:

. History of Great Britain






but German submarines threatened Britain with starvation early in 1917;

merchant-ship convoys guarded by destroyers helped avert that danger.

In May 1915 Asquiths Liberal ministry became a coalition of Liberals,

Conservatives, and a few Labourites. Lloyd George became minister of

munitions. Continued frustration with the nations inability to win the

war, however, led to the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George, heading a

predominantly Conservative coalition, in December 1916. Problems in

Ireland, chiefly the 1916 Easter rebellion, resulted in several hundred

dead. By 1918 the annual budget was 13 times that of 1913; tax rates had

risen fivefold, and the total national debt, fourteenfold.

Although many Britons welcomed the end of czarist rule in Russia in 1917,

they saw the Communist decision to make a separate peace with Germany as a

sellout. Only the entry of the United States into the war made possible

General Douglas Haigs successful tank offensive in the summer of 1918 and

the German surrender in November. The election called immediately

thereafter gave the Lloyd George coalition an overwhelming mandate. The

Labour Party, now formally pledged to socialism, became the largest

opposition party, while the Asquith wing of a divided Liberal Party was

almost wiped out. By then the Reform Act of 1918 had granted the vote to

all men over the age of 21 and all women over 30.

Changes Wrought by the War

Lloyd George represented Britain as one of the Big Three (together with

France and the United States) at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The

resulting treaties enlarged the British Empire as former German colonies in

Africa and Turkish holdings in the Middle East became British mandates. At

the same time Britains self-governing dominionsCanada, Australia, New

Zealand, and South Africabecame separate treaty signatories and separate

members of the new League of Nations. An intermittent civil war in Ireland

ended with a treaty negotiated by Lloyd George in 1921. Most of the island

became the Irish Free State, independent of British rule in all but name.

The six counties of Northern Ireland continued to be represented in the

British Parliament, although they also gained their own provincial

parliament. The immediate postwar years were marked by economic boom, rapid

demobilization, and much labor strife. By 1922, however, the boom had

petered out. That year a rebellion by a group of Conservative members of

Parliament ended the prime ministership of Lloyd George, and the wholly

Conservative ministry of Andrew Bonar Law represented a return to normal

times.

The Interwar Era

During the early 1920s a major political shift took place in Britain. The

general election of 1922 gave victory to the Conservatives, but another

one, called a year later by Bonar Laws successor, Stanley Baldwin, left no

party with a clear majority. As a consequence, Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour

Party leader, became the first professed socialist to serve as prime

minister of Great Britain. His first ministry in 1924, rested on Liberal

acquiescence; it lasted less than a year, when yet another election brought

back Baldwins Conservatives. Lloyd Georges and Asquiths efforts at

Liberal reunion failed to restore the partys fortunes, and it has remained

a minor party in British politics. The Baldwin ministry restored the gold

standard and enacted several social-reform measures, including the Widows,

Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, a national electric power

network, and a reform of local government. In 1928 women were given voting

rights that were equal to those of men.

Between 1929 and 1932 the international depression more than doubled an

already high rate of unemployment. In the course of three years, both the

levels of industrial activity and of prices dipped by a quarter, and

industries such as shipbuilding collapsed almost entirely. MacDonalds

second Labour government found itself unable to cope with the depression,

and in 1931 it gave way to a national government, headed first by MacDonald

and then by Baldwin and made up mostly of Conservatives. The Labour Party

denounced MacDonald as a traitor, but the national government won an

overwhelming mandate in the general election of 1931. It took Britain off

the gold standard, restored protective tariffs, and subsidized the building

of houses. Between 1933 and 1937, the economy recovered steadily, with the

automobile, construction, and electrical industries leading the way.

