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United Kingdom Modern History

After the Second World War, the construction of a British welfare state began. After several good years during the 1950s, economic growth slowed down and in the 1970s the crisis worsened. At the same time, a bloody conflict had arisen in Northern Ireland. The Conservative Party's election victory in 1979 marked a political shift, where the market forces were given more room at the price of high unemployment. The Conservatives retained power until 1997, when the Labor Party won a landslide victory. After a period with a bourgeois coalition government in 2010–2015, the Conservative Party won its own majority in the lower house. The following year, a majority of the British voted to leave the EU.

The colonies' efforts on Britain's side during the war gave force to their demands for independence. India became independent in 1947 and was divided into two states, India and Pakistan. The colonies in Africa also began to become free.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing United Kingdom. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

After the war, the Conservative Party and the Labor Party were broadly in agreement both with regard to state interventions in the economy and the expansion of the social welfare system. During the 1950s the economy grew rapidly and most Brits got better. But in the 1960s, the standard of living was slipping in comparison with the six countries that were part of the EC (later the EU). The Labor government applied for EC membership but was rejected because of opposition from France's President Charles de Gaulle, who saw the British as a tool for the United States. It was not until 1973 that Britain joined the EC. Two years later, a referendum on membership was held, mostly as a way of bridging contradictions within Labor that were divided on the issue.

Contemporary History of United KingdomIn the late 1960s, a conflict erupted in Northern Ireland, where paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Defense Forces (UDA) resorted to more and more violence to assert their cause (see Conflicts: Northern Ireland).

In connection with the oil crisis of 1973–1974, the value of the pound fell and inflation and unemployment rushed. In 1975, the then Labor government succeeded in agreeing with the trade union movement to work together to maintain peace in the labor market. In 1977, the British were forced to borrow from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which demanded substantial savings.

Thatcher's rule

In 1979, a strike wave struck the country. The strikes helped Labor, which could still point to a certain upturn in the economy, lost the parliamentary election that year to the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher. She stood for a new ideology that emphasized the individual's own responsibility. The new government started selling out state-owned companies, gave the market forces more leeway and lowered taxes.

After several setbacks in the early 1980s, this policy led to increased productivity in industry, reduced inflation and greater wealth for certain groups. At the same time, unemployment rose rapidly and dissatisfaction with Thatcher grew. With Argentina's invasion of the British Falkland Islands in 1982, the domestic problems ended up in the background and thanks to the British victory in the war, Thatcher strengthened his position.

The Conservatives won the parliamentary elections in 1983 and 1987. However, Thatcher's policy attracted increasing opposition even within her own party and she was forced to resign in 1990. Particularly harsh was the criticism of her hostile attitude to the EC. In addition, the decision to introduce a new municipal tax, poll tax, had aroused strong public protests, especially in Scotland.

Major takes over

New Prime Minister John Major became the leader of a more moderate political line. He announced the 1992 general election as the Conservative water. Disagreement over the relationship with the EC caused sharp contradictions within the ruling party, where strong forces opposed increased cooperation (and also wanted to leave the EC). Nevertheless, in 1993 Major managed to push through a British approval of the Maastricht Treaty, in which the EC was transformed into the EU.

Tony Blair and New Labor

The 1997 election was won by Labor and party leader Tony Blair was named prime minister. The party had won the election with promises that the British would retain their low taxes and at the same time receive good care and education. In the early years, Labor held firm to the tight economic policies pursued by the former Conservative government. Mr Blair promised an active British role in Europe, the EU's social policy agreement was adopted and a minimum wage was introduced. The issue of a UK accession to the EU's monetary union EMU was sensitive in both major parties. At an early stage, the government began to adjust to a single currency, among other things, the central bank gained a more independent position vis--vis the government.

In a 1997 referendum, a majority of voters in Scotland and Wales voted for limited self-government. A peace treaty in Northern Ireland the following year became a personal success for Tony Blair.

The Labor government benefited from good economic conditions and in the early years both the government and Blair were popular. Gradually, however, the criticism grew that they did not fulfill their promises. However, Labor won the parliamentary elections in 2001 with 42 percent of the vote.

Blair's support behind the US line in the Iraq conflict aroused domestic criticism from 2002. The prime minister said he had no doubts that Iraq had access to weapons of mass destruction and warned of the risks they posed. In 2002–2003, large demonstrations were held in protest of the plans for a military intervention in Iraq.

