A History of 20th Century Britain

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Latest Issue. Volume 30 Issue 2 June About the journal Twentieth Century British History publishes outstanding work on all aspects of the history of Britain and the British world during the long-twentieth century… Find out more. The Duncan Tanner Essay Prize. Read previous winners. The Ben Pimlott Memorial Lecture. Find out more about previous lectures. Latest Tweets. Email alerts Latest issues Receive a table of contents email alert as soon as a new issue is published online. Advance articles Receive regular email alerts, listing new advance articles.

Recommend to your library Fill out our simple online form to recommend this journal to your library. Submit Twentieth Century British History now welcomes submissions via our online submissions website. Related Titles. The English Historical Review. History Workshop Journal. Thus Britain had both a formal Empire based on British rule and an informal one based on the British pound. 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. During the American Civil War — , 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 The British people, who depended heavily on American food imports, generally favoured the United States.

In September , 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 would be issued in January making abolition of slavery in the Confederacy a war goal. Since support of the Confederacy now meant support for slavery, there was no longer any possibility of European intervention.

However, the British working class were quite overwhelmingly pro-Union. In the end, although Britain could survive without Southern cotton, the North's meat and grain was more important to feed the UK's urban population, especially as a series of bad harvests had affected British agriculture in the late s to early s. 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 , in the Americans' favour.

In , Britain united most of its North American colonies as Canada , giving it self-government and responsibility for its internal affairs. Britain handled foreign policy and defence. The second half of the 19th century saw a major expansion of Britain's colonial empire in Asia and Africa as well as the Pacific. It was the only power in Europe to have no conscription. The rise of the German Empire after 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 , 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 — British historian Andrew Roberts argues that the Boers insisted on keeping full control of both their two small republics, allowing no role whatever for nonwhites, and distinctly limited roles for British and other European settlers. These " Uitlanders " were the base of the economy, paid 80 percent of the taxes, and had no vote. The Transvaal was in no sense a democracy, argues Roberts, for no black, Britain, Catholic or Jew was allowed to vote or hold any office.

Johannesburg was the business centre, with 50, primarily British residents, but was not permitted any local government. The English language was banned in official proceedings; no public meetings were permitted; newspapers were closed down arbitrarily; and full citizenship was technically possible but quite rare. Roberts says President Paul Kruger "ran a tight, tough, quasi-police state from his state capital, Pretoria.

The Boer response to the British pressure was to declare war on 20 October The , Boers were massively outnumbered, but amazingly they waged a successful guerrilla war, which gave the British regulars a difficult fight.

General Databases

The Boers were landlocked and did not have access to outside help. The weight of numbers, superior equipment, and often brutal tactics eventually brought about a British victory. To defeat the guerrillas, the British rounded up their women and children into concentration camps, where many died of disease. World outrage focused on the camps, led by a large faction of the Liberal Party in Britain.

However, the United States gave its support. The Boer republics were merged into Union of South Africa in ; it had internal self-government but its foreign policy was controlled by London and was an integral part of the British Empire. The unexpectedly great difficulty in defeating the Boers forced a reevaluation of British policy. In military terms, it was clear that the Cardwell reforms had been inadequate.

The call to establish a general staff to control military operations had been shelved by the Duke of Cambridge, himself a royal with enormous authority.


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It took a five more years to set up a general staff and other Army reforms, under the administration of Lord Haldane. Britain responded by a massive building programme launched in by the highly controversial First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher. It was the first modern battleship, based on new armour, new propulsion, new guns and gunnery that made all other warships obsolete. It needed new friends. It made a military alliance with Japan, and buried old controversies to forge a close relationship with the United States. Britain in addition to taking control of new territories, developed an enormous power in economic and financial affairs in numerous independent countries, especially in Latin America and Asia.

