Today we’re featuring Phil, a writer from the UK who posted a wonderful essay in reply to a post by Kevin Baker of The Smallest Minority detailing the effects of World War I on Great Britain and how it affected gun control there.
It’s true that the First World War destroyed Britain (or at least set in train the factors which were to lead to its destruction).
One of the biggest factors was the unprecedented increase in the power and size of the State.
Prior to the war, the state was very small, run by professional Civil Servants with an ethic that serving your country was an honourable thing to do and reward enough in itself.
National government was small, and the taxes it collected were spent largely on Defence and not much else. There was no welfare state and only a basic retirement pension (which less than 1 in 100 people would live long enough to collect). The liberal party wanted to spend less on defence and introduce welfare payments, spend cash on “social programs” etc. They were elected to government on this promise – bear this in mind for later.
Local Government was dependent on local taxes only (no massive injections of cash from national Government) and therefore responsive to the areas it served.
Sir Robert Peels efforts in setting up a Police force enforced law and order on the country and as the laws were reasonable and people agreed with them so people were at the start of the war very much law abiding. The laws were not onerous. However, the Police force contained in itself the seeds of the destruction of society (which Peel warned about) by distancing people from the law and the Police becoming apart from the citizens. In short, the State started to accumulate the power and authority and the law and its enforcement became the monopoly of the State.
A snapshot of Britain in the few years before the war would show that people were law abiding and enjoyed freedoms that would be disbelieved nowadays. Of course, there was not the mass immigration and different cultures then – people were BRITISH and had a strong sense of national identity.
Lord Elcho (the Minister of Defence) wanted a rifle in every cottage in the land and looked forward to the day this was achieved. There was no restriction firearms, other than a “permit to purchase pistols” (1896) which was a tax raising effort (you walked into a post office and bought a permit just as you would postage stamps). So anyone who wanted a pistol of any description could buy one without hindrance.
Blackstone still had a major influence on the thinking of politicians and the freedoms enjoyed by the population were not seriously challenged – it would be political suicide to do so.
Although Britain had an Empire on which the Sun never set, it was administered by a tiny bureaucracy largely through the native population. The expenditure of the British state was small, the revenue generated by the “Workshop of the World” was sufficient for the needs and as a percentage of the national wealth, tax was about 2 to 4% . Besides the Empire was largely a confederation of nations – nominally independent and with a complex relationship with the Mother country and very much self financing. It was by no means as united as, say, the individual states in the USA and were largely autonomous.
So what changed?
The First World War was the biggest war Britain had ever fought (even the Medieval 100 years War was small scale in comparison). It stretched the resources and finances of the country to breaking point.
Along with this “Total War” concept went increased taxation to finance the war, a massive growth in the power of the State required to organise and direct the War effort and a squandering of the wealth of the nation. All this on a war which Britain was reluctantly drawn into by the increasingly complex and mutually supporting treaties built up from about 1870 onwards (after the Franco-Prussian war that saw Alsace Lorraine ceded to Germany).
The Irish Nationalists in the 1916 Easter rising (partly to assist the Germans and to take advantage of the preoccupation of the British Government with the war) caused problems (which exist to this day) and the sabotage and mischief caused by the Irish resulted in clampdowns on freedoms, other restrictions and a paranoid tendency in the Government of the day. People accepted the restrictions as they realised Britain was fighting for its survival and were too busy either fighting or working to produce munitions – although Irishmen had been planting bombs for the last 50 years. Don’t forget that the massive increase in the State resulted in the professional, service orientated civil servants to be massively diluted by the newly recruited newcomers, unlikely to be as highly trained as the professionals and had a different ethos.
Then the Russian Revolution kicked off in November (by the Western calendar) 1917 resulting in the execution of Queen Victoria’s close blood relative in her nephew Czar Nicholas II and the Czarina Alexandra and their children.
The paranoid tendency of the Government went into overdrive – if this could happen in a country which was “just like us” and the Monarchy and Government overthrown, the what would the largest Army Britain ever had, manned by conscripts (and conscription was not resorted to until 1916) and trained and armed to the teeth do if they were to revolt too?
