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Politics in 1930s Britain Essay

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Why did neither the CPGB nor the BUF have much political impact in 1930s Britain?

The early 20th century brought the arrival of political extremism and radical ideologies in Europe. Major economic and social upheaval from WW1 changed the industrial, political and social nature of the countries affected by the war. Political extremism is radical left or right wing parties that want social/political change, usually by unconstitutional means. Communism emerged in Russia with the installation of the Soviet regime, and Fascism arrived in Italy and Germany. In Britain, although the BUF and the CPGB were set up, the economic and political circumstances during the 1930s allowed democracy to survive. To those concerned with British security, the BUF/CPGB were never a real threat, they were rather more of a nuisance. 1 The BUF and CPGB believed they would be able to capitalise on the depression, however this was not the case, as the conditions a revolution needed to prevail were not present in Britain.

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The economic circumstances in Italy, Germany and Russia, were completely different- the effects of the depression in Europe were more severe, and had more of a lasting effect, whereas Britain had recovered within two or three years. Economic circumstances meant that most people accepted capitalism, as living standards were rising. Demographic change, resulting in major loss of workforce and economic dislocation were other factors which encouraged the installation of dictatorships in Europe. Immigration also caused political/social unrest abroad, for example, in Germany; Jewish immigrants were blamed for the economic state. Britain’s island status meant that the threat of political extremism was not as concerning as it was in most other parts of mainland Europe.

The political scene during the 1930s also meant that people were satisfied- National Government policies were accepted, and most left-wing supporters were content with the Labour party. People accepted democracy and capitalism, and did not need alternatives. British culture, which tended to focus around moderation and democracy, meant that foreign regimes seemed alien to the country. The working-class culture, discouraged extremist expansion as the unemployed tended to be apolitical.

Internal problems such as financing and leadership issues also hindered the growth of the BUF/CPGB. However, although internal factors were important in the containment of political extremism in 1930s Britain, British economic circumstances had the greatest impact on the failure of the CPGB and BUF, and the internal problems might have not hindered the growth of extremism in different economic circumstances. Although the impact of political extremism in 1930s Britain was very slight, there is also evidence which suggests that a fairly large amount of loyalty was present. For example, the BUF gained support from the Daily Mail, and the communist newspaper the Daily Worker had a large readership. Membership figures for the Left Book Club also suggest the CPGB had some backing.

The main factors concerning the failure of political extremism in 1930s Britain can be divided into two sections; external and internal causes. External factors concern the economic/political circumstances which prevented the installation of a dictatorship, and internal factors are problems encountered within the parties.

The recovery from the depression was much less traumatic in Britain. Many saw the 1930s as a time of extreme poverty, however for the larger majority, this was not the case, and affluence was not uncommon. John Stevenson writes: ‘The popular image of the 1930’s is that of the decade blighted by the economic depression. Indeed, this is an image based upon reality for the many thousands of families who suffered from the miseries of unemployment. But there was another face to the thirties. As well as being the years of the slump, they also saw a remarkable degree of economic and social advance, with new industries, economic growth, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living’2 Britain had already suffered from a poor economy during the 1920s- depression was already a permanent feature of the British economy3 Therefore, although the recovery was patchy, i.e. a slight downturn in 1938, Britain was not unfamiliar to the situation.

In comparison to Russia/Germany, who suffered from major economic dislocation and hyperinflation, Britain did not fare too badly from the depression. Britain’s recovery was quicker and a lot more stable than other European countries- there was no banking collapse, and many industries actually inclined. Infact, as Stevenson writes, the outcome of the depression could actually be seen as positive. During the housing boom of 1932-34, living standards increased and the quality of life improved for many. Unemployment levels were relatively low compared to the rest of Europe, with a peak of 2.64m in 1931-324 and real wages increased by 15%. Car production was one of the most significant industrial developments in the 1930s and by 1939 ownership reached 3 million.5 This improved life for many, as the car gave freedom and the possibility of travel. Mass production methods enabled cars to be manufactured cheaper and faster than before, meaning that a basic family car could be purchased for �100 in 19316, and this opportunity therefore became available to a wider range of people.

Luxury consumer goods e.g. the refrigerator, began appearing in new department stores, and the availability of higher-purchase enabled wider sections of society to afford these. By 1930, 1 in 3 houses also had electricity.7 All these factors contributed to the improvement of living standards and for the majority of the country; there was a mood of affluence and prosperity. As effects of the depression lessened, so did the appeal of an extremist party- people no longer needed radical change, and were satisfied with capitalism. The recovery from the depression came around the same time as the arrival of extremism in Britain- the BUF formed in 1931, by time which the worst part of the depression was over.