It lent money, built railways, and engaged in trade. The Great Exhibition of clearly demonstrated Britain's dominance in engineering, communications and industry; that lasted until the rise of the United States and Germany in the s. In — under Salisbury Britain promoted a policy of Splendid isolation with no formal allies. Part of the agreement which led to the Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted.

When potato blight hit Ireland in , much of the rural population was left without food. Relief efforts were inadequate and hundreds of thousands died in the Great Hunger. Ireland became permanently smaller in terms of population. In the s new moderate nationalist movement was formed. A significant unionist minority largely based in Ulster , opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also hurt its industry.

Historically, the aristocracy was divided between Conservatives and Liberals. However, when Gladstone committed to home rule for Ireland, Britain's upper classes largely abandoned the Liberal party, giving the Conservatives a large permanent majority in the House of Lords. High Society in London, following the Queen, largely ostracized home rulers, and Liberal clubs were badly split. Joseph Chamberlain took a major element of upper-class supporters out of the Party and into a third party, the Liberal Unionists , which collaborated with and eventually merged into the Conservative party.

The Programme had a strong appeal to the Nonconformist middle-class Liberal element, which felt liberated by the departure of the aristocracy. The Queen played a small role in politics, but became the iconic symbol of the nation, the empire, and proper, restrained behaviour. 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. Lord Palmerston — dominated foreign policy for decades, through a period when Britain was at the height of its power, serving terms as both Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.

He was intensely patriotic; he used the Royal Navy to undermine the Atlantic slave trade. 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 — , prime minister and —80 , remains an iconic hero of the Conservative Party. He played a central role in the creation the Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal leader William Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or "Tory democracy".

He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire. He was born into a Jewish family, which became Episcopalian when he was 12 years old. Disraeli fought to protect established political, social, and religious values and elites; he emphasized the need for national leadership in response to radicalism, uncertainty, and materialism.

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. In foreign policy he is best known for battling and besting Russia. Disraeli's second term was dominated by the Eastern Question —the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of Russia, to gain at its expense. In , faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to maintain peace in the Balkans and made terms favourable to Britain which weakened Russia, its longstanding enemy.

Disraeli's old reputation as the "Tory democrat" and promoter of the welfare state has faded as historians argue that he had few proposals for social legislation in —80, and that the Reform Act did not reflect a vision for the unenfranchised working man. William Ewart Gladstone — was the Liberal counterpart to Disraeli, serving as prime minister four times —74, —85, , and — Gladstone's first ministry saw many reforms including Disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland and the introduction of secret voting.

His party was defeated in , but made a comeback based on opposition to Turkey's Bulgarian atrocities against Christians. Gladstone's Midlothian Campaign of —80 was an pathbreaking introduction of many modern political campaigning techniques. His Liberal party was increasingly pulled apart on the Irish issue. He proposed Irish home rule in ; It failed to pass and the resulting split in the Liberal Party kept it out of office for most of the next 20 years.

Gladstone's 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.

Regarding Ireland, the major Liberal efforts focused on land reform, where the ended centuries of landlord oppression , and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland through the Irish Church Act Gladstone became a champion of Home Rule , but it caused a deep split in the Liberal Party. Joseph Chamberlain formed the breakaway Liberal Unionist Party that refused to consider Home Rule for Ireland and became allied with the Conservatives. In terms of historic reforms, Gladstone's first ministry —74 was his most successful.

The Judicature Act of merged them into one central court. Local government was streamlined in a later Gladstone ministry, and made more powerful and standardized. Patronage and favouritism were replaced by civil service examinations, downplaying the role of family and aristocracy and emphasizing the role of talent and ability.

The secret ballot was enacted in to prevent the buying of votes—politicians would not pay out the money if they were not sure how the person voted. The Trade Union Act lessened the intimidation of employers, made unions legal, and protected their funding from lawsuits. The Protestant Church of Ireland was disestablished. Catholics no longer had to pay taxes to it. Its organization was confused, its policies unfair, and its punishments were based chiefly on flogging.

