Between the Wars
When it arrived, The Treaty Of Versailles was met with condemnation from Germany and criticism from the allies. That both parties were unsatisfied identified the treaty as a great compromise, but perhaps not the ideal foundation for lasting peace. The Germans were unwilling to accept 100 per cent of the war guilt and surrender swathes of their territory. The allies, especially the French, argued that it did not go far enough in demanding reparations from the Germans.
Despite subscribing to the hang-the-kaiser status quo of the people, there was a sense amongst David Lloyd George ’s cabinet that the collapse of the German empire was something to mourn as well as cheer. Although Germany was a rival, a situation sustained through the bloodiest of wars, it was also Britain’s main trading partner. In the radical period of industrialisation, the 20th Century was financed by trade; economies relied on trade more than ever.
Between the Armistice of 11th November 1918 and the resumption of pan-European hostilities with Nazi Germany’s genocidal expansionism, the British economy struggled and unemployment was rife. The nation embraced new attitudes, welcomed the BBC to the airwaves and witnessed civil war in Ireland. Antibiotics were discovered, when Sir Alexander Fleming , a brilliant but untidy scientist discovered the bacteria killing properties of the mould penicillin. But the progress was anchored to an ailing economy.
The Inter-war period could be considered Britain’s lost years; bookended with world wars, domestic affairs such as the first Labour government under Ramsay Macdonald seemed rather trivial. But to those rebuilding their lives and fighting poverty, this era was anything but trivial.
This was a contrary time for Britain. With one million dead or missing, a further two million wounded in the war, the allied victory was tinged with the acute sense of loss. Victory was one thing, but too many fathers did not return to their families. The country was now to face up to its greatest challenge in the Great Depression, which arguably arrived in 1919, lasting three years before it would reemerge with vengeance, smothering the economy in the years immediately preceding World War II .
Britain had to turn its attention to a gross domestic product that was falling. Trading partners evaporated as Europe had lost money in the war. It was a costly business for Britain too, with U-Boats decimating the country’s merchant fleet. Britain’s core exports – the textiles, coal and steel – found that the markets abroad had changed. A trade deficit was emptying the public purse. The country’s newer industries, such as automobiles and electronics, were not ready to compete on an international stage.
In the 1918 ‘Coupon Election’ David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition between the Liberals and the Conservatives immediately recorded a landslide victory. But Lloyd George was dependent on Conservative support in the coalition. His post-war workload, aside from the economic slump, was insurrection in Ireland. The Easter Rising of 1916 momentarily turned British interests west during the war. But now, post-war, the question of home rule for Ireland was all the more immediate.
The 1916 rising was deeply unpopular amongst the Irish populace. But this enmity for the armed republicans soon turned into sympathy after the execution of the rebels. The Old IRA waged guerilla war on the British government. Typically, it was chaotic. The First Dáil initially ignored the military campaign for home rule. But in 1921, President Eamon De Valera recognised the war with England. Not that it was a full-blown conflict. British military positions were attacked. Within the Republican movement, there was a lack of consensus as to the best tactic to bring the British to the table. Michael Collins endorsed guerilla tactics; De Valera, conventional warfare, in an effort to normalise Ireland’s conflict with England; while Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith favoured civil disobedience. The IRA’s use of force was returned in kind.
The Government Of Ireland Act 1920 divided Ireland into two semi-autonomous regions, north and south. The Act defined Northern Ireland as a six county state: Antrim ; Armagh ; Down ; Fermanagh ; Londonderry ; Tyrone . Neither Northern or Southern parliaments were granted huge powers. Nationalists pushed for independence. A summer truce in 1921, halted the Irish War Of Independence and paved the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty .
Sinn Fein, the dominant voice in Southern Ireland’s nationalist politics, sent a delegation to London . Headed by Griffith and Collins, they demanded a united Irish Republic. Lloyd George would not budge; Ireland would be partitioned, to the north would be the six counties, the south would become the Irish Free State, a British dominion with a British monarch Head Of State. The Free State would have control over fiscal affairs, trade and partial control over foreign affairs. Griffith and Collins signed up to the treaty on December 6th. While it granted unprecedented powers to the Irish, Republicanism was not sated. A year later, Ireland erupted in civil war.
Back on mainland Britain, Lloyd George was having problems of his own. His coalition, united in war was divided in peacetime. His negotiations with the IRA won him plenty of enemies. Unionists and Conservatives sought to undermine him. Scandal brought Lloyd George down. The Conservative faction in his government proved he had been selling peerages and knighthoods for money. When a chasm opened between the Conservatives over foreign policy decisions in Turkey, Lloyd George’s government fell in.
Lloyd George resigned on the 19th October 1922. The Conservatives assumed control under Andrew Bonar Law. Lasting only months, Bonar Law resigned due to ill-health; Stanley Baldwin took over on 22nd May 1923, with Neville Chamberlain as chancellor. Baldwin was something of a throw back to Conservative paternalism, proffering tariff reform to feather-bed British industry and help reverse the UK’s grim unemployment statistics. His protectionist streak lead to a vote of no confidence in his government, forcing Baldwin to resign after just seven months as prime minister.
