United Kingdom

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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (usually shortened to the United Kingdom, or the UK) is one of two sovereign states occupying the British Isles in northwestern Europe, the other being the Republic of Ireland. The UK, with most of its territory and population on the island of Great Britain, shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland on the island of Ireland and is otherwise surrounded by the North Sea, the English Channel, the Celtic Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The United Kingdom, often confusingly referred to as "Britain", is a constitutional monarchy and a "unitary state", composed by the political union of four constituent entities: the three constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales on Great Britain, and the province of Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland. The UK has several overseas territories, including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, and through the Crown has a constitutional relationship with the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The UK has close relationships with the fifteen other Commonwealth Realms, which share the same monarch as head of state.

The UK has a highly developed economy, the fourth-largest in the world. It is one of the more populous member states of the European Union and a founding partner of both the UN (with a permanent seat on the Security Council) and NATO. The UK is also one of the major nuclear weapon states.



The United Kingdom is the sovereign state or realm that covers England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and which for over one hundred years included the whole of the island of Ireland.

The state began to take its present shape with the Acts of Union 1707, which united the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland to create a "United Kingdom of Great Britain". Subsequently, the Act of Union 1800 joined the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland to create the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".

In 1922, the Irish Free State gained freedom from the UK state, with just Northern Ireland remaining. As a result, since 1927 the United Kingdom's formal title has been "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

England's conquest of Wales

Medival Wales was rarely united but was under the rule of various native principalities. When the land-hungry Normans invaded England, they naturally started pushing into the relatively weak Welsh Marches, setting up a number of lordships in the Eastern part of the country and the border areas. In response, the usually fractious Welsh, who still retained control of the north and west of Wales, started to unite around leaders such as Llywelyn the Great.

In 1282, King Edward I (1272-1307) finally conquered the last remaining native Welsh principalities in north and west Wales (an area roughly corresponding to the present day counties of Anglesey, Caernarfonshire, Merionethshire, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire). The Statute of Rhuddlan formally established Edward's rule over Wales two years later. To appease the Welsh, Edward's son (later Edward II), who had been born in Wales, was made Prince of Wales on 7 February 1301. Wales therefore took the status of Principality, which it held officially between 1284 and 1536. The tradition of bestowing the style 'Prince of Wales' on the eldest son of the British Monarch continues to the present day.

Between 1284 and 1536 the Crown only had direct control over the principality, as the Marcher lords (ruling over independent lordships in the east and south of Wales) were independent from direct Crown control. An act of 1535 completed the political and administrative union of England and Wales. The Laws in Wales Act 1535 annexed Wales to the legal system of England, and partitioned the Marches into the counties of Brecon, Denbigh, Monmouth Montgomery and Radnor while adding parts to Gloucester, Hereford and Salop; (The subsequent Laws in Wales Act of 1542 made no mention of Monmouthshire, which has led to ambiguity about its status as part of England or Wales). The Act also extended the Law of England to both England and Wales, making English the language to be used for official purposes. This excluded most native Welsh from any formal office. Wales was also now represented in Parliament at Westminster.

English conquest of Ireland

The conquest of Ireland began in 1169 under Henry II (1154-89). At first, it was not strictly an English conquest, as it was launched by a small group of Normans who were neither English nor acting on behalf of the English Crown. A dispossessed Norman baron from Wales, Richard fitzGilbert de Clare ('Strongbow') teamed up with the exiled Irish king, Diarmuid MacMorrough, to help him recover his kingdom of Leinster. The Normans consequently gained a territorial foothold in Ireland, capturing Dublin in 1170. The success of Strongbow alarmed Henry II, who was worried that he was becoming too powerful. Henry invaded Ireland himself in 1171, , Dublin and the surrounding area came under his control.

In 1541 the Irish Parliament was ordered to change the status of Ireland to a kingdom, with King Henry VIII (1509-47) as its monarch; Henry, regarding the way he styled himself as beyond the law of Parliament,and began to style himself as King of Ireland the next year. This created a union of the Crowns, . For the remainder of the 16th century, the Tudor monarchs expanded their control over Ireland from the small Pale around Dublin to control over the whole island by 1603. The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland saw large-scale violence, culminating in the Desmond Rebellions and the Nine Years War. Another feature of the sixteenth century was the creation of English Plantations of Ireland, which attempted to extend English influence further into Ireland by confiscating land from Irish landowners and "planting" colonies of English settlers in their place.

The Union of Two Crowns

Scotland was an independent kingdom that resisted English rule. Scotland, because of its climate, tended to be poorer than its southern neighbour. However, the "Auld Alliance" with France made successive English governments very nervous, and the perceived need to separate Scotland from Catholic France was one of the driving forces in English policy towards Scotland and in the Scottish Reformation.

The Scottish Reformation saw a clash between the old religion (Roman Catholicism) and the new (The Church of Scotland, known as Presbyterianism). The controversial Catholic Queen of Scotland, Mary I (known popularly as 'Mary, Queen of Scots') was forced to abdicate and fled to England, leaving her infant son, James VI, to rule, guided by Protestant guardians. She was a figure of intrigue who, because of doubts among English Catholics about the legality of Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn, was seen by many as a more legitimate heir to the English throne than her Protestant cousin Queen Elizabeth I. Mary's great-grandfather was Elizabeth's own grandfather Henry VII by an earlier marriage alliance between England and Scotland. Elizabeth put her cousin under house arrest and eventually, amid rumours of a plot to overthrow her, had her executed on charges of treason.

