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Old Saturday, September 01, 2007
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Default History of Great Britain.

The reporters' war: AD 1854-1856

Recent developments in many fields make the Crimean War the first modern war, in the sense that the public at home becomes rapidly and intensely aware of what is going on at the front.

The first important changes are in transport and printing. When the editor of the Times in London decides to send a reporter out to join the British army in the Crimea in April 1854, he knows that reports will get back to London (with the best available combination of ship, train and electric telegraph) faster than from any previous conflict. And his mechanized steam presses will be able to supply a large readership with news of unprecedented immediacy.
His chosen reporter is William Howard Russell, whom the Crimea soon transforms into a national figure - Russell of the Times. Appalled at what he see in British army camps and hospitals, Russell makes himself intensely unpopular with the authorities by describing the conditions in vivid detail. His account of British patients at Scutari, in September 1854, compares their condition unfavourably with the French hospitals. He makes a passionate plea for 'devoted women' to come out from England to tend them.

It is a measure of the new immediacy that one devoted woman, destined to be even more famous than Russell, responds directly to his words. Florence Nightingale sails for the Crimea, with thirty-eight nurses, in October.

The Crimean war lives with similar immediacy in images. It is the first war assignment undertaken by a photographer. Early in 1855 a Manchester publisher, Thomas Agnew, decides to send a photographer to the front. He selects Roger Fenton, who becomes a familiar figure of great curiosity to the troops. He travels round in a converted delivery vehicle with the words 'Photographic Van' painted on the side. Inside is the dark room where he develops his large glass plates.

Needing exposure times of up to twenty seconds, Fenton's photographs are mainly of soldiers posed among the paraphernalia of war in the Crimean landscape. They are published by Agnew in five portfolios before the end of 1855.


Meanwhile a British print dealer, Dominic Colnaghi, has used the same approach in a more traditional art form. He sends out the artist William Simpson, who arrives at Balaklava in November 1854 and stays with the army until the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855.

Advances in printing mean that Simpson's watercolours can be rapidly produced in London as realistic tinted lithographs. Two series are issued in 1855-6 under the title The Seat of War in the East. Simpson, with his pencil and brush, can capture the drama and pathos of war in a way not yet available to Fenton. His picture of Florence Nightingale among the wounded at Scutari, published in April 1856, contributes to her legend.

British India: AD 1857-1876

The imperial conference held at the time of the queen's Diamond Jubilee, in 1897, is a much more weighty affair than its predecessor ten years earlier. This time the prime ministers of the colonies have made the long journey to attend the festivities in person. And the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (appointed to this office in 1895), is a man with a passionate commitment to strengthening the commercial and political ties between the increasingly self-governing colonies.

His prime minister, Lord Salisbury, is a less ardent imperialist. But he is nevertheless much more interested in foreign affairs than in home issues.
The patrician marquess of Salisbury (a Cecil, whose family link in politics goes back to the reign of Elizabeth I) is the last British prime minister to govern from the house of lords. He is also the last to act as his own foreign secretary. He does not share Chamberlain's vision of a federal empire, but he is much involved in the diplomacy between the European nations which accompanies the frantic scramble for colonies in Africa in the late 19th century.

The era of Salisbury and Chamberlain sees extensive British activity in the southern part of the African continent. The region being developed by the commercial activities of Cecil Rhodes is proclaimed as Rhodesia in 1895, with its chief town named Salisbury in honour of the prime minister.
In that same year the disastrous Jameson Raid causes major diplomatic problems for the British government (Chamberlain is accused of complicity in it, but is cleared of any involvement by a commons committee in 1897). The raid increases the likelihood of serious conflict in the region, and this breaks out in 1899 as the Boer War.

