Bread and Work: The Experience of Unemployment 1918-39 by Matt Perry

By Matt Perry

Having a look past data and financial cycles, Perry investigates the human effect of unemployment from the point of view of these who lived via it, their employers and groups, arguing that the teachings of the Nineteen Thirties have direct relevance this present day because the structural difficulties of business capitalism stay inherent.

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Extra resources for Bread and Work: The Experience of Unemployment 1918-39

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33 The British censuses followed the same pattern. In the 1881 Census of England and Wales, the ‘unoccupied class’ was not an equivalent to unemployment or a even partial recognition of the phenomenon, but were managing their estates and property; directing charitable institutions; prosecuting literary or scientific researches, or engaged in other of the multifarious channels by which unpaid energy finds vent. 35 Clearly, if unemployment was to be recognised, this ‘common sense’ had to be challenged.

Their presence on Royal Commissions and on government reports is an obvious example of this. Governments generally listened sympathetically to the business agenda and often articulated similar themes, notably the need for economies and the spectre of dole abuse, but there were important limits to the extent to which the government could implement this programme set by electoral considerations and unemployed protests. As a result of these counteracting forces the government needed to display its seriousness about tackling the problem of unemployment, but all too often these conflicting agendas led to half-measures (labour camps, assisted migration and public works) and palliatives (the encouragement of philanthropy).

In order to achieve this, prices were kept down through high interest rates and deflation. Painfully high unemployment in Britain’s major exporting industries (coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding and textiles) followed. Even so, when Britain re-joined the Gold Standard in April 1925 the pound was still overvalued by 10 per cent. With exports dear and imports cheap, those economic sectors sensitive to international competition were severely disadvantaged and suffered high unemployment throughout the 1920s.

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