The United Kingdom in the 1920s.


The UK entered the 1920s powerful but chastened. Unemployment was high and this was assumed to be just part of the transition from peace to war. In Ireland there was a guerrilla campaign which was getting worse for the Crown.

The enormous sanctions imposed on Germany were supposed to help pay for the war. John Maynard Keynes had published a book on this in 1919 – the Economic Consequences of the Peace. He argued that by putting reparations on Germany the Allies shot themselves in the foot. By ruining Germany they would ruin themselves. They needed a prosperous Germany to trade with.

The Labour Party latched onto public anger at joblessness and poverty. The Labour Party was firmly entrenched as the dominant party in a number of metropolises. In London. Glasgow, Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool and Newscastle the Labour Party was master. Labour held the loyalty of much of the urban working class. This was especially so of those who worked in the most unionised sections of the economy – the coal mines, the dock yards and in smoke stack industry.

The Liberal Party was hopelessly split. Lloyd George and Asquith led the two different factions of the party. They openly abominated each other.

In 1921 Bonar Law was persuaded to stand down as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party. He was replaced by Austen Chamberlain. Chamberlain was the son of Joseph Chamberlain the Liberal Unionist. Like his father before him Austen’s trademark was a monocle. Austen came from a middle class rather than an upper class family. This was similar to Bonar Law. This went a small way towards correcting the impression that the party was all about noblemen.

The financial situation was still dire. Reparation payments from Germany had only just begun. There was a debt mountain. There were many pensions to pay to war widows and orphans. Soldiers who had been mutilated had to be cared for.

The conflict in Ireland reached a crescendo. In the North hundreds of Catholic civilians were murdered by loyalist terrorists.

In July 1921 there was a truce between the Irish Republican Army and the Crown Forces. Sinn Fein was the IRA’s political party. Sinn Fein MPs were invited to London to treat with His Majesty’s Government. The leader of Sinn Fein de Valera was not part of the delegation but did come to London a few times to speak to the UK Government. De Valera was styled by some President of Ireland. In December 1921 an agreement was thrashed out that was not dissimilar to Home Rule. There would be a parliament for Southern Ireland (26 counties) and a parliament for Northern Ireland (six counties). There would be a Council of Ireland for the two parliaments. Northern Ireland would remain within the UK and be represented at Westminster. Southern Ireland would become the Irish Free States and she would not be represented at Westminster. The UK would retain three bases in the South of Ireland and be allowed to use more bases in times of war or strenuous relations. The Irish Free State would assume a share of the UK national debt.

In 1922 a Naval Conference took place at Washington DC. The United Kingdom had previously had a policy of double power standard. That meant the Royal Navy had to be as large as the next two put together. This was scrapped at the time of the Washington Conference. The Royal Navy agreed to parity with the US Navy. There did not appear to be any chance that the UK would fight against the United States. The Treasury was very keen on the deal since it would make huge savings.

The UK had rhetorically supported the Greeks against the Turks. Lloyd George was a Philhellene. That was instinctive for Liberals. Moreover, Greece had been an Allied country and Turkey had been a Central Powers belligerent. Greece, Italy and France were due to seize some of Turkey Proper under the Treaty of Sevres.

The Turks defeated the Greeks and drove them out of Asia Minor. British troops were stationed at Chanak – now called Canakkale. This was beside Gallipoli. The United Kingdom was t control the Bosphorous under the Treaty of Sevres. Ataturk’s soldiers surrounded the British garrison there. There was a tense moment. Ataturk warned the British soldiers to pull out or be attacked. Should the United Kingdom give into such threats? Should she fight rather than have the treaty overturned? Lloyd George sensed that there was no stomach for a fight. Britain’s finances were parlous. There was still unrest in India and SOuth Africa. Southern Ireland was in the throes of a civil war. Lloyd George decided it would be sage to cave in. The British troops at Chanak were permitted to leave taking their arms with them. In return the UK publicly abjured any right to station troops in Turkey. A determined aggressor had successfully overturned the peace terms previously agreed by his country.

Some Conservatives said that Britain should have fought.

The Conservative Party grew tired of serving under Lloyd George. He had been PM for six years. He had handled many crises. Stanley Baldwin led backbench MPs in ousting the ineffectual leader in the shape of Austen Chamberlain. Bonar Law came back as leader. This led to the formation of the 1922 Committee. It is so called because it would founded in 1922. It represents backbench Conservative MPs. Andrew Bonar Law became Prime Minister and immediately called an election.

The Conservatives won handily. The most significant development was that Labour overtook the Liberals. For the first time Labour was the official opposition.

Bonar became very ill in 1923.. In fact he was dying of throat cancer. He was replaced by Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin was an Old Harrovian who had attended Cambridge. He came from a West Midlands manufacturing family. He was a cousin of Rudyard Kipling. Baldwin was a debonair and expedient politician. He called an election at the end of 1923. When the result came in at the start of 1924 it revealed that for the first time ever the Labour Party had most seats. They were still a minority. The Labour Party formed a government under James Ramsay MacDonald.

