HOME | private-list | private-modify | © |
The Restoration and the Glorious Revolution
The Restoration went smoothly because of Charles' willingness to let bygones be bygones and his acceptance of Anglicanism despite his pro-Catholic sentiments. England was demilitarized on land except for a small standing army. Naval strength was another thing altogether and it was fostered to the fullest. Monck was instrumental in giving the navy priority and he himself participated in the naval wars with the Dutch in 1652-1654 and 1664-1667, which were for trading privileges and colonies. The third Dutch war (1672-1678) was mainly a land war between France and the Netherlands in which England sided with France, but the Dutch discounted the other side's advantages and England left the war in 1674.
Charles had unavailingly tried to save his father by offering his enemies a signed blank sheet of paper signifying agreement to all their terms. Given his experiences with Parliament, he had no illusions about getting anything from it aside from the fixed stipend that he was assigned.
It was during his reign that parliamentary and party politics began to take form with the pro-Stuart but especially pro-Anglican Tories on one side and the less exclusionary Whigs on the other. Both "tory" (a bandit in Ireland) and "whig" (raider or cattle-driver in Scotland) were insulting terms. The issues were how far to tolerate dissenters from Anglicanism and to exclude non-Anglicans from public positions including Parliament.
If only because he preferred toleration for Catholicism, Charles was in favor of non-exclusion. That Tories could reconcile their support for Charles with their extreme Anglicanism is only explicable from Charles' ability to dissemble.
Despite the mistrust he inspired in many of his subjects, Charles was uncontestably king of England when he died a convert to Catholicism. His brother and successor, James II (1685-1688), was another kettle of fish. He was a Catholic pure and simple and he did not bother dissimulating it.
James was a living paradox. He was the Catholic king of a nation which required that its functionaries should profess Anglicanism. He therefore could be barred from assuming the crown. England had bad memories of the last time it had overthrown a monarch. It accepted James II although he inaugurated his reign by offering religious tolerance and announcing that he would not refrain from advancing the interests of Catholicism.
Uncomfortable with the rights accorded to French Protestants, Louis XIV of France had revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685) arguing that all France was converted to Catholicism (a patent lie as thousands of Huguenots emigrated to England). Nothing could have been better calculated to inflame English opposition to Catholicism. This did not deter James who counted on legitimacy overcoming rebelliousness. But even the Tories were having problems with their commitment to the Stuart monarch.
When James fathered a son, it raised the feared likelihood that England would have another Catholic king and Protestant English lords cautiously invited William of Orange, husband to Mary Stuart, Protestant daughter of James II, to intervene in England. The Dutch stadholder invaded England with an army of 16,000 men. The English navy did nothing to oppose the invasion and James saw little gain in resisting. He sent his family to France, as his father had done at the start of the civil war, and when William was nearing London he himself fled throwing the royal seal into the Thames. He was captured before he could make his escape, but William wisely allowed him to depart (1688).
After the coronation of William (as William III) and Mary as joint rulers, legislation explicitly required that English kings should be Protestant and religious toleration was extended to dissenters. Catholics and Jews and some very unorthodox sects, such as the Unitarians, were barred. The privileges and rights that the Parliament had gained in its confrontations with the Stuarts were recognized and consolidated. This is what in English historiography is often referred to as the Glorious Revolution.
Louis attempted to restore James through an invasion of Ireland counting on Irish Catholic support. William took the field against James, who was defeated at the decisive battle of Boyne (1690), north of Dublin. It is this victory that is celebrated by Protestants in Northern Ireland with fife and drums, a patent case of music as casus belli. These events are the closest that Britain came to a religious war and, as in the prototypical Thirty Years War, repressions, hardly distinguishable from legal terrorism, were applied by both James and William. The latter had the last word and was entitled to harsher measures.
Mary died in 1694. William was succeeded by Mary's sister, childless Queen Anne (1702-1714). England and Scotland were joined by the Act of Union of 1707.
Britain's detachment from continental affairs changed when Louis accepted for his grandson, Philip of Anjou, the crown of Spain as bequeathed in the name of Charles II. This precipitated general hostilities, the War of Spanish Succession, during which most of the time France, Spain, and Bavaria were on one side and England, the Netherlands, and Austria were on the other.