At the county level, politicians named the officers of the county militia units, preferring connections in class over capacity. The regular army called for enlistments for 21 years, but with reforms initiated by Edward Cardwell , Gladstone's War Secretary , enlistments were reduced to six years, plus six years in the reserves. Regiments were organized by territorial districts, and advanced with modern rifles. The complex chain of command was simplified, and in wartime the county militias were under the control of the central war office. The purchase of officers' commissions was abolished, as was flogging in peacetime.

The reforms were not quite complete, the Duke of Cambridge , as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces , still had great authority, despite his mediocre abilities. Historians agree that Lord Salisbury — as foreign minister and prime minister in the late 19th century was a strong and effective leader in foreign affairs. He had a superb grasp of the issues, and proved:. Historians portray Lord Salisbury as a talented leader who was an icon of traditional, aristocratic conservatism.

Marsh's estimate is more favourable than Blake's, he says Salisbury was a leader who "held back the popular tide for twenty years. Matthew points to "the narrow cynicism of Salisbury". The Liberal Party was in power from to , when it formed a wartime coalition. It passed the welfare reforms that created a basic British welfare state. It weakened the veto power of Lords, blocked woman suffrage. In it apparently "solved" the problem of Irish Home Rule but when the war broke out the solution was shelved.

Asquith was overwhelmed by the wartime role of coalition prime minister, and Lloyd George replaced him as the coalition prime minister in late but Asquith remained Liberal party leader. The two fought for years over control of the party, badly weakening it in the process. Queen Victoria died in 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 Edward died in , to be succeeded by George V , who reigned — 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 identified the "strange death of liberal England" as the multiple crisis that hit simultaneously in — with serious social and political instability arising from the Irish crisis, labour 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. Ross McKibbin argues that the political party system of the Edwardian era was in delicate balance on the eve of the war in 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 s. The sociological basis was non-Anglican religion and non-English ethnicity rather than the emerging class conflict emphasized by Labour. Asquith of the Liberal Party.

The rest of the Empire automatically followed. The cabinet's basic reasons for declaring war focused on a deep commitment to France and avoidance of splitting the Liberal Party. That would deeply split the party and mean loss of control of the government to a coalition or to the Unionist i.


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  4. Conservative opposition. However, the large antiwar element among Liberals, with David Lloyd George as spokesperson, would support the war to honour the treaty that guaranteed Belgian neutrality. So Belgium rather than France was the public reason given.

    Posters took the line that Britain was required to go to war to safeguard Belgium's neutrality under the Treaty of London. Britain actually entered the war to support France, which had entered to support Russia, which in turn had entered to support Serbia. After a few weeks the Western Front turned into a killing ground in which millions of men died but no army made a large advance. The main British contribution was financial—loans and grants helped Russia, Italy and smaller allies afford the war. The stalemate required an endless supply of men and munitions.

    By , volunteering fell off, the government imposed conscription in Britain but not in Ireland to keep up the strength of the Army. With his slow start and mobilization of national resources, Prime Minister H. Asquith had proven inadequate: he was more of a committee chairman, and he started so drink so heavily after midday that only his morning hours were effective. He had strong support from Unionists and considerable backing of Labour, as well as a majority of his own Liberal Party, although Asquith turned hostile. Lloyd George answered the loud demands for a much more decisive government by setting up a new small war cabinet, a cabinet secretariat under Hankey, and a secretariat of private advisors in the 'Garden Suburb'; he moved towards prime ministerial control.

    Britain eagerly supported the war, but Irish Nationalist opinion was divided: some served in the British Army, but the Irish Republican Brotherhood plotted an Easter Rebellion in It quickly failed but the brutal repression that followed turned that element against Britain, as did failed British plans to introduce conscription in Ireland in The nation now successfully mobilised its manpower, womanpower, industry, finances, Empire and diplomacy, in league with France and the U.

