History of Britain
The kingdom of Great Britain was formed by the Act of Union (1707) between England and Scotland. History of Britain: Reforms of the 1830s, Chartists and Corn Law Reformers, late Victorian Economic and Social Change, the Interwar Era, the Winds of Change.
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During the 1970s, successive British governments also faced difficulties in Ireland and Scotland. A civil rights movement supporting social equality for the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland clashed violently with Protestant extremists. In 1969 the British government sent troops to keep order, and in 1972 it abolished Northern Ireland's autonomous parliament. A campaign of terrorism by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) followed; its aim was to unite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic in defiance of the wishes of a majority of the Northern Irish people. British measures gradually curbed but could not totally halt the wave of bombings and killings in Northern Ireland and England. In Scotland, a Scottish Nationalist Party scored impressive gains in the elections of 1974, and Callaghan's ministry attempted to set up a semi-independent parliament in Edinburgh. When only 33 percent of the Scottish electorate supported the plan in a 1979 referendum, the project died, at least temporarily.
Economic Woes Under Labour. The Labour government of 1974 to 1979 began by ending all legal restrictions on wage and price rises, but after the annual inflation rate topped 25 percent in 1975, the government did succeed in obtaining some trade union restraints on wage claims in return for an end to some voluntary restraints on wage claims; the inflation rate declined somewhat between 1976 and 1979. In return, union leaders demanded an end to legal restraints on union power and more government subsidies for housing and other social services. By the late 1970s, British politics seemed to be polarizing between left-wing Labourites, who sought an ever larger role for the state in order to impose social equality, and Conservatives, who hoped to restore a greater role to private enterprise and individual achievement. By the beginning of 1979, Callaghan's government was dependent on two minor parties. A winter of labor unrest undercut his claims to be able to deal successfully with the unions, and a vote of no confidence in March 1979 went against him.
The Thatcher Decade
In the elections of April 1979 the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, emerged with a substantial majority of parliamentary seats and with the first woman prime minister in British or European history. She was to remain in office for the next 11 years, making hers the longest continuous prime ministership since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.Thatcher's first years were difficult. She sought to halt inflation by a policy of high interest rates and government budget cuts, rather than of wage and price freezes. By 1981 and 1982 those policies were showing some success, but only at the cost of the highest unemployment rates since the 1930s. The government was jolted in April 1982 when Argentina forcibly occupied the Falkland Islands, a British-held archipelago in the South Atlantic that Argentina had long claimed. When U.S. mediation efforts failed, Thatcher sent a British counterinvasion fleet, and in June that force succeeded in recapturing the islands.
The decisive Conservative victories in the elections of June 1983 and June 1987 were the consequence not only of widespread popular support for the government's Falklands policy, but also of a sharp division in the ranks of the political opposition. In 1980 a group of Labour Party members headed by Roy Jenkins and David Owen broke away and in 1981 formed the Social Democratic Party. The new party joined with the Liberals to constitute an influential alliance that ultimately won relatively few parliamentary seats but did garner 25 percent of the total popular vote in 1983 and 23 percent in 1987 (compared to 28 and 31 percent for Labour and 42 percent in both elections for the Conservatives).
The years between 1982 and 1988 were economic boom years in Britain. The living standards of most Britons rose and the rate of unemployment gradually ebbed. British industries became more efficient, and London maintained its role as one of the world's top three centers of finance. The economic role of government declined as Thatcher promoted privatization--the turning over to private investors of government monopolies such as British Airways, the telephone service, and the distribution of gas and water.
Thatcher was succeeded as Conservative Party leader and prime minister by John Major, who continued Thatcher's policy of maintaining close ties with the United States. British troops fought as part of the multinational coalition led by the United States in the Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1992, despite an economic recession, Major led his party to victory in the April general elections, though with a reduced majority. Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, who had gradually moved his Labour Party back from the left toward the ideological center, resigned after the election. Following the Conservatives' election victory, Major's government faced a growing financial crisis as the pound weakened in the currency market, inflation and unemployment grew, and the nation entered a recession. As a result, Major received the lowest approval rating, 14 percent, of any prime minister in British history.
One of John Major's main accomplishments in office occurred in 1993, when he was instrumental in opening a dialogue between the British government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Major and Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds issued a statement requiring the IRA to cease terrorist activities for three months, after which time Sinn Fein, the organization's political wing, would be invited to join talks on the future of Northern Ireland. In August 1994 the IRA announced a cease-fire, bringing to a halt the violence that is estimated to have killed more than 3000 people in the previous 25 years. In May 1995 representatives from the British government and the IRA met face-to-face for the first time in 23 years.
Despite this breakthrough, the Conservative Party continued to lose ground. Though beset by low opinion polls, large defeats in local elections in April and May 1995, and a series of scandals, its most serious problem was the growing rift within the party over policy toward Europe and the European Union (EU). Many Conservatives felt that closer British relations with the EU would undermine British sovereignty, and the constant internal conflict over this issue severely damaged the party. In July 1995, in an attempt to solidify the party, John Major resigned as leader of the Conservatives, forcing an election for a new leader. Major won against an anti-European opponent, but one-third of the party voted against him or abstained. Dissatisfaction with the progress of the Northern Ireland talks led the IRA to resume its campaign of violence in February 1996 by setting off a large bomb in London that injured more than 100 people.
In March and April of 1996 the government disclosed that a link may exist between bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, commonly known as mad cow disease), an infection that had been found in some British cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a degenerative human brain disorder. This disclosure led the European Union to ban British beef, which devastated the British cattle industry, further damaging the Conservatives' popularity. In April the Conservatives suffered a substantial loss in local parliamentary elections to the opposition Labour Party, headed by Tony Blair. This loss trimmed the Conservative parliamentary majority to just one seat.
During the second half of 1996 and early 1997 Major struggled to regain support for his party, but was unsuccessful. The split within the party over the issue of European relations, most specifically the question as to whether the economic and monetary union (EMU) proposed by the European Union would damage the British economy, continued to widen. In national elections in May 1997 the Conservatives were swept out of office in a landslide. The Labour Party won almost 45 percent of the vote and came away with 419 seats and a 179-seat majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives had their worst showing in over 150 years, receiving about 33 percent of the vote and losing almost half of their seats, to finish with 165. Labour leader Tony Blair became prime minister, and after the election, John Major announced that he would resign as head of the Conservative Party as soon as a replacement could be found.
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