Social history of the United Kingdom (1945–present)

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Modern Britain
8 May 1945 – present
Preceded bySecond World War
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The social history of the United Kingdom from 1945 began with the aftermath of the Second World War. The United Kingdom was one of the victors, but victory was costly in social and economic terms. Thus, the late-1940s was a time of austerity and economic restraint, which gave way to prosperity in the 1950s. The Labour Party, led by wartime Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee, won the 1945 postwar general election in an unexpected landslide and formed their first ever majority government. Labour governed until 1951, and granted independence to India in 1947. Most of the other major overseas colonies became independent in the late-1950s and early-1960s. The UK collaborated closely with the United States during the Cold War after 1947, and in 1949; helped to form NATO as a military alliance against the spread of Soviet Communism. After a long debate and initial scepticism, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community along with Ireland and Denmark on 1 January 1973, but voted to leave the European Union in a nationwide referendum held on 23 June 2016. Immigration from South Asia, the West Indies, and Eastern Europe laid the foundations for the modern-day multicultural society in today's Britain, while traditional Anglican and other denominations of Christianity declined sharply.

Prosperity returned in the 1950s, reaching the middle-class and, to a large extent, the working-class across Britain. London remained a world centre of finance and culture, but the nation was no longer a superpower. In foreign policy, the UK promoted the Commonwealth (in the economic sphere) and the Atlantic Alliance (in the military sphere). In domestic policy, a post-war consensus saw the leadership of the Labour and Conservative parties largely agreed on Keynesian policies, with support for trade unions, regulation of business, and nationalisation of many older industries. The discovery of North Sea oil eased some financial pressures, but the 1970s saw slow economic growth, rising unemployment, and escalating labour strife. Deindustrialisation or the loss of heavy industry, especially coal mining, shipbuilding and manufacturing, grew worse after 1970 as the British economy shifted to services. London and the South East maintained prosperity, as London became the leading financial centre in Europe and played a major role in world affairs.

Higher education expanded rapidly and attracted an international clientele, while debates raged on the elitist effect of grammar schools. The status of women slowly improved. A youth culture emerged from the 1960s with such iconic international celebrities as: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Princess Diana. Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) rejected the post-war consensus in the 1980s, privatised most state-owned industries, and worked to weaken the power and influence of the trade unions. The "New Labour" premiership of Tony Blair (1997–2007) accepted most of Thatcher's economic policies. Devolution became a major topic, as Scotland and Wales gained more local control following referenda held in 1997. In 2014, a referendum on Scottish independence was held, and Scotland voted 55% to 45% to remain part of the UK.

Post-war era[edit]

Age of Austerity[edit]

Clement Attlee was Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951.

In May 1945 the governing coalition dissolved, triggering the long-overdue 1945 general election.[1] Labour won just under 50% of the vote and a majority of 145 seats.[2] The new Prime Minister Clement Attlee proclaimed, "This is the first time in the history of the country that a labour movement with a socialist policy has received the approval of the electorate."[3]

During the war, surveys showed public opinion moving to the left and in favour of wide social reform.[4] The public associated the Conservative Party with the poverty and mass unemployment of the inter-war years.[5] Historian Henry Pelling, noting that polls showed a steady Labour lead after 1942, points to the usual swing against the party in power; the Conservative loss of initiative; wide fears of a return to the high unemployment of the 1930s; the theme that socialist planning would be more efficient in operating the economy; and the mistaken belief that Churchill would continue as prime minister regardless of the result.[6] The sense that all Britons had joined in a "People's War" and all deserved a reward animated voters.[7]

As the war ended and American Lend Lease suddenly and unexpectedly ended,[8] the Treasury was near bankruptcy and Labour's new programmes would be expensive.[citation needed] The economy did not reach prewar levels until the 1950s. Due to continued and increased rationing, the immediate post-war years were called the Age of Austerity, (not to be confused with the 21st-century Age of Austerity).[9][citation needed]

The war almost bankrupted Britain, while the country maintained a global empire in an attempt to remain a global power.[10] It operated a large air force and a conscript army.[11] Without Lend Lease, bankruptcy loomed. The government secured a low-interest $3.75 billion loan from the US in December 1945.[12] Rebuilding necessitated fiscal austerity in order to maximise export earnings, while Britain's colonies and other client states were required to keep their reserves in pounds as "sterling balances".[13] An additional $3.2 billion – which did not have to be repaid – came from the American Marshall Plan in 1948–52. However the Plan did require Britain to modernise its business practices and remove trade barriers. Britain was an enthusiastic supporter of the Marshall Plan and used it as a lever to more directly promote European unity.[14] Britain was an enthusiastic cofounder of the NATO military alliance formed in 1949 against the Soviets.[15]

Rationing, especially of food, continued in the post-war years as the government tried to control demand and normalise the economy.[16] Anxieties were heightened when the country suffered one of the worst winters on record in 1946–47: the coal and railway systems failed, factories closed, and a large proportion of the population suffered due to the cold.[17]


Wartime rationing continued and was for the first time extended to bread in order to feed the German civilians in the British sector of occupied Germany.[18] During the war the government had banned ice cream and had rationed sweets such as chocolates and confections; all sweets were rationed until 1954.[19] Rationing was beneficial for many of the poor because their rationed diet was of greater nutritional value than their pre-war diet. Housewives organised to oppose the austerity.[20] The Conservatives gained support by attacking socialism, austerity, rationing and economic controls and returned to power in 1951.[21]

Morale was boosted by the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten in 1947,[22] and by the 1948 Summer Olympics held in London.[23] Reconstruction had begun in London but no funding was available for new facilities.[24]

Welfare state[edit]

A British 1948 National Insurance stamp, which workers had to purchase to contribute to benefits and pensions

The most important Labour initiatives were the expansion of the welfare state, the founding of the National Health Service and nationalisation of the coal, gas, electricity, railways and other primary industries. The welfare state was expanded by the National Insurance Act 1946, which built upon the comprehensive system of social security originally set up in 1911.[25] People of working age had to pay a weekly contribution (by buying a stamp) and in return were entitled to a wide range of benefits, including a pension, health and unemployment benefits, and widows' benefits.[26]

The National Health Service began operations in July 1948.[27] It promised to give cradle to grave free hospital and medical care for everyone in the country, regardless of income. Labour went on to expand low cost council housing for the poor.[28]

The Treasury, headed by Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton, faced urgent problems. Half of the wartime economy had been devoted to mobilising soldiers, warplanes, bombs and munitions; a transition to a peacetime budget was begun while attempting to control inflation.[29] New loans from the US and Canada to replace Lend Lease were essential to sustain living conditions.[30]


Housing was a critical shortage.[31] Air raids had destroyed half a million housing units; upgrades and repairs on undamaged units had been postponed.[32] Three-quarters of a million new dwellings were needed.[33] The government aimed for 300,000 annually,[34] compared to the maximum prewar rate of 350,000. However, shortages of builders, materials,[35] and money limited progress.[30] Not counting 150,000 temporary prefabricated units, the shortage reached 1,500,000 units by 1951.[36] Legislation kept rents down[37] but did not lead to an increase in the number of new homes. The ambitious New Towns project did not provide enough units.[38] The Conservatives made housing a high priority and oversaw the building of 2,500,000 new units, two-thirds of them through local councils. Haste made for dubious quality and policy increasingly shifted towards renovation of existing properties rather than the construction of new ones. Slums were cleared, opening the way for gentrification in the inner cities.[39]


Martin Francis argues there was Labour Party consensus by 1945, both on the National Executive Committee and at party conferences, on a definition of socialism that stressed moral as well as material improvement. The Attlee government was committed to rebuilding British society as an ethical commonwealth, using public ownership and controls to abolish extremes of wealth and poverty. Labour's ideology contrasted sharply with the contemporary Conservative Party's defence of individualism, inherited privileges, and income inequality.[40]

Attlee's government nationalised major industries and utilities. It developed and implemented the "cradle to grave" welfare state conceived by liberal economist William Beveridge. The creation of Britain's publicly funded National Health Service under health minister Aneurin Bevan remains Labour's proudest achievement.[41]

However the Labour Party had developed no detailed nationalization plans.[42][incomplete short citation] Improvising, they started with the Bank of England, civil aviation, coal and Cable and Wireless. Then came railways, canals, road haulage and trucking, electricity, and gas. Finally came iron and steel, which was a special case because it was a manufacturing industry. Altogether, about one fifth of the economy was taken over. Labour dropped the notion of nationalising farms.

