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Part 8: England in the 20th Century

Between the Two World Wars
Following the Armistice of 1918, the first order of the day for the victorious allies (Britain, France, the USA, Italy, Japan and to a lesser extent Russia) was to hammer out the peace terms to be presented to the defeated powers (Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey and Hungary). At Versailles, Lloyd George represented Britain; pressing for severe penalties against the Germans, he came up against the idealism of US President Wilson, anxious to have his plans for a League of Nations implemented; and Clemenceau of France, who wished for even more severe recriminations against Germany.

The final treaty came in June, 1919. The reparations and "war-guilt" clauses were later seen by English economist John Maynard Keynes as a future cause of discontent; they later became an excuse for Herr Hitler to begin his efforts to countermand them. The US did not ratify the treaty, and the disunity that prevailed after its signing did not bode well for the future of Europe. In addition, the United States and Russia did not join the League of Nations that met for the first time in Geneva in November, 1920.

The matter of Ireland then became a serious source of hemorrhage to the confidence of a seemingly-united Great Britain. The war had presented the opportunity the Irish nationalists had been waiting for since the postponement of the Home Rule Act of 1914. When they seized their opportunity to attack British rule in Ireland, the execution of many of their leaders following the Easter Monday Rising in Dublin, made reconciliation between the two countries impossible.

The British government failed to separate its important Irish prisoners. An internment camp at Frongoch, in North Wales, later known as "Sinn Fein " University, brought together many who would later become key figures in the fight for independence, including Michael Collins (later to become Director of Intelligence as well as chief organizer) and Richard Mulcahy (later to become Chief of Staff). Prisoners were inspired by hearing the Welsh language all around the camp declare a republic in which Gaelic would be the national language. In 1918, following the General Election, the successful Sinn Feiners refused their seats at Westminster and formed the Dail Eireann that proclaimed the Irish Republic on January 21, 1919.

The war against British rule then began, lasting until December 1920 when atrocities and counter atrocities by both sides (not only those committed by the infamous "Black and Tans.") finally led to the Government of Ireland Act. The Act divided Ireland into Northern Ireland (containing the largest part of Ulster) and Southern Ireland, giving both parts Home Rule, but reserving taxation powers for the Westminster Parliament. It seemed that no one in Ireland was satisfied and guerrilla warfare intensified. The coalition government in London was finally convinced that a policy of reconciliation was needed and a truce in July, 1921 was followed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December.

Mainly through a threat of an all-out war, Lloyd George somehow managed to persuade the Irish delegation, led by Michael Collins, to accept the offer of Dominion status within the Commonwealth rather than hold out for an independent republic, and the Irish Free State came into being. A basic British condition was that the six counties of Northern Ireland, mainly Protestant (who equated Home Rule with Rome Rule) should not be coerced into a united Ireland, the other 32 counties, mainly Catholic.

Eamon De Valera (one of the participants in the Easter Rising, but who had escaped from Lincoln Gaol) objected to the oath of allegiance to the Crown and formed a new party, the Republican Party against the government of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. It began a bitter civil war in which Collins, leader of the Dail's military forces and a much revered Irish patriot lost his life leading the Free-State forces against the Republicans. The bloody civil war ended in April 1923 when De Valera, who had been elected President of the Irish Free State in 1919, ordered a cease fire. Eire was finally declared a republic in April 1948, with Northern Ireland remaining as part of the United Kingdom.

The Great Depression
In the meantime, there had been a major downturn in the British economy since the end of the World War. Government promises of a better society in which there would be a higher standard of living and security of employment had not been fulfilled. The productivity rate was falling rapidly behind that of other nations; there was simply too much reliance on the traditional industries of cotton, coal mining and shipbuilding, all of which were finding it difficult to compete in world markets and all of which were managed by those who could not adapt to more modern methods. Many countries which had been dependent upon British manufactured goods were now making their own. A great slump in which millions were unemployed was left to work itself out when planned government expenditure would have helped mobilize the unused resources of the economy.

The Liberal Party, which had done so much to alleviate conditions of poverty and had made so many significant strides in improving social conditions in general, began to lose its standing in the polls after 1922. The political program of the Labour Party advocated increased social security measures, including a national minimum wage, the nationalization of basic industries such as coal, railways and electricity; and the imposition of higher taxation to pay for social welfare and to reduce the burden of the National Debt. The "dole" (unemployment benefit) allowed workers to survive while unemployed (it was probably the reason why there was not greater social unrest or even revolution).

Labour had become the chief challenger to the Conservative Party, and formed its first government in 1924 under James Ramsey MacDonald. In October of that year, however, Britain once more turned to the Conservatives under Stanley Baldwin. As had Labour, however, it proved ineffective to handle the nation's industrial problems.

Further mass unemployment resulted when Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill returned Britain to the gold standard in 1925. The return was made at the old pre-war gold and dollar value of the pound. As a result, the pound was devalued; British goods (coal, steel, machinery, textiles, ships, cargo rates and other goods and services) became over-priced, and Britain's share of the world export market declined rapidly. The resulting unemployment and wage cuts caused serious repercussions in the industrial areas, where strikes became common. Iron, steel, coal, cotton and ship building suffered the most, the very industries that Britain's free trade economy relied upon to provide the bulk of the consumer and capital goods exported to provide for the large imports of food and raw materials. A general strike took place in 1926.

A huge drop in coal exports, the government's refusal to nationalize the coal industry and the setting of wages by the pit-owners triggered the unrest. In April of that year, the miners' leader, A.J. Cook coined the phrase "not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day." The mine owners refused to compromise. A showdown came about when the government indicated that it would not continue negotiations under the threat of a general strike. On May 4, 1926 the great strike went into effect, but lack of support for the unions, the use of volunteers to keep essential services going, the intransigence of the government, and the gradual wearing away of the resistance of the miners by the coal owners eventually ended the stoppage. But grievous harm had been done to the miners, who came out of the business with longer hours and less pay.

