History of the United Kingdom (1945–present)

History of the United Kingdom (1945–present)

This article details the history of the United Kingdom from the end of World War II to the year 2000. For a longer history, see History of the United Kingdom.

Labour Government (1945-51)

After World War II, the landslide 1945 Election returned Labour to power and Clement Attlee became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. [Butler (1989) "p."5] The party had clear aims. Several controversial policies were enacted, including the nationalisation of utilities and the long-distance transport system and the creation of the modern Welfare State. India became independent, and Britain's role in Palestine ended. Attlee's first Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, fought against general medical disapproval to create the British National Health Service that, as of 2008, still survives.

However, under the post-war Bretton Woods economic system, Britain had entered into a fixed exchange rate of USD 4.03/ GBP. This rate reflected Britain's sense of its own prestige and economic aspiration and optimism but was badly judged, and hampered economic growth. In 1949, Attlee's government had little choice but to devalue to USD 2.80/ GBP, permanently damaging the administration's credibility. [Stephens (1997) "p."xiv]

The Labour Party was returned to power in the general election of 1950, its share of the popular vote holding up, much to the surprise of some commentators. The large reduction that it suffered in its parliamentary majority was mostly due to the vagaries of the first past the post voting system, plus a degree of Conservative opposition recovering support at the expense of the Liberal Party. [Butler (1989) "p."9]

Labour lost the General Election of 1951 despite polling more votes than in the 1945 election, and indeed more votes than the Conservative Party. [Butler (1989) "p."11]

Conservative Government (1951-64)

Winston Churchill (1951-1955)

Winston Churchill]
Winston Churchill again became Prime Minister. His third government — after the wartime national government and the short caretaker government of 1945 — would last until his resignation in 1955. During this period he renewed what he called the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States, and engaged himself in the formation of the post-war order.

His domestic priorities were, however, overshadowed by a series of foreign policy crises, which were partly the result of the continued decline of British military and imperial prestige and power. Being a strong proponent of Britain as an international power, Churchill would often meet such moments with direct action.

Anglo-Iranian Oil Dispute

In March 1951, the Iranian parliament (the Majlis) voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and its holdings by passing a bill strongly backed by the elderly statesman Mohammed Mossadegh, a man who was elected Prime Minister the following April by a large majority of the parliament. The International Court of Justice was called in to settle the dispute, but a 50/50 profit-sharing arrangement, with recognition of nationalisation, was rejected by Mossadegh. Direct negotiations between the British and the Iranian government ceased, and over the course of 1951, the British ratcheted up the pressure on the Iranian government and explored the possibility of a coup against it. U.S. President Harry S. Truman was reluctant to agree, placing a much higher priority on the Korean War.Churchill's return to power brought with it a policy of undermining the Mossadegh government. Both sides floated proposals unacceptable to the other, each side believing that time was on its side. Negotiations broke down, and as the blockade's political and economic costs mounted inside Iran, coup plots arose from the army and pro-British factions in the Majlis.

The Mau Mau Rebellion

In 1951, grievances against the colonial distribution of land came to a head with the Kenya Africa Union demanding greater representation and land reform. When these demands were rejected, more radical elements came forward, launching the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952. On 17 August 1952, a state of emergency was declared, and British troops were flown to Kenya to deal with the rebellion. As both sides increased the ferocity of their attacks, the country moved to full-scale civil war.

Malaya Emergency

In Malaysia, a rebellion against British rule had been in progress since 1948. Once again, Churchill's government inherited a crisis, and once again Churchill chose to use direct military action against those in rebellion while attempting to build an alliance with those who were not. He stepped up the implementation of a "hearts and minds" campaign and approved the creation of fortified villages, a tactic that would become a recurring part of Western military strategy in South-East Asia. (See Vietnam War).

ir Anthony Eden (1955-1957)

The Suez crisis

In April 1955, Churchill finally retired, and Sir Anthony Eden succeeded him as Prime Minister. Eden was a very popular figure, as a result of his long wartime service and also his famous good looks and charm. On taking office he immediately called a general election, at which the Conservatives were returned with an increased majority. But Sir Anthony had never held a domestic portfolio and had little experience in economic matters. He left these areas to his lieutenants such as Rab Butler, and concentrated largely on foreign policy, forming a close alliance with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.

