Political history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)
|8 May 1945 – present|
|Preceded by||Second World War|
|Periods in English history|
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When Britain emerged victorious from the Second World War, the Labour Party under Clement Attlee came to power and created a comprehensive welfare state, with the establishment of the National Health Service giving free healthcare to all British citizens, and other reforms to benefits. The Bank of England, railways, heavy industry, and coal mining were all nationalised. The most controversial issue was nationalisation of steel, which was profitable unlike the others. Economic recovery was slow, housing was in short supply, bread was rationed along with many necessities in short supply. It was an "age of austerity". American loans and Marshall Plan grants kept the economy afloat. India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon gained independence. Britain was a strong anti-Soviet factor in the Cold War and helped found NATO in 1949.
The Labour Party introduced charges for NHS dental services and glasses in 1951. The Conservatives returned to power in 1951, accepting most of Labour's postwar reforms, but introduced prescription charges to the NHS in 1952 and denationalized steel in 1953. They presided over 13 years of economic recovery and stability. However the Suez Crisis of 1956 demonstrated Britain was no longer a superpower. Ghana, Malaya, Nigeria and Kenya were granted independence during this period. Labour returned to power under Harold Wilson in 1964 and oversaw a series of social reforms including the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion, the relaxing of divorce laws and the end of capital punishment. Edward Heath returned the Conservatives to power from 1970 to 1974, and oversaw the decimalisation of British currency, the accession of Britain to the European Economic Community, and the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis and a miner's strike, Heath introduced the three-day working week to conserve power.
Labour made a return to power in 1974 but a series of strikes carried out by trade unions over the winter of 1978/79 (known as the Winter of Discontent) paralysed the country and as Labour lost its majority in parliament, a general election was called in 1979 which took Margaret Thatcher to power and began 18 years of Conservative government. Victory in the Falklands War (1982) and the government's strong opposition to trade unions helped lead the Conservative Party to another three terms in government. Thatcher initially pursued monetarist policies and went on to privatise many of Britain's nationalised companies such as British Telecom, British Gas Corporation, British Airways and British Steel Corporation. She kept the National Health Service. The controversial Community Charge (commonly called the "Poll Tax"), used to fund local government was unpopular and the Conservatives removed Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1990.
Major replaced the Poll Tax with the Council Tax and oversaw successful British involvement in the Gulf War. Despite a recession, Major led the Conservatives to a surprise victory in 1992. The events of Black Wednesday in 1992, party disunity over the European Union and several scandals involving Conservative politicians led to Labour under Tony Blair winning a landslide election victory in 1997. Labour had shifted its policies closer to the political centre, under the new slogan 'New Labour'. The Bank of England was given independence over monetary policy and Scotland and Wales were given a devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly respectively. A devolved power sharing Northern Ireland Executive was established in 1998, believed by many to be the end of The Troubles.
Blair led Britain into the Afghanistan and Iraq War before leaving office in 2007, when he was succeeded by his Chancellor Gordon Brown. A global recession in 2008–10 led to Labour's defeat in the 2010 election. It was replaced by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, headed by David Cameron, that pursued a series of public spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit. In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Conservatives replaced Cameron with Theresa May.
- 1 Labour Government, 1945–51
- 2 Conservative Government, 1951–64
- 3 Labour Government, 1964–70
- 4 Conservative Government, 1970–74
- 5 Labour Government, 1974–79
- 6 Conservative Government, 1979–97
- 7 Labour Government, 1997–2010
- 8 Coalition Government, 2010–15
- 9 Conservative Government, 2015–present
- 10 See also
- 11 Footnotes
- 12 Further reading
Labour Government, 1945–51
After the Second World War, the landslide 1945 election returned the Labour Party to power and Clement Attlee became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The party quickly nationalised critical sectors of the economy, especially declining industries. The Bank of England was nationalised along with railways (see Transport Act 1947), coal mining, public utilities and heavy industry. The most controversial case was the takeover of the highly profitable iron and steel industry, which was opposed and finally reversed by the Conservatives.
A comprehensive welfare state was created with the National Insurance Act 1946, in which people in work paid a flat rate of national insurance. In return, they (and the wives of male contributors) were eligible for flat-rate pensions, sickness benefit, unemployment benefit, and funeral benefit. Various other pieces of legislation provided for child benefit and support for people with no other source of income.
In the estimation of historians, and later politicians of the major parties, the most successful and permanent program was the creation of a National Health Service which started operations in 1947. It entitled all citizens to healthcare, which, funded by taxation, was free at the point of delivery. The opposition from physicians was bought off by allowing them to keep lucrative private practices on the side. All hospitals were nationalized and brought into the system. John Carrier and Ian Kendall find that the mission for Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan was resolving "The potential conflict between the aim of providing a universalist, comprehensive health service of a good standard and that of containing health costs to a reasonable level, and how to finance the system in such a way that certainty and sufficiency of funds could be guaranteed." Michael Foot adds that Bevan had to persuade "the most conservative and respected profession in the country to accept and operate the Labour government's most intrinsically socialist proposition. In the end historians give Bevan the major credit for the success.
One of the main achievements of Attlee's government was the maintenance of near full employment. The government maintained most of the wartime controls over the economy, including control over the allocation of materials and manpower, and unemployment rarely rose above 500,000, or 3% of the total workforce. In fact labour shortages proved to be more of a problem. One area where the government was not quite as successful was in housing, which was also the responsibility of Aneurin Bevan. The government had a target to build 400,000 new houses a year to replace those which had been destroyed in the war, but shortages of materials and manpower meant that less than half this number were built.
For decades the Conservatives were split on India between die-hard imperialists (led by Churchill) and moderate elements who tried to provide limited local control. Meanwhile, the small Labour minority in Parliament was sympathetic to the Congress movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharial Nehru. Decolonisation was never a major election issue; Labour was not officially in favour of decolonisation when it was elected in 1945. With violence escalating in India after the war, but with British financial power at a low ebb, large-scale military involvement was impossible. The Viceroy of India warned he needed a further seven army divisions to prevent communal violence if independence negotiations failed. None were available, so political restructuring was accelerated. The Labour government gave independence to India and Pakistan in an unexpectedly quick move in 1947. Historian and Conservative party sympathiser Andrew Roberts says the independence of India was a "national humiliation" but it was necessitated by urgent financial, administrative, strategic and political needs. Whereas Churchill in 1940-45 had tightened the hold on India and imprisoned the Congress leadership, Labour had looked forward to making it a fully independent dominion like Canada or Australia. Many of the Congress leaders in India had studied in England, and were highly regarded as fellow idealistic socialists by Labour leaders. Attlee was the Labour expert on India and took special charge of decolonization. Attlee found that Churchill's viceroy, Field Marshal Wavell, was too imperialistic, too keen on military solutions (he wanted seven more Army divisions) and too neglectful of Indian political alignments. The new Viceroy was Lord Mountbatten, the dashing war hero and a cousin of the King. The boundary between the newly created states of Pakistan and India involved the widespread resettlement of millions of Muslims and Hindus (and many Sikhs). Extreme violence ensued when Punjab and Bengal provinces were split. Historian Yasmin Khan estimates that between a half-million and a million men, women and children were killed. Gandhi himself was assassinated by a Hindu activist in January 1948.