    The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The war forced Britain to use up its financial reserves and borrow large sums from New York banks. After the U. The Royal Navy dominated the seas, defeating the smaller German fleet in the only major naval battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland in Germany was blockaded, leading to an increasing shortage short of food. Germany's naval strategy increasingly turned towards use of U-Boats to strike back against the British, despite the risk of triggering war with the powerful neutral power, the United States.

    Berlin declared the water routes to Britain were war zones where any ship, neutral or otherwise, was a target. Vigorous,protests by American President Woodrow Wilson forced Berlin to abandon unrestricted submarine warfare. With victory over Russia in , the German high command now calculated it could finally have numerical superiority on the Western Front.

    Planning for a massive spring offensive in , it resumed the sinking of all merchant ships without warning, even if they were flying the American flag. The US entered the war alongside the Allies without officially joining them , and provided the needed money and supplies to sustain the Allies' war efforts. The U-boat threat was ultimately defeated by a convoy system across the Atlantic. Britain fought the Ottoman Empire, suffering defeats in the Gallipoli Campaign and in Mesopotamia Iraq , while arousing the Arabs who helped expel the Turks from their lands.

    Exhaustion and war-weariness were growing worse in , as the fighting in France continued with no end in sight. After defeating Russia, the Germans tried to win in the spring of before the millions of American soldiers arrived. They failed, and they were overwhelmed by August and finally accepted an Armistice on 11 November , that amounted to a surrender. British society and government were radically transformed by the repeated calls for manpower, the employment of women, the dramatic increase in industrial production and munitions, price controls and rationing, and the wide and deep emotional patriotism dedicated to winning the war.

    Parliament took a backseat, as new departments bureaus committees and operations were created every week, experts were consulted, and the prime minister's Orders in Council replaced the slow legislative process. Even after peace arrived, the new size and dynamism had permanently transformed the effectiveness of British government. He gave energy and dynamism to the war effort with his remarkable ability to convince people to do what he wanted and thus get ideas put into actual useful high-speed motion.

    His top aide Winston Churchill said of Lloyd George: "He was the greatest master of the art of getting things done and of putting things through that I ever knew; in fact no British politician my day has possessed half his competence as a mover of men and affairs. Victorian attitudes and ideals that had continued into the first years of the 20th century changed during the First World War.

    The almost three million casualties were known as the " Lost Generation ", and such numbers inevitably left society scarred. The lost generation felt its sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon 's Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front. The lost generation was politically inert, and never had its chance to make a generational change in political power. The young men who governed Britain in were the same old men who governed Britain in The war had been won by Britain and its allies, but at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should never be fought again.

    The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully, but these hopes were unfulfilled. The harsh peace settlement imposed on Germany would leave it embittered and seeking revenge. They formed the League of Nations as a mechanism to prevent future wars. They sliced up the losers to form new nations in Europe, and divided up the German colonies and Ottoman holdings outside Turkey. They imposed what appeared to be heavy financial reparations but in the event were of modest size. They humiliated Germany by forcing it to declare its guilt for starting the war, a policy that caused deep resentment in Germany and helped fuel reactions such as Nazism.

    Britain gained the German colony of Tanganyika and part of Togoland in Africa, while its dominions added other colonies. Britain gained League of Nations mandates over Palestine, which had been partly promised as a homeland for Jewish settlers, and Iraq. Iraq became fully independent in Egypt, which had been a British protectorate since , became independent in , although the British remained there until In the House of Commons passed a new Home Rule bill. Under the Parliament Act the House of Lords retained the power to delay legislation by up to two years, so it was eventually enacted as the Government of Ireland Act , but suspended for the duration of the war.

    Civil war threatened when the Protestant-Unionists of Northern Ireland refused to be placed under Catholic-Nationalist control. Semi-military units were formed ready to fight—the Unionist Ulster Volunteers opposed to the Act and their Nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers supporting the Act. The outbreak of the World War in put the crisis on political hold. A disorganized Easter Rising in was brutally suppressed by the British, which had the effect of galvanizing Nationalist demands for independence.

