A published version of the Articles of Union, agreement that led to the creation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707
The history of the United Kingdom as a unified sovereign state began with the political union of the kingdoms of England, which included Wales, and Scotland. On the new kingdom, the historian Simon Schama said, “What began as a hostile merger would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world… it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history.” A further Act of Union in 1800 added the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The early years of the unified kingdom of Great Britain were marked by Jacobite risings which ended with defeat for the Stuart cause atCulloden in 1746. Later, in 1763, victory in the Seven Years War led to the dominance of the British Empire, which was to be the foremost global power for over a century and grew to become the largest empire in history. As a result, the culture of the United Kingdom, and its industrial, political, constitutional, educational and linguistic legacy, is widespread.
In 1922, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland effectively seceded from the United Kingdom to become the Irish Free State; a day later,Northern Ireland seceded from the Free State and became part of the United Kingdom. As a result, in 1927 the United Kingdom changed its formal title to the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” usually shortened to the “United Kingdom”, the “UK” or “Britain”. Former parts of the British Empire became independent dominions.
In the Second World War, in which the Soviet Union and the US joined Britain as allied powers, Britain and its Empire fought a successful war against Germany, Italy and Japan. The cost was high and Britain no longer had the wealth or the inclination to maintain an empire, so it granted independence to most of the Empire. The new states typically joined the Commonwealth of Nations. The United Kingdom has sought to be a leading member of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, yet since the 1990s large-scale devolution movements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have brought into question the future viability of this constantly evolving political union.
Birth of the Union
The united kingdom of Great Britain came into being on 1 May 1707, as a result of the political union of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland. The terms of the union had been agreed in the Treaty of Union that was negotiated the previous year and then ratified by the parliaments of Scotland and England each approving Acts of Union.
Although previously separate states, England and Scotland had shared monarchs since 1603 when James VI of Scotland become James I of England on the death of the childless Elizabeth I, an event known as the Union of the Crowns. The Treaty of Union enabled the two kingdoms to be combined into a single kingdom with the two parliaments merging into a single parliament of Great Britain. Queen Anne, who reigned from 1702 to 1714, had favoured deeper political integration between the two kingdoms and became the first monarch ofGreat Britain. The union was valuable to England from a security standpoint, since it meant that Scotland lost the possibility to choose a different monarch on her death, reducing the chance of a European power using Scotland as a route to invading England.
Although now a single kingdom, certain aspects of the former independent kingdoms remained separate, in line with the terms in the Treaty of Union: Scottish and English law remained separate, as did the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church of England. England and Scotland also continued to have divergent systems of education.
The creation of Great Britain happened during the War of the Spanish Succession, in which just before his death in 1702 William III had reactivated the Grand Alliance against France. His successor, Anne, continued the war. The Duke of Marlborough won a series of brilliant victories over the French, England’s first major battlefield successes on the Continent since the Hundred Years War. France was nearly brought to its knees by 1709, when King Louis XIV made a desperate appeal to the French people. Afterwards, his general Marshal Villars managed to turn the tide in favour of France. A more peace-minded government came to power in Great Britain, and the treaties ofUtrecht and Rastadt in 1713–1714 ended the war.
Queen Anne died in 1714, and the Elector of Hanover, George Louis, became king as George I (1714–1727). He paid more attention to Hanover and surrounded himself with Germans, making him an unpopular king, However he did build up the army and created a more stable political system in Britain and helped bring peace to northern Europe. Jacobite factions seeking a Stuart restoration remained strong; they instigated a revolt in 1715–1716. The son of James II planned to invade England, but before he could do so, John Erskine, Earl of Mar, launched an invasion from Scotland, which was easily defeated.
George II (1727–1760) enhanced the stability of the constitutional system, with a government run by Sir Robert Walpole during the period 1730–42. He built up the first British Empire, strengthening the colonies in the Caribbean and North America. In coalition with the rising power Prussia, defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756–1763), and won full control of Canada.
George III reigned 1760–1820; he was born in Britain, never visited Hanover, and spoke English as his first language. Frequently reviled by Americans as a tyrant and the instigator of the American War of Independence, he was insane off and on after 1788 as his eldest son served as regent. The last king to dominate government and politics, his long reign is noted for losing the first British Empire with a loss in the American Revolution, as France sought revenge for its defeat in the Seven Years War by aiding the Americans. The reign was notable for the building of a second empire based in India, Asia and Africa, the beginnings of the industrial revolution that made Britain an economic powerhouse, and above all the life and death struggle with the French, the French Revolutionary Wars 1793–1802, ending in a draw and a short truce, and the epic Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), ending with the decisive defeat of Napoleon.
