On 18 September, a referendum was held in Scotland on whether to leave the United Kingdom and became an independent country. The three UK-wide political parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats – campaigned together as part of the Better Together campaign while the pro-independence Scottish national Party was the main force in the Yes Scotland campaign. Days before the vote, with the opinion polls closing, the three Better Together party leaders issued a vow of more powers for Scotland in the event of a No vote. The referendum resulted in Scotland voting by 55% to 45% to remain part of the United Kingdom.
War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist attacks
In the 2001 General Election, the Labour Party won a second successive victory, though voter turnout dropped to the lowest level for more than 80 years. Later that year, the September 11th attacks in the United States led to American President George W. Bush launching the War on Terror, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan aided by British troops in October 2001. Thereafter, with the US focus shifting to Iraq, Tony Blair convinced the Labour and Conservative MPs to vote in favour of supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite huge anti-war marches held in London and Glasgow. Forty-six thousand British troops, one-third of the total strength of the Army’s land forces, were deployed to assist with the invasion of Iraq and thereafter British armed forces were responsible for security in southern Iraq. All British forces were withdrawn in 2010.
The Labour Party won the 2005 general election and a third consecutive term. On 7 July 2005, a series of four suicide bombings struck London, killing 52 commuters, in addition to the four bombers.
Nationalist government in Scotland
2007 saw the first ever election victory for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament elections. They formed a minority government with plans to hold a referendum before 2011 to seek a mandate “to negotiate with the Government of the United Kingdom to achieve independence for Scotland.” Most opinion polls show minority support for independence, although support varies depending on the nature of the question. The response of the unionist parties was to establish the Calman Commission to examine further devolution of powers, a position that had the support of the Prime Minister.
Responding to the findings of the review, the UK government announced on 25 November 2009, that new powers would be devolved to the Scottish Government, notably on how it can raise tax and carry out capital borrowing, and the running of Scottish Parliament elections. These proposals were detailed in a white paper setting out a new Scotland Bill, to become law before the 2015 Holyrood elections. The proposal was criticised by the UK parliament opposition parties for not proposing to implement any changes before the next general election. Scottish Constitution Minister Michael Russell criticised the white paper, calling it “flimsy” and stating that their proposed Referendum (Scotland) Bill, 2010, whose own white paper was to be published five days later, would be “more substantial”.
According to The Independent, the Calman Review white paper proposals fall short of what would normally be seen as requiring a referendum.
The 2011 election saw a decisive victory for the SNP which was able to form a majority government intent on delivering a referendum on independence. Within hours of the victory, Prime Minister David Cameron guaranteed that the UK government would not put any legal or political obstacles in the way of such a referendum. Some unionist politicians, including former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish, have responded to the situation by arguing that Scotland should be offered ‘devo-max’ as an alternative to independence and First Minister Alex Salmond has signalled his willingness to include it on the referendum ballot paper.
Servings 4 Units US
1 whole chicken, cut up, any parts, any amount
1 large onion, chopped
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
1⁄2 cup peanut butter (natural or homemade, containing only peanuts and salt)
hot chili peppers or cayenne pepper, to taste
The 2008 economic crisis
In the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008, the United Kingdom economy contracted, experiencing negative economic growth throughout 2009. The announcement in November 2008 that the economy had shrunk for the first time since late 1992 brought an end to 16 years of continuous economic growth. Causes included an end to the easy credit of the preceding years, reduction in consumption and substantial depreciation of sterling (which fell 25% against the euro between January 2008 and January 2009), leading to increased import costs, notably of oil.
On 8 October 2008, the British Government announced a bank rescue package of around £500 billion ($850 billion at the time). The plan comprised three parts.: £200 billion to be made available to the banks in the Bank of England’s Special Liquidity Scheme; the Government was to increase the banks’ market capitalization, through the Bank Recapitalization Fund, with an initial £25 billion and another £25 billion to be provided if needed; and the Government was to temporarily underwrite any eligible lending between British banks up to around £250 billion. With the UK officially coming out of recession in the fourth quarter of 2009—ending six consecutive quarters of economic decline—the Bank of England decided against further quantitative easing.
The 2010 coalition government
The United Kingdom General Election of 6 May 2010 resulted in the first hung parliament since 1974, with the Conservative Party winning the largest number of seats, but falling short of the 326 seats required for an overall majority. Following this, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed to form the first coalition government for the UK since the end of the Second World War, with David Cameron becoming Prime Minister and Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister.
Under the coalition government, British military aircraft participated in the UN-mandated intervention in the 2011 Libyan civil war, flying a total of 3,000 air sorties against forces loyal to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi between March and October 2011. 2011 also saw England suffer unprecedented rioting in its major cities in early August, killing five people and causing over £200 million worth of property damage.
