Britain in and after World Wars

Course: United Kingdom: History and Political System
Book: Britain in and after World Wars
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Date: Thursday, 20 June 2024, 6:43 AM

The 20th century

The 20th century witnesses some of the most momentous events in British history. From the extravagant Edwardians to two world wars and from an unrivalled Empire to Royal abdication. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain ceased to be the world´s richest country. The first 20 years of the century were a period of extremism in Britain. The Suffragettes, the women demanding the right to vote, were prepared to damage property and even die for their beliefs; some sections of the army appeared ready to disobey the government over its policies concerning Ulster in Ireland; and the governments introduction of new taxation was opposed so absolutely by the House of Lords that even Parliament seemed to have uncertain future. By the 1920, most of these issues had been resolved and the rather un-British climate of extremism died out.

It was from the start of the twentieth century that the urban working class (the majority of the population) finally began to make its voice heard. In Parliament, the Labour party gradually replaced the Liberals (the descendants of the Whigs) as the main opposition to the Conservatives (the descendants of the Tories). In addition, trade unions managed to organize themselves.

Edwardian Britain

The Edwardian era spanned just nine years, from 1901 to 1910, but evoked a last age of gentility, fun and exuberance. Edward VII – known as Bertie to his family – had already set the pace as a playboy Prince of Wales and neither marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863, nor kingship from 1901, dampened his boisterous spirits. His gambling and dalliances, including with the actress Lillie Langtry, have become the stuff of legend. The country nevertheless warmed to their fun-loving King Edward at a time when theatres and opera houses, seaside piers and pleasure pavilions were the height of fashionable entertainment.

The creation of Northern Ireland

By the beginning of the twentieth century, most people in Ireland wanted either internal self-government (known as ´home rule´) or complete independence from Britain. However, the one million Protestants in the province of Ulster in the north of the country were violently opposed to it. They did not want to belong to a country dominated by Catholics. They formed less than a quarter of the total Irish population, but in six of the nine counties of Ulster they were in a 65% majority. In the south, support for complete independence had grown as a result of the British government´s savage repression of the ´Easter Rising´ in 1916. War followed. The eventual result was that in 1922, the south became independent from Britain. The six counties, however, remained within the United Kingdom as the British province of Northern Ireland.

The Great War

The gathering clouds of war finally broke in the reign of Edward’s second son, George V (1910–36). The First World War (1914–18) not only wreaked horrifying carnage across Europe, but it also marked the final wrench away from the Victorian world.

George V visited troops in France and Belgium, as well as the Grand Fleet, showing himself a genuine patriot, and in 1917 at the height of public anti-German feeling he judiciously changed the Royal Family’s name: from the Teutonic-sounding Saxe-Coburg-Gotha inherited from his grandfather Prince Albert, to Windsor – altogether more acceptably British. War eventually ended as US troops joined the battle and the Allies gained the upper hand. But the repercussions continued for years, not least in the changed social climate in Britain where the old order had been dramatically shaken. Women – so vital to the war effort on the Home Front – were given voting rights, and independence was granted to the Irish Republic.

WWII and post-war Britain

Britain and France went to war with Germany in September 1939. Enemy planes dropped bombs on cities in Britain. Allied ships were sunk by submarines. In July 1940, German planes started bombing British coastal towns, defences and ships in the English Channel in order to gain control of the skies in the South of England.

People expected cities to be bombed, as enemy planes tried to destroy factories. But bombs would hit homes and schools too, so children would be in danger. The government tried at the start of the war to empty the cities of children and mothers, this was evacuation, to protect them from air raids.

Over the summer of 1940 the Royal Air Forces held off the Luftwaffe in perhaps the most prolonged and complicated air campaign in history. This arguably contributed immensely to the delay and cancellation of German plans for an invasion of the United Kingdom (Operation Sea Lion). Of these few hundred RAF fighter pilots, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said in the House of Commons on 20 August, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." By mid-September 1940, after many battles, Germany postponed their planned land invasion of Britain as the RAF effectively fought off the German Luftwaffe. This period is known as The Battle of Britain.