Britain became a founding member of the United Nations during this time and of NATO in 1949. Under foreign minister Ernest Bevin, Britain took a strong anti-Soviet position in the emerging Cold War. Cooperation with the United States was good, except in the area of nuclear weapons, where president Harry Truman ended cooperation. Britain had to develop its own nuclear arsenal, with the first test in 1952. Mandatory military service continued, as despite the end of WWII, Britain continued to wage numerous small conflicts around the globe: the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960, in Kenya against the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–60) and against Egypt in the 1956 Suez Crisis.
International finance was a troublesome issue, as Britain had used up all its reserves and had to borrow large sums from the United States and from the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. provided a loan of $3.75 billion (US$57 billion in 2017) at a low 2% interest rate; Canada loaned an additional US$1.19 billion (US$16 billion in 2017). Starting in 1948, the United States provided grants of $3.3 billion (about US$33 billion in 2017). These funds came through the Marshall Plan and did not have to be repaid, however they carried the proviso that Britain modernize the management of its major corporations. The aid permitted Britain to provide consumption at tolerable levels despite the austerity. About 40 per cent of the dollars went for food, drink and tobacco from the U.S. and 40 per cent on raw materials. The remainder went mostly for machinery and oil.
By 1950, the Korean War caused a new heavy drain on the Treasury for military expenses. This caused the bitter split inside the Labour party. The Conservatives made austerity a major issue in the general election of 1950. Labour lost most of its large majority. The swing was 3.6% against it and it lost 78 seats, leaving Attlee with a slim majority in the House. However, a year later Labour lost the general election of 1951 despite polling more votes than in the 1945 election, and indeed more votes than the Conservative Party.
Conservative Government, 1951–64
Winston Churchill (1951–55)
Winston Churchill again became Prime Minister. His third government — after the wartime national government and the short caretaker government of 1945 — would last until his resignation in 1955. During this period he renewed what he called the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States, and engaged himself in the formation of the post-war order.
His domestic priorities were, however, overshadowed by a series of foreign policy crises, which were partly the result of the continued decline of British military and imperial prestige and power. Being a strong proponent of Britain as an international power, Churchill would often meet such moments with direct action.
In February 1952, King George VI died and was succeeded by his eldest daughter Elizabeth. Her coronation on 2 June 1953 gave the British people a renewed sense of national pride and enthusiasm which had been lowered by the war. Elizabeth II has now been the monarch for 66 years, 154 days. She celebrated her diamond jubilee, marking 60 years since her ascension to the throne, in 2012.
Anglo-Iranian Oil Dispute
In March 1951, the Iranian parliament (the Majlis) voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and its holdings by passing a bill strongly backed by Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was elected Prime Minister the following April by a large majority of the parliament. The International Court of Justice was called in to settle the dispute, but a 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement, with recognition of nationalisation, was rejected by Mossadegh. Direct negotiations between the British and the Iranian government ceased, and over the course of 1951, the British ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranian government and explored the possibility of a coup against it. U.S. President Harry S. Truman was reluctant to agree, placing a much higher priority on the Korean War. Churchill's return to power and Eisenhower's presidency brought with them a policy of undermining the Mossadegh government. Both sides floated proposals unacceptable to the other, each side believing that time was on its side. Negotiations broke down, and as the blockade's political and economic costs mounted inside Iran, coup plots arose from the army and pro-British factions in the Majlis.
The Mau Mau Rebellion
In 1951, grievances against the colonial distribution of land came to a head with the Kenya Africa Union demanding greater representation and land reform. When these demands were rejected, more radical elements came forward, launching the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952. On 17 August 1952, a state of emergency was declared, and British troops were flown to Kenya to deal with the rebellion. As both sides increased the ferocity of their attacks, the country moved to full-scale civil war.
In Malaya, a rebellion against British rule had been in progress since 1948, led by Communists based in the local Chinese community. Once again, Churchill's government inherited a crisis, and once again Churchill chose to use direct military action against those in rebellion while attempting to build an alliance with those who were not. He stepped up the implementation of a "hearts and minds" campaign and approved the creation of fortified villages, a tactic that would become a recurring part of Western military strategy in South-East Asia, especially in the American role in the Vietnam War.
Anthony Eden (1955–57)
In April 1955, Churchill finally retired, and Sir Anthony Eden succeeded him as Prime Minister. Eden was a very popular figure, as a result of his long wartime service and also his famous good looks and charm. On taking office he immediately called a general election, at which the Conservatives were returned with an increased majority. He left domestic issues to his lieutenants such as Rab Butler, and concentrated largely on foreign policy, forming a close alliance with US President Dwight Eisenhower.
On 26 July 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal company, in violation of the international agreement he had signed with the UK in 1954. It had been owned and controlled by Britain since 1875 and was seen as essential to national defence and access to the Far East. Eden drawing on his experience in the 1930s, saw Nasser as another Mussolini who had to be stopped. In November 1956, after months of negotiation and attempts at mediation had failed to dissuade Nasser, Britain and France, in conjunction with Israel, invaded Egypt and occupied the Suez Canal Zone.
Eisenhower had warned Eden not to do it, saying the American people would never approve of a military solution to the crisis. He threatened to use financial pressure unless the British withdrew from Egypt. Eden had ignored Britain's financial dependence on the US in the wake of World War II, and was forced to bow to American pressure to withdraw. Eden had poor staff support because the Foreign Office, Commonwealth Relations Office, and Colonial Office had been slow to realize the need for change in Britain's world role. After Suez they started to heed Treasury warnings about the effect of high defence expenditure on the economy, and the slow growth of the British population compared with the United States and the Soviet Union. Historians often use the crisis to mark the end of Britain's status as a superpower, being able to act and control international affairs without assistance or coalition.
Harold Macmillan (1957–63)
Eden resigned in the wake of the Suez Crisis, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister on 10 January. He brought the economic concerns of the exchequer into the premiership, but his approach to the economy was to seek high employment; whereas his treasury ministers argued that to support the Bretton-Wood's requirement on the pound sterling would require strict control of the money base, and hence a rise in unemployment. Their advice was rejected and in January 1958, all the Treasury ministers resigned. Macmillan brushed aside this incident as 'a little local difficulty'.
Macmillan wanted the new National Incomes Commission to institute controls on income as part of his growth without inflation policy; it failed when the unions boycotted it.
One of Macmillan's more noteworthy actions was the end of conscription. National Service ended gradually from 1957; in November 1960 the last men entered service. With British youth no longer subject to military service and with postwar rationing and reconstruction ended, the stage was set for the social uprisings of the 1960s to commence.
Macmillan took close control of foreign policy. He worked to narrow the post-Suez rift with the US, where his wartime friendship with Dwight D. Eisenhower was useful, and the two had a pleasant conference in Bermuda as early as March 1957. The amiable relationship continued with President John F. Kennedy after 1960. Macmillan also saw the value of a rapprochement with Europe and sought entry to the Common Market. In terms of the Empire, Macmillan continued decolonisation, his Wind of Change speech in February 1960 indicating his policy. Ghana and Malaya were granted independence in 1957, Nigeria in 1960 and Kenya in 1963. However, in the Middle East Macmillan ensured Britain remained a force — intervening over Iraq in 1958 (14 July Revolution) and 1960 and becoming involved in Oman. Immigrants from the Commonwealth flocked to England after The British Government posted invitations in the British West Indies, for Workers to come to England to "help the mother Country".