At the end of the war the returning heroes were promised “A land fit for heroes” – although where the cash was to come from wasn’t specified – and the delayed social reforms were trotted out. Social housing, financed through taxation and administered by the local government departments was introduced. This was a form of social control and Council House Tenants were subjected to inspections by local government inspectors (including if they had made the beds etc.) at regular intervals.
After all the “War to end all Wars” surely ended war and would free up cash for these reforms from the Navy and other services. Besides, the entire nation had had a gut full of war and pacifism was an attractive option. Plenty of civil servants were available to implement the reforms, collect the taxes (which, after 4 years of war, people were used to paying) and administer the system.
But first, the people had to be disarmed – the horror of the Russian Revolution (and by then, the horrors were known, if not publicised) still haunted the imagination of the government.
The 1920 Firearms Act was brought in but sold as a crime prevention measure. This was hushed up under the Official Secrets Act and placed under a 60 year anti disclosure rule. The papers were finally released in 1981. They are available in the national records Archive at Kew, London if you want to inspect them.
There were an average of 54 incidents A YEAR in the UK in the years leading up to WW1 (now there are more than that in London alone PER DAY). The legislation banned some firearms (full automatic weapons – legal until then), required the licensing of certain firearms (pistols, rifles and air rifles though NOT shotguns – not a militarily useful weapon). An immediate result was that the Chief Constable of London wanted to confiscate all firearms and in the event of a revolution, hold them in Police stations and dish them out to Tory (i.e. “Right” wing) supporters. The Police were to administer the licensing system and immediately began to block the granting of firearms certificates on a “must show good reason for possessing a firearm” basis. Magistrates (a local “small” court system dealing with minor offences) could not understand why people were being refused certificates and granted them over police objections. The Police agitated and influenced the politicians until 1937 when the law was changed to have appeals heard by the Crown Court (which dealt with much more serious offences such as murder) and the Police could reclaim the costs of going to court from the applicant. They upped the Anti significantly. At the same time there was a firearms amnesty when over 1 million service rifles were handed in and destroyed. This must have pleased Herr Hitler enormously.
March 1938 and the Munich crisis over Czechoslovakia gave a wake up call to the Nation and the pacifist tendencies of the 1930’s were reversed. Britain went on a massive spending program to rearm and modernise its forces.
My opinion is that Neville Chamberlin was Statesman enough to realise Britain was totally unprepared to go to War with Germany (which had practiced during the Spanish Civil war and had rearmed and modernised its forces enormously) and signed the famous “Peace in our time” piece of paper to buy time. He was condemned for this but placed the good of the Country ahead of his own honour and good name.
As a “for example”, at the time of Munich, Britain possessed one squadron of Spitfires, and by the end of the year, two.
In September 1939, 9 ½ (one squadron was converting to Spitfires) with 100% reserves.
By the time of the battle of Britain (July to October 1940), the RAF had 27 Squadrons of Hurricanes and 19 of Spitfires.
Such rearmament did not come cheap and taxation went up to pay for this. The losses of merchant shipping almost starved Britain to death and rationing of all goods (food, coal, gas etc.) imposed hardships on the country which were necessary but again increased the power of the State enormously. There was a Ministry of just about everything. The costs of the war were crippling and not helped by the fact that America insisted Britain paid for and bought the equipment ordered by France (which was invaded before it could be delivered) which was mostly useless (such as rifle ammunition in the wrong calibre) as well as light bombers such as the Martin Maryland and Baltimore, Lockheed Hudson etc. which were not designed for the roles the RAF needed aircraft to fill.
A sign of the attitudes embedded in the mindset of the Government and Civil Servants was indicated by the danger of Invasion.
Here is something which may interest those who study the history etc. of Rifles.
The British 0.303 cartridge was designed for a black powder single shot rifle (The Martini actioned, Henry rifling barrelled Martini-Henry) and although the Lee Enfield bolt action rife was taken into service, the limitations of the rimmed, highly tapered 0.303 was well known.