South Sea Bubble
The era was prosperous as entrepreneurs extended the range of their business around the globe. The South Sea Bubble was a business enterprise that exploded in scandal. The South Sea Company was a private business corporation set up in London ostensibly to grant trade monopolies in South America. Its actual purpose was to renegotiate previous high-interest government loans amounting to £31 million through market manipulation and speculation. It issued stock four times in 1720 that reached about 8,000 investors. Prices kept soaring every day, from £130 a share to £1,000, with insiders making huge paper profits. The Bubble collapsed overnight, ruining many speculators. Investigations showed bribes had reached into high places—even to the king. Robert Walpole managed to wind it down with minimal political and economic damage, although some losers fled to exile or committed suicide.
Warfare and finance
From 1700 to 1850, Britain was involved in 137 wars or rebellions. It maintained a relatively large and expensive Royal Navy, along with a small standing army. When the need arose for soldiers it hired mercenaries or financed allies who fielded armies. The rising costs of warfare forced a shift in government financing from the income from royal agricultural estates and special imposts and taxes to reliance on customs and excise taxes and, after 1790, an income tax. Working with bankers in the City, the government raised large loans during wartime and paid them off in peacetime. The rise in taxes amounted to 20% of national income, but the private sector benefited from the increase in economic growth. The demand for war supplies stimulated the industrial sector, particularly naval supplies, munitions and textiles, which gave Britain an advantage in international trade during the postwar years.
The Seven Years’ War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France’s future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, theCarnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years War therefore left Britain as the world’s dominant colonial power.
During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of opposition to Parliament’s repeated attempts to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned to violence and in 1775 the American Revolutionary War began. In 1776 the Patriots expelled royal officials and declared the independence of the United States of America. After capturing a British invasion army in 1777, the US formed an alliance with France (and in turn Spain aided France), evening out the military balance. The British army controlled only a handful of coastal cities. 1780–81 was a low point for Britain. Taxes and deficits were high, government corruption was pervasive, and the war in America was entering its sixth year with no apparent end in sight. The Gordon Riots erupted in London during the spring of 1781, in response to increased concessions to Catholics by Parliament. In October 1781 Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Virginia. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, formally terminating the war and recognising the independence of the United States.
The loss of the Thirteen Colonies, at the time Britain’s most populous colonies, marked the transition between the “first” and “second” empires, in which Britain shifted its attention to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith‘s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 confirmed Smith’s view that political control was not necessary for economic success.
During its first 100 years of operation, the focus of the British East India Company had been trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the British East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The British, led by Robert Clive, defeated the French and their Indian allies in the Battle of Plassey, leaving the Company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force of the Indian Army, 80% of which was composed of native Indian sepoys.
On 22 August 1770, James Cook discovered the eastern coast of Australia while on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific. In 1778,Joseph Banks, Cook’s botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788.
The British government had somewhat mixed reactions to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and when war broke out on the Continent in 1792, it initially remained neutral. But the following January, Louis XVI was beheaded. This combined with a threatened invasion of the Netherlands by France spurred Britain to declare war. For the next 23 years, the two nations were at war except for a short period in 1802–1803. Britain alone among the nations of Europe never submitted to or formed an alliance with France. Throughout the 1790s, the British repeatedly defeated the navies of France and its allies, but were unable to perform any significant land operations. An Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands in 1799 accomplished little except the capture of the Dutch fleet.
It was not only Britain’s position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon threatened invasion of Britain itself, and with it, a fate similar to the countries of continental Europe that his armies had overrun.
1800 to 1837
Union with Ireland
Events that culminated in the union with Ireland had spanned several centuries. Invasions from England by the ruling Normans from 1170 led to centuries of strife in Ireland and successive Kings of England sought both to conquer and pillage Ireland, imposing their rule by force throughout the entire island. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement by Protestant settlers from both Scotland and England began, especially in the province of Ulster, seeing the displacement of many of the native Roman Catholic Irish inhabitants of this part of Ireland. Since the time of the first Norman invaders from England, Ireland has been subject to control and regulation, firstly by England then latterly by Great Britain.
