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WIKIPEDIA ARTICLE

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Interwar Britain
1918 (1919) – 1939
Preceded by First World War
Followed by Second World War
Monarch
Leader(s)
Part of a series on the
History of the United Kingdom
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Interwar Britain (1919–1939) was a period of peace and relative economic stagnation. In politics the Liberal Party collapsed and the Labour Party became the main challenger to the dominant Conservative Party throughout the period. The Great Depression impacted Britain less severely economically and politically than other major nations, although there were severe pockets of long-term unemployment and hardship, especially in mining districts and in Scotland and North West England.

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 egalitarian 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 women's 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 behaviour. The chaperone faded away; village chemists sold contraceptives.[1] Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.[2]

Politics and economics of 1920s[edit]

Enlarging democracy[edit]

The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally gave Britain universal manhood suffrage at age 21, with no property qualifications. Even more dramatically it opened up woman suffrage for most women over the age of 30. In 1928, all women were covered on the same terms as men.[3] With the emergence of revolutionary forces, most notably in Bolshevik Russia and Socialist Germany, but also in Hungary, Italy and elsewhere, revolution to overthrow established elites and aristocracies was in the air. The Labour Party largely controlled working-class politics, and it strongly supported the government in London and opposed violent revolution. Conservatives were especially worried about "Red Clydeside" in industrial Scotland. Their fears were misplaced, for there was no organized attempt at any revolution. Indeed the far left white working men in Red Clydeside were chiefly concerned with excluding blacks and women from good jobs.[4][5]

Nevertheless there were concerns about republicanism. The king and his top advisors were deeply concerned about the republican threat to the British monarchy, so much so that it was a factor in the king's decision not to rescue his cousin the overthrown Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.[6] Nervous conservatives associated republicanism with the rise of socialism and the growing labour movement. Their concerns, although exaggerated, resulted in a redesign of the monarchy's social role to be more inclusive of the working class and its representatives, a dramatic change for George, who was most comfortable with naval officers and landed gentry. In fact the socialists by 1911 no longer believed in their anti-monarchy slogans and took a wait-and-see attitude toward George V. They were ready to come to terms with the monarchy if it took the first step.[7] During the war George took that step; he made nearly 300 visits to shipyards and munitions factories, chatting with and congratulating ordinary workers on their hard work for the war effort.[8] He adopted a more democratic stance that crossed class lines and brought the monarchy closer to the public. The king also cultivated friendly relations with leading Labour party politicians and trade union officials. George V's abandonment of social aloofness conditioned the royal family's behaviour and enhanced its popularity during the economic crises of the 1920s and for over two generations thereafter. For example, in 1924 the king proved willing, in the absence of a clear majority for any one of the three parties, to replace Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin with Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party prime minister. King George's tactful and understanding reception of the MacDonald government allayed the suspicions of the party's supporter's throughout the nation.[9]

Ireland[edit]

An armed insurrection by Irish republicans known as the Easter Rising took place in Dublin during Easter Week, 1916. It was badly organized, and quickly suppressed by the Army. The government responded with harsh repression, 2000 arrests, and quick execution of 15 leaders. The Catholic Irish then underwent a dramatic change of mood, and shifted to demand vengeance and independence.[10] In 1917 Lloyd George called the 1917–18 Irish Convention in an attempt to settle the outstanding Home Rule for Ireland issue. It had little support. The upsurge in republican sympathies in Ireland following the Easter Rising coupled with Lloyd George's disastrous attempt to extend conscription to Ireland in April 1918 led to the wipeout of the old Irish Home Rule Party at the December 1918 election. They had supported the British war effort and were now displaced by Sinn Féin, which had mobilised grass-roots opposition to helping the British rule.[11] Sinn Fein MP's ignored their seats in the British Parliament, set up their own new parliament in Dublin, and immediately declared an Irish Republic.[12]

British policy was confused and contradictory, as the cabinet could not decide on war or peace, sending in enough force to commit atrocities that angered Catholics in Ireland and America, and Liberals in Britain, but not enough to suppress the rebels outside the cities. Lloyd George waxed hot and cold, denouncing murderers one day, negotiating with them the next. He sent in 40,000 soldiers plus professional police (the Royal Irish Constabulary) as well as newly formed para-military units -- the "Black and Tans" and the Auxiliaries. British firepower prevailed in the cities forcing the Irish Republican Army (IRA) (the paramilitary force of Sinn Fein) into hiding. However the IRA controlled much of the countryside and set up an alternative local government.[13] The British units were poorly coordinated while Michael Collins designed a highly effective organization for the IRA that used informers to destroy the British intelligence system by assassinating its leadership.[14] Although it was called "Irish War of Independence" historians generally agree that it was quite unlike the later Irish Civil War that was fought in 1922-23 between the forces of Collins and Eamon De Valera. The 1919-21 clash "was no war in any conventional sense of the term, but a highly contingent, very small-scale and low-intensity conflict in which assassination was as important as ambush or fixed battle."[15]

