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History of the United Kingdom

Related subjects: British History

Background Information

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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the sovereign state comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The state began on 1st May, 1707, as agreed in the Treaty of Union and put into effect by the Acts of Union in 1707. This united the separate countries of England (including Wales) and Scotland into a united Kingdom of Great Britain under a single parliament. A further Act of Union in 1800 added the Kingdom of Ireland to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, the territory of what is now the Republic of Ireland gained independence, leaving Northern Ireland as a continuing part of the United Kingdom. As a result, in 1927 the United Kingdom changed its formal title to "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", usually shortened to "the United Kingdom", "the UK" or "Britain".

For history prior to the creation of the United Kingdom see;

The formation of the United Kingdom and the rest of the 18th century

The creation of the united Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 was the result of the Treaty of Union which had been negotiated between England and Scotland and put into effect by the passing of the Acts of Union 1707. At the time, England controlled Wales, which had been conquered in 1282 and formally annexed by the Laws in Wales Act 1535, and Ireland, which had been reconquered in 1536. Though England and Scotland were separate, sovereign states, they had shared monarchs since 1603 when James VI of Scotland had become James I of England on the death of the childless Elizabeth I.

Acts of Union 1707

Deeper political integration had been a key policy of Queen Anne (reigned 1702–14), and a Treaty of Union was drawn up, and negotiations between England and Scotland began in earnest, in 1706. The parliaments of Scotland and England each approved Acts of Union that put the provisions of the Treaty into effect which in turn received royal assent. Thereafter, political unification occurred on May 1st, 1707 on which day the two kingdoms were combined into a single kingdom and the two parliaments were merged into a single parliament.

The circumstances surrounding Scotland's acceptance of the Bill are to some degree disputed. Scottish proponents of union believed that failure to accede to the Bill would result in the imposition of union under less favourable terms. Months of fierce debate on both sides of the border followed. In Scotland the debate on occasion dissolved into civil disorder, most notably by the notorious 'Edinburgh Mob'. The prospect of a union of the kingdoms was deeply unpopular among the Scottish population at large but, following the financially disastrous Darien Scheme, the near-bankrupt Parliament of Scotland reluctantly accepted the proposals. Financial incentives to Scottish parliamentarians also played their part in the vote.

Anne became formally the first occupant of the unified British throne and Scotland sent 45 MPs to the new parliament at Westminster. Perhaps the greatest single benefit to Scotland of the Union was that Scotland could enjoy free trade with England and her colonies overseas. For England's part, a possible ally for European states hostile to England had been neutralised while simultaneously securing a Protestant succession to the British throne.

The Acts of Union provided for the renaming of Scotland and England as 'North Britain' and 'South Britain' respectively. However, the change failed to take hold and fell into disuse fairly quickly. In England and abroad the terms 'England' and 'Britain' often continue to be used interchangeably, though this error is not mirrored in Scotland.

However, certain aspect of the former independent kingdoms remained separate. Examples of Scottish and English institutions which were not merged into the British system include: Scottish and English law which remain separate, as do Scottish and English banking systems, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and Anglican Church of England also remained separate as did the systems of education and higher learning.

Having failed to establish their own empire, but being better educated than the average Englishman, the Scots made a distinguished and disproportionate contribution to both the government of the United Kingdom and the administration of the British Empire.

Jacobite risings

The early years of the new united kingdom were marked by major Jacobite Risings, called 'Jacobite Rebellions' by the ruling governments. These Risings were the consequence of James VII of Scotland and II of England being deposed in 1688 with the thrones claimed by his daughter Mary II jointly with her husband, the Dutch born William of Orange. The 'Risings' intensified after the House of Hanover succeeded to the united British Throne in 1714 with the "First Jacobite Rebellion" and "Second Jacobite Rebellion", in 1715 and 1745, known respectively as "The Fifteen" and "The Forty-Five". Although each Jacobite Rising had unique features, they all formed part of a larger series of military campaigns by Jacobites attempting to restore the Stuart kings to the thrones of Scotland and England (and after 1707, the united Kingdom of Great Britain). They ended when the "Forty-Five" rebellion, led by 'the Young Pretender' Charles Edward Stuart was soundly defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

British Empire

Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, by Francis Hayman (c. 1762).

