Britain was a winner in the war, but it lost India in 1947 and nearly all the rest of the Empire by 1960. It debated its role in world affairs and joined the United Nations in 1945, NATO in 1949, where it became a close ally of the United States. After a long debate and initial rejection, it joined the European Union in 1973. Prosperity returned in the 1950s and London remained a world center of finance and culture, but the nation was no longer a major world power.
The end of the war saw a landslide victory for Clement Attlee and the Labour Party. They were elected on a manifesto of greater social justice with left wing policies such as the creation of a National Health Service, an expansion of the provision of council housing and nationalisation of the major industries. Britain faced severe financial crises, and responded by reducing her international responsibilities and by sharing the hardships of an “age of austerity.” Large loans from the United States and Marshall Plan grants helped rebuild and modernize its infrastructure and business practices. Rationing and conscription dragged on into the post war years, and the country suffered one of the worst winters on record. Nevertheless, morale was boosted by events such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and the Festival of Britain.
Labour Party experts went into the files to find the detailed plans for nationalisation that had been developed. To their surprise, there were no plans. The leaders realized they had to act fast to keep up the momentum of the 1945 electoral landslide. They started with the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal, and cables 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 had been nationalised. Labour dropped its plans to nationalise farmlands. The procedure used was developed by Herbert Morrison, who as Lord President chaired the Committee on the Socialization of Industries. He followed the model that was already in place of setting up public corporations such as the BBC in broadcasting (1927). As 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 management remained the same, only now they became civil servants working for the government. For the Labour Party leadership, nationalisation was a method 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 socialists were 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. 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 the management. The foremen and the managers were the same men 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 nationalisation of industry. Instead it was the Conservatives who decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the takeover of steel and trucking.
Prosperity of 1950s
As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued and a number of immigrants from the remaining British Empire, mostly the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, were invited to help the rebuilding effort. As the 1950s wore on, Britain lost its place as a superpower and could no longer maintain its large Empire. This led to decolonisation, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970. Events such as the Suez Crisis showed that the UK’s status had fallen in the world. The 1950s and 1960s were, however, relatively prosperous times after the Second World War, and saw the beginning of a modernisation of the UK, with the construction of its firstmotorways for example, and also during the 1960s a great cultural movement began which expanded across the world. Unemployment was relatively low during this period and the standard of living continued to rise with more new private and council housing developments taking place and the number of slum properties diminishing.
The postwar period also witnessed a dramatic rise in the average standard of living, as characterised by a 40% rise in average real wages from 1950 to 1965. Earnings for men in industry rose by 95% between 1951 and 1964, while during that same period the official workweek was reduced and five reductions in income tax were made. Those in traditionally poorly paid semi-skilled and unskilled occupations saw a particularly marked improvement in their wages and living standards. As summed up by R. J. Unstead,
“Opportunities in life, if not equal, were distributed much more fairly than ever before and\ the weekly wage-earner, in particular, had gained standards of living that would have been almost unbelievable in the thirties.”
In 1950, the UK standard of living was higher than in any EEC country apart from Belgium. It was 50% higher than the West German standard of living, and twice as high as the Italian standard of living. By the earlier Seventies, however, the UK standard of living was lower than all EEC countries apart from Italy (which, according to one calculation, was roughly equal to Britain). In 1951, the average weekly earnings of men over the age of 21 stood at £8 6s 0d, and nearly doubled a decade later to £15 7s 0d. By 1966, average weekly earnings stood at £20 6s 0d.
Between 1951 and 1963, wages rose by 72% while prices rose by 45%, enabling people to afford more consumer goods than ever before. Between 1955 and 1967, the average earnings of weekly-paid workers increased by 96% and those of salaried workers by 95%, while prices rose by about 45% in the same period. The rising affluence of the Fifties and Sixties was underpinned by sustained full employment and a dramatic rise in worker‘s wages. In 1950, the average weekly wage stood at £6.8s, compared with £11.2s.6d in 1959. As a result of wage rises, consumer spending also increased by about 20% during this same period, while economic growth remained at about 3%. In addition, food rations were lifted 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. As noted by Harriet Wilson
“national wealth has grown considerably, and although the shareout of this among the social classes has remained substantially of the same proportions, it has meant a considerable rise in the standard of living of all classes. It is estimated that in Britain at the turn of the century average earnings in industry sufficed merely to meet the essential needs of a two-child family, today average earnings allow the industrial wage-earner to spend a third of his income on things other than basic needs.”
The significant real wage increases in the 1950s and 1960s contributed to a rapid increase in working-class consumerism, with British consumer spending rising by 45% between 1952 and 1964. In addition, 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 known only to a small minority of the population. For the young and unattached, there was, for the first time in decades, 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.” Levels of disposable income rose steadily, with the spending power of the average family rising by 50% between 1951 and 1979, and by the end of the Seventies, 6 out of 10 families had come to own a car.