Lloyd George finally solved the crisis with the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which partitioned Ireland into Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland in May 1921. Sinn Fein won control of the south and agreed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 with Irish leaders. Collins took power when De Valera refused to sign and led a breakaway faction.[16] Under the treaty southern Ireland seceded in 1922 to form the Irish Free State. Meanwhile the Unionists under Edward Carson controlled Ulster and Northern Ireland remained loyal to London.[17][18] By 1922 the Irish situation had stabilized, and no longer played a major role in British politics. Nevertheless, disputes sputtered for decades regarding the exact relationship to the monarchy, a trade war in the 1930s, and British use of naval ports. The Irish Free State cut many of its ties to Britain in 1937. As the Republic of Ireland it was one of a handful of neutrals in Europe in the Second World War.[19]

Expanding the welfare state[edit]

Two major programmes dealing with unemployment and housing that permanently expanded the welfare state passed in 1919 and 1920 with surprisingly little debate, even as the Conservatives dominated parliament.

The Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 expanded the provisions of the National Insurance Act 1911. It set up the dole system that provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to practically the entire civilian working population except domestic servants, 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. It passed at a time of very low unemployment. Historian C. L. Mowat called these 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.[20]

Housing[edit]

The rapid expansion of housing was a major success story of the interwar years, standing in sharp contrast to the United States, where new housing construction practically collapsed after 1929. The total housing stock In England and Wales was 7.6 million in 1911; 8.0 million in 1921; 9.4 million in 1931; and 11.3 million in 1939.[21]

The influential Tudor Walters Report of 1918 set the standards for council house design and location for the next 90 years.[22] It recommended housing in short terraces, spaced at 70 feet (21 m) at a density of 12 to the acre.[23] With the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1919 Lloyd George set up a system of government housing that followed his 1918 campaign promises of "homes fit for heroes."[24] Also known as the "Addison Act," it required local authorities to survey their housing needs, and start building houses to replace slums. The treasury subsidized the low rents.[25] Older women could now vote. Local politicians consulted with them and in response put more emphasis on such amenities as communal laundries, extra bedrooms, indoor lavatories, running hot water, separate parlours to demonstrate their respectability, and practical vegetable gardens rather than manicured lawns.[26] [27] Progress was not automatic, as shown by the troubles of rural Norfolk. Many dreams were shattered as local authorities had to renege on promises they could not fulfill due to undue haste, impossible national deadlines, debilitating bureaucracy, lack of lumber, rising costs, and the non-affordability of rents by the rural poor.[28]

In England and Wales 214,000 multi-unit council buildings were built by 1939; the Ministry of Health became largely a ministry of housing.[20] Council housing accounted for 10 percent of the housing stock in Britain by 1938, peaking at 32 percent in 1980, and dropping to 18 percent by 1996, where it held steady for the next two decades. [29]

Increasingly the British ideal was home ownership, even among the working class. Rates of home ownership rose steadily from 15 percent before 1914, to 32 percent by 1938, and 67 percent by 1996. The construction industry sold the idea of home ownership to upscale renters. The mortgage lost its old stigma of a millstone round your neck to instead be seen as a smart long-term investment in suburbanized Britain. It appealed to aspirations of upward mobility and made possible the fastest rate of growth in working-class owner-occupation during the 20th century.[30] [31] The boom was largely financed by the savings ordinary Britons put into their building societies. Starting in the 1920s favourable tax policies encouraged substantial investment in the societies, creating huge reserves for lending. Beginning in 1927, the societies encouraged borrowing through gradual liberalization of mortgage terms.[32]

Conservative control[edit]

Stanley Baldwin was Conservative Prime Minister between 1923–1924, 1924–1929 and 1935–1937.

