Britain, along with the dominions and the rest of the Empire, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. After a quiet period of “phoney war”, the French and British armies collapsed under German onslaught in spring 1940. The British with the thinnest of margins rescued its main army from Dunkirk (as well as many French soldiers), leaving all their equipment and war supplies behind. Winston Churchill came to power, promising to fight the Germans to the very end. The Germans threatened an invasion—which the Royal Navy was prepared to repel. First the Germans tried to achieve air supremacy but were defeated by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain in late summer 1940. Japan declared war in December 1941, and quickly seized Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, and threatened Australia and India. Britain formed an alliance with the Soviet Union (starting in 1941) and very close ties to the United States (starting in 1940). The war was very expensive. It was paid for by high taxes, by selling off assets, and by accepting large amounts of Lend Lease from the U.S. and Canada. The US gave $40 billion in munitions; Canada also gave aid. (The American and Canadian aid did not have to be repaid, but there were also American loans that were repaid.)
Welfare conditions, especially regarding food, improved during the war as the government imposed rationing and subsidized food prices. Conditions for housing worsened of course with the bombing, and clothing was in short supply.
A common theme called for an expansion of the welfare state as a reward to the people for their wartime sacrifices. The goal was operational in a famous report by William Beveridge. It recommended that the various income maintenance services that a grown-up piecemeal since 1911 be systematized and made universal. Unemployment benefits and sickness benefits were to be universal. There would be new benefits for maternity. The old-age pension system would be revised and expanded, and require that a person retired. A full-scale National Health Service would provide free medical care for everyone. All the major parties endorsed the principles and they were largely put into effect when peace returned.
The end of the war saw a landslide victory for Clement Attlee and the Labour Party. They were elected on a manifesto of greater social justice with left wing policies such as the creation of a National Health Service, an expansion of the provision of council housing and nationalisation of the major industries. Britain faced severe financial crises, and responded by reducing her international responsibilities and by sharing the hardships of an “age of austerity.” Large loans from the United States and Marshall Plan grants helped rebuild and modernize its infrastructure and business practices. Rationing and conscription dragged on into the post war years, and the country suffered one of the worst winters on record. Nevertheless, morale was boosted by events such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and the Festival of Britain.
Labour Party experts went into the files to find the detailed plans for nationalisation that had been developed. To their surprise, there were no plans. The leaders realized they had to act fast to keep up the momentum of the 1945 electoral landslide. They started with the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal, and cables and wireless. Then came railways, canals, road haulage and trucking, electricity, and gas. Finally came iron and steel, which was a special case because it was a manufacturing industry. Altogether, about one fifth of the economy had been nationalised. Labour dropped its plans to nationalise farmlands. The procedure used was developed by Herbert Morrison, who as Lord President chaired the Committee on the Socialization of Industries. He followed the model that was already in place of setting up public corporations such as the BBC in broadcasting (1927). As the owners of corporate stock were given government bonds, and the government took full ownership of each affected company, consolidating it into a national monopoly. The management remained the same, only now they became civil servants working for the government. For the Labour Party leadership, nationalisation was a method to consolidate economic planning in their own hands. It was not designed to modernise old industries, make them efficient, or transform their organisational structure. There was no money for modernisation, although the Marshall Plan, operated separately by American planners, did force many British businesses to adopt modern managerial techniques. Old line socialists were disappointed, as the nationalised industries seemed identical to the old private corporations, and national planning was made virtually impossible by the government’s financial constraints. Socialism was in place, but it did not seem to make a major difference. Rank-and-file workers had long been motivated to support Labour by tales of the mistreatment of workers by foremen and the management. The foremen and the managers were the same men as before with much the same power over the workplace. There was no worker control of industry. The unions resisted government efforts to set wages. By the time of the general elections in 1950 and 1951, Labour seldom boasted about nationalisation of industry. Instead it was the Conservatives who decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the takeover of steel and trucking.
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.
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.
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.
Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era. The challenge came from dictators, first Benito Mussolini of Italy, then Adolf Hitler of a much more powerful Nazi Germany. 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. By 1938 it was clear that war was looming, and that Germany had the world’s most powerful military. 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 menaced Poland, and at last 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.
Main articles: Irish Home Rule bills, Partition of Ireland and Irish War of Independence
In 1912, the House of Lords managed to delay a Home Rule bill passed by the House of Commons. It was enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1914. During these two years the threat of religious civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers opposed to the Act and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers supporting the Act. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on political hold. A disorganized Easter Rising in 1916 was brutally suppressed by the British, which had the effect of galvanizing Catholic demands for independence. Prime Minister David Lloyd George failed to introduce Home Rule in 1918 and in the December 1918 General Election Sinn Féin won a majority of Irish seats. Its MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, instead choosing to sit in the First Dáil parliament in Dublin. A declaration of independence was ratified by Dáil Éireann, the self-declared Republic’s parliament in January 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Irish Republican Army between January 1919 and June 1921. The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 that established the Irish Free State. Six northern, predominantly Protestant counties became Northern Ireland and have remained part of the United Kingdom ever since, despite demands of the Catholic minority to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Britain officially adopted the name “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927. In 1948 a working party chaired by the Cabinet Secretary recommended that the country’s name be changed to the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ulster”. However, after considering the potential problems this could cause with other Commonwealth countries especially with respect to changes to the King’s title, the prime minister did not favour the change and it was not made.
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 behaviour. The chaperone faded away; village druggists sold contraceptives. Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.
Britain entered the war because of its implicit support for France, which had entered to support Russia, which in turn had entered to support Serbia. Even more important than that chain of links was Britain’s determination to honour its commitment to defend Belgium. Britain was loosely part of the Triple Entente with France and Russia, which (with smaller allies) fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. After a few weeks the Western Front turned into a killing ground in which millions of men died but no army made a large advance.
