History of the United Kingdom
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Overview
- 3 Prehistory
- 4 The Celts (c. 600 BC-49 AD)
- 5 The Romans (49-410)
- 6 The Anglo-Saxon period (5th century - 1066)
- 7 The Normans (1066-1154)
- 8 The Plantagenets (1154-1485)
- 9 The Tudors (1485-1603)
- 10 The Stuarts (1603-1714)
- 11 The Hanoverian period (1714-1914)
- 12 The First World War (1914-1918)
- 13 The inter-war years (1918-1939)
- 14 The Second World War (1939-1945)
- 15 The post-war 20th century
- 16 The 21st century
- 17 Notes and references
The History of the United Kingdom, as presented in this article, is an account of some of the happenings that have contributed to the creation of the country now known as the United Kingdom.
Use of the term British
This article was originally entitled "Britain, history", using the customary way of referring to what is more formally defined as "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". That usage does not imply the exclusion of Northern Ireland, and no such exclusion is intended by its adoption in this article.
Separate articles are available on the history of Scotland and the history of Ireland. and the only events in those countries that are referred to in this article are those that contributed directly to the creation of the United Kingdom.
Summary and detail
This page contains a broad summary of developments, rather than a detailed sequence of events. The timelines subpage takes a different approach by listing those events that are usually considered to have been influential, with links to more detailed information.
Except where otherwise indicated, the sources that are drawn upon are the series of volumes published under the collective title The Oxford History of England, the series of volumes entitled The Pelican History of England, and the volume entitled The History Today Companion to British History, which are listed on the bibliography subpage.
The British people have acquired a genetic inheritance from immigrants beginning as long ago as the Iron Age, including Celts, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans, and many others. Despite that intermingling of genes, they appear to have have retained a substantial genetic influence from their iron age ancestors. That is the conclusion that has been drawn from the establishment in 1996 of a close match between the DNA of a nine-thousand-year-old skeleton that had been found in a Cheddar cave' and the DNA of a modern resident of a nearby village . It had long been believed that Saxon and other immigrants behaved largely as invaders, driving the Celtic inhabitants out of central England to form the bulk of the population of what was termed the "Celtic fringe", but recent genetic experiments have produced results that challenge that belief. It was found that between 50% and 75% of those tested in parts of southern England were directly descended from Celts, and that the proportion of people with Celtic ancestry was much the same in England as in Scotlandd.
An early cultural inheritance came from the Celts of central Europe and a further contribution came when missionaries established monasteries in British Isles. Little cultural progress was made during the five centuries of Anglo-Saxon rule, however, and the technological knowledge that was lost when the Romans left was only slowly regained. Intellectual thought was dominated for several centuries by a religious establishment concerned mainly with the preservation of orthodoxy, and it was not until the Renaissance that inductive modes of reasoning became acceptable.
The British constitutional inheritance has been the outcome of an intermittent progression from an unruly conglomeration of uncoordinated kingships into an orderly democratic nation. A transition from autocracy to constitutional monarchy happened by the transfer of power to deliberative assemblies (ranging from the elite Saxon Witenagemot, to the popularly elected parliaments of the twentieth century) in discrete steps that included the Magna Carta of 1215, the Bill of Rights of 1688, the Reform Act of 1867, and the Representation of the People Act of 1928.
The dissolution of the rigid hierarchical structure of rights and obligations of the feudal system happened at an earlier stage in Britain than in other European countries and the resulting increase in labour mobility made possible the earlier development of the Industrial Revolution - and gave it a decisive, although temporary, economic advantage. As a result it was for a time, the world's richest and most powerful country. It acquired and then lost responsibility for managing the world's financial system, and for ruling an Empire of almost a quarter of the world's population.
The oldest human remains that have been found in the British Isles have been carbon-dated as being up to 10,000 years old, and the DNA of a skeleton found in a Cheddar cave has been found to be a close match of a modern dweller in the same area. Since the separation of the British Isles from the continental landmass did not occur until about 6000 BC, it would be wrong to refer to "Cheddar Man" as British, but the survival of his DNA, despite the subsequent intrusions of conquerors and migrants has been cited in defence of the relevance of ancient history to current affairs.
The main evidence of prehistoric communal activity concerns the "Beaker People" of the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC - named after their distinctive ware pottery. The Beaker People kept livestock and cultivated flax and cereals, used woven fabrics and practised archery. The wide diffusion of the pottery discoveries suggests that they were a mobile and energetic people, and their grave goods indicate fairly extensive trading activities. However, the scores of megaliths that are to be found scattered throughout Britain and Ireland provide the most visible evidence of the achievements of that period. The evidence of Stonehenge suggests that some of the inhabitants were accomplished civil engineers, and that some had acquired or developed some knowledge of astronomy. The technology that they used is not known - although Bernard Cornwell has provided a plausible fictional account of how they might have solved the problem.
The Celts (c. 600 BC-49 AD)
The history of Celtic-speaking people in the British Isles is limited by a lack of textual evidence about the period (despite the richness of the Celtic mythology), but it is clear from the archeological evidence that they too were far from primitive. "Ogham inscriptions" on surviving stone artifacts prove that they used an alphabetic language that modern linguists have been able to decipher, and historians tend to conclude that a Celtic aversion to textual recording must have been the reason for the lack of other textual evidence. The Celts are believed to have been migrants from central Europe because of their common cultural characteristics, including related languages and similar artifacts. They were all users of metal ploughs and various forms of wheeled transport. Despite the existence of those common cultural characteristics, there is no evidence to suggest that there was any coordination of their activities, or that any Celt thought of himself as a member of any organisation larger than his own tribe. However, those that settled in Britain and Ireland came to be categorised into two linguistic groupings - the Goidelic group including Irish, Manx and Scottish; and the Brythonic group including Breton, Welsh and Cornish - or, more precisely, those were the languages into which they gradually evolved. Such of those languages that have survived, or have been revived, constitute one category of the modern legacy from the Celtic migration. The various modern "Celtic Revival" organisations also lay claim to a range of cultural legacies - but some, such as Celtic music consist of developments occurring long after much of the Celtic isles gave way to Roman Britain.