The Lloyd George ministry fell apart in 1922, and Bonar Law became prime minister of a Conserative government. In May 1923 Bonar Law resigned because of ill health and was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin, as leader of the Conservative Party (1923–37) and as Prime Minister (in 1923–24, 1924–29 and 1935–37), dominated British politics.[33] 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. In the general election of 1931 Baldwin's was the last government to win over 50% of the vote. 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.[34] The polarization did take place and while the Liberals remained active under Lloyd George, they won few seats. 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.[35]

1929 Conservative poster attacking the Labour Party

Having won an election just the year before, Baldwin's Conservative party had a comfortable majority in the Commons and could have waited another four years, but the government was concerned. Baldwin felt the need to receive a new mandate from the people. Oxford historian (and Conservative MP) J.A.R. Marriott depicts the gloomy national mood:

The times were still out of joint. Mr. Baldwin had indeed succeeded in negotiating (January 1923) a settlement of the British debt to the United States, but on terms which involved an annual payment of £34 million, at the existing rate of exchange. The French remained in the Ruhr. Peace had not yet been made with Turkey; unemployment was a standing menace to national recovery; there was continued unrest among the wage-earners, and a significant strike among farm labourers in Norfolk. Confronted by these difficulties, convinced that economic conditions in England called for a drastic change in fiscal policy, and urged thereto by the Imperial Conference of 1928, Mr. Baldwin decided to ask the country for a mandate for Preference and Protection.[36][37]

The result however backfired on Baldwin, who lost a host of seats to Labour and the Liberals. For the first time in history, Labour formed a government. However, in 1924 Baldwin and the Conservatives returned with a large majority. Ross McKibbin finds that the political culture of the interwar period was built around an anti-socialist middle class, supported by the Conservative leaders, especially Baldwin.[38]

King George V[edit]

King George V (reigned 1910-1936) was scandal free. He appeared hard working and became widely admired by the people of Britain and the Empire, as well as "The Establishment"[39]. It was George V who established the modern norm of conduct for British royalty, reflecting middle-class values and virtues rather than upper-class lifestyles or vices[40]. Anti-intellectual and lacking the sophistication of his two royal predecessors, as well as their cosmopolitan experiences, he nevertheless understood the British Empire better than most of his ministers; indeed he explained, "it has always been my dream to identify myself with the great idea of Empire." [41] He used his exceptional memory for details and faces to good effect in small talk with commoners and officials[42]. He invariably wielded his influence as a force of neutrality and moderation, seeing his role as mediator rather than final decision maker. [43]. For example, in 1921 he had General Jan Smuts draft a speech calling for a compromise truce to end the Irish war of independence and secured cabinet approval; the Irish also agreed and the war ended.[44] Historian A. J. P. Taylor praises the king's initiative as, "perhaps the greatest service performed by a British monarch in modern times."[45][46] His transparent sense of duty, his loyalty, his impartiality, and his unfailing example of good taste inspired the people and discouraged politicians from manipulating him to their own advantage. King George V was by temperament a cautious and conservative man who never fully appreciated or approved the revolutionary changes underway in British society. Nevertheless, everyone understood that he was earnestly devoted to Britain and the British Commonwealth[47].

The king's popularity was enhanced during the World War when he made more than a thousand visits to hospitals, factories, and military and naval installations. He thereby gave highly visible support to the morale of ordinary workers and servicemen.[48] His Silver Jubilee in 1935 became a national festival of fervent rejoicing, tinged with a few complaints.[49] His funeral and following commemorations were elaborately staged, very well attended ceremonies that redefined the role of royalty in a newly democratic nation. The people had new ways to affirm their loyalties, such as close attention to live radio broadcasts and followup newsreels. New ceremonies born of the commemoration of death in the Great War included the two-minute silence. Britain set up living memorials to honour and expand the king's lifelong belief in the physical, moral and social benefits of recreation and sports. The royal death thereby acted to enhance a shared Britishness. The funeral of King George VI in 1952 followed the same formula. Thereby the monarchy grew stronger and, more importantly, national cohesion was built up in the era of total war.[50]

The king was the most active monarch in many ways since George III (reigned 1760-1820). Biographer H. C. G. Matthew concludes:

His was the busiest service of any nineteenth- or twentieth-century British monarch. He dealt with a remarkable and arduous series of crises: the reaction of the Unionists to the Parliament Bill and the home rule crisis, the complex coalition-forming of the First World War, the incorporation of the Labour Party into the working of constitutional government, the replacement of orthodox politics by a national government. George V's assiduous and non-partisan approach smoothed the process of political change which these crises represented.[8]

Economics[edit]

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 on unemployment benefits. About 5% of the national income every year was transferred from the rich to the poor. A. J. P. 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."[51]

The British economy was lacklustre in the 1920s, with sharp declines and high unemployment in heavy industry and coal, especially in Scotland and Wales. Exports of coal and steel halved 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.[52] 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.[53]

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.[54]

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.[55]

Labour[edit]

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.[56][57]

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.[58] 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 in operation using students and 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 Comintern 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 Martin Pugh says it accelerated the movement of working-class voters to the Labour Party, which led to future gains.[59][60] The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 made general strikes illegal and ended the automatic payment of union dues 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 267 million tons in 1924 to 183 million in 1945.[61] The Labour government nationalised the mines in 1947.