This alliance proved illusory, however, when in 1956 Sir Anthony, in conjunction with France, tried to prevent Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, nationalising the Suez Canal, which had been owned since the 19th century by British and French shareholders in the Suez Canal Company. Sir Anthony, drawing on his experience in the 1930s, saw Nasser as another Mussolini. Sir Anthony considered the two men aggressive nationalist socialists determined to invade other countries. Others believed that Nasser was acting from legitimate patriotic concerns.

In October 1956, after months of negotiation and attempts at mediation had failed to dissuade Nasser, Britain and France, in conjunction with Israel, invaded Egypt and occupied the Suez Canal Zone. But Eisenhower immediately and strongly opposed the invasion. The U.S. President was an advocate of decolonisation, because it would liberate colonies, strengthen U.S. interests, and presumably make other Arab and African leaders more sympathetic to the United States. Also, the Soviet Union threatened to drop nuclear bombs on Paris and/or London unless Britain and France withdrew. Eisenhower feared another global war. When Eden asked for financial help, Eisenhower stated that Britain would have to pull-out before the US would provide any more financial aid to Britain. Eden had ignored Britain's financial dependence on the U.S. in the wake of World War II, and was forced to bow to American pressure to withdraw. The Suez Crisis is widely taken as marking the end of Britain (along with France) as a World power.

Harold Macmillan (1957-1963)

Eden’s Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan succeeded him as Prime Minister in January 1957. He brought the monetary concerns of the exchequer into office — the economy was his prime concern. However his approach to the economy was to seek high employment, whereas his treasury ministers argued that to support sterling required strict controls on money and hence a rise in unemployment. Their advice was rejected and in January 1958 all the Treasury ministers resigned. Macmillan brushed aside this incident as "a little local difficulty".

Macmillan supported the creation of the National Incomes Commission as a means to institute controls on income as part of his growth without inflation policy, a further series of subtle indicators and controls were also introduced during his premiership.

Macmillan also took close control of foreign policy. He worked to narrow the post-Suez rift with the U.S., where his wartime friendship with Dwight D. Eisenhower was useful, and the two had a pleasant conference in Bermuda as early as March 1957. The better relationship remained after the ascent of John F. Kennedy. Macmillan also saw the value of a rapprochement with Europe and sought belated entry to the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as exploring the possibility of a European Free Trade Association (EFTA). In terms of the Empire Macmillan continued the divestment of the colonies, his "wind of change" speech (February 1960) indicating his policy. Ghana and Malaya were granted independence in 1957, Nigeria in 1960 and Kenya in 1963. However in the Middle East Macmillan ensured Britain remained a force — intervening over Iraq in 1958 and 1960, and becoming involved in Oman.

He led the Conservatives to victory in the October 1959 general election, increasing his party's majority from 67 to 107 seats. Following the technical failures of a British independent nuclear deterrent with the Blue Streak and the Blue Steel projects, Macmillan negotiated the supply of American Polaris missiles under the Nassau agreement in December 1962. Previously he had agreed to base sixty Thor missiles in Britain under joint control, and since late 1957 the American McMahon Act had been eased to allow Britain more access to nuclear technology. Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1962. Britain's application to join the EEC was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle (29 January 1963), in part due to his fear that "the end would be a colossal Atlantic Community dependent on America" and in part in anger at the Anglo-American nuclear deal.

Britain's balance of payments problems led to the imposition of a wage freeze in 1961. This caused the government to lose popularity and led to a series of by-election defeats. He organised a major Cabinet change in July 1962 but he continued to lose support from within his party. In 1963, he resigned.

ir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964)

His successor became Earl Alec Douglas-Home. To become member of parliament he disclaimed his Earldom and, as "Sir Alec Douglas-Home", contested a by-election in the safe seat of Kinross & West Perthshire. Home duly won as (probably) the last peer to become Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to resign the Lords to enter the Commons. That was his most important claim for entering the history books as his policy was not successful.