However, few of the people that were affected by the depression became communist/fascist. Most tended not to foster a class-consciousness, and accepted the capitalist system. The ‘working-class culture’ meant that the unemployed tended to be apolitical; their interests lay in recreation, sport, religion and job-seeking, and rarely paid attention to the extremist campaign. Therefore, the economic/social situation during the 1930s, meant revolution was not needed- it could even be said that the arrival of political extremism in Britain was a revolution in a non-revolutionary situation.8 Financial satisfaction and an improvement in living/working conditions meant that the public simply did not need an extremist political voice. This denied the BUF/CPGB opportunities for expansion and enabled mainstream political parties to survive.

Although the 1931 crisis hit the Labour badly- they were badly defeated in the election (46 seats to the Governments 554 9), the party still held onto core support, as loyalty, from working classes and unemployed, was strong. Labour was a big obstacle to the communists, and denied them space on the political scene. Labour was committed to using moderate policies, and by using the ‘gradualist’ approach, they believed socialism was achievable if capitalism was prosperous. This theory meant Labour could hold an electorate from a wide range of social classes, not just from the working class. However, most of the working class approved of this approach, and most also accepted capitalism.

Labour’s refusal to affiliate with the CPGB on many opportunities also decreased its support. The CPGB’s requests to form a coalition with Labour were rejected on each occasion, mainly due to Labour’s objection to their constitution program. Unconstitutional action and political extremism were ruled out by Labour’s firm commitment to parliamentary democracy. Cripps stated- “I have always condemned revolutionary means”10. Labour’s rejection of affiliation was influenced by the fact that the CPGB was run from Moscow, which meant if a coalition was formed between the two parties, the public would automatically associate Labour with Russia.

As the brutality of the Soviet regime was revealed, i.e. ‘show trials’- involving public executions of Stalin’s enemies-, which were endorsed by the CPGB (the Daily Worker’s headline read- “Shoot the reptiles”.11) Labour did not want to be seen by voters as having any contact with this, and wanted to keep its earned image of respectability-connections with this would have greatly lowered their support. Labour was also extremely suspicious of the CPGB and believed that their desire to affiliate was in order to bring the party down and achieve global communist control. Labour worked to marginalize the CPGB, and by using popular and moderate policies such as gradualism, left-wing supporters still remained loyal to them. Again, the economic situation was satisfactory, so for the majority, there was no need to turn to communism.

Dominated by Conservatives, the National Government denied the BUF space on the political right. The National Government was extremely popular, and was perhaps able to capitalize on Labour’s 1931 crisis. The National Government was one of the only British governments that were supported by more than 50% of the electorate.12 Their success was mainly due to the range of people which it drew votes from- they were a coalition of elements from all major democratic parties, and so appealed to almost all sections of society. Therefore, they faced no serious opposition, and again, as Labour did, were able to effectively contain political extremism. Stability and reassurance were offered by the National Government, as they were seen as a safe-option both politically and socially, at a time when communism and the end of capitalism were feared.

National Government policies created a modest but steady economic recovery from the depression. One of the main achievements of the National Government was the decision to come off the Gold Standard. This meant a much faster recovery than the rest of Europe as nowhere else had yet done this. Although the outcome of this caused the value of the pound to fall by 30%, it also meant that interest rates fell from 6% to 2%13. This encouraged private investment and industry growth, which inevitably improved the economy.

The Special Areas Act provided �2million in aid to impoverished areas of Britain, (places where the CPGB were most likely to gain support). This therefore increased working class National Government support, and meant there was no need to support the alternative. Another National Government measure was the Unemployment Act of 1934, which created retraining opportunities. This showed the government were aware of Britain’s problems, and were willing to try to resolve them. All these measures were cautious and small-scale, and although they did not lead to complete economic recovery, they certainly helped soften the impact of the depression. The public’s perception of the National Government and its policies/actions, tended to be positive. Again, they were seen as a safe-option, and appealed to all sections of society.

The National Government’s Public Order Act in 1936, also increased the containment of political extremism in Britain, and in particular decreased BUF growth. This legislation banned the wearing of political uniforms during rallies and marches, and also required police consent for marches to take place. Uniforms gave a common identity and a sense of belonging, and so after the Public Order Act, the desired impact of the rallies was not as great. In general the National Government reduced the appeal of political extremism, as people did not need to turn to other parties. They also denied right wing support to fascism. Enough was already being done by the government to improve the economic situation, and in particularly the living conditions of the very poor, so an alternative was not needed. The National Government derived from all parts of the democratic parliamentary system, and so appealed to a broad section of society.