On the whole nationalisation went smoothly, with two exceptions. Nationalising hospitals was strongly opposed by practising physicians. Compromises allowed them also to have a private practice, and the great majority decided to work with the National Health Service. Much more controversial was the nationalisation of the iron and steel industry — unlike coal, it was profitable and highly efficient. Nationalisation was opposed by industry owners and executives, the business community as a whole and the Conservative Party as a whole. The House of Lords was also opposed, but the Parliament Act 1949 reduced its power to delay legislation to just one year. Finally in 1951, iron and steel were nationalised, but then Labour lost its majority. The Conservatives in 1955 returned them to private ownership.[43][incomplete short citation]

The procedure used was developed by Herbert Morrison, who as Lord President of the Council chaired the Committee on the Socialisation of Industries. He followed the model that was already in place of setting up public corporations such as the BBC in broadcasting (1927). The owners of corporate stock were given government bonds and the government took full ownership of each affected company, consolidating it into a national monopoly. The managers remained the same, only now they became civil servants working for the government. For the Labour Party leadership, nationalisation was a way to consolidate economic planning. 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. Hard line British Marxists were fervent believers in dialectical materialism and in fighting against capitalism and for workers' control, trade unionism, nationalisation of industry and centralized planning. They were now disappointed, as the nationalised industries seemed identical to the old private corporations, and national planning was made virtually impossible by the government's financial constraints. At Oxford a "New Left" started to emerge that rejected old-line approaches.[44] Socialism was in place, but it did not seem to make a major difference. Rank-and-file workers had long been motivated to support Labour by tales of the mistreatment of workers by foremen and management. The foremen and the managers were the same people as before, with much the same power over the workplace. There was no worker control of industry. The unions resisted government efforts to set wages. By the time of the general elections in 1950 and 1951, Labour seldom boasted about its nationalisations. Instead Conservatives decried the inefficiency and mismanagement, and promised to reverse the treatment of steel and trucking.[45][incomplete short citation][46]

Labour weaknesses[edit]

Labour struggled to maintain its support. Realising the unpopularity of rationing, in 1948–49 the government ended the rationing of potatoes, bread, shoes, clothing and jam, and increased the petrol ration for summer drivers. However, meat was still rationed, and in very short supply, at high prices.[47] Militant socialist Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health, said at a party rally in 1948, "no amount of cajolery... can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party.... They are lower than vermin." Bevan, a coal miner's son, had gone too far in a land that took pride in self-restraint, and he never lived down the remark.[48]

Labour narrowly won the 1950 general election with a majority of five seats. Defence became one of the divisive issues for Labour itself, especially defence spending, which reached 14% of GDP in 1951 during the Korean War. These costs strained public finances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell, introduced prescription charges for NHS dentures and spectacles, leading Bevan, along with Harold Wilson (President of the Board of Trade) to resign. A decade of turmoil ensued in the Party, much to the advantage of the Conservatives who won again and again by ever larger majorities.[49]

David Kynaston argues that the Labour Party under Attlee was led by conservative parliamentarians who always worked through constitutional parliamentary channels; they saw no need for large demonstrations, boycotts or symbolic strikes. The result was a solid expansion and coordination of the welfare system, most notably the concentrated and centralised NHS. Private sector nationalisation focused on older, declining industries, most notably coal mining. Labour kept promising systematic economic planning, but never established adequate mechanisms. Much of the planning was forced upon them by the Marshall Plan, which insisted on a modernisation of business procedures and government regulations.[50] The Keynesian model accepted by Labour emphasised that planning could be handled indirectly through national spending and tax policies.[51]

Cold War[edit]

Britain faced severe financial constraints, lacking cash for needed imports. It responded by reducing its international entanglements as in Greece, and by sharing the hardships of an "age of austerity."[52] Early fears that the US would veto nationalisation or welfare policies proved groundless.[53]

Under Attlee foreign policy was the domain of Ernest Bevin, who looked for innovative ways to bring western Europe together in a military alliance. One early attempt was the Dunkirk Treaty with France in 1947.[54] Bevin's commitment to the West European security system made him eager to sign the Treaty of Brussels in 1948. It drew Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg into an arrangement for collective security, opening the way for the formation of NATO in 1949. NATO was primarily aimed as a defensive measure against Soviet expansion, while helping bring its members closer together and enabled them to modernise their forces along parallel lines, also encouraging arms purchases from Britain.[55]

Bevin began the process of dismantling the British Empire when it granted independence to India and Pakistan in 1947, followed by Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1948.[56] In January 1947, the government decided to proceed with the development of Britain's nuclear weapons programme, primarily to enhance Britain's security and also its status as a superpower. A handful of top elected officials made the decision in secret, ignoring the rest of the cabinet, in order to forestall the Labour Party's pacifist and anti-nuclear wing.[57]

Return of Churchill[edit]

In the late 1940s the Conservative Party exploited and incited growing public anger at food rationing, scarcity, controls, austerity and omnipresent government bureaucracy. They used the dissatisfaction with their opponent's socialist and egalitarian policies to rally middle-class supporters and score a political victory at the 1951 general election. Their appeal was especially effective to housewives, who faced more difficult shopping conditions after the war than during it.[58]

The 300-foot Skylon hung in midair at the Festival of Britain, 1951

The Labour Party kept slipping, interrupted by good moments such as the Festival of Britain in summer 1951, a national exhibition and fair held throughout the country. Historian Kenneth O. Morgan says the Festival was a "triumphant success" as every day thousands:

flocked to the South Bank site [in London], to wander around the Dome of Discovery, gaze at the Skylon, and generally enjoy a festival of national celebration. Up and down the land, lesser festivals enlisted much civic and voluntary enthusiasm. A people curbed by years of total war and half-crushed by austerity and gloom, showed that it had not lost the capacity for enjoying itself....Above all, the Festival made a spectacular setting as a showpiece for the inventiveness and genius of British scientists and technologists.[59]

The Conservative Party restored its credibility on economic policy with the Industrial Charter written by Rab Butler, which emphasised the importance of removing unnecessary controls, while going far beyond the laissez-faire attitude of old towards industrial social problems. Churchill was party leader, but he brought in a Party Chairman to modernise the institution. Lord Woolton was a successful department store owner and wartime Minister of Food. As Party Chairman 1946–55, he rebuilt its local organisations with an emphasis on membership, money and a unified national propaganda appeal on critical issues. To broaden the base of potential candidates, the national party provided financial aid and assisted local organisations in raising local money. Lord Woolton emphasised a rhetoric that characterised the opponents as "Socialist" rather than "Labour." The libertarian influence of Professor Friedrich Hayek's 1944 best-seller Road to Serfdom was apparent in the younger generation, but that took another quarter century to have a policy impact. By 1951, Labour's factions were bitterly divided.

The Conservatives narrowly won the October 1951 election, although Labour got considerably more votes. Most of the new programmes passed by Labour were accepted by the Conservatives and became part of the "post war consensus" that lasted until the 1970s.[60] The Conservatives ended rationing and reduced controls, and sold the famous Skylon for scrap. They were conciliatory towards unions and retained nationalisation and the welfare state, while privatising the steel and road haulage industries in 1953.[61]

Golden Age[edit]

In the 1950s, rebuilding continued, and immigrants from Commonwealth nations, mostly from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, began arriving in a steady flow. The shock of the Suez Crisis of 1956 made clear that Britain had lost its role as a superpower. It already knew it could no longer afford its large Empire. This led to decolonisation, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970.

In 1957 Prime Minister Macmillan boasted:[62]

Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go round the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country.

