December 13, 2009

The Politics of the Interwar Era

We are now going to examine in a series of posts different aspects of British politics in what might be called for want of a better term the “Interwar Period”. That is the period 1918-1939 and particularly that from 1922 when the slimmed down version of the wartime Coalition led by Lloyd George disintegrated. In doing so we follow on from an earlier series on UK politics before World War I.

Obviously this era was not at the time considered the “interwar” era- a point one too easily doesn’t reflect on. On the contrary it was fervently hoped that World War I had at least as far as the UK was concerned been the “War To End All Wars”. This was the view of the British Political Establishment and almost certainly the British public Indeed it’s probably the case that British resistance to fighting a major war was as high as it has ever been in the last few centuries- the famous/ notorious “peace ballots” being evidence of this. Hatred of major conflict was one of the dominant themes of the era- the attempts to appease Indian discontent with British rule should arguably be seen as part of this as well as the attempts in the 1920’s and 1930’s to appease Germany. The few (though often nasty) colonial conflicts did not mar the general impression for the average Britain of a peaceful era that should be retained. It was how to preserve peace not fight war that the parties squabbled.

Another powerful theme of this era was economic trouble. There were several very nasty depressions in this era provoking major fiscal crisis’ complete with tax increases and spending cuts Indeed to this day the spending cuts of 1920’s and 1931 are under some measurements the greatest in peacetime UK history. The UK (contrary to the myth of the “1930’s” though was very unusual among World economies l in the temporal distribution of these troubles. The UK had one of the world’s worst economic performances in the 1920’s and one of the world’s best in the 1930’s (of course the world economy did rather worst in the latter case). The UK had persistently high unemployment throughout the post 1922 period and (probably not coincidentally) frequent deflation- in 1939 the nominal GDP of the UK was below 1920 levels.

Economics had of course been a major political issue before the war (see the people’s budget). But it grew after the war for a number of reasons. Debt and hence taxes was much higher in the wake of the war. The war left a thick nexus of controls on the economy which were both inspiration and horror to a large number of ideologues and enthusiastic. Perhaps most important was the rough economic climate. This helped lead to a wave of strikes that sparked conflicts on union legislation. It also fed a constant series of fights over welfare spending and taxation which exacerbated divides between the haves and the have not. Also it led to a search for alternatives whether “retrenchment” “Protectionism” “Reflation” or “Planning” .This search however was much more powerful among intellectuals and even voters than in influencing the behaviour of the Chancellors of the Exchequer. Nonetheless even they broke with long standing British economic totems whether free trade or the Gold Standard.

It’s probably no coincidence that economic issues had a tendency to elbow out the Constitutional (Indian affairs was a very big exception) ones that had been so big in the pre war era. IN a sense the politics of cultural identify were elbowed out (without being destroyed) by the politics of class. There were other reasons, in many ways the” wartime” coalition had produced a much more broadly supported settlement o many constitutional issues. Ireland was the big one. Southern Ireland “Eire” was now independent and Northern Ireland was mostly run by a devolved parliament which’s politics were mostly ignored by Westminster. A constant theme of British poltiics before World War I was Irish mp’s using their clout to push constitutional reforms which provoked a massive backlash in Protestant Ireland more significantly in mainland Britain. This was now gone- in fact Ulster now provided a minor but valuable bulwark of support for the “Unionist” party ( the still significant name the Conservatives in Scotland and Northern Ireland in this era)-in 1974 Edward Heath was to lose the premiership in part because his abandonment of Northern Irish Unionism had lost him those mp’s support.

Other changes had also helped ease constitutional polarisation -notably the disestablishment of the(Anglican) Church of Wales – disliked by it’s heavily Methodist and Baptist population. . A still hereditary but much less powerful than pre Parliament act House of Lords was still valuable to the conservatives but much less dangerous and offensive to their opponents-which is not to say it was not still a bone of contention . The growth of ecumenical ism and arguably secularism may have helped weaken earlier divisions. But the growing pull of economic conflict was perhaps the most important of all.

The rise of economic issues and the decline of Constitution issues l fed on and fed another important factor-the development of a new party system along a rather different set of political cleavages than what had mattered pre war. And it is to that party system that we now turn.

The picture was taken in the Great strike of 1925-one of the great polarizing clashes of the era.


James Higham said...

Interestingly, the global socialists were still hard at it - the Houses and Warburgs, for example, in that era and Versailles was a recipe for WW2. When you research the identities of the "insisters"on that treaty, it's not hard to understand the between-wars history, not least the falling away in moral standards in the 20s.

Sulla said...

James I'm Not sure what defition the Warburgs are socialists or what the"Houses" are.

I actualy disagree on Versailles I think though an imperfect treaty it was well designed to prevetn war-if properly enforced. This was not -and I'm afraid the UK had a lot of responsability for this. See for example this very interesting book.