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Interwar Britain (1919-1939) was a period of peace and relative economic stagnation 1919-1939. In politics the Liberal Party collapsed and was replaced by the Labour Party. The Conservative Party was largely dominant throughout the period. The Great Depression impacted Britain less severely economically and politically than other major nations.
Historian Arthur Marwick sees a radical transformation of British society resulting from the Great War, a deluge that swept away many old attitudes and brought in a more equalitarian society. He sees the famous literary pessimism of the 1920s as misplaced, arguing there were major positive long-term consequences of the war to British society. He points to an energized self-consciousness among workers that quickly built up the Labour Party, the coming of partial woman suffrage, and an acceleration of social reform and state control of the economy. He sees a decline of deference toward the aristocracy and established authority in general, and the weakening among youth of traditional restraints on individual moral behavior. The chaperone faded away; village druggists sold contraceptives. Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.
Politics and economics of 1920s
Expanding the welfare state
Two major programs that permanently expanded the welfare state passed in 1919 and 1920 with surprisingly little debate, even as the Conservatives dominated parliament. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 set up a system of government housing that followed the 1918 campaign promises of "homes fit for heroes." The Addison Act, named after the first Minister of Health Doctor Christopher Addison, required local authorities to survey their housing needs, and start building houses to replace slums. The treasury subsidized the low rents. In England and Wales, 214,000 houses were built, and the Ministry of Health became largely a ministry of housing.
The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 passed at a time of very little unemployment. It set up the dole system that provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to practically the entire civilian working population except domestic service, farm workers, and civil servants. Funded in part by weekly contributions from both employers and employed, it provided weekly payments of 15s for unemployed men and 12s for unemployed women. Historian Charles Mowat calls these two laws "Socialism by the back door," and notes how surprised politicians were when the costs to the Treasury soared during the high unemployment of 1921.
The Lloyd-George coalition fell apart in 1922. Stanley Baldwin, as leader of the Conservative Party (1923–37) and as Prime Minister (in 1923–24, 1924–29 and 1935–37), dominated British politics. His mixture of strong social reforms and steady government proved a powerful election combination, with the result that the Conservatives governed Britain either by themselves or as the leading component of the National Government. He was the last party leader to win over 50% of the vote (in the general election of 1931). Baldwin's political strategy was to polarize the electorate so that voters would choose between the Conservatives on the right and the Labour Party on the left, squeezing out the Liberals in the middle. The polarization did take place and while the Liberals remained active under Lloyd George, they won few seats and were a minor factor until they joined a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Baldwin's reputation soared in the 1920s and 1930s, but crashed after 1945 as he was blamed for the appeasement policies toward Germany, and as admirers of Churchill made him the Conservative icon. Since the 1970s Baldwin's reputation has recovered somewhat.
Labour won the 1923 election, but in 1924 Baldwin and the Conservatives returned with a large majority.
Taxes rose sharply during the war and never returned to their old levels. A rich man paid 8% of his income in taxes before the war, and about a third afterwards. Much of the money went for the dole, the weekly unemployment benefits. About 5% of the national income every year was transferred from the rich to the poor. Taylor argues most people "were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages."
The British economy was lackluster in the 1920s, with sharp declines and high unemployment in heavy industry and coal, especially in Scotland and Wales. Exports of coal and steel fell in half by 1939 and the business community was slow to adopt the new labour and management principles coming from the US, such as Fordism, consumer credit, eliminating surplus capacity, designing a more structured management, and using greater economies of scale. For over a century the shipping industry had dominated world trade, but it remained in the doldrums despite various stimulus efforts by the government. With the very sharp decline in world trade after 1929, its condition became critical.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill put Britain back on the gold standard in 1925, which many economists blame for the mediocre performance of the economy. Others point to a variety of factors, including the inflationary effects of the World War and supply-side shocks caused by reduced working hours after the war.
By the late 1920s, economic performance had stabilised, but the overall situation was disappointing, for Britain had fallen behind the United States as the leading industrial power. There also remained a strong economic divide between the north and south of England during this period, with the south of England and the Midlands fairly prosperous by the Thirties, while parts of south Wales and the industrial north of England became known as "distressed areas" due to particularly high rates of unemployment and poverty. Despite this, the standard of living continued to improve as local councils built new houses to let to families rehoused from outdated slums, with up to date facilities including indoor toilets, bathrooms and electric lighting now being included in the new properties. The private sector enjoyed a housebuilding boom during the 1930s.
