National Government (United Kingdom)
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In the
politics of the United Kingdom The United Kingdom is a unitary state with Devolution in the United Kingdom, devolution that is governed within the framework of a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy in which the Monarchy of the United Kingdom, monarc ...
, a National Government is a
coalition A coalition is a group formed when two or more people or groups temporarily work together to achieve a common goal. The term is most frequently used to denote a formation of power in political or economical spaces. Formation According to ''A Gui ...
of some or all of the major political parties. In a historical sense, it refers primarily to the governments of
Ramsay MacDonald James Ramsay MacDonald (; 12 October 18669 November 1937) was a British politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the first who belonged to the Labour Party (UK), Labour Party, leading Minority government, minority Labour ...
,
Stanley Baldwin Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, (3 August 186714 December 1947) was a British Conservative Party (UK), Conservative Party politician who dominated the government of the Interwar Britain, United Kingdom between the world wars, serv ...
and
Neville Chamberlain Arthur Neville Chamberlain (; 18 March 18699 November 1940) was a British politician of the Conservative Party (UK), Conservative Party who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940. He is best known for his for ...
which held office from 1931 until 1940. The all-party coalitions of H. H. Asquith and
David Lloyd George David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, (17 January 1863 – 26 March 1945) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916 to 1922. He was a Liberal Party (United Kingdom), Liberal Party politician from Wales, known for lea ...
in the
First World War World War I (28 July 1914 11 November 1918), often abbreviated as WWI, was List of wars and anthropogenic disasters by death toll, one of the deadliest global conflicts in history. Belligerents included much of Europe, the Russian Empire, ...
and of
Winston Churchill Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (30 November 187424 January 1965) was a British statesman, soldier, and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from 1940 to 1945 Winston Churchill in the Second World War, dur ...
in the
Second World War World War II or the Second World War, often abbreviated as WWII or WW2, was a world war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. It involved the World War II by country, vast majority of the world's countries—including all of the great power ...
were sometimes referred to as National Governments at the time, but are now more commonly called Coalition Governments. The term "National Government" was chosen to dissociate itself from negative connotations of the earlier Coalitions. Churchill's brief 1945
Caretaker Government A caretaker government is a temporary ''ad hoc Ad hoc is a List of Latin phrases, Latin phrase meaning literally 'to this'. In English, it typically signifies a solution for a specific purpose, problem, or task rather than a Generalization, gen ...
also called itself a National Government and in terms of party composition was very similar to the 1931–1940 ones.


Crisis of 1931

The Wall Street Crash heralded the global
Great Depression The Great Depression (19291939) was an economic shock that impacted most countries across the world. It was a period of economic depression that became evident after a major fall in stock prices in the United States. The Financial contagion, ...
and Britain was hit, although not as badly as most countries. The government was trying to achieve several different, contradictory objectives: trying to maintain Britain's economic position by maintaining the pound on the
gold standard A gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. The gold standard was the basis for the international monetary system from the 1870s to the early 1920s, and from th ...
, balancing the
budget A budget is a calculation play, usually but not always financial plan, financial, for a defined accounting period, period, often one year or a month. A budget may include anticipated sales volumes and revenues, resource quantities including tim ...
, and providing assistance and relief to tackle unemployment. The gold standard meant that British prices were higher than its competitors', so the all-important export industries did poorly. In 1931, the situation deteriorated and there was much fear that the budget was unbalanced, which was borne out by the independent May Report which triggered a confidence crisis and a run on the pound. The Labour government agreed in principle to make changes in taxation and to cut expenditure to balance the budget and restore confidence. However, the Cabinet could not agree on the two options available: either introduce tariffs (taxes on imports) or make 20% cuts in
unemployment benefit Unemployment benefits, also called unemployment insurance, unemployment payment, unemployment compensation, or simply unemployment, are payments made by authorized bodies to unemployment, unemployed people. In the United States, benefits are fun ...
. In the end, MacDonald and Snowden drafted a proposal that would cut benefits by 10%. Trade unions rejected this proposal. When a final vote was taken, the Cabinet was split 11–9 with a minority, including many political heavyweights such as
Arthur Henderson Arthur Henderson (13 September 1863 – 20 October 1935) was a British iron moulder A moldmaker (mouldmaker in English-speaking countries other than the US) or molder is a skilled tradesperson who fabricates molding (process), moulds for use ...
and
George Lansbury George Lansbury (22 February 1859 – 7 May 1940) was a British politician and social reformer who led the Labour Party (UK), Labour Party from 1932 to 1935. Apart from a brief period of ministerial office during the Labour government of 1 ...
, threatening to resign rather than agree. The unworkable split, on 24 August 1931, made the government resign. The financial crisis grew worse and decisive government action was needed as the leaders of both the Conservative and Liberal Parties met with
King George V George V (George Frederick Ernest Albert; 3 June 1865 – 20 January 1936) was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India, from 6 May 1910 until Death and state funeral of George V, his death in 1936. Born duri ...
, and MacDonald, at first to discuss support for the measures to be taken but later to discuss the shape of the next government. MacDonald had originally wished to tender his resignation but was told to re-consider by the King on the grounds that the majority of opposition MPs and the country at large supported the cuts proposed by the May Report, even if the Labour Party and the Trade Unions led by
Ernest Bevin Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a British statesman, trade union leader, and Labour Party (UK), Labour Party politician. He co-founded and served as General Secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union in th ...
did not. MacDonald duly changed his mind during the night and met with the Conservative and Liberal MPs the following morning. On 24 August, MacDonald agreed and formed a National Government composed of men from all parties with the specific aim of balancing the Budget and restoring confidence. The new cabinet had four Labourites (now called " National Labour Party") who stood with MacDonald, plus four Conservatives (led by Baldwin and Chamberlain) and two Liberals. Labour unions were strongly opposed and the Labour Party officially repudiated the new National government. It expelled MacDonald and made Henderson the leader of the main Labour party. Henderson led it into the general election on 27 October against the three-party National coalition.