James VI succeeded his cousin Elizabeth I and assumed the title James I of England in 1603. The Stuarts now reigned as the royal family of "Great Britain"2, although the two realms maintained separate parliaments. The Union of the Two Crowns had begun. In the ensuing 100 years, strong religious and political differences continued to divide the kingdoms, and common royalty could not prevent occasions of internecine warfare.

Republican Rule 1649

The accession of James VI/I's son, Charles I, in 1625 marked the beginning of an intense schism between King and Parliament. Charles's adherence to the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings fuelled a vicious battle for supremacy between king and Parliament. The crisis culminated in the English Civil War (1643-49), saw Charles's execution and ushered in a period of rule as a parliamentary Commonwealth (1649-53) followed by a period of personal rule under the Parliamentarian veteran Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. The new regime remained unpopular, however, and Cromwell's death left a political void which could not be filled, even by his son Richard who ruled from 1658-59 before a tentative reversion to the system prior to Cromwell's Protectorate. Ultimately, the will for political stability impelled Parliament to negotiate the restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles's son, Charles II. The period from the earliest crises between Charles I and Parliament in the 1620s until the Restoration in 1660 is now increasingly referred to by historians as the English Revolution.

The Commonwealth period also saw Ireland and Scotland annexed by England and their legislative autonomy abolished. Ireland in particular was permanently altered by the civil war period, as its native Irish Catholic landowning class was dispossessed after the Cromwellian conquest and replaced with a British Protestant ruling class. Both Ireland and Scotland had their nominal autonomy from London restored after the Restoration. Nevertheless, the era of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms went a long way towards establishing English primacy over the other two Kingdoms in the Stuart monarchy.

The Act of Union 1707

Main article: Act of Union 1707

Deeper political integration was policy of Queen Anne (1702-14), who succeeded to the throne in 1702. Under the aegis of the Queen and her advisors, a Bill of Union was drawn up and in 1706 negotiations between England and Scotland began in earnest. The circumstances of Scotland's acceptance of the Bill are to some degree disputed. Opponents believed that failure to accede to the Bill would result in the imposition of Union under less favourable terms. There was fierce debate on both sides of the border, and in some quarters Union was deeply unpopular. However, the near-bankrupt Scottish Parliament did eventually accept the proposals.

In 1707 the Act of Union received Royal assent, abolishing England and Scotland as separate kingdoms and creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain with a single Parliament. Anne became formally the first occupant of a single British throne, and Scotland sent 45 MPs to the unified parliament at Westminster which had now transformed into the Parliament of Great Britain. This also meant that Scotland and England could enjoy free trade with each other. However, certain Scottish and English institutions were not merged into the British system; Scottish and English law remained separate, as did Scottish and English currency and the Church of Scotland and Church of England which were to remain intact and have remained so ever since. One provision of the Act of Union, the renaming of Scotland and England as 'North Britain' and 'South Britain' respectively, failed to take hold and fell into disuse very quickly. (By the Victorian period, the terms 'England' and 'English' had become synonymous with 'Britain' and 'British', very much against the spirit of the 1707 Act.)

The United Kingdom

Act of Union 1800

Main article: Act of Union 1800

Ireland's invasion by the Anglo-Normans in 1170 led to centuries of strife. Successive English kings sought to conquer rape and pillage Ireland. In the early 17th century, large-scale settlement of the north from Scotland and England began. After its defeat Ireland was subjected, with varying degrees of success, to control and regulation by Britain.

Possibly influenced by the War of American Independence (1775-1783), a united force of Irish volunteers used their influence to campaign for greater independence for the Irish Parliament. This was granted in 1782, giving free trade and legislative independence to Ireland. However, the French revolution had encouraged the increasing calls for moderate constitutional reform. The Society of United Irishmen, made up of Presbyterians from Belfast and both Anglicans and Catholics in Dublin, campaigned for an end to British domination. Their leader Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) worked with the Catholic Convention of 1792 which demanded an end to the penal laws. Failing to win the support of the British government, he travelled to Paris, encouraging a number of French naval forces to land in Ireland to help with the planned insurrections. These were slaughtered by government forces, but these rebellions convinced the British under Prime Minister William Pitt) that the only solution was to end Irish independence once and for all.

The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801, in both the Irish and the British parliaments, under the Act of Union 1800, changing the country's name to "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". Ireland now sent around 100 MPs to the House of Commons3 at Westminster and 28 peers to the House of Lords, elected from among their number by the Irish peers themselves (Catholics were not permitted this great honour).

