Faculty of education department of english language and literature

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2.5 The overview of chapter 2

The interwar economy of Britain went through many stages. First Britain enjoyed a short-lived boom, and then a slump which led to the Great Depression, and before the Second World War a recovery came. The economic crisis of 1931 was one of the reasons for Mosley's foundation of BUF. His belief was that he was the only one who was able to lead Great Britain from the economic crisis and put all his plans into his written works that were basis of the BUF ideology. However, his belief was quite self-delusional because the National Government itself managed to make the right economic decisions and the crisis slowly faded away. The BUF economical plans therefore became less important for the masses, which led to the overall change of the BUF's ideology towards more violent and ostentatious stance. The economic situation had an enormous influence on the society. The working class was divided on those with jobs, and therefore a stable income, and unemployed. The hard economic situation was also felt by the land-owners and aristocracy, because the prices of their properties started to fall and it was quite expensive to keep them. Therefore, some were forced to sell their properties, or at least some part of it. The differences between living conditions of working classes were enormous and are dealt with in the next chapter.

Chapter 3: Interwar Society

The interwar society was deeply influenced by the economic situation, where unemployment played an important role. Some attempts were seen to make the distribution of income more equal by redistributing wealth. And as a consequence the growth of and mobility among social classes took place. However, the most significant changes concerned the working classes.

3.1 Shifts in power and wealth and changes within social classes

This period witnessed shifts in power and wealth. One form was the emergence of a new kind of businessmen. Those businessmen were closely connected with the new industries, mainly the car and food processing ones, or commercial and financial sectors. As reported by Robbins (204): "The wealth of the 153 millionaires and 349 half-millionaires was derived largely from finance, manufacturing, and consumer industries such as brewing and tobacco." There was also a significant growth in the number of smaller merchants, retailers and manufacturers, who were able to afford an estate worth £100,000 - £500,000. The shifts were also connected with land. Many landowners were forced to sell their great estates, or at least some part of it, because their wealth was withering away due to the income tax and death duty. Another form was rise in real wages, which meant that working classes could afford to buy their own property, save some money and enjoy some services, which had been until then considered as a luxury solely enjoyed by the middle or upper class. The shifts also took form of various benefits and allowances for the poorest, which were supposed to help improve their living conditions. Yet, shifts in this period were not significant enough to make any striking difference; nevertheless, it laid the foundations on which the later welfare state was built.

The shifts in power and wealth also had an influence on the social classes. The aristocracy still kept their importance, although the landed aristocracy was smaller in number than it used to be. However, the changes in economy and politics were slowly undermining their position. Furthermore, the creation of new peerages, very often sold for political support, brought businessmen and public servants into aristocracy, which proved that class mobility, which could have been upwards or downwards, was occurring in all social classes. The upward one was usually connected with ‘the new kind of businessmen’, who moved from the middle class to the upper class. Yet sons of working class parents, who worked really hard to provide their child with a better education, also moved up the social scale, because of the extension of white-collar jobs as researched by Robbins (202-203): "The upward movement into job with higher and more regular incomes is illustrated by David Glass's finding that by 1939 one fifth of the sons of manual workers were employed in non manual work." However, this shifts up and down sometimes occurred even within one class – mainly the working class.

The working class had three subclasses – rough, ordinary and respected. The rough subclass consisted of unskilled people with lower wages and poorer living conditions who were frequently indebted and had problems with alcohol and gambling. The members of the respected subclass were skilled and therefore had higher wages, were careful to pay their rent and tried to keep their homes tidy; generally they tried to keep a good reputation. Nevertheless, there was also a downward movement, which occurred mostly when men lost their jobs. Quite surprisingly this movement also happened in the upper classes, when a father decided that all his heirs would get an equal share of his possessions. This forced the children adopt a lower social status. Although all social classes underwent changes in their structure, the most significant changes were connected with and concentrated in working classes.

3.2 Working classes

3.2.1 Extension of vote

One of the most significant changes concerning the working classes was the extension of voting right. In 1918 the Representation of People Act was passed, which ensured the right to vote for women over 30 years of age, and also stopped the discrimination against women occupying public posts because of their gender. As a consequence the first woman MP, Lady Astor, was elected in 1919. Furthermore, all men above the age of 18 years had now the right to vote.

3.2.2 Working conditions

Other significant changes were connected with working conditions. Although the unemployment was very high, the majority of workers were employed even during the most severe years of depression. Those workers could benefit from improved working conditions and also from a rise in real wages. The year 1919 saw the beginning of the reduction of working hours, which continued until 1936, when the Factory Act established a forty-eight-hour working week. Furthermore, a five-day week was becoming more and more common. However, despite this new trend, in some years the working hours were increased and the week was extended – this happened for example in 1926, when many workers participated in the General Strike, and those who did not had to cover for them.

Holidays are also closely connected with the shortening of working hours. In the early 1920 six days off work per year were guaranteed by the Bank Holiday Act. A week holidays without a pay, usually during the summer, was also very common. However, as various developments and improvements were gradually taking place, the Holidays with Pay Act, passed in 1938, entitled all workers to a week holidays with a pay. This led to an increase in leisure time and activities, such as theatre, cinema, or trips to the seaside.

