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History of Great Britain

History of Britain

The kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union (1707) between
England and Scotland. England (including the principality of Wales, annexed
in the 14th century) and Scotland had been separate kingdoms since the
early Middle Ages, but since 1603 the same monarch has ruled both lands.
Only in 1707, however, did London become the capital of the entire island.
Great Britain from then on had a single Parliament and a single system of
national administration, taxation, and weights and measures. All tariff
barriers within the island were ended. England and Scotland continued,
however, to have separate traditions of law and separate established
churchesthe Presbyterian in Scotland, the Anglican in England and Wales.
For the history of the two countries before 1707, see Britain, Ancient;
England; Scotland.

A Century of Conflicts
One of the chief purposes of the planners of the Act of Union had been to
strengthen a land preoccupied with the War of the Spanish Succession. Under
the leadership of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, Britain and its
allies had won many battles against France, then the most populous and
powerful European state, but by 1710 it seemed clear that not even
Marlborough could prevent Louis XIV of France from installing a Bourbon
relation on the Spanish throne. Marlborough and his political allies were
replaced by members of the Tory Party, who in due course made peace with
France. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Britain acknowledged the right of
the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish crown. At the same time, France ceded to
Britain the North American areas of Hudson Bay, Nova Scotia, and
Newfoundland. Spain ceded Gibraltar and the Mediterranean island of Minorca
and granted to British merchants a limited right to trade with Spains
American colonies; included in that (until 1750) was the asientothe right
to import African slaves into Spanish America.

Because Queen Anne had no surviving children, she was succeeded, according
to the Act of Settlement (1701), by her nearest Protestant relative, the
elector of Hannover, who came from Germany in 1714 and was accepted as King
George I of Great Britain. A new era of British history began.

Government in the 18th Century
Although the first years of George Is reign were marked by two major
crisesthe Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 by followers of Queen Annes half
brother, James Stuart, and the South Sea Bubble, a stock market crash of
1720Britain was actually entering two decades of relative peace and
stability. Local government was left largely in the hands of country
gentlemen owning large estates. As justices of the peace, they settled the
majority of legal disputes. They also administered roads, bridges, inns,
and markets and supervised the local operation of the Poor Lawaid to
orphans, paupers, the very old, and those too ill to work. At the national
level, many Britons came to take pride in their mixed government, which
happily combined monarchical (the hereditary ruler), aristocratic (the
hereditary House of Lords), and democratic (the elected House of Commons)
elements and also provided for an independent judiciary. The reign of Queen
Anne had been marked by parliamentary elections every three years and by
keen rivalry between Whig and Tory factions. With the coming of George I,
the Whigs were given preference over the Tories, many of whom were
sympathetic to the claims of the Stuart pretenders. Under the Septennial
Act of 1716, parliamentary elections were required every seven years rather
than every three, and direct political participation declined. Parliament
was made up of 122 county members and 436 borough members. Virtually all
counties and boroughs sent two members to Parliament, but each borough,
whether a large city or a tiny village, had its own tradition of choosing
its members of Parliament. Even those Britons who lacked the right to vote
could claim the rights of petition, jury trial, and freedom from arbitrary
arrest. Full political privileges were granted only to members of the
Anglican church, but non-Anglican Protestants could legally hold office if
they were willing to take Anglican communion once a year.

The Era of Robert Walpole
Although the king could appoint whomever he wished to his government, he
found it convenient to select members of Parliament, who could exercise
influence there. Such was the case of Robert Walpole, who was appointed
first lord of the Treasury (and came to be known as prime minister) in 1721
in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble. The Bubble was sparked by the
financial collapse of the giant South Sea Company. The crash slowed down
the commercial boom of the previous three decades, a time when the Bank of
England had been founded, the concept of a long-term national debt
formulated, and many large joint-stock companies established. In part
because George I could not speak English and in part because both he and
his son, King George II, were often in Hannover, Germany, which they
continued to rule, Walpole was able to build up and dominate a government
machine. He presided over an informal group of ministers that came to be
known as the cabinet, and he controlled Parliament by his personality, his
policies, and his use of patronage. His influence, however, had limits.
Hoping to curb smuggling, Walpole in 1732 and 1733 sought to replace a land
tax and customs duties on imports with an excise tax on wine and tobacco
collected from retailers, but parliamentary critics and popular rioters
protested against the army of tax collectors that the bill would have
created, and Walpole was ultimately forced to give up his plan. During his
administration, Walpole kept Great Britain out of war, and even Anglo-
French relations remained cordial. In the late 1730s, however, a war party
emerged in Parliament. Its members sought revenge against Spain for the
harassment by Spanish coast guards of British merchants who wished to trade
with Spanish colonists in the Americas. In 1739, against Walpoles better
judgment, Britain declared war on Spain, and two years later parliamentary
pressure forced Walpole to resign.

Two Decades of Conflict
Between 1739 and 1763, Great Britain was generally at war. The war against
Spain (see Jenkinss Ear, War of) soon merged with the War of the Austrian
Succession, which began in 1740, pitting Prussia, France, and Spain against
Austria. Great Britain became Austrias chief ally, and British armies and
ships fought the French in Europe, in North America, on the high seas, and
in India, where the English and French East India companies competed for
influence. In 1745 the Scottish Jacobites, taking advantage of Britains
involvement on the Continent, made their last major attempt to recover the
British throne for the Stuart dynasty. Prince Charles Edward (Bonnie
Prince Charlie) landed in Scotland, won the allegiance of thousands of
Highlanders, and in September captured Edinburgh and proclaimed his father
King James III. Marching south with his army, he came within a hundred
miles of London, but failed to attract many English supporters. In December
he retreated to Scotland. The following April he was defeated at the Battle
of Culloden and fled to France.