During the war, trade unions were encouraged and their membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5 million in 1918. They peaked at 8.3 million in 1920 before relapsing to 5.4 million in 1923.
Coal was a sick industry; the best seams were being exhausted, raising the cost. Demand fell as oil began replacing coal for fuel. The 1926 general strike was a nine-day nationwide walkout of 1.3 million railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers, iron workers and steelworkers supporting the 1.2 million coal miners who had been locked out by the owners. The miners had rejected the owners' demands for longer hours and reduced pay in the face of falling prices. The Conservative government had provided a nine-month subsidy in 1925 but that was not enough to turn around a sick industry. To support the miners the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an umbrella organization of all trades unions, called out certain critical unions. The hope was the government would intervene to reorganize and rationalize the industry, and raise the subsidy. The Conservative government had stockpiled supplies and essential services continued with middle class volunteers. All three major parties opposed the strike. The Labour Party leaders did not approve and feared it would tar the party with the image of radicalism, for the Cominterm in Moscow had sent instructions for Communists to aggressively promote the strike. The general strike itself was largely non-violent, but the miners' lockout continued and there was violence in Scotland. It was the only general strike in British history, for TUC leaders such as Ernest Bevin considered it a mistake . Most historians treat it as a singular event with few long-term consequences, but Pugh says it accelerated the movement of working-class voters to the Labour Party, which led to future gains. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 made general strikes illegal and ended the automatic payment of union members to the Labour Party. That act was largely repealed in 1946. The coal industry, used up the more accessible coal as costs rose output fell from 2567 million tons in 1924 to 183 million in 1945. The Labour government nationalised the mines in 1947.
The Great Depression originated in the United States in late 1929 and quickly spread to the world. Britain had never experienced the boom that had characterized the US, Germany, Canada and Australia in the 1920s, so its bust appeared less severe. Britain's world trade fell in half (1929–33), the output of heavy industry fell by a third, employment profits plunged in nearly all sectors. At the depth in summer 1932, registered unemployed numbered 3.5 million, and many more had only part-time employment. Experts tried to remain optimistic. John Maynard Keynes, who had not predicted the slump, said, "'There will be no serious direct consequences in London. We find the look ahead decidedly encouraging."
Doomsayers on the left such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, J.A. Hobson, and G.D.H. Cole repeated the dire warnings they had been making for years about the imminent death of capitalism, only now far more people paid attention. Starting in 1935 the Left Book Club provided a new warning every month, and built up the credibility of Soviet-style socialism as an alternative.
Particularly hardest hit by economic problems were the north of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; unemployment reached 70% in some areas at the start of the 1930s (with more than 3 million out of work nationally) and many families depended entirely on payments from local government known as the dole.
In 1936, by which time unemployment was lower, 200 unemployed men made a highly publicized march from Jarrow to London in a bid to show the plight of the industrial poor. Although much romanticized by the Left, the Jarrow Crusade marked a deep split in the Labour Party and resulted in no government action. Unemployment remained high until the war absorbed all the job seekers. George Orwell's book The Road to Wigan Pier gives a bleak overview of the hardships of the time.
The economic crisis of the early 1930s, and the response of the Labour and National governments to the depression, have generated much historical controversy.
In the decades immediately following the Second World War, most historical opinion was critical of the governments of the period. Certain historians, such as Robert Skidelsky in his Politicians and the Slump, compared the orthodox policies of the Labour and National governments unfavourably with the more radical proto-Keynesian measures advocated by David Lloyd George and Oswald Mosley, and the more interventionist and Keynesian responses in other economies: Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the United States, the Labour government in New Zealand, and the Social Democratic government in Sweden. Since the 1970s opinion has become less uniformly hostile. In the preface to the 1994 edition, Skidelsky argues that recent experience of currency crises and capital flight make it hard to be so critical of the politicians who wanted to achieve stability by cutting labour costs and defending the value of the currency.