Labour Government (1964-70)

Harold Wilson (1964-70)

In 1964, Labour regained the premiership, as Harold Wilson narrowly won the general election with a majority of five. This was not sufficient to last for a full term and, after a short period of competent government, in March 1966, he won re-election with a landslide majority of 99. As Prime Minister, his opponents accused him of deviousness, especially over the matter of devaluation of the pound in November 1967. Wilson had rejected devaluation for many years, yet in his broadcast had seemed to present it as a triumph. During his first period of office, Wilson's government set up the Open University which he would come to regard as his own greatest achievement.

Overseas, Wilson was troubled by crises in several of Britain's former colonies, especially Rhodesia and South Africa. Wilson gave diplomatic support but resisted pressure for military support to the United States in the Vietnam War. In addition to the damage done to its reputation by devaluation, Wilson's Government suffered from the perception that its response to industrial relations problems was inadequate. A six-week strike of members of the National Union of Seamen, which began shortly after Wilson' re-election in 1966, did much to reinforce this perception, along with Wilson's own sense of insecurity in office.

Conservative Government (1970-1974)

Edward Heath (1970-1974)

The premiership of his successor Sir Edward Heath was the bloodiest in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. He was prime minister at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 14 unarmed men were killed by British soldiers during an illegal march in Londonderry City. In 2003, he gave evidence to the Saville Inquiry and claimed that he never promoted or agreed to the use of unlawful lethal force in Northern Ireland. In July 1972, he permitted his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw to hold unofficial talks in London with a Provisional Irish Republican Army delegation by Seán Mac Stiofáin. In the aftermath of these unsuccessful talks, the Heath government pushed for a peaceful settlement with the democratic political parties. In 1974, the Sunningdale Agreement was produced but fiercely repudiated by many Unionists and the Ulster Unionist Party ceased to support the Conservatives at Westminster.

Heath's major achievement as prime minister was to take Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973. Meanwhile, on the domestic front, galloping inflation led him into confrontation with some of the most powerful trade unions, and energy shortages resulted in much of the country's industry working a three-day week to conserve power. In an attempt to bolster his government, Heath called an election for 28 February 1974. The result was inconclusive: the Conservative Party received a plurality of votes cast, but the Labour Party gained a plurality of seats due to the Ulster Unionist MPs refusing to support the Conservatives. Heath began negotiations with leaders of the Liberal Party to form a coalition, but, when these failed, resigned as Prime Minister.

Labour Government (1974-1979)

Harold Wilson (1974-1976)

Heath was replaced by Harold Wilson, who returned to form a minority government. Wilson was confirmed in office, with a wafer thin majority, in a second election in October of the same year. It was a manifesto pledge in the general election of February 1974 for a Labour government to re-negotiate better terms for Britain in the EEC, and then hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the EEC on the new terms. After the House of Commons voted in favour of retaining the Common Market on the renegotiated terms, a referendum was held on 5 June 1975. A majority were in favour of retaining the Common Market. But he was not able to end the economic crisis either.

James Callaghan (1976-79)

Wilson announced his surprise resignation on 16 March 1976 and unofficially endorsed his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan as his successor. His popularity with all parts of the Labour movement saw him through the ballot of Labour MPs. Callaghan was the first Prime Minister to have held all three leading Cabinet positions — Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary — prior to becoming Prime Minister.

Callaghan's support for and from the union movement should not be mistaken for a left wing position. Callaghan continued Wilson's policy of a balanced Cabinet and relied heavily on the man he defeated for the job of party leader — the arch-Bevanite Michael Foot. Foot was made Leader of the House of Commons and given the task of steering through the government's legislative programme. Callaghan's time as Prime Minister was dominated by the troubles in running a Government with a minority in the House of Commons. Callaghan was forced to make deals with minor parties in order to survive, including the Lib-Lab pact. He had been forced to accept referendums on devolution in Scotland and Wales (the first went in favour but did not reach the required majority, and the second went heavily against). However, by the autumn of 1978 most opinion polls were showing Labour ahead and he was expected to call an election. His decision not to has been described as the biggest mistake of his premiership.

