced most military officials, politicians, and academics to the tropical jungle as a new and distinct battlefield space. As the United States, Britain, France, and Portugal became embroiled in a series of complex, violent conflicts in East Asia and Latin America, the tropical environment became an enigmatic, ‘militant’ world, ‘seductive’, lethal, and a comfortable breeding ground for far-left regimes (pp. 1-2). This mentality steadily matured into the Vietnam War.

Clayton approaches the tropical environment both as a ‘conceptual space’ and as a more traditional topographical/physical space (p. 2). ‘Tropicality’ soon conjured intense images of instability, distrust, and attrition in Western commanders’ minds. 1950s conflicts in Korea, Kenya, Vietnam, Guatemala, and Malaya cemented such fears in Western military teaching. Importantly, Clayton’s analysis reaches beyond common conceptions of tropical space, delineating between Western and indigenous understandings, the confrontation between intellectual and ideological elites, and the establishment of tropical myth – e.g., Ché Guevara’s controversial deification by Marxists after his 1967 capture and execution in Bolivia.

Western views of ‘tropicality’ appear to have been moulded from French surrealist philosophies cultivated in the wartime empire. Tropiques, published by Aimé Césaire in Martinique between 1941-1945, attacked Nazi/Vichy French amalgamations of the tropical Caribbean, French Polynesia, and West Africa into comfortable notions of ‘greater France’ (pp. 3-5). Instead, Césaire and his colleagues argued, the tropics was a dangerously seductive ‘Other’, an exotic, explosively vivid in colours, flora and fauna, sights, and sounds, very unlike Europe or North America. Césaire may not have sought to establish a rote dichotomy, but his project provoked notions of a confusing, contradictory non-Western environment at once fertile for colonial gains and as a centre of anti-colonial dissent. In the post-War world, the latter would take firm hold.

Cuban revolutionaries, in particular, propagandised their Marxist position through deft manipulation of tropical imagery and narrative. In so doing, they crafted a ‘third way’: indigenous constructions of the tropics – its benefits and dangers – that stood at odds with both traditional American and Soviet images of Cuba. In turn, Guevara and the Castros weaved together strains of ‘rugged terrain’ (pp. 5-8), local, hardened peoples and the culture, gender roles, jobs, and even music and art to fashion complex walls seemingly impenetrable to Western (particularly American) intervention. Other tropical revolutionary movements, such as the Viet Cong, closely watched and learned.

 Daniel Clayton, 2012, Militant Tropicality: War, Revolution and the Reconfiguration of ‘the Tropics’ c.1940-c.1975Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers  38 1-13

Also see:

 James A Tyner, 2004, Territoriality, Social Justice and Gendered Revolutions in the Speeches of Malcolm XTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 29 330-43


Radio: Transcending Political Boundaries

HM the Prince of Wales and French President Nicolas Sarkozy lay a wreath at the monument to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (18 June 2010).

by Benjamin Sacks

18 June 2010 marked the seventieth anniversary of one of the most important radio broadcasts of the twentieth century. On 18 June 1940 Charles de Gaulle, then leader of the French Government-in-Exile, announced on the European arm of the BBC Overseas Service (precursor to the modern World Service), that “the flame of French resistance must not and will not be extinguished”. The Daily Telegraph recalled that de Gaulle’s broadcasts were deemed so inflammatory by the Vichy Government that the Allied French leader was court martialled in absentia and sentenced to death. This week, His Majesty the Prince of Wales accompanied French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in commemorating de Gaulle’s momentous radio address.

This anniversary serves as a fitting reminder of the important role radio – particularly shortwave, or world-band radio – played in the development of twentieth century social geography. Indeed, the recognition of radio as an instrument of influencing social opinion and change occurred in the earliest years of international broadcasting. As was suggested in Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation, “The development of transmitters capable of broadcasting beyond the confines of regional, disparate cultural groups and national boundaries…presented an innovative medium for the conveyance of socio-economic and political perspectives of nation-state actors on the global stage”. Radio was a dynamic, malleable tour-de-force: warring governments vaulted propaganda at one another, peoples long suppressed found a new voice of survival, and global knowledge ceased to be optional. As international radio expanded, so too did a ‘communications generation’; in a 2001 Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers article, Matthew Farish described the years between the world wars as a “golden age’ of foreign correspondence”. International radio continues to captivate and influence. Unfortunately, this can occasionally have dire consequences. On 8 July 1993 Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM) demanded that Rwanda’s Hutu majority massacre the Tutsi minority. Hundreds of thousands perished.  The RTLM episode is a reminder of the continuing influence of radio in the changing social geographic landscape.

“Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni Meet Prince of Wales as they Visit Britain,” The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2010.

Matthew Farish, “Modern Witnesses: Foreign Correspondents, Geopolitical Vision, and the First World War,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 26 (2001): pp. 273-287.

Benjamin J. Sacks, “Nation Shall Speak Peace unto Nation: International Broadcasting in the Context of Civil Society,” Hemispheres: the Tufts University Journal of International Affairs 30 (2007): pp. 152-155.