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|Periods in English history|
This article gives the social history of the United Kingdom from 1945 to the present. For politics and diplomacy see Political history of the United Kingdom (1945–present).
The United Kingdom was one of the victors of the Second World War, but the cost of the war was massive, and the nation's realisable assets were exhausted. Thus, the late 1940s was a time of austerity and economic restraint, which gave way to prosperity in the 1950s. The Labour Party held control from 1945–51, and granted independence to India in 1947. Most of the other major colonies became independent in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Britain collaborated closely with the United States during the Cold War after 1947, and in 1949 helped form NATO as a military alliance against Soviet Communism. After a long debate and initial scepticism, the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, but voted to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016. Immigration from South Asia, the West Indies, and Eastern Europe produced a multicultural society, while traditional Anglican and other denominations of Christianity declined sharply.
Prosperity returned in the 1950s, reaching the middle class and, to a large extent, the working class across Britain. London remained a world centre of finance and culture, but the nation was no longer a superpower. In foreign policy Britain promoted the Commonwealth (in the economic sphere) and the Atlantic Alliance (in the military sphere). In domestic policy a Post-war consensus saw the leadership of the Labour and Conservative parties largely agreed on Keynesian policies, with support for trades unions, regulation of business, and nationalisation of many older industries. The discovery of North Sea oil eased some financial pressures, but the 1970s saw slow growth, higher unemployment, and escalating labour strife. Deindustrialisation or the loss of heavy industry, especially coal mining, shipbuilding and manufacturing, grew worse after 1970 as Britain's economy shifted to services. London and the south east maintained prosperity as London became the leading financial center in Europe and played a major world role. Higher education expanded rapidly and attracted an international clientele, while debates raged on the elitist effect of grammar schools. The status of women slowly improved. A youth culture emerged in the 1970s with such iconic international celebrities as The Beatles and Princess Diana. Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) rejected the post-war consensus in the 1980s, denationalised most industries, and worked to weaken the power of the unions. The "New Labour" premiership of Tony Blair (1997-2007) accepted most of Thatcher's economic policies. Devolution became a major topic, as Scotland and Wales gained more local control. In 2014, Scotland voted 55% to 45% to remain in the UK.
With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the governing coalition dissolved, triggering the long-overdue 1945 general election. Labour won a landslide victory, winning just under 50% of the vote and a majority of 145 seats. The new Prime Minister Clement Attlee proclaimed, "This is the first time in the history of the country that a labour movement with a socialist policy has received the approval of the electorate."
During the war, public opinion surveys showed public opinion moving to the left and in favour of wide social reform. There was little public appetite for a return to the poverty and mass unemployment of the inter-war years, which had become associated with the Conservatives. Historian Henry Pelling, noting that polls showed a steady Labour lead after 1942, explains the long-term forces that caused the Labour landslide. He points to the usual swing against the party in power; the Conservative loss of initiative; wide fears of a return to the high unemployment of the 1930s; the theme that socialist planning would be more efficient in operating the economy; and the mistaken belief that Churchill would continue as prime minister regardless of the result. The Labour Party victory in 1945 represented pent-up frustrations. The strong sense that all Britons had joined in a "People's War" and all deserved a reward animated voters.
As the war ended and American Lend Lease suddenly and unexpectedly ended, the Treasury was near bankruptcy and Labour's new programmes would be expensive. Prewar levels of prosperity did not return until the 1950s. The immediate post-war years were called the Age of Austerity.
Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war and yet was still maintaining a global empire in an attempt to remain a global power. For instance, it retained a large air force and a conscript army. When the US suddenly and without warning cut off Lend-Lease funding in September 1945, bankruptcy loomed. The government pleaded for help and secured a low-interest $3.75 billion loan from the US in December 1945. The cost of rebuilding necessitated austerity at home in order to maximise export earnings, while Britain's colonies and other client states were required to keep their reserves in pounds as "sterling balances". Additional finance – which did not have to be repaid – came from the Marshall Plan in 1948–50, which also required Britain to modernise its business practices and remove trade barriers. Britain was an enthusiastic supporter of the Marshall Plan, and used it as a lever to more directly promote European unity and the NATO military alliance which was formed in 1949.
Conditions were grim; pre-war levels of prosperity did not return until the 1950s. Rationing and conscription continued in the post-war years  as the government tried to control demand  and normalise the economy. Anxieties were heightened when the country suffered one of the worst winters on record in 1946–47: the coal and railway systems failed, factories closed, and a large proportion of the population suffered due to the cold.
Wartime rationing continued, and was for the first time extended to bread in order to feed the German civilians in the British sector of occupied Germany. During the war, the government had banned ice cream and rationed sweets, such as chocolates and confections; all sweets were rationed until 1954. Most people grumbled, but for the poorest, rationing was beneficial, because their rationed diet was of greater nutritional value than their pre-war diet. Housewives organised to oppose the austerity. The Conservatives saw their opening and rebuilt their fortunes by attacking socialism, austerity, rationing, and economic controls, and were back in power by 1951.
There were some reasons for optimism. Morale was boosted by the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten in 1947, and the nationwide Festival of Britain in 1951. The 1948 Summer Olympics were held in London. Reconstruction had begun in the battered host city, but there was no funding for new facilities.
The most important Labour reforms were the expansion of the welfare state, the founding of the National Health Service, and nationalisation of the coal, gas, electricity, railways and some other main industries. The welfare state was expanded by the National Insurance Act 1946, which built upon the comprehensive system of social security originally set up in 1911. Everyone of working age had to pay a weekly contribution (by buying a stamp) and in return were entitled to a wide range of benefits, including a retirement pension, sickness and unemployment benefits, and widows' benefits.
The National Health Service began operations in July 1948. It promised to give cradle to grave free hospital and medical care for everyone in the country, regardless of income. Labour went on to expand low cost council housing for the poor.
The Treasury, headed by Hugh Dalton as Chancellor of the Exchequer, faced urgent problems. Half of the wartime economy had been devoted to mobilising soldiers, warplanes, bombs and munitions; an urgent transition to a peacetime budget was necessary, while minimizing inflation. Financial aid through Lend-Lease from the United States was abruptly and unexpectedly terminated in September 1945, and new loans from the US and Canada were essential to keep living conditions tolerable. In the long run, Labour was committed to nationalisation of industry and national planning of the economy; more taxation of the rich and less of the poor; expanding the welfare state; and creating a free medical service for everyone.
Housing was a critical shortage in the postwar era. Air raids had destroyed a half million housing units; upgrades and repairs on undamaged units had been postponed. In all, three quarters of a million new dwellings were needed. The government aimed for 300,000 annually, compared to the maximum prewar rate of 350,000. However, there were shortages of construction workers, materials, and money. Not counting 150,000 temporary prefabricated units, the nation was still 1.5 million units short by 1951. Legislation kept rents down, but did not lead to an increase in the number of purchased houses. The ambitious New Towns project was idealistic, but did not provide enough urgently needed units. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, they made housing a high priority and oversaw 2.5 million new units, two thirds of them through local councils. Haste made for dubious quality, and policy increasingly shifted toward renovation rather than new construction. Slums were cleared, opening the way for gentrification in the inner cities.