A hero of those dark hours, Winston Churchill, was a leader of the wartime coalition Government. With his rhetoric, British bulldog spirit, iconic V for victory sign and cigar, he inspired the nation to its greatest efforts. He was an inspirational statesman, writer, orator and leader who led Britain to victory in the Second World War. He served as Conservative Prime Minister twice. On 8 May 1945 Winston Churchill stood on a Whitehall balcony and addressed the excited crowd below. "In all our long history," he said, "we have never seen a greater day than this." Churchill had stood against Hitler and won – the day was his.

6 June 1944 was D-Day, when Allied forces landed in Normandy (France) to begin the liberation of western Europe. Everyone hoped the war would soon be over. However, there were many fierce battles in Europe and in the Pacific war with Japan before the fighting stopped in 1945.


The aftermath of World War II was the beginning of an era defined by the decline of the old great powers and the rise of two superpowers: the Soviet Union (USSR) and the United States of America (USA), creating a bipolar world. Allied during World War II, the US and the USSR became competitors on the world stage and engaged in what became known as the Cold War. Western Europe and Japan were rebuilt through the American Marshall Plan whereas Eastern Europe fell in the Soviet sphere of influence and rejected the plan. Europe was divided into a US-led Western Bloc and a Soviet-led Eastern Bloc.

Key figures and events of the 20th and 21st century

Margaret Thatcher

She was a British stateswoman and politician who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and the Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. She was the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, and the first woman to have held the office. A Soviet journalist dubbed her the "Iron Lady", a nickname that became associated with her uncompromising politics and leadership style. As Prime Minister, she implemented policies that have come to be known as Thatcherism.

On moving into 10 Downing Street, Thatcher introduced a series of political and economic initiatives intended to reverse high unemployment and Britain's struggles in the wake of the Winter of Discontent and an ongoing recession. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasised deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of trade unions. Thatcher's popularity during her first years in office waned amid recession and high unemployment, until the 1982 Falklands War and the recovering economy brought a resurgence of support, resulting in her re-election in 1983.

Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in 1987. During this period her views on the European Community were not shared by others in her Cabinet. She resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in November 1990. After retiring from the Commons in 1992, she was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher, of Kesteven in the county of Lincolnshire, which entitled her to sit in the House of Lords. After a series of small strokes in 2002, she was advised to withdraw from public speaking.

Tony Blair

He is a British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. Under Blair's leadership, the Party used the phrase "New Labour", to distance it from previous Labour policies and the traditional conception of socialism. Blair declared support for a new conception that he referred to as "socialism", involving politics that recognised individuals as socially interdependent, and advocated social justice, cohesion, equal worth of each citizen, and equal opportunity. Critics of Blair denounced him for having the Labour Party abandon genuine socialism and accepting capitalism. In the first years of the New Labour government, Blair's government introduced the National Minimum Wage Act, Human Rights Act, and Freedom of Information Act.

Blair strongly supported the foreign policy of US President George W. Bush, and ensured that British Armed Forces participated in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and, more controversially, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blair has faced strong criticism for his role in the invasion of Iraq, including calls for having him tried for war crimes and waging a war of aggression. Blair was succeeded as the leader of the Labour Party on 24 June 2007, and as Prime Minister on 27 June 2007 by Gordon Brown. He now runs a consultancy business and has set up various foundations in his own name, including the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Brexit: British withdrawal from the European Union

In 1975, the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EEC. All of the major political parties and mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EEC. However, there were significant splits within the ruling Labour party, the membership of which had voted 2:1 in favour of withdrawal at a one-day party conference on 26 April 1975. On 5 June 1975, the electorate were asked to vote yes or no on the question: "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" Every administrative county in the UK had a majority of "Yes", except the Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides. In line with the outcome of the vote, the United Kingdom remained a member of the EEC.

In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron rejected calls for a referendum on the UK's EU membership, but suggested the possibility of a future referendum. Under pressure from many of his MPs and from the rise of UKIP, in January 2013, Cameron announced that a Conservative government would hold an in-out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, on a renegotiated package, if elected in 2015.

The Conservative Party won the 2015 general election with a majority. Soon afterwards the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was introduced into Parliament to enable the referendum. Despite being in favour of remaining in a reformed European Union himself, Cameron announced that Conservative Ministers and MPs were free to campaign in favour of remaining in the EU or leaving it, according to their conscience. This decision came after mounting pressure for a free vote for ministers. In an exception to the usual rule of cabinet collective responsibility, Cameron allowed cabinet ministers to campaign publicly for EU withdrawal.

On the morning of 24 June, the result from the vote was that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%.