Summary Lecture 5, Britain in the 20th century: The 1930s

Summary Lecture 5, Britain in the 20th century: The 1930s
Wall Street Crash of October 1929 is the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Drop in
world trade leads to rise in unemployment in UK, but Phillip Snowdon, Labour Chancellor of the
Exchequer, is an orthodox finance minister. He rejects Government intervention or public work
programs for the jobless. Withdrawal of foreign funds from London leads to the crisis of August 1931.
The Labour Government splits on how to meet the challenge: MacDonald, Snowden and some others
in favour of cutting unemployment benefit and salaries of police and teachers, but the majority in the
Cabinet and the Labour movement as a whole rejects this approach. MacDonald and Co. expelled
from the Labour Party and form a National Government with the Conservatives and the Liberals.
They win a massive majority at the October 1931 general election, Labour Party reduced to 52 seats.
British unemployment peaks at 3.75 million in autumn of 1932 but unemployment in Germany and
the USA much higher. Between 6 and 7 million Britons live from unemployment payments in the
early 1930s. Unemployed marches on London, drop in workless figures after 1935 due to more trade
with Dominions, new industries in the south-east (synthetic textiles, plastics) and rearmament in face
of the Nazi threat.
Major constitutional crisis in late 1936 when Edward VIII abdicates the throne in order to marry a
twice-divorced American commoner, Mrs Wallis Simpson. Statute of Westminster in 1931 allows
Dominions, including Ireland, full freedom in passing legislation. British foreign policy, largely
concerned with Empire, forced towards Europe at a time when America is isolationist and the USSR a
pariah. Obvious failure of the League of Nations to stop fascist violence in Manchuria (1931) and
Ethiopia (1935). Strong pacifist sentiment in UK, also in Labour Party. Rise of Hitler changes attitudes.
Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister since 1937, determined to come to an understanding with
Hitler. During the Spanish Civil war, Britain is officially neutral but this stops the Spanish republicans
from buying arms abroad and thus helps the fascist aggressors Hitler and Mussolini whose troops or
pilots are helping Franco. Many British politicians secretely wish for a Franco victory out of fear for
their Spanish investments if the Republicans, supported by the USSR, win. Chamberlain travels to
Germany twice to meet the German dictator. Outcome is the Munich Agreement of September 1938,
which reduces the size of Czechoslovakia because Sudeten area now becomes part of German Reich.
Majority of UK population supports Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Mood changes in March
1939, when Germany breaks the Munich agreement and takes over “rump” Czechoslovakia.
Chamberlain pledges help to the Poles, Hitler’s next victims.
Late attempts in August 1939 to establish Soviet-Anglo-French alliance. Talks break down in Moscow
because Poles refuse to allow Red Army to cross Poland in the event of a war against Germany.
Instead, Stalin signs a Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler on 23 August 1939. This means that Hitler can
now attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Britain signs pact with Warsaw on 25 August
and declares war on Germany on 3 September, two days after the German attack on Poland. Hitler
surprised by Britain’s move. Chamberlain was forced by parliament to issue an ultimatum to Hitler on
2 September, he still hoped for a negotiated settlement, as in Munich, preceded by the removal of
German troops from Poland.