Sunday, February 08, 2009

Britain in the early 20th Century

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.

As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.

*****

“Although, until the Liberals came to power in 1905, the majority of cabinet members were still drawn from the landed classes, their near monopoly of government was on its way out, shaken not so much by the advance of egalitarian democracy as by a long, steep agricultural depression. To all intents and purposes, between 1870 and 1910 Britain ceased to be a serious agricultural producer. Since it was unable to compete with colonial and American imports, 3 million acres were taken out of cultivation. By 1911 just 8 per cent of the 45 million people of Great Britain were earning their living from the land. Agricultural incomes in Britain over the same period fell by a full 25 per cent.....Almost a quarter of the privately owned land of Britain...went on the market between the 1870s and the 1830s. Many of the estates...were bought by the relatively recent rich whose fortunes had been made in industry, shipping mining, insurance or publishing: often...in the Dominions. There were Australian and Canadian accents now at the point-to-points and grouse shoots, and the relics of the old nobility tried not to flinch. Churchill’s cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough...lamented that ‘the old order is doomed’” p308

“Those who did survive the shake-out of the estates belonged to an even more exclusive elite: by 1914, half the acreage of England and Wales belonged to just 4500 proprietors” p310

Poverty was still rife in the late Victorian era, with 10 per cent of the total urban working population living in festering slum conditions, families crowded into a single room or two at best. However, this was also the era where the recognisably modern home came into being for many ordinary people, including flushing lavatories and tap water. Public hygiene and diets improved. But the nation’s essential socio-economic character was largely unchanged. “On the eve of the First World War...10 per cent of Britain’s population owned 92 per cent of its wealth. As many as 90 per cent of the deceased, on the other hand, left no documented assets or property whatsoever” p313. Moreover, increased competition for Britain’s labour intensive, export-driven industries from rising economies like that of the USA made even the situation of the relatively well-off increasingly (albeit relatively) precarious.

The answer of the industrialists was rationalization, investment in labour-saving machinery, wage cuts and longer hours. They came up against a newly organised, unionised, assertive and mobilised workforce, leading to a string of hard-fought industrial disputes. The Labour Party was born as the political wing of that movement; a coalition of revolutionary Marxists, non-revolutionary Fabians, and the trade unionists themselves. Elements across the party, in their own way, cited the likes of Lilburne and Paine in their moral and ideological heritage.

“Fabianism committed itself to eschewing the half-baked, half-thought revolution in favour of a long campaign of re-educating both the political elite and the working class – the first to a new sense of their social responsibilities, the latter to a new sense of their legitimate social rights. Between them they were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age” p316

The Fabian re-education programme included dinner-parties for the great and the good, attended by Liberals like Herbert Asquith, and even Tories like Arthur Balfour.

For the Fabians, it was economics that caused poverty, not the immorality of the poor. The Fabian argument for social justice was very similar to the nineteenth century Liberal/Whig argument for franchise extension. While not downplaying the genuine decency and compassion of the Fabians, it would be wrong, perhaps, to entirely rule out the role of pragmatic class interest in the thinking of these polite reformers. Indeed, the Fabians cited the health of empire – hardly a progressive institution – as requiring and resting on the domestic social reform that they advocated.

But who was going to pay? Not just for the social reforms, but for the maintenance of British Naval superiority and for the debts incurred during the Boer War? Not – at least not willingly – the mobilised and agitated working class, especially not during an economic slump. So the usual regressive taxes on commodities were eschewed as revenue raisers, in favour of progressive taxation on land, inheritance and incomes, in Lloyd George’s budget of 1909.

The “People’s Budget” had an unlikely champion: Winston Churchill, now President of the Board of Trade, who campaigned up and down the country against the obstructions of the House of Lords. “At the Victoria Opera House in Burnley in December, Churchill had a lot of fun with Curzon’s claim in nearby Oldham the that ‘superior class’ by blood and tradition had inherited the right to ‘rule over our children’. What did the noble lord say? That ‘ “all great civilisation has been the work of aristocracies”. They liked that in Oldham (laughter). ... Why, it would be much more true to say the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations” (loud cheers and cries of “say it again”)’ p322.

