Great Britain: <named-content content-type="electronic">The 1960s and 70s</named-content><named-content content-type="print">The Late Twentieth Century</named-content>

<named-content content-type="electronic">The 1960s and 70s</named-content><named-content content-type="print">The Late Twentieth Century</named-content>

Great Britain helped to form (1959) the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but in 1961 the government of Harold Macmillan announced its decision to seek membership in the European Economic Community. Because of French opposition as well as Britain's request for special considerations for the countries of the Commonwealth and of EFTA, agreement on British entry was not reached until 1971. Britain finally entered what had become the European Community (now the European Union [EU]) in Jan., 1973.

Labour returned to power in 1964 under Harold Wilson, and the steel industry was renationalized. The country faced the compound economic problems of a very unfavorable balance of trade, the instability of the pound sterling, a lagging rate of economic growth, and inflationary wages and prices. A number of sterling crises were followed by government controls and cutbacks.

Britain supported U.S. policy in Vietnam. The policy of granting independence to colonial possessions continued; however, Rhodesia (see Zimbabwe) became a problem when its government, representing only the white minority, unilaterally declared its independence in 1965. Another problem was Spain's demand for the return of Gibraltar. A major crisis erupted in Northern Ireland in late 1968 when Catholic civil-rights demonstrations turned into violent confrontations between Catholics and Protestants. British army units were dispatched in an unsuccessful attempt to restore calm. In 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament and government and assumed direct control of the province. The sectarian terrorist violence that resulted from the unrest continued to be a significant problem in Northern Ireland into the 1990s.

The Conservatives under Edward Heath returned to power in Britain in 1970. At the end of 1973 the country underwent its worst economic crisis since World War II. The balance of payments deficit, after improving in the late 1960s, had worsened. Serious inflation had led to widespread labor unrest in the critical coal-mining, railroad, and electrical industries, leading to a shortage of coal, Britain's main energy source. A further blow, following the 1973 war in the Middle East, was the reduction in oil shipments by several Arab states and a steep increase in the price of oil.

When coal miners voted to strike in early 1974, Heath called an election in an attempt to bolster his position in resisting the miners' demands. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives emerged from that election with a plurality in the Commons. After an unsuccessful attempt to form a minority government, Heath resigned (Mar., 1974) and was succeeded as prime minister by Harold Wilson, who moved immediately to settle the miners' dispute.

In the elections of Oct., 1974, the Labour party won a slim majority; Wilson continued as prime minister. The early 1970s brought the development of oil and natural gas fields in the North Sea, which helped to decrease Britain's reliance on coal and foreign fuel. Wilson resigned and was succeeded by James Callaghan in Apr., 1976. Neither Wilson nor Callaghan was able to resolve growing disagreements with the unions, and unrest among industrial workers became the dominant note of the late 1970s. In Mar., 1979, Callaghan left office after losing a no-confidence vote.

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