The Seven Years' War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and coastal Africa. The signing of the Treaty of Paris (1763) had important consequences for Britain and its empire. In North America, France's future as a colonial power there was effectively ended with the ceding of New France to Britain (leaving a sizeable French-speaking population under British control) and Louisiana to Spain. Spain ceded Florida to Britain. In India, the Carnatic War had left France still in control of its enclaves but with military restrictions and an obligation to support British client states, effectively leaving the future of India to Britain. The British victory over France in the Seven Years War therefore left Britain as the world's dominant colonial power.

During the 1760s and 1770s, relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain became increasingly strained, primarily because of resentment of the British Parliament's ability to tax American colonists without their consent. Disagreement turned to violence and in 1775 the American Revolutionary War began. The following year, the colonists declared the independence of the United States and with economical and naval assistance from France, would go on to win the war in 1783.

The loss of the United States, at the time Britain's most populous colony, is seen by historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, had argued that colonies were redundant, and that free trade should replace the old mercantilist policies that had characterised the first period of colonial expansion, dating back to the protectionism of Spain and Portugal. The growth of trade between the newly independent United States and Britain after 1783 confirmed Smith's view that political control was not necessary for economic success.

During its first century of operation, the focus of the British East India Company had been trade, not the building of an empire in India. Company interests turned from trade to territory during the 18th century as the Mughal Empire declined in power and the British East India Company struggled with its French counterpart, the La Compagnie française des Indes orientales, during the Carnatic Wars of the 1740s and 1750s. The Battle of Plassey, which saw the British, led by Robert Clive, defeat the French and their Indian allies, left the Company in control of Bengal and a major military and political power in India. In the following decades it gradually increased the size of the territories under its control, either ruling directly or indirectly via local puppet rulers under the threat of force of the Indian Army, 80% of which was composed of native Indian sepoys.

In 1770, James Cook had discovered the eastern coast of Australia whilst on a scientific voyage to the South Pacific. In 1778, Joseph Banks, Cook's botanist on the voyage, presented evidence to the government on the suitability of Botany Bay for the establishment of a penal settlement, and in 1787 the first shipment of convicts set sail, arriving in 1788.

At the threshold to the 19th century, Britain was challenged again by France under Napoleon, in a struggle that, unlike previous wars, represented a contest of ideologies between the two nations. It was not only Britain's position on the world stage that was threatened: Napoleon threatened invasion of Britain itself, and with it, a fate similar to the countries of continental Europe that his armies had overrun.

19th century

Ireland joins with the Act of Union (1800)

The Flag of the United Kingdom is based on the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland

The second stage in the development of the United Kingdom took effect on January, 1st, 1801, when the Kingdom of Great Britain merged with the Kingdom of Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Events that culminated in the union with Ireland had spanned the previous several centuries. Invasions from England by the ruling Normans from 1170 led to centuries of strife in Ireland and successive Kings of England sought both to conquer and pillage Ireland, imposing their rule by force throughout the entire island. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement of the province of Ulster by Protestant settlers from both Scotland and England began, which saw the displacement of many of the native Roman Catholics Irish inhabitants of this part of Ireland. Since the time of the first Norman invaders from England, Ireland has been subject to control and regulation, firstly by England then latterly by Great Britain.

After the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Irish Roman Catholics were barred from voting or attending the Irish Parliament. The new English Protestant ruling class was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. Towards the end of the 18th century the entirely Protestant Irish Parliament attained a greater degree of independence from the British Parliament than it had previously held. Under the Penal Laws no Irish Catholic could sit in the Parliament of Ireland, even though some 90% of Ireland's population was native Irish Catholic when the first of these bans was introduced in 1691. This ban was followed by others in 1703 and 1709 as part of a comprehensive system disadvantaging the Catholic community, and to a lesser extent Protestant dissenters. In 1798, many members of this dissenter tradition made common cause with Catholics in a rebellion inspired and led by the Society of United Irishmen. It was staged with the aim of creating a fully independent Ireland as a state with a republican constitution. Despite assistance from France the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was put down by British forces.

