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World War I: 1914-1918

The rapid escalation of the crisis which flares into World War I lasts only a few weeks, from the assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 to Britain's declaration of war on Germany on August 4. Europe's first experience of total war, involving continuous effort and sacrifice from every citizen, inevitably transforms the social and political landscape in the countries taking part.

The appalling nature of trench warfare, with its gruesome level of casualties, is the main new reality to which families must adapt. But the war brings many other unexpected innovations.

For the first time the bombing of cities is an alarming aspect of warfare; London suffers its first air raid on 1 June 1915, when small bombs (weighing only about 10 lb at this early stage) are thrown overboard fron a German Zeppelin.

Conscription, introduced in 1916, is another aspect of war new to the British. So is the rationing of food, an unpopular measure delayed until 1918. Income tax is raised to the unprecedented level of six shillings in the pound, or 30%. But perhaps the greatest change is the mobilization of women, not only now in their familiar role in textile mills but also in the heavy labour of producing shells and bullets in the munitions factories for the use of their absent men.

By 1917 women are themselves serving in the forces, in the newly formed WAC (Women's Auxiliary Corps) and WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service), to be followed a year later by the WRAF (Women's Royal Air Force). These changes make possible an easy end to the long struggle of the suffragettes. In 1918, before the end of the war, parliament passes acts granting the vote to women and allowing for female members of parliament.

The other burning issue of the pre-war years, Home Rule for Ireland, is harder to resolve.

In the second month of the war, September 1914, Asquith tries to defuse the issue for the duration of the more urgent crisis. He secures the royal asssent for his Home Rule Act, but accompanies it with another act placing the subject of Home Rule in abeyance until the end of the war.

The Fenians in Dublin are not so easily put into abeyance. In April 1916 they organize the Easter Rising, the most dramatic of the many tense events in the long Irish struggle for Home Rule. This crisis is soon followed by the disastrous Battle of the Somme on the western front. In these circumstances a political coup against Asquith brings Lloyd George to power as prime minister for the remaining two years of the war.

Asquith and Lloyd George: 1915-1922

In May 1915, after the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, Asquith has brought politicians of the other two parties into a coalition government. Now, after the troubles of 1916, the members of the coalition lose faith in Asquith's conduct of the war. Complex secret negotiations in December 1916 between Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Carson have the desired effect.

Asquith is persuaded to resign. His place is taken by Lloyd George (in recent months minister of munitions and secretary of state for war), with Bonar Law as chancellor of the exchequer and Balfour as foreign secretary.

Lloyd George introduces a war cabinet of just five members, in order to streamline decisions. In the war effort at home his energies prove very effective, just as they have previously been in the production of munitions.

There is little that any politician can do to end the stalemate baffling the generals on the western front. But when the allies win the final push in 1918, the Westminster coup of 1916 means that Lloyd George rather than Asquith is the victorious war leader representing Britain at Versailles.

In domestic politics Lloyd George's betrayal of Asquith in 1916 splits the Liberal party, foreshadowing the end of its long-held status as a major player in Britain's essentially two-party system. The split is to some extent masked by the need for wartime unity, but it becomes dramatically plain in the first postwar election.

Immediately after the armistice Lloyd George and Bonar Law agree to continue their wartime arrangement and to fight the election as a coalition. Each of their candidates is given a joint letter from the two leaders, assuring the electors of their status as coalitionists. This document, denied to his faction, is ridiculed by Asquith as a 'coupon' for the election.

But it proves to be a coupon for success. The election in December devastates the Liberal party, of which Asquith is still the leader. He himself loses his seat, and only 28 of his colleagues are returned to Westminster. The coalition has 478 members of parliament. Labour, with 59 members, becomes the official opposition.

Lloyd George is never forgiven by many in the Liberal camp for the damage thus inflicted on their party. But meanwhile he has more immediate concerns: coping with the unemployment and industrial unrest provoked by demobilization and the return to a peacetime economy; and confronting anew Britain's most intransigent problem, the question of Ireland.

The Troubles: 1919-1921

From January 1919 to July 1921 Ireland is racked by the first of the two periods known colloquially as the Troubles. The events are more formally known as the War of Independence (in Ireland) and the Anglo-Irish War (in Britain).

