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Few states in the history of civilization have endured such rapid and far-reaching changes in the relative strength of their position in the world as the United Kingdom did between 1914 and 2004. In 1909 the British Empire comprised 20 percent of the world's land mass and 23 percent of the world's population. In 2004 the United Kingdom was a leading member of a union of states, the European Union, in which sovereignty was shared through supranational institutions. Few states while experiencing such periods of rapid change have managed to retain political cohesion. The basic features of the constitution that were in place in 1914—representative government, political parties, majority rule—have remained intact over a century in which every other major power, except the United States, has undergone regime change of some kind. Fewer states still have managed such rapid and successful social and economic readjustments to maintain levels of growth and the necessary affluence that breeds social cohesion and prevents regime disintegration. In 1914 there were few nonwhite communities outside the major ports and London. Immigration from indigenous populations constitutes half the growth in the United Kingdom population over the twentieth century, a population that increased over the century from 42,082,000 in 1911 to 59,954,000 in 2001. Gross domestic product per head of population was four and a half times higher in real terms in 1995 than it had been in 1914. The population also aged significantly, with persons older than sixty-five increasing from one in twenty to one in six.


The periodization of such an era across social, economic, and political history is by necessity somewhat arbitrary. Change in one area does not neatly fit into change in other areas. But this period is so strikingly punctuated by important choices that it seems more natural and convincing to break it up by the strategic signposts on the road to the present rather than by other indicators.

Our starting point, 1914, is the most acute of these signposts in many ways because it signals the beginning of the European ideological civil war, which was to determine the shape of British history down to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Within the long period in which the consequences of the First World War were played out, there were other significant moments of decision that determined the survival of the United Kingdom. In 1931 British democracy survived an economic and political crisis. In 1940 the British state survived through the mobilization of the British nation in defeating the Nazi air force in the Battle of Britain. This led in 1945 to choices about the future of the

1914The First World War
1926The General Strike
1929–1931The Labour Government and Its Collapse
1939–1940The War against Nazi Germany
1945The Three Circles: United States, Europe, and Commonwealth
1973The European Economic Community
2001The War on Terror

British Empire and the decision, consolidated after 1956, to move to rapid decolonization. The move, in part forced and in part voluntary, to end the empire was accompanied by the decision in 1945 to develop an independent nuclear deterrent and to commit troops and resources to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Both moves were designed to allow the United Kingdom to retain a world role. The framing of the domestic policy of the Labour government elected in 1945 was of equal importance to the decisions made about the United Kingdom's global role. The creation of a mixed economy with both state and private ownership of industry and of a welfare state based on the idea of universal provision, created the mechanisms needed to maintain social cohesion in the United Kingdom in the period of rapid and far-reaching social and cultural change that began in the 1950s.

Having surrendered the empire and refocused Britain's political concerns from the global reach of imperial control to the domestic needs of full employment and good housing, there began a lengthy period of uncertainty as to quite where all this change would leave Britain in relation to the rest of the world. This was in part resolved in 1973, when Britain entered the European Economic Community (EEC). The policies of the 1945–1951 governments and the decision to join the EEC did not mean that Britain gave up its global role completely, because Britain maintained a special relationship with the United States, illustrated most clearly in 2001 when Britain unambiguously sided with the United States in the invasion of Afghanistan, and in the following year in the invasion of Iraq. This reinforced the extent to which the United Kingdom has remained a distinctive European power.