Early days

The Government was initially applauded by most, but the Labour Party were left in a state of confusion with the loss of several of their most prominent figures, and MacDonald, Philip Snowden and
James Henry Thomas James Henry Thomas (3 October 1874 – 21 January 1949), sometimes known as Jimmy Thomas or Jim Thomas, was a Welsh trade unionist and Labour (later National Labour) politician. He was involved in a political scandal involving budget leak ...
did little to explain themselves, with the result that the Labour Party soon swung fully against the government. This was in part because of the Trade Unions' decision to oppose all forms of cuts proposed by MacDonald and Snowden in response to the May Report, which had concluded the UK government needed to curb government expenditure to reduce the budget deficit amid the fallout from the
Great Depression The Great Depression (19291939) was an economic shock that impacted most countries across the world. It was a period of economic depression that became evident after a major fall in stock prices in the United States. The Financial contagion, ...
that began in 1929. The May Report in particular recommended to MacDonald that his Labour government cut unemployment benefit by 20%. The Trade Unions that represented a large proportion of the Labour party's base refused to support any cuts to benefits or wages except to "the salaries of Ministers". Efforts to bring public expenditure cuts produced further problems, including a mutiny in the
Royal Navy The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by Kingdom of England, English and Kingdom of Scotland, Scottish kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were foug ...
over pay cuts (the Invergordon Mutiny), with the result that the
pound sterling Sterling (abbreviation: stg; Other spelling styles, such as STG and Stg, are also seen. ISO code: GBP) is the currency of the United Kingdom The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United King ...
came under renewed pressure, and the government was forced to take the radical step of taking the pound off the
gold standard A gold standard is a monetary system in which the standard economic unit of account is based on a fixed quantity of gold. The gold standard was the basis for the international monetary system from the 1870s to the early 1920s, and from th ...
altogether. Debate then broke out about further steps to tackle the economic problems. At the same time the Labour Party officially expelled all of its members who supported the National Government, including MacDonald. Increasingly, the majority of the Cabinet came to believe that a protective tariff was necessary to support British industry and provide revenue and that a general election should be fought to secure a mandate but this was anathema to the Liberal Party. The Liberals' acting leader and
Home Secretary The secretary of state for the Home Department, otherwise known as the home secretary, is a senior minister of the Crown in the Government of the United Kingdom. The home secretary leads the Home Office, and is responsible for all national s ...
, Sir Herbert Samuel, fought in Cabinet against an election but found the Liberal Party dividing in several directions over the course of action. One group, under Sir John Simon emerged as the Liberal Nationals, was prepared to accept the tariff and expressed willingness to take the place of the main Liberals in the government. The party's official leader,
David Lloyd George David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, (17 January 1863 – 26 March 1945) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1916 to 1922. He was a Liberal Party (United Kingdom), Liberal Party politician from Wales, known for lea ...
was incapacitated at this time but called for the Liberals to abandon the government altogether and stand independently in defence of
free trade Free trade is a trade policy that does not restrict imports or exports. It can also be understood as the free market idea applied to international trade. In government, free trade is predominantly advocated by political parties that hold Econo ...
, but his call was heeded only by four other MPs, all of whom were his close relatives. It was eventually agreed that the government as a whole would seek a "Doctor's Mandate" to take a free hand and that each party would issue its own manifesto. Supporters of MacDonald formed the
National Labour Organisation The National Labour Organisation, also known as the National Labour Committee or simply as National Labour, was a British political group formed after the 1931 creation of the National Government (United Kingdom), National Government to co-ordin ...
and the parties agreed to allow their local organisations to agree whether or not to oppose each other. The government was opposed by the Labour Party, Lloyd George and his Liberals and the New Party of Sir Oswald Mosley. Within the parties there was particular conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals. The 1931 general election campaign run by the National Government figures stressed their policies would aim to avoid any risk of Britain seeing such events as those of Germany two years ago including
hyperinflation In economics, hyperinflation is a very high and typically accelerating inflation. It quickly erodes the real versus nominal value (economics), real value of the local currency, as the prices of all goods increase. This causes people to minimiz ...
and MacDonald famously waved worthless Deutschmarks to emphasise the point. The result of the 1931 general election was the greatest landslide in British political history, the National Government winning a total of 556 seats and a Parliamentary majority of 500. It was a disaster for Labour, which was reduced to a small minority of 52. MacDonald was unified with the Conservatives and National Liberal leaders on one platform (he returning 13 of his 20 National Labour candidates). As few Labour MPs refused to abandon the wishes of the Trade Unionists led by
Ernest Bevin Ernest Bevin (9 March 1881 – 14 April 1951) was a British statesman, trade union leader, and Labour Party (UK), Labour Party politician. He co-founded and served as General Secretary of the powerful Transport and General Workers' Union in th ...
, the support for the re-elected National Government was heavily Conservative.