Unemployment remained high, however, especially in Wales, Scotland, and

northern England. Interwar society was influenced by the radio (monopolized

by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was begun in 1927) and the

cinema, but British life was little affected by the continental ideologies

of communism and fascism. The empire remained a fact, even though the

Statute of Westminster (1931) proclaimed the equality of Commonwealth

nations such as Canada and Australia. Religious attendance declined, but

King George V maintained the prestige of the monarchy. When his son, Edward

VIII, insisted on marrying a twice-divorced American in 1936, abdication

proved to be the only acceptable solution. Under Edwards brother, George

VI, the monarchy again provided the model family of the land.

Britain and World War II

Memories of World War I left Britons with an overwhelming desire to avoid

another war, and the country played a leading role in the League of Nations

and at interwar disarmament conferences such as those in Washington, D.C.

in 1921 and 1922 and London in 1930 that limited naval size. Conscious that

Germany might have been unfairly treated at the 1919 peace conference, the

British government followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with Adolf

Hitlers Germany after 1933. Germanys decisions between 1934 and 1936 to

leave the League of Nations, rearm, and remilitarize the Rhineland in

defiance of the Treaty of Versailles were accepted. So was the German

annexation of Austria in 1938. In his efforts to keep the peace at all

costs, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain also acquiesced to the Munich

Pact of 1938, which gave Germany the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia.

Only after the German annexation of Prague in March of 1939 did Britain

make pledges to Poland and Romania.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared

war, and World War II began. The

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by any other power. Although a German invasion plan was foiled by British

air supremacy, large parts of London and other cities were destroyed and

some 60,000 civilians were killed. Beginning early in 1941, the still-

neutral United States granted lend-lease aid to Britain.

The nature of the war changed with the German invasion of the Union of

Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on

Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Churchill then forged the Grand Alliance

with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt

against Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the immediate aftermath of the

Japanese intervention, much of the British Empire in Southeast Asia was

overrun, but late in 1942 the tide turned. The British contribution

included the Battle of the North Atlantic against the German submarine

menace and the campaign led by General Bernard Montgomery against the

German army in North Africa. Churchill corresponded continually and met

often with Roosevelt, and British forces joined American in the 1943

invasion of Sicily and Italy, the invasion of France in 1944, and the

ultimate defeat of the Axis powers in 1945.

The Winds of Change

The general election of 1945 gave the Labour Party for the first time a

majority of the popular vote and an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

The result was less a rebuke of Churchills wartime leadership than an

expression of approval of Labours role in the war and of hope that the

party would bring more prosperity.

Clement Attlees Ministry (1945-1951)

During the years that followed, Labour, led by Clement Attlee, sought to

build a socialist Britain, while surviving postwar austerity, dismantling

the empire, and adjusting to a cold war with the USSR. The two measures

that established a welfare state in Britain, the National Insurance Act of

1946 (a consolidation of benefit laws involving maternity, unemployment,

disability, old age, and death) and the National Health Service, set up in

1948, were widely popular. Both drew on the wartime reports of Sir William

Beveridge, a Liberal. The nationalization of the Bank of England, the coal

industry, gas and electricity, the railroads, and most airlines proved

relatively noncontroversial, but the Conservatives vigorously if vainly

opposed the nationalization of the trucking and the iron and steel

industries. In 1948 Labour eliminated the last remnants of plural voting

(that is, voting in more than one constituency) and reduced the delaying

powers of the House of Lords from two years to one. These changes were

instituted in the midst of a postwar era of austerity. The national debt

had tripled, and for the first time since the 18th century Britain had

become a debtor nation. With the end of U.S. lend-lease aid in 1945, the

British import bill had risen abruptly long before military demobilization

and reconversion to peacetime industry had been accomplished. Wartime

regulations, therefore, had been kept; food rationing in 1946 and 1947 was

more restrictive than during the war.

Postwar Germany was divided into occupation zones among the USSR, the

United States, Britain, and France, but efforts to reach agreement on a

peace treaty with Germany broke down as it became clear that the USSR was

converting all of Eastern Europe into a Soviet sphere. Britain, assisted by

the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan (1948-1952), joined other Western powers

and the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in

1949 in order to counter the Soviet threat. The British government felt

less able, however, to play an independent role in the Middle East, and in

1948 it gave up its Palestinian mandate, which led to the establishment of

Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War. Aware of Britains depleted coffers

and sympathetic toward their nationalist causes, the Labour government

granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947 and to Burma (now known

as Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948.