Possibly influenced by the War of American Independence (1775–1783) , a united force of Irish volunteers used their influence to campaign for greater independence for the Irish Parliament. This was granted in 1782, giving free trade and legislative independence to Ireland. However, the French revolution had encouraged the increasing calls for moderate constitutional reform. The Society of United Irishmen, made up of Presbyterians from Belfast and both Anglicans and Catholics in Dublin, campaigned for an end to British domination. Their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–98) worked with the Catholic Convention of 1792 which demanded an end to the penal laws. Failing to win the support of the British government, he travelled to Paris, encouraging a number of French naval forces to land in Ireland to help with the planned insurrections. These were slaughtered by government forces, but these rebellions convinced the British under Prime Minister William Pitt that the only solution was to end Irish independence once and for all.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed under the Act of Union 1800, changing the country's name to "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". The Act was passed in the British and therefore unrepresentative Irish Parliament with substantial majorities achieved in part (according to contemporary documents) through bribery, namely the awarding of peerages and honours to critics to get their votes. Under the terms of the merger, the separate Parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland were abolished, and replaced by a united Parliament of the United Kingdom. Ireland thus became part of an extended United Kingdom. Ireland sent around 100 MPs to the House of Commons at Westminster and 28 peers to the House of Lords, elected from among their number by the Irish peers themselves (Catholics were not permitted peerage). Part of the trade-off for Irish Catholics was to be the granting of Catholic Emancipation, which had been fiercely resisted by the all-Anglican Irish Parliament. However, this was blocked by King George III who argued that emancipating Roman Catholics would breach his Coronation Oath. The Roman Catholic hierarchy had endorsed the Union. However the decision to block Catholic Emancipation fatally undermined the appeal of the Union.

Napoleonic wars

Hostilities between Great Britain and France recommenced on May 18 1803. The Coalition war-aims changed over the course of the conflict: a general desire to restore the French monarchy became closely linked to the struggle to stop Bonaparte.

The series of naval and colonial conflicts, including a large number of minor naval actions, resembled those of the French Revolutionary Wars and the preceding centuries of European warfare. Conflicts in the Caribbean, and in particular the seizure of colonial bases and islands throughout the wars, could potentially have some effect upon the European conflict. The Napoleonic conflict had reached the point at which subsequent historians could talk of a " world war". Only the Seven Years' War offered a precedent for widespread conflict on such a scale.

In 1806, Napoleon issued the series of Berlin Decrees, which brought into effect the Continental System. This policy aimed to eliminate the threat of the United Kingdom by closing French-controlled territory to its trade. The United Kingdom's army remained a minimal threat to France; the UK maintained a standing army of just 220,000 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, whereas France's strength peaked at over 1,500,000 — in addition to the armies of numerous allies and several hundred thousand national guardsmen that Napoleon could draft into the military if necessary. The Royal Navy, however, effectively disrupted France's extra-continental trade — both by seizing and threatening French shipping and by seizing French colonial possessions — but could do nothing about France's trade with the major continental economies and posed little threat to French territory in Europe. In addition France's population and agricultural capacity far outstripped that of the United Kingdom. However, the United Kingdom possessed the greatest industrial capacity in Europe, and its mastery of the seas allowed it to build up considerable economic strength through trade. That sufficed to ensure that France could never consolidate its control over Europe in peace. However, many in the French government believed that cutting the United Kingdom off from the Continent would end its economic influence over Europe and isolate it. Though the French designed the Continental System to achieve this, it never succeeded in its objective.

Victorian era

The Victorian era of the United Kingdom is a term commonly used to refer to the period of Queen Victoria's rule between 1837 and 1901 which signified the height of the British Industrial Revolution and the apex of the British Empire. Although , scholars debate whether the Victorian period—as defined by a variety of sensibilities and political concerns that have come to be associated with the Victorians—actually begins with the passage of Reform Act 1832. The era was preceded by the Regency era and succeeded by the Edwardian period. The latter half of the Victorian era roughly coincided with the first portion of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and other non-English speaking countries.