Callaghan's way of dealing with the long-term economic difficulties involved pay restraint which had been operating for four years with reasonable success. He gambled that a fifth year would further improve the economy and allow him to be re-elected in 1979] , and so attempted to hold pay rises to 5% or less. The Trade Unions rejected continued pay restraint and in a succession of strikes over the winter of 1978/79 (known as the Winter of Discontent) secured higher pay. The industrial unrest made his government extremely unpopular. He was forced to call an election when the House of Commons passed a Motion of No Confidence by one vote on 28 March 1979. The Conservatives, with advertising consultants Saatchi and Saatchi, ran a campaign on the slogan "Labour isn't working." As expected, Margaret Thatcher won the election.

Conservative Government (1979-1997)

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)

Thatcher formed a government on 4 May 1979, with a mandate to reverse the UK's economic decline and to reduce the role of the state in the economy. Thatcher was incensed by one contemporary view within the Civil Service that its job was to manage the UK's decline from the days of Empire, and wanted the country to punch above its weight in international affairs. She was a philosophic soulmate with Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 in the United States, and to a lesser extent, Brian Mulroney, who was elected in 1984 in Canada. It seemed for a time that conservatism might be the dominant political philosophy in the major English-speaking nations for the era.

In May 1980, one day before she was due to meet the Irish Taoiseach, Charles Haughey to discuss Northern Ireland, she announced in the House of Commons that "The future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government, this Parliament "and no-one else"."

In 1981, a number of Provisional IRA and Irish National Liberation Army prisoners in Northern Ireland's Maze prison went on hunger strike to regain the status of political prisoners, which had been revoked five years earlier. After 10 men had starved themselves to death and the strike had ended political status was restored to all paramilitary prisoners. This was a major propaganda coup for the IRA and is seen as the beginning of Sinn Féin's electoral rise, as they capitalised on the gains made during the hunger strikes.

Thatcher continued the policy of "Ulsterisation" of the previous Labour government and its Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Roy Mason, believing that the unionists of Ulster should be at the forefront in combating Irish republicanism. This meant relieving the burden on the mainstream British army and elevating the role of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

In economic policy, Thatcher started out by increasing interest rates to drive down the money supply. She had a preference for indirect taxation over taxes on income, and value added tax (VAT) rose sharply to 15% with the result that inflation also rose. These moves hit businesses, especially in the manufacturing sector, and unemployment quickly passed two million. Her early tax policy reforms were based on the monetarist theories of Friedman rather than the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski, which the government of Ronald Reagan espoused. There was a severe recession in the early 1980s, and the Government's economic policy was widely blamed. In January 1982, the inflation rate dropped to single figures and interest rates were then allowed to fall. Unemployment continued to rise, peaking at a figure of more than 3.2 million [http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/tsdataset.asp?vlnk=429&More=N&All=Y] (estimated by the International Labour Organization). Despite the preference of most UK Governments to use the smaller figure of claimant count, this number itself passed 3 million [http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/tsdataset.asp?vlnk=430&More=Y] .

British defence budget cuts, applying in the South Atlantic, coupled with general disregard of the Falkland Islands, the removal of the ice patrol ship Endeavour, and immigration reform detrimental to the British citizenship rights of citizens of the British Empire's few remnants provoked the arguably most difficult foreign policy decision of Thatcher's era. In Argentina, an unstable military junta was in power and keen on reversing its huge economic unpopularity. On 2 April 1982, it invaded the Falkland Islands, the only invasion of a British territory since World War II. Argentina has claimed the islands since an 1830s dispute on their settlement. Thatcher sent a naval task force to recapture the Islands. The ensuing military campaign was successful, resulting in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm for her personally, at a time when her popularity had been at an all-time low for a serving Prime Minister.