Conservative Rule (1951-1964)

Its program of social reform apparently accomplished, the Labour

governments parliamentary majority was sharply reduced in the general

election of 1950, and the election of 1951 enabled the Conservatives under

Winston Churchill to slip back into power. Except for denationalizing iron

and steel, the Conservatives made no attempt to reverse the legislation or

the welfare-state program enacted by Labour, and the early 1950s brought

steady economic recovery. As income tax rates were reduced and the

framework of wartime and postwar regulation largely dismantled, housing

construction boomed and international trade flourished. With a veteran

world statesman heading Britains government, the accession of a young

queen drew the attention of the world to London for the coronation of

Elizabeth II in June 1953. During these years Britain perfected its own

atomic and hydrogen bombs and pioneered in the generation of electricity by

nuclear power. Churchills hopes for another diplomatic summit meeting were

disappointed, but Stalins death in 1953 led to an easing of the Cold War.

Eden and Macmillan

Churchills successor, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, led his party to a

second election victory in the spring of 1955. In the same year he helped

negotiate an Austrian peace treaty and participated in a summit conference

at Geneva.

Edens tenure as prime minister, however, was cut short by the crisis that

followed Egypts nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. British forces

had been withdrawn from the canal only a year earlier, and an Anglo-French

reoccupation in 1956 was halted by Soviet-U.S. pressure. The episode led

both to the loss of much of Britains remaining influence in the Middle

East and to Edens resignation. His successor, Harold Macmillan, presided

over a period of renewed consumer affluence. In 1959 he led the

Conservatives to their third successive election victorythe fourth time in

a row that the party gained parliamentary seats.

Decolonization

In Africa, Macmillans government followed a deliberate policy of

decolonization. The Sudan had already become independent in 1956, and

during the next seven years Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Sierra

Leone, Uganda, and Kenya followed suit. Most of these states remained

members of a highly decentralized multiracial Commonwealth, but the Union

of South Africa, dominated by a white minority of Boer descent, left the

Commonwealth in 1961 and declared itself a republic. Independence was also

given to Malaysia, Cyprus, and Jamaica during Macmillans tenure.

Even as imperial ties loosened, tens of thousands of immigrantsespecially

from the West Indies and Pakistanpoured into Britain. Their arrival caused

intermittent social strife and led to efforts to limit further immigration

sharply, while ensuring legal equality for the immigrants and their

descendants.

As Britons turned their attention away from their overseas empire, they

became increasingly aware that their economy, although prospering, was

growing less rapidly than those of their Continental neighbors. In 1961

Macmillan applied for British membership in the European Community (EC), or

Common Market (now called the European Union). Many Britons felt unprepared

to cast their lot with continental Europe, but for the moment their

feelings proved immaterial, because the application was vetoed by President

Charles de Gaulle of France. In 1963 Macmillan was replaced as Conservative

prime minister by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In the general election of 1964,

however, the latter was narrowly defeated by the Labour Party, headed by

Harold Wilson.

The Permissive Society

During the 1960s, Britain experienced a widespread mood of rebellion

against the conventions of the pastin dress, in music, in popular

entertainment, and in social behavior. The phenomenon had its positive

consequences in helping to make swinging London a world capital of

popular music, theater, and, for a time, fashion. Among the negative side

effects, however, were a rising crime rate and a spreading drug culture.

Harold Wilsons Labour government sympathized with some of these trends. It

sought both to expand higher education opportunities and to end a high

school system that separated the academically inclined from other students.

During the later 1960s, laws on divorce were eased, abortion was legalized,

curbs on homosexual practices were ended, capital punishment was abolished,

equal pay for equal work was prescribed for women, and the voting age was

lowered from 21 to 18.

