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How successful were the National Governments in dealing with the problems of the 1930s? (45 marks)
The 1930s were unusual as it saw widespread economic depression which promoted a growth in political extremist organisations that posed a real potential threat to the long-standing political institutions in Britain in 1934. The abdication crisis seen in Britain in 1936, if handled differently, could have weakened Britain’s strong position in terms of national unity for WW2. The first National Government arose from a difficult economic situation and was expected to effectively handle the challenges it faced.
The National Government under MacDonald faced an ‘economic blizzard’, stemming from the effect of the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, which only truly ended under the second National Government in 1937. The depression in Britain brought cyclical l unemployment on top of the pre-existing structural employment from the decline of Britain’s stable industries due to the UK’s weak competitive position. The problem of the ‘intractable million’ had existed throughout the 1920s where governments did very little to tackle the issue of unemployment as they could afford not to, this changed when unemployment peaked at 3 million after WW1 due to the disruption of trade patterns because of the war.
MacDonald realised in 1931 that the weak position of the minority Labour government with little experience of power let alone dealing with an economic crisis unseen by a generation would not be capable or successful in dealing with rising unemployment. This lead to the dissolution of the Labour government and the formation of the first National Government in 1931 which was seen as a temporary measure at the time in order to get Britain back on its feet.
The National Government introduced 2 main economic policies that aided economic recovery which were the abandonment of The Gold Standard and the introduction of Tariff Reform. The devaluation of the pound (from $4.46 to $3.40 by the end of 1931) that followed the abandonment of The Gold Standard reflected the weaknesses of the British economy but also made British exports more appealing to the foreign policy, although there was little foreign demand for imports. There was no longer a need for high interest rates so rates dropped from 6% to 2% so an era of ‘cheap money’ began enabling a consumer boom. The Import Duties Act of 1932 and Imperial Preference set up under the Ottawa Agreement (1931) meant the introduction of protectionism in Britain, due to the government being dominated by Conservatives where protectionism had become official party policy in 1930. The idea of imposing a 10% tariff on goods from outside the British Empire was to bind Britain and its imperial subjects into a mutually beneficial economic relationship which appeased the business community and thus boosted business confidence.
However, an economic recovery in Britain was not simply formed due to these 2 policies. The formation of the National Government alone boosted confidence into the British economy but also the government’s ability to manage the economy as the National Government and Parliament were working together to fix the economic problem. Public support for this unity and stability can be seen in the proportion of votes for a National Government in 1931 where they won with a 67% share of the total vote. The decisions to abandon The Gold Standard and issue the policy of rearmament were not through deliberate choice.
The policy to drop The Gold Standard was forced upon the government due to widespread discontent over the 10% cuts needed to be made in the public sector as displayed by the Invergordon Mutiny (September 1931) where there was a lack in confidence in the government’s ability to deal with the economic problems. Although the policy of Rearmament created jobs (defence industries were employing 578 000 more workers in 1937 than in 1935), it was imply a reaction to a growing threat to British security from Nazi Germany. The policy of rearmament was the result of external circumstances, likewise the decision to abandon The Gold Standard, so the National Governments should not receive total credit for bringing about a recovery as it was a combination of clever policy making and luck meant there was an economic recovery.
It could be expected by politicians and observers at the time to expect Britain to succumb to political extremism in the 1930s due to high levels of poverty from economic suffering. A crisis of capitalism would inevitably lead to a communist uprising according to Marx. This communist uprising in Britain would obviously have pleased communists but also right wingers as the communist uprising would lead to a fascist restoration of order. Dictatorships were fast becoming popular in Europe as Britain was 1 of only 3 countries in Europe not to be ruled by a dictator. The popularity of Communism and Fascism was evident through the rise of Hitler in Nazi Germany and the founding of the Quisling Regime in Norway in 1933 but also on British turf through the growth of the communist orientated NUWM and Mosley’s BUF.
NUWM was set up in 1921 but only really took off in the 1930s where unemployment was higher than in the 1920s so organised more mass protests – ‘Hunger Marches’ occurred in 1929, 1930, 1932, 1934 and 1936 as the organisation seized the opportunity to harness bitterness as a means of the government changing their policies. This quasi democratically lead organisation was headed by Communist Wal Hannington who organised the largest march in 1932 where 3000 marchers from depressed areas descended on Hyde park where they were met by a further 1000 supporters to present a petition to government signed by 1 million people.