1931–1935

Although the Conservatives had a bare majority in Cabinet of 11, compared to 9 non-Conservatives, the former held comparatively few of the most important jobs. The two groups of Liberals were similarly unbalanced in terms of posts, the official Liberals holding one more seat than the National Liberals, despite the parliamentary position being reversed. That balance was to cause tensions, particularly as the Diehard wing of the Conservative party felt unrepresented. The government entered protracted wrangling over whether or not to introduce tariffs. Both the Liberals and Snowden found it particularly difficult to accept but were in a heavy minority. However, both MacDonald and Baldwin wished to maintain the multiparty nature of the Government. On the suggestion of Hailsham, it was agreed to suspend the principle of
Cabinet collective responsibility Cabinet collective responsibility, also known as collective ministerial responsibility, is a constitutional convention in parliamentary system A parliamentary system, or parliamentarian democracy, is a system of democracy, democratic gover ...
to allow the Liberals to oppose the introduction of tariffs while remaining in government. This held for some months. In 1932, Sir Donald MacLean died. MacDonald came under pressure not to merely appoint another Liberal, particularly as it was felt that they would be over-represented, and so instead appointed the Conservative
Lord Irwin Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, (16 April 1881 – 23 December 1959), known as The Lord Irwin from 1925 until 1934 and The Viscount Halifax from 1934 until 1944, was a senior British Conservative politician of the 19 ...
(later Lord Halifax). Further tensions emerged over the Ottawa Agreement, which set up a series of tariff agreements within the
British Empire The British Empire was composed of the dominions, Crown colony, colonies, protectorates, League of Nations mandate, mandates, and other Dependent territory, territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. I ...
, and the remaining Liberals and Snowden resigned their ministerial posts although they continued to support the government from the backbenches for another year. MacDonald considered resigning as well to allow a party government to take office but was persuaded to remain even though his health was now in decline. In domestic politics, he increasingly allowed Baldwin to give a lead, but in foreign affairs, the main direction was determined by MacDonald and Simon. The most prominent policy of the National Government in the early 1930s was the proposal to introduce Indian Home Rule, a measure fiercely opposed by the Diehard wing of the Conservative party, with
Winston Churchill Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (30 November 187424 January 1965) was a British statesman, soldier, and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from 1940 to 1945 Winston Churchill in the Second World War, dur ...
one of the most open opponents. The bill was fiercely opposed but eventually passed in 1947 in very different circumstances.