The period from the beginning of World War I to the formation of the national government in 1931 was marked by the seismic impact of World War I. This monumental conflict ended the long period of peace between the Great Powers that had followed the Napoleonic Wars. Britain entered the war on the side of France and Russia, ostensibly in defense of the neutrality of Belgium. The real causes of the war were much deeper and stretched back to 1870 and the unification of Germany. The united Germany had missed out on much of the first wave of imperial growth and felt strategically isolated in the center of Europe. France and Russia feared the military strength of this central European giant. For Britain the strategic concerns were real, but since 1900 it was the economic challenge of the united Germany and the emerging economic superpower of the United States that most worried successive prime ministers. Germany had to be contained within Europe, and access to the free trade area of the British Empire had to be defended in some way against the political economy of protectionism practiced by the Germans. Economic competition, strategic calculation, and the underlying pressure of the prolonged arms race combined to produce total war in 1914. Initially, Britain was under Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith (1852–1928), a Liberal who led a government without an overall majority, but in 1916 Asquith was replaced by David Lloyd George (1863–1945), who promised to fight the war in a more vigorous manner. A coalition government was formed.

Lloyd George's assumption of office introduced new energy into the conduct of administrating and fighting the war but arguably did nothing to break the stalemate that the western front had become. The fall of the tsarist regime in Russia and the entry of the United States into the conflict however altered the picture. Faced with the seemingly endless resources of the United States, the German army surrendered in November 1918. The winning of wars can sometimes be easier than the winning of the peace that follows. In the case of World War I the social and political impacts amounted to something like a compact between the people and the state. In return for mobilization in the fighting of total war, the people demanded full political rights—the right to vote for women,

World War One–Empire Figures
Total Engaged Killed * Percentage Cost (£M)
World War Two–Great Britain
Total Engaged Killed * Percentage Cost (£M)
* Killed includes dying of wounds or as prisoners of war

extension of the franchise to create a universal voting democracy. The Irish demanded independence, women demanded a continuation of their role in the workplace—a role made necessary by the sheer scale of mobilization needed for the successful waging of total war. The returning soldiers demanded jobs and better housing.

These domestic repercussions of the war were profound. With so many men conscripted to fight and die in the trenches, women had filled the gap. There had been massive increases in the numbers employed in the civil service as clerks, the numbers employed on the buses as drivers and conductors, and across industry. The war constituted an opportunity for many women to escape career paths that had dominated their experiences in the nineteenth century. In particular the number of domestic servants was drastically reduced. However, as the army was demobilized many women lost their jobs, and the trade unions were an important factor in getting men back into industrial roles that had been filled by women during the conflict. But the males returning to Britain were also disappointed, as the promised jobs and homes failed to materialize.


The economy had made a significant recovery by the middle of the 1920s in some sectors, but persistent heavy unemployment produced significant trade union militancy. In 1926 this resulted in the General Strike, which lasted for nine days before the Trade Union Council called the men back to work. The economic recovery ended with the stock market crash of 1929. At this moment the Labour Party was reelected as a minority government under James Ramsay MacDonald (1866–1937). The government struggled on until 1931, when a banking crisis convinced MacDonald and other key ministers that only significant cuts in public expenditure could save the British currency, the pound. The cabinet split. MacDonald led a minority of the Labour Party into coalition with the Conservatives. The year 1931 was the great crisis of Britain as the global guarantor of trade and currency. If the evolution from colony to mandate represented a significant geopolitical shift in the period after 1918 in the way in which the empire was administered, then the same realignment of the world in terms of capital flow took place in 1931. But 1931 was also important because of the symbolic importance of the incorporation of the Labour movement into the body politic, a process started with the election of the first minority Labour government in 1924 but consolidated by the events of 1931.

The decision of the bulk of the Labour Party to refuse to support the coalition and to fight elections independent of the national government is critical. The fact that the Left continued to work within the democratic system had profound implications for the failure of the Right, in the form of the New Party and then the British Union of Fascists, in its bid to destroy democracy. In other words, the center was immeasurably strengthened by the events of 1931.

