During the interwar period there were some areas in which British politics would change, but in many ways it would be more of the same.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 87 - The British Empire Pt. 1 - Domestic Politics. This week a big thank you goes out to Matt, Jan, Vittorio, and Victor for their support of the podcast by becoming members. Members get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast episodes plus special member only episodes. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Over the course of the podcast one of the nations that will play a major role will be the British Empire. And as with every other nation, the actions of the British government during the early months and years of the war have their roots in the actions and decisions of the government during the interwar period. This means, of course, that we are going to discuss some of these actions and decisions over the next several episodes. We will talk about the British politics of the 1920s and 1930s, the changing views on Empire, how the British government and particularly the Royal Navy planned to deal with the rising threats around the globe, the course of British rearmament, and finally the state of Britain and the British military on the eve of war. The goal of these episodes is to help everyone understand why some decisions were made, and how some of those decisions then influenced later events. It all starts with this episode, which will be focused on some of the domestic political developments during the interwar years.
The economic and societal strain that the First World War put on British society was going to force changes when the war was over. In the aftermath of the conflict the British Empire was larger than it had ever been, but years of war during which it had bankrolled so much of the war effort of other nations had its effect. These economic problems accelerated pre-existing trends that had been building up for years, and sometimes decades. These trends saw other nations begin to eat away at some areas that had been so critical to the British economy, and particularly industry, since the industrial revolution. Nations like the United States and Germany simply had easier access to more raw materials and also had larger domestic populations that they could serve. These two nations, among many others, also closed the technology gap that had at times existed during the 19th century. After the war ended many other industries felt incredible strain for a variety of reasons, such as the political chaos that followd the war in many foreign nations which reduced demands in many sectors, or a simple reduction in spending in many other industries that had been in great demand during the war. There was also new competition from foreign industries that had been built up over the previous years when British manufacturing had been so heavily focused on war material. On a more local level, there were also many challenges within the British economy, like the harsh class divides that ssaw many sectories of British society living in a deplorable state. In Britain at Bay Allan Allport gives some context around this inequality: “Britain in the mid-1930s remained a country of staggering want and inequality. Two-thirds of income earners brought in a weekly wage of less than £2 10s., an amount that was barely half the minimum considered necessary for a family of four to live decently.” This inequality ran counter to other political developments, like the 1918 Education acts which tried to increase access to education among all classes of citizens, but the class divides would often prove to be too much when it came time for those newly education individuals to continue on to higher education. The Wall Street Crash in 1929 and then what would be called in British the Great Slump would then take all of those domestic economic challenges and amplify them. This was disastrous for many industries, and it would result in immense economic harships for workers in some industries, and at its peak unemployment would reach 23%. Even with all of these problems there were still points of economic strength. For example, while wage increases would have periods of stagnation there was no denying that the overall income trends for workers were much better than it had been before the First world War. And while Britain was certainly not the clear global leader that it had once been in some areas, London was still the worldwide hub of international commerce. The amount of foreign assets held in Britain, and the money that these assets brought in, was a source of great wealth through their use in investments. These investments were boosted by the decision to leave the Gold Standard, which allowed for reduction in interest rates which allowed for more investments to be made. Britain would also have the largest merchant fleet in the world, which was a source of tremendous wealth as fees were charged on the transportation of goods. There were severe limits on the benefits of some of these aras, and they would almost certainly come screeching to a half in the case of any kind of war. On the topic of war, the position of rearmament within British plans was a subject of massive debate, which we will cover in more detail in a later episode. But from an economic perspective the effects of rearmament were obvious, not only would the goverment be spending a large amount of money, but this expenditure would cause wages to rise, which would then cause inflation which then might cuase the economic to slow, like it had during previous inflation spikes. Foreign imports would also have to be increased for rearmament, which would then result in a balance of payments problem, similar to the challenges that Germany was facing, although much less severe due to Britain’s trade position. Eventually the concerns about such problems would be overruled by the political reality, but there would always be some level of support in economic circles for less rearmament before the war to ensure that Britain entered the war in the best possible financial situation, even if it meant sacrificing immediate military readiness. But, as the treasury would point out in April 1939: ‘If we were under the impression that we were as well able as in 1914 to conduct a long war, we were burying our heads in the sand.’