The Volunteers, or armed supporters of Sinn Fein, are secretly informed at the end of January that they are now the army of Ireland, fighting on behalf of the newly established Dáil Eireann, and that as such they are morally justified in killing enemies of the state - namely British policemen and soldiers. The war of independence is not declared, but in the minds of the combatants of one side it has begun. The Volunteers begin to call themselves the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

It is inevitably a guerrilla war, and in the way of such wars the violence rapidly escalates. The authorities, confronted by terrorist acts, take drastic reprisals which are then seen as justifying the next retaliation.

The ruthlessly talented leader on the republican side of the war is Michael Collins, who is influential at every level. He is a leading member of the Dáil (a body declared illegal by Britain in September 1919), as well as being the most powerful figure within both the public Irish Republican Army and the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. It is he who authorizes the assassination of targeted enemies. It is he who goes secretly to England in January 1919 and springs de Valera from Lincoln gaol with a duplicate key.

The situation in Ireland is even more ugly from June 1920. When the Royal Irish Constabulary becomes depleted by the high number of Irish resignations, the British government ships in half-trained replacements from England. Their violent behaviour makes them notorious in Irish history under their nickname of the Black and Tans (the name of a hunt in Munster, applied to the newcomers because in the rush to send them into action they are issued with a motley blend of black police and khaki military uniforms).

Ambushes, reprisals, explosions and arson (British auxiliaries burn much of the centre of Cork in December 1920) become everyday events - to a mounting crescendo of outrage both in Britain and abroad.

Stumbling towards a settlement: 1920-1922

In 1920 Lloyd George secures the passage of a Government of Ireland Act which puts a new spin on the proposal passed into law in 1914. The partition of Ireland is to be accepted as a necessary compromise, but both southern Ireland (twenty-six counties) and northern Ireland (the six counties of northeast Ulster) are now to have their own parliaments with limited devolved powers. Each parliament is to send twenty members to a joint Council of Ireland, which may at any time merge the two without requiring further legislation from Westminster.

The proposal meets neither Nationalist wishes for a united Ireland, nor the Unionist desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom. But both sides decide to take part in the elections held in May 1921.

In southern Ireland the old Nationalist party, under John Dillon, refrains from opposing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein therefore wins 124 of the 128 seats (the other four being reserved for the strongly Unionist Trinity College in Dublin). These 124 Sinn Feiners now assemble as a reconstituted Dáil. However this is not the southern parliament provided for in Lloyd George's act, and the IRA continues to commit terrorist acts in Sinn Fein's republican cause.

In northern Ireland forty Unionists and twelve Nationalists are elected. Although the Unionists object in principle to this parliament, it is formally opened by George V (with a powerful speech urging reconciliation) in June 1921.

With this much achieved, Lloyd George offers a truce to the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon de Valera, and invites him to London with a view to working out a treaty.

The truce comes into effect on 11 July 1921. Violence in southern Ireland immediately ceases. De Valera sends representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, to the peace talks in London. They agree to terms which fall short of the nationalist demand for a united Ireland, but which nevertheless offer independence to the twenty-six counties. As the Irish Free State they are to have Dominion status, in the formula pioneered by Canada. Republican sensibilities are assuaged by owing allegiance to the British crown only as head of 'the British Commonwealth of Nations'.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified by the British parliament in December 1921, but it immediately runs into problems in Ireland. De Valera repudiates it, arguing that his envoys have agreed to terms beyond their brief. In January, after a bitter debate in the Dáil, Griffith and Collins carry the motion for their treaty by a narrow margin of 64 votes to 57. De Valera immediately resigns as president of the Dáil. Griffith is elected in his place.

In northern Ireland the new parliament is now functioning, and there has been talk of accommodation of some kind with the south. But civil war south of the border and sectarian riots in the north soon put an end to that. For the rest of the century, from 1922, the republic of Ireland and northern Ireland go their separate ways.

Bonar Law and Baldwin: 1922-1929

The recognition of the Irish Free State in 1921 is deeply offensive to the more entrenched unionists in the Conservative party, but it is only one of the factors causing disenchantment with Lloyd George's coalition government. Another is an increasing number of strikes, particularly among two powerful economic groups, the miners and the railwaymen. And in 1922 Lloyd George's personal reputation is damaged, when accusations are made that he has been selling peerages and other honours to build up a personal political fund (Liberal party funds still being in Asquith's control).

Conservative discontent erupts very suddenly, at a meeting in the Carlton Club in October 1922.

The meeting is open to all the Conservative members of parliament. Against expectations a resolution is carried to withdraw from the coalition (this sudden taste of power prompts the backbenchers to form the 1922 Committee, which remains to this day their pressure group within the party).