In late October 2011, the prime ministers of the Commonwealth realms voted to grant gender equality in the royal succession, ending the male-preference primogeniture that was mandated by the Act of Settlement 1701. The amendment, once enacted, will also end the ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic.
Britain’s wish to join the Common Market (as the European Economic Community was known in Britain) was first expressed in July 1961 by the Macmillan government, was negotiated by Edward Heath as Lord Privy Seal, but was vetoed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle. After initially hesitating over the issue, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government lodged the UK’s second application (in May 1967) to join the European Community, as it was now called. Like the first, though, it was vetoed by de Gaulle in November that year.
In 1973, as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, Heath negotiated terms for admission and Britain finally joined the Community, alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973. In opposition, the Labour Party was deeply divided, though its Leader, Harold Wilson, remained in favour. In the 1974 General Election, the Labour Party manifesto included a pledge to renegotiate terms for Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EC on the new terms. This was a constitutional procedure without precedent in British history. In the subsequent referendum campaign, rather than the normal British tradition of “collective responsibility”, under which the government takes a policy position which all cabinet members are required to support publicly, members of the Government (and the Conservative opposition) were free to present their views on either side of the question. A referendum was duly held on 5 June 1975, and the proposition to continue membership was passed with a substantial majority.
The Single European Act (SEA) was the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty of Rome. In 1987, the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher enacted it into UK law.
The Maastricht Treaty transformed the European Community into the European Union. In 1992, the Conservative government under John Major ratified it, against the opposition of his backbench Maastricht Rebels.
The Treaty of Lisbon introduced many changes to the treaties of the Union. Prominent changes included more qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, increased involvement of the European Parliament in the legislative process through extended codecision with the Council of Ministers, eliminating the pillar system and the creation of a President of the European Council with a term of two and a half years and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to present a united position on EU policies. The Treaty of Lisbon will also make the Union’s human rights charter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding. The Lisbon Treaty also leads to an increase in the voting weight of the UK in the Council of the European Union from 8.4% to 12.4%. In July 2008, the Labour government under Gordon Brown approved the treaty and the Queen ratified it.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales
On 11 September 1997, (on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge), a referendum was held on establishing a devolved Scottish Parliament. This resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote both to establishing the parliament and granting it limited tax varying powers. Two weeks later, a referendum in Wales on establishing a Welsh Assembly was also approved but with a very narrow majority. The first elections were held, and these bodies began to operate, in 1999. The creation of these bodies has widened the differences between the Countries of the United Kingdom, especially in areas like healthcare. It has also brought to the fore the so-called West Lothian question which is a complaint that devolution for Scotland and Wales but not England has created a situation where all the MPs in the UK parliament can vote on matters affecting England alone but on those same matters Scotland and Wales can make their own decisions.
Britain’s control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism strengthened in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt.
Between 1867 and 1910, the UK had granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand “Dominion” status (near complete autonomy within the Empire). They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (known as the Commonwealth of Nations since 1949), an informal but close-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain’s former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies, including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others, which have elected to continue rule by London and are known as British Overseas Territories.
In the 1960s, moderate unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O’Neill tried to reform the system and give a greater voice to Catholics who comprised 40% of the population of Northern Ireland. His goals were blocked by militant Protestants led by the Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from unionists to resist reform led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes escalated out of control as the army could barely contain the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defence Association. British leaders feared their withdrawal would give a “Doomsday Scenario,” with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. London shut down Northern Ireland’s parliament and began direct rule. By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of a British withdrawal led to negotiations that in 1998 produced the ‘Good Friday Agreement‘. It won popular support and largely ended the Troubles.
The economy in the late 20th century
After the relative prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, the UK experienced extreme industrial strife and stagflation through the 1970s following a global economic downturn; Labour had returned to government in 1964 under Harold Wilson to end 13 years of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were restored to government in 1970 under Edward Heath, who failed to halt the country’s economic decline and was ousted in 1974 as Labour returned to power under Harold Wilson. The economic crisis deepened following Wilson’s return and things fared little better under his successor James Callaghan.
A strict modernisation of its economy began under the controversial Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher following her election as prime minister in 1979, which saw a time of record unemployment as deindustrialisation saw the end of much of the country’s manufacturing industries but also a time of economic boom as stock markets became liberalised and State-owned industries became privatised. Inflation also fell during this period and trade union power was reduced.
However the miners’ strike of 1984–1985 sparked the end of most of the UK’s coal mining. The exploitation of North Sea gas and oil brought in substantial tax and export revenues to aid the new economic boom. This was also the time that the IRA took the issue of Northern Ireland to Great Britain, maintaining a prolonged bombing campaign on the British mainland.