Iraq war and terrorist acts

The Iraq issue split Labor, but Blair succeeded, with the help of conservative members, in gaining the House's support for a war in March 2003. Shortly thereafter, US and British forces attacked Iraq. Blair's actions were questioned when it turned out how ill-prepared the invasion was and the government was accused of exaggerating the threat from Iraq. Domestic politics also created disagreements within Labor. Opponents of the government's health care reform feared that these were a first step toward introducing general fees into health care. At the same time, a power struggle was going on between Blair and Finance Minister Gordon Brown. Nevertheless, Labor won the election in May 2005.

On July 7, 2005, London was subjected to four concerted acts of terrorism in public transport. About 50 people were killed and about 700 injured. The suicide attacks were carried out by four men from northern England. Three of them came from families with roots in Pakistan but they were born in the UK. The fourth was born in Jamaica but had grown up in Yorkshire. The attacks led to the tightening of anti-terrorism legislation.

Gordon Brown and economic crisis

In the summer of 2007, Gordon Brown took over as prime minister. He promised a new kind of policy, where the government would listen more to the citizens than before. He was praised for how he had handled several crises shortly after taking power. The opinion soon turned, as it turned out that despite promises of new political visions, he did not have much new to come with.

The new EU treaty, which aimed to facilitate the decision-making processes within the Union, also caused tensions. Brown had promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, but had the House of Commons approved it in June 2008. His leadership was questioned, but in the fall of 2008 when the international financial crisis was a fact, Brown was given another chance to show what he was going for. On October 8, the government presented a crisis package to save the British banking system, which was paid for with large loans. However, the economy continued to deteriorate.

Civil Government Coalition

The campaign ahead of the May 2010 parliamentary elections was dominated by questions about how Britain would emerge from the economic crisis. The Conservatives received 36 percent of the vote, followed by Labor with 29 percent and the Liberal Democrats with 23 percent. Although the Liberal Democrats were considered to be closer to Labor, the party decided to form a government with the Conservative Party. New Prime Minister became Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg was named Deputy Prime Minister. Brown was succeeded as Labor leader by Ed Miliband.

One thing the government parties had in common was the criticism that the British state was so centralized and that they wanted to give citizens greater influence over their lives. The parties also agreed that the cooperation would be valid for the entire term of five years. However, the economic problems limited the government's scope for maneuver. Large savings were announced in the public sector. Exceptions were made only for school, care and aid. To protect weak groups, the income tax was completely eliminated for those with the lowest wages. Cameron was accused of being surrounded by politicians who came from the same kind of privileged background as himself, and therefore did not understand how their politics affected ordinary Britons.

In August 2011, London was shaken by violent crowds. The unrest quickly spread to mostly decrepit and socially disadvantaged areas of other major cities. The government blamed the looting and vandalism on criminal gangs, while parts of the opposition claimed that the unrest could also be explained by frustration caused by social cuts.

The escalating crisis in euro cooperation gave new impetus to EU-critical forces within the Conservative Party, while support grew for the right-wing populist British Independence Party (UKIP), whose entire policy was aimed at leaving the EU.

A growing dissatisfaction with the government was seen in the local elections in May 2012. However, Labor failed to take back the political initiative. In addition, Labor suffered a setback in the election in Scotland when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won its own majority in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP used its new position to propel a referendum on independence. In 2012, Cameron agreed to allow the Scots to vote on Scottish independence but he refused in advance to settle the terms of a possible divorce.

A referendum on Scottish independence

The Conservative Party, Labor and the Liberal Democrats jointly campaigned for Scotland to remain part of the UK, while the SNP and the Green Party in Scotland pleaded for independence. Several grassroots movements, many of them on the left, contributed to a boost for the yes side during the summer of 2014.

In early September, an opinion poll indicated that a majority of voters intended to vote for independence. This caused great concern among leading politicians in London who promised an extension of Scottish self-government if Scotland voted no (see Political system). By the time the result came, the no-side had won with 55 percent of the vote.

Cameron and the Conservatives win the election

Ahead of the May 2015 parliamentary elections, many expected Labor to be the biggest party, not least because of dissatisfaction with the savings made in the welfare system and precarious conditions in the labor market. But the electoral movement's most ardent issue concerned immigration and both Ukip and the Tories and Labor promised to find ways to limit it.

To the surprise of many, the Conservative Party gained its own majority in the House of Commons, with almost 37 percent of the vote, followed by Labor with just over 30 percent. However, the big downside was that the SNP, with less than 5 percent of the vote, became the country's third largest party. Ukip won, despite almost 13 percent of the vote, just one mandate. The big loser became the Liberal Democrats, who got 8 percent and as many seats.