The result of the Carlton Club vote is the immediate resignation of Lloyd George as prime minister and the holding of a general election. The Liberals, still divided into two hostile factions, fare extremely badly. The Conservatives win 347 seats. The Labour party, strengthening its position with a new total of 142 seats, becomes for the first time the official opposition.

Bonar Law is prime minister of the new government, with Baldwin as his chancellor - a situation which lasts only a few months before ill health forces Bonar Law to retire, in May 1923. Baldwin becomes prime minister. He remains at the head of a Conservative administration for the next six years, apart from a spell of ten months in 1923-4.

The reason for this brief time out of office is a surprise election called by Baldwin in November 1923. He intends to win a mandate to introduce protective tariffs, in favour of goods from the empire. In this he misjudges the electorate. The free-trade tradition has been strong in Britain ever since the repeal of the Corn Laws.

After the election the Conservatives remain the largest party, but the Labour party (191 seats) and the Liberals (reunited in the cause of free trade, with 158 seats) have a greater combined strenth. The result is Britain's first Labour prime minister. Ramsay MacDonald forms a minority government with Liberal support.

In October 1924 Ramsay MacDonald's government falls largely because of its friendly attitude to the USSR (the new state is recognized, commercial treaties are agreed). Public unease is increased by the release to the press, just before the general election of 1924, of a forgery, The Zinoviev letter. The Conservatives regain a massive majority, winning 415 seats and bringing Baldwin back to power - to face mounting economic problems.

Strike and Slump: 1926-1931

The nation's economic difficulties in the mid-1920s, and the resulting unrest, are most evident in the mining industry - the very heartland of the Labour movement in Britain, from the time of Keir Hardie's activities in the 1880s.

The market for British coal has been shrinking, with the result that in 1925 the mine owners demand from their workers an unapalatable combination of longer hours and less pay. The miners are led by a brilliant orator, A.J. Cook, who coins the powerful slogan 'Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day'.

The government temporarily defuses the issue with a subsidy to keep up the level of wages, but this is due to end on 30 April 1926. A few days before this deadline the mine owners offer their final terms, which are so unacceptable to the miners that they interpret them as a lock-out.

With the miners staying at home on May 1 the government declares a state of emergency. The TUC (Trades Union Congress) responds by calling a general strike, to start at midnight on May 3. Some three millions workers respond, crippling transport and all the nation's main industries. Their action launches an extraordinary period of class confrontation, which nevertheless remains for the most part non-violent - and in places almost good-natured.

Members of the middle classes volunteer eagerly to distribute food to the shops, to sort and deliver letters, to drive buses, lorries and even trains, and to serve as special constables.

In these circumstances a quick victory for either side is unlikely. On May 8 the prime minister, Baldwin, uses the fledgling BBC (British Broadcasting Company) to broadcast a message of conciliation - word of which is spread, like other news at this tense time, by the few who have receivers. The mine owners make a compromise offer, which the TUC considers sufficient for them to call off the strike.

The strike ends, after nine days, on May 12 - though the TUC fails to persuade the miners themselves that there are now grounds for a settlement, and it is another five bitter months before they give in and return to work. Their underlying argument, that the piecemeal private ownership of mines is wasteful and inefficient, bears eventual fruit in the nationalization policies of the Attlee government after World War II.

If the general strike of 1926 is a home-grown problem, the next great economic crisis to confront Britain is international in scope. The Slump, or Depression, begins in the USA in 1929. Coping with its effects in Britain falls not to Baldwin but to Ramsay MacDonald.

In the general election of 1929 Labour is for the first time the largest party in the house of commons, though still without an overall majority (287 Labour, 260 Conservative, 59 Liberal). The Liberals agree to support Labour, so once again Ramsay MacDonald forms a minority government.

A major plank in Labour's manifesto has been tackling unemployment, standing at more than a million or 10% of the workforce in 1929. But the Slump makes it impossible even to maintain this level. By 1931 it has doubled to more than two million, with a devastating effect on the government's fund for unemployment insurance.

A report commissioned by the government in July 1931 predicts economic disaster unless there are severe tax rises, cuts in public sector pay and a 20% reduction in the dole. The result is a massive run on the pound (fixed in value because of the gold standard), draining Britain's reserves of gold.

Ramsay MacDonald resigns but is persuaded by the king, George V, to continue at the head of a coalition national government. His decision to do so is regarded as abject betrayal by the Labour party (which immediately appoints a new leader, Arthur Henderson), but is welcomed by Baldwin and the Conservatives.

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