The British had a military commandant of genius in John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Equally competent was Eugene of Savoy, one of Austria's most talented and experienced generals. Triumphant respectively in Flanders and northern Italy, Marlborough and Eugene joined forces in Bavaria and won the battle of Blenheim (1704). The British captured Gibraltar by sea. Leopold died and was succeeded by his son Joseph I (1705-1711).
In Ramillies Marlborough drove the French out of Flanders. Despite this string of Austro-British victories, France on the whole gave as good as it got. No sooner had Habsburg imperial troops evacuated Italy than France reoccupied Turin. Marlborough and Savoy captured Lille in France proper. At Malplaquet (1709), although the French gave ground, the English and imperial forces suffered such heavy casualties that their intended capture of Paris was contained.
When emperor Joseph I died, he was succeeded by emperor Charles VI (1711-1740), who was the Austrian claimant on the Spanish crown. The English, who disliked as much or more a Habsburg Empire including Spain as the de facto situation of a Bourbon Spanish monarch, sneaked out of the war. Negotiations began which concluded with the Peace of Utretch (1713).
Arrangements had been made for George of Hanover, descendant of James I Stuart, to succeed Queen Anne. Under George I (1714-1727) and especially his successor George II (1727-1760) the Whigs came to the fore in parliamentary politics. Having gotten over territorial expansionism in the continent during the Hundred Years War, England had two overriding foreign policy interests--reasons to make war--and they were: commerce and the balance of power in continental Europe.
Seven Years War
Although the post of prime minister did not become official until the early 20th century, Robert Walpole's political functions--mainly presiding the House of Commons and steering bills to approval--constituted the mould in which it was cast. As dynastic backbiting and squabbling in the continent posed no threat to Great Britain, Walpole, chief minister from 1721 to 1742, kept his country out of its affairs.
Elections in England at the time were restricted by high property qualifications: to the value of 600 pounds in the countryside and of 300 pounds in the boroughs, which then were considerable sums. There existed what were known as "rotten boroughs", small or even non-existent constituencies which could be bought, a practice at which Walpole was past master.
Walpole was succeeded by Henry Pelham (1743-1754). During the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which was about the crown of the Holy Roman Empire and Prussian expansion into Silesia, Great Britain entered the war on the Austrian side mainly because the French and the Spanish were allies of Frederick II of Prussia.
In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charles (grandson of James II), gathered a Scots army and invaded England as far as Derby, but as there did not arise a movement of support for him, he retreated and was defeated at Culloden (1746).
British naval power strengthened apace with its commercial boldness, historical trends which were thoroughly demonstrated in the advantageous results of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). In Europe, the war started with the Prussian invasion of Saxony, which was one of the major states in the Holy Roman Empire. Overseas, which is where their interests lay, the British were having a sensational string of victories.
In India, French diplomacy more than arms had gained for them the coast of Coromandel (southeastern India), but the British East India Company was strong in Bengal. The incompetent nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud Daula, sacked Calcutta. He cast British captives in a small cell--over one hundred asphyxiated--but he did not have a strong grip on his own state. The British bribed some conspirators and the small company army defeated much larger native forces at Plassey (Palasi) by simply holding its ground (1757). The East India Company, reinforced with regular British troops and supported by British naval superiority, then defeated the French near Pondicherry (1760). The French were reduced to their enclaves of Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, and Mahé, from where later they had to witness impotently the British subjugation of India and surrounding countries.
In North America, the Anglo-French conflict consisted principally in a war of positions. New France and Louisiana were sparsely settled and the advantage should have been with the much more populous British colonies, for whom French expansion was of greater concern than it was to the colonial metropolis. However, the French were maneuvering expertly and they were on better terms with some tribes, aside from the general fact that Amerindians were the English colonists natural enemies.
The French built Fort Duquesne on the site of modern Pittsburg. When the British, among whom George Washington had an officer's rank, undertook an action against the French, they were repulsed (1755). These hostilities are what is known as the French and Indian War in a strict sense.
