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The Goat, Honest Stan and Ramshackle Mac: An Interwar History of Britain


your mother is a ballpoint pen thief
Westcombe Park
The election of December 1918, which closed out a parliament that had sat since the faded memory of late 1910, is frequently heralded as the great realignment election of the era, the powers of the Representation of the People Act[1] massively expanding the franchise, and replacing the voting system of the nineteenth century with one designed for the twentieth.[2] The press, jubilant in the return of heroes from the mechanised slaughter of foreign fields, heralded the democratic process as the Khaki Election – the first since the “gentler breeze” of past conflicts in Southern Africa.

In the popular imagination, it was hard to view it as anything else – with wounded servicemen in every town, city and parish across the country populated with crowds of the uniformed, returning to a country that was no longer built on the Edwardian notions of society, civility and class that had underpinned 1914. Ten per cent of Britain’s workforce lay dead in Flanders fields – while almost every street corner in Britain’s urban environs held a crippled beggar clinging to a tattered military issue overcoat. Many of these men now had the vote – and the popular euphoria at the end of the war and their return was seen by most observers as delivering a solid victory to the government, under the command of the wartime leader, David Lloyd George, long known in various Conservative circles as “The Goat”.

Lloyd George, who had led a wartime coalition since 1916, was in the minds of most of his fellow parliamentarians, assured of being returned as Prime Minister, the “man who won the war”: his stock was higher with the public than it was within his own party, the Liberals finding themselves in increasingly dire straits, split between the nominal leader and previous Prime Minister H.H. Asquith on one side, and Lloyd George on the other. Those supporting Asquith sat on the opposition benches, and had tabled a vote of no confidence: they were two parties in all but name, and while this split would eventually end in the name of political expediency, the Liberals position as the natural party of government was over.

The election results itself gave credence to those who screamed bloody murder at the threat of Bolshevism, with the editorials of rightist newspapers such as the Telegraph and Mail thundering that the Prime Minister had gone against his Conservative coalition partners on electoral reform and “with one piece of legislation, placed the machinery of Downing Street within arm’s reach of Bolshevism”.[3] While Labour’s emergence as the official opposition with just under a hundred and fifty seats (a total increase of over a hundred seats on the 1910 election) made the red menace seem somewhat more immediate, the rightist press had completely overestimated the radical credentials of the party leader, William Adamson. Adamson, a Baptist former miner and member of the Liberals, had taken the position following Arthur Henderson’s resignation in 1917, was viewed by many in the parliamentary as lacking the necessary qualities required to take advantage of the situation Labour now found itself in. As Beatrice Webb characterised him in her diaries of the time:

"He has neither wit, fervour nor intellect; he is most decidedly not a leader, not even like Henderson, a manager of men."[4]

The innate caution of men such as Adamson and the men that followed him into the leadership and inner circle of the PLP would become a dominant theme of complaint in the fratricidal conflicts that came to shape the British Left in the 1920s and 1930s, but for now Adamson was secure in his position as party leader – after all few in the party itself had foreseen them emerging as the official opposition when the ballots were cast. Indeed, Labour’s growth and continuous development as a political movement both a part of and adrift from broader trends within the European left is a theme that this book will revisit.


Of course, Labour’s emergence and the splintering of the Liberals were not the only political developments of the Khaki Election. Women, were after decades of concerted campaigning on the issue, were granted the right to vote and stand in parliamentary election: that the right to vote was only granted to women over the age of thirty, thus neatly depriving the majority of women who had been employed in essential war work the right to vote was glossed over in the press of the day – the fact that Christobel Pankhurst of the Women’s Party was a newly elected MP was demonstration enough of the radical changes afoot in British democracy.[5] That her party represented one very narrow segment of the broader women’s movement, and was largely limited in members to the upper middle classes of drawing room society was nether here nor there – women were now allowed to speak for themselves politically.[6]

It was in Ireland, where the most profound political change was to be found, with the collapse of the Irish Parliamentary Party into third behind the radical nationalists Sinn Féin and the Unionists of the firebrand Edward Carson. The Irish Question, a long festering wound for a succession of governments had ruptured during the war following the government’s heavy-handed response to what had been an uprising without any real political support or legitimacy, with Sinn Féin harnessing popular anger against the British government’s use of military force, swiftly declaring an independent Irish republic from the recently convened Dáil Éirann, which in turn was swiftly denounced by both the Irish Unionists and the British government, though it would take the shooting of two constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary for the standoff to devolve into the bloody civil war it would become.[7]