    Historian Arthur Marwick sees a radical transformation of British society resulting from the Great War, a deluge that swept away many old attitudes and brought in a more equalitarian society. He sees the famous literary pessimism of the s as misplaced, arguing there were major positive long-term consequences of the war to British society.

    He points to an energized self-consciousness among workers that quickly built up the Labour Party, the coming of partial woman suffrage, and an acceleration of social reform and state control of the economy. He sees a decline of deference toward the aristocracy and established authority in general, and the weakening among youth of traditional restraints on individual moral behavior.

    The chaperone faded away; village druggists sold contraceptives. Marwick says that class distinctions softened, national cohesion increased, and British society became more equal. As a leisure, literacy, wealth, ease of travel, and a broadened sense of community grew in Britain from the late 19th century onward, there was more time and interest in leisure activities of all sorts, on the part of all classes. Tourists flocked to seaside resorts; Blackpool hosted 7 million visitors a year in the s.

    There were class differences with upper-class clubs, and working-class and middle-class pubs. Participation in sports and all sorts of leisure activities increased for the average Englishman, and his interest in spectator sports increased dramatically. By the s the cinema and radio attracted all classes, ages and genders in very large numbers, with young women taking the lead. They sang along at the music hall, fancied their pigeons, gambled on horse racing, and took the family to Blackpool in summer. The cartoon realization of this life style Andy Capp began in Political activists complained that working-class leisure diverted men away from revolutionary agitation.

    The British film industry emerged in the s when cinemas in general broke through in the western world, and built heavily on the strong reputation of the London legitimate theatre for actors, directors and producers. It bought up the top talent, especially when Hollywood came to the fore in the s and produced over 80 percent of the total world output.

    Efforts to fight back were futile—the government set a quota for British made films, but it failed. Hollywood furthermore dominated the lucrative Canadian and Australian markets. Bollywood based in Bombay dominated the huge Indian market. There was a revival of creativity in the —45 era, especially with the arrival of Jewish filmmakers and actors fleeing the Nazis.

    In Liverpool 40 percent of the population attended one of the 69 cinemas once a week; 25 percent went twice. Traditionalists grumbled about the American cultural invasion, but the permanent impact was minor. In radio, British audiences had no choice apart from the upscale programming of the BBC, a government agency which had a monopoly on broadcasting. John Reith — , an intensely moralistic engineer, was in full charge.

    His goal was to broadcast, "All that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement The preservation of a high moral tone is obviously of paramount importance. The British showed a more profound interest in sports, and in greater variety, than any rival. They gave pride of place to such moral issues as sportsmanship and fair play.

    New games became popular almost overnight, including golf, lawn tennis, cycling and hockey. Women were much more likely to enter these sports than the old established ones. The aristocracy and landed gentry, with their ironclad control over land rights, dominated hunting, shooting, fishing and horse racing. Test matches began by the s; the most famous are those between Australia and England for The Ashes.

    As literacy and leisure time expanded after , reading became a popular pastime.

    History of the United Kingdom

    New additions to adult fiction doubled during the s, reaching new books a year by Libraries tripled their stock, and saw heavy demand for new fiction. The first titles included novels by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie. They were sold cheap usually sixpence in a wide variety of inexpensive stores such as Woolworth's. Penguin aimed at an educated middle class "middlebrow" audience. It avoided the downmarket image of American paperbacks.

    The line signalled cultural self-improvement and political education. Romantic fiction was especially popular, with Mills and Boon the leading publisher. The story line in magazines and cinema that most appealed to boys was the glamorous heroism of British soldiers fighting wars that were exciting and just. Two major programmes that permanently expanded the welfare state passed in and with surprisingly little debate, even as the Conservatives dominated parliament.