The stalemate required an endless supply of men and munitions. By 1916, volunteering fell off, the government imposed conscription in Britain (but not in Ireland) to keep up the strength of the Army. After a rough start in industrial mobilisation, Britain replaced prime minister Asquith in December 1916 with the much more dynamic Liberal leader David Lloyd George. The nation now successfully mobilised its manpower, womanpower, industry, finances, Empire and diplomacy, in league with France and the U.S. to defeat the enemy. After defeating Russia, the Germans tried to win in the spring of 1918 before the millions of American soldiers arrived. They failed, and they were overwhelmed and finally accepted an Armistice in November 1918, that amounted to a surrender.
Britain eagerly supported the war, but in Ireland the Catholics were restless and plotted a rebellion in 1916. It failed but the brutal repression that followed turned that element against Britain. The economy grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943). The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from New York banks. After the U.S. entered in April 1917, the Treasury borrowed directly from the U.S. government.
The Royal Navy dominated the seas, defeating the smaller German fleet in the only major naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Germany was blockaded, leading to an increasing shortage short of food. Germany’s naval strategy increasingly turned towards use of U-Boats to strike back against the British, despite the risk of triggering war with the powerful neutral power, the United States. The waters around Britain were declared a war zone where any ship, neutral or otherwise, was a target. After the liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, drowning over 100 American passengers, protests by the United States led Germany to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. With victory over Russia in 1917, Germany now calculated it could finally have numerical superiority on the Western Front. Planning for a massive spring offensive in 1918, it resumed the sinking of all merchant ships without warning. The US entered the war alongside the Allies (without actually joining them), and provided the needed money and supplies to sustain the Allies’ war efforts. The U-boat threat was ultimately defeated by a convoy system across the Atlantic.
On other fronts, the British, French, Australians, and Japanese seized Germany’s colonies. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign) and in Mesopotamia, while arousing the Arabs who helped expel the Turks from their lands. Exhaustion and war-weariness were growing worse in 1917, as the fighting in France continued with no end in sight. The German spring offensives of 1918 failed, and with the arrival of the American in summer at the rate of 10,000 a day the Germans realized they were being overwhelmed. Germany agreed to an armistice—actually a surrender—on 11 November 1918.
Victorian attitudes and ideals that had continued into the first years of the 20th century changed during World War I. The army had traditionally never been a large employer in the nation, with the regular army standing at 247,432 at the start of the war. By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the “lost generation,” and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon‘s Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front.
The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfulfilled. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson and French premier Georges Clemenceau made all the major decisions. They formed the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent future wars. They sliced up the losers to form new nations in Europe, and divided up the German colonies and Ottoman holdings outside Turkey. They imposed what appeared to be heavy financial reparations (but with in the event were of modest size). They humiliated Germany by forcing it to declare its guilt for starting the war, a policy that caused deep resentment in Germany and helped fuel reactions such as Nazism. Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa, while its dominions added other colonies. Britain gained League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which had been partly promised as a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq. Iraq became fully independent in 1932. Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since 1882, became independent in 1922, although the British remained there until 1952.
Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O’Connell, and the death of George III, led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. O’Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.
When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Relief efforts were inadequate and hundreds of thousands died in the Great Hunger.
Isaac Butt established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. It became the Irish Parliamentary Party, a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. It dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell’s movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.
Parnell’s movement campaigned for ‘Home Rule’, by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O’Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the House of Lords. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant unionist minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.
The Queen played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour. Her strength lay in good common sense and directness of character; she expressed the qualities of the British nation which at that time made it preeminent in the world. As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when middle- and upper-class women were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria’s influence has been enduring. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.
Early 20th century
Prime Ministers from 1900 to 1945: Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Henry Asquith, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
Edwardian era 1901–1914
Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son Edward VII became king, inaugurating the Edwardian Era, which was characterised by great and ostentatious displays of wealth in contrast to the sombre Victorian Era. With the advent of the 20th century, things such as motion pictures, automobiles, and aeroplanes were coming into use. The new century was characterised by a feeling of great optimism. The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900. Edward died in 1910, to be succeeded by George V, who reigned 1910–36. Scandal-free, hard working and popular, George V was the British monarch who, with Queen Mary, established the modern pattern of exemplary conduct for British royalty, based on middle-class values and virtues. He understood the overseas Empire better than any of his prime ministers and used his exceptional memory for figures and details, whether of uniforms, politics, or relations, to good effect in reaching out in conversation with his subjects.
The era was prosperous but political crises were escalating out of control. Dangerfield (1935) identified the “strange death of liberal England” as the multiple crisis that hit simultaneously in 1910–1914 with serious social and political instability arising from the Irish crisis, labor unrest, the women’s suffrage movements, and partisan and constitutional struggles in Parliament. At one point it even seemed the Army might refuse orders dealing with Northern Ireland. No solution appeared in sight when the unexpected outbreak of the Great War in 1914 put domestic issues on hold.
McKibben argues that the political party system of the Edwardian era was in delicate balance on the eve of the war in 1914. The Liberals were in power with a progressive alliance of Labour and, off and on, Irish Nationalists. The coalition was committed to free trade (as opposed to the high tariffs the Conservatives sought), free collective bargaining for trades unions (which Conservatives opposed), an active social policy that was forging the welfare state, and constitutional reform to reduce the power of the House of Lords. The coalition lacked a long-term plan, because it was cobbled together from leftovers from the 1890s. The sociological basis was non-Anglican religion and non-English ethnicity rather than the emerging class conflict emphasized by Labour.
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