After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Irish Roman Catholics were banned from voting or attending the Irish Parliament. The new English Protestant ruling class was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Towards the end of the 18th century the entirely Protestant Irish Parliament attained a greater degree of independence from the British Parliament than it had previously held. Under the Penal Laws no Irish Catholic could sit in the Parliament of Ireland, even though some 90% of Ireland’s population was native Irish Catholic when the first of these bans was introduced in 1691. This ban was followed by others in 1703 and 1709 as part of a comprehensive system disadvantaging the Catholic community, and to a lesser extent Protestant dissenters. In 1798, many members of this dissenter tradition made common cause with Catholics in a rebellion inspired and led by the Society of United Irishmen. It was staged with the aim of creating a fully independent Ireland as a state with a republican constitution. Despite assistance from France the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was put down by British forces.
Possibly influenced by the War of American Independence (1775–1783), a united force of Irish volunteers used their influence to campaign for greater independence for the Irish Parliament. This was granted in 1782, giving free trade and legislative independence to Ireland. However, the French revolution had encouraged the increasing calls for moderateconstitutional reform. The Society of United Irishmen, made up of Presbyterians from Belfast and both Anglicans and Catholics in Dublin, campaigned for an end to British domination. Their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–98) worked with the Catholic Convention of 1792 which demanded an end to the penal laws. Failing to win the support of the British government, he travelled to Paris, encouraging a number of French naval forces to land in Ireland to help with the planned insurrections. These were slaughtered by government forces, but these rebellions convinced the British under Prime Minister William Pitt that the only solution was to end Irish independence once and for all.
The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was brought about by the Act of Union 1800, creating the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland“. The Act was passed in both the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of Ireland, dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy and lacking representation of the country’s Roman Catholic population. Substantial majorities were achieved, and according to contemporary documents this was assisted by bribery in the form of the awarding of peerages and honours to opponents to gain their votes. Under the terms of the merger, the separate Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland were abolished, and replaced by a united Parliament of the United Kingdom. Ireland thus became an integral part of the United Kingdom, sending around 100 MPs to the House of Commons at Westminster and 28representative peers to the House of Lords, elected from among their number by the Irish peers themselves, except that Roman Catholic peers were not permitted to take their seats in the Lords. Part of the trade-off for the Irish Catholics was to be the granting of Catholic Emancipation, which had been fiercely resisted by the all-Anglican Irish Parliament. However, this was blocked by King George III, who argued that emancipating the Roman Catholics would breach his Coronation Oath. The Roman Catholic hierarchy had endorsed the Union. However the decision to block Catholic Emancipation fatally undermined the appeal of the Union.
During the War of the Second Coalition (1799–1801), Britain occupied most of the French and Dutch colonies (the Netherlands had been a satellite of France since 1796), but tropical diseases claimed the lives of over 40,000 troops. When the Treaty of Amiens ended the war, Britain was forced to return most of the colonies. The peace settlement was in effect only a ceasefire, and Napoleon continued to provoke the British by attempting a trade embargo on the country and by occupying the German city of Hanover (a fief of the British crown). In May 1803, war was declared again. Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain failed due to the inferiority of his navy, and in 1805, Lord Nelson’s fleet decisively defeated the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, which was the last significant naval action of the Napoleonic Wars.
The British HMS Sandwich fires to the French flagship Bucentaure (completely dismasted) into battle off Trafalgar. TheBucentaure also fights HMS Victory (behind her) and HMS Temeraire (left side of the picture). In fact, HMS Sandwich never fought at Trafalgar, it’s a mistake from Auguste Mayer, the painter.
The series of naval and colonial conflicts, including a large number of minor naval actions, resembled those of the French Revolutionary Wars and the preceding centuries of European warfare. Conflicts in the Caribbean, and in particular the seizure of colonial bases and islands throughout the wars, could potentially have some effect upon the European conflict. The Napoleonic conflict had reached the point at which subsequent historians could talk of a “world war“. Only the Seven Years’ War offered a precedent for widespread conflict on such a scale.
In 1806, Napoleon issued the series of Berlin Decrees, which brought into effect the Continental System. This policy aimed to eliminate the threat of the United Kingdom by closing French-controlled territory to its trade. The United Kingdom’s army remained a minimal threat to France; the UK maintained a standing army of just 220,000 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, whereas France’s army exceeded a million men—in addition to the armies of numerous allies and several hundred thousand national guardsmen that Napoleon could draft into the military if necessary. Although the Royal Navy effectively disrupted France’s extra-continental trade—both by seizing and threatening French shipping and by seizing French colonial possessions—it could do nothing about France’s trade with the major continental economies and posed little threat to French territory in Europe. In addition, France’s population and agricultural capacity far outstripped that of the United Kingdom.