The political and economic circumstances described in the last three sections all added to the containment of political extremism during the 1930s. Together, the Labour party and the National Government refused to let democracy collapse. However, this was compounded by the approach of the BUF/CPGB (e.g. non-democratic) and their own weaknesses. One of the problems the CPGB faced was its lack of a well-known, charismatic leader. Although Dutt and Pollit were the party’s chief theoreticians, they lacked charisma and the ability to draw mass support from speeches, as Lenin/Stalin did. Violence and street clashes, particularly with fascists, gave the party a bad name, as this kind of behavior tended to be alien to British culture- politics had always been moderate and democratic, and the majority of the public opposed unconstitutional action.

The failure of the CPGB’s united front strategy, and attempts at affiliating with Labour against the radical right, was also a factor that decreased the impact of communism. Labour were very popular and many held strong loyalties towards them, and so if Labour held opposition, the public were likely to foster similar opinions. The CPGB were controlled from Moscow, and links with the Soviet Union decreased support. A ‘red scare’ in Britain meant that the CPGB received extremely bad publicity, after the harsh Soviet regime was revealed. The 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact also lost the CPGB support, as many felt they were affiliating with the enemy- the fascists. Britain’s patriotism also decreased CPGB support, as on the eve of WW2, supporting them meant also supporting the enemies in the war- Germany/Russia.

Internal problems for the BUF also led to failure. Mosley’s limitations as a leader hindered the BUF’s expansion, as he was a poor tactician and administrator. Mosley lacked financial understanding, and his stubborn and egoistic personality compounded this. He was also politically unstable- he resigned from Labour in 1930 after already having left the Coalition Unionists. Mosley’s behavior was alien to Britain and its parliamentary traditions, as was the violence of the BUF which also led to its demise.

Street clashes, where some people even died, produced bad publicity for the party- the media blamed the BUF for the violence at Olympia in 1934. It was at this time that the Daily Mail withdrew support, which meant that public respectability was lost. Associations with continental fascism- particularly Hitler’s regime- and anti-Semitism propaganda, also lost the BUF public respectability and support as it meant that by supporting the BUF the public would also be supporting Germany. Financing was also a significant problem, as the BUF were always short of money, which was made worse in 1937, as loans from Mussolini were withdrawn. Divisions within the party also led to the party’s failure- members disagreed over strategy- e.g. whether to adopt a military or political approach.

Despite remaining on the political margins, the CPGB/BUF did have some notable successes. The BUF secured Daily Mail support from early on, and the Olympia rallies always attracted large audiences. BUF membership peaked at 50,000 in 1934,14 and CPGB membership had reached 18,000 by 1939.15 In 1929, 25 CPGB candidates were entered into the election, and received 56,000 votes16. The communist newspaper, the Daily Worker had an average circulation of 80,000.17 The CPGB also held support from a number of influential intellectuals, for example, Cambridge spies Philby, Burgess and Maclean, and poets such as W.H Auden. The CPGB also had some influence in trade unions, and by 1939, the Left Book Club had 60,000 members.18

The economic situation in Britain was the most important factor in the containment of extremism. The rise of living standards, real wages and industrial production gave Britain a positive outlook, at a time when the rest of Europe seemed to be in an economic disaster. The economic circumstances meant there was no room on the political scene for radicalism- the public were satisfied with the capitalist system, and favored moderation and democracy. Political circumstances were equally important in the containment of extremism. Without a successful government, which the National Government proved themselves to be, the economic situation may have been entirely different, and may have encouraged the installation of a dictatorship.

Despite slow progress, the National Government was eventually able to steer Britain out of an economic crisis. Britain’s public appeared to have great confidence in it’s leaders, and traditional British political methods and democracy succeeded. If the government had not been as successful however, perhaps the BUF/CPGB may have had more political impact. Although important, internal problems within the CPGB/BUF, are of lesser significance. If the economic/political circumstances were different, these problems may not have hindered the growth of the parties. An economic situation similar to Europe, may have caused people to be desperate for a political/social change, without paying attention to problems suffered by the CPGB/BUF such as leadership and financing. However, with better tactics and administration, both parties may have made a greater impact on the 1930s political scene.

1 Colin Cook, British Fascism, Modern History Review p2

2 Stevenson, John and Cook, Chris, Britain in the Depression- Society and Politics 1929-39 Longman p15

3 Rees, Goronwy, The Great Slump, Weidenfeld & N p40

4 Class handout

5 Stevenson, John and Cook, Chris, Britain in the Depression- Society and Politics 1929-39 Longman p33

6 Stevenson, John and Cook, Chris, Britain in the Depression- Society and Politics 1929-39 Longman p33

7 Class handouts- The British economy in the 1920s

8 Pearce, Robert, Britain- Domestic Politics 1918-39 Hodder & Stoughten p112

9 Murphy, Derek, Britain 1914-2000 Collins Educational p83

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