W.G. Runciman

Until a few years ago, unemployment would have been the most implausible possible choice for comment on the theme of plus ça change. Not only was it part of the conventional wisdom that the bad old days of the Thirties had been banished for ever. It was also taken for granted that unemployment on that scale would not again be politically tolerable. Yet here we are with a government which succeeded in getting itself re-elected yet again with a rate of unemployment which, even if on a downward trend, was still running at over three million. And less of a fuss, if anything, was being made about it than when Baldwin was winning an overall Conservative majority of 247 seats in the General Election of 1935.

Precise comparison is difficult because of the different bases on which the unemployment statistics are calculated. But there is no doubt that the National Insurance statistics overstate the percentage unemployed during the inter-war period while at the same time understating the total number, since those outside the National Insurance scheme were significantly less likely to be out of work than those in it. The adjustment appropriate to arrive at a percentage figure equivalent to those used today is, as I have been discovering, still a matter of unresolved controversy among the experts. But the conclusion of Sean Glynn, in a recent volume of papers edited by himself and Alan Booth under the title The Road to Full Employment,[*] is that ‘it can be said with reasonable confidence that unemployment in the 1980s has been much worse than during the inter-war period and has reached levels comparable with the 1930s peak.’

Some will respond to this by arguing that the higher level of benefits provided by the post-war Welfare State has made the unemployment of the Eighties a good deal more tolerable than that of the Thirties. But there are two arguments the other way, the second of which is perhaps less familiar than the first. The first is that the level of needs rises with the general improvement in living standards: if, for example, the only form of heating in the council flat where a family on supplementary benefit has been housed is electric, there is little point in comparing its cost to that of coal picked for economical use in a single tiny grate in a terraced house. The second argument is that the level of benefits in the Thirties was higher than it is sometimes made out to have been: quite a number of unemployed were receiving more in allowances than they had been earning in wages (a third of single men in one study carried out in Wales), and it is argued by one school of economic historians, albeit a minority one, that a fair amount of inter-war unemployment was indeed voluntary. This topic is, predictably, controversial. But the general picture does look pretty much the same then as now: a percentage of involuntarily unemployed unquestionably in excess of 10 per cent, benefits at their highest overlapping wages at their lowest, a hard core of long-term unemployed, marked discrepancies by both industry and region, and an unquantifiable psychological toll in apathy, alienation and despair.

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[*] Published by Allen and Unwin on 22 January 1987 (214 pp., £25 and £8.95, 0 04 330360 9).