Many in the French government believed that cutting the United Kingdom off from the Continent would end its economic influence over Europe and isolate it. Though the French designed the Continental System to achieve this, it never succeeded in its objective. The United Kingdom possessed the greatest industrial capacity in Europe, and its mastery of the seas allowed it to build up considerable economic strength through trade to its possessions from its rapidly expanding new Empire. Britain’s naval supremacy meant that France could never enjoy the peace necessary to consolidate its control over Europe, and it could threaten neither the United Kingdom nor British colonies outside the continent.
The Spanish uprising in 1808 at last permitted Britain to gain a foothold on the Continent. The Duke of Wellington and his army of British and Portuguese gradually pushed the French out of Spain and in early 1814, as Napoleon was being driven back in the east by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, Wellington invaded southern France. After Napoleon’s surrender and exile to the island of Elba, peace appeared to have returned, but when he escaped back into France in 1815, the British and their allies had to fight him again. The armies of Wellington and Von Blucher defeated Napoleon once and for all at Waterloo.
Simultaneous with the Napoleonic Wars, trade disputes and British impressment of American sailors led to the War of 1812 with the United States. A central event in American history, it was little noticed in Britain, where all attention was focused on the struggle with France. The British could devote few resources to the conflict until the fall of Napoleon in 1814. American frigates also inflicted a series of embarrassing defeats on the British navy, which was short on manpower due to the conflict in Europe. A stepped-up war effort that year brought about some successes such as the burning of Washington D.C., but many influential voices such as the Duke of Wellington argued that an outright victory over the US was impossible.
Peace was agreed to at the end of 1814, but not before Andrew Jackson, unaware of this, won a great victory over the British at theBattle of New Orleans in January 1815 (news took several weeks to cross the Atlantic before the advent of steam ships). The Treaty of Ghent subsequently ended the war. As a result, the Red River Basin was ceded to the US, and the Canadian border (now fixed at the49th parallel) completely demilitarised by both countries, although fears of an American conquest of Canada persisted through the 19th century.
George IV and William IV
Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars a very different country than it had been in 1793. As industrialisation progressed, society changed, becoming more urban and less rural. The postwar period saw an economic slump, and poor harvests and inflation caused widespread social unrest. Europe after 1815 was on guard against a return of Jacobinism, and even liberal Britain saw the passage of the Six Acts in 1819, which proscribed radical activities. By the end of the 1820s, along with a general economic recovery, many of these repressive laws were repealed and in 1828 new legislation guaranteed the civil rights of religious dissenters.
A weak ruler as regent (1811–20) and king (1820–30), George IV let his ministers take full charge of government affairs, playing a far lesser role than his father, George III. The principle now became established that the king accepts as prime minister the person who wins a majority in the House of Commons, whether the king personally favors him or not. His governments, with little help from the king, presided over victory in the Napoleonic Wars, negotiated the peace settlement, and attempted to deal with the social and economic malaise that followed. His brother William IV ruled (1830–37), but was little involved in politics. His reign saw several reforms: the poor law was updated, child labour restricted,slavery abolished in nearly all the British Empire, and, most important, the Reform Act 1832 refashioned the British electoral system.
There were no major wars until the Crimean War of 1853–56. While Prussia, Austria, and Russia, as absolute monarchies, tried to suppress liberalism wherever it might occur, the British came to terms with new ideas. Britain intervened in Portugal in 1826 to defend a constitutional government there and recognising the independence of Spain’s American colonies in 1824. British merchants and financiers, and later railway builders, played major roles in the economies of most Latin American nations. The British intervened in 1827 on the side of the Greeks, who had been waging a war of independence against the Ottoman Empire since 1824.
Whig reforms of the 1830s
The Whig Party recovered its strength and unity by supporting moral reforms, especially the reform of the electoral system, the abolition of slavery and emancipation of the Catholics. Catholic emancipation was secured in the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which removed the most substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in Britain.