At first the war is unpopular in Britain, with Liberal opposition to it reinforced by a succession of British defeats, but in 1900 the news from the front improves. Salisbury calls an election, branding the opposition as unpatriotic, and is returned with a greatly increased majority - causing this to become known as the 'khaki election'.
The next election, also fought indirectly on an imperial issue, is less successful for the Conservatives. Salisbury resigns from ill health in 1902, entrusting the premiership to his nephew Arthur Balfour. But in 1903 Chamberlain dramatically escalates his campaign for a strengthened empire. Speaking in his home town of Birmingham, he advocates a tariff on goods from non-colonial sources.

His purpose is to strengthen the colonies and their link with Britain, and also to raise funds for social measures at home. But the proposal goes against the principle of free trade, considered sacred since the repeal of the Corn Laws. Even worse, as a handle for political opponents, it represents a tax on food.

Chamberlain's policy immediately splits the Conservative party and leads to resignations, including his own, from the cabinet. Chamberlain takes the issue around the country in a programme of public meetings, until Balfour finally resigns at the end of December 1905 having lost control of the party. The Liberals are returned early in 1906 with a huge majority.

Free trade has carried the day. The trend in imperial policy is now towards more independence for the colonies rather than greater protection. Dominion status, already possessed by Canada and Australia, is granted to New Zealand in 1907 and to the four newly united provinces of South Africa in 1909.
The 1906 election brings the Liberals to power after twenty years (since Salisbury's first administration in 1885) during which the Conservatives have exercised almost uninterrupted control - with elected majorities in the house of commons and a guaranteed hereditary majority in the lords.

The country is ready for change, and the incoming parliament is radically new in including 57 Labour members (29 in the Labour party and 28 Liberals elected in the labour interest). The Liberal government immediately embarks on an energetic programme of social reform - which must lead, sooner or later, to a direct clash with the Conservatives in the house of lords.
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Default HISTORY OF GREAT BRITAIN,The National government: AD 1931-1936

The National government: AD 1931-1936

When MacDonald and Baldwin (and John Simon for the Liberals) present themselves to the electorate as a national coalition in October 1931, they receive an overwhelming response and win a majority of more than 500 seats - but the result is in effect a Conservative government with a Labour prime minister.

The opposition is a tiny band of 52 MPs representing the Labour party. The national coalition has 473 Conservatives led by Baldwin, 68 Liberals and just 13 ex-Labour MPS, loyal to MacDonald and calling themselves National Labour. Baldwin is therefore the most powerful figure at Westminster, but he works amicably as second string to MacDonald in the continuing national crisis.

In September 1932 unemployment reaches nearly three million, or more than 25% of the workforce. Moreover these troubles are taking place in a Europe increasingly characterized by extremist politics in Italy and Germany.

In October 1932 Oswald Mosley holds his first rally in Trafalgar Square, to drum up support for his newly formed British Union of Fascists. His black-shirted thugs (in imitation of Mussolini's henchmen) become an ugly but relatively minor aspect of Britain in the 1930s, marching through deprived areas, always eager to pick a fight with Communists or Jews.

On the wider international stage, in the second half of the decade, the great issue in Europe is also connected with fascism - in particular the question of how to respond to the expansionist policies of Adolf Hitler.

On this matter the National government eventually becomes associated with the policy of appeasement. But meanwhile there has been, in 1936, a dramatic internal crisis. Again, as in the general strike of 1926, it is Baldwin who has to deal with it. In 1935 MacDonald cedes to him the role of prime minister. Baldwin wins a general election on the same National government basis, though now his support is almost exclusively Conservative. Then, out of the blue in 1936, he is confronted with the very local problem of a royal love affair.

The abdication crisis: AD 1936

The king, George V, dies in January 1936 to be suceeded by his eldest son, as Edward VIII. Handsome and charming, with a playboy image, Edward is popular with the public - though for those in the know there have been signs of impending trouble in his passionate involvement with Wallis Simpson, an American woman already in her second marriage.