The period between the two world wars was dominated politically by the Conservative Party either as the majority party in government (1922–1924 and 1924–1929) or as the largest voice in coalition/national governments (1916–1922 and 1931–1940). These governments were interrupted by brief periods of minority administrations formed by the Labour Party (1924 and 1929–1931). Though short in duration, these minority Labour governments were symbolically extremely important. Across Europe the interwar period saw the destruction of democracies and the rise of dictatorships. One of the major questions about Britain in this period is why did democracy survive? Indeed, this is the period in which Britain became a democracy based on universal adult suffrage with votes for women on equal-age terms being introduced in 1928 and the electorate reaching 90 percent of the adult population.

There are three interconnected reasons for the survival of democracy in this period. These reasons are economic and political though they are each underpinned by the social and cultural nature of British society. First, in Britain the forces of the Right—which created dictatorships in Germany, Italy, and Spain—did not exit democracy. Second, the economic impact of the Great Depression was not as bad in the United Kingdom as it was in other states. Third, this meant, in turn, that the forces of the Left did not exit democracy either. Though politics was polarized and an atmosphere of crisis and threat prevailed, the internal political dynamics pulled political discourse toward the center, and the electoral system being based on "first past the post" ensured regime stability.

The importance of the Right remaining within the democratic fold cannot be overstated. World War I had been hugely expensive in terms of the liquidation of British capital assets abroad, and the abandonment of the gold standard coupled with the fallout from the 1929 Wall Street crash produced considerable unease among leading British capitalists. However, this did not translate, aside from some minor exceptions, into political action. The rise of the British Union of Fascists Party under the former Labour MP Oswald Ernald Mosley (1896–1980) appeared for a moment in the early 1930s to mirror events in Italy and Germany, but Mosley failed to attract serious support from British industrialists or significant mass support from an impoverished and insecure lower middle class. The formation of the national government in 1931 was also important in this respect. The election of a Labour government in 1929, albeit without an overall majority, had been significant in two respects. Its formation brought the Labour movement closer to the political center. Its demise ensured the primacy of conventional economic management and the stability of the currency. Putting aside any economic judgement about the merits or demerits of the decision in 1931 to impose expenditure cuts and deflate in the face of rapidly rising unemployment, the political impact was to tie capital firmly to a democratic future.

These same decisions destabilized and radicalized the Left. The Labour prime minister led a minority of the parliamentary party into coalition with the Conservatives in 1931. But it did not lead supporters to exit democracy. After a period of instability and polarization from 1931 to 1934, the Labour Party settled back into a mainstream electoral presence.

The policy of the coalition and Conservative governments under Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947) and then Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) has long divided historians. Though there is a general consensus that many aspects of the domestic policies of these governments ensured that the impact of the depression was ameliorated for many parts of the United Kingdom, the foreign and defense policy of these governments remains highly contentious. The policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) by giving in to his territorial demands was either a masterful strategic triumph that bought the West time to rearm or it provided the necessary series of victories on which Hitler built his reputation. In any event, the policy

1914–1945One Nation Toryism
Selective Welfare Provision
Imperial and Commonwealth Trade
Incorporation of the Labour Movement into Mainstream Politics
Birth of Suburbia
1939–1945The Second World War
1945–1979The Attlee Settlement
The Mixed Economy
The Welfare State
Multiculturalism Born of Commonwealth Immigration
1979–2004The Thatcher Consensus
Market Economy
Selective Welfare
Consumer Choice
Renewal of Nationalism and the Questioning of Multiculturalism

resulted in the most destructive war in human history. Britain was the only country to fight the enemy for the entire duration of the conflict, yet its human losses were nowhere near as significant as those endured by the conquered peoples of Europe, especially the Jews, or by the main combatant responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany—the Soviet Union. However, though not primarily responsible for achieving victory, the Battle of Britain in 1940, during which the Nazi air force was defeated, was, without a doubt, one of the major victories of the conflict. When Hitler was finally defeated in April 1945, Britain assumed control of one of the occupation zones and continued to fight on against the Japanese in Southeast Asia.


