Lecture: 1960s to Now
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Domestic Government: PMs to 1979
Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964. His Labour Party ran the first "scientific" campaign in that it was tailored to the results of popular polls. Labour had promised a technological revolution, and government run by planners and professionals rather than aristocrats. The ultimate goal, of course, was economic growth. They won because the revival of the old Liberal Party (which was anti-socialist and anti-conservative) took votes away from the Tories.
The actual party system of Britain is most evident in this election; there have been many times in the 20th century when at least three parties vied for power. Americans have trouble understanding multiple parties, because we are stuck in a two-party struggle no matter how hard we try to make the system more democratic. Likewise, the Brits often have trouble understanding our system. In 1960, the comedy hit Beyond the Fringe summed it up. The first character said he was confused about American politics: what was the difference between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party? The other said, "The Republican Party is like our Conservative Party. The Democratic Party is like our Conservative Party."
Despite claims of scientific progress, Wilson had to deal with poverty and homelessness, overcrowded prisons, working-class kids who got out of school legally at the age of 15, demands for new laws on divorce and abortion, drugs, pollution, traffic, immigrants (from Pakistan, the West Indies, and India), crime, and the Ulster situation. In Ulster, the three-fifths Protestant population were excluding the two-fifths Catholic population from jobs, schools, and housing. Wilson's government tried to increase welfare, build more schools, and increase housing subsidies. As it did so, however, inflation increased.
The Tories, naturally, blamed Labour for the inflation, unemployment, labor strikes, etc. They promised lower taxes, increased exports, a lower deficit, and less inflation. They used tax cuts to increase people's savings, cut spending on the poor and education, and made a broad appeal to the middle class. They outlawed closed union shops, and limited strikes by enacting a 60-day "cool off" period in labor conflicts. They also supported Britain's entrance into the Common Market, and made a bid for the feminist cause. Edward Heath, the Conservative P.M., predicted in 1970 that the Tories would come to power because women were exercising the vote. But in 1973, international events ended their rule. The U.S. and Britain supported Israel's side against the Arabs in the Yom Kippur war. The Arab-controlled OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) embargoed oil to the west, and when shipments resumed the prices were very high. Inflation raged in the U.S., Europe, and areas dependent on the west for goods. This ended the Tory ministry.
Wilson returned, along with Callaghan of the Labour party, to face a proliferation of new parties between 1974 and 1979. The new parties included the Scottish Nationalists, Welsh Plaid Cymru, and the Ulster Nationalists. Such parties were the result of disillusionment with and exclusion from the national system. The government did, however, experience some success. Government-supported science helped achieve the first "test-tube baby", Louise Brown, born in 1978. The economy also improved, because of new government-union contracts, government aid to industry, and the discovery of oil in the North Sea. North Sea Oil made Britain once again an exporter of the product everyone needed, and made her less dependent on foreign oil.
Thatcher's Britain (1979-1990)
Margaret Thatcher became P.M. in 1979. The Tories had only controlled about 45% of the vote, but the new nationalist parties had pulled from Labour. There were five main foreign and domestic issues during her tenure.
The first was the Falkland War. The Falkland Islands are located off the coast of Argentina, and had been part of the old British Empire since 1834. 1,800 of the islanders were British. Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. Britain defended it with 25,000 soldiers and 100 ships. The war was very costly in lives for such a small area: 1,000 dead and 1,700 wounded. It was also costly in terms of money. But it increased British patriotism and the popularity of Thatcher's government.
The affluence of the British middle class was also an important issue. The desire to participate in the new prosperity caused many skilled workers, and those opposed to immigration, to vote Tory. Thus it became possible for the government to de-emphasize socialist tendencies and programs, which saved the government money. The middle class allowed the government to firmly control union activities, which was made easier by the fact that mass unemployment in the mid-80s had left many unions with fewer members.
Privatization was possible in this environment. Long-standing state enterprises (such as British Gas, British Aerospace, and British Telecom) were sold to private industry, bringing in money to the government. But even Thatcher couldn't dismantle the welfare state entirely. Surveys showed that only 6% of the population preferred a tax cut to a cut in welfare. So the Conservatives ended up actually expanding some government services to law courts, prisons, and social agencies.