Baldwin takes over

With MacDonald's health failing, he retired as Prime Minister in June 1935, to be succeeded by Baldwin. Increasingly foreign affairs were coming to dominate political discourse and in November Baldwin led the government to victory in the 1935 general election on a platform of support for the
League of Nations The League of Nations (french: link=no, Société des Nations ) was the first worldwide Intergovernmental organization, intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. It was founded on 10 January 1920 by ...
and sanctions against Italy for invading
Abyssinia The Ethiopian Empire (), also formerly known by the exonym Abyssinia, or just simply known as Ethiopia (; Amharic and Tigrinya language, Tigrinya: ኢትዮጵያ , , Oromo language, Oromo: Itoophiyaa, Somali language, Somali: Itoobiya, Afar l ...
. The following month a massive storm developed when it emerged that the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, had negotiated the Hoare-Laval Pact which proposed to cede most of Abyssinia to Italy. Many were outraged, including many government MPs, and the agreement was dropped and Hoare sacked, though he later returned to government. The government sponsored a series of conferences to enable more home rule in India and other colonies. Baldwin's last years in office were seen as a period of drift, but in late 1936 he achieved a notable triumph in resolving the
Edward VIII abdication crisis In early December 1936, a constitutional crisis in the British Empire arose when King-Emperor Edward VIII proposed to marry Wallis Simpson, an American socialite who was divorced from her first husband and was pursuing the divorce of her second ...
without major repercussions. Baldwin took the occasion of
George VI George VI (Albert Frederick Arthur George; 14 December 1895 – 6 February 1952) was King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth The Commonwealth of Nations, simply referred to as the Commonwealth, is a poli ...
's coronation as an opportune moment to retire.


Peacetime government of Neville Chamberlain

Neville Chamberlain Arthur Neville Chamberlain (; 18 March 18699 November 1940) was a British politician of the Conservative Party (UK), Conservative Party who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from May 1937 to May 1940. He is best known for his for ...
was seen by many as the only possible successor to Baldwin, and his appointment as Prime Minister was widely credited with bringing a new dynamism to the government. With a strong track record as a radical
Minister of Health A health minister is the member of a country's government typically responsible for protecting and promoting public health and providing welfare and other social security services. Some governments have separate Minister of Mental Health, ministers ...
and competent
Chancellor of the Exchequer The chancellor of the Exchequer, often abbreviated to chancellor, is a senior minister of the Crown within the Government of the United Kingdom, and head of HM Treasury, His Majesty's Treasury. As one of the four Great Offices of State, the Ch ...
many expected Chamberlain to provide a strong lead in domestic affairs and here the government had a number of successes, such as over the nationalisation of coal mining royalties, the curtailing of excess working hours by the Factory Act and much
slum clearance Slum clearance, slum eviction or slum removal is an urban renewal strategy used to transform low income settlements with poor reputation into another type of development or housing. This has long been a strategy for redeveloping urban communities; ...
. Another success was the Holidays with Pay Act 1938, which gave a fortnight's paid holiday a year to workers, starting in 1939. The school leaving age was also to be increased from Autumn 1939, but was deferred as war loomed. Further reforms were curtailed by the increased international tension which came to occupy most of his time. In foreign affairs, the government sought to increase Britain's armaments, while maintaining the unity of the Empire and
Dominion The term ''Dominion'' is used to refer to one of several self-governing nations of the British Empire. "Dominion status" was first accorded to Canada, Australia, Dominion of New Zealand, New Zealand, Dominion of Newfoundland, Newfoundland, Un ...
s and preventing any one power from becoming dominant on the continent of Europe. These proved increasingly difficult to reconcile, as many Dominions were reluctant to support Britain in the event of her going to war, and so military action risked splitting the Empire. Chamberlain took a strong personal lead in foreign affairs and sought to bring about peaceful revision of European frontiers in areas where many commentators had long-acknowledged grievances. In this, he received much popular support at the time, but the policy has been much attacked since. The most prominent point in the policy of
appeasement Appeasement in an international context is a diplomacy, diplomatic policy of making political, material, or territorial concessions to an aggressive power (international relations), power in order to avoid conflict. The term is most often appli ...
came in September 1938, when the
Munich Agreement The Munich Agreement ( cs, Mnichovská dohoda; sk, Mníchovská dohoda; german: Münchner Abkommen) was an agreement concluded at Munich on 30 September 1938, by Nazi Germany, Germany, the United Kingdom, French Third Republic, France, and Fa ...
was negotiated. Following the agreement, the government sped up the re-armament process in the hope of being ready for war when it came. At the same time, it took a tougher line in foreign affairs, including making a guarantee to defend
Poland Poland, officially the Republic of Poland, is a country in Central Europe. It is divided into 16 administrative provinces called Voivodeships of Poland, voivodeships, covering an area of . Poland has a population of over 38 million and is ...
against Germany.