In the period after World War II, the running of British political economy was based on a progressive consensus, forged by the postwar government led by Clement Richard Attlee (1883–1967), that enshrined full employment as the primary political objective of the state. The Bretton Woods system and the operation of Keynesian demand management maintained this system of welfare state and full employment until the 1970s. The test of the greatness of a nation was how low the rate of employment was and how high the rate of growth could be. Underpinning economic growth and full employment was a welfare system based on universal provision. European states began gradually to lose their dominance of the world manufacturing sectors and concentrated more on information and services, but the jobs stayed intact, defended by a powerful trade union movement. Affluence produced unprecedented access to leisure and recreation. This in turn fueled a cultural explosion of creativity in the 1960s.

Leisure also produced many of its own problems and challenges but it did not promote, as mass unemployment in the 1930s had done, widespread exiting from democracy. The alienation of the young generated by affluence and the problems of relative depravation that dominated debate in the 1960s were both the kinds of problems that the leaders of the 1930s and the 1970s would have been happy to cope with. But affluence also led to challenges to the unity of the nation-state, as Northern Irish Catholics and a minority of Scottish and Welsh citizens felt that they were not enjoying the civil and political rights nor the economic progress they felt they should. These discontents were to turn increasingly violent in the 1970s.

The dark side of affluence and the long boom that maintained peace between Western nation-states also needs to be acknowledged. The Cold War (1945–1989) generated almost endless war outside Europe in which the United Kingdom played a role (for example, Korea) or was the major power involved (for example, the Mau Mau emergency in Kenya). But in Western Europe and in the United Kingdom, outside the province of Ulster, the period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s was one of extraordinary stability, peace, and progress. Throughout this period, historiography about Britain described and reflected on a picture of seemingly endless decline, crisis, and decay. In what looks now like a golden age of social and political progress, historians, often trapped in a worldview dominated by the old measures of greatness, could see only the negative: other countries growing faster than the United Kingdom; the United States becoming the West's superpower; and British manufacturing declining, competitiveness disappearing, and the technology-driven industries such as jet aircraft evaporating. The British economy grew more quickly than it had ever done before from the 1950s to the 1970s, but not as quickly as other European states. This led to the concept of relative decline, that is, that Britain was in decline relative to other countries.

The shock of the oil crisis and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971, Keynesian demand management in the face of rising oil prices, and increased world competition destroyed the stability, shattered the peace, and ended the progress. The violence in Ulster became institutionalized and seemingly permanent. European states now divided in their policy response to this crisis.

The long dominance of the Labour Party in terms of broad approaches to political economy and electoral success was ended in 1979 by the election of the first female British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925). Under her government, from 1979 to 1991, the United Kingdom pursued more of an Atlantic capitalist response, which emphasized the free market and deregulation, over a Rhine capitalist response based on the social market. The Attlee settlement was broken, and Britain adopted what the U.S. economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908–2006) called the culture of contentment—an acceptance of high levels of unemployment, increasing poverty and alienation, and increasing gaps between rich and poor—which enabled the restructuring of British industry further away from manufacturing toward the information economy and a restoration of competitiveness.

This set of policies was accompanied by a turn to nationalist and anti-immigrant language in politics and by a turning back of the philosophy of universal welfare provision and full employment. The British state seemed to question the nature of the multicultural society that the waves of immigration in the 1950s and 1960s had created in many towns in Britain. In places such as Brixton, Toxteth, and Southall, the first substantial race riots in British history took place. The nationalism that developed under the Thatcher government was most clearly defined in the successful defense of the colonial possession, the Falkland Islands, in a war against Argentina in 1982, and in the redevelopment of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.

After eighteen years of Thatcherite economic management, the basic restructuring and reconstruction of Britain's economy had been achieved but, many argued, this was done at the cost of the creation of a permanent underclass who were excluded from the benefits of the new contentment. There was a lack of consensus and a much broader definition of who would be excluded from the operation of the British state. This failure to adopt the self-correcting mechanism that had worked so effectively in the past produced a long period of political polarization. Eventually, as the limits of the Thatcher policy agenda were reached, in the failure to reform the National Health Service (NHS) and to reduce the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) generated by the state by any significant amount, the mechanism went into operation again. Conservative governments moderated, and the Labour Party adapted. A new center was forged, and then new Labour was elected and a new century dawned.

