Why it’s absurd to hail the return of the “Roaring Twenties”

For the UK, the 1920s were a decade of profound economic pain and political conflict. The current decade may be little better. 

 

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The 2010s were the decade without a name. Though the last ten years were hardly uneventful – the Syrian civil war, the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote – no succinct label ever presented itself. 

The same cannot be said of the 2020s. Even before the new year had officially begun, the Sunday Express chorused on 22 December: “Now for the Roaring Twenties”. The term, unsurprisingly, was swiftly embraced by Conservative supporters on social media. 

“Roaring Twenties” is intended to evoke the prosperity and hedonism of 1920s America: jazz, flapper girls, speakeasies and an economic boom (the US became the world’s largest economy after growing by 42 per cent over the decade). Inspired by the 2013 film version of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), millennials have taken to hosting 1920s-style parties, sometimes unaware of the novel’s intended critique of avarice. (Writing in the Atlantic, Zachary Seward likened such events to “throwing a Lolita-themed children’s birthday party.”)

The appeal of the Roaring Twenties to Brexiteers is not hard to discern. After the drift and decline of the 2010s – austerity and parliamentary gridlock – the label suggests a new era of boundless hope and sunlit uplands. The Times sought to harness this mood when its front page declared on 1 January 2020: “Britain sees in new year on a wave of optimism” (though the accompanying story reported that only 20 per cent expected their financial situation to improve this year, compared to 27 per cent who expected it to worsen). Boris Johnson himself promised a “decade of prosperity” in his new year’s message from the private Carribean island of Mustique. 

But in common with so much of the Brexit project, the appropriation of the  Roaring Twenties  is based on a misreading of history. For the UK, the 1920s were far from roaring. Indeed, even the less-celebrated 1930s were more economically favourable for Britain. While the US boomed through the mass production of consumer goods, such as Ford automobiles, and electrification, the UK endured recession and stagnation across the decade. 

After an initial post-war boom from 1919-20, as pent-up investment was finally released, Britain soon struggled as the US and Japan usurped export markets and UK goods became increasingly uncompetitive. By 1921, unemployment had risen to 17 per cent from just 4 per cent the previous year, falling no lower than 10 per cent over the decade. In the same year alone, GDP contracted by 8 per cent.

Yet in the mistaken, pre-Keynesian belief that excessive government spending was partly to blame, Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George established a Committee on National Expenditure in 1921 to enforce austerity. Conservative transport minister Eric Geddes (who wielded what became known as the “Geddes Axe”) served as chair, with government spending subsequently cut by 11 per cent – a level not rivalled until 2010 when George Osborne pursued austerity under another Conservative-Liberal coalition government. In the supposedly roaring 1920s, such cuts helped cause the largest fall in national output (20 per cent) for 100 years. 

The UK’s economic woes were compounded by the return to the gold standard (which linked the value of the pound directly to that of gold) at the behest of chancellor Winston Churchill in 1925. The dogmatic measure left sterling overvalued by as much as 15 per cent, further reducing demand for British exports and depressing economic growth. The resulting popular discontent culminated in the general strike of 1926, when 1.7 million workers walked out in solidarity with miners whose pay had been reduced by mine owners from £6 to £3.90 over seven years. 

On the strike’s sixth day, Churchill deployed the armed forces to escort and protect over a hundred food lorries. The chancellor had wanted to arm the soldiers but the less belligerent prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, overruled him. In a New Statesman piece (“Should we hang Mr Churchill or not?”) following the strike’s defeat, Clifford Sharp, the first NS editor, wrote of Churchill’s conduct: “He is reported to have remarked that he thought ‘a little blood-letting’ would be all to the good. Whether he actually used this phrase or not there is no doubt about his tireless efforts to seize the providential opportunity for a fight.”

The Roaring Twenties were also an era of imperial discontent. In 1921, the three-year Irish war of independence, fought between the IRA and the British armed forces, ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the creation of the Irish Free State. In the 2020s, as the Scottish National Party agitates for independence, and Irish nationalists bid once more for reunification, the UK will again be forced to confront the ghosts of its imperial past.

The 1920s, of course, culminated in the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Great Depression – this was the decade in which the demons of fascism and Nazism, that would haunt the 1930s, were incubated. These, you may think, are not encouraging precedents. 

One should avoid fatalism or wilful dystopianism, but 2020 is already awash with dispiriting signs: the climate crisis is remorselessly intensifying, the US, China, India, Brazil and Russia are ruled by authoritarian nationalists, Iran and America are closer to war than at any point in the last 40 years, and the UK is poised to sever relations with its largest trading partner. After more than a decade of consistent, if stagnant, economic growth, the UK and the world will be fortunate to escape the next decade without a new recession. 

The Conservatives, who have just won their largest parliamentary majority since 1987, may reasonably greet the new decade with optimism. But when they hail the return of the Roaring Twenties, they should be careful what they wish for. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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