After the economic boom of the 1980s a brief but severe recession occurred between 1990 and 1992 following the economic chaos of Black Wednesday under government of John Major, who had succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990. However the rest of the 1990s saw the beginning of a period of continuous economic growth that lasted over 16 years and was greatly expanded under the New Labour government of Tony Blair following his landslide election victory in 1997, with a rejuvenated party having abandoned its commitment to policies including nuclear disarmament and nationalisation of key industries, and no reversal of the Thatcher-led union reforms.
From 1964 up until 1996, income per head had doubled, while ownership of various household goods had significantly increased. By 1996, two-thirds of households owned cars, 82% had central heating, most people owned a VCR, and one in five houses had a home computer. In 1971, 9% of households had no access to a shower or bathroom, compared with only 1% in 1990; largely due to demolition or modernisation of older properties which lacked such facilities. In 1971, only 35% had central heating, while 78% enjoyed this amenity in 1990. By 1990, 93% of households had colour television, 87% had telephones, 86% had washing machines, 80% had deep-freezers, 60% had video-recorders, and 47% had microwave ovens. Holiday entitlements had also become more generous. In 1990, nine out of ten full-time manual workers were entitled to more than four weeks of paid holiday a year, while twenty years previously only two-thirds had been allowed three weeks or more. The postwar period also witnessed significant improvements in housing conditions. In 1960, 14% of British households had no inside toilet, while in 1967 22% of all homes had no basic hot water supply. By the Nineties, however almost all homes had these amenities together with central heating, which was a luxury just two decades before. From 1996/7 to 2006/7, real median household income increased by 20% while real mean household incomes increased by 23%. There has also been a shift towards a service-based economy in the years following the end of the Second World War, with 11% of working people employed in manufacturing in 2006, compared with 25% in 1971.
As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued and a number of immigrants from the remaining British Empire, mostly the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, were invited to help the rebuilding effort. As the 1950s wore on, Britain lost its place as a superpower and could no longer maintain its large Empire. This led to decolonisation, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970. Events such as the Suez Crisis showed that the UK’s status had fallen in the world. The 1950s and 1960s were, however, relatively prosperous times after the Second World War, and saw the beginning of a modernisation of the UK, with the construction of its first motorways for example, and also during the 1960s a great cultural movement began which expanded across the world. Unemployment was relatively low during this period and the standard of living continued to rise with more new private and council housing developments taking place and the number of slum properties diminishing.
The post-war period also witnessed a dramatic rise in the average standard of living, as characterised by a 40% rise in average real wages from 1950 to 1965. Earnings for men in industry rose by 95% between 1951 and 1964, while during that same period the official workweek was reduced and five reductions in income tax were made. Those in traditionally poorly paid semi-skilled and unskilled occupations saw a particularly marked improvement in their wages and living standards. As summed up by R. J. Unstead,
“Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and\ the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”
In 1950, the UK standard of living was higher than in any EEC country apart from Belgium. It was 50% higher than the West German standard of living, and twice as high as the Italian standard of living. By the earlier Seventies, however, the UK standard of living was lower than all EEC countries apart from Italy (which, according to one calculation, was roughly equal to Britain). In 1951, the average weekly earnings of men over the age of 21 stood at £8 6s 0d, and nearly doubled a decade later to £15 7s 0d. By 1966, average weekly earnings stood at £20 6s 0d.
Between 1951 and 1963, wages rose by 72% while prices rose by 45%, enabling people to afford more consumer goods than ever before. Between 1955 and 1967, the average earnings of weekly-paid workers increased by 96% and those of salaried workers by 95%, while prices rose by about 45% in the same period. The rising affluence of the Fifties and Sixties was underpinned by sustained full employment and a dramatic rise in worker‘s wages. In 1950, the average weekly wage stood at £6.8s, compared with £11.2s.6d in 1959. As a result of wage rises, consumer spending also increased by about 20% during this same period, while economic growth remained at about 3%. In addition, food rations were lifted in 1954 while hire-purchase controls were relaxed in the same year. As a result of these changes, large numbers of the working classes were able to participate in the consumer market for the first time. As noted by Harriet Wilson
The significant real wage increases in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to a rapid increase in working-class consumerism, with British consumer spending rising by 45% between 1952 and 1964. In addition, entitlement to various fringe benefits was improved. In 1955, 96% of manual labourers were entitled to two weeks’ holiday with pay, compared with 61% in 1951. By the end of the 1950s, Britain had become one of the world’s most affluent countries, and by the early Sixties, most Britons enjoyed a level of prosperity that had previously been known only to a small minority of the population.