Martin Francis argues there was Labour Party consensus by 1945, both on the National Executive Committee and at party conferences, on a definition of socialism that stressed moral improvement as well as material improvement. The Attlee government was committed to rebuilding British society as an ethical commonwealth, using public ownership and controls to abolish extremes of wealth and poverty. Labour's ideology contrasted sharply with the contemporary Conservative Party's defence of individualism, allowing people to keep much of the wealth they had created, inherited privileges, and income inequality.
Attlee's government nationalised major industries and utilities. It developed and implemented the "cradle to grave" welfare state conceived by the Liberal economist William Beveridge. To this day the party considers the 1948 creation of Britain's publicly funded National Health Service under health minister Aneurin Bevan its proudest achievement.
Labour Party researchers went into the Party files to examine the detailed plans for nationalisation that had been developed. To their surprise, there were no plans. The leaders realised they had to act fast to keep up the momentum. 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 taken over. Labour dropped its plans to nationalise farmlands.
On the whole nationalisation went smoothly with few protests, but there were two exceptions. Nationalising hospitals was strongly opposed by one element, the practising physicians. Compromises were made to allow them also to have a private practice, and the great majority decided to work with the National Health Service. Much more controversial was the nationalisation of the iron and steel industry — unlike coal, it was profitable and highly efficient, and nationalisation was opposed by the industry owners and executives, the business community as a whole, and the Conservative Party as a whole. The House of Lords was also opposed, but the Parliament Act 1949 reduced its power to delay legislation to just one year. Finally in 1951, iron and steel were nationalised, but then Labour lost its majority; and the Conservatives in 1955 returned them to private ownership.
The procedure used was developed by Herbert Morrison, who as Lord President of the Council chaired the Committee on the Socialisation of Industries. He followed the model that was already in place of setting up public corporations such as the BBC in broadcasting (1927). The owners of corporate stock were given government bonds, and the government took full ownership of each affected company, consolidating it into a national monopoly. The managers remained the same, only now they became 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. Old line British Marxists were fervent believers in dialectical materialism and in fighting against capitalism and for workers' control, trade unionism, nationalisation of industry and centralized planning. They were now 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. At Oxford a "New Left" started to emerge that rejected old-line approaches and looked in entirely new directions. 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 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 1950 and 1951, Labour seldom boasted about the nationalisation of industry. Instead it was the Conservatives who decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the treatment of steel and trucking.
As the rosy dreams of 1945 gave way to harsh reality in the late 1940s, Labour struggled to maintain its support. Realising the unpopularity of rationing, in 1948–49 the government ended the rationing of potatoes, bread, shoes, clothing and jam, and increased the petrol ration for summer drivers. However, meat was still rationed, and in very short supply, at high prices. Tempers grew short and the rhetoric shrill. The militant socialist Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health, said at a party rally in 1948, "no amount of cajolery... can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party.... They are lower than vermin." Bevan, a coal miner's son, had gone too far in a land that took pride in self-restraint, and he never lived down the remark.
Labour narrowly won the 1950 general election with a majority of five seats. Troubles mounted, and Attlee lost his knack of keeping all the factions together. Defence became one of the divisive issues for Labour itself, especially defence spending, which reached 14% of GDP in 1951 during the Korean War. These costs put enormous strain on public finances, forcing savings to be found elsewhere. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, introduced prescription charges for NHS dentures and spectacles, causing Bevan, along with Harold Wilson (President of the Board of Trade) to resign over the dilution of the principle of free treatment. A decade of turmoil ensued in the Party, much to the advantage of the Conservatives who won again and again by ever larger majorities.
David Kynaston argues that the Labour Party under Prime Minister Clement Attlee was led by conservative parliamentarians who always worked through constitutional parliamentary channels; they saw no need for large demonstrations, boycotts or symbolic strikes. The result was a solid expansion and coordination of the welfare system, most notably the concentrated and centralised National Health Service. Nationalisation of the private sector focused on older, declining industries, most notably coal mining. Labour kept promising systematic economic planning, but they did not set up adequate mechanisms. Much of the planning was forced upon them by the American Marshall Plan, which insisted on a modernisation of business procedures and government regulations. The Keynesian model accepted by Labour emphasised that planning could be handled indirectly through national spending and tax policies.
Britain faced severe financial crises – there was very little cash for needed imports. It responded by reducing its international entanglements as in Greece, and by sharing the hardships of an "age of austerity." Britain eagerly supported the Marshall Plan in 1948, with its grants (with no repayment) that rebuilt and modernised infrastructure and business practices, and lowered trade barriers within Europe. Fears that Washington would veto nationalisation or welfare policies proved groundless.
Under Attlee foreign policy was the domain of Ernest Bevin, who looked for innovative ways to bring western Europe together in a military alliance. One early attempt was the Dunkirk Treaty with France in 1947. Bevin's commitment to the West European security system made him eager to sign the Treaty of Brussels in 1948. It drew Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg into an arrangement for collective security, opening the way for the formation of NATO in 1949. NATO was primarily aimed as a defensive measure against Soviet expansion, but it also helped bring its members closer together and enabled them to modernise their forces along parallel lines, and encourage arms purchases from Britain.
Bevin began the process of dismantling the British Empire when it granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, followed by Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948. In January 1947, the government decided to proceed with the development of Britain's nuclear weapons programme, primarily to enhance Britain's security and also its status as a superpower. A handful of top elected officials made the decision in secret, ignoring the rest of the cabinet, in order to forestall the pacifist and anti-nuclear Left wing of the Labour Party.
In the late 1940s the Conservative Party exploited and incited growing public anger at food rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity, and omnipresent government bureaucracy. They used the dissatisfaction with the socialistic and egalitarian policies of the Labour Party to rally middle-class supporters and score a political comeback at the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who faced more difficult shopping conditions after the war than during it.
The Labour Party kept slipping, though it did have a few good moments, such as the Festival of Britain in summer 1951. It was a national exhibition and fair held throughout the country. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan says the Festival was a "triumphant success" as every day thousands:
The success of the Conservative Party in reorganising itself was validated by its narrow victory in 1951 election. It had restored its credibility on economic policy with the Industrial Charter written by Rab Butler, which emphasised the importance of removing unnecessary controls, while going far beyond the laissez-faire attitude of old towards industrial social problems. Churchill was party leader, but he brought in a Party Chairman to modernise the creaking institution. Lord Woolton was a successful department store owner and wartime Minister of Food. As Party Chairman 1946–55, he rebuilt the local organisations with an emphasis on membership, money, and a unified national propaganda appeal on critical issues. To broaden the base of potential candidates, the national party provided financial aid to candidates, and assisted the local organisations in raising local money. Lord Woolton emphasised a rhetoric that characterised the opponents as "Socialist" rather than "Labour." The libertarian influence of Professor Friedrich Hayek's 1944 best-seller Road to Serfdom was apparent in the younger generation, but that took another quarter century to have a policy impact. By 1951, Labour had worn out its welcome in the middle classes; its factions were bitterly embroiled. The Conservatives were ready to govern again.