Starting in 1909, Liberals, led especially by Lloyd George, promoted the idea of a minimum wage for farm workers. Resistance from landowners was strong, but success was achieved by 1924.[62] According to Robin Gowers and Timothy J. Hatton, the impact In England and Wales was significant. They estimate that it raised wages for farm labourers by 15 per cent by 1929, and by more than 20 per cent in the 1930s. It reduced the employment of such labourers by 54,000 (6.5 per cent) in 1929 and 97,000 (13.3 per cent) in 1937. They argue, "The minimum wage lifted out of poverty many families of farm labourers who remained employed, but it significantly lowered the incomes of farmers, particularly during the 1930s."[63]

Food[edit]

After the War many new food products became available to the typical household, with branded foods advertised for their convenience. The shortage of servants was felt in the kitchen, but now instead of an experienced cook spending hours on difficult custards and puddings the housewife could purchase instant foods in jars, or powders that could be quickly mixed. Breakfast porridge from branded, more finely milled, oats could now be cooked in two minutes, not 20. American-style dry cereals began to challenge the porridge and bacon and eggs of the middle classes, and the bread and margarine of the poor. Shops carried more bottled and canned goods and fresher meat, fish and vegetables. While wartime shipping shortages had sharply narrowed choices, the 1920s saw many new kinds of foods--especially fruits--imported from around the world, along with better quality, packaging, and hygiene. Middle class households now had ice boxes or electric refrigerators, which made for better storage and the convenience of buying in larger quantities.[64]

Numerous studies in the Depression years documented that the average consumer ate better than before. Seebohm Rowntree reported that the "standard to workers in 1936 was about 30 percent higher than it was in 1899."[65] The dairy industry was producing too much, and profits were too low, so the government used the Milk Marketing Board to give a guaranteed price to dairy farmers – a policy ridiculed by The Economist as the "economics of Bedlam."[66] Food prices were low, but the advantage went overwhelmingly to the middle and upper classes, with the poorest third of the population suffering from sustained poor nutrition. Starvation was not a factor, but widespread hunger was. The deleterious effects on poor children were obvious to teachers. In 1934 the government began a programme of charging school children a halfpenny a day for a third of a pint of milk. This dramatically improved their nutrition, and the new demand kept up the wholesale price of milk paid to farmers. About half the nation's school children participated by 1936. In the Second World War milk was distributed free, and participation rose to 90 percent. Indeed, the rationing system of the wartime years sharply improved the nutrition of poorest third, together with their capacity for manual labour. [67]

Great Depression[edit]

The Great Depression originated on Wall Street in the United States in late 1929, and quickly spread to the rest of the world. The main impact of the economic slump was felt in 1931.[68] Unlike Germany, Canada and Australia, Britain had not experienced a boom in the 1920s, so the downturn was less severe and ended sooner.[69]

Worldwide crisis[edit]

By summer 1931 the world financial crisis began to overwhelm Britain; investors across the world started withdrawing their gold from London at the rate of £2½ million a day.[70][71] Credits of £25 million each from the Bank of France and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and an issue of £15 million in fiduciary notes slowed, but did not reverse the British crisis. The financial crisis now caused a major political crisis in Britain in August 1931. With deficits mounting, the bankers demanded a balanced budget; the divided cabinet of Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government agreed; it proposed to raise taxes, cut spending and most controversially, to cut unemployment benefits by 20%. The attack on welfare was totally unacceptable to the Labour movement. MacDonald wanted to resign, but the King insisted he remain and form an all-party coalition "National government." The Conservative and Liberal parties signed on, along with a small cadre of Labour, but the vast majority of Labour leaders denounced MacDonald as a traitor for leading the new government. Britain went off the gold standard, and suffered relatively less than other major countries in the Great Depression. In the 1931 British election the Labour Party was virtually destroyed, leaving MacDonald as Prime Minister of a largely Conservative coalition.[72][73]