Further improvements and changes could be seen in the workplaces and factories. It is important to mention the fact that factories were slowly but surely replacing small domestic workshops. However, this did not mean that factories were gigantic, or that they employed a great mass of labour. Although the factories were of a considerable size, the number of factories employing more than 100 workers was rather small. The most common number of employees varied from 15 – 25. It should be noted that the term 'factory' was used for almost any workplace which was using power and machines in the production. Yet as late as 1937 many small workshops could be found all over the country, and although they were called factories they were little changed in their structure or manner of work. Therefore the change concerned more nomenclature rather than the process of expanding workplaces. This could be proved by the fact that small 'factories' with no more than 25 workers were the most typical, and represented more than 65% of all factories (Stevenson, 189).

The most important change was the mechanization of factories. This led to deskilling of the work force; where the semi-skilled, and to a lesser extent unskilled, workers were taking place of skilled workers, as servicing and maintenance of machines did not require much skill. The skilled workers were employed as supervisors and thus they gained a better social status and an increase in pay. However, there was not a sufficient number of supervisory posts and many skilled workers had to accept the position of semi-skilled workers. This process went on mostly in the factories of new industries, and of course the adaptation to this new trend varied to some extent.

Also the safety of the workplace was improved and mortal injuries dropped in number dramatically. First first-aid rooms started to be set up, and in some larger firms even a nurse could be found. However, in small firms and factories even the basic first-aid equipment was sometimes hard to find. The firm whose health care for its workers became almost legendary was the chocolate factory Cadbury's at Bourneville. In the 1930s three fully qualified dentists, a dental mechanic and five dental nurses, could be found there. Furthermore they provided a toothbrush and toothpaste free of charge for workers up to 16 years of age. The medical room with a doctor and several nurses could also be found there. Nonetheless, the caring attitude of this extent was very exceptional. Yet in general some improvements were seen, although some of them were of a simple character. For example, the flushing toilet and heating became compulsory in 1918. The Factory Act, passed in 1937, ensured that workers were provided with washing facilities, space for their personal belongings and a room where they could peacefully eat their meal. Some workers even enjoyed some sort of canteen where, for a little pay per week, a hot meal was served. However, this could be seen only in large enough factories, where such a service was not seen as a waste of money and space, or excess luxury.

3.2.3 Standard of living and housing

As far as the standard of living is concerned, the most important aspect was the rise in real wages. Even in the times of the most severe depression the real wages still doubled their pre-war level. Nonetheless, there were some differences concerning wages - workers in the new industries enjoyed higher wages than those working in the traditional industries and workers in agriculture received a considerably lower pay than workers of traditional industries. Women and young people generally received the lowest pay. Prices, on the other hand, continued to fall throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s, when they slowly began to rise again. Therefore employed people had more money to spend. They could afford to buy more nutritious food, which had a positive effect on their health. They could afford better shoes, clothes and also some home necessities. According to Stevenson and Cook (26-27) "a large portion" of workers' income "went upon extra food" as well as "the most prosperous workers were able to consider buying their own houses"; on the other hand the middle class "increased spending power brought the first real taste of affluence with better houses, motor cars, consumer durables and foreign holidays." Furthermore, because the size of a family was decreasing, there was a chance to even save some money or to enjoy some leisure activity, such as cinema or theatregoing. New products, which until then had been bought only by the upper class became quite common in middle class homes and were not exceptional in working class homes – for example the radio, a vacuum cleaner, a cooker, an electric iron or a gramophone.

There were many efforts to improve the housing conditions which were, mainly in the old parts of industrial cities, of a very low standard. Due to the housing boom in the 1930s employed people were able to rent or buy a new house with modern fittings, such as a flushing toilet, a bath, heating or electricity. As shown in the Stevenson's and Cook's records "in 1920 only one house in seventeen had been wired up for electricity, by the 1930 the figure was one house in three, and by 1939 it was two houses in three." (17) Many people also moved to the so-called council houses, which were later offered for sale. This enormously helped in solving the overcrowding, which could be seen all over the country. However, this housing boom was mainly concentrated in London and the Midlands, where the centres of new industries could be found. A very limited number of new houses were built in the areas of traditional industrial centres where the overcrowding was one of the worst. Therefore, those who needed re-housing the most were not helped.

3.2.4 Health Care and Old-Age pensions

Some improvements could also be seen in the sphere of health care and pensions. However, those were only of a very limited extent. Nonetheless, death rates and infant mortality decreased in the period between the wars. The children’s deaths caused by such diseases as tuberculosis, measles and bronchitis also decreased. However, the extent of the decrease depended greatly on the region and living conditions, and the highest numbers of deaths were still among the poorest. And although the insurance against sickness was mandatory for all workers earning less than £160 a year, the family members of the workers were not covered by the insurance. Further, sickness benefits were much lower than unemployment benefits and hospitals treatment were not for free. As far as the old-age pension is concerned, there had been a rise in contributions and in 1925 the Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act was passed, which ensured that the contributions would be paid at the age of 65 years.

It could be said that although the country was experiencing one of the most difficult times in its history, the life of people rather improved. However, this would be truthful only about the employed part of the population and their families, and there were differences even there, depending on the region they lived in and the kind of industry they worked in. Nonetheless, life of the unemployed was altogether different.

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