When it came to politics outside of the economic sphere, a good place to start for interwar Britain would be to discuss who could actually vote. In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act was put into action which greatly expanded the number of people who had the ability to vote. Under previous rules there were certain property ownership requirements that had to be met, which kept millions of people from being allowed to vote. Women were also not allowed. This would change through the act, which allowed any man over the age of 21 along with any woman over the age of 30. This had the effect of immediately almost tripling the toal size of the electorate from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. It could have been expanded more, but at the time the age limit of women was put at 30, in no small part because otherwise the majority of the electorate would have been women, which would not have been acceptable for some individuals who believed that women should not event have the right to vote in the first place. One MP, Richard Law, would say that giving women the right to vote ‘brought nothing but degradation and dishonour to politics.’ he would then also say ‘historians of our decline will say that we were done the moment we gave women the vote’. There are many more quotes I could pull of people being very sexist, and generally dimissing the intellectual capacity and decision making ability of women, I will spare you. Even with such vehement hatred to the very concept of women voting, full suffrange would quickly begin trending towards inevitability, and full voting rights for women over the age of 21 would be given in 1928 with another Representation of the People Act. These two acts brought so many new people into the electorate, and it did bring with it the possibility of large changes to the British political landscape. In 1929 after the full expansion of voting rights, women were the majority in over 80% of all parliamentary districts. But then no real large scale changes happened. Over the course of the interwar period the British voters would consistently vote not towards the radical edges of political discourse but instead very closely to the center. Moderation was the name of the game, and while there were certainly more radical elements in British politics, there was a Community Party, there was a British Union of Fascists, they found it difficult to gain real purchase in a British political landscale that throughout any of the economic ups and downs largely voted for stability. This caused the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative, to trend strongly towards the middle ground, devouring the grounds held by the Liberal party which suffered a decline.
We will start with the Labour party. The Labour Party would quickly grow in popularity after the First World war, in the same way that many socialist parties around Europe would, by gaining the support of workers unions and then supporting socialist policies. In Britain the socialist rhetoric of the party was greatly tempered by attempts to gain more support from Liberal party supporters that were leaving the party. This was done by supporting very moderate socialist reforms of government policies, for example some greater government control but only for particular industries, greater strenth for workers unions, and more public assistance programs. On this platform they would be able to form short lived minority governments in both 1923 and 1929, and they would be in a position of powerful opposition during the 1920s. Until 1931 Ramsay MacDonald would lead the party, and he was a firm gradualist. This meant that instead of favoring radical change, MacDonald and most of the Labour party favored a policy of working withint he existing political structures, and trying to prove to other groups that they were capable of leading. After this was proven they could then begin a long series of reformist measures that would eventually lead to their desired society. If this policy was ever going to be successful, and that can be debated, it would run into a massive problem when the Labour party was in power when the Stock Market crash occurred in New York and then the Great Slump began in Britain. The economic downturn that followed saw the government collapse, and the Labour Party would not be in power again until after the Second World War. What would instead follow was over a decade of Conservative control of the government, with MacDonald also leaving the party to form the National government that would come to power in 1931.
