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Home Uncategorized Strangers in a Strange Land

Strangers in a Strange Land

George O’Brien
Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain, by Clair Wills, Allen Lane, 442 pp, £25.00, ISBN 978-1846147166 The view of American secretary of state Dean Acheson that “Great Britain has lost an empire, and has yet to find a role” has been conventionally taken as a neat summation of the postwar history of the island next door. Acheson was no longer in office when he made the statement in 1962. But neither that circumstance nor subsequent events have prevented his formulation from becoming not merely a cliché, a truism, an occasion for smiles around diplomatic water-coolers, but something more cast-iron and condign, like a comeuppance or a curse, a judgment or a destiny. Yet you could also say that at the very same time as Acheson spoke the British empire was never more available to the home country: never had “overseas” presented the mothership with a greater opportunity to affirm the values of social amelioration and moral example on which the imperial project persuaded itself, and all those listening at home, that it was based. In saying that “everyone experienced the same post-war Britain; everyone was us in that present of the 1940s and 1950s, wherever they had come from”, Clair Wills underlines not only the possibility of new beginnings but something of its character ‑ collective, diverse, facing a future with an historical awareness and social conscience honed in the recent all-embracing conflict. The idea of turning the world into a better place – how quaint that seems these days. And a fresh start wasn’t only a matter of removing the ground-zero look of the country. Bricks and mortar were essential as both practical and symbolic expressions of recovery. But over and above buildings themselves there was also an impetus to build something different ‑ not Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land necessarily, but clearly in the establishment of the National Health Service (and in nationalisation generally) something more than just a pious hope for brighter days was being expressed. The new institutions and the thought on which they were founded were a revision of the social contract, a renovation of the notion of an “us”, making the postwar landscape one in which service and entitlement could be in cohesive dialogue. And, wittingly or not, another expression of this brave new world was an invitation to natives of the empire to come on over, and as…



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