Britain economically and socially Essay
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The outbreak of the war in August 1914 produced immediate changes. It is often said that war is the ‘locomotive of history’ – that is what drives it along. Certainly the First World War helped to produce major changes in British government, society, the economy and industrial relations. The war produced political turmoil. In 1915 Prime Minister Asquith formed a coalition government, and the following year he was replaced as premier by Lloyd George, who gave a new impetus to the direction of the war.
He believed in greater state intervention built upon the abandonment of laissez faire.
The powers of the state had grown enormously. A form of ‘war socialism’ had been introduced. New ministries were set up, and at the end of the war, several of these (pensions, health and labour) became permanent institutions of the state. There had been an important extension of social policy during the war, the government was formulating extensive plans for the provision of new housing, better education and an extension of unemployment insurance. Nevertheless taxation and social spending did not return to their pre war levels.
These policies were introduced thanks to the outbreak of the war although it can be argued that they would have probably occurred anyway. The war also produced major economic changes. British industry had been to a large extent transformed by the mobilisation of millions of soldiers and by an unprecedented switch to war production. Under a positive perspective, the economy had shown a new production capacity. Although total output had decreased, due to the smaller workforce, productivity definitely increased. There had been much state-sponsored modernisation.
Electric power was used more than ever before. The removal of so many skilled workers had initially threatened an economic collapse but had in fact stimulated the much needed mechanisation. The efficiency of agriculture had also increased, with the widespread introduction of the tractor. Such changes however, although at a slower pace, might have occurred even without the war. The same cannot be said for the high numbers of casualities incurred. A productive section of the workforce had been lost. In addition Britain still had to pay the financial costs of the war.
Massive amounts of money had been borrowed and still had to be repaid. Valuable overseas markets had been lost. During the war massive investment in the staple industries had taken place. But once the war was over the demand of these products fell. The decline of the staple industries was also the main reason for the bitter industrial relations which developed in post-war Britain. During the war actually industrial relations had improved. Trade unions reacted patriotically to the outbreak of was and a spirit of collaboration developed between them and the government.
The ‘Treasury Agreement’ was signed in 1915 which specified that unions involved in vital war work would not strike. In return they were promised that the old arrangements would be resumed after the war. It was only a voluntary agreement, but in July 1915 the Munitions of War Act legally binded unions and the government and it outlawed strikes. In many ways, trade unionists made important gains during the war. The fact that government controlled so much of the industry led to a national, as opposed to local, wage agreements.
Furthermore the average working week fell from 55 to 45 hours. However after the war had ended privatisation was introduced again and the staple industries were the ones who suffered more. This was followed by a wave of strikes. This industrial unrest worried the government which a feared a Bolshevik-type revolution. Society also changed a lot during the war. Women were challenging the stereotypes by which a male-dominant society sought to control them. They wanted equality, and the touchstone of this was the vote.
There were ‘suffragettes’ which were campaigning for the rights of women. However, with the outbreak of the war, they suspended their campaigns. During the war many workers had to leave their jobs in order to go and fight therefore the workforce decreased. Employers started to employ women in industries. About 750,000 women took jobs in manufacturing, and especially munitions production. In addition around 100,000 women joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Royal Air Force and the Land Army.
They did no fighting but did other jobs at the front. The number of paid women workers grew by 1. 5 million during the war and they pursued a much grater range of occupations than ever before: this constituted a highly significant change in employment patterns and in the position of women in British Society. On the other hand, old habits of mind persisted. Women received, on average, only two-thirds of men’s wages. In conclusion, the war brought drastic changes to Britain both economical, social and also political.
It can be argued that these changes would have taken place even without the war. However if this was the case, they would have happened at a slower pace, therefore the war did speed up some positive changes. However it also caused industrial and political turmoil, immense casualities and major problems for the economy. However compared to other states who took part in the war, Britain was able to survive without too many great difficulties and especially without a revolution which is what happened in many other places in the world at the time.