The writer and journalist Andrew Marr points out that, unlike other eras in the story of Britain, we have no name for the period between the first and second world wars. It’s as though it’s a kind of interlude sandwiched between two earth-shattering events during which people were recovering from one whilst waiting for the other. Oh – there was the ‘roaring twenties’, of course; and if you couldn’t afford to be involved in that, then you’d be unemployed or in the pub. This was the time our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in: they’d tell a tale or two…
A virulent influenza pandemic from 1918 to 1919 killed even more people than had died in the First World War – estimates vary from 50 to 70 million people worldwide. Worst hit was India, where it is estimated a staggering 16 million perished. The first cases in Britain occurred in Glasgow in the spring of 1918 and it is reckoned the final death toll across the country was about 250,000.
The outbreak of the First World War narrowly averted civil war that was about to break out in Ireland (and potentially parts of Britain) over Irish Home Rule. A clumsy nationalist uprising was (just as clumsily) put down in 1916, but the question could not be put off any longer once the war with Germany was over. Irish Sinn Fein nationalists fought a brutal civil war from 1919 to 1921, to which British paramilitary forces, the ‘black and tans’, responded with equal savagery. An Anglo-Irish Peace treaty created an Irish free state comprising the 26 southern counties within the Empire, but this was hugely unpopular and the matter was only settled after a bitter civil war between rival factions of the IRA in 1922 and the eventual creation of an independent republic in the south, with the 6 northern counties of Ulster partitioned off and remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. Britain formally recognised the republic of Eire in 1948.
Further afield, the principle of self-determination espoused by the victorious powers appealed to a growing sense of nationalism and assertiveness in the Empire. First World War battles such as Gallipoli for Australia and New Zealand, and Vimy Ridge for Canada led to increased national pride and a reluctance to remain subordinate to Britain. The dominions of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were recognised as independent sovereign nations – and in 1939 they were granted full independence. Elsewhere, it was a different story. A number of demonstrations against British rule took place in India, for example. Troops opened fire on a Punjabi crowd peacefully gathered at the holy shrine of Amritsar in April 1919; officially, 379 men, women and children were killed and a further 1,200 injured. For many Indians, the massacre at Amritsar marked a watershed in their patience with British rule. Mahatma Gandhi spearheaded a campaign of mass civil disobedience – and, really, it was only a matter of time before the Empire was dismantled entirely.
Back home, some of the immediate ancestors of modern Britons reacted against the horror of war by indulging in unadulterated hedonism. In short, they partied. Jazz swept the land, skirts got shorter, women smoked in public. There was a fair amount of drug-taking, quite a lot of champagne swilling and no doubt other goings-on too. The 1920s and ’30s was also the period when radio came of age – ‘wireless’ sets appeared in most people’s houses, bringing global events and organised entertainment into living rooms for the first time. Hollywood began to dominate the fledgling pre-war cinema, introducing a new brand of popular hero, the movie star, and showing weary workers a wondrous world from across the Atlantic beyond the grime of everyday living. Consumerism was on the increase: car ownership became more common and some of today’s high street brands, like Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer, both established in the previous century, began to be noticed more. Shoppers enjoyed the treat of popping into a Joey Lyons tea shop. It was also a time of massive, mostly suburban and privately financed, house building; drive into virtually any town in Britain today and you’ll see the houses of the ’20s and ’30s with their bow windows and mock-Tudor facades – often clustered along the main routes that, almost a century ago, were town outskirts where land was cheap.
Most people couldn’t afford the luxury of enjoying themselves overmuch, though. Returning soldiers, expecting the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Prime Minister Lloyd George, were disappointed; Britain was still a land where people went hungry. The country began its recovery from the war in the context of lost overseas markets and in the face of growing competition, particularly from the USA and Japan. The return to the gold standard (which I really don’t understand) made British exports more expensive and employers felt that cutting wages was one solution to stay in business. Bear in mind that some wages – in the coal industry, for example – were appallingly low to begin with. Mine owners faced falling productivity as well as competition from cheap German coal and pressed for longer hours with less pay. This led to the General Strike of 1926, when three million workers withdrew their labour in support of the miners. It lasted nine days and caused surprisingly little disruption; but the miners stayed on strike until poverty forced them back to work. The Great Depression, or ‘Slump’, of 1930 caused further misery for many thousands. Two hundred, mainly unemployed shipbuilders, marched from Jarrow to Westminster in October 1936, protesting about poverty and unemployment in the north east; the Jarrow March changed nothing (they were given their train fares home). These events became part of the folklore of industrial relations, and were remembered with bitterness well into the 1980s.
And then there was The Abdication – important enough at the time to qualify as a proper noun, though largely forgotten now. The highly respected George V died in 1936. The new king, Edward VIII, had been an extremely popular Prince of Wales. However, his affair with married American divorcee Wallis Simpson and desire to marry her caused a potential constitutional crisis, since the Church of England disapproved of remarriage after divorce and the King was head of the Church. Many also doubted whether a twice-divorced American would be unquestioningly welcomed as queen by the public – strange isn’t it? Anyway, we’ll never know because in the face of pressure from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Edward decided to renounce the throne – the first monarch to voluntarily resign from the job – and Britain got a new king, the third in 1936, George VI. Edward married his Wallis, they were granted the title of Duke and Duchess of Windsor, invented a tie knot – and maybe they lived happily ever after. History has shown this episode as probably a Good Thing for Britain: Edward’s judgement was questionable in some respects – he probably held Nazi sympathies – and his brother, Bertie (George VI), was a wise and much-loved monarch as well as being father of the current Queen Elizabeth.
But at the end of the two decades in which nothing happened, the unthinkable did: on 3 September 1939, Britain was once again at war with Germany.