Considering the level of violence that Ireland would devolve into over the course of the next year, it may shock modern observers that the government’s overriding concern was the marked increase of socialist agitation and protest across the nation, with the early months of 1919 seeing widespread industrial action and mutiny within the armed forces, including the blockading of Folkestone Harbour by troops in a successful protest against being returned to France, an image that would be repeated across both France and the United Kingdom as the year continued. The image of striking soldiers and sailors, socialists and other travellers in the House of Commons and marches brandishing the Red Flag in the industrial cities of mainland Britain, caused paroxysms of rage on the right, and not just in the traditional press outlets of the British Right. Cultural commentators of the period and more recent cultural histories of interwar Britain have often focused on the continued prominence of the invasion genre in British literature and pulp culture[8], with numerous stories of intrepid British policeman and gentleman spies foiling plots by nefarious Bolshevik (often Jewish) spy rings to bring down the empire in the name of Vladimir Lenin – a theme explored so often in conservative-leaning fiction in Europe, that most studies focusing on this part of the era of Britain in the aftermath of the Great War tend to view the numerous cultural and political developments of the period into broader international studies, which while containing some grains of truth often overlook the specific British context in which these developments occurred in.

This may appear as a strange digression to go from the mutinies of early 1919 to the continued influence of Edwardian invasion literature on British pulp literature in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is important to help contextualise the conservative response to the appearance of socialist agitation – when Churchill in his capacity as a cabinet minister thundered in the Telegraph that the apparatus of the British government should be used to stamp out the pestilence of Bolshevism, he was drawing a long line of British fears of the other – one that would remain pre-eminent during the period this book analyses.

Of course, it would be remiss to note that the fears 1919 represented, with a famous symbol of the “flowering of the British Left in the year of the worker’s revolution”[9] being the marches of tens-of-thousands of workers in Glasgow[10], who flew the Red Flag and protested both the high rents and poor housing the majority of workers in the city lived in, which soon descended into violence between the marchers and police, before the army[11] were sent in to restore order, though by the time they arrived the violence had ended and most of the protest had dispersed – Bolshevism had been vaccinated against.

Of course, Glasgow was no Saint Petersburg nor was it Berlin – while 1919 would see riots and hysteria around a hidden Bolshevist menace driving these leftist outbursts of sporadic violence, Britain was not a country for sudden revolution. This is not to belittle the climate of the time – 1919 was not a peaceful year, and for many at the time it would’ve seemed as if the old certainties of the pre-war era had disintegrated and torn in the bloodshed of mechanised conflict – and indeed the first Labour government’s formation was in part response to the rolling tremors of 1919. But perhaps a great contradiction of this period is that many of the great changes and radicalism of the period were firmly rooted in the pre-existing Edwardian concepts that many have supposed burned away in 1914. This is not to say that Britain did not undergo profound change during this period – Britain in 1939 was a very different place to how it was in 1914, but the commonalities do indeed remain.

This book is primarily a study of Britain in the aftermath of the Great War, and the changes that this imposed on it – as well as the continuities that often been overlooked in previous studies. Familiar topics such as the avant-garde jazz movement, the modernist writers who made Bloomsbury their haunt in London, the changing role of women, and the increasing racial diversity of the country as well as the machinations of a fragile political system are all , were all issues of great contemporary interest, and how contemporary onlookers reacted to them tells us a great deal about life in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s. But where possible, I have strived to investigate the less celebrated and glamorous aspects of national and cultural life during the period, from developments in popular sport and leisure to the continued popularity of the aforementioned pulp culture of popular magazines and literature, the rise of the talkies to the emergence of a distinctly British jazz sound in Southampton. I have endeavoured to balance both the political and cultural aspects of this period, for when looking at the period it is hard to separate one and the other – for one thing electoral turnout was high, and both the process of government formation and governing stability, as well as the politicians who operated within the parliamentary system itself, were objects of great scrutiny within the national media.

