1919 – England’s Crisis of Democracy

Did the “Great War for Democracy”– which was nothing of the sort – result in a democracy that subverted the Peace in 1919? That is an awkward question that has been ignored by historians.

A very astute Frenchman, Andre Siegfried, wrote a number of books in the 1920s and 1930s about the character of England, in order to understand it and explain it to his countrymen, who were, at that very moment, extremely disorientated, because France, after shouldering the brunt of the Great War for 4 years against Germany, was suddenly becoming England’s Balance of Power opponent again.

In England’s Crisis Siegfried observed the ‘Transformation of the Political System’which had occurred in Britain, almost unnoticed, from 1918. Henoted that the“political stability of England has always been the admiration of the world.” However,“behind this imposing facade, England has been more contaminated than any other Western community by the exigencies of democracy.” (Andre Siegfried, England’s Crisis, p.148.)

Up until 1918, although the franchise had been gradually extended, Britain had been able to retain the same political institutions and the“direction of affairs still remained in the hands of the so-called ruling classes.” But:“By creating an entirely different set of circumstances, the War aroused a new spirit and awakened new desires among the people.” Siegfried argued that the”immense army of fighting men” conscripted by Britain to win the War had fundamentally changed the character of the State. In the past the “popular will” was“canalised or even diverted” and usually remained“docile in the hands of its leaders” However, “it is irresistible when roused.” (Andre Siegfried, England’s Crisis, pp.149-153.)

Siegfried concluded:

“From a distance everything looks the same as before – the same morning coat, the same top hat, the same spats – but the spirit has changed. England is now a democracy in the full sense of the world… often inspired by the demagogue… In conclusion, we must emphasise that among the Western democracies, which are all suffering from the same evil, namely lack of responsibility on the part of the people, England is particularly affected.”(Andre Siegfried, England’s Crisis, p.154.)

England’s industrial revolution of the 19th Century had produced a huge proletariat which was suddenly unleashed as a power in the land by the Representation of the People Act of 1918. And nothing was ever the same again in England.

A very important development occurred in February 1918, when the U.K. electorate was nearly tripled at a stroke by the Fourth Reform Act (from the 7.7 million at the time of the last election in 1910, to 21 million). The consequences of this only became apparent after the General Election in December 1918, when the Lloyd George Coalition won a landslide victory to dominate Parliament.

Before the Great War Britain was an oligarchic democracy in which the traditional elite held sway above a limited electorate which had, in 1914, reached about a third of the populace. The British system before the War was one of government by the ruling class eliciting consent of the governed masses. There was no recognition of abstract democratic right.

This is shown in a speech by F.E. Smith (Lord Birkenhead), made in July 1910 against a Bill to give some women the vote. Smith explained: “For generations it has been recognised that no man has an abstract right to vote. The theory that there is such a thing in existence as a right to a vote is as dead as Rousseau. A vote is not a right. It never was a right. It is a capacity which is given on approved public ground to such sections of public citizens as, in the opinion of the whole State, are likely to exercise that quality with benefit to the community taken as a whole.” (Lord Birkenhead, The Speeches of Lord Birkenhead, p.55)

But in 1918 the oligarchic, ruling class that planned and organised the Great War in Britain, behind the scenes, gave way to the democracy which the Great War brought forth. “The whole State” conceded to the masses.

There had not be an election for 8 years in 1918 and Britain became a majority democracy as a result of the unprecedented mass mobilisation it found necessary to invoke – in defiance of the traditional voluntary principle – in order to defeat Germany and the Ottomans. There was no need for conflict, as was usual in these great transformations, because the greatest of the Reform Acts, introduced under cover of the Great War, within the mass enthusiasm for the War, was done through an act of ruling class patronage, organised in secret conclave. Parliament was only shown the details when the deed was done.

With the sudden advent of adult majority participation in elections in Britain account had to be taken of the masses. They began to be pandered to by “the men who won the war”.