He led the Tories to victory in the October 1959 general election, increasing his party's majority from 67 to 107 seats.
Following the technical failures of a British independent nuclear deterrent with the Blue Streak and the Blue Steel projects, Macmillan negotiated the supply of American Polaris missiles under the Nassau agreement in December 1962. Previously he had agreed to base sixty Thor missiles in Britain under joint control, and since late 1957 the American McMahon Act had been eased to allow Britain more access to nuclear technology. Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in autumn 1963. Britain's application to join the Common Market was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle on 29 January 1963, in due to his fear that 'the end would be a colossal Atlantic Community dependent on America', and personal anger at the Anglo-American nuclear deal.
Britain's balance of payments problems led to the imposition of a seven-month wage freeze in 1961. This caused the government to lose popularity and led to a series of by-election defeats. He organised a major Cabinet change in July 1962 but he continued to lose support from within his party.
Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64)
Macmillan's successor was the Earl of Home, Alec Douglas-Home. However, as no prime minister had led from the House of Lords since the Marquess of Salisbury in 1902, Home chose to become a member of parliament so he could enter the House of Commons. He disclaimed his earldom and, as "Sir Alec Douglas-Home", contested a by-election in the safe seat of Kinross & West Perthshire. He won and is the only prime minister to resign the Lords to enter the Commons. His demeanor and appearance remained aristocratic and old-fashioned, however. His understanding of economics was primitive, and he gave his chancellor Reginald Maudling free rein to handle financial affairs. Home's few domestic policies were not well received, but he did abolish retail price maintenance, which allowed consumers to find more bargains on sale. He enjoyed dealing with foreign policy, but there were no major crises or issues to resolve. His Foreign Minister Rab Butler was not especially energetic. Britain's application to join Europe had already been vetoed by de Gaulle, the Cuban missile crisis had been resolved, and Berlin was again on the back burner. Decolonization issues were largely routine, and the Rhodesia and South African crises lay in the future.
In the 1964 general election, the Labour Party was returned to power under Harold Wilson. Douglas-Home became Leader of the Opposition. In July 1965, Edward Heath defeated Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell to succeed him as Conservative Party leader. Enoch Powell was given the post of Shadow Defence Secretary and became a figure of national prominence when he made the controversial Rivers of Blood speech in 1968, warning on the dangers of mass immigration from Commonwealth nations. It is possible that the Conservatives' success in the 1970 general election was a result of the large public following Powell attained, even as he was sacked from the shadow cabinet.
Labour Government, 1964–70
In 1964, Labour regained the premiership, as Harold Wilson narrowly won the general election with a majority of five. This was not sufficient to last for a full term and, after a short period of competent government, in March 1966, he won re-election with a landslide majority of 99. As Prime Minister, his opponents accused him of deviousness, especially over the matter of devaluation of the pound in November 1967. Wilson had rejected devaluation for many years, yet in his broadcast had seemed to present it as a triumph.
Wilson regarded with special pride setting up the Open University as a model for Europe. Plans were drafted by Jennie Lee, the Minister for the Arts; she had Wilson's full support. He saw the Open University as a major marker of the Labour Party's commitment to modernisation. He emphasized that it would strengthen a more competitive economy while also fostering greater equality of opportunity and social mobility. He especially favoured heavy use of technology, such as television and radio broadcast of its courses. There were strong doubters and opponents in the government and in commercial broadcasting; Wilson outmaneuvered them to get the budget approved, even though its sums proved far too small.
Overseas, Wilson was troubled by crises in Rhodesia and South Africa. The Vietnam War was a delicate issue, as President Lyndon Johnson urdently needed a symbolic British military presence. "Lyndon Johnson is begging me even to send a bagpipe band to Vietnam," Wilson told his Cabinet in December 1964. Labour decided not to antagonize its strong antiwar element and refused Johnson's pleas. However, Wilson provided the Americans with intelligence, military weapons, and jungle training, and allowed some 2000 British soldiers to volunteer for service in Vietnam.
In addition to the damage done to its reputation by devaluation, Wilson's Government suffered from the perception that its response to industrial relations problems was inadequate. A six-week strike of members of the National Union of Seamen, which began shortly after Wilson' re-election in 1966, did much to reinforce this perception, along with Wilson's own sense of insecurity in office.
Conservative Government, 1970–74
The premiership of his successor Sir Edward Heath was the bloodiest in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. He was prime minister at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 14 unarmed men were killed by British soldiers during a banned civil rights march in Derry. In 2003, he gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry and claimed that he never promoted or agreed to the use of unlawful lethal force in Northern Ireland. In July 1972, he permitted his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw to hold unofficial talks in London with a Provisional Irish Republican Army delegation by Seán Mac Stiofáin. In the aftermath of these unsuccessful talks, the Heath government pushed for a peaceful settlement with the democratic political parties. In 1974, the Sunningdale Agreement was produced but fiercely repudiated by many Unionists and the Ulster Unionist Party ceased to support the Conservatives at Westminster.
Heath took Britain into the Common Market (later renamed The European Union and again renamed The EEC) on 1 January 1973 after winning the decisive vote in the House by 336-244. It was, says biographer John Campbell, "Heath's finest hour." Meanwhile, on the domestic front, galloping inflation led him into confrontation with some of the most powerful trade unions. Energy shortages related to the oil shock resulted in much of the country's industry working a Three-Day Week to conserve power. In an attempt to bolster his government, Heath called an election for 28 February 1974. The result was inconclusive: the Conservative Party received a plurality of votes cast, but the Labour Party gained a plurality of seats due to the Ulster Unionist MPs refusing to support the Conservatives. Heath began negotiations with leaders of the Liberal Party to form a coalition, but, when these failed, resigned as Prime Minister.
Labour Government, 1974–79
Harold Wilson (1974–76)
Heath was replaced by Harold Wilson, who returned on 4 March 1974 to form a minority government. Wilson was confirmed in office, with a three-seat majority, in a second election in October of the same year. It was a manifesto pledge in the general election of February 1974 for a Labour government to re-negotiate better terms for Britain in the EEC, and then hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EEC on the new terms. After the House of Commons voted in favour of retaining the Common Market on the renegotiated terms, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975. A majority were in favour of retaining the Common Market. But Wilson was not able to end the economic crisis. Unemployment remained well in excess of 1,000,000, inflation peaked at 24% in 1975, and the national debt was increasing. The rise of punk rock bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash were a reflection of the discontent felt by British youth during the difficulties of the late 1970s.
James Callaghan (1976–79)
Wilson announced his surprise resignation on 16 March 1976 and unofficially endorsed his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan as his successor. His broad popularity in many parts of the Labour movement saw him through three ballots of Labour MPs, defeating the arch-Bevanite Michael Foot, the main left-wing candidate. Callaghan was the first Prime Minister to have held all three leading Cabinet positions — Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary — prior to becoming Prime Minister.