In economic life the Labour government became more rigorous. A persistent

trend toward inflation, unfavorable balance of trade, and unbalanced

government budgets led to a wage-and-price freeze in 1966 and attempts

thereafter to secure severe restraint. These actions eased certain

economic problems but at the price of alienating many of Labours union

supporters, and in 1970 the Conservatives returned to power under Edward

Heath.

Battle Against Inflation

A major theme of British history since the mid-1960s has been the battle to

eliminate double-digit inflation. Heaths policy of deliberate economic

expansion did not accomplish that goal, however, and the attempt to curb

the legal powers of labor unions in 1971 evoked a mood of civil

disobedience among union leaders. More working days were lost because of

strikes in 1972 than in any year since the general strike of 1926. Heath

hoped to solve economic problems by floating the pound, that is, by

freeing Britains currency from earlier fixed rates of exchange with other

currencies, and by again seeking British admission to the EC. Britain did

join in 1973, and two years later the first national referendum in British

history approved the step by a 2-1 margin. An attempt by Heath in 1972 and

1973 first to freeze and then sharply to restrain wage and price increases

was defied by the miners. When Heath appealed to the public in the general

election of February 1974, the results were indecisive. A revival in the

popular vote of the Liberal Party, however, enabled Harold Wilson to form a

minority Labour government that lasted five years under his leadership and

that of James Callaghan.

Irish and Scottish Problems

During the 1970s, successive British governments also faced difficulties in

Ireland and Scotland. A civil rights movement supporting social equality

for the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland clashed violently with

Protestant extremists. In 1969 the British government sent troops to keep

order, and in 1972 it abolished Northern Irelands autonomous parliament. A

campaign of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) followed; its aim

was to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic in defiance of the

wishes of a majority of the Northern Irish people. British measures

gradually curbed but could not totally halt the wave of bombings and

killings in Northern Ireland and England. In Scotland, a Scottish

Nationalist Party scored impressive gains in the elections of 1974, and

Callaghans ministry attempted to set up a semi-independent parliament in

Edinburgh. When only 33 percent of the Scottish electorate supported the

plan in a 1979 referendum, the project died, at least temporarily.

Economic Woes Under Labour

The Labour government of 1974 to 1979 began by ending all legal

restrictions on wage and price rises, but after the annual inflation rate

topped 25 percent in 1975, the government did succeed in obtaining some

trade union restraints on wage claims in return for an end to some

voluntary restraints on wage claims; the inflation rate declined somewhat

between 1976 and 1979. In return, union leaders demanded an end to legal

restraints on union power and more government subsidies for housing and

other social services. By the late 1970s, British politics seemed to be

polarizing between left-wing Labourites, who sought an ever larger role for

the state in order to impose social equality, and Conservatives, who hoped

to restore a greater role to private enterprise and individual achievement.

By the beginning of 1979, Callaghans government was dependent on two minor

parties. A winter of labor unrest undercut his claims to be able to deal

successfully with the unions, and a vote of no confidence in March 1979

went against him.

The Thatcher Decade

In the elections of April 1979 the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher,

emerged with a substantial majority of parliamentary seats and with the

first woman prime minister in British or European history. She was to

remain in office for the next 11 years, making hers the longest continuous

prime ministership since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Thatchers first years were difficult. She sought to halt inflation by a

policy of high interest rates and government budget cuts, rather than of

wage and price freezes. By 1981 and 1982 those policies were showing some

success, but only at the cost of the highest unemployment rates since the

1930s. The government was jolted in April 1982 when Argentina forcibly

occupied the Falkland Islands, a British-held archipelago in the South

Atlantic that Argentina had long claimed. When U.S. mediation efforts

failed, Thatcher sent a British counterinvasion fleet, and in June that

force succeeded in recapturing the islands.