The British were facing the talented Louis Joseph de Montcalm, who was finally cornered in Quebec. British forces climbed cliffs over the St. Lawrence River at night and in the morning were ranged before the city on the Plains of Abraham. What ensued was classic regimental combat with lines of troops advancing against each other, pausing to fire and reload while other lines marched forward, and so on. Both Montcalm and James Wolfe, the young British commandant, were killed but the French ranks broke and Quebec was in British hands (1759). The British navy was dominant in both Indian and West Indian waters. The British, in sum, had obtained their main strategic objectives.
The architect of victory, the Great Commoner in his time although nowadays most often listed in reference works by his title of Earl of Chatham, William Pitt (1756-1761), was disliked by king George II. The latter's grandson and successor, king George III (1760-1820), was an accomplice to the political maneuvers that led to Pitt's resignation.
The Whigs were Hanoverian by definition but they were also unscrupulous in their political tactics. Under George III, the Whig-Tory scission over dynastic loyalties was blurred, but Tories, in the sense of traditionalists, gained in political influence. These developments resulted in Britain's disengagement from the war on the continent. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 closed the war between England and the "family compact" of France and Spain. Before the war ended, France had transferred the province of Louisiana to Spain, but it had to cede all claims east of the Mississippi. Chatham returned to power in 1766, but by then he was prey to fits of depression and was not politically effective.
The Industrial Revolution and the War of American Independence
The importance of the Seven Years War is easily eclipsed by the acceleration of another process, in itself a peaceful process, although it had been and would continue to be the indirect or partial cause of international rivalries and conflicts. It is usually called the Industrial Revolution.
As on any important historical issue, there are diverse schools of thought on the subject, but on the whole there are those who would circumscribe it to Great Britain--even identifying Iron Bridge (former Coalbrookdale) in Shropshire as the place where the process first took specific form--and those who feel more comfortable seeking its roots in Europe as a whole, including also very specific manifestations such as the Champagne fairs, Italian commercial and banking practices, the Flemish cloth industry, the exploitation of iron mines in Sweden and coal mines in Germany and Poland, and so on, almost one could say indefinitely, not excluding the politics of Europe, the pioneering maritime role of Portugal, and the contentious, vexed issue of the slave trade.
That Iron Bridge was built in 1779 by Abraham Darby III, grandson of the first Abraham Darby, who first smelted iron with coke, bolsters the British case. It is also true that what made factories feasible away from hydraulic energy sources was the invention of the steam engine by the Englishman James Watt (1769), as that it was in England that urbanization became a generalized, large-scale, purely economic phenomenon, as well as that economic indices characteristic of industrialized societies first became apparent in Great Britain. The population of England from 1750 to 1850, for instance, shot up from six million to 18 million where as in France it went from 24 million to 36 million.
But it isn't possible to disengage Britain from all the economic processes that embraced the rest of Europe. It is one would think more historically accurate to ascribe the vanguard position in economic development the world over to western civilization without denying the crucial British contribution in the 18th century or even excluding that the Industrial Revolution might have taken place, given the appropriate circumstances, elsewhere than in Europe.
After sailing rough political waters, George III finally found in Lord North (1770-1782) a chief minister he felt he could work with. However, neither monarch nor minister were very effective in preventing the largest colonial loss suffered by any European power up to their time, if we except New France, which was only lightly populated by Europeans.
No colonial levies, except local volunteers, had participated in the fighting during the French and Indian War, whose results relieved the colonies of French military pressure. This was one of the reasons why the British tried to apply taxes to pay for colonial defense.
The American colonists were dissatisfied with the way they were governed from London without consultation. This colonial rejection coalesced in the Continental Congress, which deliberated from 1774 to 1789.
Independence was declared on 4 July 1776. Even before this, British troops and armed colonists had begun skirmishing in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1775. Boston was in a state of rebellion, which the British reduced in the battle of Bunker Hill. The British evacuated Boston in 1776 and set up headquarters in New York city under William Howe. A British invasion from Canada in October 1777 was stopped at Saratoga, New York, encouraging the French, still smarting from the Seven Years War, to back the Americans. Spain declared war on Britain in 1779.
When the French navy outfoxed the British and blockaded Chesapeake bay, Washington besieged the British in the Yorktown peninsula. Lord Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781. American independence was recognized by Great Britain in the treaty of Paris (1783). Spain recovered Florida and Minorca from the British--they had been lost in the Seven Years War--but it could not dislodge them from Gibraltar, which Great Britain considered crucial to control of the Mediterranean.