19th Century

Political history:
Prime Ministers: William Pitt the Younger | Lord Grenville | Duke of Portland | Spencer Perceval | Earl of Liverpool | George Canning | Viscount Goderich | Duke of Wellington | Earl Grey | Viscount Melbourne | Sir Robert Peel | Lord John Russell | Earl of Derby | Earl of Aberdeen | Viscount Palmerston | Benjamin Disraeli | William Ewart Gladstone | Marquess of Salisbury
Periods: Georgian era - Victorian era - Edwardian period

Social history: History of British society

Ireland in the United Kingdom

Main article: History of Ireland (1801-1922)

Part of the agreement which led to the 1800 Act of Union stipulated that the Penal Laws in Ireland were to be repealed and Catholic Emancipation granted. However King George III blocked emancipation, arguing that to grant it would break his coronation oath to defend the Anglican Church. A campaign under lawyer and politician Daniel O'Connell led to the concession of Catholic Emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to sit in parliament. O'Connell then mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Repeal of the Act of Union.

When potato blight hit the island in 1846, much of the rural population was left without food. Unfortunately, British politicians such as the Prime Minister Robert Peel were at this time wedded to the economic policy of laissez-faire, which argued against state intervention of any sort. While enormous sums were raised by private individuals and charities (American Indians sent supplies, while Queen Victoria personally gave the present-day equivalent € 70,000) British government inaction (or at least inadequate action) caused the problem to become a catastrophe. The class of cottiers or farm labourers was virtually wiped out in what became known as the Irish Potato Famine.

Most Irish people elected as their MPs Liberals and Conservatives who belonged to the main British political parties (note: Irish Catholics didn't have a vote at that time). A significant minority also elected Unionists, who championed the cause of the maintenance of the Act of Union. A former Tory barrister turned nationalist campaigner, Isaac Butt, established a new moderate nationalist movement, the Home Rule League, in the 1870s. After Butt's death the Home Rule Movement, or the Irish Parliamentary Party as it had become known, was turned into a major political force under the guidance of William Shaw and in particular a radical young Protestant landowner, Charles Stewart Parnell. The Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics, to the exclusion of the previous Liberal, Conservative and Unionist parties that had existed. Parnell's movement proved to be a broad church, from conservative landowners to the Land League which was campaigning for fundamental reform of Irish landholding, where most farms were held on rental from large aristocratic estates.

Parnell's movement campaigned for 'Home Rule', by which they meant that Ireland would govern itself as a region within the United Kingdom, in contrast to O'Connell who wanted complete independence subject to a shared monarch and Crown. Two Home Rule Bills (1886 and 1893) were introduced by Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, but neither became law. The issue divided Ireland, for a significant minority (largely though by no means exclusively based in Ulster), opposed Home Rule, fearing that a Catholic-Nationalist parliament in Dublin would discriminate against them and would also impose tariffs on industry; while most of Ireland was primarily agricultural, six counties in Ulster were the location of heavy industry and would be effected by any tariff barriers imposed.

In 1912 a further Home Rule bill passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords, as was the bill of 1893, but by this time the House of Lords had lost its veto on legislation and could only delay the bill by two years. During these two years the threat of civil war hung over Ireland with the creation of the Unionist Ulster Volunteers and their nationalist counterparts, the Irish Volunteers. These two groups armed themselves by importing rifles and ammunition and carried out drills openly. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put the crisis on the political backburner for the duration of the war. The Unionist and Nationalist volunteer forces joined the British army in their thousands and suffered crippling losses in the trenches.

Until 1918 the Irish Parliamentary Party remained the dominant Irish party, though it has for part of that time being divided by the O'Shea Divorce Case, when it was revealed that Parnell, nicknamed the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' for his popularity, had been living with the wife of one of his fellow MPs for many years and was the father of a number of her children. When the scandal broke, religious nonconformists in Britain, who were the backbone of the pro-Irish Liberal Party, forced leader W. E. Gladstone to abandon support for the Irish cause as long as the 'adulterer' Parnell remained in charge. The Party and the country split between pro- and anti-Parnellites, who fought each other in elections.

A UDI Irish Republic was proclaimed in Dublin in 1916 and ratified by Dil ireann, the self declared Republic's parliament in 1919. An Anglo-Irish War was fought between Crown forces and the Army of the Irish Republic between January 1919 and June 1921.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, negotiated between teams representing the British and Irish Republic's governments, and ratified by three parliaments,4 established the Irish Free State, which subsequently left the British Commonwealth and became a republic after World War II, without constitutional ties with the United Kingdom. Six northern, predominantly Protestant, Irish counties (Northern Ireland) have remained part of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland was created by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, enacted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament in 1921. Faced with divergent demands from Irish nationalists and Unionists over the future of the island of Ireland (the former wanted an all-Irish home rule parliament to govern the entire island, the latter no home rule at all), and the fear of civil war between both groups, the British Government under David Lloyd George passed the Act, creating two home rule Irelands, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland. Southern Ireland never came into being as a real state and was superseded by the Irish Free State in 1922. That state is now known as the Republic of Ireland.