Britain had suffered little physical devastation during the war but the cost in death and disability and money were very high. In the Khaki Election of 1918, coming days after the Allied victory over Germany, Lloyd George promised to impose a harsh treaty on Germany. At the Paris Peace Conference in early 1919, however, he took a much more moderate approach. France and Italy however demanded and achieved harsh terms, including German admission of guilt for starting the war (which humiliated Germany), and a demand that Germany pay the entire Allied cost of the war, including veterans' benefits and interest. Britain reluctantly supported the Treaty of Versailles, although many experts--most famously John Maynard Keynes-- thought it too harsh on Germany
Britain began to look on a restored Germany as an important trading partner and worried about the effect of reparations on the British economy. In the end the United States financed German debt payments to Britain, France and the other Allies through the Dawes Plan, and Britain used this income to repay the loans it borrowed from the U.S. during the war.
Politically the coalition government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George depended primarily on Conservative Party support. He increasingly antagonized his supporters with foreign policy miscues. The Chanak Crisis of 1922 brought Britain to the brink of war with Turkey, but the Dominions were opposed and the British military was hesitant, so peace was preserved, but Lloyd George lost control of the coalition and was replaced as Prime Minister.
Britain maintained close relationships with France and the United States; however the U.S. refused to renegotiate its wartime loans. In the 1920s Britain rejected isolationism and sought world peace through naval arms limitation treaties, and peace with Germany through the Locarno treaties of 1925. A main goal was to restore Germany to a peaceful, prosperous state. The Dominions (Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) achieved virtual independence in foreign policy in 1931, though each depended heavily upon British naval protection. After 1931 trade policy favoured the Commonwealth with tariffs against the U.S. and others.
The success at Locarno in handling the German question impelled Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain, working with France and Italy, to find a master solution to the diplomatic problems of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It proved impossible to overcome mutual antagonisms, because Chamberlain's program was flawed by his misperceptions and fallacious judgments.
The challenge came from dictators, first Benito Mussolini of Italy from 1923, then from 1933 Adolf Hitler of a much more powerful Nazi Germany. Britain and France led the policy of non-interference in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The League of Nations proved disappointing to its supporters; it was unable to resolve any of the threats posed by the dictators. British policy was to "appease" them in the hopes they would be satiated. League-authorized sanctions against Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia had support in Britain but proved a failure and were dropped in 1936.
Germany was the difficult case. By 1930 British leaders and intellectuals largely agreed that all major powers shared the blame for war in 1914, and not Germany alone as the Treaty of Versailles specified. Therefore, they believed the punitive harshness of the Treaty of Versailles was unwarranted, and this view, adopted by politicians and the public, was largely responsible for supporting appeasement policies down to 1938. That is, German rejections of treaty provisions seemed justified.
Coming of Second World War
By late 1938 it was clear that war was looming, and that Germany had the world's most powerful military. The British military leaders warned that Germany would win a war, and Britain needed another year or two to catch up in terms of aviation and air defense. The final act of appeasement came when Britain and France sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler's demands at the Munich Agreement of 1938. Instead of satiation Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia and menaced Poland.At last in 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dropped appeasement and stood firm in promising to defend Poland. Hitler however cut a deal with Joseph Stalin to divide Eastern Europe; when Germany did invade Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war; the British Commonwealth followed London's lead.
As a leisure, literacy, wealth, ease of travel, and a broadened sense of community grew in Britain from the late 19th century onward, there was more time and interest in leisure activities of all sorts, on the part of all classes. The annual vacation became common. Tourists flocked to seaside resorts; Blackpool hosted 7 million visitors a year in the 1930s. Organized leisure was primarily a male activity, with middle-class women allowed in at the margins. There were class differences with upper-class clubs, and working-class and middle-class pubs. Heavy drinking declined; there were more competitions that attracted heavy betting. Participation in sports and all sorts of leisure activities increased for the average Englishman, and his interest in spectator sports increased dramatically. By the 1920s the cinema and radio attracted all classes, ages and genders in very large numbers, with young women taking the lead. Working-class men wearing flat caps and munching fish and chips were boisterous football spectators. They sang along at the music hall, fancied their pigeons, gambled on horse racing, and took the family to Blackpool in summer. The cartoon realization of this life style Andy Capp began in 1957. Political activists complained that working-class leisure diverted men away from revolutionary agitation.