Here is a good description of it from a 1922 book by Alfred Zimmern of the Round Table/Chatham House:

“During the week after the armistice the moral thermometer of the British people went down some fifty degrees. During the subsequent month, right up to polling day in the middle of December, it continued to fall. The… sense of national and individual responsibility for the making of a better world… were dissipated in a riot of electioneering, thrown like chaff on the winds of demagogic claptrap and invective… After a few vain attempts at evasion the Premier yielded, and was then led on, floundering and uncomfortable, from one pitfall to another. Ignoring the state of Europe and the appeals which were already pressing in for the services of British troops in maintaining order… he pledged himself to rapid demobilisation… Meanwhile, what was happening in the wider world? The story of the first eight or ten weeks after the armistice can be summed up in three words – delay, confusion, and disillusionment.”(Alfred Zimmern, Europe in Convalescence, pp.106-109)

As Zimmern noted, the chief panderer to the masses was the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, the closest thing there was to “the people”.Lloyd George, coming from humble origins, had broken the unwritten rule that until then had debarred from the Premiership all but thorough gentlemen with first-class educations.

Lord Beaverbrook, the famous press baron, wrote the following about how Lloyd George secured his massive majority in the House of Commons from the new democracy:

“Lloyd George’s Government won the 1918 general election on two slogans – one, “Hang the Kaiser”; the other “Make Germany Pay”… At the December election, candidates made ample use of this vote-catching issue. Lloyd George’s huge majority was to a large extent founded on the popularity of the Hanging Craze.” (Men and Power 1917-1918, p.303)

After securing a great majority in the General Election with the “Hang the Kaiser” slogan the Prime Minister began his pandering to the masses by demobilising the massive conscript British Army that he had built up after the voluntary principle had been abandoned in 1916. It was reduced from 3.5 million at the Armistice to less than a million 9 months later and Defence/War spending was reduced from 600 to 200 million Sterling during 1920. Government spending on the military had risen from 7 per cent to account for nearly 60 per cent of GNP by the last year of the War and it was being paid for by a great increase in taxation, and loans that would be paid for by the post-War tax payers. There were no votes to be won in maintaining such spending and taxation, and far more tax-payers were present in the electorate in 1918 than there had been in 1910. (David French, The British Way in Warfare 1688-2000, p.179.)

This left much Imperial work undone and unable to be done in the areas the British Empire had won for itself. The old Imperial governing class looked on with regret when they saw the dissolution of the great forces that had been recruited, organised and trained and which could have been used to stabilise the world Britain had won through great sacrifice of blood and treasure. It was a once in history, moment. Before the Great War there had been a strong agitation from powerful sections of the ruling elite for Conscription to meet the needs of the Imperial State. It had been resisted by the Liberal Government who defended the Voluntary principle that had served the country in the past. At the moment when that principle had been breached and a massive popular army assembled for the first time in British history Lloyd George decided to throw it away, having the democracy behind him.

The great army recruited by Britain to defeat Germany had been enlisted through Millenarian propaganda before the voluntary principle finally gave way to compulsion. So, the unprecedented force assembled was not brought into existence for the purposes of Imperial work. It owed its existence to a call to defeat an unprecedented evil that had emerged in the world. That evil having been defeated it was problematic for it to continue in existence after the event. If it had done so there would have been an undermining of the narrative of the War and suspicion that everything was not what it seemed to be. However, Conscription, a real innovation in the policy of the British State, had brought on the necessity of democracy by arming the nation. In a situation where the masses had been brought into arms and politics and the Bolsheviks generated as a force in the world, and a potential influence on the masses, this was dangerous.

A functional settlement in Europe and beyond was therefore prevented in the process of this disbandment by the new British democracy and its “wheeler-dealer” Prime Minister.


