Political development during the interwar period was very important and very eventful. The politicians of this period had to deal with several important issues on both the national and the international scenes. The chapter shows us many politically important people and some new minor political parties that had influence on the political scene, namely the British Union of Fascist. The main features of this period were the return from wartime to normal states, and attempts to deal with the consequences of the Great War, namely the economic situation. At the end of the period the main objective was the maintenance of the world peace.
1.1 Right to vote and voting system
Shortly after the end of the war in 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed. This act was very important because it regulated the electoral system and gave a right to vote to people who had been excluded until then. In practice it meant that all men over 18 years and women over 30 years, but only the married ones, had an equal right to vote. Furthermore, the way of voting changed. Firstly, the election was to be held on only one day, and not spread over a week or two as it used to be. Secondly, the intervals between the elections were shortened from seven years to maximally five years.
1.2 Election of 1918 and politics in 1918-1922
The first post-war election was held on 14 December 1918. The results had been announced two weeks later after all the soldiers’ votes had been gathered and counted. It should be noted that although the right to vote was extended, the percentage of people who voted, including soldiers, was not very high "just 57, 6 per cent" (Mowat, 6). This showed that the war left many people cynical, impassive and disillusioned.
The Coalition, consisting of Lloyd George Liberals and Conservatives, won. The main focus of this government was the reconstruction of the country after the war. There were many promises made – the most noticeable was the provision for war heroes. However, all these promises remained unrealizable when, in 1921, it became evident that the over-optimistic after-war expectations were rather premature and the economy moved towards recession (further explained in chapter 3). The government then had to deal with a high unemployment and social unrest. However, the government failed to provide a complex plan to stop this development. The main reason was the prevailing belief in free trade and therefore the refusal to introduce protective tariffs as noted by Alan Taylor:
They [government] expected the laws of laissez faire economics to continue in operation, with the slight change that profits would go to the community instead of to the individuals. They were at loss when faced with the decline of Great Britain's traditional exports and the collapse of stable exchanges. They felt that capitalism must be put back on its feet before it was got rid of. English people, both Left and Right, blamed everything on the war and believed that all would be well if its effects were somehow undone. (181-182)
Yet, some attempts to solve the situation were made, e.g. certain social and economic measures.
The Unemployment Insurance Act, passed in 1920, extended the already existing scheme so that it covered the majority of workers earning less than £250 a year, excluding only domestic servants and agricultural workers. This act was further extended in 1921 so that it ensured benefits even for those who were not insured, or for those whose benefits, granted only for 15 weeks, had already expired.
In 1920 the Agriculture Act, which guaranteed minimum prices for goods, was also passed. This, however, proved as a burden rather than an advantage, because when prices began to fall British goods became very expensive in comparison with imported goods and the sales went down.
As things went from bad to worse, the Chancellor of the Exchequer urged for cuts in budget in the amount of £175 millions. However, ministers were not able to find such an amount of money and as a consequence a committee, led by Eric Geddes, was set up in 1922. His report recommended cuts in the amount of £76 million. Those cuts were to be made mostly in army and social services. The housing programme, promising homes for war heroes, was considerably slowed down as a consequence of these cuts.
Another main issue this government had to deal with was connected with Ireland. The problem arose from the conflict between the Irish nationalists, who wanted independence for Ireland, and the unionists, who wanted to maintain the union with Britain. The issue was even more problematic because the Conservative Party supported the unionists, while the Liberals were in favour of the nationalists. Sin Fein, an Irish political movement, formed their own parliament in Dublin after it had won in the 1918 Irish election and proclaimed Ireland an independent republic with Eamonn de Valera as the first president. The nationalist army was set up shortly afterwards and the Anglo-Irish war broke out. Lloyd George responded with a ‘law and order’ policy which provoked a lot of violence and as recorded by Pearce "almost 1,000 people were killed in Ireland between January 1919 and July 1921" (27). In 1921 Lloyd George changed his policy and started negotiations. The Anglo-Irish Treaty, giving Ireland complete self-government with the British monarch as the head of the state, was signed on 6 December 1921.
Oswald Mosley already appeared on the British political scene in 1918 by winning a seat and becoming a Member of Parliament for the Conservative party, being the youngest Member of Parliament. He showed his disapproval of the brutality with which the situation in Ireland was solved by leaving the Conservative party and becoming an Independent MP.
As far as the international scene was concerned, the most important event was the Versailles Settlement, where Lloyd George was helping to draw plans for Germany’s reparations. Yet although he had promised to make Germany pay, his actions were viewed as too soft. Nevertheless, the settlement was considered as a success by many states that had taken part in the Great War.
Lloyd George resigned from the post of Prime Minister in October 1922, due to many inter-party problems, and Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative Party, was appointed by the King to form a government. Bonar Law had a problem to form a new government because many leading figures had left the government during the Lloyd George’s term of office and refused to come back. Therefore, preparations for an election were made and it was held in November 1922. The Conservative Party, with Bonar Law as the head, won clearly by a large margin (see table 1.) and formed a new government with Bonar Law as Prime Minister.
Table 1. The general elections in 1922 (Stevenson and Cook, 97)
Their main policy was to continue in the reconstruction plans, yet once again it proved to be unrealisable because problems concerning the war debts to America emerged. The attempt of Stanley Baldwin, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to negotiate a reduction was not successful and in the end a solution was reached, promising that Britain would pay back her full debt in the period of 62 years with interest exceeding 3 per cent a year.