SINCE end of the Second World, many people have seen the inter-war period as an age of instigated economy failure, marked by mass unemployment, hunger marches, including the famous Jarrow March of 1936 and lengthening dole queues. For the historian Claude Cockburn, this was the ''devil's decade''.
However, this popular view has been challenged by the author and broadcaster Stuart Maconie in his book, 'The Long Road to Jarrow.' He points out that, although there was great hardship, especially in the north of England, Wales and industrial Scotland in the 1930s, it was unevenly spread out.
The hardships were very real, particularly for those who lived in the depressed areas of Tyneside, Teeside and Co Durham. For instance, between 1854 and 1913, then output of British coal had grown from 65 to 287m tons. By 1934, it had fallen. In human terms, the ruin of the traditional industries such as shipbuilding and mining was the ruin of hundreds of thousands of men through mass unemployment.
Certainly, to live in Jarrow was a grimmer experience the to live in the Midland town of Market Harborough. In 1936, Jarrow resembled a ghost town, with over 80% of the town's men jobless.
And the Durham town of Ferryhill experienced 25% unemployment. The consequences were devastating - shops, pubs and other businesses were forced to close. Families fell into debt. Diets suffered and health -both physical and mental deteriorated. The dole was meagre. The hated 'mean-test' was often applied in a harsh and heartless manner.
Today unemployment across the UK is rising sharply. The Emergency exit: How we get Britain back to work report by the Learning and Work Institute points out ''the sharpest rises are taking unemployment to historic highs.''
The report states: ''Unemployment could rise above 15% in the second half of 2020, perhaps reaching levels last seen in 1938. This would mean in excess of of four million people out of work.''
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on the job prospects of groups that were more disadvantaged even before the crisis - young people, women, older workers and the low-paid. In the North East 17% are NEET, the highest in Britain and this is likely too treble by the end of 2020. In Newcastle-Upon-Tyne 8,000 adults are claiming jobseekers allowance, a figure that's likely to increase to 24,000 by 2021 unless drastic action is taken , warns the Local Government Association.
While central government has unveiled its £2b 'Kick-Start, job creation programme, aimed at jobless 16 to 24-year olds, the Learning and Work Institute is calling on the government to bring forward ''large-scale investment and incentives to create jobs with shovel-ready and jobs-rich schemes''.
Millions more experience the insecurity and low wages of the ''gig'' economy. There's been a sharp rise in precarious self-employment and zero-hour contracts. Under austerity, the number of northerners using food banks has soared. The Trussel Trust gave out over a million food parcels in 2019. Child poverty and mental ill-health have increased with 16,700 north-east youngsters at risk of falling through the net in the school and care system.
As Maconie notes: ''The '30s in some ways start to look very much like Britain today, once you've wiped away the soot and coal dust''.
Social class, for Maconie, is alive and well. It's the principal division of UK society as he reflects upon the north-south divide through his contemporary journey from the post-industrial towns of Jarrow and Barnsley to the southern market towns of Bedford and St. Albans. The former industrial town of Ferryhill, today is a ''mining town with no pit'', he writes.
Yet as the historians Cook and Stevenson, point out Birmingham, although hard-hit, escaped the worst ravages of the interwar recession, while the leafy suburban towns of the home counties remained untouched, with full employment. New council housing was being built for the so-called ''respectable working-class''. With interest rates low, new mock owner-occupied Tudor semis were being built on the fringes of London for professionals in the private sector.
Nor did the era produce a potential revolutionary situation or extremism as predicted by many contemporaries at the time. Although membership of the far-left Communist Party grew from 2,500 in 1930 to 17,500 by 1939, it made very few advances. Likewise Mosley's Fascist blackshirts during the period made little impact in the nation, even though his party had over 30,000 members by 1935.
The 1930s were, in several respects, period of growth and socio-economic expansion. The well-established light industries of the Midlands, although they had always met the demands of the domestic consumer, found themselves faced with a rapidly expanding mass market. Inexpensive consumer durables such as vacuum cleaners, radios and electric irons flooded the market and were bought in vast quantities by 1939.
Department stores, especially Woolworths, grew and expanded rapidly, selling a wide range of cosmetics and women's magazines. Today the retail and hospitality industry is on the brink of partial collapse due to the COVID-19 crisis.
As the 1930s witnessed marked shifts in the economy in both middle England and the south of the country, leisure to became transformed.
In 1920, there had been about half a million motor vehicles of all kinds. By 1932 there were three times as many. By 1939, that figure had doubled. Of the three million vehicles on the roads, two million were private cars. In Oxford, traffic jams had become a familiar bank holiday event. In 1931, only 1.5m people were entitled to a paid holiday. By 1938, this figure had risen to 11 million.
Caravans, Butlins holiday camps and cinemas were becoming a familiar sight. The number of visits to the '' picture houses'' rose from 36,000 in 1924 to eight million by 1935 with cinemas like the Odeon packed out every weekend.
Throughout the thirties, the cost of living fell by one third faster than wage rises. Those in secure employment like office workers and skilled artisans, who formed the majority, enjoyed a rise of 17% in real incomes from 1924 to 1935.
The author JB Priestly, in his book 'English Journey'', in 1934 was not slow in noticing the paradox that prevailed: mass unemployment and poverty for one section of the working class in the north and a rising standard of living for another in the south.
He wrote: ''This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, motor coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing, swimming pools and everything given away fro cigarette coupons.''
Maconie argues that, 80 years on, we're going back to 1930s depression, deepening inequality in material condition and the growth of ''populism''. It can't be denied that we're seeing a widening gulf both between the North and South of England.
Just as worrying, we appear to witnessing a big gap opening up between the cosmopolitan core cities and nearby urban post-industrial and coastal towns where there's much talk about the white working-classes becoming marginalised, angry and 'left-behind'.
It's imperative that we make our post-COVID-19 country a ''one-nation'' society again. But we also need to strive for a ''one region society'' too, if we're serious about re-creating a more equitable and fairer community which benefits the many and not just the few.
Stephen Lambert is a Newcastle City Councillor. He writes in a personal capacity.