The flight of gold continued, however, and the Treasury finally was forced to abandon the gold standard in September 1931. Until now the government had religiously followed orthodox policies, which demanded balanced-budgets and the gold standard. Instead of the predicted disaster, cutting loose from gold proved a major advantage. Immediately the exchange rate of the pound fell by 25%, from $4.86 for one pound to $3.40. British exports were now much more competitive, which laid the ground for a gradual economic recovery. The worst was over.[74][75]

Britain's world trade fell in half (1929–33); the output of heavy industry fell by a third. Employment and 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.[76] The government tried to work inside the Commonwealth, raising tariffs for products from the United States, France and Britain, while giving preference to Commonwealth members.[77][78]

Organized protests[edit]

The north of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales suffered particularly severe economic problems, especially if they depended on coal, steel or shipbuilding. Unemployment reached 70% in some mining localities at the start of the 1930s (with more than 3 million out of work nationally). The government was cautious and conservative, rejecting the Keynesian proposal for large-scale public works projects.[79]

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.[80] 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.[81]

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.[82] 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.

Historiography[edit]

The economic crisis of the early 1930s, and the response of the Labour and National governments to the depression, have generated much historical controversy. Apart from the major pockets of long-term high unemployment, Britain was generally prosperous. Historian Piers Brendon writes: "Historians, however, have long since revised this grim picture, presenting the devil's decade as the cradle of the affluent society. Prices fell sharply between the wars and average incomes rose by about a third. The term "property-owning democracy" was coined in the 1920s, and three million houses were built during the 1930s. Land, labour and materials were cheap: a bungalow could be purchased for £225 and a semi for £450. The middle class also bought radiograms, telephones, three-piece suites, electric cookers, vacuum cleaners and golf clubs. They ate Kellogg's Corn Flakes ("never miss a day"), drove to Odeon cinemas in Austin Sevens (costing £135 by 1930) and smoked Craven A cigarettes, cork-tipped "to prevent sore throats". The depression spawned a consumer boom."[83]

In the decades immediately following the Second World War, most historical opinion was critical of the governments of the period. Some 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.[84][85]

Commonwealth and Empire[edit]

After taking over the League of Nations mandates on certain German and Ottoman territories in 1919, the British Empire reached its territorial peak. The interwar years saw extensive efforts for economic and educational development of the colonies. The Dominions were prosperous and largely took care of themselves. By far the most troublesome areas for London were India and Palestine.[86][87][88][89]

British Empire at its territorial peak in 1921

The Dominions (Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand) achieved virtual independence in foreign policy in the Statute of Westminster 1931, though each depended heavily upon British naval protection.[90] After 1931 trade policy favoured Imperial Preference with higher tariffs against the U.S. and all others outside the Commonwealth.[91]

In India, the forces of nationalism were now being organized by the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. India contributed significantly to victory in the World War, and was bitterly disappointed by the very limited benefits conferred in the Government of India Act 1919. [92] British fears of German wartime plots or postwar Communnism following the Ghadar Mutiny ensured that war-time strictures were renewed by the Rowlatt Act of 1919 that suppressed dissent. Tensions escalated particularly in the Punjab region, where repressive measures culminated in the Amritsar Massacre. In Britain public opinion was divided over the morality of the massacre, between those who saw it as having saved India from anarchy, and those who viewed it with revulsion.[93] Gandhi developed the technique of nonviolent resistance, claiming moral superiority over the British use of violence.[94] Multiple negotiations were held in the 1930s, but a strong reactionary movement in Britain, led by Winston Churchill, blocked the adoption of reforms that would satisfy Indian nationalists. Historian Lawrence James states:

From 1930 to 1935 [Churchill] was a Cassandra, warning the country that the government's policy of allowing self-determination for India would be a catastrophe for Britain and mark the beginning of the and for her Empire. His language was stark and his imagery apocalyptic: India was facing a prolonged crisis which successive governments had failed to resolve.[95]

The Conservatives in Parliament designed the Government of India Act, 1935 to create a federation that would facilitate continued British control and deflect the challenge of Congress.[96] The Labour Party, although in a weak minority in the 1930s, gave support to Congress and worked with Indians in Britain; after 1945 it was in a position to grant India independence.[97]

Egypt was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, although under British rule, until 1914, when London declared it a protectorate. Independence was formally granted in 1922, though it continued to be a British client state until 1954. British troops remained stationed to guard the Suez Canal. Egypt joined the League of Nations. Iraq, a British mandate since 1920, also gained membership of the League in its own right after achieving independence from Britain in 1932. Iraq remained under firm British guidance regarding foreign affairs, defence policy, and oil policy.[98]