Outbreak of war

When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain declared war in tandem with France, supported by all of the Dominions except
Ireland Ireland ( ; ga, Éire ; Ulster Scots dialect, Ulster-Scots: ) is an island in the Atlantic Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, in Northwestern Europe, north-western Europe. It is separated from Great Britain to its east by the North Channel (Grea ...
. For some time there had been calls to expand Chamberlain's war ministry by bringing in members of the official Labour and Liberal parties but both parties refused to join (with the one exception of Liberal MP Gwilym Lloyd George, who joined the government as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade). For the first few months of war Britain saw comparatively little action apart from at sea, but the failure of the Norwegian campaign led to a massive outcry in Parliament. On 7 and 8 May 1940, a two-day debate took place in Parliament, known to history as the Norway Debate. Initially a discussion of what had gone wrong in that field, it soon turned into a general debate on the conduct of the war with fierce criticism expressed by all sides of the House. The government won the debate, albeit with a reduced majority, but over the next two days it became increasingly clear that Labour and the Liberals would have to be brought into government and that Chamberlain was unable to achieve this. On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded the
Low Countries The term Low Countries, also known as the Low Lands ( nl, de Lage Landen, french: les Pays-Bas, lb, déi Niddereg Lännereien) and historically called the Netherlands ( nl, de Nederlanden), Flanders, or Belgica, is a coastal lowland region in N ...
and Chamberlain finally bowed to pressure and resigned, bringing the life of the National Government to a close. It was succeeded by an all-party coalition headed by
Winston Churchill Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (30 November 187424 January 1965) was a British statesman, soldier, and writer who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom twice, from 1940 to 1945 Winston Churchill in the Second World War, dur ...
.Malcolm Smith, ''Britain and 1940: history, myth and popular memory'' (Routledge, 2014).


Caretaker government of 1945

In May 1945, following the defeat of Germany the coalition government broke up and Churchill formed a new administration, including Conservatives, Liberal Nationals and various non-party individuals who had been previously appointed to Ministerial posts. However, significantly, with the exception of the Earl of Rosebery, there were no other Liberal Nationals in the Cabinet, excluding even the Lord Chancellor Lord Simon. This government nevertheless used the title National Government and could be seen as the heir to the 1930s governments, even though the personnel were very different. The government fought the 1945 general election as a National Government but lost. Following the defeat, elements of the old National Government 'all party coalition' idea continued with
Sir John Anderson John Anderson, 1st Viscount Waverley, (8 July 1882 – 4 January 1958) was a Scottish Civil Service (United Kingdom), civil servant and politician who is best known for his service in the War Cabinet during the Second World War, for which he w ...
(elected as a National MP) and Gwilym Lloyd-George, a former Liberal MP who now sat as an Independent Liberal, occupying important positions in Churchill's Shadow Cabinet team. In addition the Liberal Nationals ( National Liberals from 1947–48 onwards) also kept a semi-separate existence and did not finally disappear until 1968, the last political legacy of what happened in the crisis of August 1931.


References


Bibliography

* Bassett, Reginald. ''1931 Political Crisis'' (2nd ed., Aldershot: Macmillan 1986) * Howell, David. ''MacDonald's Party: Labour Identities and Crisis, 1922–1931'' (Oxford U.P. 2002). * Hyde, H. Montgomery. ''Baldwin: The Unexpected Prime Minister'' (1973) * Jenkins, Roy. '' Baldwin'' (1987
excerpt and text search
* Mowat, Charles Loch. ''Britain between the Wars: 1918–1945'' (1955) PP 413–79 * Raymond, John, ed. ''The Baldwin Age'' (1960), essays by scholars 252 pages
online
* Smart, Nick. ''The National Government. 1931–40'' (Macmillan 1999) * Taylor, A.J.P. ''English History 1914–1945'' (1965) pp 321–88 * Thorpe, Andrew. ''Britain in the 1930s. The Deceptive Decade'', (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992). * Williamson, Philip. ''National Crisis and National Government. British Politics, the Economy and the Empire, 1926–1932'', (Cambridge UP, 1992). {{British ministries National Government, UK Ramsay MacDonald Coalition governments Coalition governments of the United Kingdom