This "Falklands Factor", as it came to be known, is regarded as crucial to the scale of the Conservative majority in the June 1983 general election and in addition the economy was beginning to improve slightly thanks mainly to oil revenues from the North Sea. Also despite mass unemployment, it was implied to be transitory, and alongside it new laws had given trade union members democratic powers to restrain militant union leaderships. Additionally, Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' policy, whereby council housing residents were permitted to buy their homes at a discount did much to increase her government's popularity in working-class areas.

The 1983 election was also influenced by events in the opposition parties. Since their 1979 defeat, Labour was increasingly dominated by its "hard left" that had emerged from the 1970s union militancy, and in opposition its policies had swung very sharply to the left. This drove a significant number of right wing Labour members and MPs to form a breakaway party in 1981, the Social Democratic Party. Labour fought the election on unilateral nuclear disarmament, which proposed to abandon the British nuclear deterrent despite the threat from a nuclear armed Soviet Union, withdrawal from the European Community, and total reversal of Thatcher's economic and trade union changes. Indeed, one Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, has called the party's 1983 manifesto "the longest suicide note in history". Consequently upon the Labour split, there was a new centrist challenge, the Alliance, from the Social Democrats in electoral pact with the Liberal Party, to break the major parties' dominance and win proportional representation. The British Electoral Study found that Alliance voters were preferentially tilted towards the Conservatives [http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/charter88archive/pubs/voting/av_apend1.html] , but this possible loss of vote share by the Conservatives was more than mitigated against by the first past the post electoral system, where marginal changes in vote numbers and distribution have disproportionate effects on the number of seats won. Accordingly, despite the Alliance vote share coming very close to that of Labour and preventing an absolute majority in votes for the Conservatives, the Alliance failed to break into Parliament in significant numbers and the Conservatives were returned in a landslide.

Thatcher was committed to reducing the power of the trade unions but, unlike the Heath government, adopted a strategy of incremental change rather than a single Act. Several unions launched strikes that were wholly or partly aimed at damaging her politically. The most significant of these was carried out by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). However, Thatcher had made preparations long in advance for an NUM strike by building up coal stocks, and there were no cuts in electric power, unlike 1972. Police tactics during the strike concerned civil libertarians: stopping suspected strike sympathisers travelling towards coalfields when they were still long distances from them, phone tapping as evidenced by Labour's Tony Benn, and a violent battle with mass pickets at Orgreave, Yorkshire. But images of massed militant miners using violence to prevent other miners from working, along with the fact that (illegally under a recent Act) the NUM had not held a ballot to approve strike action, swung public opinion against the strike--especially in the south and the moderate Nottinghamshire coalfield. The Miners' Strike lasted a full year, 1984-85, before the drift of half the miners back to work forced the NUM leadership to give in without a deal. This aborted political strike marked a turning point in UK politics: no longer could militant unions remove a democratically elected government.

Under Thatcher, the Sino-British Joint Declaration over the Question of Hong Kong was concluded with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which scheduled to transfer the sovereignty of Hong Kong, the only remaining British territory in Asia, to the PRC in 1997.

On the early morning of 12 October 1984, Thatcher escaped death (on the day before her 59th birthday) from the bomb planted by the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Brighton's Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference. Five people died in the attack, including Roberta Wakeham (the first wife of the government's Chief Whip John Wakeham) and the Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Sir Anthony Berry. A prominent member of the Cabinet, Norman Tebbit, was injured, along with his wife Margaret, who was left paralysed. Thatcher insisted that the conference open on time the next day and made her speech as planned.

