Stanley and the Activists

Philip Williamson

  • Baldwin and the Conservative Party: The Crisis of 1929-1931 by Stuart Ball
    Yale, 266 pp, £25.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 300 03961 1

During the present century the British political system has undergone three periods of severe stress – of strains so serious that the leaders of all the major parties felt obliged to suspend party politics and to combine in coalition governments. The first and third periods of crisis are obvious: the world wars. Here the nature of the threat is evident, and the domestic consequences are familiar – in each case a major advance for the Labour movement and substantial increases in state responsibility for and expenditure upon social and economic reform. The second period of crisis, from 1929 to 1931, is less well-known, perhaps because it was more complex in its causation and because its immediate outcome was by contrast a defeat for the ‘forces of progress’. Yet contemporaries compared the gravity of this situation to that of the Great War, and its consequence was, in Stuart Ball’s words, ‘a reshaping of the party system, and a new basis in the pattern of issues, which was to hold sway for the following fifty years’.

The difficulties of 1929 to 1931 were of three kinds – imperial, economic and party-political. With Dominion governments asserting greater autonomy, the Commonwealth seemed about to dissolve from a British-led international entity into a loose collection of separate states. In India an imperial nightmare was being enacted as Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign provoked widespread disregard for British authority, serious outbreaks of violence, and a loss of control on the North-West Frontier. At home an already stagnant economy was hit hard by the onset of world depression: exports collapsed and competition from imports increased, unemployment rose towards three million, there were deficits in the balance of payments, in the unemployment insurance fund and in the Budget, and sterling came under severe international pressure. Yet in conditions which required firm, decisive government, the 1929 General Election had resulted in a hung Parliament, with a divided Liberal Party keeping in office a minority Labour government which lacked sufficient authority, experience and resource to cope with the imperial and economic difficulties.

The imperial pressures were met by the Statute of Westminster and Round Table consultations which culminated in the 1935 Government of India Act, both measures intended to preserve the essentials of Empire through conciliation of nationalist opinion, but in the event representing major concessions of British authority. The economic pressures resulted in the final collapse of 19th-century economic internationalism, as it became apparent that Britain could not regain its competitive advantages: free trade and the gold standard gave way to protection and the sterling area. In contrast, the Budget deficit was met by re-assertion of earlier conceptions of financial orthodoxy, including the imposition of large cuts in social service expenditure. Ironically, this defeat for policies of economic expansion was to jolt Keynes towards the full development of his economic theory and policy prescriptions.

The political pressures produced in 1931 the final disintegration of the old Liberal Party, the ignominious collapse of the Labour Government and Ramsay MacDonald’s defection to join with Conservatives and Liberals as head of a national government. This was the last major British political reconstruction: it was to solidify into the two-party system which despite the 1940-45 wartime coalition and recent challenges has survived largely intact to this day.

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