    Act set up a system of government housing that followed the campaign promises of "homes fit for heroes. The Treasury subsidized the low rents. In England and Wales , houses were built, and the Ministry of Health became largely a ministry of housing. The Unemployment Insurance Act passed at a time of very little unemployment. It set up the dole system that provided 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to practically the entire civilian working population except domestic service, farm workers, and civil servants.

    Funded in part by weekly contributions from both employers and employed, it provided weekly payments of 15s for unemployed men and 12s for unemployed women. Historian Charles Mowat calls these two laws "Socialism by the back door", and notes how surprised politicians were when the costs to the Treasury soared during the high unemployment of The Lloyd George ministry fell apart in Stanley Baldwin , as leader of the Conservative Party —37 and as Prime Minister in —24, —29 and —37 , dominated British politics. 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.

    Baldwin's reputation soared in the s and s, but crashed after as he was blamed for the appeasement policies toward Germany, and as admirers of Churchill made him the Conservative icon. Since the s Baldwin's reputation has recovered somewhat.

    About the Book

    Labour won the election, but in 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. Much of the money went for the dole, the weekly unemployment benefits.

    Twentieth Century British History | Oxford Academic

    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 s, 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 and the business community was slow to adopt the new labour and management principles coming from the US, such as Fordism , consumer credit, eliminating surplus capacity, designing a more structured management, and using greater economies of scale. With the very sharp decline in world trade after , its condition became critical. Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill put Britain back on the gold standard in , 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 s, economic performance had stabilised, but the overall situation was disappointing, for Britain had fallen behind the United States as the leading industrial power. There also remained a strong economic divide between the north and south of England during this period, with the south of England and the Midlands fairly prosperous by the Thirties, while parts of south Wales and the industrial north of England became known as "distressed areas" due to particularly high rates of unemployment and poverty.

    Despite this, the standard of living continued to improve as local councils built new houses to let to families rehoused from outdated slums , with up to date facilities including indoor toilets, bathrooms and electric lighting now being included in the new properties. The private sector enjoyed a housebuilding boom during the s. During the war, trade unions were encouraged and their membership grew from 4.

    They peaked at 8. Coal was a sick industry; the best seams were being exhausted, raising the cost. Demand fell as oil began replacing coal for fuel. The general strike was a nine-day nationwide walkout of 1. The miners had rejected the owners' demands for longer hours and reduced pay in the face of falling prices. 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 Comintern 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.

    Most historians treat it as a singular event with few long-term consequences, but Martin Pugh says it accelerated the movement of working-class voters to the Labour Party, which led to future gains.

    Britain as a Global Power in the Twentieth Century

    That act was largely repealed in The Great Depression originated in the United States in late and quickly spread to the world. Britain had never experienced the boom that had characterized the US, Germany, Canada and Australia in the s, so its bust appeared less severe. At the depth in summer , registered unemployed numbered 3. 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. On the left figures such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb , J. Hobson , and G. Cole repeated the warnings they had been making for years about the imminent death of capitalism, only now far more people paid attention. In , by which time unemployment was lower, 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.

    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 League of Nations proved disappointing to its supporters; it was unable to resolve any of the threats posed by the dictators. British policy was to "appease" them in the hopes they would be satiated. By 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 During the quiet period of " phoney war ", the British sent to France the most highly mechanized army in the world; together with France they had more tanks than Germany, but fewer warplanes.

    The smashing German victory in Spring was due entirely to "superior combat doctrine. Realistic training, imaginative battlefield leadership, and unparalleled initiative from generals down to sergeants. 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 Britain formed an alliance with the Soviet Union starting in and very close ties to the United States starting in The war was very expensive.

    It was paid for by high taxes, by selling off assets, and by accepting large amounts of Lend Lease from the U. The American and Canadian aid did not have to be repaid, but there were also American loans that were repaid. Britain's total mobilisation during this period proved to be successful in winning the war, by maintaining strong support from public opinion. The war was a "people's war" that enlarged democratic aspirations and produced promises of a postwar welfare state. 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.