On 15 November 1985, Thatcher signed the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement, the first acknowledgement by a British government that the Republic of Ireland had an important role to play in Northern Ireland. The agreement was greeted with fury by Irish unionists. The Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists made an electoral pact and on 23 January 1986, staged an ad-hoc referendum by re-fighting their seats in by-elections, and won with one seat lost to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Then, unlike the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, they found they could not bring the agreement down by a general strike. This was another effect of the changed balance of power in industrial relations. The agreement stood, and Thatcher "punished" the unionists for their non-cooperation by abolishing a devolved assembly she had created only four years before, although unionists have traditionally been of two minds about political devolution (witness the "Home Rule" crisis that led to the Anglo-Irish War), and the politicians most affected by the abolishment of the assembly were the constitutional nationalists, i.e., the SDLP, not it must be noted, Sinn Féin, which was not interested in a devolved assembly at that time, nor would it be for many years to come. The Anglo-Irish Agreement therefore, enraged the Unionists and alienated moderate nationalists, while doing little to reduce IRA violence. The British Government's intention may have been to solidify support from Dublin. However, the British Government had proved an unreliable ally since Eamon de Valera's time, adopting the strategy of making conciliatory gestures or minor concessions with one hand and undermining Ireland with the other.

Thatcher's political and economic philosophy emphasised free markets and entrepreneurialism. Since gaining power, she had experimented in selling off a small nationalised company, the National Freight Company, to its workers, with a surprisingly large response. After the 1983 election, the Government became bolder and sold off most of the large utilities which had been in public ownership since the late 1940s] . Many in the public took advantage of share offers, although many sold their shares immediately for a quick profit. The policy of privatisation, while anathema to many on the left, has become synonymous with Thatcherism.

In the Cold War, Mrs Thatcher supported Ronald Reagan's policies of deterrence against the Soviets. This contrasted with the policy of détente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies still wedded to the idea of détente. US forces were permitted by Mrs. Thatcher to station nuclear cruise missiles at British bases, arousing mass protests by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, she later was the first Western leader to respond warmly to the rise of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring she liked him and "We can do business together" after a meeting three months before he came to power in 1985. This was a start in swinging the West back to a new détente with the Soviet Union in his era, as it proved to be an indication that the Soviet regime's power was decaying. Thatcher outlasted the Cold War, which ended in 1989, and voices who share her views on it credit her with a part in the West's victory, by both the deterrence and détente postures.

She supported the US bombing raid on Libya from bases in the UK in 1986 when other NATO allies would not. Her liking for defence ties with the United States was demonstrated in the Westland affair when she acted with colleagues to prevent the helicopter manufacturer Westland, a vital defence contractor, from linking with the Italian firm Agusta in favour of a link with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation of the United States. Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine, who had pushed the Agusta deal, resigned in protest at her style of leadership, and thereafter became a potential leadership challenger.

In 1986, the government controversially abolished the Greater London Council (GLC), then led by left-winger Ken Livingstone and six Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs). The government claimed this was an efficiency measure. However, it is widely believed to have been politically motivated, as all of the abolished councils were controlled by Labour, and had become powerful centres of opposition to her government and were in favour of higher public spending by local government.

By winning the 1987 general election, on the economic boom and against a stubbornly anti-nuclear Labour opposition, she became the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since Lord Liverpool (1812–1827), and first to win three successive elections since Lord Palmerston in 1865. Most United Kingdom newspapers supported her — with the exception of "The Daily Mirror" and "The Guardian" — and were rewarded with regular press briefings by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham. She was known as "Maggie" in the tabloids, which inspired the well-known "Maggie Out!" protest song, sung throughout that period by some of her opponents. Her unpopularity on the left is evident from the lyrics of several contemporary popular songs: "Stand Down Margaret" (The Beat), "Tramp the Dirt Down" (Elvis Costello), and "Mother Knows Best" (Richard Thompson).

Many opponents believed she and her policies created a significant North-South divide from the Bristol Channel to The Wash, between the "haves" in the economically dynamic south and the "have nots" in the northern rust belt. Hard welfare reforms in her third term created an adult Employment Training system that included full-time work done for the dole plus a £10 top-up, on the workfare model from the US. The "Social Fund" system that placed one-off welfare payments for emergency needs under a local budgetary limit, and where possible changed them into loans, and rules for assessing jobseeking effort by the week, were breaches of social consensus unprecedented since the 1920s] .