Callaghan's support for and from the union movement should not be mistaken for a left wing position. Callaghan continued Wilson's policy of a balanced Cabinet and relied heavily on Michael Foot. Foot was made Leader of the House of Commons and given the task of steering through the government's legislative programme.
Callaghan's time as Prime Minister was dominated by the troubles in running a Government with a minority in the House of Commons; by-election defeats had wiped out Labour's three-seat majority by early 1977. Callaghan was forced to make deals with minor parties in order to survive, including the Lib-Lab pact. He had been forced to accept referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales (the first went in favour but did not reach the required majority, and the second went heavily against).
However, by the autumn of 1978 the economy was showing signs of recovery – although unemployment now stood at 1,500,000, economic growth was strong and inflation had fallen below 10%. Most opinion polls were showing Labour ahead and he was expected to call an election before the end of the year. His decision not to has been described as the biggest mistake of his premiership.
Callaghan's way of dealing with the long-term economic difficulties involved pay restraint which had been operating for four years with reasonable success. He gambled that a fifth year would further improve the economy and allow him to be re-elected in 1979, and so attempted to hold pay rises to 5% or less. The Trade Unions rejected continued pay restraint and in a succession of strikes over the winter of 1978/79 (known as the Winter of Discontent) secured higher pay, although it had virtually paralysed the country, tarnished Britain's political reputation and seen the Conservatives surge ahead in the opinion polls.
He was forced to call an election when the House of Commons passed a Motion of No Confidence by one vote on 28 March 1979. The Conservatives, with advertising consultants Saatchi and Saatchi, ran a campaign on the slogan "Labour isn't working." As expected, Margaret Thatcher (who had succeeded Edward Heath as Conservative leader in February 1975) won the general election held on 3 May, becoming Britain's first female prime minister.
Historian Kenneth O. Morgan states:
The fall of James Callahan in the summer of 1979 meant, according to most commentators across the political spectrum, the end of an ancien régime, a system of corporatism, Keynesian spending programmes, subsidized welfare, and trade union power.
Historians Alan Sked and Chris Cook have summarised the general consensus of historians regarding Labour in power in the 1970s:
If Wilson's record as prime minister was soon felt to have been one of failure, that sense of failure was powerfully reinforced by Callahan's term as premier. Labour, it seemed, was incapable of positive achievements. It was unable to control inflation, unable to control the unions, unable to solve the Irish problem, unable to solve the Rhodesian question, unable to secure its proposals for Welsh and Scottish devolution, unable to reach a popular modus vivendi with the Common Market, unable even to maintain itself in power until it could go to the country and the date of its own choosing. It was little wonder, therefore, that Mrs. Thatcher resoundingly defeated it in 1979.
Conservative Government, 1979–97
Margaret Thatcher (1979–90)
Thatcher formed a government on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy. Thatcher was incensed by one contemporary view within the Civil Service that its job was to manage the UK's decline from the days of Empire, and wanted the country to punch above its weight in international affairs. She was a philosophic soulmate with Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States, and to a lesser extent, Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 in Canada. It seemed for a time that conservatism might be the dominant political philosophy in the major English-speaking nations for the era.
Northern Ireland was in a violent phase. Insurgents planted bombs and assassinated its foes, including in 1979 Airey Neave, Thatcher's close friend who was slated to take charge there. The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), a republican paramilitary group, claimed responsibility. On 27 August 1979, the IRA Assassinated Lord Mountbatten, a member of the royal family, and other units killed 18 policeman. Sheer luck on the early morning of 12 October 1984 saved Thatcher's life as five were killed by a bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Brighton's Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference.
In 1981, a new tactic was used to mobilize support, as Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners went on hunger strikes to claim legitimacy for their cause in the act of making the ultimate sacrifice. It was a historic tactic that was revived for maximum impact, although it was attacked by the major news media and denounced by Catholic bishops.
Thatcher continued the policy of "Ulsterisation" promoted by the previous Labour government, believing that the unionists of Ulster should be at the forefront in combating Irish republicanism. This meant relieving the burden on the mainstream British army and elevating the role of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
In November 1985, Thatcher signed the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement, bringing the Dublin government into the peace process. P. J. McLoughlin finds the consensus of scholars is that it was a significant factor contributing to the development of the Northern Ireland peace process. However, the agreement was greeted with fury by Irish unionists. The Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists made an electoral pact and on 23 January 1986, staged an ad-hoc referendum by re-fighting their seats in by-elections, and won with one seat lost to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Then, unlike the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, they found they could not bring the agreement down by a general strike. This was another effect of the changed balance of power in industrial relations. The Hillsborough agreement stood, and Thatcher punished the unionists for their non-cooperation by abolishing the devolved assembly she had created only four years before.
In economic policy, Thatcher and her Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe started out with policies, including higher interest rates, to drive down the rate of growth of the money supply. She had a preference for indirect taxation over taxes on income: in 1979 exchange controls were abolished and the top rate of income tax on "unearned" income cut from 98% to 60%, but value added tax (VAT) was increased sharply to 15% with the result that inflation also rose. These moves hit businesses, especially in the manufacturing sector, and unemployment – which had stood at 1,500,000 by the time of the 1979 general election – was above 2,000,000 by the end of 1980. It continued to rise throughout 1981, passing the 2,500,000 mark during the summer of that year – although inflation was now down to 12% compared to 27% two years earlier. The economy was now in recession.
Her early tax policy reforms were based on the monetarist theories of Friedman rather than the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski, which the government of Ronald Reagan espoused. There was a severe recession in the early 1980s, and the Government's economic policy was widely blamed. In January 1982, the inflation rate dropped to single figures and interest rates fell. Unemployment peaked at 3.1 million and remained at that level until 1986. The recession of the early 1980s was the deepest in Britain since the depression of the 1930s and Thatcher's popularity plummeted; most predictions had her losing the next election.
In Argentina, an unstable military junta was in power and keen on reversing its huge economic unpopularity. On 2 April 1982, it invaded the Falkland Islands, the only invasion of a British territory since World War II. Argentina has claimed the islands since an 1830s dispute on their settlement. Thatcher sent a naval task force to recapture the Islands. The ensuing Falklands War saw the swift defeat of Argentina in only a few days of fighting, resulting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm for Thatcher personally, at a time when her popularity had been at an all-time low for a serving Prime Minister. Opinion polls showed a huge surge in Conservative support which would be sufficient to win a general election. In the end, the war probably raised the Conservative vote by about six points, according to scholarly studies of the polling data.
This "Falklands Factor", as it came to be known, was crucial to the scale of the Conservative majority in the June 1983 general election, with a fragmented Labour Party enduring its worst postwar election result, while the SDP-Liberal Alliance (created two years earlier in a pact between the Liberal Party and the new Social Democratic Party (UK) formed by disenchanted former Labour MP's) trailed Labour closely in terms of votes but won few seats.
China demanded the return of Hong Kong with the expiration of Britain's 99-year lease on most of the territory in 1997. Thatcher negotiated directly in September 1982 with that country's leader Deng Xiaoping. They agreed on the Sino-British Joint Declaration over the Question of Hong Kong which provided for a peaceful transfer of Hong Kong to Beijing's control in 15 years' time, after which the city would be allowed to retain its "capitalistic" system for another 50 years.