Prime Ministers: William Pitt the Younger | Lord Grenville | Duke of Portland | Spencer Perceval | Lord Liverpool | George Canning | Lord Goderich | Duke of Wellington | Lord Grey | Lord Melbourne | Sir Robert Peel | Lord John Russell | Lord Derby | Lord Aberdeen | Lord Palmerston | Benjamin Disraeli | William Ewart Gladstone | Lord Salisbury | Lord Rosebery

Social history: History of British society

Ireland and the move to Home Rule

Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell, and the death of George III, led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament. O'Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Unfortunately, British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were at this time wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the present-day equivalent € 70,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) caused the problem to become a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out in what became known as the Irish Potato Famine.

Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties (note: the poor didn't have a vote at that time). A significant minority also elected Unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. After Butt's death the Home Rule Movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it had become known, was turned into a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and in particular a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell's movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

Parnell's movement campaigned for 'Home Rule', by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O'Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, but neither became law, mainly due to opposition from the House of Lords. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster) , opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be affected by any tariff barriers imposed.

20th century

Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom 1900–1945

Marquess of Salisbury | Arthur Balfour | Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman | Herbert Henry Asquith | David Lloyd George | Andrew Bonar Law | Stanley Baldwin | Ramsay MacDonald | Stanley Baldwin | Ramsay MacDonald | Stanley Baldwin | Neville Chamberlain | Winston Churchill

World War I

Partition of Ireland

The 19th and early 20th century saw the rise of Irish Nationalism especially among the Catholic population. Daniel O'Connell led a successful unarmed campaign for Catholic Emancipation. A subsequent campaign for Repeal of the Act of Union failed. Later in the century Charles Stewart Parnell and others campaigned for self government within the Union or " Home Rule".

In 1912, a further Home Rule bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, as was the bill of 1893, but by this time the House of Lords had lost its veto on legislation and could only delay the bill by two years - until 1914. During these two years the threat of civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers. These two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on the political backburner for the duration of the war. The Unionist and Nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in their thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.

A unilaterally declared " Irish Republic" was proclaimed in Dublin in 1916 during the Easter Rising. The uprising was quelled swiftly by British forces, and most of the leaders were shot. This led to a major increase in support in Ireland for the uprising, and in the declaration of independence was ratified by Dáil Éireann, the self-declared Republic's parliament in 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Army of the Irish Republic between January 1919 and June 1921.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, negotiated between teams representing the British and Irish Republic's governments, and ratified by three parliaments,4 established the Irish Free State, which was initially a British Empire Dominion in the same vein as Canada or South Africa, but subsequently left the British Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II, without constitutional ties with the United Kingdom. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties ( Northern Ireland) have remained part of the United Kingdom.

An armed rebellion took place with the Easter Rising of 1916, and then followed the Irish War of Independence. In 1921, a treaty was concluded between the British Government and the leaders of the Irish Republic. The Treaty recognised the two-state solution created in the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Northern Ireland would form a home rule state within the new Irish Free State unless it opted out. Northern Ireland had a majority Protestant population and opted out as expected. A Boundary Commission was set up to decide on the border between the two Irish states, though it was subsequently abandoned after it recommended only minor adjustments to the border. The Irish Free State was initially a British Empire Dominion like Canada and South Africa with King George V being titled King of Ireland. Eire became a republic in 1949 and left the British Commonwealth in 1949 without constitutional ties with the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland continued in name until 1927 when it was renamed as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927. Despite increasing political independence from each other from 1922, and complete political independence since 1949, the union left the two countries intertwined with each other in many respects. Ireland used the Irish Pound from 1928 until 2001 when it was replaced by the Euro. Until it joined the ERM in 1979, the Irish pound was directly linked to the Pound Sterling. Decimalisation of both currencies occurred simultaneously on Decimal Day in 1971. Irish Citizens in the UK have a status almost equivalent to British Citizens. They can vote in all elections and even stand for parliament. British Citizens have similar rights to Irish Citizens in the Republic of Ireland and can vote in all elections apart from presidential elections and referendums. People from Northern Ireland can have dual nationality by applying for an Irish passport in addition to, or instead of a British one.

Northern Ireland was created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament in 1921. Faced with divergent demands from Irish nationalists and Unionists over the future of the island of Ireland (the former wanted an all-Irish home rule parliament to govern the entire island, the latter no home rule at all) , and the fear of civil war between both groups, the British Government under David Lloyd George passed the Act, creating two home rule Irelands, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland never came into being as a real state and was superseded by the Irish Free State in 1922. That state is now known as the Republic of Ireland.