The Conservative party would be in power for most of the interwar period, and their core constituency was businessmen in the middle and upper classes, but they would still be able to garner a good amount of support from other sectors of society. One of the important features of politics in Britain during this time, and particularly in the 1930s was the power of the growing middle class. In the Conservative party they would be given a voice which pushed for policies that largely benefitted them, and which were also supported by far wealthier individuals. That party was then led by men who came from what were reasonably close to that middle class, Stanley Baldwin the son of an ironmonger, Neveille Chamberlain the son of the owner of a screw making company, among others. They were all very wealthy, they grew up with the privileges that their wealth provided to them, but they might still be considered in the middle class, although certainly in its upper cohorts. The middle class would be one of the groups that greatly benefited from changes in the economy after the Great Slump, and it would be their appetite for housing and luxury goods that would help to sustain the economic recovery of the mid 1930s. There was a real fear that the rise of the Labour party and its socialist based ideas would cause serious problems for the Conservative party after the war. This was driven in some respects by the general anti-communist feelings that were present in many nations after the war. However, there were other details of their platform and how it appealed to the people. As explained by Geraint Thomas from Brave new World: Imperial and Democratic Nation-building in Britain between the Wars: “Not only were the Conservatives ideologically hostile to Labour’s policies of redistribution and nationalization, they were deeply nervous about two particular aspects of the political world after 1918: the extravagant public promises, as they saw them, which Labour candidates would make in order to secure a working majority in parliament, and the voters’ (in)ability to resist them.” These fears would prove to be mostly unwarranted, and the party would be able to firmly plant itself in the middle of the political compass and use that position to stay in a place of strenth. This was particularly true during the 1930s when Stanley Baldwin and other conservative leaders would oversee a lengthy period of Conservative control, if it began under the National Government with MacDonald as the Prime Minister. The Conservative platform of nationalist and anti-League of Nations policies would gain in population as the European political landscape began to drastically shift during the 1930s. Many Conservative party members would then be some of the leading forces for rearmament, although that was not something that they all agreed upon.
The Labour and Conservative parties were the largest political parties in the nation for the entirety of the interwar period. With both of them tracking very closely to the center, there might have been space on the extreme edges on the left or right, but it never really came to pass. This was due to the fact that throughout this time there was never any real questioning of the right of the government to rule, even among those who lost an election. None of the major parties ever openly or consistently questioned the results of elections, which was a critical component in many other nations as more extreme political parties gained more and more support. Instead, those that did openly question the government were cast off as small groups that never gained more than relatively small numbers of supporters. the one of these that we will spend the most time with today is the British Union of Fascists, or the BUF. The BUF was led by Oswald Mosley, and was popularized by the Daily Mail and its owner Lord Rothermere. The exposure of the party through the Daily Mail was critical, because it solved a major problem that these parties often had in Britain which was public awareness. The BUF had a fascist political platform, which included anti-semitism and a push for much greater British military strength. By 1934 it would have 50,000 members, but it would have a problem in continuing to grow beyond that number. The core issue that would developer for the party was that during the mid-1930s, it would ramp up its acts of violence, and this would be met by protesters and resistance from some of the left wing parties, like the Labour Party or the Communist Party. In several cases anytime the BUFs violent rhetoric turned into violent action overall support for the BUF would flag. The violence that was caused by and surround by the BUF would climax at the Battle of Cable Street which would occur in October 1936. This would be a confrontation that would take place in London’s East End when several thousand BUF members staged a march through the city, for which they were provided with police protection. They were met by tens of thousands and up to 100,000 counter protesters, who attempted and then succeeded in preventing the march from happening. But in this success the counter protesters would have a violent clash with the police which would cause 175 injuries. The BUF cancelled the march and dispersed, and in the aftermath the membership in the party actually rose, ad it was generally seen as the victim of anti-fascist aggression. However, shortly after the Cable Street class the Public Order Act would be passsed, which would be the first in a series of laws that would make it more and more difficult for the BUF to act as they one had. The Public Order Act would prevent public uniforms from being used, which had always been a feature of Fascist parties, it also gave the police the ability to prohibit any march by any political group. While this restricted the BUF in some ways, it actually ended up increasing membership because it prevented many of the violent and paramilitary actions that the BUF had been staging over the years, and which had caused it to lose members. However, even with this forced change in action, the party would begin to decline in 1937 and by 1939 it counted its membership as just 22,000. What is remarkable is that it was able to hold on to even this level of membership given its inability to make any real political headway. When the war started the BUF would officially support the British war effort, although this did not prevent the party from being shut down and outlawed on June 10, 1940 under the Emergency Powers Act.