The fourth big issue was the widening gap between rich and poor. The North of Britain was in decline, becoming poorer (and thus an area for Labour votes). The South was becoming wealthier in the new economy (and more Tory). Inner cities were deteriorating while middle-class suburbs expanded. Support for the Conservative philosophy of "survival of the fittest" permitted this gap to widen. The government even got cocky, trying to enforce a Poll Tax that made voters pay for local government. This caused street demonstrations and protests throughout Britain.
The last issue ended Thatcher's career. She did not want to join in the trend toward the integration of Europe, preferring to emphasize the special relationship with the U.S., then under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Members of her own party began accusing her of anti-European paranoia. She had to resign.
From Major to Blair
Conservative P.M. John Major wanted to keep Thatcherism alive while dealing with the issue of European integration. The Gulf War (1990-91) managed to distract the public for a while, as Britain supported the U.S. against Iraq. Many Tories were still against European integration, fearing British industry would be subject to European regulations. Some said that Europe was a stagnant economy. Even those supporting integration began to rebel against Major, who persisted in sitting on the fence on this issue.
Labour took this opportunity to reorganize. Both parties were in agreement that the economy needed management despite current laissez-faire policies, and it was obvious that socialism was not as popular as it used to be. So Labour abandoned some basics of its platform: nuclear disarmament, public ownership of the means of production, and the presence of unrepresentative labor bosses within the party. Labour also decided to embrace European integration. So the party became more centrist, less socialist, and determined to integrate with Europe. They won the election in 1997.
Tony Blair, the new Labour P.M., inherited low unemployment and lots of public housing (sold by the Tory government at bargain prices to the poor). Britain had become a leading player in the European Union. Blair downplayed socialism to keep the U.S., Japanese, and Korean investments that had been made under the Tories. Many socialists have been disappointed, which has caused an increase the the British Socialist Party.
Blair also supported devolution and revisions in the House of Lords. In 1997 Wales voted for its own assembly, and Scotland won the right to its own Parliament. Westminster continues to hold sovereignty on issues of foreign policy, money, and social security. All other issues are now decided in Wales and Scotland independently. In the case of the House of Lords, Labour has been trying since 1967 to reduce their powers and eliminate the hereditary basis for membership. In 1999 true reform began, with 600 hereditary peers removed from the House. But for some, the House of Lords did not represent an aristocratic stronghold, but rather an independent force that could counter the foolhardiness of some government decisions. Ironically, in reforming it, Labour may have created an even more independent monster, according to a BBC interview with Lord Strathclyde, (former) leader of the active peers.
Blair was followed by Gordon Brown, also Labour in 2007. But in 2010, the country became more conservative, and David Cameron of the Conservative party became Prime Minister.
If, and only if, you are genuinely interested in British party politics, check out their websites: Conservative Party, Labour Party, Liberal Party, Plaid Cymru, Scottish National Party, and many more. I think it's funny how the Conservative Party's website is much more trendy and contains far less information than the Labour Party site.
Britain is probably best known to most Americans through its mass culture. Since the 1960s, television and film have portrayed various slices of British life, often with great artistic merit and liveliness. The effect of television in Britain was in some ways the same as in America: it presented the country with a national standard which had the potential to break down local cultural differences. In Britain, a national standard of sorts had, however, been around for years because of BBC radio. This domination of culture by the "Beeb" transferred to television, where for many years they had a monopoly on broadcasts through government funding. In recent years there has been more diversification in the television industry, but in no way does British television carry the variety of programs that Americans are accustomed to. There has also been controversy over the "BBC voice" dominating radio and television. This voice was a certain accent, an upper middle class, public school sort of voice. With the new push for devolution, the BBC has gradually added more regional accents to its news reporting.
Music from Britain has also been imported into the U.S., especially from the 1960s. The Beatles became a hit in the early sixties, with their mop-top hair, lower-class origins, and rock'n'roll music. Their career in many ways represented the evolution of youth culture, as the "baby boomers" of the post-war era became teenagers, a new distinct social group. They began with innocent songs and lyrics, and by the mid-sixties were experimenting with orchestrated music, darker themes (like alienation), drugs (like LSD), and Indian mysticism. Compare lyrics from Please Please Me with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Yellow Submarine to see what I mean. The Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks were all pop groups who made their career at this time. See The Sixties Pop Diary (sorry, site removed) for more on popular culture.
Various issues seem to come to the fore as trends in British life over the last generation, and they are reflected in cultural expressions, such as movies.
