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Interwar Period Notes

History Notes > British History VII (Since 1900) Notes

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Interwar Period 'Democracy has arrived at a gallop in England, and I feel all the time that it is a race for life: can we educate them before the crash comes? - Stanley Baldwin The social history of interwar Britain has been heavily coloured by economics and politics. It often presents a gloomy picture of a society dogged by mass unemployment and class conflict, punctuated by futile protests such as the General Strike and the hunger marches, all presided over by uncaring coalition and National governments that cultivated the dictators while Europe drifted towards fascism. Past Paper Questions:

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How do you account for the pervasive fear of British decline in the interwar period?

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How important was policy in the electoral success of the Conservative Party?

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Why did mass unemployment not destabilize Britain politically?

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Have historians over-used the concept of 'crisis'?

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Did Britain's political culture inhibit the growth of extremist movements?

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To what extent has the success of the Far Right been constrained by Britain's political framework?

General: To what extent can we view this period in polarised terms? Was there a genuine sense of decline - politically, socially and economically - and if so, how did the government respond?
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------General Jon Lawrence

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Fears of mass democracy lead to cross-party reconfiguration of public politics, in a bid to restabilise society and polity after the upheaval of war and post-war transition. o Disorder & low level violence did not disappear from British politics in the years after WWI, but cease to be viewed as signs of a vigorous polity. (links to wider areas - centrist, stable embodiment of era in Baldwin; soporific popular culture and consumerism; failure of extremism; return to normalcy in gender relations - feminisation of male identities)

o Debrutalisation of life. Licensed a public that was restrained and deliberative, not passionate and assertive. o General feeling, across the parties, that the 'old ways' could not be tolerated any longer.

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To a great extent, the parties had faiths rather than philosophies. The Liberals faith was in Free Trade. The Conservatives upheld laissez-faire statecraft conflated with the Empire and the Union, and Labour's faith was in nationalisation and the Capital Levy. Though socialism was largely a theoretical tenet of Labour, something to be achieved within the existing system, there nonetheless existed a pervasive faith that the current system was ridden with evils that would only be truly resolved by rejecting it.

Conservative Hegemony

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The split in the Liberal party and the arrival of a Labour party no longer in any sense an appendage of it, advantaged the Conservatives. Dominating politics throughout the inter-war years, Conservatives were unlikely to opt for bold policies going outside existing orthodoxies. Electoral results indicated that the profoundest conservatism (small c) lay among the British people themselves.

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The real beneficiaries of the War. o Encouraged a process by which they became the natural majority party. Increasingly dominated by business and manufacturing interests, as well as the expanding urban and suburban democratic systems. o Destruction of religious-based political system in favour of entrenched anti-socialism. Hegemony fundamentally determined by ability to devise 'a form of social politics driven partly by an overt anti-socialism and partly by a broadening of the Party's elite'

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In part based on weakness of opposition. o MacDonald's attempt s to normalise relations with the Soviet Union provided an opening for widespread allegations of Labour's abetting a Bolshevist conspiracy. o Liberals consigned to support fro the 'Celtic fringe' in the 1920s, wiped off the map in urban England. o Tories had a broader appeal - not least to women voters - than an opposition that still lacked credibility. Bolstered by non-partisan credentials heading National Government.

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Baldwin successfully projected himself to the public as a non-partisan, inclusive figure, speaking for the nation as a whole, espousing a common sense Christian morality and portraying himself as a sort of apolitical father of the nation. Jackson.

o 'His aim as to evoke common traditions and shared experiences, in order to strengthen the sense of social cohesion, to exalt the reputedly innate English virtues of individual initiative, common sense, tolerance, compromise and class harmony, and to celebrate England as the birthplace of true liberty' - Williamson o Conservatism presented as an inclusive, patriotic common sense reassurance of identity and defined against 'otherness' that threatened this identity. 1/2 working class vote for Tories within England on account of deference, religious loyalty, economic stability and adherence to politics of consumption.

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Women also voted for Conservatives. o Felt alienated from Labour's masculine-orientated policies; preferred Tory emphasis on individual responsibility which women had in the domestic sphere. o Fostered strong relations by recognising 'overlapping identities'. 'Mrs Maggs and Betty', a popular column in the Conservative magazine Home and Politics, established a firm working relationship between the party and its female membership. o Tories appealed to specific manifestations of working-class interest groups where Labour tended to see them as monolithic, collapsed interests of women into those of their husbands.