One of the frequently discussed topics in British politics during the 1930s was the League of Nations. This was covered back in the early episodes of the podcast, but for the League of Nations to exist and to serve the purpose it was designed to serve, it had to have the support of the British government. Successive governments gave the support required, and for most of the 1920s and early 1930s the League did not really require large commitments, as long as the British showed up to the meetings that is all that was required. But this did change in the mid 1930s as more active support was required. There was a large and very vocal group called the League of Nations Union which was active in Britain at this time which fully supported British membership and leadership of the League of Nations and the Leagu’s core values of collective security and peace. To try and show the support for this position the League of Nations Union would announce the Peace Ballot. This was a questionairre which was widely distributed around Britain, and it contained five questions that would theoretically gauge the support of the British public for the League of Nations and Britain’s continued push for peaceful outcomes to international disputes. And the results were impressive, with massive support for the Peace Ballot and its questions. However, it was not what any public polling agency would consider a good and balance set of questions. The most that could be reasonably gained from the ballot was that most Britons did support continued membership in the League of Nations, and they also supported the concept of collective security. It was also distributed over the course of 1934 and 1935, before the League had really meaningfully been tested with a large member committing any act of aggression, something that would happen with increasing frequency in the years that followed.
The conversations and arguments about British rearmament would not wait for the Peace Ballot or those events in the 1930s and would instead begin several years earlier. Up until 1933 the overall structure of European politics was driven by the after effects of the Versailles Treaty and the agreements made by its participants in the decade that followed. This manifested in agreements like the Locarno Pact which saw France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the United Kingdom agreed to not launch any acts of aggression. But by the the early 1930s concerns were growing about the state of the British military and what it might be asked to do in the years that followed. The result would be the Defence Requirements Committee which was setup in late 1933 and would run into the next year. The goal of the committee was to plan out the next stages of British military planning and preparations, taking into account the increasing threats in Europe and in Asia, especially Germany and Japan, two nations that required very different approaches in any conflict. The committe was important because each threat and its relative ranking against the others would dictate how military spending was apportioned in the years that followed. Then in March 1935 a program of rearmament was published in an easily digestable form, more to boost support among the public than anything else. In political circles there were concerns in the Labour party that such rearmament would merely cause an escalation in tensions and then the start of another war, or those weapons might just be used by conservative governments against socialists both domestically and abroad.
This brings us to the 1935 election. When an election was called in 1935 the National government had been leading the nation for almost four years. During that time the nation had come out of the worst parts of the Slump, unemployment had been greatly reduced, the economic was doing quite well. This had been accomplished through some government actions, but just the general increase in economic fortunes around the world. However, the government had made a few key choices, like when it left the gold standard. Working against these positives for the National Government was the fact that the Conservative Party was split due to the vehement disagreements between its members on the contents of the Government of India Bill. Debates of this bill were in many ways similar to what had happened during discussions about the future of Ireland a generation before. A group of Conservative MPs just adamantly refused to even consider a bill that would reform British control in India, and which would result in greater independence for the Indian people. These were the same type of reforms that had already occurred in many of Britain’s other imperial holdings, and which had been formalized and expanded after the First World War. But India, many would claim, was different, with the claim being that if India was allowed self-government chaos and violence would follow. The general belief that Indians were fundamentally incapable of effective self government was a belief heavily based in the kind of euro-centric elitism that had driven the entire course of European colonialism. Words would be used like “imperial duty” to describe why such reforms were impossible. Winston Churchill was one of these MPs, and he was a very vocal member, although I am not sure he was capable of not being vocal on anything. I only mention Churchill do to later events and due to the fact that his absolute refusal to budge on the India issue would be the cause of his political impotence in the years that followed. But anyway, back to the election of 1935. The results of the election are and interesting example of how distant British politics were from many other nations on the continent, by the mid 1930s many nations had turned to more totalitarian governments, be they fascist, communist, or military dictatorships. In France, while such governments had not come to power, there was a sense of political instability as governments rose and well and the Popular Front gained more and more support. But in Britain in 1935 the people would vote decisively for more of the same. The national goverment would win 51.8 percent of the vote, a fair bit off the 67 percent they ahd in 1931, but it still gave the party an absolute majority. And they were not just supported by the rich and the middle class, but also by the working class who had also greatly benefitted from the economic recovery of the previous years. Critically to our story, this would be the last general election in Britain until after the Second World War. Stanley Baldwin would be the new governments first Prime Minister, but then he would be replaced by a man we have discussed quite a bit in recent months, Nivelle Chamberlain, who would retain office from 1937 until May 1940. Next episode we will look at one of Britain’s greatest military problems during the interwar period, how to handle the growing strength and antagonism of Japan.