For the young and unattached, there was, for the first time in decades, spare cash for leisure, clothes, and luxuries. In 1959, Queen magazine declared that “Britain has launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living.” Average wages were high while jobs were plentiful, and people saw their personal prosperity climb even higher. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan claimed that “the luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor.” Levels of disposable income rose steadily, with the spending power of the average family rising by 50% between 1951 and 1979, and by the end of the Seventies, 6 out of 10 families had come to own a car.
As noted by Martin Pugh,
“Keynesian economic management enabled British workers to enjoy a golden age of full employment which, combined with a more relaxed attitude towards working mothers, led to the spread of the two-income family. Inflation was around 4 per cent, money wages rose from an average of £8 a week in 1951 to £15 a week by 1961, home-ownership spread from 35 per cent in 1939 to 47 per cent by 1966, and the relaxation of credit controls boosted the demand for consumer goods.”
By 1963, 82% of all private households had a television, 72% a vacuum cleaner, 45%a washing machine, and 30% a refrigerator. In addition, as noted by John Burnett,
“What was equally striking was that ownership of such things had spread down the social scale and the gap between professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed.”
A study of a slum area in Leeds (which was due for demolition) found that 74% of the households had a T.V., 41% a vacuum, and 38% a washing machine. In another slum area, St Mary’s in Oldham (where in 1970 few of the houses had fixed baths or a hot water supply and half shared outside toilets), 67% of the houses were rated as comfortably furnished and a further 24% furnished luxuriously, with smart modern furniture, deep pile carpeting, and decorations.
The provision of household amenities steadily improved during the second half of the twentieth century. From 1971 to 1983, households having the sole use of a fixed bath or shower rose from 88% to 97%, and those with an internal WC from 87% to 97%. In addition, the number of households with central heating almost doubled during that same period, from 34% to 64%. By 1983, 94% of all households had a refrigerator, 81% a colour television, 80% a washing machine, 57% a deep freezer, and 28% a tumble-drier.
Between 1950 and 1970, however, Britain was overtaken by most of the countries of the European Common Market in terms of the number of telephones, refrigerators, television sets, cars, and washing machines per 100 of the population (although Britain remained high in terms of bathrooms and lavatories per 100 people). Although the British standard of living was increasing, the standard of living in other countries increased faster. According to a 1968 study by Anthony Sampson, British workers
“In ten years, from having had a much higher standard of living than the continent, they have slipped right back. Taking the national income per head (a rough yardstick), the British by 1967 had sunk to eighth place among OECD countries, with an annual income of $1,910 compared with $2,010 for Germany, $2,060 for France and $2,480 for Switzerland: and Britain’s falling position already shows itself in the lower proportion of new cars and new houses (though still leading with TV sets and washing machines).”
In 1976, UK wages were amongst the lowest in Western Europe, being half of West German rates and two-thirds of Italian rates. In addition, while educational opportunities for working-class people had widened significantly since the end of the Second World War, a number of developed countries came to overtake Britain in some educational indicators. By the early 1980s, some 80% to 90% of school leavers in France and West Germany received vocational training, compared with 40% in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1980s, over 80% of pupils in the United States and West Germany and over 90% in Japan stayed in education until the age of eighteen, compared with barely 33% of British pupils. In 1987, only 35% of 16- to 18-year-olds were in full-time education or training, compared with 80% in the United States, 77% in Japan, 69% in France, and 49% in the United Kingdom. There also remained gaps between manual and non-manual workers in areas such as fringe benefits and wage levels. In April 1978, for instance, male full-time manual workers aged 21 and above averaged a gross weekly wage of £80.70, while the equivalent for male white collar workers stood at £100.70.
Britain, along with the dominions and the rest of the Empire, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, after the German invasion of Poland. After a quiet period of “phoney war”, the French and British armies collapsed under German onslaught in spring 1940. The British with the thinnest of margins rescued its main army from Dunkirk (as well as many French soldiers), leaving all their equipment and war supplies behind. Winston Churchill came to power, promising to fight the Germans to the very end. The Germans threatened an invasion—which the Royal Navy was prepared to repel. First the Germans tried to achieve air supremacy but were defeated by the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain in late summer 1940. Japan declared war in December 1941, and quickly seized Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma, and threatened Australia and India. Britain formed an alliance with the Soviet Union (starting in 1941) and very close ties to the United States (starting in 1940). The war was very expensive. It was paid for by high taxes, by selling off assets, and by accepting large amounts of Lend Lease from the U.S. and Canada. The US gave $40 billion in munitions; Canada also gave aid. (The American and Canadian aid did not have to be repaid, but there were also American loans that were repaid.)
Welfare conditions, especially regarding food, improved during the war as the government imposed rationing and subsidized food prices. Conditions for housing worsened of course with the bombing, and clothing was in short supply.