The British War Office commenced a search for a replacement rifle and cartridge and after a lengthy development period, eventually came up with the Pattern 13 rifle and a 7mm cartridge. After detailed field trials (including civilians and the Army), it was decided to produce the rifle from 1914. The First World war intervened and sensibly, the War Office stuck with the lee Enfield/0.303 combination.
There was some doubt that British industry could keep up with demand so contracts were placed in the USA with Remington Rand, Eddystone and Winchester for the P13 but chambered for the 0.303 cartridge as the P14. Later, America would chamber it for the .30-06 cartridge as the M1917 Enfield rifle and after the War, Remington produced it for the civilian market as the (relying on memory) 52 or 54 Model. It evolved into the Remington M700 series …
As it happened, America delivered 1.25 Million rifles which were used for training and sniping only – British Industry coped with the demand for Lee-Enfields and they were not needed.
They were stored between the wars and when the threat of invasion during 1940 was imminent, THEY REMAINED IN STORAGE. The Home Guard was set up and paraded with broomsticks and any “overlooked” service rifles. It was not until the end of 1940/early 1941 when the Home Guard had been fully organised and brought under strict government control and the threat of invasion receded that the rifles were issued to them.
Consider the implications – there was a serious possibility that the Germans WOULD invade but the civil servants and the Government of the day decided that arming the population carried a greater risk than working with a hostile government. Vichy France did not have the monopoly on traitors.
Had the Germans invaded the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that was Britain, the continent would have been under tyranny (Nazi, or more likely Communist) forever. Neither the British Empire countries or the USA could have realistically projected force across an Ocean nor it is likely that America would have tried.
No – the Government held the monopoly on force and did not intend to give it up. Control of the population under the emergency of war and for a long time afterwards was being established. For example, rationing did not end until 1952 when it was lifted for the Queens coronation.
The breakup of the British Empire brought home bureaucrats from the colonies and these colonial administrators were given non jobs in the UK – the white fish authority, the egg marketing board, the milk marketing board etc. and so forth were set up and headed by these people. They were used to controlling the “wogs” and brought the same attitudes back to Britain except the British public, inured to years of being told what to do, took the role of the wogs and compliantly did what they were told.
The final torpedo into liberty occurred on 5 July 1948 when the labour government stated off the Social Security scheme and the National Health Service. Today, it is the third largest employer in the World . . .
So what lessons can I summarise here?
1) Government is a Business and like any business it is a case of expand or die.
2) An emergency allows legislation to be introduced which ratchets up, never down and any power once seized is NEVER given up.
3) Politicians lie.
4) The Police are a business (see 1 above).
5) Unless you take an interest in Politics and watch your “representatives” like hawks, they will arrange things to benefit themselves.
6) Unless you are cynical, the plausible schemes, soft and reasonable sounding words are not rebutted and there is always a further step which can be taken to wards Utopia. Once you realise the process has gone too far, it is too late.
Does that little list sit uncomfortably with you?
I have made some sweeping statements here and you will correctly ask me to justify them. So here goes :
For the buildup to the First World war, “Dreadnought – Britain, Germany and the coming of the Great War” by Robert K Massie gives an extremely wide ranging and detailed insight into why the war started (including Germany claiming territorial violations by France as justification for the War – see 1939 also!)
For how and why the war developed John Keegans “The First World War” is the best overview without getting bogged down in the individual battles and “The 3rd battalion, Kings Regiment advanced 55 yards at 7-32Am on the 16th” detail which most histories devolve into.
For British social policies and the way it developed, see the Civitas website (http://www.civitas.org.uk/) and look at their free e-books.
For postwar council policy on housing from someone who was at the cutting edge, see this article from Civitas : http://www.civitas.org.uk/blog/ 2…government.html
And again, searching the Civitas website and the e-books section will reveal plenty of information on this. One thing I like about Civitas website is that the majority of the people who write for it are ex-socialists who have a detailed insight into the system and realise it doesn’t work.
For the development of firearms control, see “Guns and Violence – the English Experience” by Joyce Lee Malcolm.
Phil is an active firearm enthusiast and resident of New Zealand.
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