Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Role of the State and the Challenges of WWI, 1870 - 1921

This post will go into a little bit more depth about how the government ran the economy and the challenges it then faced as Britain went through the First World War. Prior to WWI, Britain was referred to as a 'night watchmen' state. This means the state didn't try and an direct or manage the economy, they only intervened when it came to necessities such as health and safety, company law, basic education and the provision of welfare.

The aim was to maintain a balanced budget and fund any spending through taxation. Due to this, not much really was spent because it would only be justified if the taxpayer paid for it, and to avoid a backlash from high taxes the tax rate remained constant. After 1890 strain on the budget begins to show. Higher grants were needed for welfare and education and defence spending, especially for the navy began to rise. Spending as a percentage of GNP grew. Government spending in 1913 was roughly £305 million, compared to £130 million in 1890. Due to this increase in spending, taxes had to rise to fund it all. A super tax on incomes was introduced in 1909 and income tax for the better off increase to 6% in the same year.

However, despite all this government activity was still relatively constrained. Rules were still in place to make sure the budget remained balanced and spending was only at 13% of GDP in 1913. Some economists believed that the limits on taxation had been reached.

When the war begins in 1914 the government take a 'business as usual' approach. The assumption was that the war would be a short one and that Britain's main role would be more financial than military. Things have to change, though, as the government begins to realise that the war isn't going to be a short one. The railway and sugar industries are a few industries that were controlled at the start of the war and a large army had to be raised, needing to be fed and armed.

This leads us onto the munitions crisis. Arms factories cannot cope with the demand for munitions and shell shortages begin to develop. The reply from the government is to set up the Ministry of Munitions in 1915. This controlled over 2 million workers by 1916 and started to spend a lot of money on the production of more ammunition. Between the years of 1916 and 1917 a lot more industry came under government control, including: shipping, mining and food and raw material imports.

One of the big issues that comes up during war is labour, and it's no different in this case. Women and unskilled male labour are brought in to work in the factories. Unions agree that unskilled workers are allowed to now do tasks that were previously only allowed to be done by skilled workers. Strikes are banned (in theory), but this essentially fails as 11 million working days were lost between 1917 and 1918 due to strikes. As incentives to direct workers into the essential industries, better pay is offered.

The war has to be financed, of course. This meant a massive increase in government spending; up to 59% of GDP which was roughly £2,800 million. 72% of the money is funded through borrowing, leaving to a large national debt being racked up. This is very problematic, the national debt reaches the level of £6.1 billion in 1919 and of course servicing the debt with interest payments because a massive drain on the economy.

Let's move on to the post war stage now. Things look good and bad in a sense, there is a post-war boom due to a lot of money being in circulation. This could be seen as a good thing, however the massive demand outstrips output and this leads to runaway inflation. The other issue at the time was demobilization. This all gets too much and we enter into a slump between 1920 and 1922, by 1921 this is a recession. GDP falls by 7% and unemployment is up at 2.2 million. The big debate is whether this was avoidable or not? Some say it was unavoidable, world conditions were awful and it was impossible to avoid the effects. However, government policy could be said to have worsened things. Policy was too lax in 1919 yet too tight in 1920 and 1921, which didn't help the economy.

Have your own say! That's it for this part of the economic history of Britain, thanks for reading.


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