In Palestine, Britain was presented with the problem of mediating between the Arabs and increasing numbers of Jews. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which had been incorporated into the terms of the mandate, stated that a national home for the Jewish people would be established in Palestine. Tens of thousands of Jews immigrated from Europe. The Arab population revolted in 1936. As the prospect of war with Germany loomed larger, Britain judged the support of Arabs as more important than the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and shifted to a pro-Arab stance, limiting Jewish immigration and in turn triggering a Jewish insurgency.[99]

Dominions control their foreign policies[edit]

George V with the British and Dominion prime ministers at the 1926 Imperial Conference

As Britain's Prime Minister, Lloyd George requested military assistance from the Dominions at the outbreak of the Chanak Crisis in Turkey in 1922. He was rejected. The World War had greatly strengthened the sense of nationalism and self-confidence in the dominions. They were now independent members of the League of Nations, and refused to automatically follow requests from Britain's leaders. The right of the Dominions to set their own foreign policy, independent of Britain, was recognised at the 1923 Imperial Conference. The 1926 Imperial Conference issued the Balfour Declaration of 1926, declaring the Dominions to be "autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another" within a "British Commonwealth of Nations". This declaration was given legal substance under the 1931 Statute of Westminster. India, however, was denied dominion status and its foreign policy was set by London.[100]


Newfoundland was overwhelmed by the economic disasters of the Great depression and voluntarily gave up its dominion status. It reverted to a crown colony under direct British control until it voted to join Canada in 1948.[101] The Irish Free State broke its ties with London with a new constitution in 1937, making it a republic in all but name.[102]

Foreign policy[edit]

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 a month 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 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 [103][104][105]

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.

Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era.[106]

1920s[edit]

Britain maintained close relationships with France and the United States, rejected isolationism, and sought world peace through naval arms limitation treaties,[107] and peace with Germany through the Locarno treaties of 1925. A main goal was to restore Germany to a peaceful, prosperous state.[108]

With disarmament high on the agenda, Britain played a major role following the United States in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 in working toward naval disarmament of the major powers. By 1933 disarmament had collapsed and the issue became rearming for a war against Germany.[109]

At the Washington Conference Britain abandoned the Two power standard - her long-time policy of paramount naval strength equal to or greater than the next two naval powers combined. Instead it accepted equality with United States, and weakness in Asian waters relative to Japan. It promised to not strengthen the fortifications of Hong Kong, which were within range of Japan. The treaty with Japan was not renewed, But Japan at the time was not engaged in expansion activities of the sort that grew momentous from 1931 onward. London cut loose from Tokyo but moved much closer to Washington.[110]

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.[111]

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 programme was flawed by his misperceptions and fallacious judgments.[112]

1930s[edit]


The great 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.[113]

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.[114]

Coming of Second World War[edit]

By late 1938 it was clear that war was looming, and that Germany had the world's most powerful military. 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 defence. The final act of appeasement came when Britain and France sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler's demands at the Munich Agreement of 1938.[115] 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.[116]

Popular culture[edit]

As 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.[117] Drinking was differentiated by class. with upper-class clubs, and working-class and middle-class pubs. However, drinking as a way of spending leisure time and spare cash declined during the Depression and pub attendance never returned to 1930 levels; it fell far below prewar levels.[118] Taxes were raised on beer, but there were more alternatives now at hand, such as cigarettes (which attracted 8/10 men, and 4/10 women), the talkies, the dance halls, and Greyhound racing. Football pools offered the excitement of betting on a range of results. New estates with small, inexpensive houses offered gardening as an outdoor recreation. Church attendance declined to half the level of 1901.[119]

The annual holiday became common. Tourists flocked to seaside resorts; Blackpool hosted 7 million visitors a year in the 1930s.[120] Organized leisure was primarily a male activity, with middle-class women allowed in at the margins. 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.[121] Working-class men were boisterous football spectators. They sang along at the music hall, fancied their pigeons, gambled on horse racing, and took the family to seaside resorts in summer. Political activists complained that working-class leisure diverted men away from revolutionary agitation.[122]

Cinema and radio[edit]

Film director Alfred Hitchcock, 1955

The British film industry emerged in the 1890s, and built heavily on the strong reputation of the London legitimate theatre for actors, directors, and producers.[123][124][125] 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.[126] 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.[127][128] 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.[129]

