The First World War and the temporary post-war boom camouflaged the underlying chronic economic problems associated with Britain's loss of status as a prime manufacturing power.
This was a period of readjustment, economically and politically. Politically the era of the mass franchise (universal after 1928) brought about a new two party system. The Liberal Party declined after 1914 and was replaced by Labour as the main opponent of the Tories. Two Labour Governments were formed in the inter-war period, in 1924 and 1929-31. Both were minority administrations.
The continuing decline of the staple industries was in part responsible for the persistent high unemployment of the 1920's and '30's. Despite the fact that new industries began to develop, they were located mainly in the Midlands and the southern part of England and did not compensate for the problems of the declining industries in the 'distressed areas' - the old industrial heartlands of South Wales, the West of Scotland, Lancashire, Tyneside and West Yorkshire. Unemployment in these areas never fell below a million in the 1920's and remained at shockingly high levels of between 40% and 60% (even 80% in some of the most blighted regions) during the 1930's. The 'great crash' at the end of the 1920's produced a prolonged slump in industry as a whole, with even higher rates of unemployment in the 1930s. One of the consequences of this was a decline in trade union membership from around six and a half million in 1920 to its lowest point in the inter war years of three and a quarter million in 1933. (Membership rose slowly but steadily thereafter.) Nonetheless, the mood remained militant. Strike action was almost as prevalent as the preceding period and culminated in the biggest display of working class strength yet seen - the General Strike of 1926.
Strikes of 1919
1919 witnessed the broadest and most serious strike wave yet seen. Thirty five million working days were lost in strike action - six times as many as in the previous year. This included strikes of the police and the armed forces. Miners, transport workers, printers joined those who had been taking action throughout the war. Their mood was influenced by the news of the workers' rising in Germany and Hungary and their strong support for the fledgling Soviet Russia. At the forefront was, once again, the Clyde Workers' Committee which organised a mass strike in January 1919. In Belfast too a huge strike wave paralysed the city.
Reorganisation of the TUC
In September 1921, the Parliamentary Committee was replaced by a General Council, equipped with broader powers and a more elaborate administrative structure. The aim was to develop industrial activities as opposed to legislative or political lobbying. In the same year, the TUC took over the functions of the Women's Trade Union League and two seats on the new General Council were reserved for women. The 1921 Congress also endorsed the formation of four joint departments with the Labour Party - research, legal advice, publicity and international affairs - and approved the creation of a National Joint Council with representatives from the TUC, Parliamentary Labour Party as well as the Party Executive. After the fall of the Labour Government in 1924, all the joint departments except the shared Library were dismantled.
Russian Revolution and the Communist Party
Revolutionary industrial militants had reached a turning point in 1919. Syndicalism had shown itself capable of confronting individual employers, but not able to sustain lasting advances in the face of the full repressive power of the State. Many of the militant shop stewards were influenced by the theories of Marx and Lenin (popularised by John McLean and others). Events in Russia were followed with close interest, and when it became clear that British troops were being used with those of other capitalist countries against the revolution, a powerful solidarity movement emerged in the form of the 'Hands Off Russia' campaign. Practical solidarity, following intensive agitation, was shown by East London dockworkers when they refused in 1918 to load a munitions ship destined for Russia, the 'Jolly George'.
Sidney & Beatrice Webb were very impressed by their visit to Soviet Russia. This may be have been the reason for the inclusion of the socialist clause 4 in the Labour Party's first constitution written by Sidney Webb in 1918. The threat that Britain might actually declare war against the Soviet Republic resulted, in August 1920, in the formation of Councils of Action (over 350 were established in all parts of the country, largely based on trades councils), which pledged, with the support of the TUC and the Labour Party, to mobilise mass strikes should the threat prove real.
In this atmosphere, the talk of Communist unity became more urgent and more realistic. Attempts had been made to unite the disparate socialist parties and factions during the war on the initiative of the British Socialist Party (BSP). The talks in 1919 and 1920 revealed deep disagreements but by August 1920, the Communist Party of Great Britain existed. It was, and for many years remained, tiny. Its influence however was immeasurably greater than the sum total of its membership. From the very beginning it had within its ranks the leading industrial militants who had led the massive pre-war strikes and who had formed the core of the Shop Stewards' Movement during the war.
Support for the fledgling Soviet Union was not confined to communists. TUC delegations visited the USSR in 1920 and 1924, and an Anglo-Russian Joint Advisory Council was established between the TUC and Soviet unions.
