Britain between the Wars, 1918-1940

By Charles Loch Mowat | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The World's Workshop on Short Time

1. DIAGNOSIS

IN the economic affairs of the nation, as in its politics and its social structure, the idea persisted that there could be a return to 1914, to 'normalcy'. Calamity only strengthened it. After the war a boom, then a slump, then by 1925 apparent recovery, so that the return to prewar conditions could be sealed by the restoration of the gold standard at the prewar parity of pound to dollar. Next year's setback to trade was dismissed as the effect of the general strike, the more so as conditions were fairly good in 1927 and 1928. When, late in 1929, Britain began to feel the effects of spreading world depression, growing out of financial weaknesses in the United States and continental Europe and the collapse of the prices of primary products, there were still some to argue that her difficulties were temporary, the product of external forces.

Gradually it became clear that Britain had been in a state of depression ever since the war. For a century she had been becoming more and more dependent on foreign trade, exchanging her manufactures and her coal and her shipping and financial services for raw materials and foodstuffs. Her strength as an exporter had been endangered before the war as competition with other countries became keener; the war had disrupted the old courses of trade, had spurred many countries towards self-sufficiency in manufactures, had strengthened new rivals like the Japanese. Britain's advantages in the pioneer age of the industrial revolution were over; and a world turning to oil for power had less need of her coal. Her staple industries were the most affected -- coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, textiles; and these had supplied the bulk of her exports. Their decline should have been offset by the rise of new industries, and to a limited extent it was. But this could not save the old industries, their workpeople and their centres of activity; the staple industries had been highly concentrated, and where they were, there depression and chronic

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