Cinema and radio
The British film industry emerged in 1890s, and built heavily on the strong reputation of the London legitimate theater for actors, directors and producers. The problem was that the American market was so much larger and richer. It bought up the top talent, especially when Hollywood came to the fore in the 1920s and produced over 80 percent of the total world output. Efforts to fight back were futile—the government set a quota for British made films, but it failed. Hollywood furthermore dominated the lucrative Canadian and Australian markets. Bollywood (based in Bombay) dominated the huge Indian market. The most prominent directors remaining in London were Alexander Korda, an expatriate Hungarian, and Alfred Hitchcock. There was a revival of creativity in the 1933-45 era, especially with the arrival of Jewish filmmakers and actors fleeing the Nazis. Meanwhile, giant palaces were built for the huge audiences that wanted to see Hollywood films. In Liverpool 40 percent of the population attended one of the 69 cinemas once a week; 25 percent went twice. Traditionalists grumbled about the American cultural invasion, but the permanent impact was minor.
In radio, British audiences had no choice apart from the upscale programming of the BBC, a government agency which had a monopoly on broadcasting. John Reith (1889 – 1971), an intensely moralistic engineer, was in full charge. His goal was to broadcast, "All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavor and achievement.... The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance." Reith succeeded in building a high wall against an American-style free-for-all in radio in which the goal was to attract the largest audiences and thereby secure the greatest advertising revenue. There was no paid advertising on the BBC; all the revenue came from a tax on receiving sets. Highbrow audiences, however, greatly enjoyed it. At a time when American, Australian and Canadian stations were drawing huge audiences cheering for their local teams with the broadcast of baseball, rugby and hockey, the BBC emphasized service for a national, rather than a regional audience. Boat races were well covered along with tennis and horse racing, but BBC was reluctant to spend its severely limited air time on long football or cricket games, regardless of their popularity.
The British showed a more profound interest in sports, and in greater variety, that any rival. They gave pride of place to such moral issues as sportsmanship and fair play. Cricket became symbolic of the Imperial spirit throughout the Empire. Soccer proved highly attractive to the urban working classes, which introduced the rowdy spectator to the sports world. In some sports, there was significant controversy in the fight for amateur purity especially in rugby and rowing. New games became popular almost overnight, including golf, lawn tennis, cycling and hockey. Women were much more likely to enter these sports than the old established ones. The aristocracy and landed gentry, with their ironclad control over land rights, dominated hunting, shooting, fishing and horse racing.
Cricket had become well-established among the English upper class in the 18th century, And was a major factor in sports competition among the public schools. Army units around the Empire had time on their hands, and encouraged the locals to learn cricket so they could have some entertaining competition. Most of the Empire embraced cricket, with the exception of Canada. Cricket test matches (international) began by the 1870s; the most famous is that between Australia and Britain for "The Ashes."
For sports to become fully professionalized, coaching had to come first. It gradually professionalized in the Victorian era and the role was well established by 1914. In the First World War, military units sought out the coaches to supervise physical conditioning and develop morale-building teams.
As literacy and leisure time expanded after 1900, reading became a popular pastime. New additions to adult fiction doubled during the 1920s, reaching 2800 new books a year by 1935. Libraries tripled their stock, and saw heavy demand for new fiction. A dramatic innovation was the inexpensive paperback, pioneered by Allen Lane (1902–70) at Penguin Books in 1935. The first titles included novels by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. They were sold cheap (usually sixpence) in a wide variety of inexpensive stores such as Woolworth's. Penguin aimed at an educated middle class "middlebrow" audience. It avoided the downscale image of American paperbacks. The line signaled cultural self-improvement and political education. The more polemical Penguin Specials, typically with a leftist orientation for Labour readers, were widely distributed during World War II. However the war years caused a shortage of staff for publishers and book stores, and a severe shortage of rationed paper, worsened by the air raid on Paternoster Square in 1940 that burned 5 million books in warehouses.
Romantic fiction was especially popular, with Mills and Boon the leading publisher. Romantic encounters were embodied in a principle of sexual purity that demonstrated not only social conservatism, but also how heroines could control their personal autonomy. Adventure magazines became quite popular, especially those published by DC Thomson; the publisher sent observers around the country to talk to boys and learn what they wanted to read about. The story line in magazines and cinema that most appealed to boys was the glamorous heroism of British soldiers fighting wars that were exciting and just.
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