Richard Overy: We should be afraid of a British Berlusconi

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Richard Overy is author of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, (Allen Lane, £25).]

Is there always a political fallout from the effects of severe economic crises such as Britain is now experiencing? The answer must surely be yes.

In the 1930s the Depression broke the Macdonald Labour Party, divided the Liberals, ushered in an emergency National Government and led to the emergence of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Normal party politics was restored only 15 years later, in the campaign of 1945 when Labour rose triumphantly to power to build a New Jerusalem.

Not only did the recession reshape British politics in the 1930s, but the crisis also provoked a growing disillusionment with conventional party politics and the role of Parliament. The political elite that dominated the National Government was seen as self-interested and out of touch. There was little sleaze about in the 1930s - a great many MPs had private means - but there was a strong feeling among the more progressive forces in British society that MPs were a barrier to social change, economic reform and, above all, to a foreign policy that would really reflect the wide enthusiasm for the League of Nations and popular anti-war sentiment.

In 1935 there were two countrywide votes. One was the general election which the National Government won in the absence of a serious opposition. The second was the peace ballot organised by a number of voluntary associations under the direction of the peace campaigner, Lord Robert Cecil. Half a million volunteers tramped the streets knocking on doors to get voters to fill out a voting slip in favour of the league, disarmament, international control of aviation and so on. In the end 11.6 million people voted, almost all in favour. This was a remarkable expression of independent public opinion; the Government took no notice.

Voluntary effort to try to get across alternative, and more progressive, political solutions mushroomed in the 1930s. Above all the view took hold that Parliament no longer really represented what most people thought. Between 1936 and 1939 widespread efforts were made to create a people's front or popular front that would unite progressive opinion, independently of party allegiance. Sir Stafford Cripps, later Chancellor in the 1945 Government, was temporarily kicked out of the Labour Party in 1939 for making one last effort to create a united popular front to challenge Parliament. The National Government survived the people's front pressure but only at the cost of growing rejection of old-fashioned parliamentary politics, most marked among the chattering classes.

What did not happen was a shift to the political extremes, as in Germany when Hitler exploited economic disaster to make his the country's largest party. British fascism and communism remained fringe movements because much progressive opinion wanted liberal values and social progress, not an authoritarian new order. This is familiar ground today. The sense of disillusionment with conventional party politics, where the main parties seem the same and the new political class lines its own nest, opens the way to political extremism. The British National Party is waiting its turn; radical protest at the G20 summit filled the City with campaigners. Real politics, which will engage people's enthusiasm and mobilise their anxiety, may be about to move from Westminster and out on to the street, but it is unlikely to become a mass movement unless conditions deteriorate even more. ...

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