Was Great Britain A Democracy In World War One

Economic Disadvantage

During World War 1, Great Britain was a democracy in its own right, however, its citizens did not have a significant amount of power in the way the war was conducted. The decision-making was highly centralized and the war was run as a government enterprise with limited citizen involvement. The war effort was funded by borrowing on a mammoth scale, and citizens had little ability to shape the decisions and actions of the government and military.

The high economic cost of the war effort placed a severe burden on the populace, as the public’s access to resources were heavily restricted and rationed. This was done to conserve resources for the war effort, and to prevent black markets from developing. In addition, the public was required to finance the war even further, by purchasing war bonds and so-called ‘Patriotic Funds’ – this was essentially a sort of taxation without representation.

For all intents and purposes, the taxation was regressive, meaning that the tax burden most heavily impacted the lower classes due to their limited disposable incomes (and the fact that there were no income taxes until comparatively recently). In this regard, the economy of Great Britain during World War 1 was far from a democracy as the lower classes had virtually no power or representation in decision-making.

Lack of Freedom of Expression

At a time when Britain was at war abroad, it was also suppressing truths at home. The British government employed censorship to limit the spread of news and opinion, particularly those of a ‘likely enemy character’. This meant that the British press was heavily restricted in its ability to report stories and publish opinion pieces. Newspapers and magazines were subject to regular censorship in order to remove potentially seditious content.

This censorship extended to public gatherings and events in Great Britain, as well as limited dissenters’ access to the judicial system. Additionally, a great deal of the war effort was secret, meaning that the general public had very limited understanding of key events, operations, and strategic objectives.

While soldiers fought and died on the battlefield, their efforts and experiences were not shared with the home front. This was done to ensure that news of the war effort was not overblown or misrepresented in any way. Thus, the term ‘democracy’ is not applicable to Great Britain during World War 1 due to the severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

Political Disenfranchisement

Political disenfranchisement was pervasive during World War 1. The War Cabinet was created in 1916, and this unelected body held power for the entire duration of the war. This group of politicians had control over all aspects of the war effort, from the economic policies implemented to the management of military resources. Without direct elections, the citizens of Great Britain had no say as to who was leading their country to victory.

In addition, the strategic planning of the War Cabinet was often viewed as inept, due to a lack of information coming from the battlefields. Without election cycles to keep the body in check, the citizens had no effective means of replacing the War Cabinet and choosing new leadership that may have had a better understanding of military affairs.

Furthermore, the War Cabinet was insulated from any political accountability, owing to the fact that they had no direct responsibility to their constituents in the form of elections. As such, political demands of the populace were largely ignored in an effort to focus on winning the war, and the more pressing needs of the people were neglected.

Social Polarization

The war affected various socio-economic groups differently, and this resulted in a great deal of social polarization. The upper classes were not heavily affected by economic restrictions, war debts and restrictions on freedom of expression. This was due to the fact that they had money to purchase war bonds and expendable income to purchase resources on black markets. On the other hand, the working classes were hit heavily by rationing and taxation, and had no avenues to protest government policy.

These social tensions often resulted in physical violence, particularly in the form of anti-German riots in port cities. These riots were a symptom of social unrest in a country dictated by a government without accountability to its people. In this regard, these acts of violence further demonstrate that Great Britain was not a true democracy during the war.

Exclusion of Disenfranchised Groups

Women were not granted the right to vote in Great Britain until 1918, long after the war had already begun. Similarly, men too young to vote (under the age of 21) and those who were unemployed were also denied the right to vote. This created a great deal of disenfranchisement within the country, as the majority of the populace was effectively excluded from participation in public affairs.

Furthermore, some minority groups were openly discriminated against in recruitment policies. While some volunteered of their own accord, many were barred from enlisting due to their race or religious background. This policy applied even to veterans of previous conflicts who applied for service in World War 1. Thus, this lack of representation highlights the fact that the country was far from a democracy.


Overall, it is clear that Great Britain was not a true democracy during World War 1. The centralization of decisions, the heavy taxation of citizens, and the lack of representation for women and minority groups all point to a country in which individual citizens had limited control over the affairs of their country and none over military decisions. Thus, the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘Great Britain’ were not mutually inclusive during World War 1.

Rocco Rivas

Rocco P. Rivas is a prolific British writer who specialises in writing about the UK. He has written extensively on topics such as British culture, politics and history, as well as on contemporary issues facing the nation. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

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