Having been given self government in 1920 (even though they never sought it, and some like Sir Edward Carson were bitterly opposed) the Northern Ireland government under successive prime ministers from Sir James Craig (later Lord Craigavon) practiced a policy of wholesale discrimination against the nationalist/ Roman Catholic minority. Northern Ireland became, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize joint-winner, Ulster Unionist Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland David Trimble, a "cold place for Catholics." Towns and cities were gerrymandered to rig local government elections to ensure Protestant control of town councils. Voting arrangements which gave commercial companies votes and minimum income regulations also helped achieve this end.

In the 1960s, moderate unionist Prime Minister Terence O'Neill (later Lord O'Neill of the Maine) tried to reform the system, but was met with wholesale opposition from extreme fundamentalist Protestant leaders like Rev. Ian Paisley. The increasing pressures from nationalists for reform and from extreme unionists for No surrender led to the appearance of the civil rights movement under figures like John Hume, Austin Currie and others. Clashes between marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary led to increased communal strife. The British army was originally sent to Northern Ireland by British Home Secretary, James Callaghan to protect nationalists from attack, and was warmly welcomed. However the murder of thirteen unarmed civilians in Derry by British Paratroopers enflamed the situation and turned northern nationalists against the British Army. The appearance of the Provisional IRA, a breakaway from the increasingly Marxist Official IRA, and a campaign of violence by loyalist terror groups like the Ulster Defence Association and others, brought Northern Ireland to the brink of Civil War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, extremists on both sides carried out a series of brutal mass murders, often on innocent civilians. Among the most notorious outrages were the Le Mon bombing and the bombings in Enniskillen and Omagh.

Some British politicians, notably former British Labour minister Tony Benn advocated British withdrawal from Ireland, but this policy was opposed by successive Irish governments, who called their prediction of the possible results of British withdrawal the Doomsday Scenario, with widespread communal strife, followed by the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children as refugees to their community's 'side' of the province; nationalists fleeing to western Northern Ireland, unionists fleeing to eastern Northern Ireland. The worst fear was of a civil war which would engulf not just Northern Ireland, but the neighbouring Republic of Ireland and Scotland both of whom had major links with either or both communities. Later, the feared possible impact of British Withdrawal came to be called the Balkanisation of Northern Ireland after the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the chaos it unleashed.

In the early 1970s, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was prorogued after the province's Unionist Government under the premiership of Brian Faulkner refused to agree to the British Government demand that it hand over the powers of law and order, and Direct Rule was introduced from London starting on March 24, 1972. New systems of governments were tried and failed, including power-sharing under Sunningdale, Rolling Devolution and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. By the 1990s, the failure of the IRA campaign to win mass public support or achieve its aim by British Withdrawal, and in particular the public relations disaster that was the Enniskillen, when families attending a Remembrance Day ceremony, along with the replacement of the traditional Republican leadership of Ruair Brdaigh by Gerry Adams, saw a move away from armed conflict to political engagement. These changes were followed the appearance of new leaders in Dublin Albert Reynolds, London John Major and in unionism David Trimble. Contacts initiatively been Adams and John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, broadened out into all party negotiations, that in 1998 produced the 'Good Friday Agreement' which was approved by a majority of both communities in Northern Ireland and by the people of the Republic of Ireland, where the constitution, Bunreacht na hireann was amended to replace a claim it allegedly made to the territory of Northern Ireland with a recognition of Northern Ireland's right to exist, while also acknowledging the nationalist desire for a united Ireland.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, properly known as the Belfast Agreement, a new Northern Ireland Assembly was elected to form a Northern Irish parliament. Every party that reaches a specific level of support is entitled to name a member of its party to government and claim a ministry. Ulster Unionist party leader David Trimble became First Minister of Northern Ireland. The Deputy Leader of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, became Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, though he was subsequently replaced by his party's new leader, Mark Durkan. The Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party, Sinn Fin and Democratic Unionist Party each had ministers by right in the power-sharing assembly. The Assembly and its Executive are both currently suspended over unionist threats over the alleged delay in the Provisional IRA implementing its agreement to decommission its weaponry, and also the alleged discovery or an IRA spy-ring operating in the heart of the civil service (this later turned out to be false due to the fact that Denis Donaldson, the person in possession of the incriminating files which pointed to an IRA spy-ring actually worked for the British intelligence). Government is now once more run by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy and a British ministerial team answerable to him.

The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Britain's control over its Empire loosened during the interwar period. Nationalism became stronger in other parts of the empire, particularly in India and in Egypt.

In 1926, the UK, completing a process begun a century earlier, granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand "Dominion" status (complete autonomy within the Empire). They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (known as the Commonwealth of Nations since 1946 or 1949), an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the British Empire. Beginning with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies including Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, and others which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as British Overseas Territories.

Although often marked by economic and political nationalism, the Commonwealth offers the United Kingdom a voice in matters concerning many developing countries. In addition, the Commonwealth helps preserve many institutions deriving from British experience and models, such as Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, in those countries.