Labour councillors in Poplar, East London under the leadership of George Lansbury (editor of the 'Daily Herald'), attempted to do all in their power to alleviate the problems of poverty and unemployment in the borough. To finance this, the council decided in 1921, to use its own local rates for its own purposes and to refuse to levy them for outside bodies like the London County Council (LCC), the Metropolitan Police authority and other London wide organisations. The Poplar argument was simple - if the poor boroughs had to pay for London-wide services, then the richer ones should be forced to contribute to a pooled fund for the provision of local schemes to relieve poverty in those boroughs least able to afford its rising cost. Hence arose the demand for the 'equalisation of the rates' and until this was conceded Poplar, at a Council meeting in March 1921, voted (with one vote against) not to levy rates on behalf of central London bodies. Writs were served on thirty of the Poplar councillors, who despite the opposition of the London Labour Party led by its secretary, Herbert Morrison, stuck to their policy and were arrested and imprisoned in September 1921 amidst mass demonstrations in their support. They were released after six weeks and won their principal demand.
This period also saw the rise of fascism at home and internationally - most dramatically in the Spanish Civil War.
The National Joint Council, later the National Council of Labour, which comprised representatives from the TUC, Labour Party and Co-operative Movement, launched an anti-fascist campaign in 1933, which included a mass meeting in the Albert Hall, demonstrations and calling for a ban on all German goods. From 1935 onwards, Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) targeted overtly anti-Semitic propaganda on working class areas, especially the East End of London, an area which accommodated 90% of Britain's 330,000 Jewish population (Jews accounted for a tiny 0.8% of the total population of Britain). With police protection, the BUF attempted to stage a number of marches and rallies, most provocatively through the East End in October 1936 when anti-fascist groups led by the Communist Party stopped the march by barricades and pitched battles.
This meant that it was isolated from the increasingly broad based movement which sought to expose the evils of fascism internationally and to fight Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists at home. The TUC, however, joined with the National Council of Labour in 1933 in calling for a ban on all German goods. From 1935 onwards Moseley's overtly anti-Semitic propaganda was targeted in working class areas especially the East End of London, an area which accommodated 90% of Britain's 330,000 Jewish population. (Jews accounted for a tiny 0.8% of the total population of Britain.) With police protection the BUF attempted to stage a number of marches and rallies the most provocative and infamous being the attempt to march through the East End in October 1936. Anti-fascist groups led by the Communist Party prevented or stopped many of these marches, but in the case of the East End this was accomplished by barricades and pitched battles particularly in Cable Street. Similar tactics were used by anti-fascists in Bermondsey.
The Popular Front
The Labour Party's anti-communism led it to reject participation in, with others on the left, a United anti-Fascist Front. The years between 1936 and 1938 witnessed the emergence of an even broader anti-fascist 'popular front' appealing to all whether on the left or right politically. The Labour Party remained hostile and in 1939 it expelled from the Party all those who continued to support the campaign. This included, among others, Stafford Cripps and Aneurin Bevan.
Women workers in the inter war years
In 1920, women's membership of trade unions was at its peak reaching 1,342,000 representing 25% of the total female workforce. By 1939, the figure had dropped to one million even though the percentage of women in the workforce had risen from 27% of the total workforce in 1923 to 30% in 1939.
In the general climate of unemployment, cost cutting and reversion on the part of the unions to narrow and sectionalist attitudes, women workers were perceived as a threat. This provoked contradictory attitudes on the part of the union leadership. On the one hand many unions which organised in industries with a high percentage of women workers (e.g. retailing, teaching, the Post Office and other clerical occupations) sought to restrict the employment of women by calling for a strict application of the marriage bar, or the introduction of one. Almost all of them refused to campaign or shelved demands for equal pay and instead pursued wage claims which increased the differentials between men and women. Others, like the Union of Post Office Workers in 1935, went even further and called on a halt to female employment altogether. On the other hand, individual unions and the TUC were actively involved in women's recruitment campaigns. In 1925, the TUC established its own Women's Conference and in 1930, a Women's Advisory Committee to assist the General Council to tackle the 'problem' of women. The Women's Committee launched a campaign to increase the involvement of women by establishing local women's committees. This initiative was greeted apathetically, so a new range of publicity material was launched in 1937 based on the assumption that trade unionism would only appeal to women if it was concerned with 'womanly' issues such as health and beauty.
Professor Mary Davis, Centre for Trade Union Studies, London Metropolitan UniversityBack to top