The War of the Austrian Succession ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle
(1748), which, as far as Britain was concerned, restored the territorial
status quo. By then, a series of short-lived ministries had given way to
the relatively stable administration of Henry Pelham. During the mid-1750s
the British found themselves fighting an undeclared war against France both
in North America (see French and Indian War) and in India. In 1756 formal
war broke out again. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) pitted Britain,
allied with Prussia, against France in alliance with Austria and Russia.
For Britain the war began with a series of defeats in North America, in
India, in the Mediterranean, and on the Continent (where the French overran
Hannover). Under strong popular pressure, King George II then appointed the
fiery William Pitt the Elder as the minister to run the war abroad, while
his colleague, the duke of Newcastle, oiled the political wheels at home.
Pitt was an expert strategist and conducted the war with vigor. The French
fleet was defeated off the coast of Portugal, the English East India
Company triumphed over its French counterpart in Bengal and elsewhere, and
British and colonial troops in North America captured Fort Duquesne (on the
site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Qubec, and Montral.
Although Pitt was forced from office in 1761 and the British negotiated
separately from Prussia, the Treaty of Paris (1763) was a diplomatic
triumph. All French claims to Canada and to lands east of the Mississippi
River were ceded to Britain, as were most French claims to India. Spain,
which had entered the war on the French side in 1762, ceded Florida. The
Treaty of Paris established Britains 18th-century empire at its height.

Population Growth, Urbanization, and Industrialization
During the first half of the 18th century, the population of Great Britain
increased by less than 15 percent. Between 1751 and 1801, the year of the
first official census, the number rose by one-half to 16 million, and
between 1801 and 1851, the population grew by more than two-thirds to 27
million. The reasons include a decline of deaths from infectious diseases,
especially smallpox; an improved diet made possible by more efficient
farming practices and the large-scale use of the potato; and earlier
marriages and larger families, especially in those areas where new
industries were starting up. A quickening of economic change was noticeable
by the 1780s, when James Watt perfected the steam engine as a new source of
power. New inventions mechanized the spinning and weaving of imported
cotton. Between 1760 and 1830 the production of cotton textiles increased
twelvefold, making the product Britains leading export. At the same time,
other inventions comparably raised the production of iron, and the amount
of coal mined increased fourfold. By 1830 this Industrial Revolution had
turned Britain into the workshop of the world.

The towns that spread across northwestern England, lowland Scotland, and
southern Wales accustomed a generation of workers to factory life. The
advantages were more regular hours, higher wages than those received by
handicraft workers or farm laborers, and less dependence on human muscle
power; many machines could be operated by women and children. The
disadvantages included the devaluation of old artisan skills, a new
emphasis on discipline and punctuality, and a less personal relationship
between employer and employee. For several decades also, such civic
amenities as water and sewage systems did not keep pace with the growth of
population. London remained Britains largest city, a center of commerce,
shipping, justice, and administration more than of industry. Its
population, estimated at 600,000 in 1701, had grown to 950,000 by 1801, and
to 2.5 million by 1851, making it the largest city in the world. By then,
Britain had become the first large nation to have more urban than rural

The Early Years of King George III
In 1760, the aged George II was succeeded by his 22-year-old grandson,
George III. The new British-born king had a deep sense of moral duty and
tried to play a direct role in governing his country. To this end he
appointed men he trusted, such as his onetime Scottish tutor, Lord Bute,
who became prime minister in 1762. Butes ministry was not a success,
however, and four short-lived ministries followed until 1770, when George
found, in Lord North, a leader pleasing both to him and to the majority of

During the 1760s, politicians out of office spurred a campaign of criticism
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expansion of the right to vote, and an increase in the frequency of
meetings of Parliament.

The American Revolution
The fears expressed by Wilkess supporters confirmed the more radical
American colonial leaders in their suspicion of the British government.
Long accustomed to a considerable degree of self-government and freed,
after 1763, from the French danger, they resented the attempts by
successive British ministries to make them pay a share of the cost of
imperial defense in the form of assorted taxes and duties. They also
resented British attempts to enforce mercantilistic regulations and to
treat colonial legislatures as secondary to the government in London.
American resistance led in due course to the calling of the First
Continental Congress in 1774 and the commencement of hostilities the
following year. Although parliamentary critics such as Edmund Burke
continued to urge conciliation, the king and Lord North felt the rebellious
colonists had to be brought to their senses.

British governmental authority in the 13 colonies collapsed in 1775.
Although British forces were able to occupy first Boston and later New York
City and Philadelphia, the Americans did not give up. After the defeat of
General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the civil war within the British
Empire became an international one. First the French (1778), then the
Spanish (1779), and the Dutch (1780) joined the anti-British side, while
other powers formed a League of Armed Neutrality. For the first time in
more than a century, the British were diplomatically isolated. After
General Charles Cornwalliss surrender at Yorktown in 1781, opposition at
home to the frustrations and high taxation brought on by the American war
compelled Lord North to resign and his successors to sign a new Treaty of
Paris in 1783. The 13 colonies were recognized as independent states and
were granted all British territory south of the Great Lakes. Florida and
Minorca were ceded to Spain and some West Indian islands and African ports
to France.

Pitt, Reform, and Revolution
In the wake of the war, many old institutions were reexamined. The
Economical Reform Act of 1782 reduced the patronage powers of the king and
his ministers. The Irish Parliament, controlled by Anglo-Irish Protestants,
won a greater degree of independence. The India Act in 1784 gave ultimate
authority over British India to the government instead of the English East
India Company. The India Act was sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who
was named prime minister late in 1783 at the age of 24. Pitt remained in
office for most of the rest of his life and did much to shape the modern
prime ministership. In the aftermath of the American war, he restored faith
in the governments ability to pay interest on the much-increased national
debt, and he set up the first consolidated annual budget. Pitt was also
sympathetic to political reform, repeal of restrictions on non-Anglican
Protestants, and abolition of the slave trade, but when these measures
failed to win a parliamentary majority, he dropped them.

Reformers, such as Charles James Fox and Thomas Paine, were inspired by the
revolution that began in France in 1789, but others, such as Edmund Burke,
became fearful of all radical change. Pitt was less concerned with French
ideas than actions, and when the French revolutionary army invaded the
Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and declared war on England in February
1793, a decade of moderate reform in Britain gave way to 22 years of all-
out war.