The National Government were aware of the NUWM’s actions and so deployed 70 000 policemen for the 4000 protesters to send out a strong signal on the government’s stance on extremist organisations as this was the biggest deployment of police since 1884. After the humiliation at Hyde Park in 1932, the NUWM were never able to muster the same support again, aided by the drop in unemployment due to the growth of new industries. The NUWM was not supported by Labour or the TUC as it was simply seen as too extreme, highlighting the government’s, but more importantly, the opposition’s desire to maintain stability during turbulent times. The Public Order Act 1934 banned paramilitaries banned the wearing of military uniforms in public places which helped put an end to the BUF’s activities as this would have attracted many members as a large majority were ex-soldiers from WW1 which contributed to the drop in support form 50 000 members in 1934 to little over 5000 in 1936.
Political extremist groups were not more successful in Britain due to the economic recovery as it removed widespread popular discontent that appeared to be a necessary pre-condition. During 1932-7 recovery took place in Britain at much faster rate in Britain without radical policies which meant more people weren’t suffering, especially as recovery took place faster in areas with high population densities which further didn’t allow extremist organisations to take flight in Britain.
The electoral system therefore can also be a reason for extremist groups not being as successful as the first-past-the-post system rather than proportional representation meant these radical groups never achieved respectability. British culture can in part explain why political extremism never took off in Britain. The democratic tradition had been long established in Britain so the political system was better trusted than in countries like Germany. The focus on democracy by the public meant that the BUF’s undemocratic rallies which would get out of control lost support, especially when anti-Semitic views started to dominate the forum in 1934 which only alienated the public further so the BUF could never gain enough support after 1934 to become a truly political threat.
The near constitutional crisis in 1936 had the near potential to weaken British unity and stability and allow political extremism to manifest. Edward VIII’s desire to marry the soon twice divorced, pro-Nazi American Wallace Simpson was not popular with much of his public nor was it a popular thought with Parliament. Issues surrounding Simpson only truly became apparent on the 27th October 1936 when her divorce came through and Edward made his desire to marry Simpson public; this intention of marriage caused the abdication crisis as it was not accepted by the government as she was deemed an unsuitable wife of a king. The king now was proposing to a divorced woman who was offensive to public morality at the time, this concerned Baldwin as he believed the king was supposed to be popular (which he was) but also keep unity, especially in difficult times.
Baldwin’s clear belief in the importance of national unity meant that the political tension was diffused swiftly changing the abdication crisis from a political crisis to a constitutional question. Edward believed he could change the popular public opinion that opposed his marriage by speaking to the public on the radio by using his popularity and ‘common touch’. Baldwin refused him permission due to his understanding of how popular the king was and feared the future of Britain as Edward often meddled in politics which could lead to Britain’s constitutional principle being at stake. For this reason, Baldwin denied him access to speak to the public on unconstitutional grounds as he was seeking support against the government who were virtually all against the proposal.
Public morality at the time meant the king would never have the public’s full backing in his marriage. Simpson’s links with pro-Nazi organisations feared the public who were not accepting of anti-Semitic views, as seen with the BUF. Edward’s position as ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England meant that he could not marry a divorced woman as this would being going against ecclesiastical rules. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmos Lang, also spoke out against the King which further urged Anglicans not to support the King’s decision to marry Simpson.
Not only were religious establishments opposing the King’s wishes but also The Times newspaper, which was seen as the mouthpiece of the establishment where it was quoted that “the prestige of the monarchy would be destroyed” if Edward VIII was to remain king and marry Simpson. Other political groups such as Labour and the Liberals were asked along with other PMs of British dominions if a morganatic marriage between Edward and Simpson would be acceptable. Baldwin returned to the king with the results which was that the proposed morganatic marriage would not be accepted nor recognised by opposition the National Government or by PMs throughout the Empire. This final straw lead to the abdication of Edward VIII on the 7th December 1936.
The National Government’s approaches to deal with all economic, political and constitutional problems in the 1930s can be commended and considered successful to an extent. The National Government played its role to not exacerbate problems outside their control by introducing policies such as the Special Areas Act 1934. Although it could be said that the government did very little in the 1930s with a more Laissez Faire approach to the problems in the economy and relied heavily on British morality and belief in democracy in terms of political and constitutional problems.
However, this ‘hands off’ approach proved to be successful as the British economy had recovered by the end of the 1930s, Britain did not succumb to political extremism and the issue regarding the Abdication crisis was swiftly solved by Baldwin and his government. Although other factors came into play in many of these problems, the confidence and stability that was brought about by the introduction of the National Governments meant that it was harder for problems that occurred in the 1930s to ever manifest into much larger issues.