Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940

By Charles Loch Mowat | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Backwards or Forwards ? 1918-1920

1. 'NOT PERHAPS THE GOLDEN AGE'

WHEN the war ended in November 1918, there were few who did not hope that the losses and sufferings it had brought might be redeemed in a better world -- a happier society at home, the nations of the earth living in peace and unity. Woodrow Wilson expressed these hopes in Manchester in December 1918:

I believe that . . . men are beginning to see, not perhaps the golden age, but an age which at any rate is brightening from decade to decade, and will lead us some time to an elevation from which we can see the things for which the heart of mankind is longing.

The history of the twenty years between the two world wars is the history of the disappointment of these hopes.

In Britain, more than in most countries, the effort was made to find a better society by returning to the prewar order purged of its grosser inequalities. By 1931 it was clear that the effort had failed, just as the noble experiment of collective security under the League of Nations was failing to maintain the peace. Thereafter, depression and the fear of another war drove the British people inwards, to tariffs, quotas and restrictionist policies with which to chase economic recovery, to treaties and personal diplomacy outside the League to appease the dictators without war. In the twenty years there were a few quiet spells, particularly in the late twenties. A hopeful generation grew up which remembered little of the first war and had not yet come to accept the inevitability of the second. It was not for long. Postwar shaded into prewar; war remembered or war prefigured was seldom absent.

Yet it was no barren time. There were advances towards the better life. When war came again in 1939 it did not close an era, it continued it. All the lines and markings on the face of Britain after the Second World War were traced there by the First and by the twenty years which separated them.

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