    They refused to leave London during the Blitz and were indefatigable in visiting troops, munition factories, dockyards, and hospitals all over the country. All social classes appreciated how the royals shared the hopes, fears and hardships of the people. Historians credit Britain with a highly successful record of mobilising the home front for the war effort, in terms of mobilising the greatest proportion of potential workers, maximising output, assigning the right skills to the right task, and maintaining the morale and spirit of the people.

    Much of this success was due to the systematic planned mobilisation of women, as workers, soldiers and housewives, enforced after December by conscription. In some ways the government over-responded, evacuating too many children in the first days of the war, closing cinemas as frivolous then reopening them when the need for cheap entertainment wasbecame clear, sacrificing cats and dogs to save a little space on shipping pet food, only to discover an urgent need to keep rats and mice under control.

    The British relied successfully on voluntarism. Munitions production rose dramatically, and the quality remained high. Food production was emphasised, in large part to free shipping for munitions. The success of the government in providing new services, such as hospitals and school lunches, as well as egalitarian spirit, contributed to widespread support for an enlarged welfare state.

    It was supported by the coalition government and all major parties. Welfare conditions, especially regarding food, improved during the war as the government imposed rationing and subsidized food prices. Conditions for housing worsened of course with the bombing, and clothing was in short supply. Equality increased dramatically, as incomes declined sharply for the wealthy and for white collar workers, as their taxes soared, while blue collar workers benefited from rationing and price controls. People demanded an expansion of the welfare state as a reward to the people for their wartime sacrifices [] The goal was operationalized in a famous report by William Beveridge.

    It recommended that the various income maintenance services that a grown-up piecemeal since be systematized and made universal. Unemployment benefits and sickness benefits were to be universal. There would be new benefits for maternity. The old-age pension system would be revised and expanded, and require that a person retired. A full-scale National Health Service would provide free medical care for everyone.

    All the major parties endorsed the principles and they were largely put into effect when peace returned. Britain had won the war, but it lost India in and nearly all the rest of the Empire by the s. Prosperity returned in the s, and London remained a world centre 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 , more council housing and nationalisation of several major industries. Britain faced a severe financial crisis, and responded by reducing her international responsibilities and by sharing the hardships of an "age of austerity". Rationing and conscription dragged on well into the post war years, and the country suffered one of the worst winters on record.

    Labour Party experts went into the files to find the detailed plans for nationalisation. To their surprise [ citation needed ] , there were no plans.

    Andrew Marr: The Making of Modern Britain (1 of 6) BBC Documentary

    The leaders decided to act fast to keep up the momentum of the electoral landslide. They started with the Bank of England , civil aviation, coal, and Cable and Wireless. Then came railways, canals, road haulage and trucking, electricity, and gas. Finally came iron and steel, which was a special case because it was a manufacturing industry. Altogether, about one fifth of the economy was nationalised. Labour dropped its plans to nationalise farmlands. In exchange for the shares, the owners of the companies were given government bonds paying low rates of interest, and the government took full ownership of each affected company, consolidating it into a national monopoly.

    The management remained the same, but they were now effectively civil servants working for the government. For the Labour Party leadership, nationalisation was a way to consolidate economic planning in their own hands. It was not designed to modernise old industries, make them efficient, or transform their organisational structure. There was no money for modernisation, although the Marshall Plan , operated separately by American planners, did force many British businesses to adopt modern managerial techniques.

    Hardline socialists were disappointed, as the nationalised industries seemed identical to the old private corporations, and national planning was made virtually impossible by the government's financial constraints. Socialism was in place, but it did not seem to make a major difference. Rank-and-file workers had long been motivated to support Labour by tales of the mistreatment of workers by foremen and the management. The foremen and the managers were the same people as before, with much the same power over the workplace.

