The Interwar Years (1919-1938)
Britain During the Inter-War Years (1919-1938)
The British government had a great deal of difficulty in adjusting to post-war politics. David Lloyd George, the talentedd Liberal prime minister, was permitted to retain his office by the Conservative majority. At first he continued to run the government as he had during the war, using only his closest advisors to discuss and execute policy decisions. He often worked behind closed doors. Though he had returned from the Paris Peace Conference to general approval, things gradually began to look less rosy. Demobilization caused much difficulty in England. Overseen by the Ministry of Reconstruction, the British government called back from Europe those men deemed most necessary at home; these men were often those who had been most recently sent over the channel. Long-term military personnel grew angry, and, after a number of demonstrations, the policy of 'first in, first out' was set to appease the military.
Immediately after World War I, workers in many key industries began to strike, demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours now that the war was ended. Workers in the mining and railway industries were especially adamant, and troops were called in on a number of occasions. However, the spirit of the labor movements did not blossom in Britain as it did elsewhere, and the socialist goal of nationalization of industry was put on hold. Factories owned by the government were sold off, and soon practically no businesses remained in government hands. During the early years after the war, Britain stayed out of foreign affairs and hoped that laissez-faire economics would jump-start the post-war economy.
However, political stability could not be maintained. In 1922, David Lloyd George resigned, and the coalition of parties under him fragmented, ushering in a period of uncertainty. The next years found the British Conservative Party struggling to prevent power from falling into the hands of the leftist Labour Party, which in fact controlled the government for a short time in 1924. After this short spurt, Conservatives again controlled the government from 1925 to 1929. In March 1926, the Samuel Commission, at the behest of the government, released a report on the coal industry advocating wage reductions, setting off strikes all over the nation in May. The Triple Alliance, made up of miners, rail workers, and other transport workers began the strike, and workers in other industries around the nation struck in sympathy. However, the spirit of Conservatism remained high and the government held out. The miners went back to work in December, forced by necessity, and the Trade Disputes Act of 1927 made sympathetic striking illegal. Amid this battlle, however, the Conservative government lost direction and unity, and the Labour Party won the election of 1929. The Labour government attempted to exercise a greater deal of control over the domestic economy, but was often hesitant in its actions.
The onset of the depression in the early 1930s tore the British Parliament apart, as disagreement over recovery measures divided the nation. Labour advocated extremely leftist policies and unwise spending, while the Liberal and Conservative Parties were divided within themselves over just what to do. The election of 1931 was a marked success for the Conservatives, who emerged with a vast majority in Parliament. Despite the Party's protectionist efforts, the depression grew steadily worse. Unemployment benefits were cut in 1931, and adjusted again in 1934. The remainder of the peacetime years was spent dabbling in different potential solutions to the nation's economic problems.
In the realm of foreign relations, the only major issue was the resurgence of German aggression. In 1937, Stanley Baldwin, the experienced, level-headed prime minister and leader of the Conservative party during the past fifteen years, resigned his post, leaving Neville Chamberlain as his successor. Chamberlain pursued the failed policy of appeasement in regard to Adolf Hitler's aggression, signing the Munich Pact. His hopes for avoidance of war dashed, he presided over Britain's declaration of war on Germany on September 3, 1939. He clung to power until his death on November 9, 1940, when Winston Churchill took over.
Britain suffered from a case of political confusion in the years following the First World War. For centuries, Britain had been widely successful economically and politically, always seemingly a step ahead of the other nations of the world. However, once the brutal war ended, Britain was cast into the mires of post-war rebuilding, just like the other nations of Europe. The nation responded to its newfound problems by dividing sharply between those who favored the solutions of the far left and those who favored the solutions of the far right. The centrist Liberal party basically disappeared, and the political battles of the inter-war years were pitched between the rightist Conservatives and the leftist Labour Party. The attitude of the Conservative Party may be seen in the early years following the war. They favored a fairly closed, powerful central government that, while it would pass some social legislature, would concern itself primarily with maintaining laissez-faire economics as if nothing had happened, allowing economic cycles to bring back prosperity.
This attitude was constantly challenged and forced to modify itself by the Labour party and Britain's workers. They made their goals clear with strikes early on, but lack of organization, and the necessity of working, due to hard times, gave them little to bargain with. Despite the absence of broad gains, the Labour party's pressure did push the Conservative government to institute social programs, and steps were taken early on toward the construction of a social safety net, most notably with the passage of the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920. Labour continued to grow stronger as it grew more and more dissatisfied with Conservative policies, and even got a chance at governmental control in 1924, working toward greater government spending on social programs, especially regarding the problem of housing. The Labour Party again got a chance to govern between 1929 and 1931, but got little accomplished with a small majority.
The left failed to become a significant force in British politics for a number of reasons. The early strikes demonstrated that while the spirit of socialism was in the air, the leftists themselves were hopelessly divided among themselves based upon differing degrees ofleftism, ranging from moderate socialism to communism, and devoted much of their energy to internecine quarrels. In 1921, the Communist Party in Britain contained only 5,000 members, and hardly posed a threat to the establishment. By 1929, the leftist forces had combined their strength in a more organized fashion, and had long abandoned radical socialism and decided to work within the capitalist system to regulate and control it. However, the Labour government was far too cautious, fearing it would be ousted by the only slightly overmatched (in parliamentary seats) Conservatives. Such a cautious government was incapable of tackling the problem of mounting unemployment. In fact, Labour Prime Minister MacDonald tried to avoid the issue by repeating the socialist argument that the capitalist system was the problem, and that as such, he could not be expected to do anything about unemployment within the capitalist system. This statement was followed not long after by the dissolution of the Labour government, and the beginning of the long years of the depression.
Focusing on its own problems, Britain had attempted to stay relatively removed from European power politics during the inter-war years, a project which enjoyed fair success until Nazi Germany began to rear it's ugly head. Chamberlain, who proved throughout his time in office that international relations were not his forte, agreed to sign the Munich Pact in 1938, granting Hitler the Czech Sudetenland in an attempt to appease the ambitious dictator. The move was a failure, and Hitler soon demonstrated his desire for total European domination, to which the British responded with a declaration of war. Though Chamberlain's policies in office were questionable, he did prove that he had learned one thing from the interwar years. He accepted his rival, Winston Churchill, as his successor, preparing his party for the transition, thereby avoiding the internecine divisions that had doomed previous transitions of power and caused drastic political realignments.