A common theme called for an expansion of the welfare state as a reward to the people for their wartime sacrifices. The goal was operational in a famous report by William Beveridge. It recommended that the various income maintenance services that a grown-up piecemeal since 1911 be systematized and made universal. Unemployment benefits and sickness benefits were to be universal. There would be new benefits for maternity. The old-age pension system would be revised and expanded, and require that a person retired. A full-scale National Health Service would provide free medical care for everyone. All the major parties endorsed the principles and they were largely put into effect when peace returned.
The end of the war saw a landslide victory for Clement Attlee and the Labour Party. They were elected on a manifesto of greater social justice with left wing policies such as the creation of a National Health Service, an expansion of the provision of council housing and nationalisation of the major industries. Britain faced severe financial crises, and responded by reducing her international responsibilities and by sharing the hardships of an “age of austerity.” Large loans from the United States and Marshall Plan grants helped rebuild and modernize its infrastructure and business practices. Rationing and conscription dragged on into the post war years, and the country suffered one of the worst winters on record. Nevertheless, morale was boosted by events such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and the Festival of Britain.
Labour Party experts went into the files to find the detailed plans for nationalisation that had been developed. To their surprise, there were no plans. The leaders realized they had to act fast to keep up the momentum of the 1945 electoral landslide. They started with the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal, and cables and wireless. Then came railways, canals, road haulage and trucking, electricity, and gas. Finally came iron and steel, which was a special case because it was a manufacturing industry. Altogether, about one fifth of the economy had been nationalised. Labour dropped its plans to nationalise farmlands. The procedure used was developed by Herbert Morrison, who as Lord President chaired the Committee on the Socialization of Industries. He followed the model that was already in place of setting up public corporations such as the BBC in broadcasting (1927). As the owners of corporate stock were given government bonds, and the government took full ownership of each affected company, consolidating it into a national monopoly. The management remained the same, only now they became civil servants working for the government. For the Labour Party leadership, nationalisation was a method to consolidate economic planning in their own hands. It was not designed to modernise old industries, make them efficient, or transform their organisational structure. There was no money for modernisation, although the Marshall Plan, operated separately by American planners, did force many British businesses to adopt modern managerial techniques. Old line socialists were disappointed, as the nationalised industries seemed identical to the old private corporations, and national planning was made virtually impossible by the government’s financial constraints. Socialism was in place, but it did not seem to make a major difference. Rank-and-file workers had long been motivated to support Labour by tales of the mistreatment of workers by foremen and the management. The foremen and the managers were the same men as before with much the same power over the workplace. There was no worker control of industry. The unions resisted government efforts to set wages. By the time of the general elections in 1950 and 1951, Labour seldom boasted about nationalisation of industry. Instead it was the Conservatives who decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the takeover of steel and trucking.
Two major programs that permanently expanded the welfare state passed in 1919 and 1920 with surprisingly little debate, even as the Conservatives dominated parliament. The Housing and Town Planning Act of 1919 set up a system of government housing that followed the 1918 campaign promises of “homes fit for heroes.” The Addison Act, named after the first Minister of Health Doctor Christopher Addison, required local authorities to survey their housing needs, and start building houses to replace slums. The treasury subsidized the low rents. In England and Wales, 214,000 houses were built, and the Ministry of Health became largely a ministry of housing.
The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 passed at a time of very little unemployment. It set up the dole system that provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to practically the entire civilian working population except domestic service, farm workers, and civil servants. Funded in part by weekly contributions from both employers and employed, it provided weekly payments of 15s for unemployed men and 12s for unemployed women. Historian Charles Mowat calls these two laws “Socialism by the back door,” and notes how surprised politicians were when the costs to the Treasury soared during the high unemployment of 1921.
The Lloyd-George coalition fell apart in 1922. Stanley Baldwin, as leader of the Conservative Party (1923–37) and as Prime Minister (in 1923–24, 1924–29 and 1935–37), dominated British politics. His mixture of strong social reforms and steady government proved a powerful election combination, with the result that the Conservatives governed Britain either by themselves or as the leading component of the National Government. He was the last party leader to win over 50% of the vote (in the general election of 1931). Baldwin’s political strategy was to polarize the electorate so that voters would choose between the Conservatives on the right and the Labour Party on the left, squeezing out the Liberals in the middle. The polarization did take place and while the Liberals remained active under Lloyd George, they won few seats and were a minor factor until they joined a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Baldwin’s reputation soared in the 1920s and 1930s, but crashed after 1945 as he was blamed for the appeasement policies toward Germany, and as admirers of Churchill made him the Conservative icon. Since the 1970s Baldwin’s reputation has recovered somewhat.
