VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > C. Europe, 1919–1945 > 5. The British Isles
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1910–12)
5. The British Isles
a. Great Britain
Monarchs: George V (r. 1910–36); Edward VIII (r. 1936); George VI (r. 1936–52).  1
Prime Ministers: Herbert H. Asquith (1908–15, Liberal); Herbert H. Asquith (1915–16, coalition); David Lloyd George (1916–19, coalition); David Lloyd George (1919–22, coalition); Andrew Bonar Law (1922–23, Conservative); Stanley Baldwin (1923–24, Conservative); J. Ramsay MacDonald (1924, Labour); Stanley Baldwin (1924–29, Conservative); J. Ramsay MacDonald (1929–31, Labour); J. Ramsay MacDonald (1931–35, National); Stanley Baldwin (1935–37, National); Neville Chamberlain (1937–40, National); Winston Churchill (1940–45, coalition).  2
Impact of World War I. The most significant results of Britain's wartime experience were the expansion of state planning and disillusionment. Beginning with the Defense of the Realm Act (1914) and continued through the creation of the War Committee (1915), British leaders recognized that only central control could lead to victory. This was especially true of the economic sector, where the creation of the ministries of munitions (July 2, 1915) and blockade (Feb. 23, 1916) aided government management of shipbuilding, food production and distribution, and the supply of wool and cotton. War socialism placed munitions, coal, iron, steel, and railroads under state control. This also brought trade unions into government planning activities. Such control was also extended over manpower with the compulsory military service bill (Jan. 6, 1916) and the creation of a ministry of labour (1916). Finally, the government became increasingly involved in influencing public opinion, including the distribution of newsreels and propaganda films that contributed to the later popularity of commercial cinema. Gradually, the nation became accustomed to such extensive state planning, shaping the course of interwar Britain.  3
Disillusionment was evident primarily in cultural life, as in the plays of Noel Coward (1899–1973), the novels of Aldous Huxley (1894–1963), and the poetry of T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Disillusionment bred a search for new styles, witnessed in the stream-of-consciousness works of Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and James Joyce (1882–1941). Another impact of the war was a loosening of moral standards, personified by the flapper, and seen in the spread of jazz, the popularity of commercialized sports and movies, and an increase in sexual freedom. Increased wages and shorter work hours after the war allowed a greater number of Britons to spend more time in leisure activities, in which cinemas, pubs, and dance halls came to share top billing. In the 1930s intellectual attention turned more to social concerns, as the condition of England became a theme to such authors as J. B. Priestley (1894–1984) and George Orwell (1903–50).  4
Popular authors throughout the interwar years included Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), James M. Barrie (1860–1937), Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), H. G. Wells (1866–1946), Hugh Walpole (1884–1941), D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), and Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923). The greatest popular success was reserved for the authors of thrillers, especially John Buchan (1875–1940), and detective stories, like Agatha Christie (1890–1975).  5
Great Britain's losses in the First World War were almost 1 million killed and over 2 million wounded. The total expense exceeded £8 billion, and the burden of domestic and foreign debt was ten times what it had been in 1914. Britain was faced with the problem of returning soldiers to industry and introducing social reforms loudly demanded by the laboring classes, and confronted at the same time by increased competition in foreign trade. In Ireland, India, Egypt, and Palestine it faced almost insoluble problems. Even the self-governing dominions demonstrated enhanced national feeling and reluctance to be committed to any share in future European wars.  6
Economics. As women were forced out of wartime employment to make way for demobilized soldiers (rapid demobilization between 1919 and 1920), immediate economic disaster was averted by the economic boom of 1919–20. The government responded by returning to prewar laissez-faire policies, resulting in inflation, strikes, and wage increases. But Britain had lost its position in the world economy and could not maintain this boom, which failed in late 1921. The recession was triggered by a decrease in government expenditures, increased taxes, and the overproduction of primary products. The old specter of class war loomed on the horizon as trade unions threatened a general strike. The government responded with the Emergency Powers Act (1920), restoring its wartime emergency authority. In addition, the government subsidized the building of more than 200,000 houses, making housing another social service of the government. Such assistance was continued by subsequent governments, and by 1928 houses built with public funding made up 40 percent of the total housing construction.  7
Aside from the economy, Britain's other pressing problem in the immediate postwar years was a solution to the Irish question (See 1914, Aug. 8). The result in domestic politics was a Unionist defection from Lloyd George's government, causing its collapse (Oct. 19, 1922), and a weak Conservative government (general election, Nov. 15, 1922), bolstered by a split between the Liberal followers of Asquith and Lloyd George. The Labour Party became for the first time His Majesty's Opposition. The interwar years were dominated by the insecurity of three-party contests.  8
Reforms of 1918. The Representation of Peoples Act widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defense workers.  9
An Education Act made elementary education compulsory between the ages of 5 and 14. Children who left school at 14 were supposed to attend continuation schools for 320 hours a year until they were 18. Those who continued their regular schooling until they were 16 were under no further obligation. Furthermore, child labor was sharply limited, halting a large number of children from leaving school at age 12 and becoming unemployed because of lack of skills.  10
The Labour Party adopted a new constitution designed to recruit more members, admitting local Labour parties (constituency parties), which individuals could join without first becoming affiliated with a trade union or a socialist group.  11
Dec. 14
The Khaki election. The coalition government won a huge majority on a platform promising punishment of the German “war criminals,” full payment by the defeated powers of the costs of war, and the prevention of dumping of foreign goods in Great Britain. These promises greatly hampered Lloyd George's freedom of action at the Paris peace conference (See 1919, Jan. 18).  12
Parliament passed the Arbitration Act, calling for unions and employers to submit to court decisions. The only important application of this act occurred a year later when the Transport and General Workers Union (dockers), led by Ernest Bevin, won a favorable court settlement.  13
Nov. 28
Lady Astor became the first woman elected to the House of Commons.  14
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.