Ramsay MacDonald had not had a good start in life. He had been born out of wedlock. The Liberal MP Horatio Bottomley had published Ramsay MacDonald’s birth certificate to highlight this fact. This was a despicable tactic but it tapped into a wide felt prejudice. He had grown up poor. He had become a pupil-teacher. This meant he went to school for free in return for teaching others. After a few years of this he became a teacher and then a journalist.

The Labour Government could achieve very little because it did not control the COmmons. In 1924 there was another election. The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Telegram. Zinoviev was the head of Communist International – Comintern. Comintern’s job was to bring about communist revolution all over the world. In this telegram Zinoviev supposedly enjoined the Communist Party of Great Britain to help Labour win the election and then launch a revolution. It was fiercely disputed as to whether this was authentic or not. The telegram certainly gave many people the willies. Some said it was a clever forgery and had been created by right wing elements in the British secret service. It certainly helped the Conservatives.

Zinoviev was seen as a rival by Stalin. He was later shot during the purges.

This time the Conservatives won. Stanley Baldwin was back as PM. Despite losing the election Labour’s position as His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition was confirmed. People had rejected the Liberals as the Opposition in 1923 and they meant it. Asquith was still leader of the Liberals but a large faction followed Lloyd George instead. This fissure in Liberalism was to prove near fatal to the party. With Labour on the left and the Conservatives on the right the Liberal Party could have dominated politics as a centrist party. Lloyd George had charisma and the prestige of being a war Prime Minister. But the war had been the antithesis of liberalism. It did not seem to advance liberal ideas. Britain had had to become almost totalitarian in order to win. Dictatorships or chaos reigned in defeated states. The war impoverished the UK. The strident nationalism engendered by war did not sit well with liberalism.

In 1924 the Conservative Government saw the election gradually pick up. Unemployment was still stubbornly high. There was peace in the British Empire. In India the Congress Party was campaigning for a greater deal of self-government.

In 1926 workers were restive. They wanted higher wages. Bosses tried to cut wages and increase hours. A workers’ slogan ran ”Not a minute on the day not a penny off the pay.” Coal miners were among the most militant trades unionists. A few of the trades unionists were communists. They openly lauded the Soviet Union.

In April 1926 the General Strike began. It started with coal miners. Most miners in Nottinghamshire refused to strike. There was an alternative trades union there that was surprisingly friendly with the mine owners. This union was headed by someone named Spencer. His union was secretly funded by the Conservative Party. Some miners regarded these pro Conservative trades unionists as traitors. The term Spencerman was used as an insult in Nottinghamshire into the 1950s.

Undergraduates of right wing opinions volunteered to do jobs vacated by strikers. Middle class men did the same. Some feared the strike because they felt it was an attempt to usurp Parliament. A few left wing clergy supported the strike. The Catholic Archbishop of Westminster denounced the strike as immoral. Most newspapers were not printed because trades unionists refused to work. Churchill organised for a government newspaper to be printed called the British Gazette. After two weeks the strike ended.

In 1926 Asquith stood down as leader of the Liberals. He became the Earl of Oxford and Asquith and took a seat in the Lords. Lloyd George was finally leader of the Liberals – the party was reunited. But not for long.

In the late 1920s Labour policy towards India changed. Ramsay MacDonald said that India should get dominion status. The Conservative Government made some concessions to Indian nationalist aspirations. Lord Irwin, who was Viceroy of India, advocated this carefully calibrated policy of conciliation and repression.

In 1929 Labour won fewer votes than the Conservatives but more seats. Labour formed its first minority government. RAMSAy MacDonald was the PM. Baldwin remained Leader of the Conservative Party.

Labour could finally implement its programme. Unemployment was still too high. The Liberals had published a paper – we can conquer unemployment. Labour was determined to reduce unemployment in particular and more broadly to tackle poverty. Within weeks of Labour taking office the Wall Street Crash occurred.

The stock market collapsed in October 1929. This first of all affected the United States. It did not take long for the contagion to spread to the United Kingdom. Initially the full significance of the Wall Street Crash was not understood. It took a few weeks for trade to slow down and people to be laid off. But then the downward spiral only gathered pace.

More and more people lost their jobs. Those in work often had their hours cut and their hourly rates docked. The government’s tax take was reduced because many people were no longer paying tax due to not having an income. Those who had an income had less money to spend than before. Many people were supporting needy friends and impecunious relatives. Industrial parts of the country were severely impacted. The Government was obliged to reduce its spending. Military spending was cut to the bone. Soliders, sailors and airmen were not let go. But big ticket items were postponed or cancelled. There was less fuel for vehicles, planes and ships. There was less ammunition for training.

Some in the Labour Party grew frustrated with the government’s inability to overcome the Great Depression. Some were attracted to communism. They said that under communism no one would be afflicted by the cruel vagaries of the free market. The Soviet Union boasted that it had not been hurt at all by the Great Depression. This was false since the USSR traded with other lands. In the United Kingdom some people went hungry. In the USSR millions starved to death.

Churches and other charitable groups did what they could to relieve the worst privation. Tariff barriers were erected by the United Kingdom and other countries.

The United Kingdom was compelled to go off the gold standard.


About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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