During the 20th century, Britain underwent a major transformation. A country in which a law-abiding individual would hardly notice the existence of the state had become one in which, from the cradle to the grave, no one could avoid it. An empire controlling the destiny of one-quarter of the human race, having no allies because she needed none, had become an offshore island with an ambiguous relationship towards the Continent. How did this come about and what were its consequences?
It was during these years that British statesmen first came to appreciate that her international and economic position was under threat. The growth of German and American economic power exposed the fragility of Britain's hitherto unquestioned pre-eminence. Imperialism was the first response to decline, social reform the second. It was these years that saw the first stirrings of a new collectivism in the 'New Liberalism'. 1905-1914.
Fears about the fiscal deficit and the possibility of a run on sterling caused MacDonald and Snowdon to take drastic action in the economic crisis of 1931. However, they could not win the support of the trade unions and the cabinet, so headed up a 'National' Government of Conservatives and Liberals. Labour was decimated in the elections of 1931 and 1935 - not returning to power until Churchill's war-time coalition.
The Conservative-dominated 'National' Government failed to discover a viable foreign policy or to avoid war. The failure will be for ever symbolised by the image of Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella. Critics accused the government of weakness and of not preparing Britain adequately for war. Can the foreign policy of the National Government be defended?
After the seeming success of the Munich Conference of 1938 it was hoped that war could be avoided. However, it gradually became clear that the territorial ambitions of Hitler could not be sated as he invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, and Britain and France declared war in September 1939. Was Chamberlain personally culpable for war and did Britain consider suing for peace in 1940?