    There was no worker control of industry. The unions resisted government efforts to set wages. By the time of the general elections in and , Labour seldom boasted about nationalisation of industry. Instead it was the Conservatives who decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the takeover of steel and trucking. As the country headed into the s, 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 s 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 Events such as the Suez Crisis showed that the UK's status had fallen in the world. The s and s 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 s 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. As summed up by R. By the earlier Seventies, however, the UK standard of living was lower than all EEC countries apart from Italy which, according to one calculation, was roughly equal to Britain. In addition, food rations were lifted in 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. National wealth has grown considerably, and although the shareout of this among the social classes has remained substantially of the same proportions, it has meant a considerable rise in the standard of living of all classes. It is estimated that in Britain at the turn of the century average earnings in industry sufficed merely to meet the essential needs of a two-child family, today average earnings allow the industrial wage-earner to spend a third of his income on things other than basic needs.

    By the end of the s, 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. In , Queen magazine declared that "Britain has launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living.

    Prime Minister Harold Macmillan claimed that "the luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor. 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. In addition, as noted by John Burnett,. What was equally striking was that ownership of such things had spread down the social scale and the gap between professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed.

    The provision of household amenities steadily improved during the second half of the twentieth century. Between and , 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 of the population although Britain remained high in terms of bathrooms and lavatories per people. Although the British standard of living was increasing, the standard of living in other countries increased faster. In ten years, from having had a much higher standard of living than the continent, they have slipped right back.

    Britain's control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism strengthened in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations known as the Commonwealth of Nations since , an informal but close-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in , 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. His goals were blocked by militant Protestants led by the Rev. Ian Paisley.

    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 s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of a British withdrawal led to negotiations that in produced the ' Good Friday Agreement '.

    It won popular support and largely ended the Troubles. After the relative prosperity of the s and s, the UK experienced extreme industrial strife and stagflation through the s following a global economic downturn; Labour had returned to government in under Harold Wilson to end 13 years of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were restored to government in under Edward Heath , who failed to halt the country's economic decline and was ousted in 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 , 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. Her rise to power was seen as the symbolic end of the time in which the British economy had become the "sick man" of western Europe.

    However the miners' strike of — 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 s a brief but severe recession occurred between and following the economic chaos of Black Wednesday under government of John Major , who had succeeded Margaret Thatcher in However the rest of the s 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 , 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 up until , income per head had doubled, while ownership of various household goods had significantly increased. Holiday entitlements had also become more generous. In , nine out of ten full-time manual workers were entitled to more than four weeks of paid holiday a year, while twenty years previously only two-thirds had been allowed three weeks or more. The postwar period also witnessed significant improvements in housing conditions.

    By the s, most homes had these amenities together with central heating, which was a luxury just two decades before. Britain's wish to join the Common Market as the European Economic Community was known in Britain was first expressed in July by the Macmillan government. It was vetoed in by French President Charles de Gaulle. Like the first, though, it was vetoed by de Gaulle.

    In opposition the Labour Party was deeply divided, though its Leader, Harold Wilson, remained in favour. In the 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 , and the proposition to continue membership was passed with a substantial majority. In , the Conservative government under John Major ratified it, against the opposition of his backbench Maastricht Rebels. The Treaty of Lisbon introduced many changes to the treaties of the Union. Prominent changes included more qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers , increased involvement of the European Parliament in the legislative process through extended codecision with the Council of Ministers, eliminating the pillar system and the creation of a President of the European Council with a term of two and a half years and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to present a united position on EU policies.

    The Treaty of Lisbon will also make the Union's human rights charter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights , legally binding. In July , the Labour government under Gordon Brown approved the treaty and the Queen ratified it. On 11 September , on the th 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. One week 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 The creation of these bodies has widened the differences between the Countries of the United Kingdom , especially in areas like healthcare. In the General Election , the Labour Party won a second successive victory, though voter turnout dropped to the lowest level for more than 80 years.


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