As noted by Martin Pugh,
“Keynesian economic management enabled British workers to enjoy a golden age of full employment which, combined with a more relaxed attitude towards working mothers, led to the spread of the two-income family. Inflation was around 4 per cent, money wages rose from an average of £8 a week in 1951 to £15 a week by 1961, home-ownership spread from 35 per cent in 1939 to 47 per cent by 1966, and the relaxation of credit controls boosted the demand for consumer goods.”
By 1963, 82% of all private households had a television, 72% a vacuum cleaner, 45%a washing machine, and 30% a refrigerator. In addition, as noted by John Burnett,
“What was equally striking was that ownership of such things had spread down the social scale and the gap between professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed.”
A study of a slum area in Leeds (which was due for demolition) found that 74% of the households had a T.V., 41% a vacuum, and 38% a washing machine. In another slum area, St Mary’s in Oldham (where in 1970 few of the houses had fixed baths or a hot water supply and half shared outside toilets), 67% of the houses were rated as comfortably furnished and a further 24% furnished luxuriously, with smart modern furniture, deep pile carpeting, and decorations.
The provision of household amenities steadily improved during the second half of the twentieth 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.
Between 1950 and 1970, however, Britain 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 (although Britain remained high in terms of bathrooms and lavatories per 100 people). Although the British standard of living was increasing, the standard of living in other countries increased faster. According to a 1968 study by Anthony Sampson, British workers
“in ten years, from having had a much higher standard of living than the continent, they have slipped right back. Taking the national income per head (a rough yardstick), the British by 1967 had sunk to eighth place among OECD countries, with an annual income of $1,910 compared with $2,010 for Germany, $2,060 for France and $2,480 for Switzerland: and Britain’s falling position already shows itself in the lower proportion of new cars and new houses (though still leading with TV sets and washing machines).”
In 1976, UK wages were amongst the lowest in Western Europe, being half of West German rates and two-thirds of Italian rates. In addition, while educational opportunities for working-class people had widened significantly since the end of the Second World War, a number of developed countries came to overtake Britain in some educational indicators. 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 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. There also remained gaps between manual and non-manual workers in areas such as fringe benefits and wage levels. In April 1978, for instance, male full-time manual workers aged 21 and above averaged a gross weekly wage of £80.70, while the equivalent for male white collar workers stood at £100.70.
Empire to Commonwealth
Between 1867 and 1910, the UK had granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand “Dominion” status (near complete autonomy within the Empire). They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (known as the Commonwealth of Nations since 1949), an informal but close-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain’s former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies, including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others, which have elected to continue rule by London and are known as British Overseas Territories.
From the Troubles to the Belfast Agreement
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 to resist reform led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. 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 give 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‘. It won popular support and largely ended the Troubles.
The economy in the late 20th century
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 underHarold 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 following Wilson’s return and things fared little better under his successor James Callaghan.
A strict modernisation of its economy began under the controversial Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher following her election as prime minister in 1979, which saw a time of record unemployment as deindustrialisation saw the end of much of the country’s manufacturing industries but also a time of economic boom as stock markets became liberalised and State-owned industries became privatised. Inflation also fell during this period and trade union power was reduced.
However the miners’ strike of 1984–1985 sparked the end of most of the UK’s coal mining. The exploitation of North Sea gas and oil brought in substantial tax and export revenues to aid the new economic boom. This was also the time that the IRA took the issue of Northern Ireland to Great Britain, maintaining a prolonged bombing campaign on the British mainland.
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 government of John Major, who had succeeded Margaret 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.
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 postwar 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. From 1996/7 to 2006/7, real median household income increased by 20% while real mean household incomes increased by 23%. There has also been a shift towards a service-based economy in the years following the end of the Second World War, with 11% of working people employed in manufacturing in 2006, compared with 25% in 1971.
Common Market (EEC), then EU, membership
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. Areferendum 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.
The Treaty of Lisbon introduced many changes to the treaties of the Union. Prominent changes included more qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers, increased involvement of the European Parliament in the legislative process through extended codecision with the Council of Ministers, eliminating the pillar system and the creation of a President of the European Council with a term of two and a half years and a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to present a united position on EU policies. The Treaty of Lisbon will also make the Union’s human rights charter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding. The Lisbon Treaty also leads to an increase in the voting weight of the UK in the Council of the European Union from 8.4% to 12.4%. In July 2008, the Labour government under Gordon Brown approved the treaty and the Queen ratified it.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales
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. This resulted in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote both to 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 Countries of the United Kingdom, especially in areas like healthcare. It has also brought to the fore the so-called West Lothian question which is a complaint that devolution for Scotland and Wales but not England has created a situation where all the MPs in the UK parliament can vote on matters affecting England alone but on those same matters Scotland and Wales can make their own decisions.