War and depression

Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom 1900 - 1945

Marquess of Salisbury | Arthur Balfour | Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman | Herbert Henry Asquith | David Lloyd George | Andrew Bonar Law | Stanley Baldwin | Ramsay MacDonald | Stanley Baldwin | Ramsay MacDonald | Stanley Baldwin | Neville Chamberlain | Winston Churchill

Social History

(main article: History of British society)

Victorian attitudes and ideals continued into the first years of the 20th century, and what really changed society was the start of World War I. The army was traditionally never a large employer in the nation, and the regular army stood at 247,432 at the start of the war[1]. By 1918 there were about 5 million people in the army and the fledgling Royal Air Force, newly formed from the RNAS and the RFC, was about the same size of the pre-war army. The almost 3 million casualties were known as the "lost generation", and such numbers inevitably left society scarred; but even so, some people felt their sacrifice was little regarded in Britain, with poems like Siegfried Sassoon's Blighters criticising the ill-informed jingoism of the home front. Conscription brought people of many different classes, and also people from all over the empire, together and this mixing was seen as a great leveller which would only accelerate social change after the war.

The social reforms of the last century continued into the 20th with the Labour Party being formed in 1900, but this did not achieve major success until the 1922 general election. Lloyd George said after the First World War that "the nation was now in a molten state", and his Housing Act 1919 would lead to affordable council housing which allowed people to move out of Victorian inner-city slums. The slums, though, remained for several more years, with trams being electrified long before many houses. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women householders the vote, but it would not be until 1928 that equal suffrage was achieved.

A short lived post-war boom soon lead to a depression that would be felt worldwide. Particularly hardest hit were the north of England and Wales, where unemployment reached 70% in some areas. The General Strike was called during 1926 in support of the miners and their falling wages, but little improved, the downturn continued and the Strike is often seen as the start of the slow decline of the British coal industry. In 1936 200 unemployed men walked from Jarrow to London in a bid to show the plight of the industrial poor, but the Jarrow March, as it was known, had little impact and it would not be until the coming war that industrial prospects improved. George Orwell's book The Road to Wigan Pier gives a bleak overview of the hardships of the time.

For the history of the United Kingdom during World War II see: Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II

Recent History

Clement Attlee

The landslide 1945 Election returned Labour to power and Clement Attlee became prime minister. 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 still survives today and is often just as controversial as then.

The Labour Party was returned to power in the general election of 1950. 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.

Labour lost the General Election of 1951 despite polling more votes than in the 1945 election, and indeed more votes than the Conservative Party.

Winston Churchill (1951 - 1955)

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).

Sir Anthony Eden

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

Edens 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 rift post-Suez 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 Area (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 as well as 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. In 1962Britain, 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.

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.

Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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. 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 IRA delegation by Sen Mac Stiofin. 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. This was to contribute to Heath's eventual fall from power. Heath's major achievement as prime minister was to take Britain into the European 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 February 28 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.

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

Wilson announced his surprise resignation on March 16, 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 March 28, 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.

Margaret Thatcher

She formed a government on May 4, 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 INLA 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 Fin'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. Interestingly, 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, reaching an official figure of 3.6 million (the criteria for defining who was unemployed was amended, and others estimate that unemployment hit 5 million).

British defence budget cuts, applying in the South Atlantic, coupled with Thatcher's disregard of the Falkland Islands and 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 April 2, 1982, it invaded the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas to Argentines), 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. However, the economy was still in a deep recession associated with encouraging traditional heavy industries to come to an end. Continuing mass unemployment was explained as a consequence of this transition, implying it 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. They were a grouping of uncertain cohesion and it is apparent from the result that they drew votes mainly away from Labour. This unbalanced splitting of the left of centre vote without a corresponding effect to the right, in combination with Britain's first past the post electoral system, where marginal changes in vote numbers and distribution have disproportionate effects on the number of seats won, also contributed to the Conservative 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 October 12 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 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 November 15 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 January 23 1986, staged an ad-hoc referendum by re-fighting their seats in by-elections, and won with 1 seat lost to the nationalist SDLP party. 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 Fin, 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 other action(s) by the other hand.

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 dtente which the West had pursued during the 1970s, and caused friction with allies still wedded to the idea of dtente. 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 3 months before he came to power in 1985. This was a start in swinging the West back to a new dtente 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 dtente 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 to 1827, and first to win 3 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 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. [2].

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 March 31, 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

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 ERM 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.

Tony Blair

Immediately after taking office, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown 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, for which Blair frequently criticises previous governments. Brown's decision was popular with the City, which the Labour Party had been courting since the early 1990s. Together with the government's avowed determination to remain within projected Conservative spending limits for the first two years of its period of office, it helped to reassure sceptics of the Labour Party's new-found fiscal "prudence". Brown, who had his own following within the Labour Party, was a powerful and independent Chancellor who was given exceptional freedom to act by Blair, although later reports by Downing Street insiders have said that Blair grew to regret this as he was cut out of important fiscal decisions. Friction still persists between the two, despite numerous attempts to have them viewed as cooperated partners. Recently, Brown rejected the Turner Report pensions proposals that Tony Blair supported. Since Tony Blair has stated he will retire before the next general election, it is widely viewed that Gordon Brown will take over the Labour Party after him. On a television interview former Home Secretary David Blunkett stated that Tony Blair would resign in two to three years time. Currently, it is viewed that Brown and Blair have a "dual premiership" in effect, though they both deny this. However, because of Blair's slanting popularity over controversial public service reforms and the revival of the Conservative Party under leader David Cameron, some are predicting for him to retire earlier than previously thought.