Finally, a note on the title – “The Goat, Honest Stan and the Ramshackle Mac”, were the nicknames of the three dominant political figures of the period, though only two of them would become Prime Minster. It may seem odd to utilise political nicknames for what is largely a cultural history, but the names themselves give us an insight into how contemporary observers often perceived the period. Indeed, while Ramshackle Mac, is perhaps the harshest, the ramshackle nature of much of the politics of the period makes it fitting: confident dreams of a brighter future intermingled with fears of decline and it is the tension between these that this book seeks to explore.

[1] Frequently referred to at the time as the Fourth Great Reform Act
[2] How much the government’s desire for the hybrid proportional system to be implemented was driven by genuine reformist zeal, or fear of the Labour Party gaining hold of the levers of power has long dominated electoral historiography of the period.
[3] The association of the Labour Party with the fifth column of Bolshevism would be a recurring worry on the right during the 20s, despite the party’s leadership and trade union backers being more moderate than many amongst the Liberals on issues of genuine radical reform.
[4] Beatrice Webb, “The Diary of Beatrice Webb, 1873-1943”, (University of Oxford Press, Oxford 1978) p.114
[5] Pankhurst’s election was granted with great delight within the conservative press and meeting halls, for her party was anti-Bolshevik, and had campaigned tirelessly in the name of imperial patriotism, leading many within the suffragette movement unaffiliated with the Pankhurst’s to view them as little more than a women’s branch of the Tories.
[6] Though not without constraints – it would take several years for women to be made members of the cabinet, with most still viewed with suspicion as interlopers by many of their male colleagues.
[7] The British government, faced with the need to maintain a standing military presence in both Russia and some of the more turbulent parts of the empire, was not enthused about having to deploy troops to Ireland as well, though the escalating violence between loyalists and republicans would force their hand. The exact details of the shooting which triggered the government’s military response has never been fully established or verified, though with the declassification of certain documents from that period, this will likely change.
[8] Pulp culture here refers to both popular magazines aimed at adult male readers such as Rampart and those aimed at schoolboy readers such as The Boys Own Adventure Journal which continued the Edwardian genre of invasion fiction, as well as the work of popular writers of the time such as H.R. Aylesthorpe who’s Commander Cornwell series of novels were frequent bestsellers during the early 1920s.
[9] As The Socialist Review would later retrospectively describe the year following the election of the first socialist government in Britain’s history in the early 1920s.
[10] Exact numbers have never been firmly established, but contemporary estimates tend to place the total number of marchers at between 55-60,000. One thing that is known is that the marchers were not solely from Glasgow with several workers unions and collectives from Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire well represented.
[11] Contrary to popular belief, often encouraged by the more militant on the left during the period, the order to send the army to restore order was not made by the cabinet, but was instead done in response to the Sheriff of Lanarkshire’s request for military assistance – as sending in the troops without such a request would’ve constituted martial law.
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your mother is a ballpoint pen thief
Westcombe Park

So, because I would obviously seize on this of everything you wrote, is this the Speaker's Conference electoral system or something else?

it is speaker's conference, with that being the POD, but because i'm the worst politibrit for electoral minutiae i won't be doing a lot of stuff on it

basically stv britain but with some cultural stuff as well because i'm a m b i t i o u s
A Reformist Revolution? Industrial unrest, Bolshevist fears and the ‘Red Year’ of 1919


your mother is a ballpoint pen thief
Westcombe Park
Chapter One

A Reformist Revolution? Industrial unrest, Bolshevist fears and the ‘Red Year’ of 1919

‘What is our task? To make Britain a fit county for heroes to live in.’
David Lloyd George, 23 November 1918

‘It was the end of sorrow lies. The rail stations were dead, flowing like bees stung from honeysuckle. The people hung back and watched the ocean, animals flew in and out of focus. The time had come. Yet king dogs never grow old – they stay young and fit, and someday they might come to the beach and have a few drinks, a few laughs, and get on with it. But not now. The time had come; we all knew it. But who would go first?’

