How similar is the current economic crisis to the one that hit the UK and the rest of the world before 1939? There have certainly been many comparisons between our own times and the interwar depression. At the very least, journalists and experts agree, ours is the worst recession since the 1930s.
How we now think about the 1930s is however very different to the way in which the period was experienced by most people at the time. The popular image of the decade is one of hunger marches and cowed miners hanging around street corners. However, as long ago as 1977 John Stevenson and Chris Cook in The Slump – republished in 2009 – pointed out that the majority remained employed and enjoyed rising standards of living.
Some on the right have always thought the 1930s were great fun. Readers of ‘British historian and biographer’ Andrew Roberts’ The Holy Fox (1997) for example might wonder what the fuss about unemployment was all about. Recently journalists and bloggers who support the cuts (or ‘savings’) inaugurated by the Conservative-led coalition have even suggested – using elements of the Stevenson and Cook argument – that the decade was ‘great for Britain’.
If the economic and social record of the 1930s remains a fit subject for historical debate there is less room for disagreement about the nature of its politics.
Politically the decade was dominated by a Conservative-led coalition while Labour tried but failed to be more than the party of the victims of the recession. The National Government blamed Labour for the mess in which the country had fallen – although the origins of the recession lay in Wall Street – while invoking a rhetoric which asked everybody to suffer some pain to see the country through. If the government was more progressive than its critics on the left claimed – and when led by the emollient liberal Tory Stanley Baldwin few believed such assertions – then it still generally pursued a policy of balancing the books and putting faith in the market.
There are then, some grounds for comparing the politics of both periods. Yet, beyond each having coalition governments – highly unusual in the British context – the contrasts are greater than the similarities.
The National Government originated in the Labour Cabinet’s refusal to cut unemployment benefit as the price for receiving vital loans. As a result Ramsay MacDonald led a minority of colleagues into coalition with Conservatives and Liberals to implement the necessary cuts. This led to Labour complaints of a ‘bankers’ ramp’ imposing its will on democracy – but few outside committed left-wingers took that claim seriously. In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940) finance is even presented as the saviour of democracy.
Today even the Daily Mail criticizes George Osborne’s increase in the bank levy as inadequate. For it was the Brown government that went to the aid of the bankers – and in the process accumulated massive debts – not the other way round.
Crucially Labour did not fall apart in 2010 as it did in 1931: even the most left-wing elements in the Cabinet agreed on the imperative to cut. If Labour now criticizes the coalition for cutting too much and too fast, its leaders have ensured the party remains part of the cutting consensus. As a result, while Ed Miliband leads protests against tuition fees, library closures and the like, Labour arguably remains a credible party of government. Under George Lansbury – who led the party from 1932 to 1935 – that was certainly not the case.
There is however a much more significant contrast between the politics of our recession and the one experienced in the 1930s. For if the National Government could appeal to voters whose real incomes were rising, today even for those in work standards of living are falling and set to fall further.
This creates a much trickier electoral problem for Cameron and Clegg than it did for MacDonald and Baldwin. For in asking Britons to sacrifice something for the national good, today politicians really are asking the majority to suffer some pain, many of them the ‘squeezed’ C1 and C2 voters who decide the fates of governments.
Whether the 1930s really were ‘great for Britain’, the decade was certainly great for the Conservative-led coalition; it is unlikely that future historians will say the same of our own times.
A version of this entry has appeared on the History and Policy website.