The problems of identity felt in Britain in the period of uncertainty from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s were obviously generated by questions of culture. The three main ways that British identity changed were through increased immigration, declining elitism, and the undermining of the class system. These three areas raised questions about what it meant to be British. Who was included? Who was excluded? Who would have power? Three broad positions can be identified. The liberal assimilationist position associated with Labour politicians such as Roy Jenkins (1920–2003), an influential home secretary in the 1960s, and others was concerned with the successful management of race relations. Powellism, named for the Conservative politician Enoch Powell (1912–1998), who had predicted in the early 1960s that increased immigration would result in a blood bath, articulated a monocultural vision of Britain in which immigration was stopped and reversed. For Powellites, the presence of immigrants who were people of color was a "problem" that needed a "solution." Set against these two positions was an inclusive multiculturalism that set out to celebrate diversity and present immigration as an opportunity. In turn, the question of power and the class system was answered by a neoliberal critique that demanded greater social mobility, for example, through choice in education, but which rejected egalitarianism.

Much of the cultural and historical pessimism of the 1950s and 1960s proved myopic. Rather than a dependent mass unable to compete in the knowledge economy, the welfare state produced a richer, healthier, more usefully educated population, who built the fourth largest economy in the world—depending on exchange rates perhaps the fifth. Powellites acknowledge some of this but have traditionally argued that the cost has been the dilution of the race and of what makes Britain different and the creation of a yob culture (generally defined as groups of people who possess a disregard for orderly behavior). There are two connected illusions in this: first, that a monocultural Britain ever existed; second, that it is somehow a sign of decay that the British now spend more time watching Hollywood movies than listening to traditional homegrown radio programs such as The Archers. British creative success since the Festival of Britain (a national exhibition in 1951) in a range of fields from the popular to the elitist has demonstrated that there is no artistic basis for the idea of a decline in British culture. The British people and their culture were more interesting in 2004 than in 1940, more united than in 1970, and more self-confident than in 1990. They are more interesting because of immigration, increased secularism, and the sophisticated tolerance these slowly breed as they create multiculturalism.

The British economy and culture changed radically over the period from 1945 to the mid-1990s. This change was accompanied by considerable debate about the way in which Britain should ally itself with respect to the rest of the world. Broadly, two positions emerged: a world-power position, which argued for the replacement of imperial greatness by acting as the Greeks to the American's Romans, maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom and a distance from the EEC; and a European-power position, which accepted devolution within the United Kingdom and an ever closer relationship with the European Union. Though there were clearly policy choices to be made, the options were between ways in which Britain could punch above its weight—in a European way or an Atlantic way.

Writing from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it seems clear that the loss of the British Empire was part of a process of modernization and not of decline. The notion that the loss of empire is decline because of some absolute measure of power in terms of square miles ruled became patently absurd in the nuclear age. Britain enjoyed more power in the nuclear age than before because its position was based on current and future technology rather than on the technology of the past. But more important, surrendering the empire—some-times under pressure and after defeat and sometimes voluntarily because of a judgment on the balance of self-interest between retreat and clinging to the wreckage—was a process of maturing as a democracy. Power and status were vested in the well-being of the British people rather than in the oppression of other people. This provided much greater domestic stability as the balance of world power shifted and the empire became unsustainable. Being on the winning side in two world wars helped to prevent the regime change and political instability suffered by other major colonial powers. The speed of withdrawal from the empire, the incorporation of the Labour movement into government from the 1920s onward, and the creation of the welfare state after 1945 also support the view of the end of the empire as a sign of progress and not regression.