The decisive Conservative victories in the elections of June 1983 and June

1987 were the consequence not only of widespread popular support for the

governments Falklands policy, but also of a sharp division in the ranks of

the political opposition. In 1980 a group of Labour Party members headed by

Roy Jenkins and David Owen broke away and in 1981 formed the Social

Democratic Party. The new party joined with the Liberals to constitute an

influential alliance that ultimately won relatively few parliamentary seats

but did garner 25 percent of the total popular vote in 1983 and 23 percent

in 1987 (compared to 28 and 31 percent for Labour and 42 percent in both

elections for the Conservatives).

The years between 1982 and 1988 were economic boom years in Britain. The

living standards of most Britons rose and the rate of unemployment

gradually ebbed. British industries became more efficient, and London

maintained its role as one of the worlds top three centers of finance. The

economic role of government declined as Thatcher promoted privatizationthe

turning over to private investors of government monopolies such as British

Airways, the telephone service, and the distribution of gas and water.

Public housing tenants were strongly

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inflation, the enactment of an unpopular poll tax (as a substitute for

local government real estate taxes), and the alienation of some members of

her cabinet over the prime ministers increasingly critical attitude toward

cooperation with her EC colleagues.

John Major

Thatcher was succeeded as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by

John Major, who continued Thatchers policy of maintaining close ties with

the United States. British troops fought as part of the multinational

coalition led by the United States in the Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1992,

despite an economic recession, Major led his party to victory in the April

general elections, though with a reduced majority. Opposition leader Neil

Kinnock, who had gradually moved his Labour Party back from the left toward

the ideological center, resigned after the election. Following the

Conservatives election victory, Majors government faced a growing

financial crisis as the pound weakened in the currency market, inflation

and unemployment grew, and the nation entered a recession. As a result,

Major received the lowest approval rating, 14 percent, of any prime

minister in British history.

One of John Majors main accomplishments in office occurred in 1993, when

he was instrumental in opening a dialogue between the British government

and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Major and Irish prime minister Albert

Reynolds issued a statement requiring the IRA to cease terrorist activities

for three months, after which time Sinn Fein, the organizations political

wing, would be invited to join talks on the future of Northern Ireland. In

August 1994 the IRA announced a cease-fire, bringing to a halt the violence

that is estimated to have killed more than 3000 people in the previous 25

years. In May 1995 representatives from the British government and the IRA

met face-to-face for the first time in 23 years.

Despite this breakthrough, the Conservative Party continued to lose ground.

Though beset by low opinion polls, large defeats in local elections in

April and May 1995, and a series of scandals, its most serious problem was

the growing rift within the party over policy toward Europe and the

European Union (EU). Many Conservatives felt that closer British relations

with the EU would undermine British sovereignty, and the constant internal

conflict over this issue severely damaged the party. In July 1995, in an

attempt to solidify the party, John Major resigned as leader of the

Conservatives, forcing an election for a new leader. Major won against an

anti-European opponent, but one-third of the party voted against him or

abstained. Dissatisfaction with the progress of the Northern Ireland talks

led the IRA to resume its campaign of violence in February 1996 by setting

off a large bomb in London that injured more than 100 people.

In March and April of 1996 the government disclosed that a link may exist

between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow

disease), an infection that had been found in some British cattle, and

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a degenerative human brain disorder. This

disclosure led the European Union to ban British beef, which devastated the

British cattle industry, further damaging the Conservatives popularity. In

April the Conservatives suffered a substantial loss in local parliamentary

elections to the opposition Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair. This loss

trimmed the Conservative parliamentary majority to just one seat.

During the second half of 1996 and early 1997 Major struggled to regain

support for his party, but was unsuccessful. The split within the party

over the issue of European relations, most specifically the question as to

whether the economic and monetary union (EMU) proposed by the European

Union would damage the British economy, continued to widen. In national

elections in May 1997 the Conservatives were swept out of office in a

landslide. The Labour Party won almost 45 percent of the vote and came away

with 419 seats and a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. The

Conservatives had their worst showing in over 150 years, receiving about 33

percent of the vote and losing almost half of their seats, to finish with

165. Labour leader Tony Blair became prime minister, and after the

election, John Major announced that he would resign as head of the

Conservative Party as soon as a replacement could be found.

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