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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The first decades
War 1744-63
America 1763-83
The economy 1767-92
Ireland 1778-1800
Napoleon 1800-15
The need for reform
Victorian era 1837-1854
Victorian era 1854-1901
World War II
     The Attlee government
     Multi-racial Britain
     Eden and Suez
     The early Thatcher years
     Pride before a fall
     New Labour
     The Blair years

Northern Ireland
Devolution and reform

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The Attlee government: 1945-1951

Attlee heads the first Labour government with an overall majority, and he has a sweeping mandate to reintroduce the delights of peace - now scheduled to have a socialist tinge. But the realities of a country bankrupted by war mean that these are still years of austerity.

Conditions are made worse by nature's vagaries. In 1946 a world-wide wheat shortage necessitates bread rationing, and the exceptionally severe winter of 1946-7 means that even potatoes are now rationed (both these basics have been freely available throughout the war). The nation's finances too are in severe deficit, until much needed help comes from the USA in the form of Marshall Aid.


The international situation makes a rapid return to peacetime conditions equally impossible. The manpower requirements of the British sectors in Germany and Austria are soon followed by new obligations elsewhere - in Malaya from 1948, in Korea from 1950.

As a result the demob (or demobilization) progresses more slowly than expected. Early in 1947 there are still 1.5 million men and women in the armed forces, and in May of this year conscription (known at the time as national service) is reintroduced for all males at the age of eighteen - at first for twelve months, subsequently for two years. The increasing tension of the Cold War results in Britain's involvement, in 1949, in the formation of NATO.


In spite of these difficulties Attlee and his cabinet achieve an impressive programme of reformist legislation, securing the welfare state in the spirit of the Beveridge Report. The National Insurance Act of 1946 consolidates and extends existing schemes of contributions towards state benefits for sickness, unemployment and old age. The National Assistance Act of 1948 does the same for the relief of poverty.

The most fondly remembered reform is Aneurin Bevan's National Health Service Act of 1946. This provides for free medical, dental and hospital services - though protracted negotiations with the medical profession mean that the National Health Service (NHS) does not come into effect until 1948.


On the economic front the commanding heights of the economy are taken under state control, in keeping with socialist theory, but in most instances this is accepted without much protest. The Bank of England is nationalized in 1946, followed in 1947 by the coal mines - an industry so unprofitable in recent years that even the owners are pleased to receive payment in compensation.

The railways (1947) have recently relied heavily on public subsidy, and the gas and electricity companies (1948) have in many cases developed as municipal undertakings. They seem of proper national concern. The iron and steel industry (1951) proves more controversial, being denationalized and renationalized in subsequent years.


In international affairs the Attlee government (with Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary) introduces a major change of direction, beginning the dismantling of the British empire. The empire becomes gradually transformed into a Commonwealth of independent nations, capable of accomodating republics as well as monarchies.

India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka win their independence in 1947 and 1948 (it is India's decision to become a republic which brings this new dimension to the Commonwealth). In the same period the British mandate in Palestine comes to an abrupt and violent end, in May 1948.


Multi-racial Britain: from1948

As the process of dismantling the empire accelerates, people from the colonies begin for the first time to make their way in large numbers to the 'mother country'. There is a shortage of labour in postwar Britain, now reconstructing after the damage of six years of conflict.

In the spring of 1948 the government places advertisements in Jamaica, inviting immigrants to make the journey across the Atlantic - a journey made in the other direction, many generations earlier, by their ancestors in slave ships. The price of the passage is 28.50. In Jamaica this is a large sum (the equivalent of the value of three cows), but many are willing to respond to the chance of a new life.


The first ship to leave Jamaica is the Empire Windrush. She docks in the Thames, at Tilbury, on 22 June 1948. The new arrivals easily find work, at wages high by Jamaican standards. They are soon followed by many others from throughout the British Caribbean.

The arrival of the West Indians transforms Britain into a multiracial society. There is as yet little religious diversity because the new immigrants are nearly all Christians. At this stage only one long established British group differs from the majority in both race and religion. The Jews, welcomed in Britain from the 1650s and immigrating in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, are now a settled community of some 300,000 people.


