Twice, recently, I’ve read or heard something about how the middle class in the UK was forced to sharply lower its expectations in life due to the loss of the British Empire following World War II. I can see how that might have been the case for the governing classes, since there was no longer the wealth of foreign ‘posts’ to which their sons could be sent, and guaranteed a fine living, but how did that affect the middle class? Or putting it another way, to what extent was the middle class’ standard of living dependent on the existence extensive far-flung colonies?
O course, I’ve often heard that Great Britain experience a significant economic decline during that era, but how did the loss of the colonies contribute to that?
IMO, the loss of money due to loss empire was largely because the British establishment could no longer plunder the natural resources of its colonies for little investment. This, combined with post-war social reforms such as the welfare state and the NHS, reduced the concentration of wealth in the mid-to-upper echelons of British society.
But as an aside I would point out that the “governing classes” in the colonies were largely middle class. Mainly civil service posts that gave people a lot of power overseas, but still were largely middle class professions. Even when I lived in Hong Kong in the '90s, there was a phrase there: “FILTH”: Failed In London, Try Hongkong.
Anecdotally, my mother’s side of the family were very middle class. My great-grandfather was the state lawyer for the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Growing up in the 1920s, my grandmother had a cook, a gardener and a nanny; in the 1940s in England, my mother had a part-time nanny. I was born in the 60s in a one-bed flat with no childcare at all. But the level of each generation’s professional attainment hadn’t altered.
Back in the 60’s I lived in Nigeria for a year while working on a telecommunications project. Even us humble technicians had masses of “servants”. I shared a house with another guy and we had a cook, cook’s assistant, gardener and night-watchman. This was just a throwback to the old colonial days.
But these things sound more like a typical evolution of the middle class everywhere. Both my parents’ families had a live-in maid when they were growing up, and my father and his father both had the same profession. As the middle class expanded, one saw the upper middle trappings such as maids and grand houses less often. There is some truth to the motif of “ordinary” families in old films employing maids, as in It’s A Wonderful Life or To Kill A Mockingbird. Domestic labor was cheap then, in America as in Britain.
It’s hard to separate economic dislocation caused by the loss of the Empire and economic dislocation caused by World War II. Britain was never pounded absolutely flat or invaded, but for years and years a huge fraction of their economic output went into waging the war.
In America we have this crazy idea that war is “good for the economy”. But that’s only true if war is over THERE, if your industrial base is out of reach of the enemy. America emerged from the war essentially untouched, while most of the rest of the industrialized world was in ruins…including Britain.
It may just refer to reduction in opportunity for social and economic advancement. One of the classic ‘rags to riches’ paths for the middle classes was to head off to the colonies where the strictures of class and tradition were not quite as rigid. Much easier to move up the ladder in the Prudential or the Civil Service in East Africa or somewhere than at home, or if you wanted to start a business.