The Whigs became champions of Parliamentary reform. They made Lord Grey prime minister 1830–1834, and the Reform Act of 1832 became their signature measure. It broadened the franchise and ended the system of “rotten borough” and “pocket boroughs” (where elections were controlled by powerful families), and instead redistributed power on the basis of population. It added 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. The main effect of the act was to weaken the power of the landed gentry, and enlarge the power of the professional and business middle-class, which now for the first time had a significant voice in Parliament. However, the great majority of manual workers, clerks, and farmers did not have enough property to qualify to vote. The aristocracy continued to dominate the government, the Army and Royal Navy, and high society. After parliamentary investigations demonstrated the horrors of child labour, limited reforms were passed in 1833.
Chartism emerged after the 1832 Reform Bill failed to give the vote to the working class. Activists denounced the ‘betrayal’ of the working class and the ‘sacrificing’ of their ‘interests’ by the ‘misconduct’ of the government. In 1838, Chartists issued the People’s Charter demanding manhood suffrage, equal sized election districts, voting by ballots, payment of MPs (so poor men could serve), annual Parliaments, and abolition of property requirements. Elites saw the movement as pathological, so the Chartists were unable to force serious constitutional debate. Historians see Chartism as both a continuation of the 18th century fight against corruption and as a new stage in demands for democracy in an industrial society.
In 1832 Parliament abolished slavery in the Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. The government purchased the slaves for £20,000,000 (the money went to rich plantation owners who mostly lived in England), and freed the slaves, especially those in the Caribbean sugar islands.
Prime Ministers of the period included: William Pitt the Younger, Lord Grenville, Duke of Portland, Spencer Perceval, Lord Liverpool, George Canning, Lord Goderich, Duke of Wellington, Lord Grey, Lord Melbourne, and Sir Robert Peel.
The Victorian era was the period of Queen Victoria’s rule between 1837 and 1901 which signified the height of the British Industrial Revolutionand the apex of the British Empire. Scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period.
Victoria became queen in 1837 at age 18, after a difficult childhood under the control of her mother. Her long reign saw Britain reach the zenith of its economic and political power. Exciting new technologies such as steam ships, railroads, photography, and telegraphs appeared, making the world much faster-paced. Britain again remained mostly inactive in Continental politics, and it was not affected by the wave of revolutions in 1848.
Free trade imperialism
The Great London Exhibition of 1851 clearly demonstrated Britain’s dominance in engineering and industry; that lasted until the rise of the United States and Germany in the 1890s. Using the imperial tools of free trade and financial investment, it exerted major influence on many countries outside Europe, especially in Latin America and Asia. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire based on British rule and an informal one based on the British pound.
Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire
One nagging fear was the possible collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It was well understood that a collapse of that country would set off a scramble for its territory and possibly plunge Britain into war. To head that off Britain sought to keep the Russians from occupying Constantinople and taking over the Bosporous Straits, as well as from threatening India via Afghanistan. In 1853, Britain and France intervened in the Crimean War against Russia. Despite mediocre generalship, they managed to capture the Russian port of Sevastopol, compelling Tsar Nicholas I to ask for peace. A second Russo-Ottoman war in 1877 led to another European intervention, although this time at the negotiating table. The Congress of Berlin blocked Russia from imposing the harsh Treaty of San Stefano on the Ottoman Empire. Despite its alliance with the French in the Crimean War, Britain viewed the Second Empire of Napoleon III with some distrust, especially as the emperor constructed ironclad warships and began returning France to a more active foreign policy. But after Napoleon’s downfall in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, he was allowed to spent his last years exiled in Britain.
American Civil War
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), British leaders personally disliked American republicanism and favoured the more aristocratic Confederacy, as it had been a major source of cotton for textile mills. Prince Albert was effective in defusing a war scare in late 1861. The British people, who depended heavily on American food imports, generally favoured the United States. What little cotton was available came from New York, as the blockade by the US Navy shut down 95% of Southern exports to Britain. In September 1862, during the Confederate invasion of Maryland, Britain (along with France) contemplated stepping in and negotiating a peace settlement, which could only mean war with the United States. But in the same month, US president Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Since support of the Confederacy now meant support for slavery, there was no longer any possibility of European intervention.
Meanwhile the British sold arms to both sides, built blockade runners for a lucrative trade with the Confederacy, and surreptitiously allowed warships to be built for the Confederacy. The warships caused a major diplomatic row that was resolved in the Alabama Claims in 1872, in the Americans’ favour.