Thatcher's strong opposition against communism as represented by the Soviet Union as well as the decisive military victory against Argentina, re-affirmed Britain's influential position on the world stage and bolstered Thatcher's firm leadership. In addition the economy was showing positive signs of recovery thanks mainly to substantial oil revenues from the North Sea.
The 1983 election was also influenced by events in the opposition parties. Since their 1979 defeat, Labour was increasingly dominated by its "hard left" that had emerged from the 1970s union militancy, and in opposition its policies had swung very sharply to the left while the Conservatives had drifted further to the right. This drove a significant number of right wing Labour members and MPs to form a breakaway party in 1981, the Social Democratic Party. Labour fought the election on unilateral nuclear disarmament, which proposed to abandon the British nuclear deterrent despite the threat from a nuclear armed Soviet Union, withdrawal from the European Community, and total reversal of Thatcher's economic and trade union changes. Indeed, one Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, has called the party's 1983 manifesto "the longest suicide note in history". Consequently, upon the Labour split, there was a new centrist challenge, the Alliance, from the Social Democrats in electoral pact with the Liberal Party, to break the major parties' dominance and win proportional representation. The British Electoral Study found that Alliance voters were preferentially tilted towards the Conservatives , but this possible loss of vote share by the Conservatives was more than compensated for by the first past the post electoral system, where marginal changes in vote numbers and distribution have disproportionate effects on the number of seats won. Accordingly, despite the Alliance vote share coming very close to that of Labour and preventing an absolute majority in votes for the Conservatives, the Alliance failed to break into Parliament in significant numbers and the Conservatives were returned in a landslide.
Trade union power
Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions but, unlike the Heath government, adopted a strategy of incremental change rather than a single Act. Several unions launched strikes that were wholly or partly aimed at damaging her politically. The most significant of these was carried out by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). However, Thatcher had made preparations long in advance for an NUM strike by building up coal stocks, and there were no cuts in electric power, unlike 1972. Police tactics during the strike concerned civil libertarians: stopping suspected strike sympathisers travelling towards coalfields when they were still long distances from them, phone tapping as evidenced by Labour's Tony Benn, and a violent battle with mass pickets at Orgreave, Yorkshire. But images of massed militant miners using violence to prevent other miners from working, along with the fact that (illegally under a recent Act) the NUM had not held a national ballot to approve strike action. Scargill's policy of letting each region of the NUM call its own strike backfired when nine areas held ballots that resulted in majority votes against striking, and violence against strikebreakers escalated with time until reaching a tipping point with the killing of David Wilkie (a taxi-driver who was taking a strikebreaker to work). The Miners' Strike lasted a full year, March 1984 until March 1985, before the drift of half the miners back to work forced the NUM leadership to give in without a deal. Thatcher had won a decisive victory and the unions never recovered their political power. This aborted political strike marked a turning point in UK politics: no longer could militant unions remove a democratically elected government. It also marked to beginning of a new economic and political culture in the UK based upon small government intervention in the economy and reduced dominance of the trade unions and welfare state.
Thatcher's political and economic philosophy
Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised free markets and entrepreneurialism. Since gaining power, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised company, the National Freight Company, to its workers, with a surprisingly large response. After the 1983 election, the Government became bolder and sold off many of the large utilities which had been in public ownership since the late 1940s. Many in the public took advantage of share offers, although many sold their shares immediately for a quick profit. The policy of privatisation, while anathema to many on the left, has become synonymous with Thatcherism.
In the Cold War, Thatcher supported Ronald Reagan's policies of Rollback with the goal of reducing or ending Soviet Communist power. This contrasted with the policy of détente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies still wedded to the idea of détente. US forces were permitted by Mrs. Thatcher to station nuclear cruise missiles at British bases, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, she later was the first Western leader to respond warmly to the rise of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring she liked him and "We can do business together" after a meeting three months before he came to power in 1985. This was a start in swinging the West back to a new détente with the Soviet Union in his era, as it proved to be an indication that the Soviet regime's power was decaying. Thatcher outlasted the Cold War, which ended in 1989, and voices who share her views on it credit her with a part in the West's victory, by both the deterrence and détente postures.
She supported the US bombing raid on Libya from bases in the UK in 1986 when other NATO allies would not. Her liking for defence ties with the United States was demonstrated in the Westland affair when she acted with colleagues to prevent the helicopter manufacturer Westland, a vital defence contractor, from linking with a European Consortium including the Italian firm Agusta in favour of a link with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the United States. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had pushed the European Consortium, resigned in protest at her style of leadership, and thereafter became a potential leadership challenger. Trade and Industry Secretary Leon Brittan then had to resign for having ordered the leak of a confidential legal letter critical of Heseltine; Thatcher survived the crisis as her personal involvement in the leak was not proven.
By winning the 1987 general election, on the economic boom (with unemployment finally falling below 3,000,000 that spring) and against a stubbornly anti-nuclear Labour opposition (now led by Neil Kinnock after Michael Foot's resignation four years earlier), she became the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since the 1820s. Most newspapers supported her — with the exception of The Daily Mirror and The Guardian — and were rewarded with regular press briefings by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham.
She was known as "Maggie" in the popular tabloids, which inspired the well-known "Maggie Out!" protest song, sung throughout that period by some of her opponents. Her unpopularity on the left is evident from the lyrics of several contemporary popular songs: "Stand Down Margaret" (The Beat), "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Elvis Costello), "Mother Knows Best" (Richard Thompson), and "Margaret on the Guillotine" (Morrissey).
Many opponents believed she and her policies created a significant North-South divide from the Bristol Channel to The Wash, between the "haves" in the economically dynamic south and the "have nots" in the northern rust belt. Hard welfare reforms in her third term created an adult Employment Training system that included full-time work done for the dole plus a £10 top-up, on the workfare model from the US. The "Social Fund" system that placed one-off welfare payments for emergency needs under a local budgetary limit, and where possible changed them into loans, and rules for assessing jobseeking effort by the week, were breaches of social consensus unprecedented since the 1920s.
The sharp fall in unemployment continued. By the end of 1987, it stood at just over 2,600,000 – having started the year still in excess of 3,000,000. It stood at just over 2,000,000 by the end of 1988, and by the end of 1989 less than 1,700,000 were unemployed. However, total economic growth for 1989 stood at 2% – the lowest since 1982 – signalling an end to the economic boom. Several other countries had now entered recession, and fears were now rife that Britain was also on the verge of another recession.
In 1988, Thatcher, a trained chemist, became concerned with environmental issues, putting on the national agenda such technical issues as global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. In 1990, she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research.
In September 1988, at Bruges, Thatcher announced her opposition to proposals from the European Community for a federal structure and increasing centralisation of decision-making. Although she had supported British membership, Thatcher believed that the role of the EC should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that new EC regulations would reverse the changes she was making in the UK. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a new super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". The speech caused an outcry from other European leaders, and exposed for the first time the deep split that was emerging over European policy inside her Conservative Party. Since 1985 Thatcher had been blocking British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a preparation for Economic and Monetary Union, through which a single currency would replace national currencies, which the EC began seriously to discuss by 1990.
