Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1867-1974

By James Hinton | Go to book overview
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7
Working-class organisation between the wars

I

Between 1920 and 1939 unemployment never fell below 10 per cent. At the depth of the world slump, in January 1933, three million workers, or nearly a quarter of the insured workforce, were unemployed. Behind these figures lay the breakdown of the nineteenth- century world economy, precipitated by the disruptions of war. Falling prices for food and raw materials on the world market hurt Britain's export industries only less than it hurt the primary producing countries themselves. The growth of the staple export industries -- coal, textiles, shipbuilding, iron and steel, heavy engineering -- was halted and reversed. Increasingly, before 1914, these industries had relied on supplying the underdeveloped world. As the prices realised by primary producers for their exports declined, so also did their ability to import manufactured goods. Other factors also contributed. Increasingly other countries became self-sufficient in goods they had previously imported from Britain -- most dramatically in cotton where exports fell from over 7,000 million yards in 1913 to under 1,500 million in 1939. Meanwhile the British staple industries, burdened with surplus capacity and unable to earn the profits necessary to modernise, lost out to more efficient foreign rivals. The attempts of British governments in the 1920s to restore and maintain the gold standard, the symbol of Britain's nineteenth-century economic predominance, involved an overvaluation of sterling which further weakened the export industries. The trend of the inter-war years was away from the free movement of goods, capital and labour over which Britain had ruled for a century before 1914, and towards economic nationalism. This trend was powerfully reinforced in 1931 when Britain finally abandoned the attempt to reconstruct the liberal world economy, went off the gold standard, and adopted protection herself.

The decline of the staple export industries, in which trade union

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