Nevertheless the feeling that it was somehow important that Britain count for something remained a real feature of British culture in 2004 as much as it did in 1914. The parameters of the debate were set by the Conservative prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) when he said that Britain sat at the center of three interconnecting circles: Europe, the Commonwealth, and the United States. The postwar problem was how to best maintain this balancing act linking the circles and avoid disappearing into the center of one of them.

The postwar settlement that was crafted by the Labour leader Ernest Bevin (1881–1951) was to place Britain firmly at the junction of the North Atlantic and the Commonwealth circles, with a greater distance from Europe. After the Suez Crisis of 1956, this settlement was effectively shattered, and the orientation of Britain, like some immense oil tanker, was shifted toward Europe. It took decades of debate, but eventually even the Labour Party accepted a European future.


In 1914 Britain was a global imperial and economic superpower. From the 1880s the United States and

Industry Nationalized Privatized Date of First Sale
Bank of England19461997 (Independence on interest rate setting)
Coal Industry19461991
Civil Aviation1946
British Airways1972–19741987
Railways, Canals19481993
Iron and Steel19491988
United Kingdom Atomic Energy1954
The Post Office1969
British Telecom telecommunications functions of Post Office19811984
Rolls Royce Ltd19711987
British Leyland19751988
National Enterprise Board19751991
British National Oil Corporation19761985
British Aerospace19771985
British Shipbuilders19771984 broken up 1990 last yard sold

Germany had begun to make serious inroads into Britain's dominant economic position. From the 1870s the older industries that had provided the basis of the sustained economic and thereby political growth of the nineteenth century had been slowing down or had been taken over by countries such as France. Even the empire itself now had a significant range of self-governing dominions that pledged allegiance but not necessarily subservience to the Crown. But despite these harbingers of the decline to come, in 1914 Britain was indisputably the single most powerful nation on earth. It was never to enjoy this position again.

By 2004 Britain had regained a great deal of its global prestige, and its economy was healthy. Since the late 1970s a gradual reform and reconstruction of the basis of ownership and regulation of the labor markets had allowed Britain to perform broadly better in terms of inflation, employment, and growth than its European competitors. The world had only one strategic superpower, the United States, and the emergence of East Asian economies, most notably China, made Britain dependent on its close economic ties with the other countries of Europe for the stability of its economic and social health. The age of affluence that had begun at the end of World War II had developed into an age of contented enjoyment of the material benefits of a growing economy. External threats from other nation-states, so prevalent in 1914, had been replaced by less-easy-to-quantify threats from international terrorist groups. The great ideological struggle born out of World War I, the battle of ideas and visions of government between communism, fascism, and democracy, had been resolved in favor of democracy, but almost as soon as this was achieved new threats surfaced. Britain ended the twentieth century toward the top of the European table.

Is this story of the loss of empire, global dominance, and reconciliation to a dependent relationship with the rest of Europe a story that we should read broadly as one of slow and steady decline? Or rather is the story one of gradual and painful modernization and strategic readjustment? Should one see the body politic of Britain over this period as the gradually surrendering elitists who clung to the wreckage of empire and classicism for so long that the country itself was left politically crippled and culturally barren? Or rather is this the story of a dynamic political class capable of making swift and drastic adjustments to policy challenges and seeing an astonishing successful evolution of a long history of a multinational identity become a new present of multicultural vibrancy? The answer lies somewhere between the two. The story of Britain from 1914 to 2004 was not a smooth progression across a long twentieth century. The soldier from 1914 would not recognize the Britain of the twenty-first century—the values, the social architecture, the culture—any more than he would have felt at home in Napoleonic times. But neither was it a tale of endless tragedy. And if one is forced when considering the shape and context of the period to choose between these two extremes of interpretation, it is toward hope and progress, modernization and dynamism that one should look to best understand the way in which the United Kingdom changed through this time.

See alsoBritish Empire, End of; Commonwealth; European Union; London; Northern Ireland.


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Brian Brivati

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