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Rising Tides: The Class Struggle in 1920s and 1930s Britain

The class struggle in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s was characterized by social and economic upheaval, as the country grappled with the aftermath of World War I and the Great Depression. This period saw the emergence of new political movements and social tensions that reshaped British society.


At the heart of the class war was a struggle between the working class and the ruling elite. The working class had been hit hard by the economic downturn, with high levels of unemployment and poverty. Many workers were struggling to make ends meet, and were increasingly frustrated by the government's inability to address their needs.

In my book, The Empire Club Murders, one of the many problems Matthew faces is what is often termed the Class War. He comes up against, as one reviewer has described it, the Old Boys' Network, where men of a certain social standing - those who attended public school, who went to university, who have white-collar jobs (but rarely need to do a full day's work) and who own their own houses - rally together to protect themselves and who have an innate belief that their middle- to upper-class standing protects them from things such as being prosecuted by the law. In short, that there is one set of rules for people like them and another set of rules for everyone below them.


The First World War began breaking down these social barriers. In the early years of the twentieth century, there had already been social and class struggles (the Women's Suffrage Movement, Irish nationalism, and the emergence of working-class political parties such as the Labour Party). However, so entrenched were the differences between the classes in Britain, that the barriers were still present after the Great War, and often, everyone thought it was right that it was so. You only have to read fiction written at the time to see how the different classes are portrayed. Just pick up your favourite Golden Age crime novel and I'm sure you'll read about upper-class characters talking about their servants as if they were over-indulged pets, foreigners described as being funny and peculiar, and even some anti-Semitism. Working-class people often accepted that they had their 'betters' and 'tugged their forelocks' accordingly. But there were murmurs of discontent, most obviously signposted by the rise of socialist and communist political parties and movements and the General Strike of 1926.

newspaper writing about the General Strike 1926
British Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Labour Party was founded in 1900, but it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that it began to emerge as a major political force. The party sought to represent the interests of working-class voters, and advocated for policies like nationalization of key industries, a minimum wage, and improved social welfare programs. In the 1929 general election, the Labour Party won the second-largest number of seats in the House of Commons, and MacDonald became the first Labour prime minister in British history.

Ramsey Macdonald
<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ramsay_MacDonald_ggbain.37952.jpg">See page for author</a>, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the Labour Party's success was short-lived. The party struggled to address the country's economic challenges, and was criticized for its inability to tackle rising unemployment and poverty. The party's support began to decline, and it was unable to win a majority in the 1931 general election.


The class war was also characterized by social tensions. The country was marked by stark class divisions, and social mobility was limited. These tensions were reflected in popular culture. The 1920s and 1930s saw the emergence of new forms of popular entertainment, including cinema and radio. These media reflected the concerns and anxieties of British society, and were often marked by a sense of social critique and political commentary.


Further Reading

Ramsey Macdonald by Kevin Morgan



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