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How Well Did The British Political System

Hold Up In The 1930S? Essay, Research Paper

How well did the British political system hold up in the 1930 s?

The 1930 s were a turbulent time for politics around the world, democratic leaderships were under major strain following the Wall Street crash and the ensuing depression, by 1940 only the United Kingdom, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland were countries not ruled by dictators within Europe and the Balkans. Admittedly the aggression of the Axis powers had brought about the downfall of six democracies between 1938 and 1940 but the fact still remains that political fairness and democratic elections were all but destroyed in mainland Europe during this era.

From the 24th of August 1931 until after the Second World War Britain was ruled by a coalition government. This government was formed initially as a temporary measure to allay the potential collapse of the British economy in the wake of Wall Street. As coalitions around Europe fell under the control of dictators the National Government was a surprisingly successful alliance. There were potentially major threats within Britain to the stability of this administration but resounding public support and several shrewd policies led to this being one of the most effective governments for many years.

In the aftermath of the Wall Street crash many extreme political groups came to the fore notably the Nazi party in Germany. Within Britain extreme political and ideological groups also began to appear. The largest and perhaps the most frightening group of extreme opposition to the National Government came from the far right in the form of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, the BUF. Mosley had a member of the Conservatives but was a minister in the second Labour government, in 1930 he put forward an unemployment plan that included ideas for public works schemes much like those of the Nazi party but this was rejected first by the cabinet and then the parliamentary Labour party. Several historians have suggested that if he had been prepared to bide his time he would have eventually led the Labour party but Mosley wanted power.

The British Union of Fascists began in 1932; by 1934 the movement had amassed a membership of more than 50,000. The fact that so many fascist supporters were allowed within the long standing democracy of Britain, especially considering that Mosley had links with and had visited Benito Mussolini, gives doubt to the ability of the National government and the stability of the system. Lord Rothermere, the wealthy owner of the traditionally right-wing newspaper, The Daily Mail, also leant his support to the fascist movement thus giving the extremists a small amount of credibility.

But for all their support Mosleys Blackshirts were never any more than a small minority who had gained their support from extraordinary economic circumstances and had very little significance after the National government managed to calm the sliding depression. Had the situation worsened then the BUF may have grown but as has happened with every extremist right-wing group around the world a violent, ruthless and racist face of the movement showed at the parties rally at Olympia and growing links with the Nazi party lost the faction any integrity it may once have had.

Disillusionment and poor living standards among the electorate and false promises to wealthier businessmen gave the Nazi party the means to come to power but the National government had none of the failings of their German equivalents so the right wing extremists were easily quelled and in the event itself did more to stop themselves than anyone else.

On the opposite side of the political scale come the extreme left wing groups, there had been a tiny Communist party within Britain since 1920, its membership peaked at 16,000 in 1938 and that is about the lengths the British Communists got to within Britain. The Communists have been described as a revolutionary party in a non-revolutionary situation and this statement proves that the National government was controlling the situation well enough to negate any potential danger of revolution. The majority of the Communists support came from the intellectual middle class who were fascinated with the ideas of equality and Marxism.

The Communist parties largest influence was not a political one, even though they organised several strikes, but an ideological one with the Left Book Club, set up in 1936, reaching 50,000 subscribers to whom were sold mostly Communist books. The existence of this group could be construed as a weakness of the system but the club was not readying the electorate for revolution it was merely letting off steam .

The Communist party did not pose a threat to the political hierarchy in Britain nor was there ever a chance of revolution because the National government never gave enough cause for dissent and cynicism. The Communists, like the British Fascists, were all but destroyed in the public eye by links with Hitlers Germany when in August 1939 Russia signed a peace pact with the Nazis.

A larger and more significant left wing group was the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the NUWM. After the Wall Street crash the unions membership grew from 10,000 to 50,000. The movement had no political weight but used marches and strikes as mediums to highlight the plights of the unemployed. The National government struggled at times to control the marches organised by the movement, in 1932 there were several riots following marches in which two people died and forty were hospitalised.

But after 1935 when the policies of the National government were showing positive results in stemming the depression the NUWM became less important, the fact that the group had grown to such a size has been cited as a failing of the National government but the movement never really threatened the political stability, indeed they possibly helped this stability by counter-balancing the right wing BUF.

The main opposition to the National Government came from the Labour party in opposition. This opposition however was not one that was going to bring the system down, the party only won 52 seats in the 1931 election and the leadership was placed on the shoulders of George Lansbury, an elderly dedicated Christian and extremely mediocre leader. Labour, although losing many seats, had gained 30.6% of the vote in 1931, from this obvious popular support the party needed to rebuild but Labour was still very much an umbrella covering many left-wing ideologies and as extremist groups began to show nationally the same extremism was emerging within the party. Stafford Cripps was one of the 52 MP s returned in 1931, he was a wealthy barrister and puritanical vegetarian who set up the Socialist League in 1932. This was an extremist fervently anti-capitalist movement within a mainstream party. As to whether the political system held up in the 1930 s the emergence of this group points to a major failure of the system with Cripps calling for the abolition of the House of Lords and the passing of emergency powers by a Labour government to prevent capitalists sabotaging socialism . But Cripps was never taken seriously by the majority of his party or the public, he was ostracised by the party and never received enough public attention to make a serious difference. When Clement Attlee took the reins of the party any radical divisions within the party were nullified because the new leader was a sheep in sheep s clothing (Churchill), Attlee was a man controlled by his party and the party did not want to jeopardise the popular support they had gained with any radical mistakes or any movement towards extremism.

The Labour party was more a symbol of how the political system held up during this era than anything else.

The National government was formed as a temporary measure in truly extraordinary economic circumstances, that a temporary government could govern for such a long time gives suspicion to how well the system held up but the coalition did a very good job at preventing a calamitous slide into severe depression as many others slipped into the jaws of totalitarianism and repression.

To stop the economic slide the government was forced to introduce 70 million worth of cuts to unemployment benefits, this action gave fuel to the growing left-wing extremism but there was not enough popular support for these groups to damage the system. A decision that caused more strife to the stability of the administration was the cutting of the Army and Navies pay, this caused a potentially riotous, extremely tense situation when sailors at Invergordon in Scotland mutinied, thanks to swift intervention by the government a full-scale mutiny was closely avoided but this isolated incident shows that the system was very close at times to failing.

A decision, which at the time was fought against, was to leave the gold standard. As it turned out this decision was one of the finest the National government made, although it caused the coalition to fail one of its starting aims it made British business more competitive. The loss of valuation of the pound led to lower costs for businesses so a decision, which caused the failure of the system in some ways, led to the strengthening of it overall.

The coalition government also brought about useful changes to the standard of living within Britain, housing was improved and increased and although unemployment benefits were cut welfare and pensions were increased.

The government ran a policy of appeasement towards the dictatorships in Europe, a policy now looked on by many historians as weak and cowardly, but it was at the time a popular policy and considering the problems on the domestic political side the appeasement policy was probably the best route for the pressurised government to take.

The National government was plunged into a situation never before experienced by any of the politicians involved in the alliance but faced with the combined adversities of an appalling economy, foreign aggression and growing extremism the coalition did a good job. All the different political sides involved in the National government worked well together with the support of the public, there was a kind of spirit of Dunkirk about the era if the event described were not years into the future. For a temporary government the National government did well and the political system was never in real danger of being ruptured or corrupted.