Having been given self government in 1920 (even though they never sought it, and some like Sir Edward Carson were bitterly opposed) the Northern Ireland government under successive prime ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) practiced a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/ Roman Catholic minority. Northern Ireland became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, a "cold place for Catholics." Towns and cities were gerrymandered to rig local government elections to ensure Protestant control of town councils. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes and minimum income regulations also helped achieve this end.

In the 1960s, moderate unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but was met with wholesale opposition from extreme Protestant leaders like the Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme unionists for No surrender led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife. The British army was originally sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 by British Home Secretary James Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack, and was warmly welcomed. However, the murder of thirteen unarmed civilians in 1972 in Londonderry by British Paratroopers (" Bloody Sunday") inflamed the situation and turned northern nationalists against the British Army. The appearance of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) , a breakaway from the increasingly Marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by loyalist terror groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others, brought Northern Ireland to the brink of Civil War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extremists on both sides carried out a series of brutal mass murders, often on innocent civilians. Among the most notorious outrages were the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh.

Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but this policy was opposed by successive Irish governments, who called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as refugees to their community's 'side' of the province; nationalists fleeing to western Northern Ireland, unionists fleeing to eastern Northern Ireland. The worst fear was of a civil war which would engulf not just Northern Ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland both of whom had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal came to be called the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos it unleashed.

In the early 1970s, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued after the province's Unionist Government under the premiership of Brian Faulkner refused to agree to the British Government demand that it hand over the powers of law and order, and Direct Rule was introduced from London starting on March 24, 1972. New systems of governments were tried and failed, including power-sharing under Sunningdale, Rolling Devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim by British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster that was the Enniskillen, along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. These changes were followed the appearance of new leaders in Dublin Albert Reynolds, London John Major and in unionism David Trimble. Contacts initiatively been Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, broadened out into all party negotiations, that in 1998 produced the ' Good Friday Agreement' which was approved by a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, where the constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann was amended to replace a claim it allegedly made to the territory of Northern Ireland with a recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist, while also acknowledging the nationalist desire for a united Ireland.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly was elected to form a Northern Irish parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan. The Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The Assembly and its Executive are both currently suspended over unionist threats over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery or an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service (this later turned out to be false due to the fact that Denis Donaldson, the person in possession of the incriminating files which pointed to an IRA spy-ring actually worked for the British intelligence). Government is now once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain and a British ministerial team answerable to him.

World War II

Empire to Commonwealth

Britain's control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt.

Between 1867 and 1910, the UK granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand "Dominion" status (near complete autonomy within the Empire). They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (known as the Commonwealth of Nations since 1949) , an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies — including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others — which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as British Overseas Territories.

Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries, and is a forum for those countries to raise concerns. Notable non-members of the Commonwealth are Ireland, the United States and the former middle-eastern colonies and protectorates. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, in those countries.


The end of the Second World War saw a landslide General Election victory for Clement Atlee and the Labour Party. They were elected on a manifesto of greater social justice with left wing policies such as the creation of a National Health Service, an expansion of the provision of council housing and nationalisation of the major industries. The UK at the time was poor, relying heavily on loans from the United States of America (which were finally paid off in February 2007) to rebuild its damaged infrastructure. Rationing and conscription dragged on into the post war years, and the country suffered one of the worst winters on record. Nevertheless, morale was boosted by events such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and the Festival of Britain.

As the country headed into the 1950s, rebuilding continued and a number of immigrants from the remaining British Empire were invited to help the rebuilding effort. As the 1950s wore on, the UK had lost its place as a superpower and could no longer maintain its large Empire. This led to decolonization, and a withdrawal from almost all of its colonies by 1970. Events such as the Suez Crisis showed that the UK's status had fallen in the world. The 1950s and 1960s were, however, relatively prosperous times after the Second World War, and saw the beginning of a modernization of the UK, with the construction of its first motorways.