Labour won the 1923 election, but in 1924 Baldwin and the Conservatives returned with a large majority.
McKibbin finds that the political culture of the interwar period was built around an anti-socialist middle class, supported by the Conservative leaders, especially Baldwin.
Taxes rose sharply during the war and never returned to their old levels. A rich man paid 8% of his income in taxes before the war, and about a third afterwards. Much of the money went for the dole, the weekly unemployment benefits. About 5% of the national income every year was transferred from the rich to the poor. Taylor argues most people “were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages.”
The British economy was lackluster in the 1920s, with sharp declines and high unemployment in heavy industry and coal, especially in Scotland and Wales. Exports of coal and steel fell in half by 1939 and the business community was slow to adopt the new labour and management principles coming from the US, such as Fordism, consumer credit, eliminating surplus capacity, designing a more structured management, and using greater economies of scale. For over a century the shipping industry had dominated world trade, but it remained in the doldrums despite various stimulus efforts by the government. With the very sharp decline in world trade after 1929, its condition became critical.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill put Britain back on the gold standard in 1925, which many economists blame for the mediocre performance of the economy. Others point to a variety of factors, including the inflationary effects of the World War and supply-side shocks caused by reduced working hours after the war.
By the late 1920s, economic performance had stabilised, but the overall situation was disappointing, for Britain had fallen behind the United States as the leading industrial power. There also remained a strong economic divide between the north and south of England during this period, with the south of England and the Midlands fairly prosperous by the Thirties, while parts of south Wales and the industrial north of England became known as “distressed areas” due to particularly high rates of unemployment and poverty. Despite this, the standard of living continued to improve as local councils built new houses to let to families rehoused from outdated slums, with up to date facilities including indoor toilets, bathrooms and electric lighting now being included in the new properties. The private sector enjoyed a housebuilding boom during the 1930s.
During the war trade unions were encouraged and their membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5 million in 1918. They peaked at 8.3 million in 1920 before relapsing to 5.4 million in 1923.
Coal was a sick industry; the best seams were being exhausted, raising the cost. Demand fell as oil began replacing coal for fuel. The 1926 general strike was a nine-day nationwide walkout of 1.3 million railwaymen, transport workers, printers, dockers, iron workers and steelworkers supporting the 1.2 million coal miners who had been locked out by the owners. The miners had rejected the owners’ demands for longer hours and reduced pay in the face of falling prices. The Conservative government had provided a nine-month subsidy in 1925 but that was not enough to turn around a sick industry. To support the miners the Trades Union Congress (TUC), an umbrella organization of all trades unions, called out certain critical unions. The hope was the government would intervene to reorganize and rationalize the industry, and raise the subsidy. The Conservative government had stockpiled supplies and essential services continued with middle class volunteers. All three major parties opposed the strike. The Labour Party leaders did not approve and feared it would tar the party with the image of radicalism, for the Cominterm in Moscow had sent instructions for Communists to aggressively promote the strike. The general strike itself was largely non-violent, but the miners’ lockout continued and there was violence in Scotland. It was the only general strike in British history, for TUC leaders such as Ernest Bevin considered it a mistake . Most historians treat it as a singular event with few long-term consequences, but Pugh says it accelerated the movement of working-class voters to the Labour Party, which led to future gains. The Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act 1927 made general strikes illegal and ended the automatic payment of union members to the Labour Party. That act was largely repealed in 1946. The coal industry, used up the more accessible coal as costs rose output fell from 2567 million tons in 1924 to 183 million in 1945. The Labour government nationalised the mines in 1947.
The Great Depression originated in the United States in late 1929 and quickly spread to the world. Britain had never experienced the boom that had characterized the US, Germany, Canada and Australia in the 1920s, so its bust appeared less severe. Britain’s world trade fell in half (1929–33), the output of heavy industry fell by a third, employment profits plunged in nearly all sectors. At the depth in summer 1932, registered unemployed numbered 3.5 million, and many more had only part-time employment. Experts tried to remain optimistic. John Maynard Keynes, who had not predicted the slump, said, “‘There will be no serious direct consequences in London. We find the look ahead decidedly encouraging.”
Doomsayers on the left such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, J.A. Hobson, and G.D.H. Cole repeated the dire warnings they had been making for years about the imminent death of capitalism, only now far more people paid attention. Starting in 1935 the Left Book Club provided a new warning every month, and built up the credibility of Soviet-style socialism as an alternative.
Particularly hardest hit by economic problems were the north of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales; unemployment reached 70% in some areas at the start of the 1930s (with more than 3 million out of work nationally) and many families depended entirely on payments from local government known as the dole.
