Great Britain: History
Until 1707, this section deals primarily with English history. England and Wales were formally united in 1536. In 1707, when Great Britain was created by the Act of Union between Scotland and England, English history became part of British history. For the early history of Scotland and Wales, see separate articles. See also Ireland; Ireland, Northern; and the tables entitled Rulers of England and Great Britain and Prime Ministers of Great Britain.
Although evidence of human habitation in Great Britain dates to more than 800,000 years ago, ice sheets forced the inhabitants from the island several times, and modern settlement dates only from about 12,000 years ago. Resettlement was initially by hunter-gathers such as
Cheddar Man, who were displaced c.4000 BC by farmers who had originated in what is now Greece and Turkey and spread west through the Mediterranean region and north from Iberia to Britain. Little is known about these inhabitants, but the remains of their tor and causewayed enclosures, dolmens, and long barrows and the great stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury are evidence of a developed culture. The arrival of the Beaker culture from the Continent, c.4,450 years ago, appears to have resulted in genetic replacement of the previous farmers. The Beaker people brought metalworking to Britain, and their descendants had developed a Bronze Age culture by the time the first Celtic invaders (early 5th cent. BC) brought their energetic Iron Age culture to Britain. It is believed that Julius Caesar's successful military campaign in Britain in 54 BC was aimed at preventing incursions into Gaul from the island.
In AD 43 the emperor Claudius began the Roman conquest of Britain, establishing bases at present-day London and Colchester. By AD 85, Rome controlled Britain south of the Clyde River. There were a number of revolts in the early years of the conquest, the most famous being that of Boadicea. In the 2d cent. AD, Hadrian's Wall was constructed as a northern defense line. Under the Roman occupation towns developed, and roads were built to ensure the success of the military occupation. These roads were the most lasting Roman achievement in Britain (see Watling Street), long serving as the basic arteries of overland transportation in England. Colchester, Lincoln, and Gloucester were founded by the Romans as colonia, settlements of ex-legionaries.
Trade contributed to town prosperity; wine, olive oil, plate, and furnishings were imported, and lead, tin, iron, wheat, and wool were exported. This trade declined with the economic dislocation of the late Roman Empire and the withdrawal of Roman troops to meet barbarian threats elsewhere. The garrisons had been consumers of the products of local artisans as well as of imports; as they were disbanded, the towns decayed. Barbarian incursions became frequent. In 410 an appeal to Rome for military aid was refused, and Roman officials subsequently were withdrawn.
As Rome withdrew its legions from Britain, Germanic peoples—the Anglo-Saxons and the Jutes—began raids that turned into great waves of invasion and settlement in the later 5th cent. The Celts fell back into Wales and Cornwall and across the English Channel to Brittany, and the loosely knit tribes of the newcomers gradually coalesced into a heptarchy of kingdoms (see Kent, Sussex, Essex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria).
Late in the 8th cent., and with increasing severity until the middle of the 9th cent., raiding Vikings (known in English history as Danes) harassed coastal England and finally, in 865, launched a full-scale invasion. They were first effectively checked by King Alfred of Wessex and were with great difficulty confined to the Danelaw, where their leaders divided land among the soldiers for settlement. Alfred's successors conquered the Danelaw to form a united England, but new Danish invasions late in the 10th cent. overcame ineffective resistance (see Æthelred, 965?–1016). The Dane Canute ruled all England by 1016. At the expiration of the Scandinavian line in 1042, the Wessex dynasty (see Edward the Confessor) regained the throne. The conquest of England in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy (William I of England), ended the Anglo-Saxon period.
The freeman (ceorl) of the early Germanic invaders had been responsible to the king and superior to the serf. Subsequent centuries of war and subsistence farming, however, had forced the majority of freemen into serfdom, or dependence on the aristocracy of lords and thanes, who came to enjoy a large measure of autonomous control over manors granted them by the king (see manorial system). The central government evolved from tribal chieftainships to become a monarchy in which executive and judicial powers were usually vested in the king. The aristocracy made up his witan, or council of advisers (see witenagemot). The king set up shires as units of local government ruled by earldormen. In some instances these earldormen became powerful hereditary earls, ruling several shires. Subdivisions of shires were called hundreds. There were shire and hundred courts, the former headed by sheriffs, the latter by reeves. Agriculture was the principal industry, but the Danes were aggressive traders, and towns increased in importance starting in the 9th cent.
The Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized by missionaries from Rome and from Ireland, and the influence of Christianity became strongly manifest in all phases of culture (see Anglo-Saxon literature). Differences between Irish and continental religious customs were decided in favor of the Roman forms at the Synod of Whitby (663). Monastic communities, outstanding in the later 7th and in the 8th cent. and strongly revived in the 10th, developed great proficiency in manuscript illumination. Church scholars, such as Bede, Alcuin, and Aelfric—as well as King Alfred himself—preserved and advanced learning.
