How coherent was the National government’s response to mass unemployment after 1931 in Britain?

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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

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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

“they could show a ‘reasonable expectation’ of obtaining insurable work, and that their chances were not impaired by the fact of marriage. Thus if in a Lancashire town the only local mill closed down, married women workers lost entitlement to benefit, and between 1931 and 1933 nearly a quarter of a million claims were disallowed under this regulation. Under such a disincentive it is probable that many married women declined to register as unemployed, and were therefore not counted.” (Burnett, 1994, p. 206)

In what can only be described as dark irony, the unemployment levels in the interwar years was somewhat reduced by the huge number of fatalities in the First World War. This meant that despite men becoming a minority gender in the population, their employment levels were still very low. What flourished in this interesting new milieu of war widows, economic distress and unemployed men is the institution of marriage and remarriage. Indeed, “they began to marry at a younger age regardless of their financial insecurity. The trend was symptomatic of a wider move towards respectability and domesticity in interwar behaviour.” (Pugh, 2008). Several social and cultural changes took place. As mass unemployment left large numbers of young men at a loose end,

“there was an increase in minor, opportunistic crime against property. But the trends were largely in the other direction. The great Victorian offences such as drunkenness and prostitution went into major decline, and there were also fewer murders between the wars. As a result, by 1930 the prison population of England and Wales stood at just over 11,000 compared with 21,000 in 1910, and local prisons were being closed down.” (Pugh, 2008)

It was a disappointing feature of the National Governments that rather than welcoming these positive trends they actually misrepresented them for narrow political gains. The government twisted these figures to actually give the impression that crime was on the rise. The agenda behind this move was to apparition blame for the ‘crime wave’ on a small ‘criminal class’, comprising of foreign recruits and obscure alien influences. The politics of ’us against them’ is an age old trick and the National government of the 1930’s Britain was also trying to exploit it. Left unattended in its preoccupation with power is creating opportunities for job creation in the war-battered country.

In assessing the National Government’s response to the unemployment crisis, it is important to consider broader geo-economic factors. In particular, the high unemployment rate in Britain was correlated to the Great Depression that was devastating the American economy. In this respect the National government can only do so much in stimulating the economy. What did not help the British cause are the series of policies issued by the Federal Reserve between 1929 and 1933, whereby it “intensified the recessionary forces by cutting the money supply by one-third, converting a fairly serious but by no means unusual slowdown into a catastrophic recession.” (Ormerod, 1998) It should be borne in mind that the kind of economic slump experienced in the 1930s is as yet unmatched by any subsequent financial market crash. Between 1929 and 1932 “the output of the western economies fell by no less than 16 per cent; though the UK economy shrank by only 6 per cent, America shrank by almost one-third, and US output did not return to its 1929 level until a full decade later.” (Ormerod, 1998) But all said and done the mass unemployment of the 1930s was in good measure due to the government’s failure to insulate domestic economy from the vagaries of global financial markets.

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