In 1867, Britain united most of its North American colonies as the Dominion of Canada, giving it self-government and responsibility for its own defence, but Canada did not have an independent foreign policy until 1931. Several of the colonies temporarily refused to join the Dominion despite pressure from both Canada and Britain; the last one, Newfoundland, held out until 1949.
The second half of the 19th century saw a huge expansion of Britain’s colonial empire in Asia and Africa. In the latter continent, there was talk of the Union Jack flying from “Cairo to Cape Town”, which only became a reality at the end of World War I. Having possessions on six continents, Britain had to defend all of its empire with a volunteer army, for it was the only power in Europe to have no conscription. Some questioned whether the country was overstretched, and in 1905 the British foreign minister said that the “empire resembles a huge, gouty giant with its fingers and toes extended all over the globe, which cannot be approached without eliciting a scream.”
The rise of the German Empire since 1871 posed a new challenge, for it (along with the United States) threatened to take Britain’s place as the world’s foremost industrial power. Germany acquired a number of colonies in Africa and the Pacific, but Chancellor Otto von Bismarck succeeded in achieving general peace through his balance of power strategy. When William II became emperor in 1888, he discarded Bismarck, began using bellicose language, and planned to build a navy to rival Britain’s.
Ever since Britain had taken control of South Africa from the Netherlands in the Napoleonic Wars, it had run afoul of the Dutch settlers who further away and created two republics of their own. The British imperial vision called for control over the new countries and the Dutch-speaking “Boers” (or “Afrikaners”) fought back in the War in 1899–1902. Outgunned by a mighty empire, the Boers waged a guerilla war, which gave the British regulars a difficult fight, but weight of numbers, superior equipment, and often brutal tactics eventually brought about a British victory. The war had been costly in human rights and was widely criticised by Liberals in Britain and worldwide. However, the United States gave its support. The Boer republics were merged into Union of South Africa in 1910; it had internal self-government but its foreign policy was controlled by London and was an integral part of the British Empire.
Ireland and the move to Home Rule
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 IIIblocked 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 because cash crops were being exported to pay rents. British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were at this time wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians[who?] sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the present-day equivalent € 70,000), lack of adequate action let the problem become a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out in what became known in Britain as ‘The Irish Potato Famine’ and in Ireland as the Great Hunger.
Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties (note: the poor didn’t have a vote at that time). A significant minority also elected Unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. After Butt’s death the Home Rule Movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it had become known, was turned into a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and in particular a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish Parliamentary Party 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.
Prime Ministers of the period included: Lord Melbourne, Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russell, Lord Derby, Lord Aberdeen, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, and Lord Rosebery.
The Queen gave her name to an era of British greatness, especially in the far-flung British Empire with which she identified. She 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.
Disraeli and Gladstone dominated the politics of the late 19th century, Britain’s golden age of parliamentary government. They long were idolized, but historians in recent decades have become much more critical, especially regarding Disraeli.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), prime minister 1868 and 1874–80, remains an iconic hero of the Conservative Party. He was typical of the generation of British leaders who matured in the 1830s and 1840s. He was concerned with threats to established political, social, and religious values and elites; he emphasized the need for national leadership in response to radicalism, uncertainty, and materialism. He is especially known for his enthusiastic support for expanding and strengthening the British Empire in India and Africa as the foundation of British greatness, in contrast to Gladstone’s negative attitude toward imperialism. Gladstone denounced Disraeli’s policies of territorial aggrandizement, military pomp, and imperial symbolism (such as making the Queen Empress of India), saying it did not fit a modern commercial and Christian nation. Disraeli drummed up support by warnings of a supposed Russian threat to India that sank deep into the Conservative mindset. Disraeli’s old reputation as the “Tory democrat” and promoter of the welfare state fell away as historians showed he that Disraeli had few proposals for social legislation in 1874–80, and that the 1867 Reform Act did not reflect a vision Conservatism for the unenfranchised working man. However he did work to reduce class anatagonism, for as Perry notes, “When confronted with specific problems, he sought to reduce tension between town and country, landlords and farmers, capital and labour, and warring religious sects in Britain and Ireland—in other words, to create a unifying synthesis.”