The Napoleonic Wars

In the 1790s, the wars of the French Revolution merged into the Napoleonic
Wars, as Napoleon Bonaparte took over the French revolutionary government.
Pitts First Coalition (with Prussia, Austria, and Russia) against the
French collapsed in 1796, and in 1797 Britain was beset by naval defeat, by
naval mutiny, and by French invasion attempts. The war caused a boom in
farm production and in certain industries. At the same time it caused rapid
inflation: Wage rates lagged behind prices, and Poor Law expenses grew. In
1797 the Bank of England was forced to suspend the payment of gold for
paper currency, and Parliament voted the first income tax. Rebellion and a
French invasion threat led to the Act of Union with Ireland (1801). The
Dublin legislature was abolished, and 100 Irish representatives became
members of the Parliament in London; only an Irish viceroy and a London-
appointed administration remained in Dublin.

Despite the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the war
did not go well for Britain. The Second Coalition collapsed in 1801, and
Britain made peace with Napoleon at Amiens the following year. War broke
out again the following year, but between 1805 and 1807 the Third Coalition
also collapsed. Napoleons plans to invade Britain were foiled by the
British naval victory under Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar. Napoleon then
sought to drive Britain into bankruptcy with his Continental System.
Difficulties in enforcing that system prompted Napoleons invasion of
Russia in 1812. This led to the Fourth Coalition (Britain, Russia, Austria,
and Prussia) and to Napoleons downfall two years later. Britains
contribution included an army led by the duke of Wellington fighting in
Spain and, after Napoleons return from exile in Elba, the Battle of
Waterloo in June 1815. The War of 1812 with the United States was for
Britain a sideshow that brought no territorial changes.

A Century of Peace
At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, King George III, by then insane, had
been succeeded by his eldest son, who reigned first as prince regent and
then as King George IV. Although a patron of art and Regency architecture,
the prince regent became unpopular because of his gluttony and his personal
immorality. His attempt to divorce his wife, Caroline of Brunswick,
provided much cause for scandal.

Postwar Government (1815-1830)
Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, presided as Tory prime
minister from 1812 to 1827, over a cabinet of luminaries including Viscount
Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, who represented Britain at the Congress
of Vienna (1815). Former Dutch possessions such as the Cape of Good Hope
and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were added to the British Empire, and a balance
of power was restored to continental Europe. Although eager to consult its
European partners about possible territorial changes, Britain soon made it
clear that it had no desire to join the Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria, and
Prussia) in policing Europe.

Rapid demobilization after the wars, economic depression, and bad harvests
led to rioting in 1816. The Liverpool government sought to aid landlords
with protective tariffs (the Corn Laws of 1815) and to aid other supporters
by repealing the wartime income tax in 1817 and restoring the gold standard
in 1819. The so-called Six Acts in 1819 curbed the freedom of the press and
the rights of assembly. A giant political protest demonstration near
Manchester that year was broken up by the militia. The economy recovered
during the early 1820s, and government policies became more moderate.
George Canning, who replaced Castlereagh as foreign secretary, welcomed the
independence of Spains South American colonies and aided the Greek
rebellion against Turkish rulea cause also hailed by romantic poets such
as Lord Byron. William Huskisson at the Board of Trade cut tariffs and
eased international trade. Robert Peel, the home secretary, reformed the
criminal law and instituted a modern police force in London in 1829.
Barriers to labor union organization were also reduced during this time.

Despite an early 19th-century religious revival, especially among
Methodists and other non-Anglican Protestants, Tory ministries remained
reluctant to challenge religious and political fundamentals. In 1828
Parliament agreed, however, to end political restrictions on Protestant
dissenters, and one year later the government of the duke of Wellington was
challenged in Ireland by a mass movement called the Catholic Association.
Wellington bought peace in Ireland by granting Roman Catholics the right to
become members of Parliament and to hold public office, but in so doing
split the Tory Party. In November 1830, after the election prompted by the
death of George IV and the accession of his brother, William IV, a
predominantly Whig ministry headed by the 2nd Earl Grey took over.

Reforms of the 1830s
The great political issue of 1831 and 1832 was the Whig Reform Bill. After
much debate in and out of the House of Commons and after a threat to swamp
a reluctant House of Lords with new and sympathetic peers, the measure
became law in June 1832. It provided for a redistribution of seats in favor
of the growing industrial cities and a single property test that gave the
vote to all middle-class men and some artisans. In England and Wales the
electorate grew by 50 percent. In Ireland it more than doubled, and in
Scotland it increased by 15 times. The bill set up a system of registration
that encouraged political party organization, both locally and nationally.
The measure weakened the influence of the monarch and the House of Lords.
Other reforms followed. The Factory Act of 1833 limited the working hours
of women and children and provided for central inspectors. Slavery was
abolished in the same year, and the controversial New Poor Law, enacted a
year later, also involved supervision by a central board. The Municipal
Corporations Act (1835) provided for elected representative town councils.
An Ecclesiastical Commission was set up in 1836 to reform the established
church, and a separate statute placed the registration of births, deaths,
and marriages in the hands of the state rather than the church.

In 1837 the elderly William IV was succeeded as monarch by his 18-year-old
niece, Victoria. She and her husband, Albert, came to symbolize many
virtues: a close-knit family life, a sense of public duty, integrity, and
respectability. These beliefs and attitudes, which are often known as
Victorian, were also molded by the revival of evangelical religion and by
utilitarian notions of efficiency and good business practice.