Unemployment figures[63] show that unemployment was significantly lower during the Golden Age than before or after:

Epoch Date range % of British labour force unemployed
Pre–Golden Age 1921–1938 13.4
Golden Age 1950–1969 1.6
Post–Golden Age 1970–1993 6.7

In addition to superior economic performance, other social indexes were higher in the golden age; for example, the proportion of Britain's population saying they are "very happy" registered at 52% in 1957 but fell to just 36% in 2005.[64][65]

The 1950s and 1960s experienced continued modernisation of the economy.[66] Representative was the construction of the first motorways. Britain maintained and increased its financial role in the world economy, and used the English language to promote its educational system to students from around the globe. With relatively low unemployment during this period, the standard of living continued to rise, with new private and council housing developments increasing and the number of slum properties diminishing.

During the period, unemployment in Britain averaged only 2%. As prosperity returned after the war, Britons became more family-centred.[67] Leisure activities became more accessible to more people. Holiday camps, which had first opened in the 1930s, became popular holiday destinations in the 1950s – and people increasingly had the ability to pursue personal hobbies. The BBC's early television service was given a major boost in 1953 with the coronation of Elizabeth II, attracting a worldwide audience of twenty million, plus tens of millions more by radio. Many middle-class people bought televisions to view the event. In 1950 just 1% owned television sets; by 1965 25% did, and many more were rented. As austerity receded after 1950 and consumer demand kept growing, the Labour Party hurt itself by shunning consumerism as the antithesis of the socialism it demanded.[68]

Small neighbourhood shops were increasingly replaced by chain stores and shopping centres. Cars were becoming a significant part of British life, with city-centre congestion and ribbon developments springing up along major roads. These problems led to the idea of a green belt to protect the countryside, which was at risk from development of new housing units.[69]

The post-war period witnessed a dramatic rise in the average standard of living, with a 40% rise in average real wages from 1950 to 1965.[70][page needed] Workers in traditionally poorly paid semi-skilled and unskilled occupations saw a particularly marked improvement in their wages and living standards. Consumption, became more equal, especially as the landed gentry was pressed to pay its taxes and had to reduce its level of consumption. The rise in wages spurred consumer spending to increase by about 20% during the period, while economic growth continued at about 3%. The last food rations were ended in 1954, along with hire-purchase controls. As a result of these changes, large numbers of the working classes were able to participate in the consumer market for the first time.[71] The number one major purchase was a washing machine. Ownership jumped from 18 percent in 1955 to 29 percent in 1958 and 60 percent in 1966.[72]

Various fringe benefits became more common. In 1955, 96% of manual labourers were entitled to two weeks' holiday with pay, compared with 61% in 1951. By the end of the 1950s, Britain had become one of the world's most affluent countries, and by the early Sixties, most Britons enjoyed a level of prosperity that had previously been the privilege of only a small minority.[73] For the first time in decades, the young and unattached had spare cash for leisure, clothes and even luxuries. In 1959, Queen magazine declared that "Britain has launched into an age of unparalleled lavish living." Average wages were high while jobs were plentiful, and people saw their personal prosperity climb even higher. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan claimed that "the luxuries of the rich have become the necessities of the poor." As summed up by R. J. Unstead,

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.[74]

Labour historian Martin Pugh stated:

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.[75]

By 1963, 82% of all private households had a television, 72% a vacuum cleaner, 45% a washing machine, and 30% a refrigerator. John Burnett notes that ownership had spread down the social scale so that the gap between consumption by professional and manual workers had considerably narrowed. The provision of household amenities steadily improved in the late decades of the century. From 1971-1983, households having the sole use of a fixed bath or shower rose from 88% to 97%, and those with an indoor toilet 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.[76]

From a European perspective, however, the UK was not keeping pace. Between 1950-1970, it was overtaken by most of the countries of the European Common Market in terms of telephones, refrigerators, television sets, cars and washing machines per household.[77] Education grew, but not as fast as in rival nations. By the early-1980s, some 80% to 90% of school leavers in France and West Germany received vocational training, compared with 40% in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1980s, over 80% of pupils in the United States and West Germany and over 90% in Japan stayed in education until the age of eighteen, compared with barely 33% of British pupils.[78] In 1987, only 35% of 16-18-year-olds[where?] were in full-time education or training, compared with 80% in the United States, 77% in Japan, 69% in France, and 49% in the United Kingdom.[79]

1970s economic crises[edit]

In comparing economic prosperity (using gross national product per person), the British record was one of steady downward slippage from seventh place in 1950, to twelfth in 1965, to twentieth in 1975. Labour politician Richard Crossman, after visiting prosperous Canada, returned to England with a

sense of restriction, yes, even of decline, the old country always teetering on the edge of a crisis, trying to keep up appearances, with no confident vision of the future.[80]

Economists provided four overlapping explanations. The "early start" theory said that Britain's rivals were doing so well because they were still moving large numbers of farm workers into more lucrative employment, which Britain had done in the nineteenth century. A second theory emphasised the "rejuvenation by defeat", whereby Germany and Japan had been forced to re-equip, rethink and restructure their economies. The third approach emphasised the drag of "imperial distractions", saying that responsibilities to its large empire handicapped the home economy, especially through defence spending, and economic aid. Finally, the theory of "institutional failure" stressed the negative roles of discontinuity, unpredictability, and class envy. The last theory blamed trade unions, public schools, and universities for perpetuating an elitist anti-industrial attitude.[81]

In the 1970s, the exuberance and the radicalism of the 1960s ebbed. Instead a mounting series of economic crises, including many trade union strikes, pushed the British economy further and further behind European and world growth. The result was a major political crisis, and a Winter of Discontent in the winter of 1978–79, when widespread strikes by public sector trade unions seriously inconvenienced and angered the public.[82][83]

Historians Alan Sked and Chris Cook summarise 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 Callaghan'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.[84][incomplete short citation]

Bright spots included large deposits of oil that were found in the North Sea, allowing Britain to become a major oil exporter to Europe in the era of the 1970s energy crisis.[85]

Long term economic factors[edit]

While economic historians concentrate on statistical parameters, cultural historians added to the list of factors to explain Britain's long-term relative economic decline. According to Peter Hennessy, these include:

  • Excessive trade union power.
  • Too much nationalisation.
  • Insufficient entrepreneurship.
  • Too many wars, both hot and cold.
  • The distraction of imperialism.
  • A feeble political class.
  • A weak civil service
  • An enduring aristocratic tradition disparaged management.
  • Weak vocational education at all levels.
  • Social class rigidities interference with progress.[clarification needed][86]

Northern Ireland and the Troubles[edit]

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 Reverend Ian Paisley.[87] The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from unionists for "No surrender" led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures such as John Hume and Austin Currie. Clashes escalated out of control, as the army could barely contain the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Defence Association. British leaders feared their withdrawal would lead to a "doomsday scenario", with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The UK Parliament in London shut down Northern Ireland's parliament and imposed 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 what is commonly referred to as the 'Good Friday Agreement'. This won popular support and largely ended the most violent aspects of The Troubles.[88][89]

Social and cultural forces[edit]

Diana, Princess of Wales[edit]

Diana, Princess of Wales was married to Charles, Prince of Wales from 1981 to 1996. She died in a car accident in 1997.

During the summer of 1981, the nation's spirits were raised by the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.[90] The ceremony reached a global TV audience of 750 million people. It restored the royal family to the headlines where they would become a permanent fixture in tabloids and celebrity gossip publications, as well as a major tourist attraction. Diana became what Tony Blair called the "People's Princess," an iconic national figure, rivalling or surpassing the Queen, until her divorce. Her accidental death brought an unprecedented spasm of grief and mourning.[91] Her brother, the 9th Earl Spencer, captured her role:

Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with a natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.[92]


In the late 1940s Britain was still a Christian nation, with its religiosity reinforced by the wartime experience. Peter Forster found that in answering pollsters, the British people reported an overwhelming belief in the truth of Christianity, a high respect for it, and a strong association between it and moral behaviour.[93] Peter Hennessy argued that long-held attitudes did not stop change; by mid-century "Britain was still a Christian country only in a vague attitudinal sense, belief generally being more a residual husk than the kernel of conviction."[94][page needed] Kenneth O. Morgan agreed, noting that "the Protestant churches, Anglican, and more especially non-conformist, all felt the pressure of falling numbers and of secular challenges....Even the drab Sabbath of Wales and Scotland was under some threat, with pressure for opening cinemas in Wales and golf-courses in Scotland."[95]