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was the Liberal counterpart to Disraeli, serving as prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). His financial policies, based on the notion of balanced budgets, low taxes and laissez-faire, were suited to a developing capitalist society but could not respond effectively as economic and social conditions changed. Called the “Grand Old Man” later in life, he was always a dynamic popular orator who appealed strongly to British workers and lower middle class. The deeply religious Gladstone brought a new moral tone to politics with his evangelical sensibility and opposition to aristocracy. His moralism often angered his upper-class opponents (including Queen Victoria, who strongly favoured Disraeli), and his heavy-handed control split the Liberal party. His foreign policy goal was to create a European order based on cooperation rather than conflict and mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by the Germans with a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.
Historians portray Conservative prime Minister Lord Salisbury (1830–1903) as a talented leader who was an icon of traditional, aristocratic conservatism. Robert Blake considers Salisbury “a great foreign minister, [but] essentially negative, indeed reactionary in home affairs”.Professor P.T. Marsh’s estimate is more favourable than Blake’s, he portrays Salisbury as a leader who “held back the popular tide for twenty years.” Professor Paul Smith argues that, “into the ‘progressive’ strain of modern Conservatism he simply will not fit.” Professor H.C.G. Matthew points to “the narrow cynicism of Salisbury”. One admirer of Salisbury, Maurice Cowling largely agrees with the critics and says Salisbury found the democracy born of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts as “perhaps less objectionable than he had expected—succeeding, through his public persona, in mitigating some part of its nastiness.”
The Victorian era is famous for the Victorian standards of personal morality. Historians generally agree that the middle classes held high personal moral standards (and usually followed them), but have debated whether the working classes followed suit. Moralists in the late 19th century such as Henry Mayhew decried the slums for their supposed high levels of cohabitation without marriage and illegitimate births. However new research using computerized matching of data files shows that the rates of cohabitation were quote low—under 5%—for the working class and the poor. By contrast in 21st century Britain, nearly half of all children are born outside marriage, and nine in ten newlyweds have been cohabitating.
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.
World War I
After a rough start Britain under David Lloyd George successfully mobilised its manpower, womanpower, industry, finances, Empire and diplomacy, in league with the French and Americans, to defeat the Germans and Turks. Most Britons eagerly supported the war, but the Irish were restless and plotted a rebellion in 1916. 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 the US.
The spark that set off the war came in June 1914, when the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire declared war on Serbia. The system of alliances caused a local conflict to engulf the entire continent. Britain was part of the Triple Entente with France and Russia, which confronted the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and Italy. Following the assassination Austria attacked Serbia, which was allied to Russia. Russia then mobilized its army, leading Germany to enter into war against Russia. France could not afford a mobilized Germany on its border, and it mobilized. Germany declared war on France. Britain was neutral at first as the Liberal government had a pacifist tendency, but it was committed to defending Belgium, which Germany invaded. Britain declared war on Germany and its allies. The romantic notions of warfare that everyone had expected faded as the fighting in France bogged down into trench warfare.
Along the Western Front the British and French launched repeated assaults on the German trench lines in 1915–1916, which killed and wounded hundreds of thousands, but failed to make gains of even a mile. By 1916, volunteering falling off, the government imposed conscription in Britain (but not in Ireland) to keep up the strength of the Army. Industry turned out munitions in large quantities, with many women taking factory jobs. The Asquith government proved ineffective but when David Lloyd George replaced him in December 1916 Britain gained a powerful and successful wartime leader.
The navy continued to dominate the seas, fighting the German fleet to a draw in the only great battle, the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Germany was blockaded and was increasingly short of food. It tried to fight back with submarines, despite the risk of war by 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 keep them going. the u-boats were defeated by a convoy system across the Atlantic.
On other fronts, the British, French, Australians, and Japanese occupied Germany’s colonies. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign) and inMesopotamia, 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. 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 unfounded. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge.
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‘sBlighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front.
Following the war, Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa. It also was granted League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which was turned into a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq, created from the three Ottoman provinces in Mesopotamia. The latter 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.
Lloyd George said after victory that “the nation was now in a molten state”, and his Housing Act 1919 would lead to affordable council housing which allowed people to move out of Victorian inner-city slums. The slums, though, remained for several more years, with trams being electrified long before many houses. The Representation of the People Act 1918gave women householders the vote, but it would not be until 1928 that equal suffrage was achieved. Labour did not achieve major success until the 1922 general election.
Irish independence and partition
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 Volunteerssupporting 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. A 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 Britain ever since, despite demands of the Catholic minority to united with Eire. Britain officially adopted the name “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927.