In radio British audiences had no choice apart from the highbrow programming of the BBC, 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, endeavour and achievement.... The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance."[130] 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 licence fee charged for the possession of receivers. Highbrow audiences, however, greatly enjoyed it.[131] 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 ice-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 the BBC was reluctant to spend its severely limited air time on long football or cricket games, regardless of their popularity.[132]

Sports[edit]

The British showed a more profound interest in sports, and in greater variety, than any rival. They gave pride of place to such moral issues as sportsmanship and fair play.[117] Cricket became symbolic of the Imperial spirit throughout the Empire. Football 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.[133][134]

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.[135] Cricket test matches (international) began by the 1870s; the most famous is that between Australia and Britain for "The Ashes."[136]

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.[137]

Reading[edit]

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.[138] 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 cheaply (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 signalled cultural self-improvement and political education. The more polemical Penguin Specials, typically with a leftist orientation for Labour readers, were widely distributed during the Second World War.[139] 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 Row in 1940 that burned 5 million books in warehouses.[140]

Romantic fiction was especially popular, with Mills and Boon the leading publisher.[141] 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.[142][143] 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.[144]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

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  98. ^ Samira Haj (1997). The Making of Iraq, 1900-1963: Capital, Power, and Ideology. SUNY Press. p. 82. 
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  101. ^ James Overton, "Economic Crisis and the End of Democracy: Politics in Newfoundland During the Great Depression." Labour (1990) 26: 85–124.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) online; short scholarly biographies of all the major people
  • Addison, Paul and Harriet Jones, eds. A Companion to Contemporary Britain: 1939–2000 (2005) excerpt and text search, emphasis on historiography
  • Aldcroft, Derek H. The British Economy. Volume 1: The Years of Turmoil, 1920-1951 (1986); economic historian; uses only basic descriptive statistics
  • Blythe, Ronald. The Age of Illusion: England in the twenties and thirties, 1919-1940 (Faber & Faber, 2014).
  • Branson, Noreen. Britain in the Nineteen Twenties (1976).
  • Branson, Noreen and Margot Heinemann. Britain in the Nineteen Thirties (1971)
  • Broadberry S. N. The British Economy between the Wars (Basil Blackwell 1986)
  • Constantine, Stephen. Social Conditions in Britain 1918-1939 (Routledge, 2006).
  • Crowther, A, British Social Policy, 1914-1939 (1988).
  • Dewey, Peter. War and Progress: Britain 1914-1945 (Routledge, 2014).
  • Elton, G.R. Modern Historians on British History 1485-1945: A Critical Bibliography 1945-1969 (1969), annotated guide to 1000 history books on every major topic, plus book reviews and major scholarly articles. online
  • Farmer, Alan. British Foreign and Imperial Affairs 1919–39 (2000)
  • Feiling, Keith. The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1947)online
  • Gardiner, Juliet. The 30s: An Intimate History(2010), 853 pp; popular social history
  • Glynn, Sean and John Oxborrow, Interwar Britain: A social and economic history (1976).
  • Graves, Robert R. and Alan Hodge, The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 (1940), classic popular history
  • Hattersley, Roy. Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars (2008)
  • Havighurst, Alfred F. Modern England, 1901-1984 (2nd ed. 1987) online
  • Lee, Stephen J. 'Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995 (1996), textbook.
  • Leventhal, Fred M., ed. Twentieth-century Britain: an encyclopedia (Peter Lang, 2002); 910pp.
  • Loades, David, ed. Reader's Guide to British History (2 vol 2003), 1610 pp, historiography
  • McElwee, William. Britain's Locust Years: 1918-1940 (1962), 298pp; political focus online
  • Marriott, J. A. R. Modern England, 1885-1945 A History Of My Own Times (4th ed. 1949) pp 418-566 online free
  • Matthew, H. C. G. "George V (1865–1936)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004; online edition, 2013) accessed 7 Nov 2017
  • Medlicott, W. N. Contemporary England 1914–1964 (1967), emphasis on politics and foreign policy
  • Medlicott, W. N. British foreign policy since Versailles, 1919-1963 (1968).
  • Mowat, Charles Loch. Britain Between the Wars, 1918-1940 (1955), 690pp; thorough scholarly coverage; emphasis on politics online
  • Napper, Lawrence. British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years (2010)
  • Overy, Richard (2010). The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars. Penguin. ; about intellectuals
  • Pollard, Sidney. The Development of the British Economy, 1914-1990 (4th ed. 1991).
  • Pugh, Martin. We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (2009), popular history by a scholar
  • Ramsden, John, ed. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics (2005) excerpt and text search
  • Reynolds, David. Britannia Overruled: British Policy and World Power in the Twentieth Century (2nd ed. 2000) excerpt and text search, major survey of British foreign policy to 1999
  • Richardson H. W. "The Economic Significance of the Depression in Britain," Journal of Contemporary History (1969) 4#4 pp. 3–19 in JSTOR
  • Roberts, Clayton and David F. Roberts. A History of England, Volume 2: 1688 to the present (2013) university textbook; 1985 edition online
  • Rose, Kenneth. King George V (2000)
  • Seaman, L.C.B. Post-Victorian Britain 1902-1951 (1966), pp 105-316; political survey
  • Skidelsky R. Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-33 (Macmillan, 1967).
  • Smart, Nick. National Government 1931-40 (1999)
  • Somervell, D.C. The Reign of King George V, (1936) 550pp; wide-ranging political, social and economic coverage; online free
  • Somervell, D.C. British Politics since 1900 (1950) 280pp online
  • Spender, J.A. Great Britain: Empire and Commonwealth, 1886-1935 (1936) pp 575-838, Covers both UK and its empire
  • Stevenson, John. British society, 1914-45 (Penguin, 1984), 503pp; major scholarly history
  • Stevenson, John. Social conditions in Britain between the wars (1977), 295pp. short scholarly survey
  • Stevenson, J. and C. Cook, The Slump (2nd ed 2009), focus on politics. excerpt.
  • Taylor, A.J.P. English History, 1914–1945 (Oxford History of England) (1965) excerpt and text search
  • Thompson, F.M.L., ed. The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750–1950 (3 vol. 1992), essays by scholars
  • Thorpe, A. Britain in the 1930s (Blackwell 1992)
  • Wrigley, Chris, ed. A Companion to Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Blackwell Companions to British History) (2009) excerpt and text search; 1900-1939.