Brian Harrison reports that the forces of secularisation grew rapidly, and by the 1990s Protestantism was a shadow of its 1945 strength. Compared to Western Europe, Britain stood at the lower end of attendance at religious services, and near the top in people claiming "no religion". While 80% of Britons in 1950 said they were Christians, only 64% did so in 2000. Harrison states:

By every measure (number of churches, number of parish clergy, church attendance, Easter Day communicants, number of church marriages, membership as a proportion of the adult population) the Church of England was in decline after 1970. In 1985 there were only half as many parish clergy as in 1900.[96]

Roman Catholicism held up, thanks initially to immigration from Ireland and later from Poland.[97] What had been tiny clusters of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists grew enormously through immigration.[98] [99]

Growth trends[edit]

Population of religious groups in Britain[100] 1970 1993
Jews 450,000 300,000
Muslim 250,000 1,000,000
Sikh 75,000 300,000
Hindu 50,000 320,000
Buddhist 6,000 25,000

The Muslim population of England and Wales was over 50 times larger in 2011 compared to 50 years before. Sophie Gilliat-Ray attributes the growth to "recent immigration, the growing birth rate, some conversion to Islam, and perhaps also an increased willingness to self-identify as 'Muslim' on account of the 'war on terror'."[101]

Census year Number of Muslims[102][103] Population of England & Wales % of population Registered mosques
1961 50,000 46,196,000 0.11% 7
1971 226,000 49,152,000 0.46% 30
1981 553,000 49,634,000 1.11% 149
1991 950,000 51,099,000 1.86% 443
2001 1,600,000 52,042,000 3.07% 614
2011 2,706,000 56,076,000 4.83 1,500

Status of women[edit]

The 1950s was a bleak period for feminism. In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on companionate marriage and the nuclear family as a foundation of the new welfare state.[104]

In 1951, the proportion of adult women who were (or had been) married was 75%; more specifically, 84.8% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 were married.[105] At that time: "marriage was more popular than ever before."[106] In 1953, a popular book of advice for women states: "A happy marriage may be seen, not as a holy state or something to which a few may luckily attain, but rather as the best course, the simplest, and the easiest way of life for us all".[107]

While at the end of the war, childcare facilities were closed and assistance for working women became limited, the social reforms implemented by the new welfare state included family allowances meant to subsidise families, that is, to support women in their "capacity as wife and mother."[108] Sue Bruley argues that "the progressive vision of the New Britain of 1945 was flawed by a fundamentally conservative view of women".[109]

Women's commitment to companionate marriage was echoed by the popular media: films, radio and popular women's magazines. In the 1950s, women's magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women's employment.

Nevertheless, 1950s Britain moved to equal pay for teachers (1952) and for men and women in the civil service (1954), thanks to activists like Edith Summerskill.[110] Barbara Caine argues: "Ironically here, as with the vote, success was sometimes the worst enemy of organised feminism, as the achievement of each goal brought to an end the campaign which had been organised around it, leaving nothing in its place."[111]

Feminist writers of the early postwar period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home duties with outside employment. Feminism was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole. This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. Even those women who regarded themselves as feminists strongly endorsed prevailing ideas about the primacy of children's needs, as advocated, for example, by John Bowlby the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic and by Donald Winnicott.[112][incomplete short citation]

Equal pay entered the agenda at the 1959 general election, when the Labour Party's Manifesto proposed a charter of rights including: "the right to equal pay for equal work". Polls in 1968-9 showed public opinion moving in favour of equal pay for equal work; nearly three-quarters of those polled favoured the principle. The Equal Pay Act 1970 was passed by a Labour government with support from the Conservatives; it took effect in 1975. Women's wages for like work rose sharply from 64% in 1970 to 74% by 1980, then stalled because of high unemployment, and public-sector cuts that hit women working part-time.[113][114]

Sexuality in 1960s and 1970s[edit]

In the 1960s, the generations divided sharply regarding sexual freedoms demanded by youth that disrupted long-held norms.[115]

Sexual morals changed rapidly. One notable event was the publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover by Penguin Books in 1960. Although first printed in 1928, the release in 1960 of an inexpensive paperback prompted a court case. The prosecutor's question, "Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?" highlighted how far society had changed, and how little some people had noticed. The book was seen as one of the first events in a general relaxation of sexual attitudes. The national media, based in London with its more permissive social norms, led in explaining and exploring the new permissiveness.[116]

Other elements of the sexual revolution included the development of the contraceptive pill, Mary Quant's miniskirt and the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967. The incidence of divorce and abortion rose along with a resurgence of the women's liberation movement, whose campaigning helped secure the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

Irish Catholics, traditionally the most puritanical of the ethno-religious groups, eased up a little, especially as the membership disregarded the bishops' teaching that contraception was sinful.[117]

The feminist movement drew inspiration primarily from the United States, and from the experience of left-wing British women experiencing discrimination by male activists. Efforts to form a national movement in the mid-1970s foundered on a bitter split between the (predominantly heterosexual) socialists, and the (predominantly lesbian) radicals. The most visible spokesperson was Germaine Greer, whose The Female Eunuch (1970) called on women to rebel against marriage and instead live in heterosexual communes. Paul Addison concludes that," in popular culture, feminism was generally treated as a bit of a joke."[118]

Margaret Thatcher received scant credit from feminists for breaking the ultimate glass ceiling, because she avoided feminism, and expressed a strong, independent persona.[119][120]


"Teenager" was an American coinage that first appeared in the British social scene in the late-1930s. National attention focused on them from the 1950s onwards.[121][122][123] Improved nutrition across the entire population was causing the age of menarche to fall on average by three or four months every decade, for well over a century. Young people aged between 12-20 were physically much more mature than before. They were better-educated, and their parents had more money.[124] National Service—the conscription of young men age 17-21 for compulsory military service-- was introduced in 1948; when it was abolished in 1960, the young men who would have reached conscription age had eighteen more months of freedom. The widespread use of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances and prepared foods meant that teenage girls were no longer needed for so many household chores.[125]

The middle and upper-class populations were mostly still enrolled in school, so that much of the teenage phenomena of the postwar years was a product of the working-class. There are two dimensions of special importance, first the economics of teenage consumerism, and secondly; a middle-class moral panic about the decline in British morality. Looking just at the population of unmarried young people between 15–25 years of age, there were 5,000,000 of them in 1960, and they controlled about 10% of all personal income in Britain. They had blue-collar jobs that paid fairly well after the austerity years had ended. They typically lived at home, and did not spend their allowances and wages on housing, groceries, taxes, appliances, furniture or savings for the future. Instead, came the immediate need to urgently keep up with the standards of their peers; the present moment mattered, not the next again year. New stylish clothes as worn by the trend-setters were promptly copied. The weekend dances and musical performances were very well attended. One estimate in 1959 calculated the teenagers spent 20% of their money on clothes, cosmetics and shoes; 17% on drink and cigarettes; 15% on sweets, snacks and soft drinks; the rest, almost half, went to many forms of pop entertainment, from cinemas and dance halls to sports, magazines and records. Spending was a device that gave a person identity and status, and most important, a sense of belonging to the group.[126][incomplete short citation]

Moral panics break out in time of dramatic social change; they appeared often in the last two centuries.[127][128] Teenager troubles first came to public attention during the war years, when there was a surge of juvenile delinquency.[129] By the 1950s, there was widespread concern about bellicose American comic books that the boys were gobbling up; censorship was imposed in 1955.[130][incomplete short citation][131][page needed] By that point, the media presented the teenagers in terms of generational rebellion. The Teddy Boys were gangs that seemed prone to violence, in addition to their outlandish costumes.[132] Likewise, the 1960s working-class subculture known as "skinheads" appeared ominous.[133] The exaggerated moral panic among politicians and the older generation was typically belied by the growth in intergenerational co-operation between parents and children. Many working-class parents, enjoying newfound economic prosperity, eagerly took the opportunity to encourage their teens to enjoy more adventurous lives.[134] Schools were falsely portrayed as dangerous blackboard jungles under the control of rowdy kids.[135] The media distortions of the teens as too affluent, and as promiscuous, delinquent, counter-cultural rebels do not reflect the actual experiences of ordinary young adults, particularly young women,[136]