In 1936, by which time unemployment was lower, 200 unemployed men made a highly publicized march from Jarrow to London in a bid to show the plight of the industrial poor. Although much romanticized by the Left, the Jarrow Crusade marked a deep split in the Labour Party and resulted in no government action. Unemployment remained high until the war absorbed all the job seekers. George Orwell‘s book The Road to Wigan Pier gives a bleak overview of the hardships of the time.
Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era. The challenge came from dictators, first Benito Mussolini of Italy, then Adolf Hitler of a much more powerful Nazi Germany. The League of Nations proved disappointing to its supporters; it was unable to resolve any of the threats posed by the dictators. British policy was to “appease” them in the hopes they would be satiated. By 1938 it was clear that war was looming, and that Germany had the world’s most powerful military. The final act of appeasement came when Britain and France sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s demands at the Munich Agreement of 1938. Instead of satiation Hitler menaced Poland, and at last Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain dropped appeasement and stood firm in promising to defend Poland. Hitler however cut a deal with Joseph Stalin to divide Eastern Europe; when Germany did invade Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war; the British Commonwealth followed London’s lead.
Main articles: Irish Home Rule bills, Partition of Ireland and Irish War of Independence
In 1912, the House of Lords managed to delay a Home Rule bill passed by the House of Commons. It was enacted as the Government of Ireland Act 1914. During these two years the threat of religious civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers opposed to the Act and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers supporting the Act. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on political hold. A disorganized Easter Rising in 1916 was brutally suppressed by the British, which had the effect of galvanizing Catholic demands for independence. Prime Minister David Lloyd George failed to introduce Home Rule in 1918 and in the December 1918 General Election Sinn Féin won a majority of Irish seats. Its MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster, instead choosing to sit in the First Dáil parliament in Dublin. A declaration of independence was ratified by Dáil Éireann, the self-declared Republic’s parliament in January 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Irish Republican Army between January 1919 and June 1921. The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 that established the Irish Free State. Six northern, predominantly Protestant counties became Northern Ireland and have remained part of the United Kingdom ever since, despite demands of the Catholic minority to unite with the Republic of Ireland. Britain officially adopted the name “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927. In 1948 a working party chaired by the Cabinet Secretary recommended that the country’s name be changed to the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ulster”. However, after considering the potential problems this could cause with other Commonwealth countries especially with respect to changes to the King’s title, the prime minister did not favour the change and it was not made.
Historian Arthur Marwick sees a radical transformation of British society resulting from the Great War, a deluge that swept away many old attitudes and brought in a more equalitarian society. He sees the famous literary pessimism of the 1920s as misplaced, arguing there were major positive long-term consequences of the war to British society. He points to an energized self-consciousness among workers that quickly built up the Labour Party, the coming of partial woman suffrage, and an acceleration of social reform and state control of the economy. He sees a decline of deference toward the aristocracy and established authority in general, and the weakening among youth of traditional restraints on individual moral behaviour. The chaperone faded away; village druggists sold contraceptives. Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal.
Britain entered the war because of its implicit support for France, which had entered to support Russia, which in turn had entered to support Serbia. Even more important than that chain of links was Britain’s determination to honour its commitment to defend Belgium. Britain was loosely part of the Triple Entente with France and Russia, which (with smaller allies) fought the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. After a few weeks the Western Front turned into a killing ground in which millions of men died but no army made a large advance.
The stalemate required an endless supply of men and munitions. By 1916, volunteering fell off, the government imposed conscription in Britain (but not in Ireland) to keep up the strength of the Army. After a rough start in industrial mobilisation, Britain replaced prime minister Asquith in December 1916 with the much more dynamic Liberal leader David Lloyd George. The nation now successfully mobilised its manpower, womanpower, industry, finances, Empire and diplomacy, in league with France and the U.S. to defeat the enemy. After defeating Russia, the Germans tried to win in the spring of 1918 before the millions of American soldiers arrived. They failed, and they were overwhelmed and finally accepted an Armistice in November 1918, that amounted to a surrender.
Britain eagerly supported the war, but in Ireland the Catholics were restless and plotted a rebellion in 1916. It failed but the brutal repression that followed turned that element against Britain. The economy grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943). The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from New York banks. After the U.S. entered in April 1917, the Treasury borrowed directly from the U.S. government.
The Royal Navy dominated the seas, defeating the smaller German fleet in the only major naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Germany was blockaded, leading to an increasing shortage short of food. Germany’s naval strategy increasingly turned towards use of U-Boats to strike back against the British, despite the risk of triggering war with the powerful neutral power, the United States. The waters around Britain were declared a war zone where any ship, neutral or otherwise, was a target. After the liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, drowning over 100 American passengers, protests by the United States led Germany to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. With victory over Russia in 1917, Germany now calculated it could finally have numerical superiority on the Western Front. Planning for a massive spring offensive in 1918, it resumed the sinking of all merchant ships without warning. The US entered the war alongside the Allies (without actually joining them), and provided the needed money and supplies to sustain the Allies’ war efforts. The U-boat threat was ultimately defeated by a convoy system across the Atlantic.