The Romans (49-410)
The period of over a thousand years of Celtic domination was succeeded in parts of Britain by a very different period of about four hundred years of Roman occupation. Whereas the people that came to be known as Celts consisted of a large number of independent or loosely-associated tribes that occasionally coalesced into somewhat larger groupings, the Romans who invaded Britain were a closely coordinated, centrally-managed occupation force. Whereas the Celtic contribution had been largely cultural, the Roman contribution was largely technological and political. Although the culture of Rome and ancient Greece was to have a profound influence upon British culture, that did not happen as a result of the Roman occupation. Its major contributions at the time were the result of the occupiers' skills in political administration and civil engineering. The inhabitants of those parts of Britain that came completely under Roman control gained the benefits of living in a province of the Roman empire. Those benefits included the establishment and enforcement of a legal system, access to Greek and Roman culture, and the building in stone of villas, towns and roads. All freeborn Britons became Roman citizens, and there was eventually no meaningful distinction between being British and being Roman in that occupied region of the British Isles.
The practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire was a capital offence until the Edict of Milan in AD 313, but the martyrdom of St Alban is evidence that it was nevertheless practised in the British Isles. The recorded attendance of British bishops at the Council of Arles in AD 314 suggests the previous existence of a form of Christian church among the local population, and the adoption of Christianity as the Roman state religion in AD 391 must have helped it to spread.
Where there was not complete Roman control, Celtic society survived and developed along different lines. The Romans did not invade Ireland, they abandoned their early attempts to control what is now Scotland, and they achieved only partial control of England north of the river Trent. In Ireland, in particular there was unbroken development, up to the eleventh century invasions of the Vikings and the Normans, and to some extent beyond those events. In Ireland and in Scotland there was a progressive transition from a fragmented tribal structure into larger groupings that were eventual to lead to integrated national political structures.
The Anglo-Saxon period (5th century - 1066)
Celtic rule and Saxon invasions (c. 410 - c. 600)
After the sudden departure of the Romans, southern Britain lost nearly all traces of Roman culture. In the course of the following two centuries there was a major decline in the numbers able to read Latin, villas, towns and roads were - with only a few exceptions - gradually allowed to decay, and all stone-working skills were lost. Historians have been unable to ascertain the exact nature and extent of the authority exerted by Celtic rulers in the fifth century, but it is known that military and political control passed eventually to the relatively uncultured Saxons. They first arrived in large numbers as hired mercenaries in the middle of the fifth century to help the Celtic rulers defend against raids by Picts and Scots, although Germanic mercenaries of various kinds had been employed by the Romans for centuries. Total conquest was not immediate, however, but was delayed by successful resistance under Ambrosius and Arthur, as a result of which a decaying form of Roman culture survived in the western and northwestern parts of Britain for nearly two hundred years.
Many things remain unknown about the period. It is not known whether the British Christians attempted to convert the Saxon invaders; the historian Bede said that they did not, but his impartiality has been questioned. However, it seems safe to assume that Christian churches survived in the regions of Wales and Cornwall that the invaders did not reach, although their existence may have been unknown to the church officials in Rome. The most significant development, however, was the establishment of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, and the establishment of monasteries there, where they became centres of learning. Missionaries from the Irish monasteries later carried their religious beliefs and their learning to communities in Scotland and Northern England, and played a part in the conversion of the English Saxons to Christianity. That process was completed by the mission of Saint Augustine from Rome and the adoption of the Vatican's doctrines by the Saxon Christians.
During this period, the Scots had been raiding Britain, taking slaves and wives back to Ireland. The Scots also created the kingdom of Dal Riata which corresponds to present-day western Scotland and north-eastern Ulster. While the Scots lost the power struggle in Ireland to the rise of the O'Neills, they were eventually to form a united kingdom with the Picts in what is now Scotland.
The establishment of Anglo-Saxon England (c. 600 - c. 850)
The Anglo-Saxon settlement was consolidated into a varying number of independent kingdoms, including one, Bernicia/Northumbria, which straddled what is now the English-Scottish border. England as such was only unified by Alfred's successors.
The Viking raids and settlement (c. 850 - 950)
There followed a period of about two hundred years during which the name "England" was first adopted, and England was first united under a single ruler. It was also a period during which substantial numbers of Scandinavian settlers were added to the Saxon-influenced population of England, and during which Christianity eventually became the officially established religion. A major part in those transitions was played by the "Vikings" who were raiders from a variety of Scandinavian countries, and "Danes", who were settlers from a similar source who were supported by substantial military forces. At the beginning of the period, the invaders were bands of savage pagan marauders, and by its end - when they finally assumed control - they were civilised, mainly Christian, members of an established Scandinavian empire.
The earliest Viking attacks were upon the Irish ports of Dublin and Waterford, which became Viking settlements, from which the Vikings took part in Irish power-struggles. The invasions of Ireland ceased with the Viking defeat by High King Briain Boru in 1014, after which they remained as Irish subjects.
Among the Saxon natives of England, the dominant figure in the first half of the period was Alfred, King of Wessex. It was he who united the country's local leaders in combined resistance to the invaders, and who became England's first king. Alfred combined the qualities of scholar, educator, law-maker, administrator, military strategist and Christian leader. He gave England its first code of law, its first navy and its first well-organised army. His military successes enabled him to negotiate a partition of the country with the Danish leader, Guthrum, and to recapture London. After Alfred's death, his son Edward (reigned 899 - 925) and grandson Athelstan (reigned 925 - 939) continued to gain territory from the Danes, uniting for the first time in centuries the entire territory of what is now England under one king in 926.
Late Anglo-Saxon England (c. 950 - 1066)
Viking raids started again in the late tenth century. In 990/991 Danish raiders attacked in force, reconquered South-East England and eventually the whole country. The dominant figure of the tenth century was Cnut (or Canute), who ruled over an empire that included England, Jutland, Norway, Iceland and Greenland. Cnut's death in 1035 led to monarchical chaos that ultimately placed the Norman Duke William (William the Conqueror also known as William the Bastard) on England's throne. Since Cnut's son Harthacnut was absent from England and unable to claim the throne, England's earls chose Harold, who reigned until his death in 1040. Harthacnut was then accepted as king, but he died after barely two years on the throne in 1042. Turning decisively away from Scandinavian pretendents, the English crowned the Saxon Edward who ruled until his death in January 1066.