Alfred Zimmern made this comment in early 1919 about the “selfishness”of the new emerging democracy, in which the new political strata might refuse to take up the necessary altruistic work of the Imperial State at a critical juncture:

“History will assess the full measure of the moral injury inflicted upon the world, and the British Empire, by Britain’s sudden swerve towards selfishness. For the moment, it would seem to mark the first step in a process of disintegration which later statesmen, even if, as they surely must, they acknowledge, and seek publicly to retrieve, the sins of their predecessors, will find it hard to arrest; for the accumulated moral capital of a wide-spreading commonwealth.” (Alfred Zimmern, Europe in Convalescence, p.122)

The British ruling class largely did what it pleased during the 18thand 19thCenturies, unhindered by those below, that served them. In the past the ruling strata in England acted effectively outside of any moral atmosphere. There had been some morality worked up during the war on Napoleon when things started to get desperate. But after the event, with Napoleon vanquished, there was no necessity to continue with it, and a functional European settlement was concluded by the statesmen at Vienna, without reference to the inconvenience of popular passions. The map of Europe could be rolled up for a generation, since it would not be needed. However, in August 1914 a strong element of morality had been introduced into the situation to unify the British nation against Germany and the democracy that came out of the conduct of the War then subverted the old and effective statesmanship.

Great passions had been worked up in Britain to wage its Great War and to win it. These popular passions ruled out the concluding of the Great War through a traditional Imperial peace, as was desired by Churchill and others. Dynastic/aristocratic war had given way to People’s/Democratic war, and not for the betterment of humanity. The appearance of a democracy at the conclusion of the War enhanced the negative aspect of this.

The combination of British democracy and “a wide-spreading commonwealth”spelt disaster for the world after Britain had gained its primacy over the earth. The map of Europe had to be unfolded again and again to facilitate the new forces that were produced by the conduct of the War, its aftermath and settlement and as a result, it is safe to say, there was another great war, of even greater devastation, within a generation.

At the same time as admitting the masses to the franchise, to mitigate the effects of the new democracy, “Lloyd George wanted the Coalition to continue in what was almost an attempt at one-party government. It was cleverly disguised dictatorship.”He “introduced methods that would have been more in keeping with a totalitarian state”(The Mask of Merlin: A Critical Study of David Lloyd George, pp.155-7)

The Prime Minister promised “to demand the whole cost of the war from Germany at once”and in 20 or more speeches he committed to “hanging the Kaiser”. With the use of issuing Coupons to reliable candidates Lloyd George achieved 526 MPs against a combined opposition of less than 90 in the House of Commons.

Lloyd George was the most powerful Prime Minister that had ever held office in the British system, because of a remarkable shift in power within the British Executive. As Andre Siegfried explained:

“It is natural for the power of a Government to increase in times of war, but it is unusual for it to shift its centre of gravity during its growth. The essentials of power were no longer vested in the Cabinet – considered as a collective body – but in the position of the Prime Minister, seconded by collaborators and technical experts. In this domain, as in every other in which he has exercised his abilities, the personality of Lloyd George acted as ferment. By the creation on his own initiative of the War Cabinet at the end of 1916, a new body, more exclusive and efficient, meeting daily and sometimes twice a day, was born in the very heart of Government… A new organisation known as the Secretariat of the Cabinet came into being as a result of… the need for centralizing the activities of the Government. Many ministers who had hitherto shared in the general direction of policy, now found their activities confined solely to the fulfilling of their departmental duties… Under the brilliant direction of Sir Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet Secretariat became, during the Premiership of Lloyd George, a vital part of the administrative machinery…

 Under Mr. Lloyd George the post of Prime Minister thus became a semi-independent institution. He organised his own technical services in order to study various questions at first hand, and often withdrew technical problems from the competence of the various ministries. Thus, for example, all matters pertaining to the League of Nations and the preparation of international conferences passed from the direction of the Foreign Office to that of the Secretariat, which grew into a veritable ministerial department controlled by the head of Government.

From what has been written, it will be seen that Mr. Lloyd George in the last years of his power no longer governed with the spirit and traditions of his predecessors. Rendered independent of his colleagues on all technical matters by the remarkable service he had to hand, he also managed to liberate himself from the restrictive influence of the House of Commons. For the existing Coalition, by uniting men of different political opinions and making them work as a single body, had developed in place of open discussions in the House the practice of those combinations in which the Premier excelled… In short, he created for himself a pre-eminent and isolated position, akin to that of the president of a democracy who addresses himself directly to the people, and obtains his mandate from them.” (Andre Siegfried, Post-War Britain, pp.198-201)

The man who was Prime Minister of Britain in 1918, Lloyd George, had made himself very powerful. But he still had to live by his wits in the company of his social superiors, within a rapidly changing situation, brought about by the sudden introduction of mass democracy, in which he had built himself his singular and predominant power base. He had to be fluid and like quicksilver. He was a man who had shown he had principles but who had largely abandoned them to rise up the greasy pole and stay at the top of it. And he had assumed the character of a weathervane, blowing one way or another, as events affected him, to stay at the top.