On other fronts, the British, French, Australians, and Japanese seized Germany’s colonies. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign) and in Mesopotamia, while arousing the Arabs who helped expel the Turks from their lands. Exhaustion and war-weariness were growing worse in 1917, as the fighting in France continued with no end in sight. The German spring offensives of 1918 failed, and with the arrival of the American in summer at the rate of 10,000 a day the Germans realized they were being overwhelmed. Germany agreed to an armistice—actually a surrender—on 11 November 1918.
Victorian attitudes and ideals that had continued into the first years of the 20th century changed during World War I. The army had traditionally never been a large employer in the nation, with the regular army standing at 247,432 at the start of the war. By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the “lost generation,” and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon‘s Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front.
The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfulfilled. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge.
At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson and French premier Georges Clemenceau made all the major decisions. They formed the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent future wars. They sliced up the losers to form new nations in Europe, and divided up the German colonies and Ottoman holdings outside Turkey. They imposed what appeared to be heavy financial reparations (but with in the event were of modest size). They humiliated Germany by forcing it to declare its guilt for starting the war, a policy that caused deep resentment in Germany and helped fuel reactions such as Nazism. Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa, while its dominions added other colonies. Britain gained League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which had been partly promised as a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq. Iraq became fully independent in 1932. Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since 1882, became independent in 1922, although the British remained there until 1952.
Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O’Connell, and the death of George III, led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. O’Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.
When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Relief efforts were inadequate and hundreds of thousands died in the Great Hunger.
Isaac Butt established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. It became the Irish Parliamentary Party, a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. It dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell’s movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.
Parnell’s movement campaigned for ‘Home Rule’, by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O’Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Ewart Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the House of Lords. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant unionist minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.
The Queen played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour. Her strength lay in good common sense and directness of character; she expressed the qualities of the British nation which at that time made it preeminent in the world. As a symbol of domesticity, endurance and Empire, and as a woman holding the highest public office during an age when middle- and upper-class women were expected to beautify the home while men dominated the public sphere, Queen Victoria’s influence has been enduring. Her success as ruler was due to the power of the self-images she successively portrayed of innocent young woman, devoted wife and mother, suffering and patient widow, and grandmotherly matriarch.
Early 20th century
Prime Ministers from 1900 to 1945: Marquess of Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Henry Asquith, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.
Edwardian era 1901–1914
Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son Edward VII became king, inaugurating the Edwardian Era, which was characterised by great and ostentatious displays of wealth in contrast to the sombre Victorian Era. With the advent of the 20th century, things such as motion pictures, automobiles, and aeroplanes were coming into use. The new century was characterised by a feeling of great optimism. The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900. Edward died in 1910, to be succeeded by George V, who reigned 1910–36. Scandal-free, hard working and popular, George V was the British monarch who, with Queen Mary, established the modern pattern of exemplary conduct for British royalty, based on middle-class values and virtues. He understood the overseas Empire better than any of his prime ministers and used his exceptional memory for figures and details, whether of uniforms, politics, or relations, to good effect in reaching out in conversation with his subjects.
The era was prosperous but political crises were escalating out of control. Dangerfield (1935) identified the “strange death of liberal England” as the multiple crisis that hit simultaneously in 1910–1914 with serious social and political instability arising from the Irish crisis, labor unrest, the women’s suffrage movements, and partisan and constitutional struggles in Parliament. At one point it even seemed the Army might refuse orders dealing with Northern Ireland. No solution appeared in sight when the unexpected outbreak of the Great War in 1914 put domestic issues on hold.
McKibben argues that the political party system of the Edwardian era was in delicate balance on the eve of the war in 1914. The Liberals were in power with a progressive alliance of Labour and, off and on, Irish Nationalists. The coalition was committed to free trade (as opposed to the high tariffs the Conservatives sought), free collective bargaining for trades unions (which Conservatives opposed), an active social policy that was forging the welfare state, and constitutional reform to reduce the power of the House of Lords. The coalition lacked a long-term plan, because it was cobbled together from leftovers from the 1890s. The sociological basis was non-Anglican religion and non-English ethnicity rather than the emerging class conflict emphasized by Labour.
MATEMBELE (SWEET POTATO LEAVES)
NGAI-NGAI (SOUR SOUR) VEGETABLES
THE ACTUAL PRESIDENT OF THE DRC
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