Starting in the late-1960s, the counterculture movement spread from the United States like a wildfire.[137] Bill Osgerby argues that:

the counterculture's various strands developed from earlier artistic and political movements. On both sides of the Atlantic the 1950s "Beat Generation" had fused existentialist philosophy with jazz, poetry, literature, Eastern mysticism and drugs – themes that were all sustained in the 1960s counterculture.[138]

The UK did not experience the intense social turmoil produced in the US by the Vietnam War and racial tensions. Nevertheless, British youth readily identified with their American counterparts' desire to cast off the older generation's social mores. Music was a powerful force. British groups and stars such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and many others gained huge followings in the UK and around the world, leading young people to question convention in everything from clothing to the class system.[139][140]

The anti-war movement in Britain was fueled by the counterculture. It collaborated with American counterparts, moving from an emphasis on nuclear war with Russia, to support for insurgents in the Southeast Asian jungles.[141]

Educational reform[edit]

The Education Act 1944 was an answer to surging social and educational demands created by the war and the widespread demands for social reform that approached utopianism.[142] It was prepared by Conservative MP Rab Butler after wide consultation. The Act took effect in 1947 and created the modern split between primary education and secondary education at the age of eleven years. The newly-elected Labour government adopted the Tripartite System, consisting of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools, rejecting the comprehensive school proposals favoured by many in the Labour Party as more equalitarian.[143] Under the tripartite model, students who passed an exam were able to attend a prestigious grammar school. Those who did not pass the selection test attended secondary modern schools, or technical schools. The school leaving age was raised to fifteen years. The elite system of public schools was practically unchanged.[144] The new law was widely praised by the Conservatives because it honoured religion and social hierarchy, and by Labour because it opened new opportunities for the working-class, and also by the general public; because it ended the fees they previously had to pay.[145] The Education Act became a permanent part of the Post-war consensus supported by the three major political parties.[146][147]

While the new law formed a part of the widely accepted Post-war consensus agreed to in general by the major parties, one part generated controversy. Left-wing critics attacked grammar schools as being elitist because a student had to pass a test at the age of eleven in order to enroll. Opponents, mostly in the Conservative Party, argued that grammar schools allowed pupils to obtain a good education through merit rather than through family income. By 1964, one in ten students were in comprehensive schools that did not sort children at the age of eleven. Labour education minister Anthony Crosland (from 1965) crusaded to speed up the process.[148] When Margaret Thatcher was appointed as Minister for Education in 1970, one in three schools were comprehensives; The proportion doubled by 1974, despite her efforts to resist the trend against grammar schools. By 1979, over 90% of schools in the UK were comprehensives.[149]

Higher education[edit]

Higher education expanded dramatically. Provincial university colleges were upgraded at Nottingham, Southampton and Exeter. By 1957, 21 universities were in existence. Expansion came even faster in the 1960s, with new universities such as: Keele, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and York — bringing the total to 46 in 1970. Specialisation allowed national centres of excellence to emerge in Medicine at Edinburgh, engineering at Manchester, Science at Imperial College London, and Agriculture at Reading. Oxford and Cambridge; however, remained intellectually, culturally and politically dominant. They attracted top students from across the Commonwealth, but lost many of their best researchers to the United States, where salaries and research facilities were much more generous. Into the 1960s, student bodies remained largely middle and upper-class in origins; the average enrollment was only 2,600 in 1962. Every subsequent decade brought further expansion in numbers of institutions and students.[150] Tuition fees were introduced by Labour in 1998, raised to £3,000 a year in 2006, and passed £9,000 a year by 2012.[151] The tendency toward vocationalism and the decline in the humanities remained controversial, as well as a growing mindset among senior administrators that is pre-occupied with marketing (rankings) and accountability.[152]


For the BBC the central postwar mission was to block threats from American private broadcasting and to continue John Reith's mission of cultural uplift.[153] The BBC remained a powerful force, despite the arrival of Independent Television in 1955.[154] Newspaper barons had less political power after 1945. Stephen Koss explains that the decline was caused by structural shifts: the major Fleet Street papers became properties of large, diversified capital empires with more interest in profits than politics. The provincial press virtually collapsed, with only the Manchester Guardian playing a national role; in 1964 it relocated to London. Growing competition arose from non-political journalism and from other media such as the BBC; independent press lords emerged who were independent of the political parties.[155]


Spectator sports became increasingly fashionable in postwar Britain, as attendance soared across the board.[156] Despite the omnipresent austerity, the government were very proud to host the 1948 Olympics, even though Britain's athletes won only three gold medals compared to 38 for the Americans.[157] Budgets were tight and no new facilities were built. Athletes were given the same bonus rations as dockers and miners, 5,467 calories a day instead of the normal 2,600. Athletes were housed in existing accommodation. Male competitors stayed at nearby RAF and Army camps, while the women were housed in London dormitories.[158] Sporting competitions were minimal during the war years, but by 1948, 40 million a year were watching football matches, 300,000 per week went to motorcycle speedways and half a million watched greyhound races. Cinemas were jammed and dance halls were filled. The great cricket hero Denis Compton was ultimately dominant; the Daily Telegraph reported he:

made his run gaily and with a smile. His happy demeanour and his good looks completed a picture of the beau ideal of a sportsman. I doubt if any game at any period has thrown up anyone to match his popular appeal in the England of 1947-1949.[159]


The most popular sport in the UK became association football; Sheffield F.C., founded in 1857, is the world's oldest football club still in existence to the present day. The home nations all have separate national teams and domestic competitions, most notably England's Premier League and FA Cup, and the Scottish Premiership and Scottish Cup. Referred to as the "home of football" by the international governing body FIFA, England hosted and won the 1966 FIFA World Cup. The English Premier League (formed in 1992 by member clubs of the old Football League First Division) is the most-watched football league in the world. Its biggest clubs include: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.[160] Scottish teams Celtic and Rangers also have a wide global fanbase.[161]

Football in the UK is renowned for the intense rivalries between clubs and the passions of their supporters, which includes a tradition of football chants, such as, "You're Not Singing Any More" (or its variant "We Can See You Sneaking Out!"), sung by jubilant fans towards the opposition fans who have gone silent (or left early). Fans lined up for meat pies, burgers and chips. Football repealed its ban on floodlights in 1950, and night matches attracted increasingly large crowds of fans – some of them unruly; as well as large television audiences. Architects were challenged to build ever-larger stadia, as "their cantilevered constructions dwarfing mean streets, supplanted the cathedral as symbol of the city's identity and aspirations, and the fixtures surpassed church festivals in their national impact."[162]

The English Disease: football hooliganism[edit]

Hooliganism at football matches, sometimes known as "the English disease", had been a characteristic for decades, but by the 1970s, confrontations had escalated into violence against visiting fans; including violence at matches held in mainland Europe. An in-depth study made in 1983 by High Court judge Sir Oliver Popplewell found that many hooligans held steady jobs; they dressed in the latest style, and planned their violence ahead of time as a recreation in itself, to which football was a mere background. They were not poor and were searching for an identity more lively than their mundane working environment. By the 1990s, hooliganism had been sharply reduced, thanks to the use of seating-only stadiums where each spectator had to remain seated in an assigned seat, better policing methods, and the use of closed-circuit television to identify troublemakers.[163][164]

Other sports[edit]

Cricket is England's other historic sport, but it grew faster in popularity in the overseas colonies, and immigrants in increasing numbers comprised the ranks of top players and fan base.[165] Tennis spread from upper-class estates into tennis clubs in middle-class suburbs, where it became a woman's specialty.[166] Women increasingly frequented gyms, which sprang up everywhere; by the mid-1990s, one in six members were women.[167] Middle-class men and women were usually more active than working-class people were. Scotland, the birthplace of golf, remains the top destination for the sport; many clubs opened up by 1910 and continue to operate to the present day. The number of golfers doubled in the 1950s from 500,000 to 1,000,000; mostly men. The total reached the 2.5 million mark by 2000.[168]


The United Kingdom has had a significant film industry for over a century.[169] While film output peaked in 1936, the "golden age" of British cinema occurred in the 1940s, during which the directors David Lean, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Carol Reed and Richard Attenborough produced their most highly acclaimed work. Many postwar British actors achieved international fame and critical success, including: Maggie Smith, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Peter Sellers and Ben Kingsley.[170] A handful of the films with the largest-ever box office returns have been made in the United Kingdom, including the second and third highest-grossing film series (Harry Potter and James Bond).[171]

The identity of the British industry, and its relationship with the much larger and richer cinema of the United States, has been the subject of debate. Film production in Britain has often been affected by attempts to compete with the American industry. The career of the producer Alexander Korda was marked by this objective, the Rank Organisation attempted to compete in the 1940s, and Goldcrest in the 1980s. Numerous British-born directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Ridley Scott,[172] and performers, such as Charlie Chaplin[173] and Cary Grant, achieved success primarily through their work in Hollywood.