The Jews are joined by other minority religious groups when immigration begins from new areas of the British empire - from Africa and above all from the Indian subcontinent, introducing to Britain three important religions. Hindus and Sikhs arrive from the republic of India (and Hindus also from east Africa, after Uganda's Indian population is expelled in 1972). Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the 1991 census Britain's ethnic minorities number some 3 million, or about 5.5% of the population. The black community consists of 500,000 of Caribbean origin and 380,000 deriving from Africa and elsewhere. The Asian groups include 825,000 Indians, 500,000 Pakistanis, 165,000 Bangladesis and 165,000 Chinese.


Eden and Suez: 1955-1957

Labour narrowly wins the general election of 1950, with an overall majority of just six seats. In the following year, after organizing the Festival of Britain (commemorating the centenary of the triumphant Great Exhibition), Labour loses a general election.

So Winston Churchill, still leader of the Conservative party, comes back to Downing Street in 1951 at the age of seventy-six. His return is shortly followed by a change of monarch. George VI, who has been Churchill's partner and steadfast support through the war years, dies in 1952 - to be succeeded by his elder daughter as Elizabeth II.


Churchill himself finally retires in 1955, yielding the premiership and leadership of the Conservative party to a long-serving lieutenant, Anthony Eden.

Though Eden is an expert in diplomacy (as foreign secretary 1935-8, 1940-45, 1951-5), his brief spell as prime minister is dramatically ended by Britain's greatest foreign-affairs disaster of recent decades. During a diplomatic conflict with President Nasser of Egypt, Eden sends British paratroops in November 1956 to join the Israelis and the French in seizing the Suez Canal. Within weeks, after international condemnation, the troops are withdrawn. In the aftermath of the crisis, in January 1957, Eden resigns (see Suez Crisis).


Butskellism: 1957-1979

Eden's place is taken by his chancellor of the exchequer, Harold Macmillan, though many at the time expect the home secretary, Rab Butler, to emerge as leader from the arcane series of high-level consultations which serve as the Conservative selection process.

Rab Butler never wins the leadership (Macmillan makes strenuous behind-the-scenes to block him on his own retirement in 1964) but his tolerant middle-of-the-road views are very much of this time. Hugh Gaitskell, winning the Labour leadership after Attlee in 1955, is a man of similarly moderate character. The term Butskellism, based on these two names, is subsequently coined to describe the consensus politics characteristic of this period.


This consensus, representing the left wing of the Conservative party and the right wing of the Labour party, supports a liberal colonial policy (easing the path of the remaining colonies to independence), Keynesian economics (the theory, deriving from Maynard Keynes, that governments should spend their way out of recession by investing heavily in industry and increasing the money supply), and a conciliatory attitude in labour relations.

To differing degrees these policies are applied by Conservative prime ministers (Macmillan 1957-63, Douglas-Home 1963-4, Heath 1970-4) and by their Labour counterparts - Wilson, who wins the leadership after Gaitskell's death in 1963 (prime minister 1964-70, 1974-6) and Callaghan (1976-9).


Overseas the result is a continuing process of liberating the colonies within a framework of democracy. Harold Macmillan warns the settler population of Africa in 1960 that a 'wind of change' is blowing through their continent. And Harold Wilson is resolute after 1965 in resisting the efforts of Ian Smith to lead Rhodesia into a specifically white independence.

Closer to home the great issue of the decade from 1963 is Britain's belated attempt to join the European Community. Macmillan tries to do so in 1963, followed by Wilson in 1967. Both bids are vetoed by the French president, Charles de Gaulle. Edward Heath finally achieves British membership in 1973.


Economically the era is characterized by numerous strikes and restrictive practices. This crippling combination (known elsewhere at the time as the 'English disease') is coupled with rapid inflation - much aggravated by an international factor (the 'oil crisis' of 1973-4) and by exceptionally high rates of tax. By 1976 the top rate of tax on earned income in Britain is 83%, but there is also a 15% surcharge on unearned income - leaving the rich with only 2% of their return from investments.