Andre Breton and Philippie Soupault, The Magnetic Fields (1920)

Britain, in the aftermath of the armistice that ended the war against Germany in 1918 was not the country that gone to war with the patriotic fervour of the summer of 1914. Britain’s national debt had spiralled from £706m in 1914, equivalent to twenty-six percent of GDP to £7,481m and one-hundred and twenty eight percent[1], with public finances in a state of deep dislocation. The economic situation was exacerbated by the government’s limited room for political manoeuvre, with the need to balance the increasing demands of organised labour with those of the industrial and commercial classes who denounced the post-war burden they were expected to carry on the “profligate waste that was funnelled towards educating and housing those who have not strived for it.”[2]

The tensions between the reform-minded, populist flair of Lloyd George and his more cautious colleagues within the cabinet would come to define much of the often confused legislative agenda tabled to the House of Commons – the National Liberals wanted the loosening of the public purse to fund the house building and infrastructure programme pursued in their manifesto, while many of the Conservative parliamentarians quietly despaired that such measures would both further destabilise the currency and splinter their traditional party support. The increased political power of the industrial worker also caused a degree of unease – while the more phlegmatic amongst the Tories in government viewed the rabid denunciations of workers’ marches in the industrial heartlands of Scotland as “overheated drawing room rhetoric”, many in the party saw Lloyd George’s moves to introduce greater health insurance and expand the social character of the state[3] as opening a door to the ‘rotting spectre of Bolshevism.’[4]

This unease, characteristic of many debates and editorials of the period was not merely confined to the political sphere, with class anxieties expressed, as they had been in the Edwardian period, in the pages of popular literature, magazines and theatre, as well as the old entertainment of music hall and the variety show. These anxieties were not solely limited to fears of a working class uprising – the encroachment of women into the traditional male sphere of industrial work and politics had long been a latent fear during the Edwardian period, and with women now both represented in the workforce and the House of Commons, the old certainties of a division of labour between the sexes seemed to be crumbling, despite the best efforts of the government to get women to return to their traditional realm of domestic service and work in the ‘sweated industries’. The opening of the universities and professional classes to women through the passing of the 1919 Sex Disqualification Act caused further consternation, with the expansion of the education system seeing an increase in both women teachers and undergraduates, with many of those women gaining positions in the civil service, perhaps more than Whitehall, a bastion of English masculinity.[5]

This unease was reflected in the labour movement as well – for all the revolutionary Marxist rhetoric, the labour marches of 1919 were motivated by inherently conservative concerns, namely the protection of jobs from the threat of women and foreign workers.[6] These concerns were of course nothing new – race riots had erupted from the tensions between white and black sailors in Cardiff in the 1900s, while there had been several antisemitic campaigns against Russian Jews working in the East End from the 1890s to the outbreak of the war, while women workers had frequently been demonised by the unions up until the need for labour during the war itself. What differentiated the marches in 1919, is that the unions themselves were broadly united in their aims – the demand for a forty-hour week and the protection of jobs for returning servicemen, both of which had been co-opted in electoral campaigning by both the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party.[7] The rally organised by the Scottish TUC and the Clyde Workers’ Committee (CWC) in George’s Square[8], descended into violence when police baton charged[9] the protestors, including CWC leaders David Kirkwood and Manny Shinwell, both of whom were arrested alongside Willie Gallacher, whose trial for ‘incitement of a riotous mob’ would become a cause celebre for the left later that year.


Figure 1 - A police officer uses his baton on a striker during the general strike in Glasgow​

The violence, and the retreat of the outnumbered police following the baton charge, caused a sense of general panic amongst the government, with Robert Munro, the Liberal Scottish Secretary decrying the demonstration as a “Bolshevist uprising” in a War Cabinet meeting, convened after troops from Northern England and Southern Scotland[10] had arrived in Glasgow at the request of the Sheriff of Lanarkshire to maintain order, though by the time of their arrival, calm had returned to the streets of Glasgow, leaving a slightly surreal scene of tanks and machine gun encampments in the cattle market, while the rest of the city continued as normal. The surreal scenes of tanks guarding the city centre were perhaps the overriding memory of events for most of the general public – the strikers gave up their demands for the forty-hour week, resulting in the previously agreed forty-seven-hour week, which had been negotiated in the early days of 1918 coming into force.