Chartists and Corn Law Reformers

The Whig reform spirit ebbed during the ministry of Lord Melbourne, and an
economic depression in 1837 brought to public attention two powerful
protest organizations. The Chartists urged the immediate adoption of the
Peoples Charter, which would have transformed Britain into a political
democracy (with universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, and
secret ballot) and which was somehow expected to improve living standards
as well. Millions of workers signed Charter petitions in 1839, 1842, and
1848, and some Chartist demonstrations turned into riots. Parliament
repeatedly rejected the Peoples Charter, but it proved more receptive to
the creed of the Manchester-based Anti-Corn Law League. League leaders such
as Richard Cobden expected the repeal of tariffs on imported food to
advance the welfare of manufacturers and workers alike, while promoting
international trade and peace among nations. Sir Robert Peels Conservative
ministry succeeded Melbourne, and became active in reducing Britains
tariffs but brought back the income tax to make up for lost revenue. In the
winter of 1845 and 1846, spurred by an Irish potato blight and consequent
famine, Peel proposed the complete repeal of the Corn Laws. With Whig aid
the measure passed, but two-thirds of Peels fellow Conservatives condemned
the action as a sellout of the partys agricultural supporters. The
Conservatives divided between Peelites and protectionists, and the Whigs
returned to power under Lord John Russell in 1846.

During the Peel and Russell years the trend toward free trade continued,
aided by the 1849 repeal of the Navigation Acts, and a system of
administrative regulation was gradually established. Women and children
were barred from underground work in mines and limited to 10-hour working
days in factories. Regulations were also imposed on urban sanitation
facilities and passenger-carrying railroads, and commissions were set up to
oversee prisons, insane asylums, merchant shipping, and private charities.
Attempts to subsidize elementary education, however, were hampered by
conflict over the churchs role in running schools.

Mid-Victorian Prosperity
From the late 1840s until the late 1860s, Britons were less concerned with
domestic conflict than with an economic boom occasionally affected by wars
and threats of war on the Continent and overseas. The Great Exhibition of
1851 in London symbolized Britains industrial supremacy. The 10,600-km
(6600-mi) railroad network of 1850 more than doubled during the mid-
Victorian years, and the number of passengers carried annually went up by
seven times. The telegraph provided instant communication. Inexpensive
steel was made possible by Henry Bessemers process, developed in 1856, and
a boom in steamship building began in the 1860s. The value of British
exports tripled, and overseas capital investments quadrupled. Working-class
living standards improved also, and the growth of trade unionism among
engineers, carpenters, and others led to the founding of the Trades Union
Congress in 1868. In the aftermath of the Continental revolutions of 1848,
a Britain governed by the Peelite-Liberal coalition of Lord Aberdeen
drifted into war with an autocratic, expansionist Russia. In alliance with
the France of Napoleon III, Britain entered the Crimean War in 1854.
Parliamentary criticism of army mismanagement, however, caused the downfall
of Aberdeen. He was replaced by Lord Palmerston, a staunch English
nationalist and champion of European liberalism, who saw the war to its
conclusiona limited Anglo-French victory in 1856. In 1857 and 1858, the
Sepoy Mutiny was suppressed, and Britain abolished the East India Company,
making British India a crown colony. In contrast, domestic self-government
was encouraged in Britains settlement colonies: Canada (federated under
the British North America Act of 1867), Australia, New Zealand, and Cape
Colony (South Africa). Britain maintained a difficult neutrality during the
American Civil War (1861-1865). It encouraged the unification of Italy, but
witnessed with apprehension Prince Otto von Bismarcks creation of a German
Empire under Prussian domination.

The Gladstone-Disraeli Rivalry

During the 16 years after Palmerstons death in 1865, the rivalry of
William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli dominated British politics. Both
had begun as Tories, but in 1846 Gladstone had become a Peelite and had
thereafter gradually moved toward liberalism. As Palmerstons chancellor of
*********************************************************** ultimately came
up with the Reform Bill of 1867, which Disraeli successfully piloted
through the House of Commons. The measure enfranchised most urban workers.
It almost doubled the English and Welsh electorates and more than doubled
the Scottish. It also launched the era of mass political organization and
of increasingly polarized and disciplined parliamentary parties.

Disraeli succeeded Derby as prime minister early in 1868, but a Liberal
election victory in December of that year gave the post to Gladstone.
Gladstones first cabinet was responsible for numerous reforms: the
disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; the creation of a national
system of elementary education; the full admission of religious dissenters
to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; a merit-based civil service;
the secret ballot; and judicial and army reform. During the Disraeli
ministry that followed, the Conservatives passed legislation advancing
Tory democracytrade union legalization, slum clearance, and public
healthbut Disraeli became more concerned with upholding the British Empire
in Africa and Asia and scoring a diplomatic triumph at the Congress of
Berlin (1878).

A whistle-stop campaign by Gladstone in 1879 and 1880 restored him to the
prime ministership. His second cabinet curbed electoral corruption and,
with the Reform Act of 1884, extended the vote to almost all males who
owned or rented housing. The measure made the single-member parliamentary
district the general rule. Gladstone became increasingly concerned with
bringing peace and land reform to Ireland, which was represented in
Parliament by the Irish Nationalist Party of Charles Stewart Parnell. When
Gladstone became a convert to the cause of home rulethe creation of a semi-
independent Irish legislature and cabinethe divided the Liberal Party and
led his brief third ministry to defeat in 1886. A second effort to enact
home rule during Gladstones fourth ministry, which lasted from 1892 to
1894, was blocked by the House of Lords.

Late Victorian Economic and Social Change
The same agricultural depression that led to unrest among Irish tenant
farmers in the second half of the 19th century also undermined British
agriculture and the prosperity of country squires. The mid-Victorian boom
gave way to an era of deflation, falling profit margins, and occasional
large-scale unemployment. Both the United States and Germany overtook
Britain in the production of steel and other manufactured goods. At the
same time, Britain remained the worlds prime shipbuilder, shipper, and
banker, and a majority of British workers gained in purchasing power. The
number of trade unionists grew, and significant attempts were made to
organize the semiskilled; the London Dock Strike of 1889 was the result of
one such effort. Social investigators and professed socialists discovered
large pockets of poverty in the slums of London and other cities, and the
national government as well as voluntary agencies were called on to remedy
social evils. Despite a high level of emigration to British colonies and
the United Statesmore than 200,000 per year during the 1880sthe
population of England and Wales doubled between 1851 and 1911 (to more than
36 million) and that of Scotland grew by more than 60 percent (to almost 5
million). Both death rates and birth rates declined somewhat, and a series
of changes in the law made it possible for a minority of women to enter
universities, vote in local elections, and keep control of their property
while married.