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Preserved crucial economic hegemony in the Home Counties, emotively applauded in Baldwin's speeches that harked to a rural, nostalgic understanding of Britain. o By 1931 Conservatives had made effective use of promoting its vested interests as the interests of the community as a whole. Delineation of voting no longer so heavily based on class. o Assumption that 1918 Reform Act removed artificial electoral barrier preventing Labour's consolidation on the grounds of economic inequality overexaggerated. Ignored consumption, comparatively stable economy, deference to national conventions and associational culture.
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Set the tone for Britain in the thirties. o Non-partisan, but Conservative dominated. Bolstered by a half-recover of the economy, with much investment in housing and in consumer durables, and new affluence for advanced industrial zones of the East Midlands and southern England. o Politics of the National Government unequivocally and unapologetically based on class and regional division.

* Depressed areas were essentially self-contained societies, sustained by a strong sense of working-class cultural values. For the majority, the thirties were a time of low inflation cheap private housing and growing consumer choice.

o Recovery of the mid-1930s provided a serviceable platform for the National Government in 1935. Baldwin replaced MacDonald at the head of 429 MPs, 387 of whom were Conservatives. o Tories had a more broad-based appeal. Focus was placed not on unemployment, but treatment of unemployed. Refocused the economic argument. Cuts in benefits were restored in 1934, in real terms higher than ever.

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As much by accident as by design, the economic policies of the National Government worked tolerably well.

'Secular Anglicanism' and the 'Social Service State'

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Work on building the 'social service state' focused on four main areas: provision of income when ordinary earnings were interrupted or terminated, health, housing and education. Chamberlain's 1934 Unemployment Act reasserted the sharp distinction between Unemployment Assistance and Unemployment Insurance. The former was administered by a separated governing board, which implemented new uniform rates and a standardised Means Test in 1935. Bitterness surrounding the issue found its way into literature - Walter Brierley's Means 'Test Man', as well as 'Love on the Dole', one of the best selling books of the 1930s. The Means Test, hunger marches, malnutrition and the total blighting of lives caused by long-term unemployment created great anger across all the classes. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, there was a recrudescence of the type of militant activity that had appeared at the end of the war, involving a number of clashes with the police.

Though anger and bitterness should not be glossed over, the salient characteristics exhibited by Britain in the thirties, as in the twenties, are those of stability, moderation, and 'secular Anglicanism'.

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Jarrow

Public Order Act, 1936 - 'helped to articulate a consensus of opinion about what has been called the "threshold of violence" permitted in British society Stevenson, Cook. Between these extremes, holding the middle ground and the loyalty of a remarkable sector of the British people, stood the Labour party, which both inspired general idealism and served as a pragmatic force in British society. Planning and loose corporatism a crucial aspect of this. The middle opinion groups hoped to achieve a more rational, and a more compassionate, planning of Britain's resources through 'agreement' or 'consensus. Evident in the fact that despite some limited violence, there was a strong consensual element in thirties politics.

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Jarrow has been taken as a symbol of the evils of capitalism, but in fact represented the strength of British political stability. Had official political support from Labour, but did not succeed in triggering popular sentiment and providing an effective challenge to governmental treatment of depressed areas.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Labour What sort of a party was Labour? - Ben Jackson Institutional links: Alliance of trade unionists rooted in working class industrial struggle and groups of idealists who harboured more expansive aspirations. However, trade unions financed the infant party and provided the majority of local rank and file. Cultural links: Working class identity. Separation from Liberals an assertion of the autonomy, self-reliance and self-respect of the working class. Through the trade unions, Labour became embedded within a particular working class culture that emphasised collective solidarity and loyalty as cardinal virtues, and that prioritised the interests of the economically disadvantaged. Conclusions about Labour Conservative fears about socialism exaggerated: Socialism as a model of economic organisation not central to Labour's thought in this period; more important was class identity and 'ethical socialism'. Clause IV a concession to the intelligentsia. This was a political language that couched the party's objectives in terms of advancing certain universal moral goals, was another way of appealing to 'the nation' and not just to a particular form of working-class identity. Labour unable to break free from representation as a sectional interest: Labour working class identity was politically controversial, appealing in practice only to unionised workers in urban areas. o Unable to gain support from working-class Conservative supporters - 'Henry Dubb' In trying to be all things to all people, it failed to hold the loyalty of any viable majority, and its fragile plurality quickly collapsed under the weight of the 1931 financial crisis. Labour therefore adopted a 'one nation' electoral strategy under Ramsay MacDonald, pursuing a clear strategic goal to replace the Liberals decisively as the official opposition. o His ambiguity was initially an electoral asset. Kenneth Morgan - 'successfully straddled London's social circles and red Clydeside' Labour's success in achieving this demonstrated their capability to govern, which became possible for the first time in 1924. o Unable to resolve 'economic blizzard of 1929-31. Objections to 10% cut in benefits triggered MacDonald's leaving the party to join the National Government. Above all a decision about class and identity.

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