Napoleonic Wars and early-19th century politics
William Pitt the Younger, son of Chatham, and a man who lived for and only for politics, dominated Parliament from 1783 to his death in 1806, according to some historians from stress and overdrinking to counter the stress. India was placed under a Board of Control (1784), out of the British East India Company's hands, and the Canada Constitutional Act (1791) was passed, providing for self-rule through provincial parliaments.
British rule in Ireland was so harsh and so economically damaging--a particularly violent rebellion occurred in 1798--that even Irish protestants led opposition movements, which resulted in political union (1801), thus completing the territorial formation of Great Britain. Ireland gained a substantial representation in Parliament, but it was of the Anglo-Irish landowners rather than of the majority Catholic population, which was still without political rights in the kingdom at large.
It was Pitt also who had to face the growing power of France in the continent. Britain participated in all the coalitions against Napoleonic France. Unlike Austria, Prussia, and Russia, it was never defeated on land, so it was in a permanent state of war with France from 1793 to 1815, except for the brief Peace of Amiens (1802-1803).
At sea, the British navy, commanded by Horatio Nelson, crushed all opposition in the battles of Aboukir or the Nile (1798), Copenhagen (1801), and Trafalgar (1805). Britain bolstered occupied Portugal and Spain (1811-1812) and Arthur Wellesley, future duke of Wellington, led the Peninsular Campaign to victory at Vitoria (1813), in northeastern Spain. The final defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1815) was a triumph for the British dogged adherence to the principle of the balance of power.
With the death of Pitt and the madness of George III (1810), Britain went through a period of political instability--although it did not hamper the costliest war effort up to that time in history--until the ascendancy of the Earl of Liverpool (1812-1827), who passed the 1815 Corn Law subsidizing landowners and making bread unnecessarily expensive. There were food riots in 1816, 1817, and 1819. The latter occurred in Manchester. Their repression is known as the Peterloo (a parody of Waterloo) Massacre.
George III died in 1820 and was succeeded by his son George IV, who had been acting as regent for the previous ten years. Foreign secretary George Canning extended recognition to the Latin American republics in 1824.
As popular discontent continued, the Duke Wellington became chief minister briefly but authoritatively (1828-1830), although he was sensitive to Irish grievances and Catholic emancipation in Britain was approved (1829). In Ireland itself most legal restrictions on Catholics had been dropped during the second half of the 18th century.
George IV was succeeded by his brother William IV (1830-1837). Earl Grey, a Whig, became chief minister (1830-1834) and steered through Parliament a Reform Bill (1832) that expanded the electorate to about 700,000 persons through lower property qualifications. He also obtained approval for a Poor Law, the first national social legislation in British history, although the relief it offered was barely above subsistence on the premise that unemployment was due to indolence. The first railroad was built between Manchester and Liverpool (1830).
Sir Robert Peel, one of the most widely admired British politicians of all times, was elected prime minister in 1834-1835 as a Tory and from 1841 to 1846 as a Conservative (same as Tory but more respectably ideological). Before these ministries, as home secretary under Wellington, he had founded in 1829 the London police department (Scotland Yard), whose agents became known as Peelers or Bobbies. Peel also steered through Parliament the law on Catholic emancipation.
The more respectable Conservative appellation grew out of a speech Peel had made in 1834, known as the "Tamworth Manifesto", in which, from a traditionalist perspective, he admitted the necessity for political reforms. It became the programmatic cornerstone for the Conservative Party.
During Viscount Melbourne's time in office (1835-1841), queen Victoria ascended the throne (1837). In 1838 Chartism, committed to universal suffrage, was launched. The agitation against the corn laws and for political reforms was led by Richard Cobden and John Bright.
Master at sea and unchallengeable in Europe, Great Britain during the 19th century concentrated on its colonial empire which it made into the largest in history. The first Opium War (1839-1842) was waged against China.
In his second ministry, Peel repealed the corn laws, which were sacrosanct to Tory landowners, and he strengthened the Bank of England. The repeal of the corn laws was partly influenced by the Irish famine (1845-1849) caused by the potato blight. Peel was divisive among Tories, but his views appealed even to a transitional Whig such as William Gladstone. Peel quit in 1848 and died in 1850 in a horse-riding accident.