Upon Edward's death three men claimed the succession: Harold, Earl of Wessex, King Harald Hardrada of Norway, and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. William claimed that Harold had sworn an oath recognising the Norman duke as Edward's legal successor and, outraged by this breach of oath, he decided to invade England. Before he could do so, Harald Hardrada invaded the north of England; King Harold II met him and defeated him at Stamford Bridge. Within a few days, William landed near Hastings, and defeated and killed Harold.
The Normans (1066-1154)
Following the Norman invasion of England, the Normans revolutionised the governance of England mainly by adapting and extending existing institutions. Voluntary agreements under which land tenure was awarded in return for an oath of service to a lord were developed by the Normans into a hierarchical system of compulsory military service, under which the majority of people became serfs, or "villeins", each obliged to serve a lord, who, in turn, was obliged to serve the King by paying taxes and occasionally helping to raise an army. The taxation system was adapted by the introduction of a land tenure basis using survey information recorded in the Domesday Book, and by the introduction of systematic enforcement. Edward the Confessor's code of common law was extended by the use of what was to develop into the grand jury system. The concept of the King's peace was extended from its original reference to the protection of the king's house to cover the whole country and symbolised the adoption of crime prevention as a component of government policy. Progress in the development of governance was disrupted by the anarchy resulting from armed combat between claimants to the throne, but was resumed after the agreed succession to the throne by Henry Plantagenet.
Wales was divided into a border region known as the "Welsh Marches" which was under the control of barons who had taken separate oaths of allegiance to King, and a self-governing area which was under the control of native Welsh princes. Although it was nominally part of the kingdom of England, Wales did not become subject to English law and it was able largely to preserve a separate culture and language for several centuries after the Norman invasion.
A volatile relationship developed between Scotland and England. The English position that Scotland had become a part of the Kingdom of England as a result of the Treaty of Abernethy was often a matter of contention between them, but various members of the Scottish royal family attended the English royal court and became familiar with Norman culture and governance. As a result, a Norman-style feudal system was set up in Scotland and Norman noblemen were invited to become part of it. There followed three centuries during which raids, invasions and battles (known as Scotland's Wars of Independence), were interspersed with periods of peaceful trade and the interchange of culture and population.
The Plantagenets (1154-1485)
Neither the futile and immensely damaging "100 Years War" over the succession to the throne of France, nor the disruptive but relatively trivial "Wars of the Roses" over the succession to the English throne, had any significant effect in themselves upon the subsequent course of English history, but there were other developments that did. Principal among them were the changes to the constitution and to the mobility of labour, and the conquest of Ireland.
The system of serfdom under which peasants were forbidden to leave the villages of their parents' birth came gradually to an end in the course of Plantagenet period, not as a result of promises to abolish it to the rioters of the "Peasants' Revolt", nor by any subsequent legislation, but under pressure from popular demand and the disruptions to the labour force caused by the enormous population loss during the "Black Death".
Limited but significant steps toward the creation of a system of representative government were taken during the 13th century. The Magna Carta set up an independent assembly - later to be termed a "parliament" - that purported to serve the interests of the country, with powers of control over the conduct of government, and its initial membership of 25 barons was broadened by Simon de Monfort's Provisions of Oxford, by the constitution of the "Model Parliament" during the reign of Edward I, and subsequently by the 1429 Franchise Act which restricted voting in elections to freeholders of land worth more than 40 shillings. By the end of the Plantagenet era, the system had acquired the power to propose legislation and had divided into two houses, with the House of Commons assuming control over taxation.
The Magna Carta also contained a statement of civil rights which is held to be the founding principle of the English legal system, and to be one of the precursors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
English governance was strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, and its Canon Law enforced by the imposition of burning at the stake as a punishment for heresy. Expressions of dissent by William of Occam and John Wycliffe had little influence at the time, but a small underground movement of dissenters known as the "Lollards" somehow survived their designation as heretics.
The conquest of Ireland, that had started with an expedition organised by an English baron in collaboration with an exiled Irish king, was acknowledged by the submission of the Irish kings to the lordship of Henry II, and was given further formal expression when Prince John, Lord of Ireland, was designated King of England.
The Tudors (1485-1603)
England under the Tudors experienced major changes to its constitution, to the prosperity of its people, and to their outlook. The Tudor era completed its conversion from a collection of self-sufficient local communities into a nation with a well-established system of governance. There was a renewed growth in population and a substantial increase in both prosperity and poverty. There was also an upheaval of belief, intellectual enquiry and exploration, including a transition from the dominance of Roman Catholicism to the acceptance of other creeds and the transition from exclusively deductive modes of reasoning to the acceptance of the inductive method - as well as the undertaking of numerous voyages of discovery. Finally there was an increase in the importance of relations with its neighbours, and a number of attempts were made to incorporate Ireland, Scotland and Wales into a united British kingdom.
The status of Parliament was increased under the Tudors. The foundations for a limited system of representative government had been laid during the Plantagenet period and, in England at least, government under the Tudors came to be widely accepted as an instrument devoted mainly to the creation and preservation of social order. Tudor monarchs often made ruthless use of their power to rule by proclamation, but were nevertheless inclined to make use of parliament in support of claims to rule by consent and, although parliaments were mainly compliant, there was significant growth in the influence of the House of Commons over the creation and endorsement of legislation. The administration of law, although formally a royal prerogative, became the province of professional lawyers, exercising a significant degree of independence from the crown, and the practice of petitioning the king to remedy injustice developed into the legal system of "equity", operating alongside, and sometimes in conflict with the rapidly developing system of common law. Access to the law, which was traditionally confined to freemen, expanded rapidly with the disappearance of serfdom.