The Late Victorian Empire

A relative lack of interest in empire during the mid-Victorian years gave
way to increased concern during the 1880s and 1890s. The raising of tariff
barriers by the United States, Germany, and France made colonies more
valuable again, ushering in an era of rivalry with Russia in the Middle
East and along the Indian frontier and a scramble for Africa that
involved the carving out of large claims by Britain, France, and Germany.
Hong Kong and Singapore served as centers of British trade and influence in
China and the South Pacific. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 led
indirectly to a British protectorate over Egypt in 1882. Queen Victoria
became empress of India in 1876, and both Victorias golden jubilee (1887)
and her diamond jubilee (1897) celebrated imperial unity. The Conservative
ministries of Lord Salisbury were preoccupied with imperial concerns as
well. The policies of Salisburys colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain,
contributed to the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899. Britain suffered
initial reverses in that war but then captured Johannesburg and Pretoria in
1900. Only after protracted guerrilla warfare, however, was the conflict
brought to an end in 1902. By then Queen Victoria was dead.

The Edwardian Age (1901-1914)
In the aftermath of the Boer War, Britain signed a treaty of alliance with
Japan (1902) and ended several decades of overseas rivalry with France in
the Entente Cordiale (1904). After Anglo-Russian disputes had also been
settled, this link became the Triple Entente (1907), which faced the Triple
Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy. As the reign of King Edward VII
began, however, most Britons were more concerned with domestic matters.
Arthur Balfours Education Act in 1902 helped meet the demand for national
efficiency with the beginnings of a national system of secondary education,
but the measure stirred old religious passions. In the course of Balfours
ministry, the Conservative Party was divided between tariff reformers, who
wanted to restore protective duties, and free traders. The general election
of 1906 gave the Liberals an overwhelming majority. Union influence led to
the appearance of a small separate Labour Party of 29 members as well. The
Liberal government, headed first by Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then by
Herbert Asquith, gave domestic self-government to the new Union of South
Africa and partial provincial self-government to British India in 1909 and
1910. Under the inspiration of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, it
also laid the foundations of the welfare state. Its program, from 1908 to
1912, included old-age pensions, government employment offices,
unemployment insurance, a contributory program of national medical
insurance for most workers, and boards to fix minimum wages for miners and
others. Lloyd Georges controversial peoples budget, designed to pay the
costs of social welfare and naval rearmament, was blocked by the House of
Lords and led in due course to the Parliament Act of 1911, which left the
Lords with no more than a temporary veto. The Conservatives made a
comeback, however, in the general elections of 1910, and the Liberals were
thereafter dependent on the Irish Nationalists to stay in power. Although
the economy seemed to be booming, wages scarcely kept up with rising
prices, and the years 1911 to 1914 were marked by major and divisive
strikes by miners, dock workers, and transport workers. Suffragists staged
violent demonstrations in favor of the enfranchisement of women. When the
Liberal government sought to enact home rule for Ireland, non-Catholic
Irish from Ulster threatened force to prevent Britain from compelling them
to become part of a semi-independent Ireland. In the midst of these
domestic disputes, a crisis in the Balkans exploded into World War I.

The Era of World Wars

Although the competitive naval buildup of Britain and Germany is often
cited as a cause of World War I, Anglo-German relations were actually
cordial in early 1914, and Britain was Germanys best customer. It was
Germanys threat to France and its invasion of neutral Belgium that
prompted Britain to declare war.

Britain in World War I
A British expeditionary force was immediately sent to France and helped
stem the German advance at the Marne. Fighting on the Western Front soon
became mired in a bloody stalemate amid muddy trenches, barbed wire, and
machine-gun emplacements. Battles to push the Germans back failed
repeatedly at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Efforts to outflank
the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Turkey) in the Balkans, as at
Gallipoli (1915), failed also. At the Battle of Jutland (1916), the British
prevented the German fleet from venturing into the North Sea and beyond,
but German submarines threatened Britain with starvation early in 1917;
merchant-ship convoys guarded by destroyers helped avert that danger.

In May 1915 Asquiths Liberal ministry became a coalition of Liberals,
Conservatives, and a few Labourites. Lloyd George became minister of
munitions. Continued frustration with the nations inability to win the
war, however, led to the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George, heading a
predominantly Conservative coalition, in December 1916. Problems in
Ireland, chiefly the 1916 Easter rebellion, resulted in several hundred
dead. By 1918 the annual budget was 13 times that of 1913; tax rates had
risen fivefold, and the total national debt, fourteenfold.

Although many Britons welcomed the end of czarist rule in Russia in 1917,
they saw the Communist decision to make a separate peace with Germany as a
sellout. Only the entry of the United States into the war made possible
General Douglas Haigs successful tank offensive in the summer of 1918 and
the German surrender in November. The election called immediately
thereafter gave the Lloyd George coalition an overwhelming mandate. The
Labour Party, now formally pledged to socialism, became the largest
opposition party, while the Asquith wing of a divided Liberal Party was
almost wiped out. By then the Reform Act of 1918 had granted the vote to
all men over the age of 21 and all women over 30.

