Britain in 1914 was as near to revolution as it has ever been in the 20th century. A dispirited government, barely united and effetely led, groped its way between right-wing rebellion backed by military force in Ulster, and a militant syndicalist Labour movement freed from respectable leadership. Three decades later, a Labour party won a greater and more convincing electoral victory than any working-class party has won before or since in Western Europe. Between these two landmarks lies a period as yet scarcely charted by serious historiography: a period beloved by scrapbook historians and television raconteurs—the ‘roaring twenties’, skirts two inches above the knee, trial marriage, toothpaste in—powder out, the General Strike, Larwood’s body-line action; 2 million unemployed, the king who renounced a throne for love; committed poets, the Oxford Union debate; the rise of Hitlet and the Loch Ness monster. Profound historical developments and epiphenomenal trivia jostle together like cards in an unshuffled pack. Sometimes we are dealt Victor Sylvester and crossword puzzles, sometimes Stalinist purges and the Spanish civil war. But it doesn’t really matter what we are dealt; whatever the cards we hold in our hand, they always add up, so we are told, to a composite picture of the ‘twenties’ or the ‘thirties’.
The historian refrains from reflection, so the professional sentimentalist gratefully steps into the breach, touting assorted recollections of the best-forgotten banalities of our forefathers. Gossip decks herself out in all the trappings of history; so successfully that she finds herself solemnly inscribed on university reading lists. And this situation is fair enough whilst historians run away from the attempt to create any serious historical dialectic. Yet until it is done, the peculiarly murky contours of contemporary Britain will never be understood. These years are littered with unsolved historical mysteries. So long as they remain unsolved, it is unreasonable to expect any historian to present this period as an historical totality. Nevertheless, any historian who wishes to achieve real historical understanding of it, must confront and illuminate four major and inter-related themes, which dominate this entire epoch, and constitute the essential matrices of any interpretation in depth. A. J. P. Taylor whose English History 1914–1945footnote1, has just appeared as a contribution to the Oxford History of England, has provided the first continuous and lucidly written narrative of the whole period. But he, too, has failed to arrest the atrophy of any conceptual schematization of modern British history.
The first of these inter-related themes concerns the attitude of the ruling class towards the prospects of social democracy or perhaps more remotely, socialism. It was not until 1918 that the propertied classes were first fully confronted with the task of managing a strong and coherent working-class movement in an arena of full political democracy. The situation was potentially dangerous. The Labour party vote rose from 400,000 in 1910 to nearly 2,400,000 in 1918, and the end of the First World War was accompanied by a crescendo of shop-floor militance. Baldwin’s torpid prophylactics seem to have cast a spell over the inquiring historian. Despite its moderate leadership, the Tory party remained aggressively right wing throughout the 1920’s and the 1930’s—whenever it broke away from liberal or Baldwinian moorings, it waged crude and bitter class warfare (counter-revolutionary war against the Bolsheviks in 1918, the Trades Disputes Act of 1927, unemployment cuts in 1931 and Imperial preference in 1931–32). When and how far the Conservatives accepted political democracy and how this affected party strategy has never been seriously considered. Indeed the various groupings within the Conservative party still remain obscure. It is still not known for instance, except in the vaguest of generalities, who supported ‘Mondism’ and similar policies of class collaboration, nor how far the character and social theory of the Conservative party was modified by the infusion of Lloyd George’s business elite. It is arguable that the ruling class was prevented from provoking social war, more by accident than intention. The only occasion when the Labour movement ever mustered enough self confidence to look dangerous came in the four years after 1918; precisely the time when the powerful lunatic fringe of the Unionist party had been diverted by the brilliant opportunism of Lloyd George into some comparatively harmless bloodletting in Ireland. After 1922 the heart went out of the Labour movement. The Triple Alliance broke up, the post-war boom collapsed, wages fell, unemployment