Under the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin, only a modest program of social reform took place, mainly to appease working class opinion. The Widows, Orphans and Old Age Health Contributory Pension schemes extended the Act of 1911 and insured over 20 million people. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act gave the parliamentary vote to all women over twenty one. Under Health Minister Neville Chamberlain, the Local Government Act of 1929 reduced the number of local government authorities and extended the services they provided. There was still lacking a coherent policy to deal with the relief of unemployment. A Labour government, elected in 1929, came to power at the beginning of a world-wide depression triggered by the Wall Street Crash, but like the Conservative government before it, could do little to remedy the situation at home.

In the 1930's things improved a little under a national government comprised of members from all parties, led by Ramsey MacDonald. The abandonment of the gold standard and the decision to let the pound find its own value against the US dollar made British export prices more competitive in world markets. Agriculture was aided by the adoption of a protective tariff and import quotas in 1931. A building boom followed the increase in population that new health measures made possible. Old industries were replaced by newer ones such as automobiles, electrical manufactures, and chemicals. There were also changes made in the relationship of Britain to her colonies.

Since the Durham Report of 1839, the white-settled colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa had been virtually independent of Britain. The Statute of Westminster, passed in November, 1931, removed much legal inferiority not addressed in 1839. The independence of the Dominions was now established. The Crown remained as a symbol of the free association of the members of the British Commonwealth. The Imperial Economic Conference met in Ottawa, Canada in July 1932 to hash out the problems of Dominion economic policies and to settle the matter of their exports to Britain.

At the conference, Britain agreed to abandon free trade, imposing a 10 percent tariff on most imported goods, but exempting Commonwealth nations. In turn, they were to provide markets for British exports, including textiles, steel, cars and telecommunications equipment (thereby discouraging innovation in many industries, which was to put Britain further behind other countries).

The colonies had come of age; the conference showed only too well that Britain was no longer a magnet for Commonwealth goods. In 1932, however, King George initiated the Christmas Day radio broadcasts that served to link the Commonwealth countries in a common bond with England. Their loyalty was to be proven in World War II during the reign of George VI. George had come to the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his older brother Edward VIII (tradition ensured that the Edward had to renounce the throne if he were to marry the American divorcee Mrs. Simpson).

In the late 1930's Britain's foreign policy stagnated; there were too many problems to worry about at home. While domestic policies still had to find a way out of the unemployment mess, it was vainly hoped that the League of Nations would keep the peace, and while the aggressive moves by Germany, Italy and Japan may not have been totally ignored in Westminster, their implications were not fully grasped. It seems incredible, in retrospect, how all the signs of a forthcoming major war were conveniently ignored.

In Germany, Hitler had become Chancellor in July 30, 1934 on a rising tide of nationalism and economic unrest. After he proclaimed the Third Reich in March, his regime was given dictatorial powers. Also in March, the Nazis opened their first concentration camp for Jews, gypsies and political prisoners. In August, Hitler became President of the Reich at the death of Hindenburg. He announced open conscription early in 1935, in defiance of the conditions laid down at Versailles. Unencumbered by obsolete equipment and even more obsolete thinking that hindered the British and the French, the German republic was able to rebuild her army and airforce from scratch. They were soon to be used in a bid to dominate Europe.

Italy had entered the scramble for Africa in 1881 by taking over Assab in northern Ethiopia. It then expanded its holdings in the East African highlands. In 1887 the Italian-Ethiopian War began. Three years later, Italy made Assab the basis of an Eritrean colony. By 1896, however, a series of defeats led to the Italians withdrawing from their protectorate. In 1906, a Tripartite Pact declared the independence of Ethiopia but divided the country into British, French, and Italian spheres of interest.

In Italy, in November 1922, general fears of communism led King Victor Emmanuel to summon Benito Mussolini to form a ministry in which he would be given dictatorial powers to restore order and bring about reforms. Earlier in the year, Mussolini had led his black-shirts Fascists into Rome. He secured his fascist Dictatorship the following year through political chicanery and began protesting the terms of Versailles in 1930.

When Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed on the frontier between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia in 1934, Mussolini had an excuse to invade Ethiopia. After his troops had occupied Addis Abbaba, he announced the annexation of Ethiopia and joined Eritrea and Italian Somaliland to create Italian East Africa. The League of Nations proved totally ineffective to prevent this seizure of the last bastion of native rule in Africa.

Lack of British resolve against the ambitions of Mussolini may have spurred Hitler to act. In March, 1936, at the height of the crisis in Ethiopia, he sent his armies into the Rhineland. France was afraid to react without British support. It proceeded to fortify its Maginot Line as Hitler began to fortify the Rhineland. The dictators of Germany and Italy then signed the pact known as the Rome-Berlin Axis. Both leaders then supported General Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Britain and France stood back for fear of precipitating a general European war; in their efforts to appease, they protested but did nothing except to embolden Hitler even further. His troops marched into Austria in March, 1938.

Hitler's next move was first to surround Bohemia and then to demand modifications to the Czech frontier, including the Sudetenland (with a large German population). Fearing a catastrophic war, and with the vivid memory of the carnage of World War I in mind, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain then agreed, along with the French Premier, to hand over the Sudetenland to Germany. He thought he had bought "peace with honor." Hitler then showed his true intention by seizing the rest of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlains finally saw what Germany intended, to dominate Europe, and his extension of a guarantee to Poland practically ensured war.

Resource Information

Chapter 8, Continued


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