A new era in English history began with the Norman Conquest. William I introduced Norman-style political and military feudalism. He used the feudal system to collect taxes, employed the bureaucracy of the church to strengthen the central government, and made the administration of royal justice more efficient.
After the death of William's second son, Henry I, the country was subjected to a period of civil war that ended one year before the accession of Henry II in 1154. Henry II's reign was marked by the sharp conflict between king and church that led to the murder of Thomas à Becket. Henry carried out great judicial reforms that increased the power and scope of the royal courts. During his reign, in 1171, began the English conquest of Ireland. As part of his inheritance he brought to the throne Anjou, Normandy, and Aquitaine. The defense and enlargement of these French territories engaged the energies of successive English kings. In their need for money the kings stimulated the growth of English towns by selling them charters of liberties.
Conflict between kings and nobles, which had begun under Richard I, came to a head under John, who made unprecedented financial demands and whose foreign and church policies were unsuccessful. A temporary victory of the nobles bore fruit in the most noted of all English constitutional documents, the Magna Carta (1215). The recurring baronial wars of the 13th cent. (see Barons' War; Montfort, Simon de, earl of Leicester) were roughly contemporaneous with the first steps in the development of Parliament.
Edward I began the conquest of Wales and Scotland. He also carried out an elaborate reform and expansion of the central courts and of other aspects of the legal system. The Hundred Years War with France began (1337) in the reign of Edward III. The Black Death (see plague) first arrived in 1348 and had a tremendous effect on economic life, hastening the breakdown (long since under way) of the manorial and feudal systems, including the institution of serfdom. At the same time the fast-growing towns and trades gave new prominence to the burgess and artisan classes.
In the 14th cent. the English began exporting their wool, rather than depending on foreign traders of English wool. Later in the century, trade in woolen cloth began to gain on the raw wool trade. The confusion resulting from such rapid social and economic change fostered radical thought, typified in the teachings of John Wyclif (or Wycliffe; see also Lollardry, and the revolt led by Wat Tyler. Dynastic wars (see Roses, Wars of the), which weakened both the nobility and the monarchy in the 15th cent., ended with the accession of the Tudor family in 1485.
The reign of the Tudors (1485–1603) is one of the most fascinating periods in English history. Henry VII restored political order and the financial solvency of the crown, bequeathing his son, Henry VIII, a full exchequer. In 1536, Henry VIII brought about the political union of England and Wales. Henry and his minister Thomas Cromwell greatly expanded the central administration. During Henry's reign commerce flourished and the New Learning of the Renaissance came to England. Several factors—the revival of Lollardry, anticlericalism, the influence of humanism, and burgeoning nationalism—climaxed by the pope's refusal to grant Henry a divorce from Katharine of Aragón so that he could remarry and have a male heir—led the king to break with Roman Catholicism and establish the Church of England.
As part of the English Reformation (1529–39), Henry suppressed the orders of monks and friars and secularized their property. Although these actions aroused some popular opposition (see Pilgrimage of Grace), Henry's judicious use of Parliament helped secure support for his policies and set important precedents for the future of Parliament. England moved farther toward Protestantism under Edward VI; after a generally hated Roman Catholic revival under Mary I, the Roman tie was again cut under Elizabeth I, who attempted without complete success to moderate the religious differences among her people.
The Elizabethan age was one of great artistic and intellectual achievement, its most notable figure being William Shakespeare. National pride basked in the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and the other
sea dogs. Overseas trading companies were formed and colonization attempts in the New World were made by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh. A long conflict with Spain, growing partly out of commercial and maritime rivalry and partly out of religious differences, culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), although the war continued another 15 years.
Inflated prices (caused, in part, by an influx of precious metals from the New World) and the reservation of land by the process of inclosure for sheep pasture (stimulated by the expansion of the wool trade) caused great changes in the social and economic structure of England. The enclosures displaced many tenant farmers from their lands and produced a class of wandering, unemployed
sturdy beggars. The Elizabethan poor laws were an attempt to deal with this problem. Rising prices affected the monarchy as well, by reducing the value of its fixed customary and hereditary revenues. The country gentry were enriched by the inclosures and by their purchase of former monastic lands, which were also used for grazing. The gentry became leaders in what, toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, was an increasingly assertive Parliament.
The accession in 1603 of the Stuart James I, who was also James VI of Scotland, united the thrones of England and Scotland. The chronic need for money of both James and his son, Charles I, which they attempted to meet by unusual and extralegal means; their espousal of the divine right of kings; their determination to enforce their high Anglican preferences in religion; and their use of royal courts such as Star Chamber, which were not bound by the common law, to persecute opponents, together produced a bitter conflict with Parliament that culminated (1642) in the English civil war.
In the war the parliamentarians, effectively led at the end by Oliver Cromwell, defeated the royalists. The king was tried for treason and beheaded (1649). The monarchy was abolished, and the country was governed by the Rump Parliament, the remainder of the last Parliament (the Long Parliament) Charles had called (1640), until 1653, when Cromwell dissolved it and established the Protectorate. Cromwell brutally subjugated Ireland, made a single commonwealth of Scotland and England, and strengthened England's naval power and position in international trade. When he died (1658), his son, Richard, succeeded as Lord Protector but governed ineffectively.
The threat of anarchy led to an invitation by a newly elected Parliament (the Convention Parliament) to Charles, son of Charles I, to become king, ushering in the Restoration (1660). It was significant that Parliament had summoned the king, rather than the reverse; it was now clear that to be successful the king had to cooperate with Parliament. The Whig and Tory parties developed in the Restoration period. Although Charles II was personally popular, the old issues of religion, money, and the royal prerogative came to the fore again. Parliament revived official Anglicanism (see Clarendon Code), but Charles's private sympathies lay with Catholicism. He attempted to bypass Parliament in the matter of revenue by receiving subsidies from Louis XIV of France.
Charles's brother and successor, James II, was an avowed Catholic. James tried to strengthen his position in Parliament by tampering with the methods of selecting members; he put Catholics in high university positions, maintained a standing army (which later deserted him), and claimed the right to suspend laws. The birth (1688) of a male heir, who, it was assumed, would be raised as a Catholic, precipitated a crisis.
In the Glorious Revolution, Whig and Tory leaders offered the throne to William of Orange (William III), whose Protestant wife, Mary, was James's daughter. William and Mary were proclaimed king and queen by Parliament in 1689. The Bill of Rights confirmed that sovereignty resided in Parliament. The Act of Toleration (1689) extended religious liberty to all Protestant sects; in subsequent years, religious passions slowly subsided.
By the Act of Settlement (1701) the succession to the English throne was determined. Since 1603, with the exception of the 1654–60 portion of the interregnum, Scotland and England had remained two kingdoms united only in the person of the monarch. When it appeared that William's successor, Queen Anne, Mary's Protestant sister, would not have an heir, the Scottish succession became of concern, since the Scottish Parliament had not passed legislation corresponding to the Act of Settlement. England feared that under a separate monarch Scotland might ally itself with France, or worse still, permit a restoration of the Catholic heirs of James II—although a non-Protestant succession had been barred by the Scottish Parliament. On its part, Scotland wished to achieve economic equality with England. The result was the Act of Union (1707), by which the two kingdoms became one. Scotland obtained representation in (what then became) the British Parliament at Westminster, and the Scottish Parliament was abolished.
The beginnings of Britain's national debt (1692) and the founding of the Bank of England (1694) were closely tied with the nation's more active role in world affairs. Britain's overseas possessions (see British Empire) were augmented by the victorious outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession, ratified in the Peace of Utrecht (1713). Britain emerged from the War of the Austrian Succession and from the Seven Years War as the possessor of the world's greatest empire. The peace of 1763 (see Paris, Treaty of) confirmed British predominance in India and North America. Settlements were made in Australia toward the end of the 18th cent.; however, a serious loss was sustained when 13 North American colonies broke away in the American Revolution. Additional colonies were won in the wars against Napoleon I, notable for the victories of Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley, duke of Wellington.
In Ireland, the Irish Parliament was granted independence in 1782, but in 1798 there was an Irish rebellion. A vain attempt to solve the centuries-old Irish problem was the abrogation of the Irish Parliament and the union (1801) of Great Britain and Ireland, with Ireland represented in the British Parliament.
Domestically the long ministry of Sir Robert Walpole (1721–42), during the reigns of George I and George II, was a period of relative stability that saw the beginnings of the development of the cabinet as the chief executive organ of government.
The 18th cent. was a time of transition in the growth of the British parliamentary system. The monarch still played a very active role in government, choosing and dismissing ministers as he wished. Occasionally, sentiment in Parliament might force an unwanted minister on him, as when George III was forced to choose Rockingham in 1782, but the king could dissolve Parliament and use his considerable patronage power to secure a new one more amenable to his views.
Great political leaders of the late 18th cent., such as the earl of Chatham (see Chatham, William Pitt, 1st earl of) and his son William Pitt, could not govern in disregard of the crown. Important movements for political and social reform arose in the second half of the 18th cent. George III's arrogant and somewhat anachronistic conception of the crown's role produced a movement among Whigs in Parliament that called for a reform and reduction of the king's power. Edmund Burke was a leader of this group, as was the eccentric John Wilkes. The Tory Pitt was also a reformer. These men also opposed Britain's colonial policy in North America.
Outside Parliament, religious dissenters (who were excluded from political office), intellectuals, and others advocated sweeping reforms of established practices and institutions. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, advocating laissez-faire, appeared in 1776, the same year as the first publication by Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism. The cause of reform, however, was greatly set back by the French Revolution and the ensuing wars with France, which greatly alarmed British society. Burke became Britain's leading intellectual opponent of the Revolution, while many British reformers who supported (to varying degrees) the changes in France were branded by British public opinion as extreme Jacobins.
George III was succeeded by George IV and William IV. During the last ten years of his reign, George III was insane, and sovereignty was exercised by the future George IV. This was the
Regency period. In the mid-18th cent., wealth and power in Great Britain still resided in the aristocracy, the landed gentry, and the commercial oligarchy of the towns. The mass of the population consisted of agricultural laborers, semiliterate and landless, governed locally (in England) by justices of the peace. The countryside was fragmented into semi-isolated agricultural villages and provincial capitals.
However, the period of the late 18th and early 19th cent. was a time of dynamic economic change. The factory system, the discovery and use of steam power, improved inland transportation (canals and turnpikes), the ready supply of coal and iron, a remarkable series of inventions, and men with capital who were eager to invest—all these elements came together to produce the epochal change known as the Industrial Revolution.
The impact of these developments on social conditions was enormous, but the most significant socioeconomic fact of all from 1750 to 1850 was the growth of population. The population of Great Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) grew from an estimated 7,500,000 in 1750 to about 10,800,000 in 1801 (the year of the first national census) and to about 23,130,000 in 1861. The growing population provided needed labor for industrial expansion and was accompanied by rapid urbanization. Urban problems multiplied. At the same time a new period of inclosures (1750–1810; this time to increase the arable farmland) deprived small farmers of their common land. The Speenhamland System (begun in 1795), which supplemented wages according to the size of a man's family and the price of bread, and the Poor Law of 1834 were harsh revisions of the relief laws.
The social unrest following these developments provided a fertile field for Methodism, which had been begun by John Wesley in the mid-18th cent. Methodism was especially popular in the new industrial areas, in some of which the Church of England provided no services. It has been theorized that by pacifying social unrest Methodism contributed to the prevention of political and social revolution in Britain.
In the 1820s the reform impulse that had been largely stifled during the French Revolution revived. Catholic Emancipation (1829) restored to Catholics political and civil rights. In 1833 slavery in the British Empire was abolished. (The slave trade had been ended in 1807.) Parliamentary reform was made imperative by the new patterns of population distribution and by the great growth during the industrial expansion in the size and wealth of the middle class, which lacked commensurate political power. The general elections that followed the death of George IV brought to power a Whig ministry committed to parliamentary reform. The Reform Bill of 1832 (see under Reform Acts) enfranchised the middle class and redistributed seats to give greater representation to London and the urban boroughs of N England. Other parliamentary legislation established the institutional basis for efficient city government and municipal services and for government inspection of factories, schools, and poorhouses.
The competitive advantage British exports had gained from the Industrial Revolution lent new force to the arguments for free trade. The efforts of the Anti-Corn-Law League, organized by Richard Cobden and John Bright, succeeded in 1846 when Robert Peel was converted to the cause of free trade, and the corn laws were repealed. But Chartism, a mass movement for more thorough political reform, was unsuccessful (1848). Further important reforms were delayed nearly 20 years.
The Reform Bill of 1867, sponsored by Disraeli and the Conservatives for political reasons, enfranchised the urban working classes and was followed shortly (under Gladstone and the Liberals) by enactment of the secret ballot and the first steps toward a national education system. In 1884 a third Reform Bill extended the vote to agricultural laborers. (Women could not vote until 1918.) In the 1880s trade unions, which had first appeared earlier in the century, grew larger and more militant as increasing numbers of unskilled workers were unionized. A coalition of labor and socialist groups, organized in 1900, became the Labour party in 1906. In the 19th cent. Britain's economy took on its characteristic patterns. Trade deficits, incurred as the value of food imports exceeded the value of exports such as textiles, iron, steel, and coal, were overcome by income from shipping, insurance services, and foreign investments.
The reign of Victoria (1837–1901) covered the period of Britain's commercial and industrial leadership of the world and of its greatest political influence. Initial steps toward granting self-government for Canada were taken at the start of Victoria's reign, while in India conquest and expansion continued. Great Britain's commercial interests, advanced by the British navy, brought on in 1839 the first Opium War with China, which opened five Chinese ports to British trade and made Hong Kong a British colony. The aggressive diplomacy of Lord Palmerston in the 1850s and 60s, including involvement in the Crimean War, was popular at home.
From 1868 to 1880 political life in Great Britain was dominated by Benjamin Disraeli and William E. Gladstone, who differed dramatically over domestic and foreign policy. Disraeli, who had attacked Gladstone for failing to defend Britain's imperial interests, pursued an active foreign policy, determined by considerations of British prestige and the desire to protect the route to India. Under Disraeli (1874–80) the British acquired the Transvaal, the Fiji Islands, and Cyprus, fought frontier wars in Africa and Afghanistan, and became the largest shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. Gladstone strongly condemned Disraeli's expansionist policies, but his later ministries involved Britain in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Uganda.
Gladstone's first ministry (1868–74) had disestablished the Church of England in Ireland, and in 1886, Gladstone unsuccessfully advocated Home Rule for Ireland. The proposal split the Liberal party and overturned his ministry. In the last decades of the 19th cent. competition with other European powers and enchantment with the glories of empire led Britain to acquire vast territories in Asia and Africa. By the end of the century the country was entangled in the South African War (1899–1902). Great Britain's period of hegemony was ending, as both Germany and the United States were surpassing it in industrial production.
Victoria was succeeded by her son Edward VII, then by his son, George V. The Liberals, in power 1905–15, enacted much social legislation, including old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, child health laws, and more progressive taxation. The budget sponsored by David Lloyd George to finance the Liberals' program brought on a parliamentary struggle that ended in a drastic reduction of the power of the House of Lords (1911). Growing military and economic rivalry with Germany led Great Britain to form ententes with its former colonial rivals, France and Russia (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente).
In 1914, Germany's violation of Belgium's neutrality, which since 1839 Britain had been pledged to uphold, caused Britain to go to war against Germany (see World War I). Although the British emerged as victors, the war took a terrible toll on the nation. About 750,000 men had died and seven million tons of shipping had been lost. In the peace settlement (see Versailles, Treaty of) Britain acquired, as League of Nations mandates, additional territories in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. But the four years of fighting had drained the nation of wealth and manpower.
The postwar years were a time of great moral disillusionment and material difficulties. To the international problems stemming directly from the war, such as disarmament, reparations, and war debts, were added complex domestic economic problems, the task of reorganizing the British Empire, and the tangled Irish problem. Northern Ireland was created in 1920, and the Irish Free State (see Ireland, Republic of) in 1921–22.
The basic domestic economic problem of the post–World War I years was the decline of Britain's traditional export industries, which made it more difficult for the country to pay for its imports of foods and raw materials. A Labour government, under Ramsay MacDonald, was in power for the first time briefly in 1924. In 1926 the country suffered a general strike. Severe economic stress increased during the worldwide economic depression of the late 1920s and early 30s. During the financial crisis of 1931, George V asked MacDonald to head a coalition government, which took the country off the gold standard, ceased the repayment of war debts, and supplanted free trade with protective tariffs modified by preferential treatment within the empire (see Commonwealth of Nations) and with treaty nations.
Recovery from the depression began to be evident in 1933. Although old export industries such as coal mining and cotton manufacturing remained depressed, other industries, such as electrical engineering, automobile manufacture, and industrial chemistry, were developed or strengthened. George V was succeeded by Edward VIII, after whose abdication (1936) George VI came to the throne. In 1937, Neville Chamberlain became prime minister.
The years prior to the outbreak of World War II were characterized by the ineffective attempts to stem the rising tide of German and Italian aggression. The League of Nations, in which Britain was a leader, declined rapidly by failing to take decisive action, and British prestige fell further because of a policy of nonintervention in the Spanish civil war. Appeasement of the Axis powers, which was the policy of the Chamberlain government, reached its climactic failure (as became evident later) in the Munich Pact of Sept., 1938. Great Britain had begun to rearm in 1936 and, after Munich, instituted conscription. With the signing of the Soviet-German pact of Aug., 1939, war was recognized as inevitable.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland. Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, and all the dominions of the Commonwealth except Ireland followed suit (see World War II). Chamberlain broadened his cabinet to include Labour representatives, but after German victories in Scandinavia he resigned (May, 1940) and was replaced by Winston S. Churchill. France fell in June, 1940, but the heroic rescue of a substantial part of the British army from Dunkirk (May–June) enabled Britain, now virtually alone, to remain in the war.
The nation withstood intensive bombardment (see Battle of Britain), but ultimately the Royal Air Force was able to drive off the Luftwaffe. Extensive damage was sustained, and great urban areas, including large sections of London, were devastated. The British people rose to a supreme war effort; American aid (see lend-lease) provided vital help. In 1941, Great Britain gained two allies when Germany invaded the USSR (June) and the United States entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7). Britain declared war on Japan on Dec. 8.
The wartime alliance of Great Britain, the USSR, and the United States led to the formation of the United Nations and brought about the defeat of Germany (May, 1945) and Japan (Sept., 1945). The British economy suffered severely from the war. Manpower losses had been severe, including about 420,000 dead; large urban areas had to be rebuilt, and the industrial plant needed reconstruction and modernization. Leadership in world trade, shipping, and banking had passed to the United States, and overseas investments had been largely liquidated to pay the cost of the world wars. This was a serious blow to the British economy because the income from these activities had previously served to offset the import-export deficit.
In 1945, the first general elections in ten years were held (they had been postponed because of the war) and Clement Attlee and the Labour party were swept into power. Austere wartime economic controls were continued, and in 1946 the United States extended a large loan. The United States made further assistance available in 1948 through the Marshall Plan. In 1949 the pound was devalued (in terms of U.S. dollars, from $4.03 to $2.80) to make British exports more competitive.
The Labour government pursued from the start a vigorous program of nationalization of industry and extension of social services. The Bank of England, the coal industry, communications facilities, civil aviation, electricity, and internal transport were nationalized, and in 1948 a vast program of socialized medicine was instituted (many of these programs followed the recommendations of wartime commissions). Also in 1948, Labour began the nationalization of the steel industry, but the law did not become effective until 1951, after Churchill and the Conservatives had returned to office. The Conservatives denationalized the trucking industry and all but one of the steel companies and ended direct economic controls, but they retained Labour's social reforms. Elizabeth II succeeded George VI in 1952.
In postwar foreign affairs Great Britain's loss of power was also evident. Britain had undertaken to help Greece and Turkey resist Communist subversion, but the financial burden proved too great, and the task was assumed (1947) by the United States. The British Empire underwent rapid transformation. British India was partitioned (1947) into two self-governing states, India and Pakistan. In Palestine, unable to maintain peace between Arabs and Jews, Britain turned its mandate over to the United Nations. Groundwork was laid for the independence of many other colonies; like India and Pakistan, most of them remained in the Commonwealth after independence. Great Britain joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) and fought on the United Nations' side in the Korean War (1950–53).
The Conservative governments of Churchill and his successor, Anthony Eden (1955), were beset by numerous difficulties in foreign affairs, including the nationalization (1951) of British petroleum fields and refineries in Iran, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952–56), turmoil in Cyprus (1954–59), and the problem of apartheid in South Africa. The nationalization (1956) of the Suez Canal by Egypt touched off a crisis in which Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. Opposition by the United States brought about a halt of the invasion and withdrawal of the troops.
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.
In May, 1979, the Conservatives returned to power under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, who set out to reverse the postwar trend toward socialism by reducing government borrowing, freezing expenditures, and privatizing state-owned industries. Thatcher also managed to break union resistance through a series of laws that included the illegalization of secondary strikes and boycotts. A violent, unsuccessful yearlong miners' strike (1984–85) was Thatcher's most serious union confrontation.
Thatcher gained increased popularity by her actions in the Falkland Islands conflict with Argentina; she led the Conservatives to victory again in 1983 and 1987, the latter an unprecedented third consecutive general election win. In 1985, Great Britain agreed that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. In 1986, the Channel Tunnel project was begun with France; the rail link with the European mainland opened in 1994.
A decade of Thatcher's economic policies resulted in a marked disparity between the developed southern economy and the decaying industrial centers of the north. Her unpopular stands on some issues, such as her opposition to greater British integration in Europe, caused a Conservative party revolt that led her to resign in Nov., 1990, whereupon John Major became party leader and prime minister. Despite a lingering recession, the Conservatives retained power in the 1992 general election.
A peace initiative opened by Prime Minister Major in 1993 led to cease-fires in 1994 by the Irish Republican Army and Loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Peace efforts foundered early in 1996, as the IRA again resorted to terrorist bombings. In July, 1997, the IRA declared a new cease-fire, and talks begun in September of that year included Sinn Féin. An accord reached in 1998 provided for a new regional assembly to be established in Belfast, but formation of the government was hindered by disagreement over guerrilla disarmament. With resolution of those issues late in 1999, direct rule was ended in Northern Ireland, but tensions over disarmament have led to several lengthy suspensions of home rule since then.
The Major government was beset by internal scandals and by an intraparty rift over the degree of British participation in the European Union (EU), but Major called a Conservative party leadership election for July, 1995, and easily triumphed. In Nov., 1995, three divisions of British Rail were sold off in Britain's largest-ever privatization by direct sale. Britain's sometimes stormy relationship with the EU was heightened in 1996 when an outbreak of
mad cow disease (see prion) in England led the EU to ban the sale of British beef; the crisis eased when British plans for controlling the disease were approved by the EU. Although the EU ban was ended in 1999, France continued its own ban on British beef, causing a strain in British-French relations and within the EU. In 2001, British livestock farmers were again hurt by an outbreak of disease, this time foot-and-mouth disease.
In the elections of May, 1997, Labour won 418 seats in the House of Commons by following a centrist political strategy. Tony Blair, head of what he called the
New Labour party, became prime minister. In August, Britain mourned Princess Diana, the former wife of Prince Charles, who was killed in a car accident in Paris. Blair's pledge to decentralize government was endorsed in September, when Scotland and Wales both voted to establish legislative bodies, giving them a stronger voice in their domestic affairs. A bill passed by both houses of Parliament in 1999 stripped most hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote in the House of Lords; the shape of the reconstituted upper chamber is to be studied by a commission. Blair and Labour again trounced the Conservatives in June, 2001, though the victory was not so much a vote of confidence in Labour as a rejection of the opposition.
Following the devastating Sept., 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the British government became the most visible international supporter of the Bush administration in its war on terrorism. Government officials visited Muslim nations to seek their participation in the campaign, and British forces joined the Americans in launching attacks against Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. The Blair government was also a strong supporter of the United States' position that military action should be taken against Iraq if UN weapons inspections were not resumed under new, stricter conditions, and committed British forces to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that began in Mar., 2003.
Blair's strong support for the invasion, and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, were factors in Labour's third-place finish in the June, 2004, local elections; the results reflected the British public's dissatisfaction with the country's involvement in Iraq. Labour, and the Conservative party as well, suffered losses in the subsequent European parliament elections, which saw the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence party double its vote to 16%. In the 2005 parliamentary elections the issue of Iraq again hurt Blair and Labour, whose large parliamentary majority was significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the election marked the first time a Labour government had secured a third consecutive term at the polls.
On July, 7, 2005, London experienced four coordinated bombing on its underground and bus system that killed more 50 people and injured some 700. The attacks, which broadly resembled the Mar., 2004, bombings in Madrid, appeared to be the work of Islamic suicide bombers; three of the suspected bombers were born in Britain. Evidence uncovered by the British police indicated that the attacks may have been directed by a member of Al Qaeda. A second set of suicide bombings was attempted later in the month, but the bombs failed to detonate.
Prime Minister Blair suffered the first legislative defeat of his tenure in Nov., 2005, when the House of Commons refused to extend, to the degree that he had sought, the time that a terror suspect could be held in custody without being charged. He subsequently had difficulties in early 2006 securing passage of education reforms, and he and the Labour party also were embarrassed by revelations that wealthy individuals who had made campaign loans to the party that had been kept secret (a legal practice) had been nominated for peerages. In the May, 2006, local elections in England, Labour placed third in terms of the overall vote, leading Blair to reshuffle his cabinet.
Under pressure from many in his party step aside for a successor, Blair announced in September that he would resign as prime minister sometime in 2007. When he stepped down in June, 2007, Gordon Brown, who had served a decade as chancellor of the exchequer under Blair, succeeded him as prime minister. In July, England experienced its worst flooding in 60 years, primarily on the Severn, Thames, and Ock. Local electons in May, 2008, were seen as a rejection of Brown and Labour, as Labour again placed third in the popular vote. Great Britain was among the nations strongly affected by the global financial crisis in 2008 and subsequent recession, and in Oct., 2008, as the severity of the crisis became evident, Prime Minister Brown took the lead internationally in attempting to stabilize the financial system by recapitalizing a number of major banks with government funds. However, his government also used Britain's antiterrorist laws to freeze British assets of Icelandic banks in an attempt to protect their British depositors, a move that accelerated and aggravated the collapse of those banks.
In May, 2009, Britain's political parties became enveloped in a scandal over inappropriate expenses claimed by members of Parliament. Revelations concerning those expenses led a number of legislators to announce they would not run again. Several government ministers resigned—some as a result of the scandal, some in protest against it and the prime minister—and the speaker of the House of Commons, accused of failing to prevent the abuses and of trying to prevent release of the information, was forced to step down. Some
In the May, 2010, parliamentary elections, the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession, the parliamentary expenses scandal, and other issues led to a Labour defeat, but the Conservatives failed to win a majority and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s. Conservative leader David Cameron became prime minister. The new government adopted plans for sizable government budget cuts and tax increases as well as other measures to reduce the government deficit and debt, the most significant such changes since Margaret Thatcher's prime ministership.
The deficit and debt reduction measures, however, created tensions among the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservative party's strident campaign against an alternative voting method for British elections, a referendum on which had been secured by the Liberal Democrats when they joined the coalition, also led to tensions. Voters subsequently rejected (May, 2011) the voting proposal and also handed Liberal Democrat candidates a sweeping defeat in the concurrent local elections. Tensions within the coalition were visible again in Dec., 2011, when Cameron vetoed European Union treaty changes, proposed as part of a EU response to the financial crisis affecting a number of eurozone nations, after he failed to win protection guarantees from other EU nations for British financial companies. Liberal Democrats were publicly critical of the veto.
The country experienced several days of riots in Aug., 2011, after a man was killed by police in Tottenham, London; rioting and looting spread first to other parts of London and then to other English cities. The riots ultimately were suppressed by the use of police in force. In October, Britain and those Commonwealth nations having the British monarch as head of state agreed to alter the terms of succession so that in the future the children of an heir to the throne would inherit the throne on the basis of birth order; previously, male children had precedence over female ones. (The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 enacted the Commonwealth decision of Oct., 2011, in Great Britain.)
The country slipped back into recession in late 2011 and early 2012. In mid-2012, attempts by the governing coalition to reform the House of Lords as a largely elected body, a goal of the Liberal Democrats, failed when a large number of Conservative members of Parliament opposed the plan. In Jan., 2013, Cameron promised a referendum on Britain's EU membership if his party remained in power after the 2015 elections. The winter of 2013–14 saw a series of strong storms in Britain, leading to damage and flooding in a number of coastal areas. In early 2014, heavy rains in S Britain also led to flooding, especially in the Somerset Levels and areas along the Thames. Following EU elections in May in which anti-EU parties made significant gains in Britain and some other European nations, Cameron publicly objected to the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president; Cameron unsuccessfully argued that the EU should choose someone less identified with EU integration.
In a 2014 referendum, Scottish voters rejected independence; in the campaign leading up to the voting, Cameron promised increased powers for the parliament of Scotland (and for all the constituent divisions of the United Kingdom). In the May, 2015, parliamentary elections, the Conservatives made minor gains in the popular vote but managed to secure a majority of the seats; the Liberal Democrats lost most of their seats, and the Scottish Nationalists won nearly all of Scotland's. Later that year Parliament approved a measure that allowed English (or English and Welsh) members of Parliament a collective veto on any laws deemed by the Speaker of the Commons to affect England (or England and Wales) only.
Cameron sought to renegotiate aspects of Britain's relationship with the EU but won only minor concessions, and in the subsequent nonbinding referendum (June, 2016) that he had promised on remaining in the EU, a majority of the voters—anxious over immigration, resentful over EU regulations, and unhappy with Cameron's leadership and the state of the economy—chose leaving (Scottish and Northern Irish voters supported remaining). Cameron resigned (July) as a result of the vote and left it to his successor as prime minister, Theresa May, the former home secretary, to negotiate Britain's exit from the EU, known as Brexit.
The new government's plan to proceed with Brexit without first seeking parliamentary approval, however, was challenged, and the supreme court ruled in Jan., 2017, that Parliament's authorization was required. In March, after securing parliamentary authorization, May's government officially triggered the two-year negotiating period that would lead to Brexit. The subsequent months of negotiations proved difficult and contentious, especially concerning Britain's future trade relationship with the EU and the nature of the Northern Irish–Irish Republic border after Brexit, In an early election in June called by May in hopes of increasing her majority, the Conservatives lost seats, though they retained a plurality; May then formed a minority government with the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party.
In March, 2018, Britain accused Russia of responsibility for the attempted murder with a nerve agent (novichak) of a former Russian double agent who was living in Salisbury, England. The highly toxic poison also sickened the man's daughter and a number of other people, and discarded novichak apparently poisoned another couple, killing a woman, several months later. The incident led more than 25 nations and NATO to expel Russian diplomatic personnel.
By mid-2018, attempts to forge an approach to exiting the EU that would not harm British businesses led to tensions in the government, and several ministers and Conservative party leaders who preferred a more complete break with the EU resigned. By late 2018, opinion polls suggested that a new referendum might result in voters rejecting Brexit. May survived a party leadership challenge in December, but then failed overwhelmingly to win parliamentary approval for her negotiated Brexit plan, with many Conservatives voting against it; the plan would have required Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a system to avoid imposing physical checks on the Irish border was devised. Her government then, however, survived a no-confidence vote. Subsequently, parliament failed to support any of a range of plans (including May's again) for leaving the EU, and in April the deadline for Britain to leave was extended to October 31.
In June, loss of party and cabinet support led to May's resignation as Conservative party leader, and the following month Boris
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