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Black and white photograph of Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald and his cabinet.

National Government in 1930s Britain

The National Government of the 1930s was formed in response to the Great Depression, which heavily affected Britain's ability to manage its finances. It finally ended at the start of WW2 when it was replaced by Churchill's wartime coalition.

Discover 1930s England and Wales in the 1939 Register

The 1930s was an unusual era in British politics, one which was presided over by a “National Government”. The origins of the National Government go back to the minority Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, who was Prime Minister between 1924 and 1931, and later leader of the National Government until 1935.

In 1931, with Britain in the grips of the Great Depression, MacDonald’s administration was in crisis.

In 1931, with Britain in the grips of the Great Depression, Macdonald’s administration was in crisis. Facing a severe budget deficit, MacDonald proposed balancing the books with a large reduction in the rate of unemployment benefit, alongside a 10% salary reduction for government workers.

The proposition did not go down well with the Labour backbenchers, who viewed this as a betrayal of their core support. This made MacDonald’s position as leader of the Labour Party untenable. He was expelled from the party, but remained in power by forming a coalition with the Conservatives and Liberals, as well as the remainder of his party under the banner of a National Government.

Black and white photograph of Ramsay MacDonald shaking hands with other gentlemen.
Ramsay MacDonald (on left in top hat) being congratulated as he leaves Buckingham Palace after becoming Prime Minister, 22nd January 1924. © Illustrated London News Ltd. Mary Evans

The National Government went on to win 2 elections, one in 1931 and another in 1935.

By 1935, former Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had replaced Ramsay MacDonald as leader of the National Government.  It was the Conservatives who were to dominate 1930s politics with the Labour party in disarray and the Liberal party beginning to wane.

It was the Conservatives who were to dominate 1930s politics with the Labour Party in disarray and the Liberal Party beginning to wane.

By 1937, Baldwin had been succeeded by Neville Chamberlain and it was under the Chamberlain administration and its policy of appeasement that war with Nazi Germany began to look inevitable before its outbreak in 1939.

There is a strong argument to say that during the 1930s the National Government provided Britain with a degree of stability when it was most needed. The country’s economy was improving by 1939, although this improvement was not felt across the whole country, with the south faring a lot better than Wales and the industrial north. Additionally, there was a decrease in unemployment- although this was partly down to the need for rearmament in the face of impending war.

The National Government leaving the gold standard in 1931, alongside the implementation of protectionist tariffs against foreign imports, are thought to have helped Britain along on the road to recovery.

Black and white photograph of Oswald Mosley walking through a rally, while dozens of people around him make the Nazi salute.
Oswald Mosley at a fascist rally in East London. Photograph. England. October 4th 1936. Mary Evans Picture Library

The domestic threat of Fascism was very real at the time in the form of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). Legislation like the 1934 Incitement to Disaffection Act, which could be used to prosecute anyone advocating revolution or violence, as well as the 1936 Public Order Act, which banned the wearing of political and paramilitary uniforms, were introduced and played a part in the war against extremism on the home front.

Another crisis faced by the National Government was the constitutional crisis which lead to the abdication of Edward VIII. The King had wanted to marry the twice divorced, American socialite and Nazi sympathizer, Wallis Simpson. Baldwin’s administration remained firm in insisting the marriage would be unconstitutional, and the King abdicated in December, 1936.

Finally, in pursuing a policy of appeasing Hitler at all costs, Neville Chamberlain - who was desperate to prevent the kind of bloodshed the nation had seen during the First World War – had left the country ill-equipped for conflict.

Whether viewed as a success or failure, the National Government had run its course by 1940, and was replaced by Winston Churchill’s war coalition.

Main image: The cabinet of James Ramsay MacDonald, 1931 Mary Evans  SZ Photo  Scherl

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