There was also substantial growth of the population and of the country's prosperity. Nearly all of the population was engaged in subsistence agriculture and cottage industry, but there were signs of the growing influence of small-scale industry and commerce. The principal manufactured products were textiles which were mostly the result of household activities, but there was also a growing output of other extracted or manufactured products such as coal and iron. On the commercial side, there were several companies of merchants who were promoting exports of English textiles to Europe and sponsoring voyages of exploration and the creation of settlements in America, and there were several joint stock companies financing those activities. The growing prosperity for some that was attributable to those activities was accompanied for others by unemployment and abject poverty. Their suffering has been attributed to bad harvests, land enclosures the dissolution of the monasteries and the ending of the paternalist protection afforded by the feudal system. The early Tudor reaction to the resulting roving bands of indigent "vagabonds", was "poor law" legislation for their restraint and punishment, but it changed towards the end of the period to the introduction of a national system of limited support for the "deserving poor". Notwithstanding the growth of the English economy under the Tudors, the corresponding increase in the welfare of its inhabitants is also considered to have been limited by the inflation attributed mainly to the debasement of the currency under Henry VIII.
The adoption of inductive methods of enquiry during the Tudor era provided the intellectual foundation for later scientific advances. The departure that took place from the hitherto exclusive employment of deduction from accepted axioms as a method of intellectual inquiry, was promoted in England by Francis Bacon - thought to have been inspired by the work of his Italian contemporary, Galileo - and subsequently set out in his tract on "The Advancement of Learning". Bacon's fantasy The New Atlantis contained an account of an imaginary institution that is said to have inspired the later creation of the Royal Society.
The break with Rome was probably the greatest upheaval of the Tudor era, and it was certainly a major cause of dissension for centuries to come. It caused demonstrations of mass protest at the time and was adamantly opposed by influential figures such as Thomas More, but was brought about with the assent of parliament and without sustained opposition in the country. Acceptance of the rejection of allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and the adoption of Anglicanism as the country's official religion has been attributed partly to the accessibility of the bible to the ordinary people and a revival among them of the Lollard movement, partly to an anti-clerical climate of opinion arising from a surge of protest against corrupt Church practices led by Martin Luther, partly to a nationalist aversion to interference by foreigners, and partly to the skillful presentation of his case by Henry VIII's spin-doctors.
England's foreign policy also underwent major changes. Whereas, before the break with Rome, Henry VIII was an enthusiastic supporter of the Pope and an ally of Spain in their campaigns against France, after the break with Rome it was the opposition of the Pope and the military threat from Spain that dominated policy thinking. There was also a major change in relations with Scotland. A Scottish policy of helping France by frontier raids brought it defeats so drastic as to prompt the suspension of the "Auld Alliance", and the subsequent rapprochement with England was facilitated by Scotland's break with Rome and by family relationships between the English and Scottish royal families. Towards the end of the Tudor era, successful negotiations between Elizabeth I of England and James VI of Scotland created an atmosphere of widespread acceptance of the prospect of union between the two countries. Similar acceptance in Ireland was not so widespread. English governance was limited a relatively small area, outside of which the country was united only to the extent of a shared resentment of English incursions. The English establishment developed no consistent Irish policy beyond the achievement of pacification of a hostile population to an extent sufficient to prevent the use of Ireland by the Catholic governments of Spain and France as a base for a military action against Protestant England. Henry encouraged the development of the Royal Navy into a professional force.
The Stuarts (1603-1714)
The Stuart era was a time of intellectual turmoil, involving challenges to traditional beliefs about politics, religion, and the nature of the physical universe. The spirit of scepticism about the legitimacy of authority that had been generated by the European reformation was further stimulated in England and Scotland by the power struggle between the Crown and Parliament. Resistance to the authoritarian rule and High Anglicanism of Charles I was strongest in Scotland, where it escalated into military defiance. This led to the king recalling the English parliament, which was soon controlled by those opposed to the king's religious and political policies. In the Civil War which ensued, the manpower and money of the City of London and other wealthy areas was decisive, and the Commonwealth was set up. This pursued an actively expansionist colonial policy. After the death of Cromwell dissatisfaction with the various factions led to the Restoration of Charles II. Nevertheless, by the end of the Stuart era a political consensus had emerged. There was, by then, a general acceptance of the previously contentious proposition that the legitimacy of government is conditional upon the consent of the governed. The formulation of that principle by John Locke in terms of the conditional relinquishment of individual freedom, provided a reassuring (post hoc) justification for the outcome of that power struggle. The transition to fully representative government was far from complete, however. The idea of rule by a representative body elected by universal (male} franchise, that had been vigorously mooted during the life of the Commonwealth, had been rejected as a threat to stability. Sovereignty had nevertheless passed - in principle, at least, from the Crown to a representative assembly, even if its electorate was confined to property-owners.
It was also a time of shifting religious beliefs. Among the sources of authority that were challenged was the Anglican Church of England, and a variety of non-conformist religious movements took hold during the Commonwealth period. The Presbyterians, who seemed to prevail at one point were almost as intolerant as the Anglicans, but in the end other protestant sects, including the Quakers were allowed to flourish. After the Restoration there was a brief period of penal laws targeting non-conformists (then called "dissenters") but after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, a steady move to tolerance of nonconformist forms of Protestant belief ensued. Roman Catholicism survived as a minority belief, except in Ireland and parts of Scotland, but Catholics were generally feared as possible foreign agents, were excluded from public office, and were often persecuted.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell has observed that, as a result of the scientific discoveries of the Stuart era "the outlook of educated men was transformed" and there was "a profound change in the conception of man's place in the universe". Among British contributions to that revolution were Isaac Newton's laws of motion, Harvey's discovery of the circulation of blood and Robert Boyle's chemical discoveries.
There were other changes that had more to do with economics than with the intellectual turmoil, the most of important of which was the creation of "The United Kingdom of Great Britain" by the passing - toward the end of the period - of the Acts of Union of 1706/7 between England and Scotland as a result of which the two countries were to be governed by the same parliament as well as the same monarch. In Scotland there was originally a wave of revulsion when the terms of the treaty became known, but in the end economic arguments, particularly on free trade, prevailed. In addition, there were colonial acquisitions in the West Indies and North America - including twelve of what were to be the original thirteen American colonies. Ireland had already accepted colonial status, and Wales had long been deemed to be a principality of England.