These circumstances culminate in a spate of strikes so numerous that they cause the winter of 1978-9 to be known (in a phrase from Richard III) as the 'winter of discontent'. The result is a strong reaction in the general election of 1979.


The early Thatcher years: 1979-1987

The victory of the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher in the general election of 1979 heralds a sea change in Britain, replacing the old mood of consensus with the aggressively adversarial stance described as 'conviction' politics.

In Mrs Thatchers's view 'there is no such thing as society' (one of her most frequently quoted and reviled observations), by which she means that the only underlying reality of society is individuals and families, all primarily interested in their own well-being. She believes people must be enabled to achieve their own self-betterment with minimum interference from the state or from the restrictive practices of professions and trade unions.


This new version of economic liberalism, threatening the achievements of what Mrs Thatcher calls the 'nanny' state, divides the nation as nothing has for many decades. 'Thatcherism' and 'Thatcherite' become familiar words in the national vocabulary, hated and revered with equal passion by the two antagonist camps.

The prime minister's own choice of language reinforces this split. She divides people of influence into two groups, 'them' and 'us', according to their response to her energetic programme for change. 'Them' includes, very specifically, the doubters (or 'wets', in the phrase of the time) within the Conservative party.


From 1981 the Thatcher years coincide with the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the USA. Reagan agrees with Mrs Thatcher's views, with the result that their shared policies (including Privatization) become extremely influential around the world. These policies derive from monetarism, a theory developed by the US economist Milton Friedman.

Monetarism asserts that control of the money supply (and thus the avoidance of inflation, though it is a matter of controversy that this necessarily follows) is the only economic role properly undertaken by the state or its central bank. With that one exception, free market forces are the best regulator of the economy. This is in keeping with the classical economics of Adam Smith, in direct opposition to the interventionist policy associated with Keynes.


The unflinching application of monetarism brings hardship to many in Britain, as unemployment soars to levels unknown in recent decades. Beggars reappear on British streets. As a result Mrs Thatcher suffers early unpopularity. She is saved by her resolute handling of the Falklands War.

For part of the electorate she also increases her stature during the miners' strike of 1984-5. This is a fight for which she has been spoiling. The miners were at the heart of the General Strike in 1926. They have more recently gone on strike in 1972 (in support of a 47% wage claim) and in 1974 - on which occasion the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, introduces an emergency three-day week and calls an election.


Heath loses the election of 1974; the Labour government awards the miners a 35% increase; and Mrs Thatcher challenges and defeats Heath to become leader of the opposition. Now, in 1984, she is determined that a miner's strike confronting her government will end differently. It does.

After an exceptionally bitter and violent confrontation lasting eleven months (April 1984 to March 1985), the miners return to work without achieving any settlement. As Mrs Thatcher intends, this event is a turning point in the progressive loss of power of the unions in Britain - a development greeted with dismay on one side ('them') and with rejoicing on the other ('us'), in a typical Thatcherite split within the nation.


Pride before a fall: 1987-1990

By the mid-1980s, with those in employment making good money (particularly in areas such as financial services) and with inflation sharply down from its 1970s peak, the mood of the country is swinging to the right. Mrs Thatcher greatly increases her majority in 1983 and does almost as well in 1987. But the defects of her style are also beginning to tell.

It is the Russians who first give her a name which she is delighted to accept - the Iron Lady. But by the late 1980s she is using her apparent sense of invincible power (characterized by the cartoonists as the lethal swing of a handbag) to push through unpopular policies, dispensed like bitter medicine for the supposed good health of the nation.


The most notable example of this is the poll tax introduced with her enthusiastic support in 1989, six centuries after the cautionary tale of 1381. She proclaims it as a fair tax, in the limited sense that everybody pays the same (apart from a few categories eligible for an 80% reduction). In the spring of 1990 there are poll-tax riots in London, followed by an orchestrated campaign of non-payment.