In 2001, Blair fought another general election. This time, the Conservative Party was led by William Hague, widely known for his brilliant public speeches. Nevertheless, the Conservatives "rushed to the right" in the election, concentrating on the EU and the euro. Labour won by another landslide.

In 2003, Tony Blair, encouraged by strong support in the House of the Commons from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, made a decision to support the US 2003 Invasion of Iraq, despite strong public opposition. It is widely viewed as his biggest political mistake, even though the war was ultimately successful in its targets.

In 2005, the Labour Party won another general election, though with a heavily reduced majority. Blair launched his "respect agenda" and proposed a number of controversial public service reforms. With the July 7th terrorist attacks on London, Blair proposed new anti-terror measures, including laws to hold suspects for 90 days without trial, a bill against incitement to religious hatred, a bill against glorifying terrorism, and the most controversial of all, ID cards. So far, Tony Blair has won the glorifying terrorism bill, though by a small margin, and offered a compromise on ID cards that just pushed the bill through. Such activities are generally perceived that Blair is trying to make the state more authoritarian, and all the anti-terror bills were oppossed by the two major oppossition parties in the UK: The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as well as most of the House of Lords.

Tony Blair has been heavily criticised for "selling out to Europe", when in late 2005, near the end of the UK Presidency of the European Union, successfully negotiated a new budget deal which surrendered 15% of Britain's EU rebate, despite his earlier promises that he wouldn't compromise on the rebate. Blair justfied his decisions in that Britain needed to pay its "fair share" in the new, enlarged EU. With around 50% of the UK population opposing the European Union, it is regarded as one of the blunders of his career.

At the moment, Tony Blair is trying to get through public service reforms. His education reform bill, said to give schools more freedom, is supported by the Conservative Party under David Cameron, but opposed by many Labour MPs.


Constitutional reform is also a significant issue in the UK. The Labour Government of Tony Blair came in with a policy of devolution. In 1999 Scotland saw the restoration of its Parliament, while Wales and Northern Ireland were granted their own assemblies. London was also given back a strategic authority, the Greater London Authority.

Although these assemblies have some legislative and other powers, they do not have anywhere near the power of the national parliament. There are fundamental differences between them. For example, the Scottish Parliament has the power to legislate, whereas the Welsh Assembly Government only has the power to spend the budget formerly allocated to a government department known as the Welsh Office. In addition, as devolved systems of regional government, they have no constitutional right to exist and can have their powers broadened, narrowed or changed by Act of Parliament. Parliament can also create more regional assemblies or abolish them all by Act of Parliament.

Thus the United Kingdom is said to have a unitary state with a devolved system of government. This contrasts with a federal system, in which sub-parliaments or state parliaments and assemblies have a clearly defined constitutional right to exist and a right to exercise certain constitutionally guaranteed and defined functions and cannot be unilaterally abolished by Acts of the central parliament.

The present policy of the UK Government is to increase regional devolution. However, plans for more regional assemblies were all but shelved after the North-East region of England rejected the proposals in a referendum.

See also

Constituent Nations' Histories


1 The term united kingdom was first used in the 1707 Act of Union. However it is generally seen as a descriptive term, indicating that the kingdoms were freely united rather than through conquest. It is not seen as being actual name of the new United Kingdom, which was the Kingdom of Great Britain. The United Kingdom as a name is taken to refer to the kingdom that emerged when the Kingdom of Great Britain and Kingdom of Ireland merged on 1 January 1801.
The name Great Britain (then spelt Great Brittaine) was first used by James VI/I in October 1604, who indicated that henceforth he and his successors would be viewed as Kings of Great Britain, not Kings of England and Scotland. However the name was not applied to the state as a unit; both England and Scotland continued to be governed independently. Its validity as a name of the Crown is also questioned, given that monarchs continued using separate ordinals (e.g., James VI/I, James VII/II) in England and Scotland. To avoid confusion, historians generally avoid using the term King of Great Britain until 1707 and instead to match the ordinal usage call the monarchs kings or queens of England and Scotland. Separate ordinals were abandoned when the two states merged with the Act of Union 1707, with subsequent monarchs using ordinals apparently based on English not Scottish history (it might be argued that the monarchs have simply taken the higher ordinal, which to date has always been English). One example is Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, who is referred to as being "the Second" even though there never was an Elizabeth I of Scotland or Great Britain. Thus the term Great Britain is generally used from 1707.
The number changed several times between 1801 and 1922.
4 The Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by (i) The British Parliament (Commons, Lords & Royal Assent), (ii) Dil ireann, and the (iii) the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, a parliament created under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920 which was supposedly the valid parliament of Southern Ireland in British eyes and which had an almost identical membership of the Dil, but which nevertheless had to assemble separately under the Treaty's provisions to approve the Treaty, the Treaty thus being ratified under both British and Irish constitutional theory.