The Hanoverian period (1714-1914)
Among the major developments of political thought during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were an extension of the concept of human rights, and a rejection of the medieval concept of the state as a moral regulator of personal and commercial conduct - in favour of the laissez-faire concept, in which the only legitimate role of government is the preservation of order and the promotion of progress. Those two developments were promoted consecutively in Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" and in the two essays "On Liberty" and "Representative Government" by John Stuart Mill. The economic case for laissez-faire was developed analytically in the eighteenth century in Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations", was promoted politically in the nineteenth century by the economists of the "Manchester School", was given legislative expression by Robert Peel in the repeal of the Corn Laws, and political expression in a split in the Conservative Party and the formation of the Liberal Party. At the same time, a developing labour movement was finding intellectual expression ranging from Utopian socialism to communism, and popular expression in the campaigns of the Chartists and in the development of trade unions.
There was also an unprecedented growth of national prosperity, and the conversion, in the course of the industrial revolution, of a predominantly agrarian economy into "the workshop of the world". Improved engineering products, processes and designs were applied to cloth making, mining, steelmaking, railway construction and shipbuilding. The major productivity increases that then occurred have been attributed mainly to those innovations, and in particular to the development of the steam engine to the stage at which it could be used to power any machine. They were put to use in a factory system that was manned by migration from rural communities, and paid for by the investment of savings that had been generated by agricultural rents. The fact that industrialisation came first to Britain (a fact that has been attributed also to the social and economic circumstances of the time) accounts for the establishment of London as the world's leading financial centre; for the emergence of the pound sterling as its leading currency; and for the contribution of the Bank of England's management of the gold standard to international financial stability. By the end of the period, however, there were signs that the United Kingdom's commercial dominance was being eroded by changing economic circumstances and rapid industrialisation in Europe and America.
At the end of the 19th century the British Empire occupied 20 percent of the world's land area and contained 23 per cent of its population. During the previous 150 years the British possessions in colonial America were expanded and consolidated. Following the success of the French and Indian War, Canada in the north and the Thirteen Colonies on the eastern seaboard were ceded by France to Britain; and, following the American Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies were ceded to their inhabitants to form the United States of America. Later in the 19th century, Canada's self-governing status as a dominion of the British Empire was formally recognised. In the Far East, the East India company had been expanding its trade with India since its foundation in 1600, and had gained increasing military and administrative control there after the collapse of the Mughal empire and of France's departure following the Seven Years War. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857 those functions were transferred to the British crown, and Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. British settlements in Australia and New Zealand were consolidated to form colonies and then to become self-governing dominions. Acquisitions elsewhere in the Far East included Burma, Malaya, Singapore and New Guinea. In Africa, Cape Town was annexed in 1806 and British settlements in South Africa were extended eastward to form the colony of Natal and, following the Boer War, the Union of South Africa became a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Elsewhere in Africa, the United Kingdom occupied or annexed Egypt, the Sudan, and what are now Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and Malawi.
Notwithstanding its other achievements, the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century failed to achieve social harmony among its own people. In the words of Benjamin Disraeli there were: "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws ... THE RICH AND THE POOR". Among the working class majority, grinding poverty accompanied by exclusion from the political process generated bitterness and resentment, and among the rich minority there were fears that generous state relief of poverty would encourage indolence, and that if the uneducated poor were given the vote they would misuse it - possibly to destroy property rights. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, vigorous public demonstrations, combined with a growing acceptance of humanitarian liberalism, persuaded Parliament to introduce legislation that raised the proportion of adult males entitled to vote from about 25 per cent to about 60 per cent, followed by compulsory publicly-funded education and, in the pre-war twentieth century, by publicly-funded health and (limited) unemployment insurance.
The First World War (1914-1918)
The historian, A. J. P. Taylor has argued that before August 1914, the average Englishman could go through life hardly noticing the existence of the state, but that, from that date the history of the people merged with the history of the state. Five million British men joined the armed forces, and three quarters of a million of them were killed. For those at home, movement was restricted, conditions of work were prescribed, food was rationed, the press was censored, "daylight saving" was introduced, and licensing hours were reduced. Government policy was affecting everyday life as never before. Public expenditure rose in the course of the war from about 15 per cent of national income to over 70 percent (and it never fell below 30 per cent thereafter), and the domestically-financed national debt rose from 25 per cent to 130 per cent of national income. Having loaned about £1,800 million to its allies and borrowed £1,300 million from abroad, the United Kingdom never recovered its former status of international creditor.
The war also brought about changes in social relations. Attitudes to women were changed by the fact that two million of them took the place of the absent men; and among men, the social division of Disraeli's "two nations" was substantially eroded by shared experiences in the trenches. By the end of the war, the previous exclusion of women and of 40 per cent of men from the political process had become politically unthinkable.
The inter-war years (1918-1939)
Of the two major constitutional development of the inter-war years, one was the introduction of universal suffrage, which can be thought of as completing the evolution of the Westminster system of representative government. Post-war governments continued to use the wartime "cabinet" system, under which policy decisions were centred upon a body made up of selected heads of government departments and headed by a powerful "prime minister". A doctrine of "collective responsibility", under which cabinet members were expected to resign if they felt unable to support cabinet decisions, together with a system of party discipline maintained by parliamentary whips, ensured that the cabinet decisions of a government that had an assured parliamentary majority were seldom overturned. The other major constitutional development was the initiation of a process of transferring effective sovereignty to selected countries of the British Empire that were thereafter to be termed Dominions - initially as members of the Empire, and subsequently as members of the British Commonwealth. That process started in 1922 with the transfer of effective sovereignty to the Irish Free State following a bloody Irish War of Independence, and in 1931 it was applied to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa.
Among major political developments was the transition from a two-party to a three-party structure of parliamentary representation, following the pre-war birth of the Labour Party. People began to speak of a left-right spectrum of political opinion stretching from communism to fascism, in which the Labour Party stood to the left of centre, the Conservative Party to the right of centre, and the Liberal Party somewhere in between. There was also a spectrum of opinion within each party, but leading party members were usually dissuaded from airing their differences in public by traditions of party loyalty and party solidarity. As a result of the move for Home Rule which led to the creation of the Irish Free State, some shifting of political allegiance took place between Liberals and Conservatives.