Politics and economics of 1920s
The Lloyd-George coalition fell apart in 1922. Conservative Stanley Baldwin as leader of the Conservative Party (1923–37) and as Prime Minister in 1923–24, 1924–29, and again in 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 labor 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 clearly fallen behind the United States and other countries as an 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 Bevinconsidered 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, firstBenito Mussolini of Italy, then Adolf Hitler of a much more powerful Nazi Germany. The League of Nations proved disappointed 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 withJoseph 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.
World War II
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 close bonds with the Soviet Union (starting in 1941) and the United States (starting in 1940), with the US giving $40 billion in munitions through Lend Lease; Canada also gave aid. (The American and British aid did not have to be repaid, but there were also loans that were repaid.)
The war years saw great improvements in working conditions and welfare provisions, which arguably paved the way for the postwar welfare state. Infant, child, and maternity services were expanded, while the Official Food Policy Committee (chaired by the deputy PM and Labour leader Clement Attlee) approved grants of fuel and subsidised milk to mothers and to children under the age of five in June 1940. A month later, the Board of Education decided that free school meals should become more widely available. By February 1945, 73% of children received milk in school, compared with 50% in July 1940. Free vaccination against diphtheria was also provided for children at school. In addition, the Town and Country Planning Act 1944 gave consideration to those areas damaged in bombing raids and enabled local authorities to clear slums, while the Housing (Temporary Accommodation) Act passed that same year made £150 million available for the construction of temporary dwellings.
To improve conditions for elderly persons, supplementary pensions were introduced in 1940, and in 1943, there were further improvements in rates and conditions for those in receipt of supplementary pensions and unemployment assistance. Food prices were stabilised in December 1939, initially as temporary measure, but made permanent in August 1940, while both milk and meals were provided at subsidised prices, or free in those cases of real need.
In July 1940, increased Treasury grants led to an improvement in the supply of milks and meals in schools, with the number of meals taken doubled within a year and increased school milk by 50%. By 1945, roughly 33% of all children ate at school compared with one in thirty in 1940, while those taking milk increased from about 50% to roughly 75%. In 1940, a national milk scheme was launched which provided a pint of milk at about half price for all children under the age of five, and for expectant or nursing mothers. The take up rate was such that by 1944 95% of those eligible participated in the scheme. The government’s general food policy that priority groups like young children and mothers were not just entitled to essentials like milk, but actually received supplies as well. Evacuation during the course of the war also revealed to more prosperous Britons the extent of deprivation in society. As noted by one historian, evacuation became “the most important subject in the social history of the war because it revealed to the whole people the black spots in its social life.”
An Emergency Medical Service was introduced which provided free treatment to casualties (a definition which included war evacuees), while rationing led to significant improvements in the diets of poor families. As noted by Richard Titmuss,
“The families in that third of the population of Britain who in 1938 were chronically undernourished had their first adequate diet in 1940 and 1941 … [after which] the incidence of deficiency diseases, and notably infant mortality, dropped dramatically.”
The media called it a “people’s war”—a term that caught on and signified the popular demand for planning and an expanded welfare state. The Royal family played major symbolic roles in the war. They refused to leave London during the Blitz and were indefatigable in visiting troops, munition factories, dockyards, and hospitals all over the country. Princess Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS—a part of the army) and repaired trucks and jeeps. All social classes appreciated how the royals shared the hopes, fears and hardships of the people.
Britain was a winner in the war, but it lost India in 1947 and nearly all the rest of the Empire by 1960. It debated its role in world affairs and joined the UN in 1945, NATO in 1949, where it became a close ally of the United States. After a long debate and initial rejection, it joined the European Union in 1973. Prosperity returned in the 1950s and London remained a world center of finance and culture, but the nation was no longer a major world power.
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.
Prosperity of 1950s
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 postwar 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. 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.”
Between 1951 and 1963, wages rose by 72% while prices rose by 45%, enabling people to afford more consumer goods than ever before. 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.
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.”
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. 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 16–18-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.
Empire to Commonwealth
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.
From the Troubles to the Belfast Agreement
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 for No surrender 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.
Common Market (EEC), then EU, membership
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 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 aPresident 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.
War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist attacks at home
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, theSeptember 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. Four Islamist home-grown terrorists plotted retaliation and 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 Commissionto 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 thenext 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.
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 Heads of Government of the Commonwealth of Nations voted to grant gender equality in the British royal succession, ending the male-preferenceprimogeniture that was mandated by the 1701 Act of Settlement. The amendment also ended the ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic.