Great Britain: The Thatcher Era to the Present

The Thatcher Era to the Present

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 £500,000 in expenses were returned. The scandal affected all the parties, but especially Labour, which suffered significant losses in the local English and European parliament elections held in June.

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 Johnson, who promised to lead Britain out of the EU by the end of Oct., 2019, no matter what, succeeded her as party leader and prime minister. Subsequent tensions over Brexit led Johnson's government to lose its majority and to be forced by Parliament into seeking a delay to avoid exiting the EU without a negotiated agreement. In October, Johnson negotiated a new Brexit plan that was largely similar to May's except that it handled the customs status of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland differently, putting the latter on a different footing that would leave it more in line with the EU and requiring a customs border between it and the rest of the country.

In new elections in Dec., 2019, Johnson and the Conservatives, who campaigned primarily on finishing the exit from the EU, won a sizable majority in Parliament. The new government quickly began passing legislation needed for Britain to leave the EU at the end of Jan., 2020. The important details of Britain's future trade relationship with the EU were not negotiated until Dec., 2020, and took effect in Jan., 2021. Britain was one of the European nations most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland pursued generally more restrictive approaches to controlling the pandemic than England did.

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