Further reading

  • Norman Davies The Isles: A History (Macmillan, 1999)
  • Frank Welsh The Four nations: a history of the United Kingdom (Yale, 2003)
  • Jeremy Black A history of the British Isles (Macmillan, 1996)
  • Hugh Kearney The British Isles: a history of four nations (Cambridge, 1989)
  • The Short Oxford History of the British Isles (series)
  • G. Williams Wales and the Act of Union (1992)
  • S. Ellis & S. Barber (eds) Conquest and Union: Fashioning a British State, 1485-1725 (1995)
  • Linda Colley Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992)
  • R.G. Asch (ed) Three Nations: A Common History? England, Scotland, Ireland and British History c.1600-1920 (1993)
  • S.J. Connolly (ed) Kingdoms United? Great Britain and Ireland since 1500 (1999)

External links


The United Kingdom is divided into four constituent parts, commonly referred to as the home nations:

The constituent parts of the United Kingdom have administrative subdivisions as follows:

The Laws in Wales Act 1535 incorporated Wales and England into England and Wales for legal purposes.

Although all four have historically been divided into counties, England's population is an order of magnitude larger than the others so in recent years it has for some purposes been divided into nine intermediate-level Government Office Regions. Each region is made up of counties and unitary authorities, apart from London, which consists of London boroughs. Although at one point it was intended that each or some of these regions would be given its own regional assembly, the plan's future is uncertain, as of 2004, after the North East region rejected its proposed assembly in a referendum.

Scotland consists of 32 Council Areas. Wales consists of 22 Unitary Authorities, styled as 10 County Boroughs, 9 Counties, and 3 Cities. Northern Ireland is divided into 26 Districts.

Also sometimes associated with the United Kingdom, though not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom itself, are the Crown dependencies (the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, and the Isle of Man) as self-governing possessions of the Crown, and a number of overseas territories under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.


Most of England consists of rolling lowland terrain, divided east from west by more mountainous terrain in the Northwest (Cumbrian Mountains of the Lake District) and north (the upland moors of the Pennines) and limestone hills of the Peak District by the Tees-Exe line. The lower limestone hills of the Isle of Purbeck, Cotswolds, Lincolnshire and chalk downs of the Southern England Chalk Formation. The main rivers and estuaries are the Thames, Severn and the Humber Estuary. The largest urban area is Greater London. Near Dover, the Channel Tunnel links the United Kingdom with France. There is no peak in England that is 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) or greater.

Scotland's geography is varied, with lowlands in the south and east and highlands in the north and west, including Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain at 1,344 metres (4,408 ft). There are many long and deep-sea arms, firths, and lochs. A multitude of islands west and north of Scotland are also included, notably the Hebrides, Orkney Islands and Shetland Islands. The capital city is Edinburgh, the centre of which is a World Heritage Site. The largest city is Glasgow.

Wales is mostly mountainous, the highest peak being Snowdon at 1,085 metres (3,560 ft) above sea level. North of the mainland is the island of Anglesey. The largest and capital city is Cardiff, located in South Wales.

Northern Ireland, making up the north-eastern part of Ireland, is mostly hilly. The main cities are Belfast ('Bal Feirste' in Irish) and Londonderry / Derry ('Doire' in Irish). The province is home to one of the UKs World Heritage Sites, the Giant's Causeway, which consists of more than 40,000 six-sided basalt columns up to 40 feet (12 m) high. Lough Neagh, the largest body of water in the British Isles, by surface area (388 km / 150 mi), can be found in Northern Ireland.

In total it is estimated that the UK includes around 1,098 small islands, some being natural and some being crannogs, a type of artificial island which was built in past times using stone and wood, gradually enlarged by natural waste building up over time.



At the April 2001 UK Census, the United Kingdom's population was 58,789,194, the third-largest in the European Union (behind Germany and France) and the twenty-first largest in the world. This had been estimated up to 59,834,300 by the Office of National Statistics in 2004. Its overall population density is one of the highest in the world. Almost one-third of the population lives in England's prosperous south-east and is predominantly urban and suburban--with about 7.2 million in the capital of London. The United Kingdom's high literacy rate (99%) is attributable to universal public education introduced for the primary level in 1870 and secondary level in 1900 (except in Scotland where it was introduced in 1696). Education is mandatory from ages five to sixteen.

The Church of England and the Church of Scotland function as the official national religions in their respective countries, but most religions found in the world are represented in the United Kingdom. Anglicanism is the state religion that has been established in England since 1534 during the reign of King Henry VIII. During his reign, England broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England as the official religion of England. Reforms to the nature of the church's relationship to the state have been ongoing, especially concerning the nature of the House of Lords and the appointment of a fixed amount of the lordships going to Lords Spiritual, Bishops of the Church of England.

A group of islands close to continental Europe, the British Isles have been subject to many invasions and migrations, especially from Scandinavia and the continent, including Roman occupation for several centuries. Contemporary Britons are descended mainly from the varied ethnic stocks that settled there before the eleventh century. The pre-Celtic, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences were blended on Great Britain under the Normans, Scandinavian Vikings who had lived in Northern France. Although Celtic languages persist in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the predominant language is English, which is a West Germanic language descended from Old English, featuring a large amount of borrowings from Norman French. The other indigenous languages include the Celtic languages; Welsh, the closely related Irish and Scots Gaelic, and the Cornish language; as well as Lowland Scots, which is closely related to English; Romany; and British Sign Language (Northern Ireland Sign Language is also used in Northern Ireland). Celtic dialectal influences from Cumbric persisted in Northern England for many centuries, most famously in a unique set of numbers used for counting sheep.

