19 MARCH, 1915: New Labour

A word about the British home front seems appropriate, because it’s been a hundred years since the government of the day and most of the principal trades unions came to an agreement that changed the face of the nation.  Known as the Treasury Agreement, it guaranteed the unions better pay and working conditions in return for accepting a non-strike agreement and ‘dilution’ of the workforce with unskilled labour.

The Agreement’s greatest significance lay not in the details, which you can look up if you need them, or even in the vital stimulus it gave to Britain’s wartime industrial capacity, but in formal recognition by the government that the unions were essential partners in the national war effort. Given that a considerable chunk of the pre-War political establishment regarded organised labour as a dangerous, potentially revolutionary force, bent on disrupting and capable of scuppering any war effort, this constituted a seismic shift in attitudes on both sides of the sociopolitical fence. It was also a permanent shift, redefining British industrial relations forever.

The catalysts for change were pretty basic. When war came, international socialism’s militant pacifism evaporated overnight, and ‘revolutionary’ workers in Britain (and all over Europe) were instantly transformed into fighting patriots. Once the War was fully underway, the government discovered that ‘business as usual’ – the slogan of the day that encapsulated its spectatorial attitude to the economy in 1914 – wasn’t anything like enough to supply a conflict lasting more than a few weeks.  The door was open for a new kind of dialogue.

The Liberal government had taken on wide emergency powers in early August 1914 under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), but in the spirit of laissez-faire it had been reluctant to use them for anything but absolute necessities, i.e. controlling the railways and the supply of (scarce) imported sugar.  By the end of the year this approach was failing badly, as a rush to enlistment inflicted random losses on the nation’s skilled workforces just as demand for their labour went through the roof.

This was true in all sectors relating to military supply, but the crisis was most acute in the vitally important munitions industry.  Ammunition production had met only five percent of War Ministry orders by the end of 1914, all other weapons output was behind schedule, many orders for allies had simply been ignored, and attempts to alleviate shortages by introducing unskilled, non-union labour, particularly women, had been thwarted by dogged resistance from the unions.

Although everyday public life in Britain had been relatively undisturbed by the first months of the War, with unemployment all but disappearing and rapid inflation being matched by wage rises, press and public opinion of the government had soured by the spring of 1915. High battle casualties, the prospect of a much longer war than expected and shocks like December’s German naval raid on the east coast  had all contributed to a general sense of administrative incompetence.  Something had to be done to maintain faith in the government’s ability to conduct a successful war, but nothing much could be done without acceptance of the need for state intervention on a previously unheard of scale and a radical change in the industrial landscape.

Hammered out under the canny and energetic supervision of Chancellor David Lloyd George, the Treasury Agreement did the trick.  Women and unskilled workers were integrated into the factory system for the rest of the War, and while unofficial strikes remained a problem, usually in protest against rising prices or unauthorised ‘dilution’, official stoppages dropped well below pre-War levels and remained relatively rare until a pre-victory surge in 1918, when more than a million man-hours were lost to strikes.

Britain’s industrial performance wasn’t transformed overnight.  A couple of months down the line a massive scandal over shell shortages would prompt a change of government, with Asquith presiding over a new coalition cabinet packed with competent bureaucrats and including one Labour member, but by the end of the year the nation’s economy had been effectively transformed into a mechanism capable of supplying a modern state at war. In the process the mould of nineteenth-century capitalism, unfettered by state involvement, had been broken, not by the dreaded revolution from below but by super-fast evolution instigated from above.

The result was an alliance between state, labour and capital that, though at best uneasy during the War years, set a precedent and a standard for British society in the later twentieth century. At the time it was called ‘war socialism’, as were comparable experiences in belligerent nations all over Europe, and the phrase is still bandied about today. It wasn’t socialism, or anything like it, but it was arguably the blueprint for the imperfect, fluctuating compromise we live by today and call social democracy.

This was just a quick skim of a big issue’s surface for those otherwise confined to the heritage industry’s commemorative effort, worth the trouble as a demonstration that the War on Britain’s home front wasn’t only about emotional upheaval or votes for women.

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