For all the discussion around the threat of Bolshevist uprisings in Britain’s industrial heartlands, the strikes which periodically marched throughout 1919 followed a similar pattern to the events of Glasgow, with only the threat of a mutiny by Royal Navy servicemen at Southampton in the last days of spring, brining anywhere near a comparable scale of violence. The portrayal in the leftist and sympathetic press of the marches as harbouring a shift to a genuine workers revolution, much like the rightist fears that workers marches heralded such a step, were in many ways a form of wish fulfilment. For many on the radical left, the events of George Square came to be seen as a missed opportunity, as Willie Gallacher remarked in the aftermath:

‘Had there been an experienced revolutionary leadership, instead of a march to Glasgow Green there would have been a march to the city's Maryhill Barracks. There we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out, and Glasgow would have been in our hands.’[11]

Gallacher’s views on George Square would largely be accepted as gospel amongst the Marxist influenced circles which would form the Communist Party and were largely accepted at face value in much of the contemporary historiography of the Red Clyde period. It is however wishful thinking – while the strike had much broad support within the city, it was a reformist union approach to an industrial dispute rather than a popular uprising of revolutionary fervour. The anarchy into which the strike descended was less the result of a concerted revolt and more the government’s panic and maladroit policing, a combination which would sadly come to define much of the experiences of the labour movement during the interwar period.

The aftermath of the strike was eerily calm for many observers, as the predicted second wave of violence and disillusionment expected by both the government and the conservative press failed to materialise. Siegfried Sassoon’s account of Glasgow rather ruefully reflected this, focusing instead on the weather and derision he received from a local woman over his lack of Marxist credentials.[12] There is something slightly comical in the undercurrent of disappointment that can be detected in much press coverage of the strike’s aftermath – a mix of mild prurience and disapproval against the class currents underpinning most press on the events themselves.

The government’s own response was muted, for while there was widespread relief that the marches had not degenerated into the violence that had riven Russia, there remained a deeply held mistrust of the potential power of the mass politics of organised labour within the more right-leaning elements of the Conservative partners in government. Nevertheless, the general view that social reform could hold organised labour’s power in check, as held before the war maintained a steady hold over both the Liberal and Conservative parties – it was more a question of the degree and scale of reform itself, one that will be investigated further in the coming chapters.

[1] The balance of payments would become one of the long-running issues for successive governments of the 1920s and 30s.

[2] From a letter to the editor of the Daily Mail dated 22 March 1919 by retired army colonel Henry James Maxwell – the letter would later be satirised by PG Wodehouse in his 1923 novel The Comrades of Camberley Hall

[3] Referred to as a British variant of the ‘Bismarckian State Socialism’ introduced in Imperial Germany during the 1880s by the eminent Swedish historian of the European labour movement, M. Johansson, historiography of the period has tended to view the British government’s moves to expand the remit of state power and social security within the wider context of the European experience of the aftermath of the Great War.

[4] The quote has often been misattributed to Winston Churchill – it was instead from a satirical cartoon in the magazine Punch.

[5] Women would by the mid-1930s make up around thirty-five percent of the overall civil service workforce, though almost three-quarters of the roles they filled were junior clerical or administrative positions. Of these women, only around one-in-ten was married, reflecting a broader trend amongst the female experience of work during the period.

[6] Predominantly non-white workers (largely colonial but also including Chinese labourers brought from the mainland to work in the shipyards) and European refugees from the violence in Central and Eastern Europe, including a significant Jewish minority, which has been linked to the upshot of anti-Semitic violence in the early part of the decade.

[7] The BSP were the largest of the disparate left-wing groups which eventually coalesced in 1920 to form the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the descendent of the somewhat quixotic Social Democratic Federation led by Henry Hyndman from the 1880s.

[8] Estimates of the number of workers present at the rally have varied wildly from 20,000 to 90,000 – current estimates based on contemporary reporting put the total number between 20-25,000.

[9]Accounts, both contemporary and secondary, have not determined whether the marchers or the police initiated the violence, but the scenes of running battles between strikers and the raising of the Red Flag over the square would become ingrained in both right and left responses to the union movement during both 1919 and 1920 when the Communist Party would eventually form.

[10] Troops within Glasgow were confined to barracks at the request of the government for fear that they would side with the strikers.

[11] D. Maclean, A Road Less Travelled: A Biography of Willie Gallacher, (Cambridge University Press, 1954) p.29

[12] Wilson, J. M., Radicalisation and Repulsion: Assessing the Post-War Lives of the War Poets, (University of London, 1978) p.204