What made the election likely was that the Conservatives were considered better at managing the economy than Labor. Post-election analyzes showed that it was Labor, and not the Conservatives, who had lost the most votes to Ukip. After the election, Ed Miliband resigned as Labor leader and was replaced by Jeremy Corbyn of the party's left flank.

Cameron's position was weakened by the fact that the ruling party was divided on the EU issue. The Prime Minister had pushed the problems ahead of him by promising a referendum on British EU membership in 2013 with the hope that he could negotiate better terms for the UK. He wanted, among other things, to restrict EU immigrants' access to the British welfare system. But he found it difficult to get the other EU leaders with him and British skeptics did not think that the concessions that were made went far enough.

No to the EU

In February 2016, Cameron announced a referendum on EU membership until June 23 of that year. Those who wanted Britain to remain in the EU (Remain) gathered a large part of the political establishment within both the Conservative Party and Labor, as well as smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Welsh Plaid Cymru. The big poster names for those who wanted to leave the EU (Leave) became London's former mayor Boris Johnson, and Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

The debate climate was harsh, with scare propaganda from both sides. The Leave campaign sought to gain considerable support by playing on the dissatisfaction with high immigration from other EU countries, the bureaucracy in Brussels and democratic shortcomings in EU cooperation. They also promised that money that now went to the EU would be invested in better care. The stay-and-go camp mainly warned of the economic consequences of leaving the Union.

Nearly 52 percent of voters voted for Britain to leave the EU. The turnout was just over 72 percent. Most of the no votes came from southern England, but many voters in economically disadvantaged areas in central and northern England and Wales also voted for a Brexit. At the same time, a majority of London voters, most other major cities, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted the country to remain within the EU. It was mainly older voters who wanted an EU exit, while younger and more educated people wanted to stay within the cooperation. The result was interpreted as a snub against the political and economic elite who, according to many voters, were not interested in solving their problems.

May takes over

The situation after the referendum was complicated by the fact that nobody knew how the exit process would go. The markets reacted negatively to earnings and the pound lost in value. In addition, Cameron resigned as prime minister and party leader. After several trips, both posts were taken over by Minister of the Interior Theresa May. In her first speech as prime minister, she promised to respect the results of the referendum but also to create a country that would "work for everyone and not just for a few privileged people".

Her first time in power was facilitated by Labor being shaken by severe internal contradictions. In October 2016, she announced that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would be activated the following year to begin the UK-EU divorce. One issue of contention already was what influence the British Parliament would have over the course of events (see Current policy).

In March 2017, Parliament voted for a law that gave the government the right to activate Article 50 and on March 29 of the same year, the UK submitted a letter to the EU, which initiated the Brexit process.

The situation in Northern Ireland was another headache for May. The Northern Ireland provincial government fell in early 2017, when nationalist Sinn Fein left government cooperation with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The problems were compounded by questions about what the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the only land border between the UK and an EU country, would look like after leaving the EU (see Current Policy).

In April 2017, May announced unexpected elections to Parliament until June 8. An important reason was that she wanted a clear mandate for the upcoming negotiations with the EU. Ahead of the election, the Conservative Party clearly led Labor. But as the election approached, the gap between the two parties narrowed. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn managed, among other things, to win new voters by pointing to growing social gaps and how government policy struck weak groups.

The electoral movement was temporarily suspended after two Islamist acts of terror in Manchester and London, which in total claimed 29 lives. That made Theresa May promise a tougher grip on Islamist extremism. She said she was prepared to waive human rights law if required to protect the British from terrorists. Corbyn, for her part, criticized May for cuts made to the police during her time as Minister of the Interior 2010–2016, when 20,000 police services disappeared.

The election led to the Conservatives losing their majority in the lower house. However, May was able to retain government power by cooperating with the Northern Ireland DUP. Concerned voices were raised to disrupt the sensitive balance in Northern Ireland (see Northern Ireland: Towards Peace). On June 25, 2017, Theresa May was able to present its agreement with the DUP, which would, among other things, give Northern Ireland 1.5 billion for infrastructure and social initiatives. In exchange, the DUP promised to support the government in matters of Brexit, the budget and new security legislation. Both parties said they would respect the commitments made in the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement. In connection with this, the Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a new referendum on independence in Scotland (see Scotland).

 
 

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