But the developments that most affected the lives of the British people were mainly economic. There was a substantial growth in the gross domestic product between 1918 and 1939, but it was interrupted by two setbacks, during each of which there was a sharp rise of unemployment. The first setback occurred in 1920, and is thought to have been policy-generated. Budgetary policy in the aftermath of the war was directed at the reduction of the national debt, as a result of which there was an abrupt change from a strongly expansionary fiscal stance in 1918, to a strongly deflationary stance in the following two years, and there was severe recession during which the unemployment rate rose to over 11 per cent. Following the resumption of growth, and after the return to the gold standard at an uncompetitive rate in 1925, the second setback started in 1929, triggered by events in the United States and Germany. The economy suffered a "slump" (the term used in the United Kingdom to denote its share of the Great Depression) during which the unemployment rate reached 17 per cent. In 1931, the government was forced to leave the gold standard, after which the economy showed a steady recovery, although the unemployment rate did not fall below 10 per cent until 1937.
The great depression stimulated the study of the economy as an interactive system, and the development of the science of macroeconomics. A leading figure in that development was John Maynard Keynes. His attempts to influence the conduct of economic policy on both sides of the Atlantic were unsuccessful, but "Keynesianism" was to have a profound influence on the conduct of post-war governments. He was persuaded to join the Treasury at the beginning of the war, and his team there made a major contribution to the technology of economic statistics, and one of them, Richard Stone, has been credited with the founding of the system of national accounts that has since been adopted internationally.
The Second World War (1939-1945)
The Second World War was the first since the Norman invasions in which the continued existence of the British way of life was at stake. What appeared to be imminent defeat was only narrowly averted in the course of the Battle of Britain, and again during the Battle of the Atlantic. After the fall of France, it was evident to those who thought about it that there was little prospect of eventual victory without the active assistance of the United States; and Winston Churchill applied all his powers of persuasion to gaining that support. He took advantage of their friendship to urge Franklin Roosevelt to declare war on Germany, but Roosevelt had committed himself to keeping America out of the war, and an isolationist "America First" movement was having a powerful influence on American public opinion. Roosevelt nevertheless responded strongly by persuading the Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Act authorising him to supply desperately-needed military supplies. To Churchill's relief, however, the United Kingdom's isolation ended in 1941 when Germany attacked Russia, and declared war on the United States following Japan's Pearl Harbour attack. The UK's ability to raise the resources needed to continue the fight depended, however, upon massive external finance in the form of loans from America and the Commonwealth in addition to the proceeds of the sale of its overseas assets. The UK, the USA and the USSR became wartime allies, and a turning-point in their fortunes came in the following year with Allied victories in the Middle East, the Pacific and in Russia. Victory came three years later following an Anglo-American invasion of Europe, Germany's defeats on the Russian front, and Japan's submission as a result of America's Pacific victories and the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs.
The British people had a greater involvement in the Second World War than in any previous conflict. About 200 thousand of them were killed, 60 thousand of whom were civilians, and there was upheaval in every aspect of life. Not only were wives separated from husbands, but children were separated from their parents when they were evacuated from major cities. There was a massive disruption of the economy as resources were diverted from the export, construction and consumer industries into the war effort and the proportion of national income devoted to defence rose from 7 per cent to 54 per cent, and more than half of the working population went into the fighting forces, civil defence or war production. In the course of the war there was rationing of food, clothes and petrol, censorship, the direction of labour, the compulsory billeting on households of evacuee children and government employees, and the proportion of personal income that was taken in taxation had risen from 20 per cent to 30 percent.
Morale remained high despite the disruptions, and despite loss of sleep from the persistent nightly bombing of major cities. Men and women from all social groups and classes were brought together in factories, in the coal mines, on the farms, or on part-time "Home Guard", "Observer Corps", "Fire-watching" or "Women's Voluntary Service" duties, as well as in the armed services. From it all there emerged a spirit of egalitarian solidarity like nothing that ever existed in peacetime.
The post-war 20th century
After the victory celebrations, the mood of the British people was mainly of pride of achievement and optimism about the future. What they did not realise was that, although the war was over, paying for it was not. National debt had reached a record 240 per cent of GDP[] and almost £3 billion was owed to foreign investors. As the historian Corelli Barnett put it, the British public at the time had "the psychology of the victor, although their material circumstances approximated more to those of a loser".
Payment was not going to be easy. Some 25 per cent of the UK's pre-war assets had already gone in payment for the war; the export markets that it vacated during the war had been taken over by competitors; its income from investments abroad had fallen by half; and after a four-year cessation of investment, its domestic assets of housing and manufacturing machinery were in a run-down condition. When President Truman abruptly cancelled lease-lend payments, Keynes advised the Prime Minister that the country "is virtually bankrupt and the economic basis for the hope of the people non-existent". In the event, however, bankruptcy was averted by a United States loan of $3.75 billion repayable over 50 years with 2 per cent interest. The country's ability to pay for imports was nevertheless severely restricted. The economy had to move into a protracted regime of austerity, and food rationing continued until 1954. Payment in full was eventually achieved: overseas debts were gradually redeemed and the national debt was reduced from 240 per cent of GDP to below 50 per cent in the course of the next twenty years.
There was an uneventful transfer of people from wartime to peacetime production, and the standard of living of the British people began to grow more rapidly than in any previous period. In Northern Ireland in particular, the development rate of new housing exceeded all other regions of the British Isles, being around twice that of neighbouring Republic of Ireland for a population of half the size. Except for contractions during the world recessions of the mid-70s and early-80s, the economy continued to grow - at first at a slower rate than the OECD average with the result that the UK's prosperity (in terms of GDP/head) fell below those of France, Germany and Japan; but faster in the last decade of the century, to reach approximate parity with them in the early years of the 21st century. Several policies for the control of unemployment and inflation were adopted and abandoned. Early attempts to use fiscal policy to stabilise the economy are believed to have had a destabilising effect, and to have promoted inflation. Attempts to control inflation by pay restraint failed, and an attempt to control the money supply for that purpose resulted in an increase in the money supply. There were unprecedented surges of inflation and unemployment of 26 per cent and 11.5 per cent during the 1970s and 1980s but both were brought under control in the 1990s by a consensus policy of using monetary policy to regulate the amount of spare capacity in the economy.
