Critical Analysis: Unemployment in the Interwar Years A study of three extracts considering some of the problems of unemployment.

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When the brief boom after the First World War ended, unemployment began to soar. By the 1930s, there was unprecedented unemployment nationwide, albeit mainly among the Northern working classes. The three extracts examined in this piece shed light on some of the aspects of unemployment, speculate about the causes and suggest some solutions to what has remained one of the most significant issues of the 20th and 21st Centuries.

The first extract is taken from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier published in 1937. It examines how the working class had been forced into change and how they adjusted to their situation. Orwell was always a politically motivated writer, but this source does not seem to be written to persuade. He focuses on the change of attitude in the working classes towards unemployment, observing that many people seem to have begun to accept the connotations of being jobless and how, “…the old, workhouse fearing tradition is undermined.”

This is one of the strongest connections that he makes. He points out that whereas previously, unemployment was considered to be the individual’s fault and as long as there were people working, also their responsibility to find work. This feeling had altered amongst the population and he states, quite rightly,“It makes a great deal of difference whenthings are the same for everybody.”When vast quadrants of towns are unemployed and have been on the dole for years, they cannot be blamed for ‘settling down’ to this life, instead of fighting against it, especially when they realise that they are not to blame for their workless state. This gradual acceptance of unemployment, Orwell says, is encouraged by the increased consumption of ‘cheap’ luxuries like chocolate. He says that in a time of, “…unparalleled depression,” the ease of adaptation of the unemployed to a life of poverty, “…without going spiritually to pieces...” can be blamed on this supply of, “cheap palliatives”. He questions whether the ruling classes could be responsible for this correlation, or whether it was just an economic pattern that helped avert a revolution.

Although Orwell does not dwell on any of his strongest points, or emphasise any particular arguments more than others, it is still a strong piece. The overall genre is similar to a piece of investigative journalism, despite containing a fair amount of speculation and rarely referring to any solid statistics or first hand examples. The Road to Wigan Pier was written while Orwell was in the North, researching, so it could be said that it is based on first hand experiences, however it is important to take his political and personal ideologies into consideration.

The second and third extracts differ in their views about the ‘spirit’ of the unemployed. The second piece is taken from The Town that was Murdered by Ellen Wilkinson, a labour MP and well-known author. It is a case study on a single town near Middlesborough; Jarrow, and the schemes that have been set up to tackle unemployment there. Written at a similar time to Orwell’s, Wilkinson goes into a great deal of detail about the introduction of various clubs where the unemployed men could spend their time and ‘remain productive’. She also notes the effect that these have on the lives of these men. The piece helps to add some perspective and demonstrate the meagre effect of these much publicised schemes. Her strongest point is combating the perception of the unemployed townspeople’s ungratefulness, and she quotes a townsman in the final paragraph;“And as for being grateful for what is done for us – why shouldwe be? We are willing to work for what we get.”This goes a long way to enforcing Orwell’s point that unemployment was something that couldn’t be avoided for these men, and they knew it. Whereas before, these men would have been ashamed to be the one breaking the long line of working men in their family, now they know they are only in a position to make do with what they can get – it is out of their hands.

Despite the school ‘text-book’ style of the extract, it touches on some of the major issues surrounding unemployment and supports the theory that in the final years before WWII, it had become an everyday part of life for many. This produced a glum air of acceptance about unemployment in these industry-dominated towns and undoubtedly a feeling of resentment was beginning to manifest in these men; their independence brought into question (literally) by projects like the Welfare Committee.

The issue of resentment is also handled in the third extract, written by Wal Hannington in Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936. The author is clearly sceptical about the unavoidability of unemployment and he starts by challenging the popular belief that benefits for the unemployed had increased dramatically. He quickly dismisses this, observing that the combined wealth of the UK’s ‘estates’ has nearly doubled in the same time, concluding that the small concessions that were publicly acclaimed as great steps towards a socialist state, were in fact forced from the ruling classes, almost like ‘guilt’ money, who were still accumulating money and power.

This radical tone continues throughout the extract, as the author points out the importance of the work done by the National Unemployed Workers Movement in improving the conditions for the unemployed, observing that the working class have always had to fight for support and democratic rights, never been handed their liberties without a struggle. He does agree with the other authors that organisation key in this struggle and that the NUWM is important to prevent demoralisation. He does, however, disagree with Orwell, claiming that unemployment is always something that one strives to get away from, to increase independence and quality of life. He makes a very strong point about the ‘enduring spirit’ of the unemployed when he says that,“…to suffer grinding poverty through unemployment…and yet toendure such a state of affairs without struggle amounts todemoralisation and might even by called cowardice.”Wal Hannington is clearly a writer who opposes the system of governance in the country, pouring disdain on the government’s “dangerous” schemes to combat unemployment and suggests his communist sympathies in his call for a, “..complete rout of National Government.” And when he warns, ominously,“Where the unemployed exist every unorganisedlocality is a breeding ground for Fascists.”His suggestions for tackling unemployment are based in sound economical values, although unfortunately, these reforms are still awaited.

Each of the sources examined take a slightly different stance from the others, although they do agree on some of the key arguments, like the necessity of the NUWM and other similar organisations. Each extract has a different style but they all touch on important issues of the unemployment crisis of the time, hinting at their different political ideologies. Although Hannington is the only writer who has any clear political agenda, they all suggest some kind of ideologies that they are trying to get across. If any of the authors were truly committed to their cause, they would have done well to reference and use more facts, to reinforce their argument. It is the clear that the government were resented for their lack of care when dealing with unemployment. They did not meet the needs or demands of those suffering.

One of the most enlightening of all three pieces is in the chapter before Hannington’s extract, where the author reveals that a shilling rise in child benefits was withheld until just before the general elections. Not only was this stingy, but it demonstrates that the government were prepared to use the suffering of the poverty stricken as an exploitative political weapon to gain themselves more power. This I feel, indicates that one of the biggest obstacles when tackling unemployment, was the government itself.

BibliographyThe Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, London, 1937The Town that was Murdered, Ellen Wilkinson, 1936Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936, Val Hannington, 1938