Gossip spreads when the king and Mrs Simpson go for a cruise together in the Adriatic in the summer of 1936. In October Wallis is divorced from her husband and the king tells the prime minister, Baldwin, that he intends to marry her. He accepts that it must be a morganatic marriage (one in which the offspring have no rights of succession).
The issue breaks in the newspapers early in December, after the bishop of Bradford has declared in a sermon that the king should be more aware of his Christian duty. Baldwin, almost certainly in tune with the majority of public opinion, feels that a marriage of any kind between the king and a divorced woman is out of the question. Yet Edward insists that he must marry.

Abdication is the only solution. On December 10 Edward becomes the only British monarch voluntarily to give up the throne, declaring the next day in a historic radio broadcast that he cannot carry his heavy burden of responsibility 'without the help and support of the woman I love'. That same night he embarks at Portsmouth for France.

Edward is succeeded by his brother, as George VI. He and Wallis Simpson marry in France in June 1937. The couple henceforth live a marginal and somewhat embittered existence, in France and the West Indies, as the duke and duchess of Windsor.

By the summer of 1937 Britain has a new prime minister as well as a new king. Neville Chamberlain, previously chancellor of the exchequer, succeeds Baldwin in May as leader of the National government. His troubled three years in office are dominated by one overriding issue - the aggressive aims of the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
Expansion and appeasement: AD 1935-1939

The policy which becomes known as appeasement (the belief that compromise with Europe's fascist dictators will provide the best chance for peace) is associated particularly with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it already characterizes the foreign policy up to 1937 of his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin. And it is, to a lesser extent, the policy also of the government in France.

As the two major European powers in the League of Nations, Britain and France inevitably have to play the leading role in trying to keep Hitler and Mussolini in check.

A conciliatory attitude, partly made necessary by the lack of readiness in each nation for another war, is evident as early as 1935. In this year Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, foreign ministers of the two countries, concoct a peace plan which would allow Italy to annexe large slices of Ethiopia (an independent state, recently invaded by Italian armies).

The plan is rejected, but its very existence encourages Mussolini to complete his conquest of Ethiopia. And this de facto state of affairs is soon accepted by an increasingly enfeebled League of Nations.
Earlier in the same year there has been another affront to the League's authority. In March 1935 Hitler informs Britain and France that he is creating an air force, is launching a major programme of military and naval rearmament, and is introducing conscription.

These plans directly convene the terms of the treaty of Versailles. But in June, to the outrage this time of France, Hoare establishes an Anglo-German Naval Agreement, tacitly accepting the naval aspect of Hitler's plans in return for a pact that German strength at sea will not exceed 35% of the combined fleets of Britain and the Commonwealth.

In March 1936 Hitler makes his first military move in defiance of existing treaties. He marches his troops into the Rhineland, a region permanently demilitarized under the terms agreed at Versailles. At the same time he declares (in what is to become a recurring pattern) that this is his last territorial claim.

The Spanish Civil War, beginning in July 1936, absorbs much of Europe's attention over the next two years (and provides Hitler's new forces with their first unofficial outing). But from 1938 the German dictator's provocative moves come at an ever increasing pace, each of them taking to the brink the good faith of the appeasers.

On March 12 he marches into Austria to reunite the ancient German Reich, an event known as the Anschluss (literally 'joining on'). On the previous day he assures the world that he has no designs on Czechoslovakia.

The very next month, in April, he develops a secret plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue, against Czech interests, that the principle of self-determination gives these people the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border.

Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.
Munich and after: AD 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.

Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace with honour... peace for our time'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.

Danzig and the Polish corridor: AD 1938-1939

It is evident from the first weeks after the Munich agreement that Hitler will make unacceptable territorial demands of Poland. The main theme of British and French foreign policy now becomes the forging of diplomatic and military alliances to prepare for any resulting conflict. The four anticipated allies, in resisting German aggression, are Britain, France, the USSR and Poland.

Hitler's demands upon Poland are two. He wants the transfer to his Reich of the free port of Danzig (admittedly an almost entirely German city, and now with a Nazi council). And he wants a German corridor through Poland to the isolated German province of East Prussia.

Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.
Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: AD 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.

Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.
The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a grisly little charade.
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Default HISTORY OF GREAT BRITAIN,The act of war: AD 1939

The act of war: AD 1939

During the night of August 31 a group of German soldiers, dressed as Poles, attack the German radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz. They have brought with them a German criminal, taken for the purpose from a concentration camp. They shoot him and leave his body as evidence of the night's dark deeds.

Berlin radio broadcasts to the world the news of this act of Polish aggression, together with details of the necessary German response. In the early hours of the morning of September 1 Hitler's tanks move into Poland. His planes take off towards Warsaw on the first bombing mission of a new European war.

After a final desperate day of diplomacy, attempting even at this late stage to find a peaceful solution, Chamberlain and Daladier each sends an ultimatum to Hitler. When no answer is received, both nations declare war on September 3.

The Polish army, airforce and civilian population put up a brave resistance to massive German force - increased, from September 17, by a Russian invasion from the east. Within a few weeks 60,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians die. By September 28 Warsaw has fallen. Poland is once again partitioned, with an eastern slice going to Russia (as so recently agreed in Moscow) and the lion's share to Germany.


The Phoney War: AD 1939-1940
"In France and Britain the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war is a return to the defensive tactics of World War I. The French rush troops to the Maginot Line, an elaborate complex of concrete fortifications connected by underground railway lines, which has been constructed along the Franco-German border between 1929 and 1938. (It is named after André Maginot, minister of war from 1929 to 1931.)

France's border with Belgium, running northwest to the sea, is not similarly protected. So, as in World War I, a British Expeditionary Force is immediately sent across the Channel to dig in along this line.

Here the troops of both nations await attack from the conqueror of Poland. But nothing happens.

It is not that Hitler is inactive against his new enemies. He is energetically demonstrating, with the deployment of his U-boats (Unterseebooten, or submarines), that Britain can no longer rely on her famed mastery of the seas. The aircraft carrier Courageous is sunk at sea in September, the battleship Royal Oak is torpedoed at anchor in Scapa Flow in October. Hitler also has a devastating new weapon to unveil - the magnetic mine, dropped into the sea from the air to cling to a passing vessel and explode. Inevitably indiscriminate, one such mine sinks the Dutch passenger liner Simon Bolivar in November.
Nor is there a lack of conflict in Europe. Stalin, assured of a free hand with Finland by the terms of his nonaggression pact with Hitler, sends troops across the Finnish border in November 1939 (provoking the Russo-Finnish war, also known as the Winter War, in which Finland resists her large neighbour with magnificent resolve). And in early April 1940 the French and British finally agree on their first joint offensive. They will send troops to seize the Norwegian North Sea ports, even though Norway is neutral. The strategic reason is the need to cut the supply of iron ore from Swedish mines to Germany. But they delay in putting the plan into action.

Meanwhile on the western front all is quiet.
As a result the war acquires in Britain and France a name suggesting a dangerous sense of relaxation. In Britain it is known as the Phoney War, in France le Drole de Guerre (the Joke War). By the spring of 1940 the western nations have been able to spend eight useful months building up their armaments. On April 5 Chamberlain is sufficiently confident to declare to the house of commons that one thing is now certain - Hitler has 'missed the bus'.

Four days later a German fleet of warships invades Denmark and Norway. All the important harbours of these two neutral nations are rapidly occupied. Within days British and French troops are on hand to assist the Norwegian resistance. But they have arrived too late and little is achieved.
Enter Churchill: AD 1940

The military failure in Norway heightens dissatisfaction in Britain with Chamberlain's conduct of the war. On May 7-8 he narrowly survives a censure debate in the house of commons (notable for Leo Amery's revival of Cromwell's famous words 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing... In the name of God, go!'). Then, on May 10, alarming news from the continent sets the seal on his term as leader.

In the early hours of that morning German divisions smash their way into the Netherlands and Belgium. In this new crisis Chamberlain realizes that an all-party government is essential. But the Labour party refuses to serve under a man associated so strongly with appeasement.