The Conservatives narrowly won the October 1951 election, although Labour actually got considerably more votes. Most of the new programmes passed by Labour were accepted by the Conservatives and became part of the "post war consensus", which lasted until the 1970s. The Conservatives ended rationing and reduced controls, and sold the famous Skylon for scrap. They were conciliatory towards unions and retained nationalisation and the welfare state but they did de-nationalise the steel and road haulage industries in 1953.
As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued, and immigrants from Commonwealth nations, mostly from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, began arriving in a steady flow. The shock of the Suez Crisis of 1956 made brutally clear that Britain had lost its role as a superpower. It already knew it could no longer afford its large Empire. This led to decolonisation, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970.
In 1957 Prime Minister Macmillan boasted:
Unemployment figures show that unemployment was significantly lower during the Golden Age than before or after:
|Epoch||Date range||Percentage of British labour force unemployed.|
|Pre Golden Age||1921–1938||13.4|
|Post Golden Age||1970–1993||6.7|
In addition to superior economic performance, other social indexes were higher in the golden age; for example, the proportion of Britain's population saying they are "very happy" registered at 52% in 1957 and has fallen to just 36% in 2005.
The 1950s and 1960s were, however, relatively prosperous times and saw continued modernisation of the economy. Representative was the construction of the first motorways, for example. Britain maintained and increased its financial role in the world economy, and used the English language to promote its educational system to students from around the globe. With relatively low unemployment during this period, the standard of living continued to rise, with new private and council housing developments increasing and the number of slum properties diminishing. Although Churchill and the Conservatives returned to power following the 1951 elections, they largely continued the welfare state policies as set out by the Labour Party in the late 1940s.
During the "golden age" of the 1950s and 1960s, unemployment in Britain averaged only 2%. As prosperity returned after the war, Britons became more family centred. Leisure activities became more accessible to more people. Holiday camps, which had first opened in the 1930s, became popular holiday destinations in the 1950s – and people increasingly had the money to pursue their personal hobbies. The BBC's early television service was given a major boost in 1953 with the coronation of Elizabeth II, attracting a worldwide audience of twenty million, plus tens of millions more by radio, proving an impetus for middle-class people to buy televisions. In 1950 just 1% owned television sets; by 1965 25% did, and many more were rented. As austerity receded after 1950 and consumer demand kept growing, the Labour Party hurt itself by shunning consumerism as the antithesis of the socialism it demanded.
Small neighbourhood shops were increasingly replaced by chain stores and shopping centres, with their wide variety of goods, smart advertising, and frequent sales. Cars were becoming a significant part of British life, with city-centre congestion and ribbon developments springing up along many of the major roads. These problems led to the idea of the green belt to protect the countryside, which was at risk from development of new housing units.
The post-war period witnessed a dramatic rise in the average standard of living, with a 40% rise in average real wages from 1950 to 1965. Workers in traditionally poorly paid semi-skilled and unskilled occupations saw a particularly marked improvement in their wages and living standards. In terms of consumption, there was more equality, especially as the landed gentry was hard pressed to pay its taxes and had to reduce its level of consumption. The rise in wages spurred consumer spending to increase by about 20% during the same period, while economic growth remained at about 3%. In addition, the last food rations were ended in 1954 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. The number one selection for the housewife was a washing machine. Ownership jumped from 18 percent in 1955 to 29 percent in 1958, and 60 percent in 1966.
Entitlement to various fringe benefits was improved. In 1955, 96% of manual labourers were entitled to two weeks' holiday with pay, compared with 61% in 1951. By the end of the 1950s, 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 the privilege of only a small minority of the population. For the first time in decades, the young and unattached had spare cash for leisure, clothes, and luxuries. In 1959, Queen magazine declared that "Britain has launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living." Average wages were high while jobs were plentiful, and people saw their personal prosperity climb even higher. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan claimed that "the luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor." As summed up by R. J. Unstead,
As noted by Labour historian Martin Pugh:
By 1963, 82% of all private households had a television, 72% a vacuum cleaner, 45% a washing machine, and 30% a refrigerator. John Burnett notes that ownership had spread down the social scale so that the gap between consumption by professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed. The provision of household amenities steadily improved in the late decades of the century. From 1971 to 1983, households having the sole use of a fixed bath or shower rose from 88% to 97%, and those with an internal WC from 87% to 97%. In addition, the number of households with central heating almost doubled during that same period, from 34% to 64%. By 1983, 94% of all households had a refrigerator, 81% a colour television, 80% a washing machine, 57% a deep freezer, and 28% a tumble-drier.
From a European perspective, however, Britain was not keeping pace. Between 1950 and 1970, it 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 100 of the population. Education grew, but not as fast as in rival nations. By the early 1980s, some 80% to 90% of school leavers in France and West Germany received vocational training, compared with 40% in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1980s, over 80% of pupils in the United States and West Germany and over 90% in Japan stayed in education until the age of eighteen, compared with barely 33% of British pupils. In 1987, only 35% of 16- to 18-year-olds[where?] were in full-time education or training, compared with 80% in the United States, 77% in Japan, 69% in France, and 49% in the United Kingdom.
In comparing economic prosperity (using gross national product per person), the British record was one of steady downward slippage from seventh place in 1950, to 12th in 1965, to 20th in 1975. Labour politician Richard Crossman, after visiting prosperous Canada, returned to England with a
Economists provided four overlapping explanations. The "early start" theory said that Britain's rivals were doing so well because they were still moving large numbers of farm workers into more lucrative employment, which Britain had done in the 19th century. A second theory emphasised the "rejuvenation by defeat", whereby Germany and Japan had been forced to re-equip, rethink and restructure their economic basis. The third approach emphasised the drag of "imperial distractions", saying that responsibilities to its large empire handicapped the home economy, especially through defence spending, and economic aid. Finally, the theory of "institutional failure" stressed the negative roles of discontinuity, unpredictability, and class envy. The last theory blamed trade unions, public schools, and universities perpetuating an elitist anti-industrial attitude.
The 1970s saw the fading away of the exuberance and the radicalism of the 1960s. Instead there was a mounting series of economic crises, marked especially by trade union strikes, as the British economy slipped further and further behind European and world growth. The result was a major political crisis, and a Winter of Discontent in the winter of 1978–79, when there were widespread strikes by public sector trade unions that seriously inconvenienced and angered the public.