War in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist attacks
In the 2001 General Election, the Labour Party won a second successive victory, though voter turnout dropped to the lowest level for more than 80 years. Later that year, the September 11th attacks in the United States led to American President George W. Bush launching the War on Terror, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan aided by British troops in October 2001. Thereafter, with the US focus shifting to Iraq, Tony Blair convinced the Labour and Conservative MPs to vote in favour of supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq, despite huge anti-war marches held in London and Glasgow. Forty-six thousand British troops, one-third of the total strength of the Army’s land forces, were deployed to assist with the invasion of Iraq and thereafter British armed forces were responsible for security in southern Iraq. All British forces were withdrawn in 2010.
Nationalist government in Scotland
2007 saw the first ever election victory for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in the Scottish Parliament elections. They formed a minority government with plans to hold a referendum before 2011 to seek a mandate “to negotiate with the Government of the United Kingdom to achieve independence for Scotland.” Most opinion polls show minority support for independence, although support varies depending on the nature of the question. The response of the unionist parties was to establish the Calman Commission to examine further devolution of powers, a position that had the support of the Prime Minister.
Responding to the findings of the review, the UK government announced on 25 November 2009, that new powers would be devolved to the Scottish Government, notably on how it can raise tax and carry out capital borrowing, and the running of Scottish Parliament elections. These proposals were detailed in a white paper setting out a new Scotland Bill, to become law before the 2015 Holyrood elections. The proposal was criticised by the UK parliament opposition parties for not proposing to implement any changes before the next general election. Scottish Constitution Minister Michael Russell criticised the white paper, calling it “flimsy” and stating that their proposed Referendum (Scotland) Bill, 2010, whose own white paper was to be published five days later, would be “more substantial”. According to The Independent, the Calman Review white paper proposals fall short of what would normally be seen as requiring a referendum.
The 2011 election saw a decisive victory for the SNP which was able to form a majority government intent on delivering a referendum on independence. Within hours of the victory, Prime Minister David Cameron guaranteed that the UK government would not put any legal or political obstacles in the way of such a referendum. Some unionist politicians, including former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish, have responded to the situation by arguing that Scotland should be offered ‘devo-max‘ as an alternative to independence, and First Minister Alex Salmond has signalled his willingness to include it on the referendum ballot paper.
The 2008 economic crisis
In the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008, the United Kingdom economy contracted, experiencing negative economic growth throughout 2009. The announcement in November 2008 that the economy had shrunk for the first time since late 1992 brought an end to 16 years of continuous economic growth. Causes included an end to the easy credit of the preceding years, reduction in consumption and substantial depreciation of sterling (which fell 25% against the euro between January 2008 and January 2009), leading to increased import costs, notably of oil.
On 8 October 2008, the British Government announced a bank rescue package of around £500 billion ($850 billion at the time). The plan comprised three parts.: £200 billion to be made available to the banks in the Bank of England‘s Special Liquidity Scheme; the Government was to increase the banks’ market capitalization, through the Bank Recapitalization Fund, with an initial £25 billion and another £25 billion to be provided if needed; and the Government was to temporarily underwrite any eligible lending between British banks up to around £250 billion. With the UK officially coming out of recession in the fourth quarter of 2009—ending six consecutive quarters of economic decline—the Bank of England decided against further quantitative easing.
The 2010 coalition government
The United Kingdom General Election of 6 May 2010 resulted in the first hung parliament since 1974, with the Conservative Party winning the largest number of seats, but falling short of the 326 seats required for an overall majority. Following this, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreed to form the first coalition government for the UK since the end of the Second World War, with David Cameron becoming Prime Minister and Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister.
Under the coalition government, British military aircraft participated in the UN-mandated intervention in the 2011 Libyan civil war, flying a total of 3,000 air sorties against forces loyal to the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi between March and October 2011. 2011 also saw England suffer unprecedented rioting in its major cities in early August, killing five people and causing over £200 million worth of property damage.
In late October 2011, the prime ministers of the Commonwealth realms voted to grant gender equality in the royal succession, ending the male-preference primogeniture that was mandated by the Act of Settlement 1701.The amendment, once enacted, will also end the ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic.
In 2014 Scotland held a referendum on becoming independent of the United Kingdom. The three major national parties were all strongly opposed, and won a majority defeating the separationists of the Scottish National Party(SNP). However, SNP successfully mobilized after the election, sweeping out the Labour Party which had long dominated Scotland.
After years of austerity, the British economy was on an upswing in 2015, When Prime Minister David Cameron called a general election. The United Kingdom general election, 2015 was held on 7 May 2015. Pre-election polls had predicted a close race and a hung parliament, but the surprising result was clear victory by the Conservatives nationwide. The other three main parties were shocked and bitterly disappointed; their leaders resigned the next day. The Conservatives with 37% of the popular vote held a narrow majority with 331 of the 650 seats. The Scottish National Party (SNP) carried 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, a gain of 50. Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1987, taking only 31% of the votes and losing 40 of its 41 seats in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats lost 49 of their 57 seats, as there coalition with the conservatives had alienated the great majority of their supporters. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), rallying voters against Europe and against immigration, did well with 13% of the vote count. It came in second in over 115 races but came in first in only one. Cameron now has a mandate for his austerity policies that shrink the size of government, and a challenge in dealing with Scotland.