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Britain, Ireland and India

Postwar Concerns | Britain and the Irish War of Independence | Labour versus Conservatives to 1925 | A New Jazz Age and Labor Unrest | The British in India

Postwar Concerns

Britain had not lost the Great War of 1914-18, but wars were costly, not only in war dead and wounded but also economically. Before the Great War, London was the center of world finance and Britons led the world in investing abroad. Britain had been called the workshop of the world, but Britain lost markets to the United States and Japan during the war. The center of world finance moved to New York. Britain emerged from the war deeply in debt to the United States. Forty percent of government spending was to be spent repaying its war debt. An importer of food, many people were to be frugal in eating until the 1950s. And with the British having spent much of their wealth on war and little on modernizing their machinery, their industries were falling behind.

After the war, Britain still needed to export its coal, textiles and other manufactured goods to pay for needed imports, but Britain's exports were diminished by the impoverishment of former customers: Germany, Russia and some other East European countries. Victory in war left Britain with a lot of problems. Unemployment rose higher than ten percent of the workforce. Veterans returned home to a dearth in the availability of jobs. And the war had brought inflation to Britain. In 1919 and 1920 wages were not keeping up with prices. Labor unions sought recourse in strikes that were less than helpful. The relatively high cost of labor along with antiquated machinery was hurting Britain's trade with other nations – the cost in production raising the price of those goods Britain was trying to sell abroad.

Wars also shake things up politically, and the biggest jolt with the Great War was the Bolsheviks coming to power in Russia in late 1917. Also for Britain there was the 1916 Irish rebellion against British rule. Agitation by the Irish for freedom from British rule was a big issue for Prime Minister David Lloyd George (his surname: Lloyd George). He was of the Liberal Party and ruled in a coalition with the Conservative Party, known previously as the Tories.

And there was King George V, whom the prime minister was supposed to serve. King George was another who owed his power to an accident of birth. And like his first cousins Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Russia's Tsar Nicholas II, he was considered not terribly bright. George was into stamp collecting and hunting game, but he was steady, with a good amount of human decency and some common sense, although in a victory speech he had used the expression "the glorious dead," but that was standard patriotic rationale. King George wanted to be a people's monarch. He is reported to have opposed bringing the tsar and his family to Britain for fear that it would arouse opposition from the people, especially those on the Left. He and Prime Minister Lloyd George were aroused by what they thought of as the appeal of Bolshevism. Lloyd-George attacked the Labour party as being run by "the extreme pacifist, Bolshevist group," and he cited the Russian Revolution as what could happen as a result of class antagonisms.

But in 1919, during Russia's civil war, Lloyd George was unwilling to give much support to the anti-Bolshevik forces. He believed that Britain did not have enough surplus wealth to spend on an effective intervention. He did not want to antagonize the Left in Britain. He had misgivings about the commanders of the anti-Bolshevik forces, and he saw a reduced threat to the British Empire by the Bolsheviks remaining in power. Russia under the Bolsheviks, he is reported to have held, would be less inclined toward imperial expansion southward. It appeared to Lloyd-George that under the Bolsheviks the Crimea, Georgia and the Ukraine might remain independent – which would be of benefit to the British. And Lloyd-George believed that under the Bolsheviks there might be no return of Russian power over Poland or Finland.


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