The interwar years were some of the most turbulent in the history of Britain. Given the strong trade and diplomatic links between Britain and the rest of Europe and North America, the former’s economic stability depended on several external factors. The Great Depression that struck the United States in 1929 had repercussions across Europe. The mass unemployment witnessed in Britain during this period is not merely a coincidence. On the political front the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany gave rise to distrust and apprehensions of war. In this respect, the social history of interwar Britain is one highly influenced by unravelling economic and geo-political conditions. To go with widespread unemployment there were also conflicts across class lines. The General Strike and the hunger marches that were witnessed during this period were expressions of public frustration. Although the national government was outwardly sympathetic to public angst, and on occasion participated in these mass events, there soon emerged a divergence between public aspirations and government priorities. This essay attempts to find out how coherent the National governments’ response was to tackling unemployment after 1931.
Britain witnessed three different National governments in the 1930s. The first one was headed by Ramsey MacDonald between 1931 and 1935. It was followed by the Baldwin government between 1935-1937. The reigns of the National government were taken over by Neville Chamberlain in 1937 continuing onto the Second World War. (Hill & Lubin, 1934, p. 36) British polity of the 1930s was full of contradictions. The North of England played host to numerous manufacturing industries and hence supported a large working class base. The South, though, was financially and political more influential. Herein was an intrinsic conflict in the British politics of that time. Even as unemployment figures were soaring in the early 1930s the policy making machinery was more attuned towards foreign affairs than domestic crises. We get vivid accounts of worker turmoil in some of the classic literary pieces of the era. Notable among them are Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole (1933), Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), and Ellen Wilkinson’s The Town That Was Murdered (1939). Although these accounts are classified as fiction, their portrayal of working class ordeals in 1930s is realistic and instructive for researchers. What these works showcase is a ‘domestic policy paralysis’ that had taken hold in Britain at the time, whereby, the national government was remarkably slow in creating constructive solutions for mounting domestic issues, major among them being unemployment.
The causes for high unemployment during the 1930s could be grouped under either political or socio-cultural factors. The government has had within its power to influence both these realms. Yet, statistics reveal it’s broad failure in tackling unemployment during interwar years. A cyclical pattern of rise and fall in unemployment was witnessed, with 1921-22 and 1930-33 being notable peaks. The number of insured workers who became unemployed was around 10% in 1927 and on average it was around 14.7 %. The total number of unemployed in the UK (including uninsured workers) was a whopping 3,400,000 people in 1932. It was nearly one fifth of the total work force in Britain at the time. In terms of socio-cultural reasons for unemployment, the government did little to change prejudices and stereotypes relating to women’s participation in the workforce. For example, a major setback met by British working women is the 1931 legislation that made married women unqualified for unemployment benefit, unless