By now Mrs Thatcher's cabinet colleagues find her self-assertion increasingly unacceptable. High-profile resignations (notably Lawson in 1989, Howe in 1990) result in her removal from office by her own colleagues. At the end of 1990 she is challenged for the leadership and loses. The sense of betrayal felt by her faction blights the Conservative party for the rest of the decade.


New Labour: 1983-1997

When John Major succeeds Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader and prime minister, in 1990, he faces a Labour party in opposition which is becoming once again a serious challenge. During the early Thatcher years Labour has been in a state of indisciplined chaos.

Michael Foot, as leader from 1980, is unable to prevent the infiltration of local Labour parties by a Trostskyite left-wing group calling itself the Militant Tendency. Instead, there are calls for the expulsion of a group of right-wing Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, who subsequently set up the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the elections of 1983 and 1987 the SDP deprives Labour of many of its more moderate followers. (In 1988 the SDP merges with the Liberals, forming the Liberal Democrats.)


To add to Labour's electoral troubles, the party adopts in 1980 the policy of unilateral disarmament (committing a future Labour government to destroy Britain's nuclear weapons without even using them as bargaining pawns for wider disarmament). This is highly unpopular with the electorate.

The party begins to take the long path back from the wilderness when Neil Kinnock replaces Foot as leader in 1983. He succeeds in ejecting the Militant Tendency and in dropping the commitment to unilateral disarmament. By 1992 the Labour party confidently expects to win the election. But Kinnock loses in that year to John Major.


This is Kinnock's second defeat (losing also to Margaret Thatcher in 1987). He now resigns the leadership, which is won by John Smith. Smith brings in the next necessary reform, narrowly pushing through in 1993 the policy of OMOV (One Member One Vote) for the election of the party leader - in place of the wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms associated with the previous system, where the unions (founders of the Labour party) were able to exercise massive influence through the block votes representing their members.

But in 1994 Smith dies suddenly of a heart attack. OMOV is used in a leadership election within a year of its adoption.


The winner is Tony Blair, after his close friend Gordon Brown stands down in his favour. Over the next three years Blair completes the transformation of the Labour party into what he calls New Labour.

New Labour comes to mean a party with streamlined campaigning systems (based on American examples), strong centralized control and a resolute determination to win the vote of 'Middle England', or the middle classes. This aim is taken so seriously that Blair and Brown make a pre-election promise, in 1997, not to raise taxes above the Conservative levels for at least the first two years of a Labour administration.


The highest rate of income tax has been reduced in 1988 to 40%, a level unprecedentedly low in recent decades. Old Labour is therefore dismayed to hear that the rich are not going to contibute more fully to New Labour's promised investment in the nation's health and education. But Blair and Brown insist that they can raise the necessary funds by a windfall tax on the monopoly utilities, privatized by the Conservatives.

The strategy works. In the general election of 1997 Labour is returned with its largest ever majority in the house of commons - 418 Labour to 165 Conservatives (the Liberals also at their highest level since the 1928 election, win 46 seats). And the windfall tax is duly collected.


The Blair years: from1997

Tony Blair enters Downing Street as a new kind of prime minister, acutely aware of the popular mood. Where Mrs Thatcher could be said to shape that mood, Blair has the ability to reflect it - as seen most famously in his response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, describing her as 'the people's princess'.

But Blair's apprenticeship in the House of Commons has been during the Thatcher years. Though a political opponent, he has admired the achievement and style of the Iron Lady. He leads his party in power with the same ruthless sense of control, tackling reforms - in areas such as education and welfare - with scant regard for the left-wing sensibilities of old Labour.


Blair is accused by his critics of sacrificing Labour's traditional commitments on the altar of middle-class demands, thus risking the loss of the party's core supporters in the nation's many deprived areas in the pursuit of more comfortable (and almost certainly more volatile) voters higher up the social scale. Time will tell whether there is validity in this charge.

Meanwhile Blair, like Thatcher, has his war in the early years of his administration (Kosovo to her Falklands) and proves himself equally pugnacious. But the issue on which he shows the greatest tenacity is one which he inherits from previous administrations - the intractable problem of northern Ireland.


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