Thatcher's popularity once again declined in 1989 as the economy suffered from high interest rates imposed to stop an unsustainable boom. She blamed her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who had exacerbated the boom by trying to keep the pound sterling low ("shadowing the Deutschmark") as a preparation for ERM membership; Thatcher claimed not to have been told of this and did not approve. At the Madrid European summit, Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe forced Thatcher to agree the circumstances under which she would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Thatcher took revenge on both by demoting Howe, and by listening more to her adviser Sir Alan Walters on economic matters. Lawson resigned that October, feeling that Thatcher had undermined him.
That November, Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer. As Meyer was a virtually unknown backbench MP, he was viewed as a stalking horse candidate for more prominent members of the party. Thatcher easily defeated Meyer's challenge, but there were 60 ballot papers either cast for Meyer or abstaining, a surprisingly large number for a sitting Prime Minister.
Thatcher's new system to replace local government rates was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990. Rates were replaced by the "Community Charge" (more widely known as the poll tax), which applied the same amount to every individual resident, with only limited discounts for low earners. This was to be the most universally unpopular policy of her premiership, and saw the Conservative government split further behind the Labour opposition (still led by Neil Kinnock) in the opinion polls. The Charge was introduced early in Scotland as the rateable values would in any case have been reassessed in 1989. However, it led to accusations that Scotland was a 'testing ground' for the tax. Thatcher apparently believed that the new tax would be popular, and had been persuaded by Scottish Conservatives to bring it in early and in one go. Despite her hopes, the early introduction led to a sharp decline in the already low support for the Conservative party in Scotland.
Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than earlier predictions. Some have argued that local councils saw the introduction of the new system of taxation as the opportunity to make significant increases in the amount taken, assuming (correctly) that it would be the originators of the new tax system and not its local operators who would be blamed.
A large London demonstration against the poll tax in Trafalgar Square on 31 March 1990 — the day before it was introduced in England and Wales — turned into a riot. Millions of people resisted paying the tax. Opponents of the tax banded together to resist bailiffs and disrupt court hearings of poll tax debtors. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise, or change the tax, and its unpopularity was a major factor in Thatcher's downfall.
By the autumn of 1990, opposition to Thatcher's policies on local government taxation, her Government's perceived mishandling of the economy (especially high interest rates of 15%, which were undermining her core voting base within the home-owning, entrepreneurial and business sectors), and the divisions opening within her party over the appropriate handling of European integration made Thatcher and her party seem increasingly politically vulnerable. Her increasingly combative, irritable personality also made opposition to her grow fast and by this point, even many in her own party could not stand her.
John Major (1990–97)
In November 1990, Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher for leadership of the Conservative Party. Thatcher fell short of the required 15% majority in the first round and was persuaded to withdraw from the second round on 22 November, ending her 11-year premiership. Her Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major contested the second round and defeated Michael Heseltine as well as Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, becoming prime minister on 27 November 1990.
By this stage, however, Britain had slid into recession for the third time in less than 20 years. Unemployment had started to rise in the spring of 1990 but by the end of the year it was still lower than in many other European economies, particularly France and Italy.
John Major was Prime Minister during British involvement in the Gulf War. Polls improved for the Conservatives despite the recession deepening throughout 1991 and into 1992, with the economy for 1991 falling 2% and unemployment passing the 2,000,000 mark. Major called a general election for April 1992 and took his campaign onto the streets, famously delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as in his Lambeth days. This populist "common touch", in contrast to the Labour Party's more slick campaign, chimed with the electorate and Major won, albeit with a small parliamentary majority.
The narrow majority for the Conservative government proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the United Kingdom's forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) just five months into the new parliament. From this stage onwards, Labour – now led by John Smith – was ascendant in the opinion polls. Major allowed his economic team to stay in place unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before forcing the resignation of his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, whom he replaced with Kenneth Clarke. This delay was seen as indicative of one of his weaknesses, an indecisiveness towards personnel issues that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his premiership.
At the 1993 Conservative Party Conference, Major began his ill-fated "Back to Basics" campaign, which he intended to be about the economy, education, policing, and other such issues, but it was interpreted by many (including Conservative cabinet ministers) as an attempt to revert to the moral and family values that the Conservative Party were often associated with. A number of sleaze scandals involving Conservative MP's were exposed in lurid and embarrassing detail in tabloid newspapers following this and further reduced the Conservative's popularity. Despite Major's best efforts, the Conservative Party collapsed into political infighting. Major took a moderate approach but found himself undermined by the right-wing within the party and the Cabinet.
Major's policy towards the European Union aroused opposition as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to undertake tactical moves to weaken the government, which included passing an amendment that required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs (the Maastricht Rebels) voted against the Government and the vote was lost. Major hit back by calling another vote on the following day (23 July 1993), which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by 40 but had damaged his authority.
One of the few bright spots of 1993 for the Conservative government came in April when the end of the recession was finally declared after nearly three years. Unemployment had touched 3,000,000 by the turn of the year, but had dipped to 2,800,000 by Christmas as the economic recovery continued. The economic recovery was strong and sustained throughout 1994, with unemployment falling below 2,500,000 by the end of the year. However, Labour remained ascendant in the opinion polls and their popularity further increased with the election of Tony Blair – who redesignated the party as New Labour – as leader following the sudden death of John Smith on 12 May 1994. Labour remained ascendant in the polls throughout 1995, despite the Conservative government overseeing the continuing economic recovery and fall in unemployment. It was a similar story throughout 1996, despite the economy still being strong and unemployment back below 2,000,000 for the first time since early 1991. The Railways Act 1993  was introduced by John Major's Conservative government and passed on 5 November 1993. It provided for the restructuring of the British Railways Board (BRB), the public corporation that owned and operated the national railway system. A few residual responsibilities of the BRB remained with BRB (Residuary) Ltd.
Few were surprised when Major lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair, though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted. In the new parliament Labour won 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, leaving the Labour party with a majority of 179 which was the biggest majority since 1931. In addition, the Conservatives lost all their seats in Scotland and Wales and several cabinet ministers including Michael Portillo, Malcolm Rifkind and Ian Lang lost their seats, as did former cabinet minister Norman Lamont. Major carried on as Leader of the Opposition until William Hague was elected to lead the Conservative Party the month after the election.
Labour Government, 1997–2010
Tony Blair (1997–2007)
Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 after a landslide victory over the Conservative Party. Under the title of New Labour, he promised economic and social reform and brought Labour closer to the centre of the political spectrum. Early policies of the Blair government included the minimum wage and the introduction of university tuition fees. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown also gave the Bank of England the power to set the base rate of interest autonomously. The traditional tendency of governments to manipulate interest rates around the time of general elections for political gain is thought to have been deleterious to the UK economy and helped reinforce a cyclical pattern of boom and bust. Brown's decision was popular with the City, which the Labour Party had been courting since the early 1990s. Blair presided over the longest period of economic expansion in Britain since the 19th century and his premiership saw large investment into social aspects, in particular health and education, areas particularly under-invested during the Conservative government of the 1980s and early 1990s. The Human Rights Act was introduced in 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2000. Most hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords in 1999 and the Civil Partnership Act of 2005 allowed homosexual couples the right to register their partnership with the same rights and responsibilities comparable to heterosexual marriage.