Changes Wrought by the War
Lloyd George represented Britain as one of the Big Three (together with
France and the United States) at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The
resulting treaties enlarged the British Empire as former German colonies in
Africa and Turkish holdings in the Middle East became British mandates. At
the same time Britains self-governing dominionsCanada, Australia, New
Zealand, and South Africabecame separate treaty signatories and separate
members of the new League of Nations. An intermittent civil war in Ireland
ended with a treaty negotiated by Lloyd George in 1921. Most of the island
became the Irish Free State, independent of British rule in all but name.
The six counties of Northern Ireland continued to be represented in the
British Parliament, although they also gained their own provincial
parliament. The immediate postwar years were marked by economic boom, rapid
demobilization, and much labor strife. By 1922, however, the boom had
petered out. That year a rebellion by a group of Conservative members of
Parliament ended the prime ministership of Lloyd George, and the wholly
Conservative ministry of Andrew Bonar Law represented a return to normal

The Interwar Era

During the early 1920s a major political shift took place in Britain. The
general election of 1922 gave victory to the Conservatives, but another
one, called a year later by Bonar Laws successor, Stanley Baldwin, left no
party with a clear majority. As a consequence, Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour
Party leader, became the first professed socialist to serve as prime
minister of Great Britain. His first ministry in 1924, rested on Liberal
acquiescence; it lasted less than a year, when yet another election brought
back Baldwins Conservatives. Lloyd Georges and Asquiths efforts at
Liberal reunion failed to restore the partys fortunes, and it has remained
a minor party in British politics. The Baldwin ministry restored the gold
standard and enacted several social-reform measures, including the Widows,
Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, a national electric power
network, and a reform of local government. In 1928 women were given voting
rights that were equal to those of men.

Between 1929 and 1932 the international depression more than doubled an
already high rate of unemployment. In the course of three years, both the
levels of industrial activity and of prices dipped by a quarter, and
industries such as shipbuilding collapsed almost entirely. MacDonalds
second Labour government found itself unable to cope with the depression,
and in 1931 it gave way to a national government, headed first by MacDonald
and then by Baldwin and made up mostly of Conservatives. The Labour Party
denounced MacDonald as a traitor, but the national government won an
overwhelming mandate in the general election of 1931. It took Britain off
the gold standard, restored protective tariffs, and subsidized the building
of houses. Between 1933 and 1937, the economy recovered steadily, with the
automobile, construction, and electrical industries leading the way.
Unemployment remained high, however, especially in Wales, Scotland, and
northern England. Interwar society was influenced by the radio (monopolized
by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was begun in 1927) and the
cinema, but British life was little affected by the continental ideologies
of communism and fascism. The empire remained a fact, even though the
Statute of Westminster (1931) proclaimed the equality of Commonwealth
nations such as Canada and Australia. Religious attendance declined, but
King George V maintained the prestige of the monarchy. When his son, Edward
VIII, insisted on marrying a twice-divorced American in 1936, abdication
proved to be the only acceptable solution. Under Edwards brother, George
VI, the monarchy again provided the model family of the land.

Britain and World War II
Memories of World War I left Britons with an overwhelming desire to avoid
another war, and the country played a leading role in the League of Nations
and at interwar disarmament conferences such as those in Washington, D.C.
in 1921 and 1922 and London in 1930 that limited naval size. Conscious that
Germany might have been unfairly treated at the 1919 peace conference, the
British government followed a policy of appeasement in dealing with Adolf
Hitlers Germany after 1933. Germanys decisions between 1934 and 1936 to
leave the League of Nations, rearm, and remilitarize the Rhineland in
defiance of the Treaty of Versailles were accepted. So was the German
annexation of Austria in 1938. In his efforts to keep the peace at all
costs, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain also acquiesced to the Munich
Pact of 1938, which gave Germany the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia.
Only after the German annexation of Prague in March of 1939 did Britain
make pledges to Poland and Romania.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared
war, and World War II began. The
**************************************************************at achieved
by any other power. Although a German invasion plan was foiled by British
air supremacy, large parts of London and other cities were destroyed and
some 60,000 civilians were killed. Beginning early in 1941, the still-
neutral United States granted lend-lease aid to Britain.

The nature of the war changed with the German invasion of the Union of
Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in June 1941 and the Japanese attack on
Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Churchill then forged the Grand Alliance
with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt
against Germany, Italy, and Japan. In the immediate aftermath of the
Japanese intervention, much of the British Empire in Southeast Asia was
overrun, but late in 1942 the tide turned. The British contribution
included the Battle of the North Atlantic against the German submarine
menace and the campaign led by General Bernard Montgomery against the
German army in North Africa. Churchill corresponded continually and met
often with Roosevelt, and British forces joined American in the 1943
invasion of Sicily and Italy, the invasion of France in 1944, and the
ultimate defeat of the Axis powers in 1945.

The Winds of Change

The general election of 1945 gave the Labour Party for the first time a
majority of the popular vote and an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
The result was less a rebuke of Churchills wartime leadership than an
expression of approval of Labours role in the war and of hope that the
party would bring more prosperity.

Clement Attlees Ministry (1945-1951)
During the years that followed, Labour, led by Clement Attlee, sought to
build a socialist Britain, while surviving postwar austerity, dismantling
the empire, and adjusting to a cold war with the USSR. The two measures
that established a welfare state in Britain, the National Insurance Act of
1946 (a consolidation of benefit laws involving maternity, unemployment,
disability, old age, and death) and the National Health Service, set up in
1948, were widely popular. Both drew on the wartime reports of Sir William
Beveridge, a Liberal. The nationalization of the Bank of England, the coal
industry, gas and electricity, the railroads, and most airlines proved
relatively noncontroversial, but the Conservatives vigorously if vainly
opposed the nationalization of the trucking and the iron and steel
industries. In 1948 Labour eliminated the last remnants of plural voting
(that is, voting in more than one constituency) and reduced the delaying
powers of the House of Lords from two years to one. These changes were
instituted in the midst of a postwar era of austerity. The national debt
had tripled, and for the first time since the 18th century Britain had
become a debtor nation. With the end of U.S. lend-lease aid in 1945, the
British import bill had risen abruptly long before military demobilization
and reconversion to peacetime industry had been accomplished. Wartime
regulations, therefore, had been kept; food rationing in 1946 and 1947 was
more restrictive than during the war.