The only possible leader in the circumstances is a controversial figure waiting in the wings. Winston Churchill, after a brilliant early career (first as soldier and author, subsequently in several high cabinet roles), has been on the sidelines during the 1930s because of his implacable opposition to appeasement. He has described Chamberlain's 'peace with honour' at Munich as 'a total and unmitigated defeat'.

Pugnacious and inspirational, Churchill is the ideal man for the crisis now facing the nation. Appointed prime minister on May 10, he asks for a vote of confidence from the house of commons on May 13 - and receives it unanimously.
On this occasion, and on many subsequently, Churchill reveals the power of harsh truth transformed by the magic of oratory. His message to the commons is bleak - 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' But as the robust phrases roll on, the speech becomes a clarion call to the nation.

In a similar way each significant moment in this summer of 1940, the most dangerous in British national history, is marked by a high point of Churchillian peroration. The completion, on June 4, of the extraordinary evacuation from Dunkirk is the occasion for 'We shall fight on the beaches'. The loss of France as an ally, after an armistice signed with Germany on June 18, produces the vision of Britain now confronting her 'finest hour'.
Whenever there is a chink in the storm clouds, the prime minister proves as powerful in his commemoration of victory. In August 1940 his young pilots begin to turn the tables on the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Churchill coins in their honour perhaps his most famous sentence: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

The first successful allied land offensive against German troops, driving Rommel westwards through north Africa in November 1942, is the occasion for the cautious but resonant hope: 'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'
Thanks to film and news reels, Churchill in person becomes an inspirational figure to a British public suffering the first prolonged and intense bombing campaign in the history of warfare. His trademark cigar (never seen in a much reduced state) and his famous V-sign are always in evidence when he visits a devastated area in the aftermath of an air raid.

On the international front Churchill's main challenge is enlisting the support of the USA. This is achieved in stages, with the start of lend-lease in 1941 followed by the Atlantic Charter. But the task is completed for Churchill by the Japanese action at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Hitler's invasion of the USSR, in June 1941, brings Churchill his other major ally. The trio of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin become the high command of the allied effort against the Axis powers.

While the Russians sap the German military strength in the bitter campaigns of 1942-3, Churchill and Roosevelt plan the western offensive which eventually takes place on D-Day (6 June 1944). By the time the three leaders meet at Yalta, in February 1945, it is evident that the war is all but won. Much of the discussion now centres on postwar dispensations. But for Churchill himself the last weeks of the war bring a rude shock, from a British public adjusting rapidly to a new social and political environment.

Wartime welfare: AD 1939-1945

The national war effort, more effectively planned than in 1914-1918, has a profound influence on British society. Conscription, introduced for some even before the start of the war (in April 1939), is by the end of 1941 very widely applied - men between the ages of 18 and 61 and women aged from 20 to 30 must all either join the services or work in mines or factories.

In World War I food rationing of a few basic commodities only came in during the last months of the war, from July 1918. This time ration books are ready almost at the start, to become a familiar part of everybody's war from January 1940.

Most basic foodstuffs are already rationed in 1940 (meat, eggs, butter, sugar, tea, milk, cheese, jam), to be followed by sweets and chocolate from 1942. Clothes are rationed from 1941, petrol from 1942.

Many social effects result from these measures. Even if only on a temporary basis, there is a reduction in class barriers. Everyone now is subject to the same restrictions, everyone is joining equally in the war effort (though working-class districts bear the brunt of the bombing, targeted on industrial areas and docks). But there is another more lasting effect of rationing and industrial conscription.
Full employment means that even the poorest families have an income, and rationing provides everybody with the same simple but healthy diet. The war generation in Britain is the first ever in which poor children eat adequately. Their parents, away in the forces or working in a local factory, now see a chance of a better life for the family. And the all-party government headed by Churchill recognizes this fundamental change.

A Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services is set up in 1941, under the chairmanship of William Beveridge. The resulting Beveridge Report, published in 1942, proposes a wide-ranging social security programme - with state insurance against the costs of illness, unemployment, old age and death.
The government accepts the Beveridge Report in principle, though action to put any such sweeping reforms into effect is impossible in the short term. But the Beveridge ideals are very much in the public domain when a general election is called for July 1945, shortly after VE-Day.