The nation was stunned when Princess Diana died in a car accident in Paris on 31 August 1997, even though she had divorced Prince Charles a few years earlier. Numerous conspiracy theories arose about her being intentionally murdered due to her plans to marry an Arab businessman, although nothing was ever proven.
From the beginning, New Labour's record on the economy and unemployment was strong, suggesting that they could break with the trend of Labour governments overseeing an economic decline while in power. They had inherited an unemployment count of 1,700,000 from the Conservatives, and by the following year unemployment was down to 1,300,000 – a level not seen since James Callaghan was in power some 20 years previously. A minimum wage was announced in May 1998, coming into force from April 1999. Unemployment would remain similarly low for the next 10 years.
The long-running Northern Ireland peace process was brought to a conclusion in 1998 with the Belfast Agreement which established a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and de-escalated the violence associated with the Troubles. It was signed in April 1998 by the British and Irish governments and was endorsed by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland with the exception of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. Voters in Northern Ireland approved the agreement in a referendum in May 1998 and it came into force in December 1999. In August 1998, a car-bomb exploded in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, killing 29 people and injuring 220. The attack was carried out by the Real Irish Republican Army who opposed the Belfast Agreement. It was reported in 2005, that the IRA had renounced violence and had ditched its entire arsenal.
In foreign policy, following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Blair greatly supported U.S. President George W. Bush's new War on Terror which began with the forced withdrawal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Blair's case for the subsequent war in Iraq was based on their alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and consequent violation of UN resolutions. He was wary of making direct appeals for regime change, since international law does not recognise this as a ground for war. A memorandum from a July 2002 meeting that was leaked in April 2005 showed that Blair believed that the British public would support regime change in the right political context; the document, however, stated that legal grounds for such action were weak. On 24 September 2002 the Government published a dossier based on the intelligence agencies' assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Among the items in the dossier was a recently received intelligence report that "the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so". A further briefing paper on Iraq's alleged WMDs was issued to journalists in February 2003. This document was discovered to have taken a large part of its text without attribution from a PhD thesis available on the internet. Where the thesis hypothesised about possible WMDs, the Downing Street version presented the ideas as fact. The document subsequently became known as the "Dodgy Dossier".
46,000 British troops, one-third of the total strength of the British Army (land forces), were deployed to assist with the invasion of Iraq. When after the war, no WMDs were found in Iraq, the two dossiers, together with Blair's other pre-war statements, became an issue of considerable controversy. Many Labour Party members, including a number who had supported the war, were among the critics. Successive independent inquiries (including those by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, the senior judge Lord Hutton, and the former senior civil servant Lord Butler of Brockwell) have found that Blair honestly stated what he believed to be true at the time, though Lord Butler's report did imply that the Government's presentation of the intelligence evidence had been subject to some degree of exaggeration. These findings have not prevented frequent accusations that Blair was deliberately deceitful, and, during the 2005 election campaign, Conservative leader Michael Howard made political capital out of the issue. The new threat of international terrorism ultimately led to the 7 July 2005 bomb attacks in London which killed 52 people as well as the four suicide bombers who led the attack.
The Labour government was re-elected with a second successive landslide in the general election of June 2001. Blair became the first Labour leader to lead the party to three successive election victories when they won the 2005 general election, though this time he had a drastically reduced majority.
The Conservatives had so far failed to represent a serious challenge to Labour's rule, with John Major's successor William Hague unable to make any real improvement upon the disastrous 1997 general election result at the next election four years later. He stepped down after the 2001 election to be succeeded by Iain Duncan Smith, who did not even hold the leadership long enough to contest a general election – being ousted by his own MP's in October 2003 and being replaced by Michael Howard, who had served as Home Secretary in the government of John Major. Howard failed to win the 2005 general election for the Conservatives but he at least had the satisfaction of narrowing the Labour majority, giving his successor (he announced his resignation shortly after the election) a decent platform to build upon. However, the Conservatives began to re-emerge as an electable prospect following the election of David Cameron as Howard's successor in December 2005. Within months of Cameron becoming Conservative leader, opinion polls during 2006 were showing a regular Conservative lead for the first time since Black Wednesday 14 years earlier. Despite the economy still being strong and unemployment remaining low, Labour's decline in support was largely blamed upon poor control of immigration and allowing Britain to become what was seen by many as an easy target for terrorists.
Devolution for Scotland and Wales
Blair also came into power with a policy of devolution. A pre-legislative referendum was held in Scotland in 1997 with two questions: whether to create a devolved Parliament for Scotland and whether it should have limited tax-varying powers. Following a clear 'yes' vote on both questions, a referendum on the proposal for creating a devolved Assembly was held two weeks later. This produced a narrow 'yes' vote. Both measures were put into effect and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly began operating in 1999. The first election to the Scottish parliament saw the creation of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition with Donald Dewar as First Minister. In Wales, the Labour Party achieved a complete majority with Alun Michael as the Welsh First Minister. In the 2007 Scottish election, the Scottish National Party gained enough seats to form a minority government with its leader Alex Salmond as First Minister.
Devolution also returned to Northern Ireland, leaving England as the only constituent country of the United Kingdom without a devolved administration. Within England, a devolved authority for London was re-established following a 'yes' vote in a London-wide referendum.
On 18 September 2014, a referendum on Scottish independence failed with a 55/44 percentage.
Gordon Brown (2007–10)
Tony Blair tendered his resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Queen on 27 June 2007, his successor Gordon Brown assuming office the same afternoon. Brown took over as Prime Minister without having to face either a general election or a contested election for leadership of the Labour Party.
Brown's style of government differed from that of his predecessor, Tony Blair, who had been seen as presidential. Brown rescinded some of the policies which had either been introduced or were planned by Blair's administration. He remained committed to close ties with the United States and to the Iraq war, although he established an inquiry into the reasons why Britain had participated in the conflict. He proposed a "government of all the talents" which would involve co-opting leading personalities from industry and other professional walks of life into government positions. Brown also appointed Jacqui Smith as the UK's first female Home Secretary, while Brown's old position as Chancellor was taken over by Alistair Darling.
Brown was closer to American thinking, and more distant from Europe, than Blair. In major issues with foreign policy complications, He paid close attention to both the United States and the EU, especially regarding the deregulation of the Bank of England, the Welfare to Work program, and his response to the worldwide financial crisis at the G20 summit in London in 2009. Brown decided in 1997 to follow the American model and grant operational independence to set interest rates to the Bank of England, rather than have the power remain with the Treasury. He explained the Bank's monetary policy objective "will be to deliver price stability and...to support the Government's economic policy." Brown argued for a neoliberal policy on welfare in 1997. His goal was to move people off welfare and into actual employment. He stated:
We cannot build a dynamic economy unless we can unleash the potential and everyone. A welfare state that thwarts the opportunities that we need to hold the economy back. A welfare state that encourages work is not only fair but makes for greater dynamism in the economy.
Brown’s reaction to the great 2008 banking crisis was much more pro active than France or Germany, and in many ways resembled the Bush policies in Washington. Brown's goals were to provide more liquidity to the financial system, to recapitalise the banks and to guarantee bank debt. He lowered the VAT to encourage consumer spending and to keep the economy from sinking.
