The impact of war, 1914-21
The First World War disrupted the continuities of British history more profoundly than any other event of the previous sixty years. At the centre of this disruption was the vast and sudden expansion in the role of the state in social and economic affairs. Before the war state intervention had not proceeded far beyond the ring-holding activities of the nineteenth-century liberal state. Only the social welfare legislation of the Liberals after 1906 had made any significant dent in laissez-faire, and, whatever it might portend for the future, this intervention was confined to the sphere of distribution, not production. The problem of supplying men and munitions to the trenches demanded intervention on a quite new scale -- control of many industries; controls over the imports, distribution and price of food and raw materials; military, and, to a considerable extent, industrial conscription. By 1917-18laissez-faire capitalism was declared on all sides to be a dead duck. The emergence of a new statist political economy presented major opportunities to, and required major adjustments from the labour movement.
The war effectively destroyed the Liberals as a governing party and facilitated their replacement by a reconstructed Labour Party committed, on paper at least, to the common ownership of the means of production -- Clause Four of the 1918 Labour Party constitution. Behind this commitment lay the fact that the rapidity of the transformation of the political economy in wartime had brought the transition to socialism onto the immediate political agenda -- or so socialists, of many different schools of thought, believed. This expansion of socialist ambition was accompanied, and reinforced, by a radicalisation of mass working-class opinion. War, of course, had some anti-radical implications -- above all in the patriotism it evoked. But patriotism was neither a very stable attitude (moments of patriotic fervour alternated with moments of war weariness and militant protest among the same groups of workers), nor did it necessarily rule out radical social demands. There was no necessary association between support for the war and support for the war