Historians Alan Sked and Chris Cook have summarised the general consensus of historians regarding Labour in power in the 1970s:
There were some bright spots: large deposits of oil were found in the North Sea, off the coast of Scotland. Britain now became a major exporter of increasingly expensive oil to Europe.
While economic historians have concentrated on statistical parameters, cultural historians have widened the list of factors to explain Britain's long-term relative economic decline. According to Peter Hennessy, these include:
In the 1960s, moderate Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O'Neill tried to reform the system and give a greater voice to Catholics, who comprised 40% of the population of Northern Ireland. His goals were blocked by militant Protestants led by the Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from unionists for "No surrender" led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume and Austin Currie. Clashes escalated out of control, as the army could barely contain the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defence Association. British leaders feared their withdrawal would lead to 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 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim of a British withdrawal led to negotiations that in 1998 produced the 'Good Friday Agreement'. This won popular support and largely ended the most violent aspects of The Troubles.
Britain did not experience the intense social turmoil produced in America by the Vietnam War and racial tensions. Nevertheless, British youth readily identified with their American counterparts' desire to cast off the older generation's social mores. The new music was a powerful weapon. In this case, it took the form of a wholesale revolt against the class system, which was now being questioned for the first time in the nation's history. Rock music, which had first been introduced from the US in the 1950s, became a key instrument in the social uprisings of the young generation and Britain soon became a groundswell of musical talent thanks to groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, and more in coming years.
The antiwar movement in Britain closely collaborated with their American counterparts, moving from an emphasis on nuclear war with Russia, to support for insurgents in the Asian jungles.
During the summer of 1981, the nation's spirits were raised by the wedding of Prince Charles (born 1948) and Lady Diana Spencer (1961-1997). The ceremony reached a global TV audience of 750 million people. It restored the royal family to the headlines where they would become a permanent fixture in tabloids and celebrity gossip publications, as well as a major tourist attraction. Diana herself became what Tony Blair called the "People's Princess," an iconic national figure, rivalling or surpassing the Queen, until her divorce, Her accidental death brought an unprecedented spasm of grief and mourning. Her brother, the 9th Earl Spencer, captured her role:
Historians agree that in the late 1940s Britain was a Christian nation, with its religiosity reinforced by the wartime experience. Peter Forster found that in answering pollsters the English reported an overwhelming belief in the truth of Christianity, a high respect for it, and a strong association between it and moral behaviour. Peter Hennessy argued that long-held attitudes did not stop change; by mid-century "Britain was still a Christian country only in a vague attitudinal sense, belief generally being more a residual husk than the kernel of conviction." Kenneth O. Morgan agreed, noting that "the Protestant churches, Anglican, and more especially non-conformist, all felt the pressure of falling numbers and of secular challenges....Even the drab Sabbath of Wales and Scotland was under some threat, with pressure for opening cinemas in Wales and golf-courses in Scotland."
Brian Harrison reports that the forces of secularisation grew rapidly, and by the 1990s Protestantism cast a thin shadow of its 1945 strength. Compared to Western Europe, Britain stood at the lower end of attendance at religious services, and near the top in people claiming "no religion". While 80% of Britons in 1950 said they were Christians, only 64% did so in 2000. Harrison states:
Roman Catholicism held up, thanks to immigration from Ireland, and later from Poland. What had been tiny clusters of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists grew enormously through immigration.
|Population of religious groups in Britain||1970||1993|
The Muslim population of England and Wales was over 50 times larger in 2011 compared to 50 years before. Sophie Gilliat-Ray attributes the growth to "recent immigration, the growing birth rate, some conversion to Islam, and perhaps also an increased willingness to self-identify as 'Muslim' on account of the 'war on terror'."
|Census Year||Number of
England & Wales
| % of
The 1950s was a bleak period for militant feminism. In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on companionate marriage and the nuclear family as a foundation of the new welfare state.
In 1951, the proportion of adult women who were (or had been) married was 75%; more specifically, 84.8% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 were married. At that time: “marriage was more popular than ever before.” In 1953, a popular book of advice for women states: “A happy marriage may be seen, not as a holy state or something to which a few may luckily attain, but rather as the best course, the simplest, and the easiest way of life for us all”.
While at the end of the war, childcare facilities were closed and assistance for working women became limited, the social reforms implemented by the new welfare state included family allowances meant to subsidise families, that is, to support women in the “capacity as wife and mother.” Sue Bruley argues that “the progressive vision of the New Britain of 1945 was flawed by a fundamentally conservative view of women”.
Women's commitment to companionate marriage was echoed by the popular media: films, radio and popular women's magazines. In the 1950s, women's magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women’s employment.
Nevertheless, 1950s Britain saw several strides towards the parity of women, such as equal pay for teachers (1952) and for men and women in the civil service (1954), thanks to activists like Edith Summerskill, who fought for women’s causes both in parliament and in the traditional non-party pressure groups throughout the 1950s. Barbara Caine argues: “Ironically here, as with the vote, success was sometimes the worst enemy of organised feminism, as the achievement of each goal brought to an end the campaign which had been organised around it, leaving nothing in its place.”
Feminist writers of the early postwar period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home with outside employment. Feminism was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole. This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. Even those women who regarded themselves as feminists strongly endorsed prevailing ideas about the primacy of children’s needs, as advocated, for example, by John Bowlby the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic, who published extensively throughout the 1950s and by Donald Winnicott who promoted through BBC and in the press the idea of the home as a private emotional world in which mother and child are bound to each other and in which the mother has control and finds freedom to fulfill herself.
Equal pay entered the agenda in the 1959 General Election, when the Labour Party's Manifesto proposed a charter of rights including 'the right to equal pay for equal work'. Public support was wide and deep. Polls in 1968-9 showed public opinion was moving strongly in favour of equal pay for equal work; nearly three-quarters of those polled favoured the principle. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed by a Labour government with Conservative support; it took effect in 1975. Women’s wages for like work rose sharply from 64% in 1970 to 74% by 1980, then stalled because of high unemployment, and public-sector cuts which specially hit women working part-time.
The 1960s saw dramatic shifts in attitudes and values led by youth. It was a worldwide phenomenon, in which British rock musicians especially The Beatles played an international role. The generations divided sharply regarding the new sexual freedom demanded by youth who listened to bands like The Rolling Stones.
Sexual morals changed rapidly. One notable event was the publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover by Penguin Books in 1960. Although first printed in 1928, the release in 1960 of an inexpensive paperback prompted a court case. The prosecutor's question, "Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?" highlighted how far society had changed, and how little some people had noticed. The book was seen as one of the first events in a general relaxation of sexual attitudes. The national media, based in London with its more permissive social norms, led in explaining and exploring the new permissiveness.
