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Britain after the war

Vast crowds gathered in London's Trafalgar Square to celebrate the victorious end of the First World War on 11 November 1918. However, the joyous mood was short-lived. Post-war Britain, as many contemporary observers noted, did not seem like a country that had just experienced a great military triumph. Various political, economic and social problems ensured that the return to peacetime conditions was not a soft landing.

Party politics

The Glossary - opens new windowRepresentation of the People Act (June 1918) gave the vote for the first time to all men over the age of 21 (subject to a six-month residency qualification) and to women over the age of 30. As a result, it almost trebled the franchise in Britain, from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Historians have long debated the relative impact of this and the war itself on the dramatic reconfiguration of party politics after 1918.

The Liberal Party - divided between supporters of the Lloyd George coalition that regained power in the Glossary - opens new window'coupon election' (December 1918) and supporters of the former prime minister Glossary - opens new windowAsquith - went into steep electoral decline during the 1920s and never recovered. Its status as Britain's 'second' party of government was taken by the Labour Party, a development confirmed when the first-ever Labour government - a coalition led by Glossary - opens new windowRamsay MacDonald - took office in January 1924.

Amid these radical changes, the success of the Conservative Party, which dominated government during the inter-war years, constituted the major remaining link to the pre-war British political map.

Armistice celebrations - opens new window
Armistice celebrations

Film of Armistice day 1920 - opens new window
Watch film of Armistice Day, 1920
Stills from film - opens new window

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The economy
Coal miners' strike 1919 - opens new window
Labour unrest:
coal miners' strike(185k)
During the First World War, Britain incurred debts equivalent to 136% of its gross national product, and its major creditor, the USA, began to emerge as the world's strongest economy.

Although Spotlights on historydemobilisation was relatively unproblematic, the end of the war did not witness a swift return to pre-war 'normality' for the British economy. More British than German workers were involved in strikes in 1919. Unemployment in 1921 reached its highest point (11.3%) since records had begun. Staple wartime industries - such as coal, ship-building and steel - contracted. Working women were forced to cede their jobs to returning soldiers.

Swingeing cuts in public spending were introduced in 1922 to ward off inflation. The ambitious reform programme drawn up by the minister of Glossary - opens new windowreconstruction, Glossary - opens new windowChristopher Addison, in February 1918 - which included major public housing and health schemes - was sacrificed on the altar of deflation and debt-servicing. Nonetheless, though successive governments failed to create a 'land fit for heroes', living standards and productivity levels in inter-war Britain generally improved.

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How was post-war British society different from the society that had entered the First World War in August 1914? It was indubitably more democratic. Previously under-represented groups such as women and, in particular, the working class became better organised and more powerful during the war. This, in turn, encouraged the growth of less deferential attitudes, as did the cross-class experiences of the trenches. There had been a disproportionately high percentage of casualties among the landed classes, and the strict class hierarchy of Edwardian Britain disappeared for good in the immediate post-war years.

Yet, though the working class became a more powerful political force, it shrank numerically. Growing numbers of the working population in inter-war Britain were employed in 'white collar' jobs. The First World War thus marked an important staging post on the road to 'modern' British society.

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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by the The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at the The National Archives.

CAB 27/62: Liquor restrictions, 1919.
HO 45/10842-10880/337622: Various material on the Representation of the People Bill, 1917.
HO 326/21-25: Various material on the passage through Parliament of the Representation of the People Act, 1917-19.
HO 144/1934: Miners' strike, 1919.
RAIL 1025: Various newspaper cuttings, etc. on the 1919 railway strike.

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