E.T. Raymond, wrote this informed character sketch of the Prime Minister, in 1918:

“Mr. Lloyd George belongs essentially to the empirical school of statesmanship. He does not look “before and after,” but only about him. He stands in small awe of precedent, principle, and doctrine; he is always readier to experiment than to think. Intensely interested in the things of the moment, in himself and the people he likes, in the “causes” which appeal to him in his varying moods, no man has less sense of the continuity of human things. For him the present tick of the clock has all the dignity of the eternal.”(E.T. Raymond, Uncensored Celebrities, pp.10-1)

The perfect man for the fleeting demands of holding on to power in the new democracy. However, what would be the result of such a personality on the great continuities of British Statesmanship, the Empire and geopolitics, and the world that Britain stood astride of through its Great War victory?

It was the character and power of this man, and the unprecedented situation that pertained in Britain at the end of the Great War, that needs to be understood if we are to understand what happened in relation to British policy from 1918 to 1922.

Lloyd George was a Liberal Prime Minister heading a Coalition with a largely Conservative Cabinet and Parliament. The Liberal Party had been devasted by Lloyd George’s desertion and splitting of it and a Labour opposition was just developing. It was a moment of flux in the British system whereby a new political force, Labour, was being developed as the second party to replace the Liberal Party, which had bungled the War, in the British two-party system. It was an extraordinary phase in British politics, presided over by “the government of all the talents”, the“first XI”who were about to take some of the most important decisions in the history of the World and wreck what hadn’t been wrecked by the British conduct of its Great War.

If the traditional ruling class of England who planned the Great War had been able to conduct that war in an honest way and conclude the peace, unhindered by the democracy it brought into existence, would that have resulted in a worse outcome than what happened in 1919 and subsequently?


  1. I am trying to understand how “the british empire” ticked. I think that your writings are the best help available on internet for this purpose.
    In my opinion the first key to british empire is the british class system: People frequently say that “Britain economically exploited the world”. But when we look at the Britiain, we see nothing but a deep poverty: Workhouses, poor houses, enclosure acts, highland clearances, draconian penalties to keep tue underclass in order, impressments etc.. Obviously, at least half of the british people never benefited from the empire. Their task was to fight, get killed or get maimed for the benefit of an empire which never shined on them, “in isle of selooon”

    A second keyy was propaganda. Britain was considered as a “paragon of democracy” throughout the world, even though objective data disproves this.

    British class system is notoriously hard to understand for an outsider. In my understanding, it is an irrational and antiquated system. It was so even in 1914. If you accept listener’s requests, can you touch a bit on the class system in your articles?


    • Dear Mehmet, Of course you are right. Britain was a highly stratified class based society in the period before the War. The English peasantry had been proletarianised to an unprecedented degree and were thoroughly exploited as such. However, what I think happened was that the working class became drawn into Imperialism and the evolving democracy (which were inexplicably linked). This was done through Social Imperialism, first by Joe Chamberlain, the Liberal who went over to the Tories, and the Labour Party which was Fabianised by Liberal Imperialists with understanding that democracy had to be accompanied by social imperialism. William Morris, the most substantial and popular Socialist at the time had written ‘Merrie England’, a great bestseller within the working class. This was a programme for a return to more traditional society to mitigate against the exploitative conditions of industrial capitalism. Then Morris backtracked, realising that the English workers knew they got a much greater standard of living by the work of the Royal Navy, cheap food, and the exploitation of the world. He gave up the ghost of Merrie England and became a Social Imperialist, supporting naval building and the blockading of Germany. That was the last chance of a different departure. The Social Imperialists set out to destroy the more progressive arrangements made by Germany for its workers to preserve British dominance of the world that gave the English workers their standard of life, at the expense of others.


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