Socially, Britain was exhibiting a new appetite for modernism and a shift away from Victorian values regarding morality and social justice. The laissez faire attitudes of the previous century were not as evident in the economic crises that anchored Inter-war fortunes. The demographic of the electorate had changed beyond recognition too: by 1918, with the Representation Of The People Act woman had the vote. There was a catch though, they had to be over the age of 30. Parity with the male electorate was established ten years later when the Act was amended to allow both sexes to vote at the age of 21. On 28th November 1919 , Nancy Astor was sworn in as the first female MP.
The British Empire was a more passive beast after the Great War . The previous century had seen it engage in brutal military campaigns in Crimea and South Africa . The former as part of an alliance to curb Russia’s enthusiasm for territorial gain; the latter in the hunger for the gold and diamonds that lay in the Transvaal soil. The 20th Century heralded the emergence of new empires, certainly in economic terms. America, shorn of its colonial apron strings, was growing. So too Japan. The world order was changing. Since 1914, the British Empire entered a period of steady decline. The evidence was plain for all to see: Ireland’s partitioning and the formation of the Irish Free State; revolt in India; independence for Egypt in 1922, and a withdrawal of British troops in 1936. In 1926, the Imperial Conference of the British Empire met in what would prove a watershed for the Empire.
The conference was chaired by Arthur Balfour, Earl Of Balfour, British Lord President Of The Council. Influenced by South African and Canadian dominions desire to be recognised as autonomous states united by a common head of state, the Balfour Declaration was a mission statement of sorts. British relations between the nations were to be free of colonial hierarchy – the Empire became a Commonwealth, and its members sovereign in matters of their own governance.
Politics were particularly dynamic in the years separating the wars. The social issues arising from the UK’s unemployment, were now being tackled by leftist ideologies. While the radical left failed to trouble parliament, Britain was witness to the first Labour government in 1924, when Ramsay MacDonald swept to power on 23rd January 1924 after Baldwin’s political implosion. In keeping with what was a tumultuous time at the summit of UK politics, MacDonald’s minority government only lasted nine months. In that time a Housing Act created more social housing for Britain’s poor, and relations with post-Versailles Germany were somewhat mended.
MacDonald’s swift downfall was a result of scaremongering, the so-called ‘red scares’ such as the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ that insinuated British communists were consorting with the Soviets under the watch of the government. Enemies in the press and opposition disabled the minority government. MacDonald, who would be reelected in 1929, was a success. The Labour movement could be trusted to govern adroitly. His second term in 1929 was overshadowed by the Great Depression that saw the global recession hamstring social reform and public expenditure.
Britain was poor, but Germany was bankrupt. One of the main catalysts for the Depression was the Wall Street Crash of 24th October 1929; tumbling stock would have a catastrophic effect on the decades that came. With plummeting economic fortunes new and dangerous ideology fermented. Germany had a charismatic leader who railed against those Germans who agreed to the Treaty Of Versailles, making capital from financial and political meltdown. With Benito Mussolini in Italy, General Franco in Spain; Fascism in Europe was on the rise.
The years preceding the Great Depression witnessed the creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the first public demonstration of the television. Scottish inventor John Logie Baird ’s television transmission was crude, but it convinced an audience of around 50 scientists of the possibilities of this new media. The BBC was five years old when it was granted a Royal Charter on New Year’s Day, 1927. The BBC sought to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ through radio transmission, and was first lead by John Reith . Cinema took a step forward when ‘The Jazz Singer’ opened in cinemas in London. It was the first film with dialogue, siring a new generation of cinema goer. The prevailing trend in art and architecture was the art deco movement. The geometrically bold style was in tune with the appetite for modernity, for bold colours and modernism.
If there was any connotations of optimism to be drawn from the art deco movement’s confidence with colour and shape, they would surely be misplaced as Britain faced an uneasy future. Mirroring developments on the continent, fascism took root in Britain with the British Union Of Fascists under the leadership of Oswald Mosley. Inspired by Mussolini, Mosley and his Blackshirts’ gatherings often descended into violence. While Mosley found himself politically marginalised, the Third Reich’s regime was in full swing in Germany. The fragile peace which was ushered in at Paris, was now on borrowed time. Not everyone in Britain was aware of this.
There was an abdication crisis to be getting on with. Edward VIII abdicated his throne to his younger brother, the Duke Of York, in his wish to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The constitutional crisis could have finished the monarchy. On 12th May 1937 George VI was crowned king. All the while, Germany annexed Austria, violating the Treaty Of Versailles. Expansionism was threatening the continent and the British policy of ‘appeasement’ was ignoring the problem. The British did not enter the Spanish Civil War and nor did they speak out against Mussolini. When Neville Chamberlain’s government recognised Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, foreign secretary Anthony Eden resigned.
All signs pointed to war. Unemployment was as high as 70 per cent in Britain. The heavy industries that had formed the bulwark of empire were now crippled. The 200-strong Jarrow March, when men marched from the North-East to London to petition the government into saving heavy industry, was an indicator of the desperation. 27th April 1939 and conscription was introduced in peacetime. There were few protests. By September 1939 , Germany invaded Poland and the Inter-war era was over. Versailles's critics were correct; peace didn’t last.
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