Part 8: England in the 20th Century
Changes in Empire and at Home
The popular,aged Victoria was succeeded by Edward VII, who reigned for nine years (1901-10). The jovial, popular, avuncular Prince of Wales had waited a long time to accede to the throne. Known as Edward the Peacemaker for his diplomacy in Europe, he used his knowledge of French, Spanish, Italian and German to good advantage. Matters seemed fine in the island kingdom of Britain, feeling secure as the head of the largest empire the world had ever known. Yet the image of splendid and carefree easy living portrayed by the King was in direct contrast to the growing forces of discontent and resentment felt by too many members of British society.
England in the Edwardian Age existed in a twilight zone; the balance of power in so many areas was shifting in a Europe in which the decisive factor was the rise of a united Germany, and in a world in which the United States would soon dominate. To prepare for the future, one politician, Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister 1902-5, saw that Britain needed to advance its educational system and to strengthen its defenses. His Education Bill of 1902 abolished the School Boards and placed primary, technical and secondary education under the control of local authorities. This helped to create an "education ladder" by which abler children were able to win scholarships to enter the secondary grammar schools (the mis-named Public Schools continued as private enclaves for the rich and very rich). The Civil Service was thus able to find itself enriched by a steady stream of educated, qualified young men (and later young women).
Balfour made effective the Committee of Imperial Defence to carry out the reforms made necessary after the humiliations of the Boer War. The Committee also improved Britain's naval defenses; and under John Fisher, the Admiralty began building the Dreadnought a new type of heavily-armed warship. To further meet the threat from the new German fleet, he also concentrated the Royal Navy in home waters instead of having it dispersed all over the world. Balfour, however, was completely unable to prevent the inevitable. Though many historians see the death of King Edward as marking the dividing line between the security and stability of the 19th century and the uncertainties of the twentieth, there had been ominous warnings before 1910.
In Wales, conditions in the tin plate industry had been severely depressed by the 1891 McKinley Tariff of the United States; the deplorable conditions endured by coal miners led to the creation of a new force in British politics: the trade union. There had been many earlier attempts to form unions, mostly unsuccessful because of determined resistance from the mine and factory owners. Workers had been fired for trying to form unions; their leaders were once denounced by the leading Welsh newspaper as "gin-swilling degenerates." In 1834, when Robert Owen had attempted to improve factory conditions and the lives of the workers through his Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, six English farm laborers were sentenced to deportation for secretly forming a branch of the GNCTU (they were the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs).
In Lancashire, in 1869, the formation of the Amalgamated Association of Miners led to fierce resistance from the coal owners and was forced to disband. A united front against the unionists was then forged by the formation of the Monmouthshire and South Wales Coal Owners Association in which 85 companies owned over 200 mines. The workers persisted in their attempts to form unions, however, and in 1877 the Cambrian Miners Association began in the Rhondda Valley under the inspired leadership of William Abraham (Mabon). Abraham was elected Lib-Lab M.P. for Rhondda in 1885 and kept the peace between owners and miners for twenty years. (The Lib-Labs represented an informal agreement with local Liberal organizations to run a number of trade union candidates, rather than a party of organized labor.)
In 1888, a successful strike of girls in the sweated trade of match-box making occurred. One year later the Gas Workers Union secured a reduction from twelve to eight hours in their working day. A strike by London Dock workers the same year was equally successful. Their disciplined behavior won them widespread support When their demands were finally conceded, the Dockers Union gave considerable stimulus to recruiting for other trade unions, who were quick to see the strike as a means to solve their grievances.
The Fabian Movement began in 1884, its composition of middle-class intellectuals (including dramatist and critic George Bernard Shaw) giving it considerable weight as an instrument in bringing forth political and social reform. As a response to poor working conditions, the Independent Labour Party was formed in 1893. Six years later the Miner's Federation of Great Britain began at Newport, South Wales. The Federation argued for the creation of a Board of Arbitration to replace the infamous sliding scale and the restriction of the work day to eight hours (also that year the Women's Social and Political Union was formed by Emmeline Pankhurst with the goal of achieving voting rights for women. In 1918, women over thirty were granted the right to vote, following their efforts as factory workers taking the places of men called up for the military).
