Interwar Britain

At the end of WW1, Britain's empire was territorially at its peak. However, appearances were deceptive. Britain was also a nation thoroughly exhausted by four years of war and was carrying massive debts in the form of United States war loans. Nationalism was on the rise in many of its colonies and it did not possess the finances or the manpower to effectively defend and administer its overseas interests. Unrest was seen in India, the Middle East and in Ireland and at home, strikes for better pay and working conditions paralysed industry throughout the inter-war years.



Domestic politics saw women winning the right to vote and the rise of the Labour Party as a major force in British politics, winning power in 1924 and 1929. While extreme parties such as the Communist Party and British Union of Fascists were established in Britain during the inter-war period, unlike many countries in Europe, they remained on the periphery of domestic politics.



The cornerstones of British heavy industry, coal exports, steel, textiles and shipbuilding came under mounting pressure from a global supply / demand imbalance of coal, economic protectionism and the inflated value of Sterling. Unemployment began to rise and worker's wages fell. Matters were exacerbated by the General Strike of 1926 and more particularly, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which prompted the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

Unemployment in Britain in the early 1930s rapidly escalated to record levels. Successive governments were forced to make cuts in unemployment benefits which impoverished much of the working class. The issue was bought to public attention by the Hunger Marches of the 1920s and 30s, which culminated in the Jarrow March of 1936. By 1936, a partial economic recovery was under way. However, as the Jarrow March highlighted, such a recovery was regionally based and growth in the economies of the north-east of England, south Wales and Scotland lagged behind the rest of the country.



The issues of the domestic economy and empire meant that relatively little attention was paid to the rapidly developing political landscape in Europe. The consequences of the inequity of the Treaty of Versailles, the failure of the League of Nations to combat aggression and a resurgent and expansionist Germany were not adequately addressed by Parliament. Isolated warnings from politicians such as Churchill were ignored by successive governments and a policy of appeasement and only limited re-armament was pursued. It took the Munich Crisis of 1938 and Hitler's subsequent invasion of what remained of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, to finally rid Britain of her complacency. Appeasement had failed and the general mood in political circles was that war was now inevitable. Only now was re-armament and re-organisation of its armed forces given the required priority.


Original copy of the Daily Herald from the 1st October 1938 the day after Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich. The triumphal headline reads "Mr Chamberlain declares it is peace in our time." Eleven months later the German invasion of Poland heralded the start of the Second World War.


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