Churchill campaigns during the election as the war hero, and as such is widely cheered. He also reverts unashamedly to the role of Conservative leader, painting a dire picture of life under a Labour government. But the Labour party, with Clement Attlee at its head, has a seductive message - for a postwar change of direction, towards a new and fairer society.
The British troops all round the world have a vote, and it takes some time for their decisions to be counted and registered. But when the result of the election is announced, on 26 July 1945, it is nothing short of sensational. Labour has won a landslide victory, with 393 seats in the house of commons to a mere 213 for the Conservatives.

Churchill later describes this surprising turn of events in his own inimitable style: 'All our enemies having surrended unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.'
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Default The Attlee government: AD 1945-1951

The Attlee government: AD 1945-1951

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multi-racial Britain: from AD 1948

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

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

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

The arrival of the West Indians transforms Britain into a multiracial society. There is as yet little religious diversity because the new immigrants are nearly all Christians. At this stage only one long established British group differs from the majority in both race and religion. The Jews, welcomed in Britain from the 1650s and immigrating in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, are now a settled community of some 300,000 people.
The Jews are joined by other minority religious groups when immigration begins from new areas of the British empire - from Africa and above all from the Indian subcontinent, introducing to Britain three important religions. Hindus and Sikhs arrive from the republic of India (and Hindus also from east Africa, after Uganda's Indian population is expelled in 1972). Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

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

Eden and Suez: AD 1955-1957

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

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

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

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


Butskellism: AD 1957-1979

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

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

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

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

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

Closer to home the great issue of the decade from 1963 is Britain's belated attempt to join the European Community. Macmillan tries to do so in 1963, followed by Wilson in 1967. Both bids are vetoed by the French president, Charles de Gaulle. Edward Heath finally achieves British membership in 1973.
Economically the era is characterized by numerous strikes and restrictive practices. This crippling combination (known elsewhere at the time as the 'English disease') is coupled with rapid inflation - much aggravated by an international factor (the 'oil crisis' of 1973-4) and by exceptionally high rates of tax. By 1976 the top rate of tax on earned income in Britain is 83%, but there is also a 15% surcharge on unearned income - leaving the rich with only 2% of their return from investments.

These circumstances culminate in a spate of strikes so numerous that they cause the winter of 1978-9 to be known (in a phrase from Richard III) as the 'winter of discontent'. The result is a strong reaction in the general election of 1979.
The early Thatcher years: AD 1979-1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For part of the electorate she also increases her stature during the miners' strike of 1984-5. This is a fight for which she has been spoiling. The miners were at the heart of the General Strike in 1926. They have more recently gone on strike in 1972 (in support of a 47% wage claim) and in 1974 - on which occasion the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, introduces an emergency three-day week and calls an election.
Heath loses the election of 1974; the Labour government awards the miners a 35% increase; and Mrs Thatcher challenges and defeats Heath to become leader of the opposition. Now, in 1984, she is determined that a miner's strike confronting her government will end differently. It does.

After an exceptionally bitter and violent confrontation lasting eleven months (April 1984 to March 1985), the miners return to work without achieving any settlement. As Mrs Thatcher intends, this event is a turning point in the progressive loss of power of the unions in Britain - a development greeted with dismay on one side ('them') and with rejoicing on the other ('us'), in a typical Thatcherite split within the nation.
Pride before a fall: AD 1987-1990

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

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


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

By now Mrs Thatcher's cabinet colleagues find her self-assertion increasingly unacceptable. High-profile resignations (notably Lawson in 1989, Howe in 1990) result in her removal from office by her own colleagues. At the end of 1990 she is challenged for the leadership and loses. The sense of betrayal felt by her faction blights the Conservative party for the rest of the decade.
New Labour: AD 1983-1997

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Blair years: from AD 1997

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

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

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

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