Other elements of the sexual revolution included the development of The Pill, Mary Quant's miniskirt and the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967. There was a rise in the incidence of divorce and abortion, and a resurgence of the women's liberation movement, whose campaigning helped secure the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.
The Irish Catholics, traditionally the most puritanical of the ethno-religious groups, eased up a little, especially as the membership disregarded the bishops' teaching that contraception was sinful.
The feminist movement was never strong in Britain; what did exist drew inspiration primarily from the United States, and from the experience of left-wing British women being discriminated against by male activists. Efforts to form a national movement in the mid-1970s foundered on a bitter split between the predominantly heterosexual socialists, on the one hand, and the predominantly lesbian radicals on the other. The most visible spokesperson was Germaine Greer, whose The Female Eunuch (1970) called on women to rebel against marriage and instead live in heterosexual communes. Paul Addison concludes that," in popular culture, feminism was generally treated as a bit of a joke." 
The Education Act of 1944 was an answer to surging social and educational demands created by the war and the widespread demands for social reform that approached utopianism. It was prepared by Conservative Rab Butler after wide consultation. The Act took effect in 1947 and created the modern split between primary education and secondary education at age 11; it also established the Tripartite System, consisting of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools. Academically gifted students who passed an exam were able to attend a prestigious grammar school. Those who did not pass the selection test attended secondary modern schools or technical schools. The school leaving age was raised to 15. The elite system of public schools was practically unchanged. The new law was widely praised by Conservatives because it honoured religion and social hierarchy, by Labour because it opened new opportunities for the working class, and by the general public because it ended the fees they had to pay. The act became a permanent part of the Post-war consensus supported by the three major parties.
While the new law formed a part of the widely accepted Post-war consensus agreed to in general by the major parties, one part did generate serious controversy. Critics on the left attacked grammar schools as elitist because a student had to pass a test at age 11 to get in. Defenders, mostly in the Conservative party, argued that grammar schools allowed pupils to obtain a good education through merit rather than through family income. By 1964 one and 10 students were in comprehensive schools that did not sort children at age 11. Anthony Crosland, the Labour minister of education from 1965, crusaded to speed up the process; he had significant public support for the move. When Margaret Thatcher became education minister in 1970 one in three schools were comprehensives; The proportion doubled by 1974, despite her efforts to resist the trend against grammar schools. By 1979, over 90 percent of the schools were comprehensives.
Higher education expanded dramatically. Provincial university colleges were upgraded as at Nottingham, Southampton, and Exeter so that by 1957, there were 21 universities. Expansion came even faster in the 1960s, with such new universities as Keele, Dundee, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and York — bringing the total to 46 in 1970. Specialisation allowed national centres of excellence to emerge in medicine at Edinburgh, engineering at Manchester, science at Imperial College London, and agriculture at Reading. Oxford and Cambridge, however, remained intellectually, culturally and politically dominant. They attracted top students from across the Commonwealth, but at the same time lost many of their best researchers to the United States, where salaries and research facilities were much more generous. Into the 1960s, the student bodies remained largely middle and upper class in origins; the average enrollment was only 2600 in 1962. Every subsequent decade brought further expansion in numbers of institutions and especially numbers of students. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998, raised to £3,000 a year in 2006, and passed £9,000 a year by 2006. There has been considerable debate since the 1980s about the tendency toward vocationalism and the decline in the humanities, as well as a growing mindset among senior administrators that is preoccupied with marketing and corporate-like measured of "success."
For the BBC the central postwar mission was to block threats from American private broadcasting and to continue Reith’s mission of cultural uplift. BBC remained a powerful force, despite the arrival of a private TV network in the 1950s. The powerful newspaper barons had less political power after 1945. Stephen Koss explains that the decline was caused by structural shifts: the major Fleet Street papers became properties of large, diversified capital empires with more interest in profits than politics. As a result, the provincial press virtually collapsed, with only the Manchester Guardian playing a national role; in 1964 it relocated to London. Growing competition arose from non-political journalism and from other media such as the BBC; and independent press lords emerged who were independent of the party agents and leaders.
Spectator sports became increasingly fashionable in postwar Britain, as attendance soared across the board. Despite the omnipresent austerity, the government were very proud to host the 1948 Olympics, even though Britain's athletes won only three gold medals compared to 38 for the Americans. Budgets were very tight and no new facilities were built. Athletes were given the same bonus rations as dockers and miners, 5,467 calories a day instead of the normal 2,600. Athletes were housed in existing accommodation. Male competitors stayed at nearby RAF and Army camps, while the women were housed in London dormitories. Sporting competitions were minimal during the war years, but by 1948, 40 million a year were watching football matches, 300,000 per week went to the motorcycle speedway, and half a million watched the greyhounds race. Of course, there was other competition. Cinemas were jammed and dance halls were filled, with the American jitterbug a new fad. But nothing could match the great cricket hero Denis Compton; the Daily Telegraph reported he:
The most popular sport in the UK is association football; Sheffield F.C., founded in 1857, is the world's oldest football club. The home nations all have separate national teams and domestic competitions, most notably England's Premier League and FA Cup, and the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup. Referred to as the "home of football" by the international governing body FIFA, England hosted and won the 1966 FIFA World Cup. The English Premier League (formed in 1992 by member clubs of the old Football League First Division) is the most-watched football league in the world, and its biggest clubs include Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Scotland's Celtic and Rangers also have a global fanbase. Football in Britain is renowned for the intense rivalries between clubs and the passion of the supporters, which includes a tradition of football chants, such as, "You're Not Singing Any More" (or its variant "We Can See You Sneaking Out!"), sung by jubilant fans towards the opposition fans who have gone silent (or left early). Fans lined up for meat pies, burgers and chips. Football dropped its ban on floodlights in 1950, and night games attracted increasingly large crowds of fans – some of them unruly — as well as large television audiences. Architects were challenged to build mighty stadia, as "their cantilevered constructions dwarfing mean streets, supplanted the cathedral as symbol of the city's identity and aspirations, and the fixtures surpassed church festivals in their national impact."
The so-called "British Disease" was hooliganism at football fixtures. Rowdiness had been a characteristic for decades, but by the 1970s confrontations had escalated into violence against visiting fans, including violence at matches held in Europe. The earliest explanations revolved on the distressed life of impoverished and unemployed youth. However, the more in-depth study made in 1983 by High Court judge Sir Oliver Popplewell found a quite different dynamic at work. Many of the hooligans held steady jobs during the week; they dressed in the latest style, and planned their violence ahead of time as a recreation in itself, to which football is a mere background. They were not poor but they were searching for an identity distinct from the mundane working environment they lived in. By the 1990s, hooliganism had been sharply reduced, thanks to the use of seating-only stadiums where each spectator had to remain in an assigned seat, better policing methods, and the use of closed-circuit television to identify troublemakers.