Gender and family[edit]

  • Beddoe, Deirdre. Back to Home and Duty: Women Between the Wars, 1918–1939 (Pandora Press, 1989).
  • Bingham, Adrian. Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford UP, 2004).
  • Cunnington, Cecil Willett. English Women's Clothing in the Present Century (1952).
  • Ferguson, Neal. "Women's Work: Employment Opportunities and Economic Roles, 1918-1939." Albion 7#1 (Spring 1975): 55-68.
  • Ferguson, Neal A. "Women in Twentieth-Century England." in Barbara Kanner, ed., The Women of England from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present (1979) pp 345-387.
  • Fisher, Karl. Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918–1960 (2006).
  • Gales, Kathleen E. and Marks, P. H. "Twentieth century trends in the work of women in England and Wales." Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 137#1 (1974): 60-74.
  • Hall, Catherine. "Married Women at Home in Birmingham in the 1920's and 1930's." Oral History 5 (Autumn 1977): 62-83.
  • Lane, Margaret. "Not the boss of one another: a reinterpretation of working-class marriage in England, 1900 to 1970." Cultural and Social History 11.3 (2014): 441-458.
  • Partington, Geoffrey. Women Teachers in the Twentieth Century in England and Wales (1976).
  • Smith, Helen. Masculinity, Class and Same-Sex Desire in Industrial England, 1895-1957 (Springer, 2015).
  • Szreter, Simon, and Kate Fisher. Sex before the sexual revolution: Intimate life in England 1918–1963 (Cambridge UP, 2010).
  • Tebbutt, Melanie. Making Youth: A History of Youth in Modern Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
  • Thompson, Derek. "Courtship and Marriage in Preston Between the Wars." Journal of the Oral Historical Society 3 (Autumn 1975): 39-44.
  • Ward, Stephanie. "Drifting into Manhood and Womanhood: Courtship, Marriage and Gender Among Young Adults in South Wales and the North-East of England in the 1930s." The Welsh History Review 26.4 (2013): 623-648.
  • Webb, R.K. Modern England: from the 18th century to the present (1968) online widely recommended university textbook
  • Winter, J. M. "Infant Mortality, Maternal Mortality, and Public Health in Britain in the 1930s." Journal of European Economic History 8 (Fall 1979): 439-462.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Medlicott, W. N. ed. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939 (HMSO, 1946), primary sources
  • The Times. The History of The Times, Vol. IV, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I: Chapters I-XII 1912-1920, Part II: Chapters XIII-XXIV (2 vol 1952)

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