When judgement was given in favor of the owners and against the striking workers in the Taff Vale Railway Company dispute of 1900, the huge costs levied against the union practically ensured the creation of a new party in British politics. The unions saw clearly that they had to have legislation to guarantee their rights, and thus they needed representation in Parliament. The Labour Representative Committee answered their needs: in 1906, it became known as the Labour Party, but it took many years before it could muster enough strength to offer a worthy challenge to the Liberal and the Conservative Parties.
George V (1910-1936)
The new King, George was the second son of Edward VII and Queen Alexander, Prince Albert Victor had died in 1892. It was George who changed his family name from the German Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to that of the English Windsor. With his wife Mary, he did much to continue the popularity of the monarchy. They were helped enormously by the advent of the BBC in 1922 which probably did more to perpetuate the national sense of common identity than any other factor save war. In 1934, George began his broadcasts to Britain and the Empire. Radio, newspapers (and later television) all added to the mystique and prestige of the royal family when so much more was in a state of flux, and old traditions were being challenged everywhere.
The pre-War years saw major changes in England's domestic policies. The question of tariff reform divided the Conservatives. One group wished to use the tariff to protect British industries and boost inter-imperial trade and co-operation; the other, fearing the social and political consequences that higher food prices would bring as a result of the tariff, was in favor of Free Trade. A crisis occurred in 1906.
In that year, left-wing Liberal, Welshman David Lloyd George became Chancellor of the Exchequer and pushed through Parliament his "People's Budget" that proposed a tax on the rich to pay for reforms and the rebuilding of the Royal Navy. The rapid rise of such men as Lloyd George from humble origins to high positions in the government showed only too clearly the changing nature of political life in the country, a change that the House of Lords was slow to accept. The Upper House, packed with its hereditary peers, was particularly upset by what it considered the socialistic and confiscatory nature of the budget and rejected it.
Two general elections were held to resolve the deadlock. The Liberals were able to win a landslide victory and remained in power until the wartime coalition government was formed in 1915. In the interim, the Lords continued to reject the Budget, which finally passed in 1911 when the Commons approved the Parliament Bill to limit the delaying power of the House of Lords. From now on, the Lords could no longer reject bills outright and there was to be a general election every five years (instead of seven).
The year 1911 saw the greatest industrial unrest in Britain's history. Nationwide strikes of dock workers, railway men and miners brought the country to a standstill. The government was forced to respond. The National Insurance Act was passed to ensure that the worker, the employer and the government all contributed to a general fund to pay for free medical treatment, sick pay, disability and maternity benefits. It also introduced a measure of unemployment benefits, free meals for school children as well as periodic medical exams. Through the efforts of Winston Churchill there had been the setting up of Labour Exchanges where the unemployed worker could sign on for vacant jobs. Foundations were being laid for a veritable sea of change in the way the state was to assume responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.
Many reforms took place in a veritable flood of "socialist experiment." The introduction of a salary for M.P.'s allowed the entry of working class members to Parliament; the trade unions were freed from the liability for strike damage and allowed to use their funds in politics. Hours and conditions of labor were regulated, slum -clearances effected, eighty-three labor exchanges set up, and old-age pensions inaugurated as the first installment of social security. All this cost a great deal of money. it came from the pockets of the rich. They were further incensed by the Home Rule Bill of 1912.
Irish M.P.'s had helped the Liberals gain power; they wanted their reward in Home Rule. To the Conservatives, however, the idea of Britain splitting up (in the face of increasing German hostility) seemed ludicrous, to be avoided at all costs. They were aided by the Protestant forces of Ulster (most of Northern Ireland), equally alarmed at the prospect of being ruled from Dublin. A major civil war loomed in Ireland, and the British Army regulars made it clear in the so-called "mutiny" at the Curragh, that they would not fight against their brothers in Ulster. In 1914, the Home Rule Bill was finally pushed through, but the outbreak of the Great War pushed everything else aside; it was said that "the public had forgotten the Irish for the Belgians."
Chapter 8, Continued