British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System

By David Powell | Go to book overview

3

The crisis of war, 1914-18

The First World War had a decisive impact on the development of the party system, although the extent to which it initiated change rather than accelerating changes that were already in train before 1914 has been a matter for debate. The war itself was undoubtedly in some measure an agent of transformation, however, since it altered both the content and context of party-political activity. It created new problems, and in some cases opportunities, for each of the main pre-1914 parties. It brought fresh challenges of ideology and policy, especially in relation to questions of war strategy and the degree of intervention and compulsion necessary to mobilise the country's resources for the war effort. It also, very directly, produced what in retrospect can be seen as the final crisis of the Edwardian party system, bringing about the collapse of the last Liberal government and replacing it with coalitions that destabilised the pre-war party alignments and strengthened the movement in favour of a non-party government of national unity. By the time the war ended in 1918 the pattern of Edwardian politics had been irretrievably broken. The Liberal party was divided openly against itself, its progressive alliance with Labour was at an end and its former allies the Irish Nationalists were on the verge of extinction at the hands of Sinn Fein. The uncertainties of a party system in flux were compounded by the unsettled condition of the post-war world and the terra incognita of a more democratic electoral system. It is the purpose of this chapter to study the main phases of wartime politics and the impact of the war on the party system, both at parliamentary level and the grass roots. How far did the First World War deepen the crisis of the party system, and were its effects wholly destructive or did they lay the foundations of an alternative, more stable, post-war political dispensation?


Party politics and the coming of war

An oversimplified view would be that the outbreak of the First World War repaired the pre-war divisions in British society and promoted a new spirit of national unity. The reality was more complicated, and in party politics as in many other respects the conduct of the war in its early stages was marked by a 'business as usual' approach which attempted to graft wartime expedients onto

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British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface and Acknowledgements vi
  • Abbreviations vii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Parties and Politics in Edwardian Britain 10
  • 2 - The Crisis of Partisanship, 1910-14 34
  • 3 - The Crisis of War, 1914-18 58
  • 4 - Coalitionism and Party Politics, 1918-22 90
  • 5 - Three-Party Politics, 1922-4 117
  • 6 - Politicians and the Slump, 1924-31 142
  • 7 - Crisis Resolved: the 1930s and After 171
  • Conclusion 192
  • Notes 199
  • Further Reading 212
  • Index 215
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