In the late 1980s, Thatcher, a former chemist, became concerned with environmental issues, which she had previously dismissed. In 1988, she made [http://www.margaretthatcher.org/speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=107346 a major speech] accepting the problems of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. In 1990, she opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research [http://www.margaretthatcher.org/Speeches/displaydocument.asp?docid=108102&doctype=1 Hadley Centre speech] ] .

At Bruges, Belgium in 1988, Thatcher made a speech in which she outlined her opposition to proposals from the European Community for a federal structure and increasing centralisation of decision-making. Although she had supported British membership, Thatcher believed that the role of the EC should be limited to ensuring free trade and effective competition, and feared that new EC regulations would reverse the changes she was making in the UK. "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a new super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". She was specifically against Economic and Monetary Union, through which a single currency would replace national currencies, and for which the EC was making preparations. The speech caused an outcry from other European leaders, and exposed for the first time the deep split that was emerging over European policy inside her Conservative Party.

Thatcher's popularity once again declined in 1989 as the economy suffered from high interest rates imposed to stop an unsustainable boom. She blamed her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who had been following an economic policy which was a preparation for monetary union; Thatcher claimed not to have been told of this and did not approve. At the Madrid European summit, Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe forced Thatcher to agree the circumstances under which she would join the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a preparation for monetary union. Thatcher took revenge on both by demoting Howe, and by listening more to her adviser Sir Alan Walters on economic matters. Lawson resigned that October, feeling that Thatcher had undermined him.

That November, Thatcher was challenged for the leadership of the Conservative Party by Sir Anthony Meyer. As Meyer was a virtually unknown backbench MP, he was viewed as a stalking horse candidate for more prominent members of the party. Thatcher easily defeated Meyer's challenge, but there were 60 ballot papers either cast for Meyer or abstaining, a surprisingly large number for a sitting Prime Minister.

Thatcher's new system to replace local government rates was introduced in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990. Rates were replaced by the "Community Charge" (more widely known as the Poll Tax), which applied the same amount to every individual resident, with only limited discounts for low earners. This was to be the most universally unpopular policy of her premiership. The Charge was introduced early in Scotland as the rateable values would in any case have been reassessed in 1989. However, it led to accusations that Scotland was a 'testing ground' for the tax. Thatcher apparently believed that the new tax would be popular, and had been persuaded by Scottish Conservatives to bring it in early and in one go. Despite her hopes, the early introduction led to a sharp decline in the already low support for the Conservative party in Scotland.

Additional problems emerged when many of the tax rates set by local councils proved to be much higher than earlier predictions. Some have argued that local councils saw the introduction of the new system of taxation as the opportunity to make significant increases in the amount taken, assuming (correctly) that it would be the originators of the new tax system and not its local operators who would be blamed.

A large London demonstration against the poll tax on 31 March 1990 — the day before it was introduced in England and Wales — turned into a riot. Millions of people resisted paying the tax. Opponents of the tax banded together to resist bailiffs and disrupt court hearings of poll tax debtors. Mrs Thatcher refused to compromise, or change the tax, and its unpopularity was a major factor in Thatcher's downfall.

By 1990, opposition to Thatcher's policies on local government taxation, her Government's perceived mishandling of the economy (especially high interest rates of 15%, which were undermining her core voting base within the home-owning, entrepreneurial and business sectors), and the divisions opening within her party over the appropriate handling of European integration made her and her party seem increasingly politically vulnerable.

John Major (1990-1997)

John Major was Prime Minister during the Gulf War. During the first years in office, the world economy slid into recession after the long boom during the 1980s. Expected to lose the 1992 election to Neil Kinnock, Major took his campaign onto the streets, famously delivering many addresses from an upturned soapbox as in his Lambeth days. This populist "common touch", in contrast to the Labour Party's more slick campaign, chimed with the electorate and Major won an unexpected second period in office, albeit with a small parliamentary majority. This proved to be unmanageable, particularly after the United Kingdom's forced exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday (16 September 1992) just five months into the new parliament. Major allowed his economic team to stay in place unchanged for seven months after Black Wednesday before forcing the resignation of his Chancellor, Norman Lamont, who he replaced with Kenneth Clarke. This delay was indicative of one of his weaknesses, an indecisiveness towards personnel issues that was to undermine his authority through the rest of his premiership.