In 2009, British films grossed around $2,000,000,000 worldwide and achieved a market share of around 7% globally and 17% in the United Kingdom.[174] UK box-office takings totalled £1,100,000,000 in 2012,[175] with 172.5 million admissions.[176]


After decades of low immigration, new arrivals became a significant factor after 1945. Immigration before 2000 was greatest from the former British Empire especially Ireland, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Caribbean, South Africa, Kenya and Hong Kong. Since 2000, large numbers have arrived from Europe and the Middle East.[177] The UK population was recorded as 56,267,000 people in 1996, out of which 52,942,000 were White. The other 3,307,000 represented diverse ethnic or racial origins: 875,000 were Black; 1,639,000 were Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi; 126,000 were Chinese; 161,000 were Other Asian; 506,000 were from other groups or were of mixed-race origin.[178]

Some immigrants came to the UK as asylum seekers, seeking protection as refugees under the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, or from member states of the European Union, exercising one of the European Union's Four Freedoms. Since the 1980s, however, the UK has become a leading proponent of European restrictionalism and has developed policies that tend to exclude asylum seekers from mainstream society. Dispersal policy was set up through the National Asylum Support Service programme so that asylum seekers were directed to urban areas that had available housing, although possibly because of a weak job market. While newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees had both skills and qualifications, they experienced high levels of unemployment, or else found mostly low-skilled jobs with low pay. Public opinion in host areas turned against them.[179][180]

The new immigrants generally entered tight-knit ethnic communities. For example, the new Irish arrivals became integrated within a working-class Irish Catholic environment that shaped their behaviour whilst maintaining a distinct ethnic identity in terms of religion, culture and Labour politics.[181]

Spouses form the largest single category of migrant settlement, especially Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. For them it is a matter of restoring domestic relations in a familiar family environment, with higher incomes, thus easing the strain on the immigration process.[182][183]

Fertility rates among new immigrants were much higher than the British norm (reflecting the norms of the country of origin). However, rates dropped rapidly with the length of stay in Britain. For some ethnic groups, fertility reached about the level of the UK national average (e.g., Black Caribbean) or below it (e.g., Indian and Chinese). Only among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women have total fertility rates remained well above the national average, but even so they have shown a continuous decrease since the 1970s.[184]

Enoch Powell, a Conservative MP, broke from the broad consensus supporting immigration in April 1968 to warn of long-term violence, unrest and internal discord should immigration continued from non-White countries. His speech foresaw "Rivers of Blood" and predicted that White "native" English citizens would be unable to access social services and be overwhelmed by foreign cultures. While political, social and cultural elites were harshly critical of Powell and he was removed from the Shadow Cabinet, Powell developed substantial public support.[185]

Thatcher's Britain[edit]

Margaret Thatcher (pictured in 1983) was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990

Margaret Thatcher was the dominant political force of the late-twentieth century, often compared to Churchill and David Lloyd George for her transformative agenda commonly referred to as "Thatcherism". She was Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975-1990, and Prime Minister from 1979-1990. She was often called the "Iron Lady" for her uncompromising politics and leadership style.[186]

Political analyst Dennis Kavanagh concludes that the "Thatcher Government produced such a large number of far-reaching changes across much of the policy spectrum, that it passes 'reasonable' criteria of effectiveness, radicalism, and innovation."[187]

The Labour Party under James Callaghan (Prime Minister 1976–79) contested the 1979 general election as unemployment passed the 1,000,000 mark and trade unions became more aggressive. The Conservatives used a highly effective poster created by advertisers Saatchi and Saatchi, showing an unemployment queue snaking into the distance, carrying the caption "Labour isn't working". The Conservatives received 43.9% of the vote and 339 seats to Labour's 269, for an overall majority of 43 seats at the 1979 general election. Labour was weakened by the steady long-term decline in the proportion of manual workers in the electorate. Twice as many manual workers normally voted Labour as voted Conservative, but they now constituted only 56% of the electorate. When the Labour Party led by Harold Wilson narrowly won the 1964 general election, manual workers had accounted for 63%. Furthermore, they were beginning to turn against the trade unions – alienated, perhaps, by the difficulties of the winter of 1978–9. In contrast, Conservative policies stressed wider home ownership, which Labour refused to match. Thatcher did best in districts where the economy was relatively strong and was weaker where it was contracting.[188]


As Prime Minister, she implemented policies focused on economic liberalism, using populism, and pragmatism, known as Thatcherism.[189] Thatcher introduced a series of political and economic initiatives intended to reverse high unemployment and Britain's struggles in the wake of the Winter of Discontent and an ongoing recession. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Due to recession and high unemployment, Thatcher's popularity during her first years in office waned until the beginning of 1982, a few months before the Falklands War. The afterglow of her victory at that war produced a resounding victory at the polls. She was re-elected in 1983 with an increased majority.[190]

Privatisation was an enduring legacy of Thatcherism; it was accepted by the future Labour ministry of Tony Blair. Her policy was to privatise nationalised corporations (such as telephone and aerospace firms). She sold public housing to tenants, all on favourable terms. The policy developed an important electoral dimension during the second Thatcher government (1983–87). It involved more than denationalisation: wider share ownership was the second plank of the policy.[191] Thatcher advocated an "enterprise society" in Britain, especially in widespread share-ownership, personal ownership of council houses, marginalisation of trade unions and expansion of private healthcare. These policies transformed many aspects of British society.[192]

Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in 1987. Although Labour made gains under the new leadership of Neil Kinnock, compared to their landslide defeat at the previous election. During this period, her support for a Community Charge (popularly referred to as "poll tax") was widely unpopular (especially in Scotland where the tax was enforced one year earlier than the rest of the country) and her negative views on the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She lost support from Conservative MPs and resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party in November 1990.

Cultural movements[edit]

Environmentalism as a major public issue was brought to the forefront by Thatcher in 1988, when she included a manifesto warning about climate change.[193] The environmentalism movements of the 1980s reduced the emphasis on intensive farming, and promoted organic farming and conservation of the countryside.[194][195]

Protestant religious observance declined notably in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century. Catholicism (based on the Irish elements) held its own, while Islam grew rapidly due to immigration from Asia and the Middle East as well as higher birth rates from that sector of the general population. Church of England attendance particularly dropped, although charismatic churches like Elim and AOG grew. The movement to Keep Sunday Special seemed to have lost at the beginning of the twenty-first century.[196]

Economic change[edit]

Household prosperity[edit]

From 1964-1996, income per head doubled, while ownership of various household goods 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.[197] 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 that 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 became 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.[79] The post-war period also witnessed significant improvements in housing conditions. In 1960, 14% of British households had no indoor toilet, while in 1967; 22% of all homes had no basic hot water supply. By the 1990s, however almost all homes had these amenities together with central heating, which had been a luxury just two decades earlier.[198]

Troubles of 1970s and after[edit]