Cricket is Britain's other historic sport, but it grew faster in the overseas empire, and increasingly immigrants comprised the ranks of top players as well as the fan base. With rising affluence, tennis spread from upper-class estates into clubs in middle-class suburbs, where it became a woman's specialty. Women increasingly frequented gyms, which were set up everywhere; by the mid-1990s they had signup one woman out of six for membership. In terms of participation, middle-class men and women were rather more active that the working class. Scotland remains the headquarters of golf, many clubs opened up by 1910 and continue to operate. The number of golfers doubled In the 1950s from a half-million to a million, mostly men; the total reached 2.5 million by 2000.
The United Kingdom has had a significant film industry for over a century. While film output peaked in 1936, the "golden age" of British cinema occurred in the 1940s, during which the directors David Lean, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Carol Reed and Richard Attenborough produced their most highly acclaimed work. Many postwar British actors have achieved international fame and critical success, including Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Kate Winslet and Ben Kingsley. A handful of the films with the largest ever box office returns have been made in the United Kingdom, including the second and third highest-grossing film series (Harry Potter and James Bond).
The identity of the British industry, and its relationship with the much larger and richer Cinema of the United States, has been the subject of debate. The history of film production in Britain has often been affected by attempts to compete with the American industry. The career of the producer Alexander Korda was marked by this objective, the Rank Organisation attempted to do so in the 1940s, and Goldcrest in the 1980s. Numerous British-born directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Ridley Scott, and performers, such as Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant, have achieved success primarily through their work in Hollywood.
In 2009 British films grossed around $2 billion worldwide and achieved a market share of around 7% globally and 17% in the United Kingdom. UK box-office takings totalled £1.1 billion in 2012, with 172.5 million admissions.
After decades of low immigration, new arrivals became a significant factor after 1945. Immigration before 2000 was greatest from the former British Empire especially Ireland, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya and Hong Kong. Since 2000, large numbers have arrived from Europe and the Middle East. Of the 56,267,000 people in Britain in 1996, 52,942,000 were white. The other 3,307,000 represented diverse ethnic or racial origins: 875,000 were black; 1,639,000 were Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi; 126,000 were Chinese; 161,000 were other Asian; 506,000 were from other groups or were mixed.
Some immigrants have come as asylum seekers, seeking protection as refugees under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, or from member states of the European Union, exercising one of the European Union's Four Freedoms. Since the 1980s, however, Britain has become a leading proponent of European restrictionalism and has developed policies that tend to exclude asylum seekers from mainstream society. Dispersal policy was set up through the National Asylum Support Service programme so that asylum seekers were directed to urban areas having an excess of available housing. These areas had plenty of housing but a weak job market. While newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees have both skills and qualifications, they experienced high levels of unemployment, or else found mostly low-skilled jobs with low earnings. Public opinion in host areas turned negative against them.
The new immigrants generally enter tight-knit ethnic communities. For example, the new Irish arrivals become integrated within a working-class Irish Catholic environment that shapes their behaviour whilst maintaining a distinct ethnic identity and maintains it in terms of religion, culture and Labour politics over subsequent generations. Spouses form the largest single category of migrant settlement, especially for Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women. For them it is a matter of restoring domestic relations in a familiar family environment, with higher incomes, thus easing the strain on the immigration process.
Fertility rates among new immigrants upon arrival were much higher than the British norm (reflecting the norms of the country of origin). However rates have dropped rapidly the longer the time of stay in Britain. For some ethnic groups fertility is about the level of the UK national average (e.g., black Caribbean) or below it (e.g., Indian and Chinese). Only among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women do total fertility rates remain well above the national average, but even so they have shown a continuous decrease since the 1970s.
Enoch Powell (1912 – 1998), a Conservative Party MP, broke from the broad consensus supporting immigration in April 1968 to warn of long-term violence, unrest, and internal discord should immigration continued from non-white areas. His speech foresaw "Rivers of Blood" and predicted that white "native" English citizens would be unable to access social services and overwhelmed by foreign cultures. While political, social and cultural elites were harshly critical of Powell, and he was removed from the Shadow Cabinet, Powell had a broad base of public support.
Margaret Thatcher was the dominant political force of the late 20th century, and often compared to Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George for her transformative powers. She was Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990, and Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. She was often called the "Iron Lady" for her uncompromising politics and leadership style.
Political analyst Dennis Kavanagh concludes that the "Thatcher Government produced such a large number of far-reaching changes across much of the policy spectrum, that it passes 'reasonable' criteria of effectiveness, radicalism, and innovation."
The Labour party under James Callaghan (prime minister 1976–79) contested the May 1979 general election as unemployment passed the one-million mark and unions became more aggressive. The Conservatives used a highly effective poster created by Saatchi and Saatchi, showing a dole queue snaking into the distance and it carried the caption "Labour isn't working". Voters gave Conservatives 43.9% of the vote and 339 seats to Labour's 269, for an overall majority of 43 seats. Voters turned against Labour rather than for the Conservatives. Labour was weakened by the steady long-term decline in the proportion of manual workers in the electorate. Twice as many manual workers normally voted Labour as voted Conservative, but they now constituted only 56% of the electorate. When Harold Wilson won narrowly for Labour in 1964, they had accounted for 63%. Furthermore, they were beginning to turn against the trade unions – alienated, perhaps, by the difficulties of the winter of 1978–9. In contrast, Tory policies stressed wider home ownership, which Labour refused to match. Thatcher did best in districts where the economy was relatively strong and was weaker where it was contracting.
As Prime Minister, she implemented policies that have come to be known as Thatcherism. After leading her Conservative party to victory in the 1979 general election she introduced a series of political and economic initiatives intended to reverse high unemployment and Britain's struggles in the wake of the Winter of Discontent and an ongoing recession. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Due to recession and high unemployment, Thatcher's popularity during her first years in office waned until the beginning of 1982, a few months before the Falklands War. She won re-election in 1983.
Privatisation was an enduring legacy of Thatcherism; it was accepted by the Labour administration of Tony Blair. Her policy was to privatise nationalised corporations (such as the telephone and aerospace firms). She sold public housing to tenants, all on favourable terms. The policy developed an important electoral dimension during the second Thatcher government (1983–90). It involved more than denationalisation: wider share ownership was the second plank of the policy, and this provides an important historical perspective on the relationship between Thatcherism and 20th-century conservatism. Thatcher preached the goal of achieving an "enterprise society" in Britain, especially in widespread share-ownership, sale of council houses, declining controls imposed by trade unions, and expansion of private health care. These policies radically transformed many central aspects of British society.