Postwar Germany was divided into occupation zones among the USSR, the
United States, Britain, and France, but efforts to reach agreement on a
peace treaty with Germany broke down as it became clear that the USSR was
converting all of Eastern Europe into a Soviet sphere. Britain, assisted by
the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan (1948-1952), joined other Western powers
and the United States in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in
1949 in order to counter the Soviet threat. The British government felt
less able, however, to play an independent role in the Middle East, and in
1948 it gave up its Palestinian mandate, which led to the establishment of
Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War. Aware of Britains depleted coffers
and sympathetic toward their nationalist causes, the Labour government
granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947 and to Burma (now known
as Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948.

Conservative Rule (1951-1964)
Its program of social reform apparently accomplished, the Labour
governments parliamentary majority was sharply reduced in the general
election of 1950, and the election of 1951 enabled the Conservatives under
Winston Churchill to slip back into power. Except for denationalizing iron
and steel, the Conservatives made no attempt to reverse the legislation or
the welfare-state program enacted by Labour, and the early 1950s brought
steady economic recovery. As income tax rates were reduced and the
framework of wartime and postwar regulation largely dismantled, housing
construction boomed and international trade flourished. With a veteran
world statesman heading Britains government, the accession of a young
queen drew the attention of the world to London for the coronation of
Elizabeth II in June 1953. During these years Britain perfected its own
atomic and hydrogen bombs and pioneered in the generation of electricity by
nuclear power. Churchills hopes for another diplomatic summit meeting were
disappointed, but Stalins death in 1953 led to an easing of the Cold War.

Eden and Macmillan

Churchills successor, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, led his party to a
second election victory in the spring of 1955. In the same year he helped
negotiate an Austrian peace treaty and participated in a summit conference
at Geneva.

Edens tenure as prime minister, however, was cut short by the crisis that
followed Egypts nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. British forces
had been withdrawn from the canal only a year earlier, and an Anglo-French
reoccupation in 1956 was halted by Soviet-U.S. pressure. The episode led
both to the loss of much of Britains remaining influence in the Middle
East and to Edens resignation. His successor, Harold Macmillan, presided
over a period of renewed consumer affluence. In 1959 he led the
Conservatives to their third successive election victorythe fourth time in
a row that the party gained parliamentary seats.

In Africa, Macmillans government followed a deliberate policy of
decolonization. The Sudan had already become independent in 1956, and
during the next seven years Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Sierra
Leone, Uganda, and Kenya followed suit. Most of these states remained
members of a highly decentralized multiracial Commonwealth, but the Union
of South Africa, dominated by a white minority of Boer descent, left the
Commonwealth in 1961 and declared itself a republic. Independence was also
given to Malaysia, Cyprus, and Jamaica during Macmillans tenure.

Even as imperial ties loosened, tens of thousands of immigrantsespecially
from the West Indies and Pakistanpoured into Britain. Their arrival caused
intermittent social strife and led to efforts to limit further immigration
sharply, while ensuring legal equality for the immigrants and their

As Britons turned their attention away from their overseas empire, they
became increasingly aware that their economy, although prospering, was
growing less rapidly than those of their Continental neighbors. In 1961
Macmillan applied for British membership in the European Community (EC), or
Common Market (now called the European Union). Many Britons felt unprepared
to cast their lot with continental Europe, but for the moment their
feelings proved immaterial, because the application was vetoed by President
Charles de Gaulle of France. In 1963 Macmillan was replaced as Conservative
prime minister by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In the general election of 1964,
however, the latter was narrowly defeated by the Labour Party, headed by
Harold Wilson.

The Permissive Society
During the 1960s, Britain experienced a widespread mood of rebellion
against the conventions of the pastin dress, in music, in popular
entertainment, and in social behavior. The phenomenon had its positive
consequences in helping to make swinging London a world capital of
popular music, theater, and, for a time, fashion. Among the negative side
effects, however, were a rising crime rate and a spreading drug culture.

Harold Wilsons Labour government sympathized with some of these trends. It
sought both to expand higher education opportunities and to end a high
school system that separated the academically inclined from other students.
During the later 1960s, laws on divorce were eased, abortion was legalized,
curbs on homosexual practices were ended, capital punishment was abolished,
equal pay for equal work was prescribed for women, and the voting age was
lowered from 21 to 18.

In economic life the Labour government became more rigorous. A persistent
trend toward inflation, unfavorable balance of trade, and unbalanced
government budgets led to a wage-and-price freeze in 1966 and attempts
thereafter to secure severe restraint. These actions eased certain
economic problems but at the price of alienating many of Labours union
supporters, and in 1970 the Conservatives returned to power under Edward

Battle Against Inflation
A major theme of British history since the mid-1960s has been the battle to
eliminate double-digit inflation. Heaths policy of deliberate economic
expansion did not accomplish that goal, however, and the attempt to curb
the legal powers of labor unions in 1971 evoked a mood of civil
disobedience among union leaders. More working days were lost because of
strikes in 1972 than in any year since the general strike of 1926. Heath
hoped to solve economic problems by floating the pound, that is, by
freeing Britains currency from earlier fixed rates of exchange with other
currencies, and by again seeking British admission to the EC. Britain did
join in 1973, and two years later the first national referendum in British
history approved the step by a 2-1 margin. An attempt by Heath in 1972 and
1973 first to freeze and then sharply to restrain wage and price increases
was defied by the miners. When Heath appealed to the public in the general
election of February 1974, the results were indecisive. A revival in the
popular vote of the Liberal Party, however, enabled Harold Wilson to form a
minority Labour government that lasted five years under his leadership and
that of James Callaghan.

Irish and Scottish Problems

During the 1970s, successive British governments also faced difficulties in
Ireland and Scotland. A civil rights movement supporting social equality
for the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland clashed violently with
Protestant extremists. In 1969 the British government sent troops to keep
order, and in 1972 it abolished Northern Irelands autonomous parliament. A
campaign of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) followed; its aim
was to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic in defiance of the
wishes of a majority of the Northern Irish people. British measures
gradually curbed but could not totally halt the wave of bombings and
killings in Northern Ireland and England. In Scotland, a Scottish
Nationalist Party scored impressive gains in the elections of 1974, and
Callaghans ministry attempted to set up a semi-independent parliament in
Edinburgh. When only 33 percent of the Scottish electorate supported the
plan in a 1979 referendum, the project died, at least temporarily.