Though the 1970s and 1980s saw the UK's integration to the European Economic Community and a strict modernization of its economy, they were also a time of high unemployment as deindustrialization saw the end of much of the country's manufacturing industries. The miners' strike of 1984-1985 saw the end of the UK's coal mining, thanks to the discovery of North Sea gas. This was also the time that the IRA took the issue of Northern Ireland to Great Britain, maintaining a prolonged bombing campaign on the island.

After the difficult 70s and 80s and a low point of Black Wednesday under the John Major government, the rest of the 1990s saw the beginning of a period of continuous economic growth that has to date lasted over 15 years. The Good Friday Agreement saw what many believe to be the beginning of the end of conflict in Northern Ireland; since this event, there has been very little armed violence over the issue.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales

On September 11th, 1997, (on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge), a referendum was held on establishing a devolved Scottish Parliament. This resulted in an overwhelming 'yes' vote both to establishing the parliament and granting it limited tax varying powers. Two weeks later, a referendum in Wales on establishing a Welsh Assembly for was also approved but with a very narrow majority. The first elections were held, and these bodies began to operate, in 1999.

The creation of the devolved Scottish parliament in particular, with powers to legislate over a wide range of issues, is beginning to add to differences between the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. It has also brought to the fore the so-called West Lothian question which is a complaint that devolution for Scotland and Wales but not England has created a situation where all the MPs in the UK parliament can vote on matters affecting England alone but on those same matters Scotland and Wales can make their own decisions.


In the 2001 General Election, the Labour Party won a second successive victory.

Despite huge anti-war marches held in London and Glasgow, Blair gave strong support to the United State's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Forty-six thousand British troops, one-third of the total strength of the British Army (land forces), were deployed to assist with the invasion of Iraq and thereafter British armed forces were responsible for security in southern Iraq in the run-up to the Iraqi elections of January 2005.

The Labour Party won the Thursday 5 May 2005 general election and a third consecutive term in office. On Thursday 7 July 2005, a series of four bomb explosions struck London's public transport system during the morning rush-hour. All four incidents were suicide bombings that killed 52 commutors in addition to the 4 bombers.

2007 saw the conclusion of the premiership of Tony Blair, followed by the premiership of Gordon Brown (from 27 June 2007).

2007 also sees an election victory for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) in the May elections. They formed a minority government with plans to hold a referendum before 2011 to seek a mandate "to negotiate with the Government of the United Kingdom to achieve independence for Scotland." Most opinion polls show minority support for independence though support varies depending on the nature of the question. However, a poll in April 2008 that used the proposed referendum wording found support for independence had reached 41% with just 40% supporting retention of the Union. The response of the unionist parties has been to call for the establishment of a Commission to examine further devolution of powers, a position that has the support of the Prime Minister.

Social history

Chartism is thought to have originated from the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill, which gave the vote to the majority of the (male) middle classes, but not to the 'working class'. Many people made speeches on the 'betrayal' of the working class and the 'sacrificing' of their 'interests' by the 'misconduct' of the government. In 1838, six members of Parliament and six workingmen formed a committee, which then published the People's Charter.

Victorian attitudes and ideals continued into the first years of the 20th century, and what really changed society was the start of World War I. The army was traditionally never a large employer in the nation, and the regular army stood at 247,432 at the start of the war. By 1918, there were about five million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) , was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost three million casualties were known as the "lost generation", and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon's Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front.

The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900. Labour did not achieve major success until the 1922 general election. David Lloyd George said after the First World War that "the nation was now in a molten state", and his Housing Act 1919 would lead to affordable council housing which allowed people to move out of Victorian inner-city slums. The slums, though, remained for several more years, with trams being electrified long before many houses. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women householders the vote, but it would not be until 1928 that equal suffrage was achieved.

A short lived post-war boom soon led to a depression that would be felt worldwide. Particularly hardest hit were the north of England and Wales, where unemployment reached 70% in some areas. The General Strike was called during 1926 in support of the miners and their falling wages, but little improved, the downturn continued and the Strike is often seen as the start of the slow decline of the British coal industry. In 1936, 200 unemployed men walked from Jarrow to London in a bid to show the plight of the industrial poor, but the Jarrow March, or the 'Jarrow Crusade' as it was known, had little impact and it would not be until the coming war that industrial prospects improved. George Orwell's book The Road to Wigan Pier gives a bleak overview of the hardships of the time.

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