Brown's rise to prime minister sparked a brief surge in Labour support as the party topped most opinion polls. There was talk of a "snap" general election, which it was widely believed Labour could win, but Brown decided against calling an election.
Brown's government introduced a number of fiscal policies to help keep the British economy afloat during the financial crisis which occurred throughout the latter part of the 2000s (decade) and early 2010, although the United Kingdom saw a dramatic increase in its national debt. Unemployment soared through 2008 as the recession set in, and Labour standings in the opinion polls plummeted as the Conservatives became ascendant.
Several major banks were nationalised after falling into financial difficulties, while large amounts of money were pumped into the economy to encourage spending. Brown was also press ganged into giving Gurkhas settlement rights in Britain by the actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley and attracted criticism for its handling of the release of Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the only person to have been convicted over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Further European integration was introduced under the Labour governments after 1997, including the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) and the Treaty of Nice (2001). The Treaty of Lisbon (2007)introduced many further changes. 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 established by the Maastricht Treaty of the early 1990s 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.
Initially, during the first four months of his premiership, Brown enjoyed a solid lead in the polls. His popularity amongst the public may be due to his handling of numerous serious events during his first few weeks as Prime Minister, including two attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow at the end of June. However, between the end of 2007 and September 2008, his popularity had fallen significantly, with two contributing factors believed to be his perceived change of mind over plans to call a snap general election in October 2007, and his handling of the 10p tax rate cut in 2008, which led to allegations of weakness and dithering. His unpopularity led eight labour MPs to call for a leadership contest in September 2008, less than 15 months into his premiership. The threat of a leadership contest receded due to his perceived strong handling of the global financial crisis in October, but his popularity hit an all-time low, and his position became increasingly under threat after the May 2009 expenses scandal and Labour's poor results in the 2009 Local and European elections. Brown's cabinet began to rebel with several key resignations in the run up to local elections in June 2009.
In January 2010, it was revealed that Britain's economy had resumed growth after a recession which had seen a record six successive quarters of economic detraction. However, it was a narrow return to growth, and it came after the other major economies had come out of recession.
The 2010 general election resulted in a hung parliament – Britain's first for 36 years – with the Conservative Party controlling 306 Seats, the Labour Party 258 Seats and the Liberal Democrats 57 Seats. Brown remained as prime minister while the Liberal Democrats negotiated with Labour and the Conservatives to form a coalition government. He announced his intention to resign on 10 May 2010 in order to help broker a Labour-Liberal Democrat deal. However, this became increasingly unlikely, and on 11 May Brown announced his resignation as Prime Minister and as Leader of the Labour Party. This paved the way for the Conservatives to return to power after 13 years.
Coalition Government, 2010–15
The Conservative Party won the 2010 general election but did not win enough seats to win an outright majority. David Cameron, who had led the party since 2005 became Prime Minister on 11 May 2010 after the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and several other Liberal Democrats were given cabinet positions. Cameron promised to reduce Britain's spiralling budget deficit by cutting back on public service spending and by transferring more power to local authorities. He committed his government to Britain's continuing role in Afghanistan and stated that he hopes to remove British troops from the region by 2015. An emergency budget was prepared in June 2010 by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne which stated that VAT will be raised to 20% and there will be a large reduction in public spending. A key Liberal Democrat policy is that of voting reform, to which a referendum took place in May 2011 on whether or not Britain should adopt a system of Alternative Vote to elect MPs to Westminster. However, the proposal was rejected overwhelmingly, with 68% of voters in favour of retaining first-past-the-post. The Liberal Democrat turnabout on tuition policy at the universities alienated their younger supporters, and the continuing weakness of the economy, despite spending cutbacks, alienated the elders.
In March 2011, UK, along with France and USA voted for military intervention against Gaddafi's Libya leading to 2011 military intervention in Libya. Prince William married Kate Middleton on 29 April 2011 in a globally televised event much like his parents' wedding 30 years earlier. In July 2013, the royal couple welcomed their first child, Prince George. In May 2015, they welcomed their second child, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. On 6 August, the Death of Mark Duggan sparked off the 2011 England riots.
In 2012, the Summer Olympics returned to London for the first time since 1948. The United States claimed the largest count of gold medals, with Britain running third place after China.
In 2014, Scotland voted in a referendum on the question of becoming an independent country. The No side, supported by the three major UK parties, secured a 55% to 45% majority for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Following the result on 18 September 2014, Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, announced his intention to step down as First Minister and leader of the SNP. He was replaced by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.
Conservative Government, 2015–present
David Cameron (2015–16)
After years of austerity, the British economy was on an upswing in 2015. In line with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the 2015 general election was called for 7 May 2015. The Conservatives claimed credit for the upswing, promising to keep taxes low and reduce the deficit as well as promising an In/Out referendum on the UK's relationship with the European Union. The rival Labour party called for a higher minimum wage, and higher taxes on the rich. In Scotland, the SNP attacked the austerity programme, opposed nuclear weapons and demanded that promises of more autonomy for Scotland made during the independence referendum be delivered.
Pre-election polls had predicted a close race and a hung parliament, but the surprising result was that a majority Conservative government was elected. The Conservatives with 37% of the popular vote held a narrow majority with 331 of the 650 seats. The other main victor was the Scottish National Party which won 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 232 seats; they lost 40 of their 41 seats in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats vote fell by 2/3 and they lost 49 of their 57 seats, as their coalition with the Conservatives had alienated the great majority of their supporters. The new 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 constituencies but came in first in only one. Women now comprise 29% of the MPs. Following the election, the Leaders of the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats both resigned. They were replaced by Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron, respectively.
Withdrawal from the EU
This section needs to be updated.(June 2017)
On 23 June 2016, UK voters elected to withdraw from the European Union by a thin margin with 48% in favour of remaining, 52% in favour of leaving the European Union. London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were three regions most in favour of the Remain vote, while Wales and England's northern region were strongly pro-Leave. Although he called for the referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron had campaigned ardently for the Remain vote. He faced significant opposition from other parties on the right who came to view British membership in the EU as a detriment to the country's security and economic vitality. UKIP leader Nigel Farage called the vote Britain's "independence day", despite the fact that the UK was already an independent sovereign country.
Brexit had a few immediate consequences. Hours after the results of the referendum, David Cameron announced that he would resign as Prime Minister, claiming that "fresh leadership" was needed. In addition, because Scottish voters were highly in favour of remaining in the EU, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that the Scottish government would begin to organize another referendum on the question of Scottish independence. On the economic side of things, the value of the British pound declined sharply after the results of the election were made clear. Stock markets in both Britain and New York were down the day after the referendum. Oil prices also fell.
Theresa May (2016–)
This section needs to be updated.(June 2017)
A Conservative Party leadership election occurred following Cameron's announcement of his resignation. All candidates except Theresa May had either been eliminated or withdrawn from the race by 11 July 2016; a result, May automatically became the new Leader of the Conservative Party, to become Prime Minister on 13 July. On 18 April 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would seek an election on 8 June, despite previously ruling out an early election.
- Social history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)
- Social history of England § Since 1945
- Post–World War II economic expansion
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