chapter  18
Pages 8

The outbreak of the First World War, cutting across and twisting the Edwardian domestic crisis, brings us to our last instrument of change. Some social changes are clearly responses to the inner contradictions or logic of a society. Others are responses to new influences from outside: to new creeds, new inventions, new lines in trade, changes in climate and so on. Early twentieth-century examples include the European syndicalist doctrine of the general strike among militant workers, American business techniques such as work study, product standardization and assembly line production, and the development of the new motor car and oil trades. But by far the most dramatic of these external influences was the First World War. In the past, wars had often forced social change on the conquered. Now, because fighting was no longer confined to professionals but involved the mobilization of the whole economy, it brought equally drastic transformations to the victors. In 1914 Britain had presented the classic case of an early industrial capitalist economy, based on free enterprise, free competition and free trade, with the minimum possible state interference. It is true that in a few industries formidable corporations had already appeared like the Wills tobacco and Lever soap empires, and that to the state protection of workers by sanitary and factory inspectors had been added the recent compulsory state insurance schemes. But these were slight developments when compared with the situation at the end of the war, when the state had assumed the direction of major sectors of the economy such as shipping, the railways, the coalmines, chemicals and engineering and substantial tariffs had been introduced on a whole range of goods. Men no longer had a free choice of job, but could be drafted to military service, or, negatively, to industry through certificates of essential work and consent to job change. Rent control had been imposed on the housing market, and certain essential consumer goods, including sugar, potatoes, meat and coal, were distributed according to state rationing schemes. A National Register was set up in 1915 requiring all men aged from sixteen to sixty-five to supply basic personal details of age, occupation and address. The state indeed had assumed many of the powers to be associated with totalitarianism, including propaganda techniques such as fake photographs, rumours, lies and the suppression of facts. War news was censored and some papers were at times banned. Industrial strikes were forbidden and some of the most militant trade unionists imprisoned. Those who remained were now more likely to see their chief enemy as the state rather than the individual capitalist:

The state has become the almighty power, regulating and controlling the lives of all…The centralizing process has been wonderfully rapid. From the inception of the Insurance Act the speed has been cumulative…We are rapidly approaching the heyday of officialdom in every department of life.1