A land unfit for heroes? How Britain “lost” peace after the First world war

Article by Andrew Tromans. Edited by Stephen Woodward. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.

Lloyd George

The resounding promise of the Lloyd George Coalition after the armistice was to make Britain a land “fit for heroes to live in”.  Yet their record is highly contested at best owing to the fact that by 1922 over 1.5 million of the adult population were unemployed.  Furthermore housing facilities fell woefully short of the Lloyd George’s rhetoric of “habitations for heroes”. Economic strife was not the only affliction Britain suffered in the immediate post- First World War climate, there existed a general fear that society had become brutalized by the experience of total war. Violent clashes between the government and working people such as the “Battle of George Square”,” seemed to validate this.  However this article will present the case that although some of Britian’s troubles post-1918 can be attributed to the mismanagement of governments, we must also take into account the background of long-term British economic decline.

The First World War was unprecedented in the scale of its devastation and demands on domestic economic production. The economic impacts of the war were huge, industry was completely focussed on providing materials and resources for the armed forces from ships to uniforms. Britain’s pre-war economy had been built on exports and the four core industries: Coal, Ship Building, Textiles and Iron. During the war Britain’s previous markets had developed their own industries, hence after an initial post-war boom a balance of payments crisis ensued. Unemployment was to be the defining issue of the inter war period. Whilst, more serious after the Wall Street crash of October 1929 unemployment was never to fall below a million in the 1920s. A high level of unemployment was not new to the British economy, but this was largely cyclical employment that is considered normal in classical liberal economics. However, the unemployment of the 1920s betrayed deeper problems in British industry as it believed to have been structural unemployment that reflects the out-dated nature of British industry by the 1920s. Britain’s structural problems were not the fault of Lloyd George or successive governments: there were more a wider consequence of being the first nation to industrialize, the toll of war-time production and an under-investment in industry owing to a lack of rationalization.

British soldiers in World War One

Despite the Lloyd George coalition’s economic record, we must credit the administration with establishing a genuine mass-democracy in Britain. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised all males over the age of 21 and all women over the age 30 and abolished the pre-war property qualifications.  The 1920s and perhaps the following decade was one of the brief interludes when a three-party democracy can be seen to have existed in British politics. However the post war period wrought one important change: the Labour Party replaced the Liberals as the principle opposition to the Conservatives. In conjunction with coming to terms with mass-democracy Britain also experienced fraught industrial relations in the post-war period. A notable clash was in Glasgow in 1919 where protestors battled with the police and eventually the army, over shorter working hours.  The most potent symbol of the industrial malcontent fostered after the First World War was the general strike of 1926.

In a similar fashion to democracy, the welfare state has developed in a gradualist manner.  The years following the First World War saw some extension of welfare provision but it was far from revolutionary.  Legislation, such as Fishers Education Act of 1918 which extended the school leaving age to 14 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 that extended National Insurance to 11 million more workers, can be considered advances in welfare protection. However, The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 failed to provide “habitations for heroes” in a meaningful way as it only saw 200,000 houses built which was surfeit to requirement.

Foraging for Coal in the 1926 General Strike

Even though the Lloyd George Coalition can be argued to have passed some progressive legalisation, all of their efforts were undermined by a determination in government to “Balance the Budget”.  A prominent example of this was the spending cuts in welfare advocated by the Committee on National Expenditure (chaired by Eric Geddes) in 1922. Over £30 million was cut from social services in 1922-23, this was latter dubbed Geddes’ Axe.

Returning to the question posed at the start of this article, Britain was not a land fit for heroes after the First World War; unemployment soared after 1920, slums remained, successive governments dealt out palliatives to deal with the post-war slump. It would take another world war and millions more deaths to convince British governments to create a comprehensive welfare state

  • David Lloyd George was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1916 and 1922.
  • The General Strike of 1926 lasted 9 days and over 1.75 million workers went on strike after the Trade Union Congress agreed to organise a general strike in solidarity with mineworkers demands for a wage increase.
  • The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920, gave ¾ of British workers unemployment benefit.
  • Spending on education was severely cut by Geddes’s Axe, as was spending on defence, health and housing.

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