Disraeli and Gladstone
Lord John Russell (1848-1852) was in power as a Liberal (anti-tariffs and pro-reform). Reaping the rewards for being the first country to industrialize, Great Britain became the richest nation in the world. It flaunted its achievements and prosperity in the Exhibition of 1851 held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, the first of many international expositions to come in developed countries. (Removed to Sydenham, the Crystal Palace was demolished by the British themselves during the Battle of Britain because the Germans were using it as a reference point for their bombing raids. It was rebuilt after the war.)
Under the Conservative Earl of Aberdeen (1852-1855), the Crimean war (1853-1856) was the only European conflict Britain engaged in and that was in part to tell the Russians not to even think about approaching British India. Viscount Palmerston (1855-1858) was an energetic if erratic chief minister, especially in foreign affairs, and has as many defenders as detractors. He imposed himself through his personality rather than through party affiliation. He approved the Second Opium War (1856-1860), by which China was forced to accept western terms, as well as the ferocious repression of the Sepoy rebellion in India (1857-1858). Palmerston was in power a second time from 1859 to 1865.
The Conservative Earl of Derby, who had been chief minister in 1852, filled the interlude (1858-1859) between the two Palmerston cabinets. The Liberal Earl Russell (1865-1866) followed Palmerston and was followed by the last Derby ministry (1866-1868), in which the dandified, provocative, and brilliant Benjamin Disraeli, future Earl of Beaconsfield, was the parliamentarian kingpin who maneuvered through the Reform Bill of 1867 by which workingmen finally obtained the vote.
Disraeli, whose Jewish father had him baptized in 1817, went up when Derby stepped down but the electoral reform he passed favored the Liberal Gladstone (1868-1874). British politics were to be dominated by the rivalry (though not enmity) between Disraeli and Gladstone until Disraeli's exit in 1880. Gladstone went on into the 1890s.
In his first government Gladstone legalized unions and took an interest in the Irish question (land tenure and home rule) but did nothing much about it. Disraeli (1874-1880), who was originally opposed to Peel but had long since come around to a position not dissimilar to that of the Liberals, carried reforms further, but especially he became the personification itself of imperialism, a noticeable difference with Gladstone who did not oppose but tended to discourage imperialist ventures.
Under Disraeli the British government gained control of the Suez Canal by buying the shares of the bankrupt Egyptian monarchy (1875) and Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India (1876). Disraeli also opposed Russia's invasion of the Balkans and supported the Congress of Berlin (1878) in which the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck negotiated a settlement which protected the Ottoman Empire (but actually put a slow fuse on the Balkan powder keg).
Gladstone obtained a new majority (1880-1885) during which suffrage was extended to allow farm workers to vote. Despite his anti-imperialism, Gladstone allowed the occupation of Egypt in 1882 to safeguard the Suez Canal, although his delay in going to the aid of Charles Gordon, besieged by the Mahdi in Khartoum, did not make him popular among imperialists, who counted with the support of the general public including workingmen.
Gladstone sponsored an Irish land law to benefit tenants, which didn't make any one happy. This led to complex political maneuvering whereby Charles Stewart Parnell, who controlled a decisive bloc of Irish votes in Parliament, first backed the Conservative Marquess of Salisbury (1885-1886) and when the latter made it clear he was against Irish home rule, Parnell switched support to Gladstone (1886), who had been converted to the Irish cause. In the following election, the voters chose Salisbury (1886-1892) over Gladstone, particularly because the Liberal vote was divided between the Gladstonians and the Liberal Unionists, led by Joseph Chamberlain, who were against home rule. Great Britain was so powerful economically that its merchant marine tonnage was greater than that of all other nations combined.
Gladstone formed his last cabinet (1892-1894) when he was 83 years old and despite opposition within his own party he managed to have the House of Commons approve a Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which was promptly thrown out by the House of Lords in its political swan song. The Liberal Earl of Rosebery succeeded Gladstone until the Liberal Unionists backed Salisbury (1895-1902).
The Boer War, which was provoked basically by naked British imperialism against the Orange Free State and Transvaal, began in 1899. It took Great Britain four years and 22,000 casualties to pacify South Africa.
