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A Very British Dictatorship: The Defence of the Realm Act in Britain, 1914-1920

Keil, A (2024) A Very British Dictatorship: The Defence of the Realm Act in Britain, 1914-1920. First World War Studies, 14 (1). pp. 51-70. ISSN 1947-5020

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When Britain entered the First World War on 5 August 1914, it had no established set of emergency powers comparable to the other belligerents. Nonetheless, within a matter of days, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), which allowed the British government to rule by decree and suspend vital elements of the unwritten constitution. Consequently, the supremacy of the Parliament and key aspects of the rule of law, both seen as cornerstones of the self-proclaimed “liberal“ political culture in Britain, were de facto put on hold for the duration of the war. This article argues that the Defence of the Realm Act established what can only be described as a “commissary dictatorship” yet one that was hidden in plain sight. While DORA presented the government with hitherto unprecedented powers, government ministers sought to avoid the impression of an overly oppressive use of them. The practice under the state of exception in Britain during the war was often shaped by the desire of government ministers to avoid the use of emergency powers and to use indirect and non-public channels of policymaking instead. Yet, as the article highlights, when necessary, the British state was capable of using DORA for the ruthless repression of dissent and industrial unrest. Overall, this piece posits that the state of exception under DORA had dictatorial features that were, however, kept in check by a sense of pragmatism and a willingness to compromise to avoid the escalation of conflicts on the homefront.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: First World War; Law; Emergency Powers; State of Exception; Britain; Defence of the Realm Act; 2103 Historical Studies
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D501 World War I
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
K Law > K Law (General)
Divisions: Humanities & Social Science
Publisher: Taylor and Francis Group
SWORD Depositor: A Symplectic
Date Deposited: 19 Jan 2024 11:01
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2024 12:00
DOI or ID number: 10.1080/19475020.2024.2307040
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/22363
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