Thatcher was distrustful of the European Union and did not try to forge closer relations. Her major breakthrough in foreign policy came in the dramatic long-distance war against Argentina for control of the Falkland Islands. Thatcher played a role in the ending of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, she provided support for U.S. President Jimmy Carter's aggressive response, such as the Olympic boycott. However, Britain's precarious economic situation at the time of the invasion led the British government to provide only tepid backing to Carter in his attempt to punish Moscow through economic sanctions. She collaborated closely with the diplomacy of Ronald Reagan in confronting the Soviets. She was the first major western leader to identify Mikhail Gorbachev as someone who could be worked with. She was annoyed by Reagan's invasion of Grenada (a member of the Commonwealth), and lukewarm support regarding the Falklands.
Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in 1987. During this period her support for a Community Charge (popularly referred to as "poll tax") was widely unpopular and her views on the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She lost the support of Conservative party leaders and had to resign as Prime Minister and party leader in November 1990.
Protestant religious observance declined notably in Britain during the second half of the 20th century. Catholicism (based on the Irish elements) held its own, while the rapid growth came from Islam. Church of England attendance has particularly dropped, although charismatic churches like Elim and AOG are growing. The movement to Keep Sunday Special seemed to have lost at the beginning of the 21st century.
From 1964 up until 1996, income per head had doubled, while ownership of various household goods had significantly increased. By 1996, two-thirds of households owned cars, 82% had central heating, most people owned a VCR, and one in five houses had a home computer. In 1971, 9% of households had no access to a shower or bathroom, compared with only 1% in 1990; largely due to demolition or modernisation of older properties which lacked such facilities. In 1971, only 35% had central heating, while 78% enjoyed this amenity in 1990. By 1990, 93% of households had colour television, 87% had telephones, 86% had washing machines, 80% had deep-freezers, 60% had video-recorders, and 47% had microwave ovens. Holiday entitlements had also become more generous. In 1990, 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 post-war period also witnessed significant improvements in housing conditions. In 1960, 14% of British households had no inside toilet, while in 1967 22% of all homes had no basic hot water supply. By the Nineties, however almost all homes had these amenities together with central heating, which was a luxury just two decades before.
After 1960 British industries were troubled. The railways were decrepit, more textile mills closed than opened, steel employment fell sharply, and the automobile industry practically disappeared, apart from some luxury production. Deindustrialization meant the closure of many operations in mining, heavy industry and manufacturing, with the resulting loss of high paid working-class jobs. A certain amount of turnover had always taken place, with older businesses shutting down and new ones opening up. However, the 1970s were different, with a worldwide energy crisis, and a dramatic influx of low-cost manufactured goods from Asia leading to more closures and fewer openings. Major sectors were hit hard between 1966 and 1982, with a 60 per cent decline in textiles, 53 per cent in metal manufacture, 43 per cent in mining, 38 per cent in construction, and 35 per cent in vehicles. Coal mining quickly collapsed, and practically disappeared in the 21st century. The consumption of coal—mostly for electricity—plunged from 157 million tonnes in 1970 to 37 million tonnes in 2015, nearly all of it imported. Employment in the coal mines fell from a peak of 1,191,000 in 1920 to 695,000 in 1956, 247,000 in 1976, 44,000 in 1993, and a mere 2,000 in 2015. In the 1970s, manufacturing accounted for 25 percent of the economy. Total employment in manufacturing fell from 7.1 million in 1979 to 4.5 million in 1992 and only 2.7 million in 2016, when it accounted for 10% of the economy.
In Scotland deindustrialization took place rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, as most of the traditional industries drastically shrank or were completely closed down. A new service-oriented economy emerged to replace traditional heavy industries. Scotland's shipyards in 1954 built 12 percent of the world's tonnage, falling to 1 percent in 1968. North Sea oil did create a major new industry after 1970, and some older firms successfully took advantage of the unexpected opportunity. John Brown & Company's shipyard at Clydebank transformed itself from a traditional shipbuilding business to a factor in the high technology offshore oil and gas drilling industry.
Popular response very great deal. Some nostalgically invoked a glorious industrial past or the bygone British Empire to cope with their newfound personal economic insecurity. Others looked to the EU for help. Some turned to exclusionary Englishness as the solution to current grievances. By the 21st century, enough grievances had accumulated to have a political impact. The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), based in white working-class towns, gained increasing share of the vote while warning against the dangers of immigration. The political reverberations came to a head in the shocking and unexpected popular vote in favour of Brexit in 2016.
After the relative prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, the UK experienced extreme industrial strife and stagflation through the 1970s following a global economic downturn; Labour had returned to government in 1964 under Harold Wilson to end 13 years of Conservative rule. The Conservatives were restored to government in 1970 under Edward Heath, who failed to halt the country's economic decline and was ousted in 1974 as Labour returned to power under Harold Wilson. The economic crisis deepened under Wilson and the mood blackened more under his successor James Callaghan. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative who brought neoliberalism and the rejection of the postwar consensus came to power in the 1979 election.
Thatcher's deregulation of the economy ended the post-war consensus about the planned economy. It was the special goal of controversial Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher following her election as prime minister in 1979. The election came at a time of crises between the Labour Party and the trade unions, and a strong trend of higher unemployment and deindustrialisation. The 1970s saw the closure of much of Britain's manufacturing industries, with Scotland and Wales hardest hit. It was a time of financial boom as stock markets became liberalised and State-owned industries became privatised. Inflation also fell during this period and trade union power was reduced.
The National Union of Mineworkers had long been one of the strongest trade unions. Its strikes had toppled governments in the 1970s. Thatcher drew the line and defeated it in the bitterly fought miners' strike of 1984–1985. The basic problem was that the easy coal had all been mined and what was left was very expensive. The miners, however, were fighting not just for high wages but for a way of life that had to be subsidised by other workers. The Union split; its strategy was flawed. In the end almost all the mines were shut down. Britain turned to its vast reserves of North Sea gas and oil, which brought in substantial tax and export revenues, to fuel the new economic boom.
After the economic boom of the 1980s a brief but severe recession occurred between 1990 and 1992 following the economic chaos of Black Wednesday under the government of Conservative John Major, who had succeeded Thatcher in 1990. However the rest of the 1990s 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 1997, 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.
Britain's wish to join the Common Market (as the European Economic Community was known in Britain) was first expressed in July 1961 by the Macmillan government, was negotiated by Edward Heath as Lord Privy Seal, but was vetoed in 1963 by French President Charles de Gaulle. After initially hesitating over the issue, Harold Wilson's Labour Government lodged the UK's second application (in May 1967) to join the European Community, as it was now called. Like the first, though, it was vetoed by de Gaulle in November that year.
In 1973, as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, Heath negotiated terms for admission and Britain finally joined the Community, alongside Denmark and Ireland in 1973. In opposition, the Labour Party was deeply divided, though its Leader, Harold Wilson, remained in favour. In the 1974 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 1975, and the proposition to continue membership was passed with a substantial majority.
The Maastricht Treaty transformed the European Community into the European Union. In 1992, the Conservative government under John Major ratified it, against the opposition of his backbench Maastricht Rebels.