The Labour Party was founded under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald in 1900. Queen Victoria died in 1901 and was succeeded by her sybaritic, very pro-French son Edward VII. Salisbury ceded his place to his nephew Arthur Balfour (1902-1905).
The Liberals came back in a big electoral victory, their last, with Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908), under whom David Lloyd-George and Winston Churchil (a Liberal then) enacted social legislation. Britain's wealth was spread in the form of investments the world over and the country's foreign accounts were favorable through returns on capital.
When Campbell-Bannerman retired, Herbert Asquith took his place as prime minister (1908-1915). Edward VII died and was succeeded by his son George V (1910-1936). In 1909 a budget contemplating greater social spending was thrown out by the Lords, thus sparking a national controversy that concluded when the Commons passed a law in 1911 stripping the Lords of their veto power although it expressly accorded them the right to modify bills.
The matter of the House of Lords' subservience to the popular will was considered settled. What was not settled was the question of home rule for Ireland, where Sinn Fein, uncompromisingly pro-independence, had completely superseded the old Irish Nationalist Party. When the British government was still hesitating about the matter, World War I put a momentary end to the debate.
Before the war, France's alliance with Russia was designed to play on German fears of a two-front war. Great Britain gauged the continental situation and concluded that France was weaker than Germany, which was the reason behind the Entente Cordiale (1904), the first alliance between the two countries. Subsequently, this initial understanding became the cornerstone of their European policies until it was replaced by the multinational North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949.
The Great War and the 1939-1945 War
In June 1914, a Serb fanatic assassinated the crown prince of Austria-Hungary archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a mostly Serb territory which the Austrians occupied in 1908. Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with impossible conditions which Serbia, with Russian backing, did not accept. On 28 July, Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany declared war on Russia on 1 August and on France 3 August. Germany quickly overran Belgium and Luxembourg. Great Britain entered the war and manned the northern front, west of Belgium. George V renounced his ancient German title (Coburg-Gotha-Saalfeld) and adopted the name of the British castle of Windsor.
Germany came close to Paris in the first battle of the Marne but it opened flanks in its advancing line, which the French, with British support, attacked. The Germans next had to contain a British offensive in the first battle of Ypres (Bloody Wipers), repeated in 1915, this time with the Germans using gas (later used by all the contenders). Italy entered the war on the side of the Allies, but British, Australian, and New Zealand troops suffered a stinging setback when they landed in the Gallipoli peninsula (northern side of the Dardanelles), where through inaction they were contained and routed by the Turks commanding the heights. In 1916, a great German onslaught was stopped around Verdun and the Allies counterattacked along the Somme river, where the British were the first to use tanks.
Asquith had formed a coalition government at the start of the war. A conscription law was voted in 1916. This was followed by the Easter uprising in Dublin against British rule, put down with summary executions. Criticism over the Somme offensive resulted in Asquith's resignation and his substitution by the pugnacious Lloyd George.
In April 1917 the United States entered the war, but Russia, following a hopeless offensive, was out of the war after the October Revolution. In April 1918 the Allies unified the command structure under French marshal Ferdinand Foch, although the national commanders, marshal Douglas Haig on the British line, retained direct control of their forces. The Germans launched the second battle of the Marne, but by August they had gained little ground and instead were left fighting alone with the defeat of Austria and the loss of Balkan allies. Germany surrendered on 11 November 1918.
The Liberal Party was divided along strictly personal lines between Asquith and Lloyd George. In elections in December, the Liberals were bested globally by the Conservatives (although they had agreed to cede to each other many constituencies) and the Asquith wing was even beaten by Labour. Lloyd George stayed on as head of a coalition, which was in fact a conservative government.
As a consequence of the war, Great Britain gained mandates in Africa and the Near East and the European balance of power seemed re-established in the Paris Peace Conference (1918-1920). The British Colonial Empire attained its greatest extension. But in 1919 Ireland was in a state of national insurrection. In 1920, Great Britain granted Northern Ireland (Ulster) a parliament (Stormont). An agreement was signed in 1922 creating the Irish Free State with all of Ireland except Ulster.
