Analyse the various responses to unemployment in Wales between the two world wars. Unemployment in the interwar period was of course, a major problem for not only the heavy industrialised areas of south Wales and the more agriculturalised west and north, but for Great Britain as a whole. However, it may be said that World War One was not the only cause of this dramatic economic downturn, but that pre war economic planning played its part too. “… the years immediately preceding the First World War witnessed the breaking of output records right across the industrial board.

However, this economic development had created an environment, and a physical and organisational infrastructure, which were both overly narrow and largely inappropriate to the circumstances of the twentieth century. The unbridled expansion of a few, heavy, capital goods industries and the failure of other industrial activities to compete effectively, resulted in an economy which quickly became locked in a straight-jacket of economic helplessness”1. From such a seemingly strong pre First World War position then, Wales, particularly the south slipped into an economic decline of enormous magnitude.

Unsurprisingly then huge unemployment followed this economic slump. It brought with it its own vast array of different problems, social, political and economic which deserve to be recognised in their own right. What then were the major factors that led to this mass unemployment in the inter-war period? The First World War obviously had a huge impact on the economy of not just Wales but in Britain as a whole.

“The war marked the end of an era. It ushered in a period during which Britain was to find it increasingly more difficult to earn her living and for some parts of the country, such as the south Wales coalfield, this implied absolute economic decline… the county [Glamorgan] was faced with the harsh reality of substantial economic depression and large scale unemployment”2. Unemployment was then the major cause for concern which arose from this inter war economic slump.

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In 1913, the coal and steel industries accounted for over 70% of the employment of the insured labour force in south Wales3 and the specialisation of south Wales in just these two areas of industry and the neglect of subsidiaries, quite clearly had a marked effect on the economy and unemployment figures when the slump hit hardest, it put south Wales in “… a straight jacket of economic helplessness”.

The extremely high levels of unemployment in south Wales it has been widely agreed stemmed from the areas uncompetitiveness in the marketplace, “The large scale unemployment in Glamorgan resulted directly from the uncompetitive nature of the basic industrial activities… this, in turn, caused the counties economy to run at a particularly low level of efficiency with a consequent deteriation in the prosperity of the population at large”5. In south Wales unemployment was huge. The area was heavily dependant on coalmining and the tin and steel industries.

The decline of these industries after the First World War accounted for a huge majority of the unemployed in the inter war period. For instance, in 1924 48. 7% of the workers once employed in the tin-plate industry and 31. 2% of those previously employed in the steel works in Glamorgan were unemployed6. Although unemployment in the coal mining industry was lower in a percentage term, 11. 8% in 1924 were unemployed coal miners and 22. 9% in 1929, many more were employed in this industry, 51. 8% of the south Wales labour force7, so the actual number of unemployed was greater than the other industries of south Wales.

South Wales in particular suffered more severe continued unemployment than in any other part of the United Kingdom, with just 4. 5% of the UK’s population, it suffered 19% of all unemployment in 1936 and 16% in 19368. Unemployment then triggered many responses and attempted remedies in the inter war years. One of the major responses to such high unemployment was out migration to England, Europe and indeed the rest of the World. “An obvious escape from the distress was migration, not only from the present, but also form an obscure future”.

“For many the only alternative to long term unemployment was to leave the country and find work elsewhere”10. Between 1921 and 1938 some 440,000 people left Wales. By far the worst affected area of Wales was the industrial south, and in particularly Glamorgan. In the Census 1921 – 38 it is estimated that Glamorgan alone lost 154,965 workers due to migration11. The Welsh language was another casualty of the curse of unemployment and out migration. From 155,000 speakers in 1921 to 97,000 in 1931 and 60,000 in 1939, it could be argued that with the migration of labour a migration of culture was also taking place.

Many new organisations also appeared at the time to support and help those who were unemployed and could not find work, “To many, these were positive attempts at relief and rehabilitation, to others they were merely a ‘smoke-screen’ for the lack of more positive action by the state and private enterprise”12. The government also responded to the massive unemployment in Wales. Its major policy was to create south Wales a ‘Special Area’. An industrial survey of south Wales was undertaken in 1931, which amongst its other provisions, analysed the prospects for expansion and new developments within the area13.

Te government then placed emphasis on the introduction of new industries, with less emphasis placed on the resurrection of established industries. This survey was followed by a report authored by Sir Wyndam Portal, which made several recommendations for the improvement of conditions in south Wales. What he particularly recommended was slum clearance, more government financial aid and the development of unused land14. However, it appeared that by 1936 the ‘Special Area’ initiative had been less than successful.

In the south Wales area unemployment had fallen from 157,174 in November 1934 to 141,771 in September 1936, but together with a slight upturn in the economy as a whole and those leaving the area to find work, the effect can be seen as negligible. In recent years, particularly since the late 1970’s, the study and writing about Wales’ history has become more commonplace and indeed more opinionated and fruitful than ever before, and one topic which seems to have captured the imagination of every writer is that of the depression and the inter war period. “The enduring image of Wales in the inter-war years is one of unremitting depression, unemployment, decline and misery, a hollow eyed nation in a permanent precession to the Soup Kitchen.

It is an image perpetuated by the most effective literature of the period and by carefully nurtured nostalgia of politicians. It is also an image perpetuated by historians who readily march side by side with the hungry”15, wrote Deian Hopkin. Hopkin then seems to be less sceptical about the actual state of Wales at the time, “… it cannot have been like this all the time, for everyone, and everywhere”16. Hopkin argues then that in Cardiff there were at the time more wireless sets, a luxury item, per head in Cardiff than in supposedly booming Slough17, so that conditions in Wales although maybe bad, were not disastrous for everyone who lived there.

The seemingly slightly optimistic view of Hopkin though was not echoed by many more writers, “The Wales we know and live in emerged from the wreck of that society after the First World War and the painful attempt to rebuild that followed. The results are imprinted on the psychology of many people in Wales. We are living through the morning after a night before which lasted four generations”18, wrote Gwyn A. Williams, illustrating the still high numbers of unemployment and economic under-prosperity still living on years past the slump of the inter war period, people still weary from the depression some 60 years previously.

This pessimistic view is also shared by K. O. Morgan, “… the prolonged economic depression of the inter war period… Wales was paralysed by a collapse in its industrial, manufacturing and commercial life… south Wales plunged unprepared into a depression and despair which crushed its society for almost twenty years and left ineradicable scars upon its consciousness.

Thirty years or more after the end of the Second World War, the legacy of the decades of depression still formed a grim folk memory for households and families in Wales”19. Morgan also sees the scars of the inter war depression that have been left upon Wales as a whole, where jobs and whole industries lost forever with the closure of most heavy industry in Wales, and also being written at the time of the last stand of Welsh miners during the bitter miners strike, ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ paints a very grim picture indeed.

Wales in the interwar period then is seemingly portrayed as a desperate nation, in economic ruin and with massive unemployment. The major reaction of the public and workers at the time was to migrate from Wales to seemingly more ‘prosperous’ parts of the United Kingdom.

The reaction of the government at the time to this economic slump and massive unemployment was seemingly too little and to late. The making of Wales a ‘Special Area’ did little for the countries economy as a whole or for the lives of people living in Wales. This is illustrated today by the various works that have been published by the likes of Gwyn A. Williams, K. O. Morgan and less so, Deian Hopkin.

There is a consensus that the responses at the time to this massive unemployment and economic collapse were not as positive as they should have been and that the scars that were borne out of the great depression and economic slump have taken years to overcome, and in some cases, are still evident today.


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