On 11 September 1997 (on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge) a referendum was held on establishing a devolved Scottish Parliament. There was an overwhelming 'yes' vote for both establishing the parliament and granting it limited tax varying powers. Two weeks 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 1999. The creation of these bodies has widened the differences between the regions, especially in areas like healthcare.
Tony Blair was leader of the Labour Party from 1994, and three times Prime Minister (1997–2007). With Gordon Brown he founded the movement known as New Labour. He was known internationally for his responsibility for British participation in the conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, with prolonged controversy that still continues, in Iraq in close cooperation with President George W. Bush. The severest criticisms of Blair concerned his decision to go to war in Iraq in close cooperation with the United States. Saddam was easily toppled, but an insurgency arose that every day attacked British and American forces as they sought to foster a sort of democracy in Iraq. They pulled out in 2011. By 2010 only 12% of British respondents to an opinion poll considered the Iraq war to have been a success.
Blair sought to modernise Britain's public services, encourage enterprise and innovation in its private sector and keep its economy open to international commerce. Under his premiership, British governments made major changes to the British constitution by legislation that transferred decision-making to devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Kavanagh has argued that by the 1980s, left-wing or socialist tendencies in the Labour Party divided the party and united its enemies:
Blair moved the Labour Party in new directions, minimising the left-wing or socialists factions. He thereby broadened the appeal to middle-class and professional voters.
Blair was also anxious to escape from the Labour party's reputation for "tax-and-spend" domestic policies; he wanted instead to establish a reputation for fiscal prudence. He had undertaken in general terms to modernise the welfare state, but he had avoided undertaking to reduce poverty, achieve full employment, or reverse the increase in inequality that had occurred during the Thatcher administration. Once in office, however, his government launched a package of social policies designed to reduce unemployment and poverty. The commitment to modernise the welfare state was tackled by the introduction of "welfare to work" programmes to motivate the unemployed to return to work instead of drawing benefit. Poverty reduction programmes were targeted at specific groups, including children and the elderly, and took the form of what were termed "New Deals". There were also new tax credit allowances for low-income and single-parent families with children, and "Sure Start" progammes for under-fours in deprived areas. A "National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal" was launched in 2001 with the objective of ensuring that "within 10 to 20 years no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live"; a "Social Exclusion Unit" was set up, and annual progress reports concerning the reduction of poverty and social exclusion were commissioned.
Chancellor Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister in 2007. After initial rises in opinion polls Labour's popularity declined with the onset of a worldwide recession in 2008, leading to poor results in local European elections in 2009. A year later, Labour lost 91 seats in the House of Commons at the 2010 general election, the party's biggest loss of seats in a single general election since 1931. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by David Cameron, and as Leader of the Labour Party by Ed Miliband.
The economic damage done by the Great Recession weakened Labour and facilitated a Conservative come-back. Prime Minister David Cameron (2010-2016) sought to rebrand the Conservatives, embracing an increasingly socially liberal position. The 2010 general election led to Cameron becoming Prime Minister as the head of a coalition government with the much smaller party of Liberal Democrats. His premiership was marked by the ongoing negative economic effects of the late-2000s worldwide financial crisis. He faced a large deficit in government finances that he sought to reduce through austerity measures. His administration introduced large-scale changes to welfare, immigration policy, education, and healthcare. His government privatised the Royal Mail and some other state assets, and legalised same-sex marriage. He won an easy reelection in 2015 with 330 seats in Commons against 296.
Cameron resigned as Prime Minister the following year after the British public voted to leave the European Union in a national referendum, with his government having campaigned for the opposing 'remain' side. He was succeeded by former Home Secretary Theresa May, who called another general election for the summer of 2017.
House prices tripled in the 20 years between 1995 and 2015. Growth was almost continuous during the period, save for a two-year period of decline around 2008 as a result of the banking crisis. The gap between income and house prices has changed in the last 20 years such that even in the most affordable regions of England and Wales buyers have to spend six times their income. It was most marked in London, where in 2013 the £300,000, median house price costs 12 times the median London income of £24,600.
Economic and social issues caused political unrest, particularly in areas hurt by deindustrialization and globalization of the economy. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, 1993. It rose to prominence after 2000, winning third place in the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote. Cameron won reelection in 2015 in part by promising a referendum on the EU, which he expected would easily defeat Brexit.
Unexpectedly the 'Leave' pro-Brexit campaign waxed strong primarily on issues relating to sovereignty and migration, whereas the remain campaign focused on the economic impacts of leaving the EU. Polls showed more cited both the EU (32%) and migration (48%) as important issues than cited the economy (27%).
The post-war consensus is a historians' model of political agreement from 1945 to 1979, when newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected and reversed it. . The concept claims there was a widespread consensus that covered support for a coherent package of policies that were developed in the 1930s, promised during the Second World War, and enacted under Attlee. The policies dealt with a mixed economy, Keynesianism, and a broad welfare state. In recent years the validity of the interpretation has been debated by historians.
The historians' model of the post-war consensus was most fully developed by Paul Addison. The basic argument is that in the 1930s Liberal Party intellectuals led by John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge developed a series of plans that became especially attractive as the wartime government promised a much better post-war Britain and saw the need to engage every sector of society. The coalition government during the war, headed by Churchill and Attlee, signed off on a series of white papers that promised Britain a much improved welfare state. After the war. The promises included the national health service, and expansion of education, housing, and a number of welfare programmes. It did not include the nationalisation of all industries, which was a Labour Party design. The Labour Party did not challenge the system of elite public schools—They became part of the consensus, as did comprehensive schools. Nor did Labour challenge the primacy of Oxford and Cambridge. However, the consensus did call for building many new universities to dramatically broaden educational base of society. Conservatives did not challenge the socialised medicine of the National Health Service; indeed, they boasted they could do better job of running it. In foreign policy, the consensus called for an anti-Communist Cold War policy, decolonisation, close ties to NATO, the United States, and the Commonwealth, and slowly emerging ties to the European Community.
The model states that from 1945 until the arrival of Thatcher in 1979, there was a broad multi-partisan national consensus on social and economic policy, especially regarding the welfare state, nationalised health services, educational reform, a mixed economy, government regulation, Keynesian macroeconomic policies, and full employment. Apart from the question of nationalisation of some industries, these policies were broadly accepted by the three major parties, as well as by industry, the financial community and the labour movement. Until the 1980s, historians generally agreed on the existence and importance of the consensus. Some historians such as Ralph Miliband expressed disappointment that the consensus was a modest or even conservative package that blocked a fully socialised society. Historian Angus Calder complained bitterly that the post-war reforms were an inadequate reward for the wartime sacrifices, and a cynical betrayal of the people's hope for a more just post-war society. In recent years, there has been a historiographical debate on whether such a consensus ever existed.
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