Lloyd George was removed from power by the Conservative Andrew Bonar Law (1922-1923), who, because of illness, handed power to Stanley Baldwin (1923-1924). Labour obtained a plurality in 1924 and Ramsay MacDonald formed a cabinet, which fell before the year was out because of a barrage of accusations about a soft attitude towards Soviet Russia.
Baldwin (1924-1929) obtained a majority. MacDonald had the bad luck of winning precisely the year that the world fell into the Great Depression. He did not have an over-all majority and he had to form a coalition with Conservative backing (1929-1931). This was probably too much for his electoral base and in 1931 Labour was almost wiped out. MacDonald was kept on by the Conservatives until Baldwin asked him to hand over the reins (1935).
Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and inaugurated an aggressive policy of re-armament and annexations. The French did not contain him when he occupied the Rhineland (1936). The Conservatives won the last elections before 1945 and Baldwin formed another cabinet (1935-1937).
When king George V died, his son Edward VIII (future Duke of Windsor) was told by Baldwin that he either gave up his American flame, the divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson, or he abdicated. Edward chose to abdicate and his brother became George VI (1936-1952).
Baldwin resigned and Neville Chamberlain relayed him (1937-1940). It is now common knowledge that even though Chamberlain was an appeaser of Hitler he did not neglect Britain's armed forces. The fact remains that he did, in 1938 at Munich, despite insistent warnings from the USSR and much French fretting, authorize Hitler to absorb the Sudetenland. When in March 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain knew that appeasement had failed and he said so publicly. Hitler then demanded the Danzig corridor from Poland and when the Poles refused--they had also refused to let Soviet troops enter their territory even as allies--he invaded on 1 September. The Second World War was on. As America was not yet in it, some British historians prefer to call it the 1939-1945 war.
Wishing to deny the British access to the eastern coast of the North sea, Germany invaded Norway, and Denmark because it was obviously in the way, in 1940. Hitler didn't even think of crossing the Swedes, who were armed to the teeth. Besides Sweden permitted German troop movements across their territory and was perfectly willing to trade on the purest formal terms. Chamberlain was blamed for the Scandinavian reverse and Parliament chose Churchill, who as first lord of the admiralty was to blame for it if any one was, to succeed him at the head of a coalition government. The greatest threat to Great Britain in all its history came during the air Battle of Britain, in which the Royal Air Force (RAF) held its own despite nearly crippling losses of air bases from incessant attacks by the German Luftwaffe.
In 1941, Hitler turned against Russia, but the Germans were stopped before Moscow. After being attacked by Japan--allied to Germany and Italy in the tripartite Axis (1940)--the United States entered the war in December 1941.
The British defeated the German Afrika Korps in the battle of El Alamein (1942). The USSR proved impossible to subdue and turned the tide of the land war in Stalingrad (1942-1943). With the invasion of Normandy from Great Britain (1944), Germany was doomed. Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. Admiral Karl Dönitz, commander of the submarine fleet, succeeded him and Germany surrendered unconditionally on 8 May 1945.
Before the German Götterdamerung, Churchill was faced by the pressing demands of Labor for elections, which he asked be postponed until the end of the war. Labor got its way and won. Churchill was in the middle of the Potsdam Conference (July 1945) when Clement Attlee (1945-1951) came and took his place.
The first absolute Labour majority in Parliament is remembered for its nationalizations (of rundown railroads and industries) and its social legislation, among which the creation of the National Health Service takes pride of place. Also, it decided to let India go in 1947, but viceroy Lord Mountbatten went about it so hastily that he accepted the partition of India and Pakistan without any serious attempt at negotiation or compromise, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dead when millions of Muslims fled to Pakistan and a counterflow of Hindus went to India.
When Ireland became a republic in 1948, Northern Ireland remained attached to the crown. Great Britain gradually divested itself of its colonial empire, though to do so it had to face Jewish terrorism in Palestine and insurgencies in Malaya, Kenya, and other dependencies.
Great Britain became the staunchest ally of the United States in its Cold War confrontation with the USSR, beginning with the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948-1949. When communist North Korea invaded the south in 1950, Great Britain contributed a part of the UN forces (overwhelmingly American) which threw back the invaders and later opposed the Chinese armies that invaded the peninsula to save the neck of the defeated Korean communists.