A two-party electoral system developed in which neither party gained more than 50 per cent in parliamentary elections, but their outcome was never close enough to necessitate a coalition. Decision-making was concentrated on a cabinet system, and Parliament was seldom involved. As one Cabinet Minister described its part in budgetary decision-making: "before the (finance) Bill is published, they have little chance of being heard, and after it is published there is scarcely time to heed their advice". Intense secrecy surrounded the annual budget decision until the introduction of the "pre-budget report" in 1997. A consensus concerning many aspects of economic and social policy emerged in the 1960s after the passing of welfare state legislation, but collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s, to be regained in a different form in the 1990s. The introduction of competition policy was treated as uncontroversial, but there was frequent inter-party dissension over other aspects of industrial policy in the 1980s. All of the nationalisations of the 1940s and 1950s were reversed in the 1980s and even the utilities such as electricity, sewage disposal and water supply were "privatised", along with an extensive dismantling of regulations. Those changes were not reversed with a change of government, and the Labour Party's commitment to nationalisation was abandoned.
The 1960s was perceived as a boom, but the major components of this were the post-war increase in population (the "Baby Boom") and the huge export of British popular culture in music and fashion. The end of the 1960s saw the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and a subsequent economic decline in the region. A few years after the rise in street violence, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland resigned and the government was suspended indefinitely. The only region of the UK which had a devolved system of government thus came under the direct control of the British parliament, as with the other regions of the UK.
Major changes were made to the UK's relations with other countries. The granting of independence to its overseas possessions that started before the war was continued at an early stage with the departure of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, Malaya and Singapore, together with fifteen countries on the African continent - and the Irish Free State left the Commonwealth and became a republic. The United Kingdom became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation on its inception in 1949, joined the European Economic Community in 1973 and agreed to a major extension of its powers in the Single European Act of 1986, but did not adopt the European common currency when it was introduced in 1999.
There were also major changes to the UK's domestic constitution in respect of openness and decentralisation in the closing years of the 20th century. The traditional secrecy concerning the making of public appointments and the conduct of fiscal and monetary policy came to an end, and measures of devolution of decision-making to local assemblies were introduced for Scotland, Wales and re-introduced (with a coalition format) to Northern Ireland.
The 21st century
The first decade of the 21st century was eventful in several respects, but the event that most affected the people of the UK was the Great Recession. That event was the outcome of a chain of events that followed the bursting of a housing "bubble". The subprime mortgages crisis in the United States had triggered several bank failures, and the failure of one major United States bank had triggered the world wide financial panic that was known as the crash of 2008. A total breakdown of the British financial system was narrowly averted in 2008 and a threat of deflation receded in 2009, but in the meantime a "credit crunch" caused a sharp reduction in economic activity, and a rise in unemployment. The British economy was exceptionally vulnerable at the time because, although its national debt was modest by international standards, its household debt had reached a proportion of income that was unprecedented among major industrialised countries - and because of the importance to it of its financial sector. Falling profits and rising unemployment caused reductions in tax revenue and increases in benefit payments, and national debt rose to over 60 per cent of GDP, the highest percentage since the 240 per cent peak of 1945.
The other development that preoccupied the British people was the involvement of its armed forces in support of the United States in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War. The former was relatively uncontroversial at the time, but the latter was acutely unpopular with other European countries and with a large segment of domestic public opinion; and was to be the topic of a succession of public enquiries. One of the reasons for popular opposition to the country's involvement in the Iraq war, was the informality of the decision-making procedures involved. The former system of cabinet government, that had often been overridden by the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was all but abandoned by the Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his determination to support President Bush's "war on terror", and the overthrow of a tyrant appear to have prevailed in spite of opposition by many of his government colleagues.. Combat operations in Iraq ended in 2009 and are expected to end in Afghanistan in 2014.
In 2007 Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by the then Chancellor of Exchequer Gordon Brown. In the course of his premiership the majority of the British people came to believe that he had been to a large extent responsible for the severity of the recession and that he had brought about a major increase in the public debt. His popularity waned and his government was decisively defeated in the general election of 2010, to be replaced by a coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrat Party led by David Cameron.
Notes and references
- Stone age kin. (a Briton's relationship with a 9,000-year-old skeleton is established through mitochondrial DNA), Popular Science, June 1, 1997
- John Elliott and Tom Robbins: Genetic Survey Reveals Hidden Celts of England, The Sunday Times 06 December 2001
- RJO Hamblin: "The Geology of the English Channel", referred to in Norman Davis: The Isles, Macmillan 2000
- J.S. Cockburn, H.P.F. King, K.G.T. McDonnell (Editors): A History of the County of Middlesex., Volume 1 1969, British History Online.
- Stonehenge by The Megalithic Society
- Bernard Cornwell: Stonehenge, 2000 BC, Harper Collins, 1999
- Chris Scarre (ed) The Human Past, pp415-430, Thames & Hudson 2005
- The Silchester Excavations, The Insula IX Town Life Project
- Early Celtic or La Tène Art, British Museum 2009
- Wagons in Hallstatt Period: Its Technology and Use
- Norman Davies The Isles, Macmillan, 2000
- The Venerable Bede: The History of the English Church and People, 731, 
- David Debono: On how Reliable is Bede's Account of the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons
- F.N. Lee: King Alfred the Great and our Common Law
- Frank Stenton: Anglo-Saxon England,pp 681-683, The Oxford History of England. Oxford University Press, 1971
- A L Poole: Domesday Book to Magna Carta,The Oxford History of England. Oxford University Press, 1954
- G M Trevelyan: History of England, page 242, Longmans Green, 1942.
