1919 – 1920: The Uncertainties

Each month in 2019, using Hornsey Journal extracts, we have looked at the issues facing Hornsey and the country in 1919 and at their impact locally and nationally.

The Hornsey Journal extract, 26 December 1919, makes it clear that solutions to these issues were as distant as when the year started and that pessimism about British and global instability had settled over the people of Hornsey like a black cloud. What were these uncertainties?

Political upheavals

British politics was in a state of flux. The Conservative and Liberal Parties had dominated Parliament in the last quarter of the 19th century. The Great War had forced them into a national Coalition Government led by Liberal prime ministers – HH Asquith (1915) and then David Lloyd George (1916). He managed to hold on to power in the December 1918 General Election, forming another Coalition Government with the Conservatives, thereby splitting the Liberal Party which was fast losing support in the country.

The Labour Party, (founded 1900), with its solid trade unionist background, was gaining ground on the main fractured parties. Fifty seven Labour MPs were elected in December 1918, 15 more than in 1910.  Political, social and economic unrest undermined the actions of the Coalition Government which was increasingly unpopular by the end of 1919.

Events in Ireland

Ireland, still part of Britain, was in the grip of civil war. Irish dissatisfaction with British rule and patriotic desire for independence had manifested itself in the Easter Rising 1916 which the Coalition Government had dealt with brutally, executing the leaders. This led to a major swing in Irish feelings towards Sinn Féin, the militant nationalist party determined to create an Irish Free State. In the 1918 General Election the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster was almost wiped out by Sinn Féin. Their elected MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, including Countess Constance Markievicz, the first woman to be elected to Parliament. Ulster, in the north, was equally determined to stay British. The scene was set for direct confrontation in Westminster and in Ireland.

Warfare continues

Russia

The March 1919 Hornsey Journal extracts focused on a Hornsey political activist, William Foster Watson, who took on the Establishment over his support for ‘Hands Off Russia’.  After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 Russia was torn apart by civil war. Britain gave open support to the White Russians providing Royal Navy and RAF support. However, the single-minded Reds proved much too strong and British forces had to withdraw early in 1920 by which time 112 British troops had died needlessly and millions of pounds wasted.

Afghanistan

For most of the 19th century Britain viewed Afghanistan, on the northern border of India, as a corridor through which Russia could invade her ‘Jewel in the Crown’. Consequently, successive British governments tried imposing their will on the Afghans. Two Anglo-Afghan Wars,1839-42 and 1878-1880, were followed by a third starting in May 1919 when the Emirate of Afghanistan invaded India. This war led to the Afghans winning back control of their foreign affairs from Britain which had to recognise Afghanistan as an independent nation.

Peace Treaties unsigned

These were dictated rather than negotiated treaties. The Treaty of Versaillles with Germany had been signed on 28 June 1919, but those with Germany’s former allies (Austria, Bulgeria & Turkey) were yet to be concluded. The problem of what to do with German and Turkish possessions remained. In the meantime, fighting continued in many of these regions as armed groups pursued nationalist, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary aims.

League of Nations

This was President Woodrow Wilson’s major contribution to the Versailles conference. He had a Fourteen Point Plan to preserve the peace treaties which included the reduction of arms for all nations, the protections of League members against aggression and the peaceful settlement of international disputes. His aspirations met with a lukewarm response from the countries demanding harsh treatment for the defeated nations. As 1919 ended the League was about to happen but would never have the authority Wilson intended, particularly as the USA preferred isolationism and never joined.

""

Social and economic uncertainties

Three million men returned to civilian employment in 1919-20, though this led to the displacement of all the women who had kept the Home Front and the war machine going. In 1918 Lloyd George promised ‘Homes Fit For Heroes’ to deal with the housing shortage which had arisen when building ceased during the war. The 1919 Housing Act (Addison) made house building obligatory for local authorities. The government provided a subsidy for council building and under certain conditions for private builders also. Hornsey had been at the forefront of providing houses for the working class before the war but now the Council dragged its feet even though there were slums to be cleared.

1919 was a year of strikes. In January and February workers struck for a shorter working week on the Clyde and in Belfast. The police went on strike in July and the miners demanded a six-hour day, a 30% increase in wages and the nationalisation of the mines (supported by the Labour Party).

Britain loses her pre-eminence in the world

As the first industrialised country, Britain had led the world in steel, armaments and ship building. Her manufactured goods were sold world-wide but other countries were catching up and no longer dependent on British goods. The people of Hornsey suspected that more political, industrial and economic uncertainty lay ahead in the short and long term… and they would be right.

Janet Owen