After 1960, British industries were troubled, a phenomenon sometimes known as the "British Disease". The railways were decrepit, more textile mills closed than opened, steel employment fell sharply and the automotive industry practically disappeared, apart from some luxury models. Deindustrialisation meant the closure of many operations in mining, heavy industry and manufacturing, with the resulting loss of high paid working-class jobs.[199] A certain amount of turnover had always taken place, with newer businesses replacing older ones. However, the 1970s were different, with a worldwide energy crisis and a dramatic influx of low-cost manufactured goods from Asia leading to more closures and fewer openings. Major sectors were hit hard between 1966-1982, with a 60% decline in textiles, 53% in metal manufacture, 43% in mining, 38% in construction, and 35% in vehicles.[200] Coal mining quickly collapsed and practically disappeared in the 21st century. The consumption of coal, mostly for electricity—plunged from 157,000,000 tonnes in 1970 to 37,000,000 tonnes in 2015, nearly all of it imported. Coal mining jobs fell from a peak of 1,191,000 in 1920 to 695,000 in 1956, 247,000 in 1976, 44,000 in 1993 to 2,000 in 2015.[201] In the 1970s, manufacturing accounted for 25% of the economy. Total employment in manufacturing fell from 7.1 million in 1979 to 4.5 million in 1992 and only 2.7 million in 2016, when it accounted for 10% of the economy.[202][203]

In Scotland, deindustrialisation took place rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, as most of the traditional industries drastically shrank or completely closed. A new service-oriented economy emerged to replace them.[204][205] In 1954, Scottish shipyards built 12% of the world's tonnage, falling to 1% in 1968.[206] North Sea oil created a major new industry after 1970, and some older firms successfully took advantage of the opportunity. John Brown & Company's shipyard at Clydebank transformed itself from a traditional shipbuilding business to a factor in the high technology offshore oil and gas drilling industry.[207]

Popular response varied.[208][209] According to economic sociologist Jacqueline O'Reilly, the political reverberations of deindustrialisation contributed towards a rise in the vote share for UKIP among voters in former industrial areas, and eventually came to a head in the vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU at the EU referendum on 23 June 2016.[210]


Thatcher's deregulation of the economy ended the post-war consensus about the planned economy. She was elected during a period of crises between the Labour Party and the trade unions, and an increasing trend of higher unemployment and deindustrialisation. She also liberalised the City of London and privatised state-owned enterprises. Inflation fell and trade union influence was significantly reduced.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had for a long time, been one of the strongest trade unions. Its strikes had toppled the Heath ministry at the February 1974 general election. Thatcher drew the line and defeated it at the bitterly fought miners' strike of 1984–1985. The basic problem was that the easy coal had all been mined and what was left was very expensive and uneconomical. The miners, however, were fighting not just for higher wages; but for a way of life that had to continue had to be subsidised by other workers. The Union split. In the end, almost all the coal mines were shut down. Britain turned to its vast reserves of North Sea gas and oil, which brought in substantial tax and export revenues, to fuel a new economic boom.

After the economic boom of the 1980s, a brief but severe recession occurred between 1990–92, mostly under the ministry of John Major; who succeeded Thatcher as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader in November 1990. The pound was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday in September 1992, an event which was humiliating for the Conservative government but which helped boost the recovery. The rest of the 1990s saw a period of continuous economic growth that lasted over sixteen years and was greatly expanded under Blair's New Labour government following his landslide election victory at 1997 general election, with a rejuvenated Labour Party abandoning its commitment to old policies like nuclear disarmament and nationalisation of key industries, and no reversal of the Thatcher-led union reforms. Many traditional Labour supporters were unhappy with Blair abandoning socialism and the restructuring of Clause IV in 1995; effectively tearing up the constitution which had put socialist values and common ownership of industry at heart of party policy for nearly eighty years. Blair promoted the Labour Party as "New Labour", a social democratic centrist party for the 21st century which promised to inject new life into Britain; with investment in education made a key priority.


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 ministry, 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, Wilson lodged a second application (in May 1967) to join the European Community, as it was then called. Like the first, though, it was again vetoed by de Gaulle.[211]

Conservative Prime Minister Heath negotiated terms for admission and the UK finally joined the Community on 1 January 1973. The Labour Party, who were deeply divided over the issue (though Wilson remained in favour) returned to government in 1974, although two general elections had to be held in the UK that year. Following a renegotiation of Britain's terms of entry by Foreign Secretary James Callaghan, a referendum was duly held on 5 June 1975, on which Cabinet ministers were permitted to campaign on opposite sides, an exception to the normal rule of Cabinet collective responsibility. The proposition to continue membership was passed with a substantial majority.[212]

Devolution for Scotland and Wales[edit]

On 11 September 1997 (the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge) a referendum was held on devolving substantial power to a Scottish Parliament.[213] Voters overwhelmingly voted to establish a Scottish parliament and grant it limited taxation powers. Two weeks later, a referendum on establishing a Welsh Assembly was also approved, by a narrow majority. The first elections were held, and these bodies began to operate, in 1999. The creation of these bodies widened the differences between regions, especially in areas such as healthcare.[214][215]

Since 1997[edit]

Tony Blair and New Labour[edit]

Tony Blair became the Leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and served as Prime Minister from 1997–2007. With Gordon Brown, he founded the movement known as New Labour. In domestic policy, Blair sought to modernise Britain's public services, encourage enterprise and innovation in its private sector and keep the economy open to international commerce. The Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh devolutions took place under his premiership.[216]

Kavanagh argues that by the 1980s, left-wing or socialist tendencies in the Labour Party divided the party and united its enemies:

Labour voters are not attracted by many "socialist" policies, that is greater public ownership, comprehensive education, extending trade union rights, and redistribution. Such policies appear to unite supporters of other parties in rejection well serving to divide Labour voters.[217]

Blair moved the Labour Party in new directions, minimising the left-wing or socialist factions. He thereby broadened the appeal to professionals and middle-class voters in "Middle England", who had traditionally voted Conservative.

Blair was also anxious to escape from the Labour Party's reputation for "tax-and-spend" domestic policies; he wanted instead to establish a reputation for fiscal prudence. He had undertaken in general terms to modernise the welfare state, but he had avoided undertaking to reduce poverty, achieve full employment, or reverse the increase in inequality that had occurred during the Thatcher years. Once in office, however, his government launched a package of social policies designed to reduce unemployment and poverty. The commitment to modernise the welfare state was tackled by the introduction of "welfare to work" programmes[218][219] to motivate the unemployed to return to work instead of drawing benefit. Poverty reduction programmes were targeted at specific groups, including children and the elderly, and took the form of what were termed "New Deals".[220] There were also new Tax Credit allowances for low-income and single-parent families with children, and "Sure Start" programmes for under-fours in deprived areas. A "National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal"[221] was launched in 2001 with the objective of ensuring that "within 10 to 20 years no-one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live"; a "Social Exclusion Unit"[citation needed] was set up, and annual progress reports concerning the reduction of poverty and social exclusion were commissioned.[222][223]

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister in 2007. Labour's popularity declined further with the onset of a worldwide recession in 2008, where the Conservatives led by David Cameron overtook Labour in the polls for the first time in many years. In Scotland, the SNP and Lib Dems managed to win seats from Labour at by-elections in a further blow to the government. Arguably, the controversial decision for the UK to support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 sparked the beginning of Labour's decline in popularity; as their majority was significantly reduced at the 2005 general election. Five years later, Labour lost 91 seats in the House of Commons at the 2010 general election, the party's biggest loss of seats at a single general election since 1931. On 11 May 2010, Brown was succeeded as Prime Minister by David Cameron of the Conservative Party, and resigned as Leader of the Labour Party on the same day after nearly three years. Ed Miliband was elected as the new Labour leader on 25 September. Miliband being elected leader is seen as marking the end of the "New Labour" era.

Conservatives return[edit]

The economic damage done by the Great Recession weakened Labour's image and facilitated a Conservative comeback after thirteen years in opposition. Since his election as Conservative Party leader in 2005, David Cameron (2010-2016) sought to rebrand the Conservatives, embracing an increasingly socially liberal position; as opposed to the socially conservative values the party traditionally advocated. The 2010 general election resulted in a hung parliament, the first in 36 years; and led to Cameron becoming Prime Minister as the head of a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats. His premiership was marked by the ongoing negative economic effects of the late-2000s worldwide financial crisis. He faced a large deficit in government finances that he sought to reduce through austerity measures. His government introduced large-scale changes to welfare, immigration policy, education, and healthcare.[224] His government privatised the Royal Mail and some other state assets, and legalised same-sex marriage in July 2013. He was re-elected in 2015, with 330 seats in the House of Commons; enabling him to form a majority government. This result was unexpected, as another hung parliament was predicted by most major polls. Cameron formed the first Conservative majority government since 1992, while Labour lost nearly all its Scottish seats to the SNP in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum and Miliband resigned as party leader.