Economic Woes Under Labour
The Labour government of 1974 to 1979 began by ending all legal
restrictions on wage and price rises, but after the annual inflation rate
topped 25 percent in 1975, the government did succeed in obtaining some
trade union restraints on wage claims in return for an end to some
voluntary restraints on wage claims; the inflation rate declined somewhat
between 1976 and 1979. In return, union leaders demanded an end to legal
restraints on union power and more government subsidies for housing and
other social services. By the late 1970s, British politics seemed to be
polarizing between left-wing Labourites, who sought an ever larger role for
the state in order to impose social equality, and Conservatives, who hoped
to restore a greater role to private enterprise and individual achievement.
By the beginning of 1979, Callaghans government was dependent on two minor
parties. A winter of labor unrest undercut his claims to be able to deal
successfully with the unions, and a vote of no confidence in March 1979
went against him.

The Thatcher Decade

In the elections of April 1979 the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher,
emerged with a substantial majority of parliamentary seats and with the
first woman prime minister in British or European history. She was to
remain in office for the next 11 years, making hers the longest continuous
prime ministership since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Thatchers first years were difficult. She sought to halt inflation by a
policy of high interest rates and government budget cuts, rather than of
wage and price freezes. By 1981 and 1982 those policies were showing some
success, but only at the cost of the highest unemployment rates since the
1930s. The government was jolted in April 1982 when Argentina forcibly
occupied the Falkland Islands, a British-held archipelago in the South
Atlantic that Argentina had long claimed. When U.S. mediation efforts
failed, Thatcher sent a British counterinvasion fleet, and in June that
force succeeded in recapturing the islands.

The decisive Conservative victories in the elections of June 1983 and June
1987 were the consequence not only of widespread popular support for the
governments Falklands policy, but also of a sharp division in the ranks of
the political opposition. In 1980 a group of Labour Party members headed by
Roy Jenkins and David Owen broke away and in 1981 formed the Social
Democratic Party. The new party joined with the Liberals to constitute an
influential alliance that ultimately won relatively few parliamentary seats
but did garner 25 percent of the total popular vote in 1983 and 23 percent
in 1987 (compared to 28 and 31 percent for Labour and 42 percent in both
elections for the Conservatives).

The years between 1982 and 1988 were economic boom years in Britain. The
living standards of most Britons rose and the rate of unemployment
gradually ebbed. British industries became more efficient, and London
maintained its role as one of the worlds top three centers of finance. The
economic role of government declined as Thatcher promoted privatizationthe
turning over to private investors of government monopolies such as British
Airways, the telephone service, and the distribution of gas and water.
Public housing tenants were strongly
inflation, the enactment of an unpopular poll tax (as a substitute for
local government real estate taxes), and the alienation of some members of
her cabinet over the prime ministers increasingly critical attitude toward
cooperation with her EC colleagues.

John Major

Thatcher was succeeded as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by
John Major, who continued Thatchers policy of maintaining close ties with
the United States. British troops fought as part of the multinational
coalition led by the United States in the Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1992,
despite an economic recession, Major led his party to victory in the April
general elections, though with a reduced majority. Opposition leader Neil
Kinnock, who had gradually moved his Labour Party back from the left toward
the ideological center, resigned after the election. Following the
Conservatives election victory, Majors government faced a growing
financial crisis as the pound weakened in the currency market, inflation
and unemployment grew, and the nation entered a recession. As a result,
Major received the lowest approval rating, 14 percent, of any prime
minister in British history.

One of John Majors main accomplishments in office occurred in 1993, when
he was instrumental in opening a dialogue between the British government
and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Major and Irish prime minister Albert
Reynolds issued a statement requiring the IRA to cease terrorist activities
for three months, after which time Sinn Fein, the organizations political
wing, would be invited to join talks on the future of Northern Ireland. In
August 1994 the IRA announced a cease-fire, bringing to a halt the violence
that is estimated to have killed more than 3000 people in the previous 25
years. In May 1995 representatives from the British government and the IRA
met face-to-face for the first time in 23 years.

Despite this breakthrough, the Conservative Party continued to lose ground.
Though beset by low opinion polls, large defeats in local elections in
April and May 1995, and a series of scandals, its most serious problem was
the growing rift within the party over policy toward Europe and the
European Union (EU). Many Conservatives felt that closer British relations
with the EU would undermine British sovereignty, and the constant internal
conflict over this issue severely damaged the party. In July 1995, in an
attempt to solidify the party, John Major resigned as leader of the
Conservatives, forcing an election for a new leader. Major won against an
anti-European opponent, but one-third of the party voted against him or
abstained. Dissatisfaction with the progress of the Northern Ireland talks
led the IRA to resume its campaign of violence in February 1996 by setting
off a large bomb in London that injured more than 100 people.

 In March and April of 1996 the government disclosed that a link may exist
between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow
disease), an infection that had been found in some British cattle, and
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a degenerative human brain disorder. This
disclosure led the European Union to ban British beef, which devastated the
British cattle industry, further damaging the Conservatives popularity. In
April the Conservatives suffered a substantial loss in local parliamentary
elections to the opposition Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair. This loss
trimmed the Conservative parliamentary majority to just one seat.

During the second half of 1996 and early 1997 Major struggled to regain
support for his party, but was unsuccessful. The split within the party
over the issue of European relations, most specifically the question as to
whether the economic and monetary union (EMU) proposed by the European
Union would damage the British economy, continued to widen. In national
elections in May 1997 the Conservatives were swept out of office in a
landslide. The Labour Party won almost 45 percent of the vote and came away
with 419 seats and a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. The
Conservatives had their worst showing in over 150 years, receiving about 33
percent of the vote and losing almost half of their seats, to finish with
165. Labour leader Tony Blair became prime minister, and after the
election, John Major announced that he would resign as head of the
Conservative Party as soon as a replacement could be found.