With a deep recession beginning, unemployment rising and nationalized industries running down, British politics and the press are full of reference to the 1930s.
Opponents of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government spending cuts and tight money policies have been quick to summon up images of the Great Depression. Denis Healey, the opposition Labor Party's economic spokesman, rhetorically warns of "a rerun of the hungry 30s" and Len Murray, general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress, accuses Thatcher of taking Britain "back to the 30s with a vengenance."
But there are two quite different memories of the 1930s in Britain. One recalls record unemployment, hunger marches on Parliament and unparalleled deprivation. In the country's poorest regions. The other summons up a nostalgic image of the nation's last golden age, when most of the empire was intact, and Britain still the world's wealthiest country.
"The 1930s have acquired a bad reputation," noted British historian A. J. P. Taylor has written, "and indeed there was plenty wrong with them." But Taylor pointed out that along with the unemployment and the misery of the early 1930s, a rapid economic recovery meant that by the mid-1930s, "most English people" wsre "enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages. They had motor cars, cinemas, radio sets, electrical appliances."
In an introduction to a recent major exhibition of the modernistic British design and good life of the 1980s, Taylor wrote: "The 1930s seeminly so drab and glommy, witnessed both an economic and a technical revolution . . . Almost for the first time a humble man without capital could equip himself on credit, and pay back over the years. Furniture was bought on credit, cars were bought on credit, houses were bought on credit."
A popular history of the 30s in Britain, "The Long Weekend" by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, speaks of "a country still sound at heart," an empire covering a fourth of the world, and a new lifestyle build around new suburbs, touring by car, listening to the radio and traveling abroad.
But as they and Taylor note, there were large parts of the country that did not share in this prosperity before life was changed for everyone by World War II. Coal mining and older industrial regions in Scotland, Wales and northern England recovered much more slowly, if at all.
It was this memory of "two nations -- one optimistically prosperous, the other still desperately poor -- which produced the political consensus that built the British welfare state after the war ended. Its free health care, free education through university, level old-age pensions, supplementary benefits for low-income families, and protections against unemployment were to prevent poverty and joblessness from ever dividing the nation again.
But Thatcher's critics charge that her cuts in welfare-state spending will do just that, and point to the already disproportionate impact of unemployment and deindustrialization in Scotland, Wales and northern England. They note that Thatcher's Conservatives were put into office by big majorities in the prosperous parts of the country in and around London and in southern England, while most voters in the rest of the country supported the Labor Party.
Government statiscians and researchers among them, Peter Towsend, a professor at the University of Essex and author of a major new study, "Poverty in the United Kingdom," show that welfare state benefits have already failed to keep up with inflation during the 1970s for an estimated 14 million Britons or one-fourth of the population, who are living in or on the poverty margin.
For Thatcher and others like her who grew up in during the 1930s in comfortable upper middle-class households that stressed the virtues of hard work, thrift and self-reliance, this is proof that the welfare state is not working. They believe it has been a mistake to try to achieve economic and social equality through income redistribution with high taxes.
In a characteristically could moment during a recent television interview, Thatcher said: "You will get a more thriving society when people can rise to the limits of their talents, and out of the wealth they create we shall be better off."