The second major theme which dominates the history of modern Britain concerns the transmutation of British Imperialism. It is after 1918 that the first fissures in Britain’s imperial structure really become evident—although of course, they had been foreshadowed by British experiments in decolonization in Ireland throughout the 19th century. The Irish troubles from 1911 to 1922 created a serious crisis in the British ruling class; on a lesser scale the rise of Indian nationalism came near to creating one in the 1930’s—a pattern to be repeated at Abadan and at Suez. Perhaps, more important, the old certainty about the function of the Empire was shaken. This did not come about through any awakening of ethical consciousness, rather from the contradictory influences the Empire exerted on the British economy. If the slump caused severe dislocations in Western Europe, it had catastrophic effects on what Milner called ‘our undeveloped estate’. The prices of primary products plummeted in the 1930’s, shifting the balance of trade decisively in Britain’s favour. Great Imperial combines—Unilever, Tate and Lyle, Dunlop—benefited from the low cost of raw materials and were able to maintain their prices and profits; the rest of British industry gained as far as it profited from the low cost of imports. At the same time, the ruin of primary producers had disastrous effects on manufactured exports and so on the level of employment, which had particularly been geared to under-developed parts of the Empire. Exports from 1931 to 1933 were at half the 1913 level, and by 1938 had only increased one sixth when they were hit by another recession. Hence the depressed industries—Lancashire cotton, Yorkshire woollens, the Tyne and Clydeside shipyards, coal mines and steel mills. The Imperial connection had accentuated the sclerosis of Britain’s staple industries—and the Imperialist nostrum-tariffs were irrelevant to the problem. How far there was any conflict between traditional extractive imperialism relying on cheap labour and monopoly prices, and the new manufacturing industries (capital goods, chemicals, electrical) whose interests lay in the growth of an industrial sector in primary economies, has hardly begun to be discussed. It is also possible that the economic malaise of the 1930’s first made apparent a further contradiction between these new capital goods industries and the old staple British export industries (textiles, iron and steel). On the one hand, these industries depended on high prices and consumer demand (versus extractive imperialism), yet on the other hand they relied on under-development and the absence of competing
Appeasement constitutes the third major problem of the period. Here Taylor is on home ground, and is able to conduct a skilful and well documented defence of his own highly idiosyncratic interpretation of British foreign policy and the causes of the Second World War. Recently there has been a large amount of research into European diplomatic archives. Yet, in the course of unearthing a welter of minutiae, most of these historians have blurred the salient points of international relations between the wars. Perhaps the greatest distortion has occurred in the treatment of Soviet Russia. Most diplomatic historians and Taylor himself, seem to consider that ideological considerations will always be subordinated to diplomatic realpolitik. However ingeniously this is worked out, the shortcomings of this interpretation remain obvious. On the simplest plane it takes no account of Revolutionary Communism and international appeal; there is considerable evidence that the red bogey disturbed the equilibrium of many of the most perfectly trained civil service minds. British Imperialism thought itself particularly affected. The beginnings of the Russian Revolution were regarded with equanimity—at last the Tsarist threat to the Indian frontier would be removed, indeed some suggest that the British take advantage of the situation and advance into Turkestan. But contrary to expectation the Revolutionary government maintained itself intact, and added to traditional fears of tsarist expansion, were the more intangible fears of an export of subversive ideology. There were constant scares in the 1920’s (without much justification) that the British working class might turn towards Communism; there was also the more real fear that revolutionary agitators might infiltrate the imperial domains. India was thought to be particularly vulnerable to the incursion of sinister agents of the Comintern. The natural course of British foreign policy was anti-Bolshevik,
Lastly any historian who confronts modern British history must reflect upon the impact of two world wars on the structure and mythology of modern Britain. The British people were able to see themselves as the one nation that had successfully fought two major wars from start to finish. Victory in both cases affected left a lasting mark on Britain’s attitude to itself as a nation. The effect of the two wars were quite distinct, and between them, they shaped the fate of British society.
The First World War changed the whole concept of war, and with it, the whole concept of society. This was true for all classes. 19th century moral certainties of imperial mission never recovered from the shellshock that they received on the Somme. War no longer meant the parading of flags on remote frontiers, manned by hard-core professional armies. It had been brought home with singularly traumatic effect. This was not only apparent in the work of the war poets. It marked the first decisive estrangement of the literary intelligentsia from the ethical raison d’ être of imperialism. No other country produced a comparable efflorescence of war literature. But in no other country had the nexus between the middle class and the military elite been so loose. To a large extent the empire had been policed by Scots and Irishmen.