The national governments of the 1930s: short term success but long term failure 

Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Third National Government, by John Boyd jnr (P.C. flickr)

The first National Government of the 1930s was formed on the 24th of August 1931 by Ramsay Macdonald, under the backdrop of the Wall Street Crash in 1929, which led to the contraction of the global economy. As a result, Macdonald’s government immediately had to deal with severe economic difficulties such as rising unemployment, slowing international trade, and rapidly declining domestic production. What the National Governments achieved in the short term was remarkable, as they helped mitigate the effects of the Great Depression while holding off the tide of extremism that swept across Europe during the 1930s. The National Governments failed, however, in dealing with the regional disparities that came with the depression. This lack of policy to combat regional disparity led to unequal growth, and the beginning of generational depression in some areas of the UK. 

The immediate problems that faced the National Governments of the 1930s were vast, yet were largely dealt with in the short term. For example, the National Governments faced a large decrease in shipbuilding due to the decline in international trade. State intervention helped mitigate this through funding ships such as the HMS Queen Mary, which reduced the impact of the depression on the Clydeside shipbuilding industry. The National Governments also pushed to amalgamate unsuccessful mines in order to increase the coal industry’s efficiency. This was successful, as there was a 34 million tonne increase in coal production between 1933 and 1937. Even unemployment dropped in the mid-1930s from 22% to 10%; although this may not have been because of the direct actions of the National Governments, but instead the consequence of the rearmament process that was being pushed as a result of tensions in Europe. Thus, the National Governments were at least partially successful. They held extremism at bay and remained moderately popular through a period when extremist politics became the norm in many European countries. 

Yet, despite their short-term successes, the National Governments had significant failures which condemn them in my eyes. There was, for instance, a complete and utter failure to recognise the regional disparity in unemployment during the Great Depression, causing systematic depression in regions of Britain. Although it is statistically correct that overall unemployment dropped throughout the mid-1930s, that isn’t the entire picture. Unemployment remained high in areas that relied almost completely on the traditional industries, such as coal and textiles. This unemployment was especially high in the North East and areas of Wales. The National Governments did not mitigate this, even when people were starving on the streets. The conditions became so dire that the MP for Jarrow, Ellen Wilkinson, led a ‘hunger march’ to London with 200 shipyard workers behind her. This blatant ignorance of the regional disparity in employment, wealth and opportunities, marks one of the first times that the North East was pushed to the side in policy making, and it was certainly not the last. Its painful miasma haunted the region long into the post-war era, exemplified by Thatcher’s cruel policies. Fundamentally, the generational depression seen in the North East and other deprived areas began because of the National Governments and their negligence.

It is important to be thankful that the National Governments allowed the government in the country to continue – preventing the country from being taken over by extremists like Oswald Mosley – while helping the UK prepare for the Second World War. However, we must not forget the conditions that persisted in the most deprived areas of the UK due to the lack of effective policy designed to mitigate the regional disparity in unemployment. 

Matthew Cook, Summer Writer

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