- Gwilym Dodd: The Birth of Parliament BBC July 2007
- Michael Nash: Crown, Woolsack and Mace: the model Parliament of 1295, Contemporary Review, Nov, 1995
- Code of Canon Law,(Prepared under the auspices of the Canon Law Society of America) Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1983
- English Dissenters - Lollards, Ex Libris Group, 2008
- The Auld Alliance - Scotland and France, BBC History online
- Tina Cockburn and Melinda Shirley: The Nature and History of Equity, Lawbook Company 2001
- John Clapham: A Concise Economic History of Britain: From the Earliest Times to 1750,Cambridge University Press, 1949 (for Questia members)
- Harriet Bradley: The Enclosures in England, Batoche Books Limited, 2001
- The Poor Law, The Elizabethan Era website
- Lewis Osborne: The Great Debasement, e-articles, July 2006
- Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning, 1605, (reproduced online by The Classic Literature Library)
- Henry VIII and his Foreign Policy, Feltonfleet History Dept,Oct 2006
- Mackie, J D. A History of Scotland. 2nd edition revised and edited by B Lenman and G Parker. Penguin Books. 1978. ch 11
- Firth, C H. Oliver Cromwell and the rule of the Puritans in England. 1934. ch 19
- See Bertrand Russell's summary in Chapter XIV of his History of Western Philosophy, Routledge, 1961
- Bertrand Russell: History of Western Philosophy, Chapter VI The Rise of Science, Routledge, 1961
- See Scotland, history
- Mackie, ch 14
- Thomas Paine: Rights of Man, first published 1791, republished by Oxford University Press 1995
- John Stuart Mill: On Liberty, first published 1859, online version from ebooks, University of Adelaide
- John Stuart Mill: Representative Government, first published 1861, online version from ebooks, University of Adelaide
- Adam Smith: The Wealth of Nations, first published 1776, online edition from Bibliomania
- William Dyer Grampp, The Manchester School of Economics, The Online Library of Liberty, 1960
- Robert Peel's speech on the repeal of the Corn Laws: January 22, 1846
- The Corn Laws, economicexpert.com
- Frederick Engels: "The Development of Utopian Socialism", in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, 1892
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Communist Manifesto, 1848
- Stephen Roberts: The Chartist Movement 1838 - 1848, BBC History, 2009
- The Union Makes us Strong, TUC History Online, London Metropolitan University
- Phyllis Deane: The First Industrial Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1978 (Google Books abstract)
- Arnold Toynbee: Lectures on The Industrial Revolution in England, 1884
- Robert C. Allen: The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2009 (reviewed in the Economist )
- Barry Eichengreen: Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939, Oxford University Press 1996 (Google Books abstract )
- Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, 1845, (republished by Penguin Classics, 1980)
- Llewellyn Woodward: The Age of Reform, pp 182 & 187, Oxford University Press, 1962
- A J P Taylor: English History 1914-1945, pp1-2, Oxford University Press, 1965
- Christopher Chantrill: UK National Debt As Percent Of GDP, ukpublicspending.co.uk, 2009 
- The Government, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Directgov (the British Government's public services website) 2009
- In nominal and ceremonial terms only, Commonwealth countries remained subjects of the British Crown
- See the article on fiscal policy
- See the articles on the Great Depression and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom
- See History of economic thought
- See the tutorials subpage of the article on the Great Depression paragraphs 1.3 and 2.
- Sir Richard Stone and the Development of National Economic Accounts, Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Survey of Current Business, March, 1992
- Francis L. Loewenheim, Harold D. Langley, Manfred Jonas (eds) Roosevelt and Churchill: Their Secret Wartime Correspondence, Saturday Review Press; E. P. Dutton, 1975.  (Questia members)
- I'll say it again and again. Your boys will never be sent to foreign wars", election campaign speech by Franklin Roosevelt, recalled in the War Memoirs of George Francis Stehney
- Isolationism, the PBS website 2009
- Speech by Charles Lindberg in April 1941
- Lend Lease Act, 11 March 1941, Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center
- Richard Titmuss: Problems of Social Policy, History of the Second World War, UK Civil Series, HMSO 1950
- Michael Postan: British War Production, History of the Second World War, UK Civil Series, HMSO 1952
- W Hancock and M Gowing British War Economy, p347, History of the Second World War, UK Civil Series, HMSO 1949
- Christopher Chantrill: UK National Debt As Percent Of GDP, ukpublicspending.co.uk, 2009 
- Corelli Barnet: The Lost Victory, Macmillan, 1995
- Statistical Material Presented During the Washington Negotiations, (UK Government White Paper,Cmd. 6706), HMSO 1945
- Richard Gardner: Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy: Anglo-American Collaboration in the Reconstruction of Multilateral Trade, Clarendon Press, 1956. (Questia members)
- R C O Matthews, C H Feinstein and J C Odling-Smee: British Economic Growth, 1856-1973,Clarendon Press, 1982
- New Comparison of GDP and Consumption Based on Purchasing Power Parities for the Year 2005,OECD,1977
- J C R Dow: Management of the British Economy 1945-1960,Cambridge University Press 1964
- Nick Gardner: Decade of Discontent, pages 205-207, Basil Blackwell, 1987
- Nick Gardner: Decade of Discontent, Chapter 6, Basil Blackwell, 1987
- See macroeconomics paragraph 3.3
- Charles Bean Is There a Consensus in Monetary Policy?
- David and Gareth Butler: Twentieth-Century British Political Facts, 1900-2000, Palgrave Macmillan, May 2000
- Geoffrey Howe:Reform of British Tax Machinery, British Tax Review, 1977
- The Pre-Budget Report, HM Treasury
- Devolution and Social Change, The Economic and Social Research Council, 2006
- GDP fell by 2.4 per cent between the 4th quarter of 2008 and the 1st quarter of 2009 
- To reach 7.8 per cent for the three months to June 2009,[
- The State of Public Finances: Outlook and Medium-Term Policies After the 2008 Crisis, International Monetary Fund, March 2009
- Economics Weekly, Lloyds TSB, 13 July 2009 
- Chirac: Iraq War has Made World More Dangerous, Guardian 17 November 2004
- British and Canadians Criticize Leaders for Following U.S. Lead, World Opinion, August 9, 2006
- Cook Quits over Iraq Crisis", BBC News 17 March, 2003