Recent immigrants, especially from the Commonwealth, speak many other languages, including Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, and Cantonese. The United Kingdom has the largest number of Hindi-speaking peoples outside of the Indian subcontinent.


The United Kingdom contains many of the world's leading universities, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the University of London (which incorporates, amongst others, Imperial College London, The London School of Economics and University College London) and has produced many great scientists and engineers including Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the nation is credited with many inventions including the locomotive, vaccination, television, the railway, and both the internal combustion and the jet engine.

The English language has spread to all corners of the world (primarily because of the British empire) and is referred to as a "global language". It is taught as a second language more than any other around the world. The United Kingdom's other languages are also spoken by small groups across the world, including Welsh in Argentina [3] and Gaelic in Canada.

Playwright William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous writer in the history of the English language; other well-known writers from the United Kingdom include the Bront sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne), Jane Austen, William Thackeray, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, John Milton, H. G. Wells, Charles Dickens, George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair), and J.K. Rowling. Important poets include Lord Byron, Robert Burns, Lord Tennyson and William Blake.

Notable composers from the United Kingdom have included William Byrd, John Taverner, William Lawes, John Dowland, Thomas Tallis, and Henry Purcell from the 16th and early 17th centuries, and, more recently, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Arthur Sullivan (most famous for working with librettist Sir W. S. Gilbert), Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten in the 19th and 20th. George Frideric Handel spent most of his composing life in England.

The BBC is the oldest and perhaps the most respected broadcasting network on the globe, with the BBC World Service radio channel and its news output held in particularly high regard. The other main television networks are ITV, Channel 4, Five. The main satellite broadcaster is Sky Television. Popular programmes in the UK include the three major soaps - EastEnders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Various British TV formats have been exported to other nations, such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, The Weakest Link and The Office.

The UK was, with the US, one of the two main contributors in the development of rock and roll, and the UK has provided some of the most famous rock stars, including The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, The Who, and many others. The UK was at the forefront of punk rock music in the 1970s with bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, and the subsequent rebirth of heavy metal with bands such as Motrhead and Iron Maiden. In the mid to late 1990s, the Britpop phenomenon saw bands such as Oasis, Blur, Radiohead and Coldplay gain international fame. The UK is also at the forefront of electronica, with British artists such as The Prodigy, Faithless, Aphex Twin, Nitin Sawhney and Lamb at the cutting edge. The United Kingdom is also associated with music from the Caribbean, with a large number of Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals being present in the UK. Recent rock bands to emerge as great talents are the Kaiser Chiefs (all ex-temporary teachers from Leeds), Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys.


A great number of major sports originated in the United Kingdom, including football, golf, cricket, rugby, tennis and boxing.

The national sport of the UK is association football, but the UK does not compete as a nation in any major football tournament. Instead, the home nations compete individually as England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is because of this unique four-team arrangement that the UK currently does not compete in football events at the Olympic Games. However, a united team will probably take part in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, as these are hosted in London. The English and Northern Irish football associations have confirmed participation in this team while the Scottish FA and the Welsh FA have declined to participate.

The UK also hosts many world-renowned football clubs, such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in England and Rangers and Celtic in Scotland. Clubs compete in national leagues and competitions and some go on to compete in European competitions.

British teams are generally successful in European Competitions, including the following European Cup/UEFA Champions League winners: Liverpool (five times), Manchester United (twice), Nottingham Forest (twice), Aston Villa and Celtic.

Both forms of rugby are national sports. Rugby League originates from and is generally played in the North of England, whilst Rugby Union is played all over Britain. In Rugby League the UK plays as one nation - Great Britain - whilst in union it is represented by the four nations. England is the current holder of the Rugby Union World Cup. Every four years the British and Irish Lions (comprising the best players from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) tour other countries.

The Wimbledon Championships are international tennis events held in Wimbledon in south London every summer and are seen as the most prestigious of the tennis calendar.

Thoroughbred racing is also very popular in England. It originated under Charles II of England as the "Sport of Kings" - and is a royal pastime to this day. World-famous horse races include the Grand National and the Epsom Derby

Golf is one of the most popular participation sports played in the UK, and St Andrews in Scotland is the sport's home course. Cricket is also popular; although the popularity of the game is dramatically greater in England than the remainder of the UK, all four constituent nations as of 2006 compete at the One-Day International level - Scotland independently, Wales as part of the English team, and Northern Ireland as part of All-Ireland.

Gaelic football is the most popular sport in Northern Ireland with the counties of Tyrone and Armagh forming part of the 'Big Three' (along with Kerry).

The country is closely associated with motorsport. Many teams and drivers in Formula One and Rallying are based in the UK. The country also hosts legs of F1 and World Rallying Championship calendars and has its own Touring Car Racing championship, the BTCC.

Wikipedia contributors, 'United Kingdom', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 February 2006, 19:23 UTC, [4]

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