Asquith forced an election, as a referendum on the Lords’ resistance to the budget. The Liberals’ overall majority was lost, but with Irish Home Rulers and Labour MPs support the Parliament Bill was passed and the upper house’s powers sharply curbed.

But if the reforms were conceived as the minimum necessary to forestall revolution, many of those it was intended to pacify were less than impressed. Riots and confrontations with the police began to occur, first with the miners, then with the increasingly militant suffragettes, some of whom had taken to direct physical action as a form of protest.

**

With Germany bolstering its military strength, and Britain keen to retain its naval advantage, Churchill took an active post in his new role as First Lord of the Admiralty. “Heavy guns were to be mounted on fast ships; and, most momentous of all, those ships would now be fuelled more cost effectively by oil, not coal. In retrospect this one decision, a commitment to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – so apparently innocent, or at least so purely logistical (and so lightly glossed over in most Churchill biographies) – was to have more profound effects on the fate of the British Empire, not to mention the history of the world, than almost anything else Churchill did until the May days of 1940. It made the survival of the British Empire conditional on a Middle East presence, a halfway link between India and Egypt. That in turn would make Churchill, as colonial secretary in 1921, a strong supporter of a British mandate in Palestine and a protective role in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia) and Jordan. That would beget Suez. And Suez begat Islamic fundamentalism. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in which Churchill made sure to acquire a 51 per cent holding for the British government in 1914, would beget joint Anglo-American oil interests in Iran, which would beget the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq democracy and the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which would beget the Ayatollah Khomenei. And all the while the coal mines of Britain were relegated to terminal redundancy. But on the eve of the First World War, the battle fleet was well tanked and ready for action” p327-8.

Churchill’s failed plan, during WWI, to attack the German alliance at its weakest point – the Ottoman Empire – was in part aimed at securing the oil fields of Persia and Mesopotamia.

**


“At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out” p334.

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells saw the war’s terrible cost as an unanswerable case for the end of empire, to be replaced with enlightened global governance. The treaty of Versailles – pinning all the blame for and most of the cost of the war on Germany – and the League of Nations – diminished by its limited authority and its repudiation by the US Congress – were not what they had in mind.

The domestic political change that came in the war’s aftermath was more substantial: votes for all men aged over 21 and women over 30, 200,000 government built homes, the raising of the school leaving age to 14, nationwide standardization of wages and salaries, doubling of old-age pensions and near-universal unemployment insurance p333.

But the ‘war socialism’ of nationalised industries and state-controlled wages was quickly dismantled, despite pleas from the labour movement p336. And in addition, the overwhelming majority held by the Tory-Liberal coalition headed by Lloyd George meant that the government (and the Prime Minister) were free to rule almost as they pleased. “It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected” p337.

Lloyd George did not preside over an empire of contented subjects. The failure of moves for Home Rule opened the way for the rise of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the former bringing the Easter Rising of 1916, the latter sweeping aside the Home Rulers in the 1918 elections. In Scotland, poverty, unemployment exacerbated by post-war demobilisation, and the disproportionate loss of Scottish life in the war (26 per cent of Scots to 12 per cent of the rest of the British troops had died) led to union demands for the retention of wage and rent controls, and a shorter working week. Refusal resulted in strikes, clashes with the police, and eventually the occupation of Red Glasgow by 12,000 troops and 6 tanks p338.

Further abroad, the war had tested the loyalty and acquiescence to empire of many colonial subjects. The Anglo-Saxon colonials believed their sacrifices earned them another step towards equal nation status with the UK. Non-Anglo-Saxon subjects simply became firmer in their demands for independence with the British now having to put down nationalist uprisings in Egypt and install puppet monarchs there and in Iraq.

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