Despite Major's best efforts, the Conservative Party collapsed into political infighting. Major took a moderate approach but found himself undermined by the right-wing within the party and the Cabinet. In particular, his policy towards the European Union aroused opposition as the Government attempted to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Although the Labour opposition supported the treaty, they were prepared to undertake tactical moves to weaken the government, which included passing an amendment that required a vote on the social chapter aspects of the treaty before it could be ratified. Several Conservative MPs (the Maastricht Rebels) voted against the Government and the vote was lost. Major hit back by calling another vote on the following day (23 July 1993), which he declared a vote of confidence. He won by 40 but had damaged his authority.On 1 May 1997, the Conservative Party suffered one of the worst electoral defeats since the Great Reform Act of 1832. Few were surprised when Major lost the 1997 general election to Tony Blair, though the immense scale of the defeat was not widely predicted. In the new parliament Labour won 418 seats, the Conservatives 165, and the Liberal Democrats 46, leaving the Labour party with a majority of 179. In addition, the Conservatives lost their remaining Scottish and Welsh MPs leaving them as a UK wide party with MPs from England alone.

Labour Government (1997-Present)

Tony Blair (1997-2007)

Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 after a landslide victory over the Conservative Party. Under the title of "New Labour", he promised economic and social reform. Early policies of the Blair government included the minimum wage and university tuition fees. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown also gave the Bank of England the power to set the base rate of interest autonomously. The traditional tendency of governments to manipulate interest rates around the time of General Elections for political gain is thought to have been deleterious to the UK economy and helped reinforce a cyclical pattern of boom and bust. Brown's decision was popular with the City, which the Labour Party had been courting since the early 1990s. Blair presided over the longest period of economic expansion in Britain since the 19th century and his premiership saw large investment into social aspects in particular health and education, areas particularly under-invested during the Conservative government of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In foreign policiy, following the September 11th attacks in the United States, Blair greatly supported U.S President George W. Bush's new War on Terror which began with the forced withdrawal of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Futhermore his premiership may well be remembered for his decision to support the U.S led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was a widely unpopular move and in the face of questions regarding the legality of military action. The new threat of International terroism ultimately led to the 2005 July 7th bomb attacks in London which killed 52 people as well as the four suicide bombers who led the attack.

Devolution for Scotland and Wales

Blair also came into power with a policy of devolution. A pre-legislative referendum was held in Scotland in 1997 with two questions - whether to create a devolved Parliament for Scotland and whether it should have limited tax-varying powers. Following a clear 'yes' vote on both questions, a referendum on the proposal for creating a devolved Assembly was held two weeks later. This produced a narrow 'yes' vote. Both measures were put into effect and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly began operating in 1999.

Devolution also returned to Northern Ireland leaving England as the only constituent country of the United Kingdom without a devolved administration. Within England, a devolved authority for London was re-established following a 'yes' vote in a London-wide referendum.

Gordon Brown (2007-present)

Tony Blair tendered his resignation as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to the Queen on 27 June 2007, his successor Gordon Brown assuming office the same afternoon. Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister without having to face either a General Election or even a contested election for leadership of the Labour Party.

Since becoming Prime Minister Brown has indicated he wants to pursue constitutional reform, including strengthening some of parliament's powers and further reform of the House of Lords. Gordon Brown has also indicated a subtle change in foreign policy, with the continuing withdrawal of British troops in Iraq and a renewed focus on Afghanistan.

ee also

History of British society#Late 20th century



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* cite book | author=Baston, L. | year=2000 | title=Sleaze: The State of Britain | publisher=Channel 4 Books | id=ISBN 0752217836
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* cite book | title=The Political Diary of Hugh Dalton, 1918–1940, 1945–1960 | author=Pimlott, B. (ed.) | year=1986 | publisher=Jonathan Cape | location=London | id=ISBN 0224019120
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