Labour was defeated by the Conservatives and Churchill came back to power (1951-1955). Upon the death of her father, Elizabeth II became queen (1952). The aging process and, as in Pitt the Younger, the abuse of brandy, took their toll of Churchill's lucidity and he was substituted by Anthony Eden (1955-1957), whose government barely outlived the Suez Canal invasion (Egypt), an unnecessary adventure made a fiasco by the opposition of the American administration of Dwight Eisenhower (1956).
The Conservative Harold Macmillan (1957-1963) was as committed to social welfare as a coal-dusted miner. Great Britain was prosperous and fashionable. It declined an invitation to be a founding member of the European Economic Community or EEC (Treaty of Rome in 1957), and when in 1961 it applied for admittance French president Charles de Gaulle, resentful of wartime disdains, vetoed its entry.
Conservative rule lasted until Alec Douglas-Home (1963-1964). The economy was in trouble and the unions were getting more militant. Harold Wilson (1964-1970) was a moderate Laborist and so it was for him to serve as an example of how, on the British left, the unions led the politicians.
The Catholic minority in Ulster were discriminated and in 1969 the "provisional" wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went underground and initiated an armed struggle using largely terrorist tactics. Protestant loyalists followed suit and Northern Ireland gradually became a divided and warring society.
Edward Heath came to power (1970-1974) with the intention of taming rampant unionism, but he did not have sufficient grip to do it, although he did have an inspired pupil in Margaret Thatcher. Heath took Britain into the EEC (1972).
In face of the "troubles" in Ulster, which in terms of killed reached a peak in 1972 (497 deaths), Great Britain introduced direct rule and dissolved Stormont. Irish nationalist terrorism spread to Ireland and to England in the 1970s. To encourage inter-communal contacts, the Catholic Mairead Corrigan and the Protestant Betty Williams initiated a peace movement, which eventually did not succeed but earned them the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.
Wilson came back (1974-1976) and was succeeded by the also Laborite James Callaghan, under whom the British spent such a miserable winter (1978-1979) because of strikes and other labor disruptions that they elected Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) with a swingeing majority. There was finally a popular endorsement of anti-unionism.
In 1982, Argentina, under a military regime, invaded the Falklands and South Georgia, from where its forces were evicted by a large British task force with the support of the United States. When the coal miners led by Arthur Scargill struck in 1984, Thatcher hung on and forced them to return to work despite massive redundancies. With a hotel bomb, the IRA nearly killed the primer minister in Brighton. She remained unbowed but accepted consultations with Ireland in 1985. Thatcher was challenged for power, because of her pertinacious anti-EEC stand, and in 1990 stepped down.
John Major (1990-1997) took over and won an election. Negotiations over Northern Ireland progressed enough for the IRA to announce, through its spokesman Gerry Adams, an unilateral cease fire in 1994, suspended in 1996, reinstated in 1997.
The Labor Party had been hamstrung by its association with unionism, which even the moderate and eloquent Neil Kinnock could not dissipate in the 1980s, and it was only under Tony Blair, barely distinguishable from a Conservative, that Labor made a comeback with the highest landslide victory in British history (1997). The settlement for Ulster arrived at in 1998 (Good Friday Agreement) provides for an autonomous Northern Irish government attached to the United Kingdom and for consultative bodies linking Ulster and Ireland and Ireland and Great Britain. While they lasted, the so-called troubles in Northern Ireland caused 4,000 deaths, mostly of civilians, and somewhat more Catholics than Protestants. John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Labor Party in Ulster, and John Trimble, head of the Ulster Unionists, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1998).
Under Blair, the "special relationship" between Britain and the USA, reached a paroxysm, especially during the Second Iraqi War (2003), in which Blair made common cause with American president George W. Bush despite widespread and intense international opposition to the war before all diplomatic venues were exhausted (and there was an UN arms inspection team in Iraq).
There are indications that Britains' solidarity with American policies may be costing Blair, a conciliator by nature, more support than he envisaged. In polls, he is seen as having lied to the nation over the threat posed by Iraq. The dilemma facing British voters is that Blair represents Labor and the alternative to Labor is the Conservative Party, which was with Blair all the way in the Iraq war.