On the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, when the results of the EU referendum were announced, Cameron announced his intention to step down as Prime Minister and Leader of Conservative Party at the Conservative Party conference in the autumn of that year. Following the British electorate's vote to Leave the European Union in a nationwide referendum; with his government having campaigned for a "Remain" vote. He resigned earlier than intended on 13 July 2016, and was succeeded by former Home Secretary Theresa May, who called another general election for 8 June 2017, resulting in a hung parliament. The Labour Party, now under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, made a net gain of seats for the first time in 20 years, and 30 new seats were gained by Labour overall; 6 of which were in Scotland. Notably, Canterbury and Kensington had never returned Labour MPs to Parliament before, but both were narrowly gained at the expense of the Conservative Party. Most significantly was the 9.6% swing from Conservative to Labour, which was the largest swing from one party to another since 1945. As for the Liberal Democrats, former party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg lost his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour, and former Secretary of State for Business Sir Vince Cable regained the Twickenham seat from the Conservatives two years previously. Cable succeeded Tim Farron as Lib Dem leader after the election, and three new seats were gained for the party in Scotland. As predicted, UKIP led by Paul Nuttall made no gains and lost the majority of its previous supporters to the Labour and Conservative parties; signifying an end to multi-party politics and a return to two-party politics. Nuttall stood at Boston and Skegness, which was the constituency with the highest vote to leave the EU at the referendum. However, Nuttall finished in third place and resigned as UKIP leader.

Economic growth and crises since 1995[edit]


United Kingdom housing affordability as described by mortgage payments as a percentage of take home pay from 1983 to 2015

House prices tripled in the 20 years between 1995 and 2015. Growth was almost continuous during the period, save for a two-year period of decline around 2008 as a result of the banking crisis.[225] The gap between income and house prices has changed in the last 20 years such that even in the most affordable regions of England and Wales buyers have to spend six times their income. It was most marked in London, where in 2013 the £300,000, median house price costs 12 times the median London income of £24,600.[226]


Economic and social issues caused political unrest, particularly in areas hurt by deindustrialization and globalization of the economy. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was founded in 1993. It rose to prominence after 2000, winning third place in the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote.[227] Cameron won reelection in 2015 in part by promising a referendum on the EU, which he expected would easily defeat Brexit.

The 'Leave' pro-Brexit campaign waxed strong primarily on the need to control sovereignty and migration, whereas the 'Remain' campaign focused on the negative economic impacts of leaving the EU.[228] Polls showed more cited both the EU (32%) and migration (48%) as important issues than cited the economy (27%).[229] By 2018 as the complexities of leaving the EU dominated political discussions, economists produced gloomy projections of the damage to the British economy.[230]


Post-war consensus[edit]

The post-war consensus is a historians' model of political agreement from 1945 to 1979, when newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected and reversed it. .[60] The concept claims there was a widespread consensus that covered support for a coherent package of policies that were developed in the 1930s, promised during the Second World War, and enacted under Attlee. The policies dealt with a mixed economy, Keynesianism, and a broad welfare state.[231] In recent years the validity of the interpretation has been debated by historians.

The historians' model of the post-war consensus was most fully developed by Paul Addison.[citation needed][232] The basic argument is that in the 1930s Liberal Party intellectuals led by John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge developed a series of plans that became especially attractive as the wartime government promised a much better post-war Britain and saw the need to engage every sector of society. The coalition government during the war, headed by Churchill and Attlee, signed off on a series of white papers that promised Britain a much improved welfare state after the war. The promises included the national health service, and expansion of education, housing, and a number of welfare programmes. It did not include the nationalisation of all industries, which was a Labour Party design. The Labour Party did not challenge the system of elite public schools—they became part of the consensus, as did comprehensive schools. Nor did Labour challenge the primacy of Oxford and Cambridge. However, the consensus did call for building many new universities to dramatically broaden educational base of society. Conservatives did not challenge the socialised medicine of the National Health Service; indeed, they boasted they could do better job of running it.[233] In foreign policy, the consensus called for an anti-Communist Cold War policy, decolonisation, close ties to NATO, the United States, and the Commonwealth, and slowly emerging ties to the European Community.[234]

The model states that from 1945 until the arrival of Thatcher in 1979, there was a broad multi-partisan national consensus on social and economic policy, especially regarding the welfare state, nationalised health services, educational reform, a mixed economy, government regulation, Keynesian macroeconomic policies, and full employment. Apart from the question of nationalisation of some industries, these policies were broadly accepted by the three major parties, as well as by industry, the financial community and the labour movement. Until the 1980s, historians generally agreed on the existence and importance of the consensus. Some historians such as Ralph Miliband expressed disappointment that the consensus was a modest or even conservative package that blocked a fully socialised society.[235] Historian Angus Calder complained bitterly that the post-war reforms were an inadequate reward for the wartime sacrifices, and a cynical betrayal of the people's hope for a more just post-war society.[236] In recent years, there has been a historiographical debate on whether such a consensus ever existed.[237]

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Further reading[edit]

Popular social history[edit]

  • Beckett, Andy. When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies (2009) excerpt and text search.
  • Booker, Christopher. The Seventies: The Decade That Changed the Future (1980)
  • Donnelly, Mark. Sixties Britain: Culture, Society and Politics (2005) 264pp; by an academic
  • Garnett, Mark. From Anger to Apathy: The Story of Politics, Society and Popular Culture in Britain since 1975 (2008) excerpt
  • Hennessy, Peter (2006). Never Again: Britain 1945-1951. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-0-14-192932-3.
    • Hennessy, Peter. Having it so good: Britain in the fifties (2007), a major scholarly survey; 760pp
  • Hopkins, Harry. The new look: a social history of the forties and fifties in Britain (1963).
  • Kynaston, David (2010). Austerity Britain, 1945-1951. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8027-7958-8.
  • Levin, Bernard. The Pendulum Years: Britain and the Sixties (1989)
  • Marr, Andrew. A History of Modern Britain (2009); covers 1945–2005.
  • Metzger, Rainer. London in the Sixties (2012) heavily illustrated on music, film, theatre, arts
  • Montgomery, John. The Fifties (1960).
  • Sampson, Anthony. Anatomy of Britain (1962) online free; see Anatomy of Britain
    • Sampson, Anthony. The Essential Anatomy of Britain: Democracy in Crisis (1992) online free
    • Sampson, Anthony. Who Runs This Place?: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century (2005)
  • Sandbrook, Dominic. Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2006) 928pp; excerpt and text search; 920pp
    • Sandbrook, Dominic. White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2 vol 2007)
    • Sandbrook, Dominic. State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (2011); 730pp
    • Sandbrook, Dominic. Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 (2013), 990pp
  • Stewart, Graham. Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s (2013) excerpt and text search; 560pp
  • Turner, Alwyn W. Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s (2008)
    • Turner, Alwyn W. Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s (2013).
    • Turner, Alwyn W. A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s (2013); 650pp
  • Weight, Richard. MOD: From Bebop to Britpop, Britain's Biggest Youth Movement (2013), by a scholar
  • Whitehead, Philip. The Writing on the Wall: Britain in the Seventies (1985); 456 pp
  • Wilson, A.N. Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II (2009), by a scholar


  • Halsey, A. H., ed. Twentieth-Century British Social Trends (2000) excerpt and text search; 762 pp of social statistics
  • Mitchell, B. R. British Historical Statistics (2011); first edition was Mitchell and Phyllis Deane. Abstract of British Historical Statistics (1972) 532pp; economic and some social statistics
  • Wybrow, Robert J. Britain Speaks Out, 1937-87 (1989), summaries of Gallup public opinion polls.


  • Black, Lawrence (2012). "An Enlightening Decade? New Histories of 1970s' Britain". International Labor and Working-Class History. 82: 174–186. doi:10.1017/s0147547912000506.
  • Brooke, Stephen. "Living in 'New Times': Historicizing 1980s Britain." History Compass 12#1 (2014): 20-32.
  • Porion, Stéphane. "Reassessing a Turbulent Decade: the Historiography of 1970s Britain in Crisis." Études anglaises 69#3 (2016): 301-320. online