During the 1960s, the major trends in culture included a focus on youth, especially teenagers. Young people were seen as either troubled or caught up in the experience of being young. Alan Sillitoe's Loneliness of the Long Distance-Runner, the story of a reform-school boy who becomes a long-distance running champion for his school, delved into the psychology of young men.
Popular films included To Sir With Love, the story of a man teaching wild young people some self-respect in an East End school, and A Hard Day's Night, which showed the Beatles singing and being continually assaulted by screaming teenage girls as they showed off their brand of off-beat humour. Disturbing family relationships in general were the topic in plays like Harold Pinter's The Homecoming.
Concern about the Cold War, new sexual freedom, and the innovations of technology also dominated movies. James Bond movies starred Sean Connery as Agent 007 of Her Majesty's Secret Service, fighting the Cold War with great style, sexism, and innovative incendiary devices. The new sexual freedom could be seen in the female movie roles, including French actress Capucin playing a nymphomaniac in What's New Pussycat?. The new computer age brought fears of the domination of technology, so science fiction became very popular in both movies and TV; the series Dr Who started on television in 1963. Irreverent silliness (the beginnings of what Americans call "British humor") also came into vogue, with comedy groups like Monty Python's Flying Circus (see the Dead Parrot Sketch if you're unfamiliar with Python -- you may remember their humor from Money Python and the Holy Grail) and plays like Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare spoof Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead.
During the 1970s, trends shifted toward environmentalism (especially opposition to nuclear power and North Sea oil drilling), the space age, and individualism. In 1975, for example, the television comedy The Good Life (known in the U.S. as Good Neighbors) portrayed a couple who quit their jobs and try to make their suburban home self-sufficient. The theme here was not only environmental, but an exploration of the idea of getting away from technocratic, bureaucratic life. Comedy also entered the space age, with the BBC radio show Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 1979. In this show, a man has to leave earth, which is going to be destroyed to make way for a supergalactic highway.
During the 80s, primary concerns seem to have been post-colonialism and the decline of the aristocracy. Immigration from the colonies began in earnest, changing the demographics throughout Britain. The movie My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) told the story of an Asian Londoner who tries to make it with his own laundry business during the Thatcher years. A trend also continued among the aristocracy, who were often forced to sell their "stately homes" because they couldn't afford to pay taxes on them. When the homes could not be sold privately, and were considered historic, they were often donated to the National Trust, which made tourist attractions out of them.
Throughout the nineties and till today, relations with the U.S. and the world are a major concern. The relationship has not been improved by Britain's entry into the European Union. One of the main issues is international trade with the E.U. Beef producers in the U.S. routinely use hormones, but these drugs are not allowed in the E.U. So the E.U. (and thus Britain) has been, as of this writing, refusing to import beef from the U.S. Such differences, often over food safety (including genetically modified ingredients) have led to a trade war between the E.U. and the U.S. The World Trade Organization has most often supported the American side on the food issue. [My opinion? The U.S. government has no business sanctioning the unsafe practices of American farmers. Our food should be hormone-free, antibiotic-free, pesticide-free, and GMO-free.] Britain has been especially sensitive to beef safety issues since the BSE (Mad Cow Disease) infestation of 1996. International interest in basic human rights also increased during the 90s, with the founding of Amnesty International in 1989.
Into the 21st Century
In September 2001, the world was shocked as terrorists used airplanes to hit the World Trade Center in New York, which collapsed, killing thousands. British response mirrored global trends in condemning the terrorists and sending heartfelt messages to America. But in Britain a reminder bell rang, because of the Ronan Tower collapse in 1968, which had led to building standards being changed in Britain. In analyzing the collapse of the World Trade towers, some noted that the new standards had been ignored in America and might have prevented many deaths. Concrete core coverings over the central steel core might have prevented the buildings' collapse, or delayed it significantly.
The Bush Administration in the U.S. began a campaign to end world terror by invading particular nations which harbored terrorists. The first was Afghanistan, and Britain joined with American troops to invade that country in October 2001 and topple the Taliban government. Blair's clear alignment with the U.S. was probably designed to cement the connections between the two countries, but put Britain at odds with the rest of Europe.
In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, Blair forcefully made the case to the British people that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed from power in that country. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq had been a British colony and mandate. It became apparent that most Britons were against attacking Iraq. Blair in particular emphasized the possibility that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons. In September 2002, Blair put before Parliament a dossier claiming that Iraq could deploy such weapons within 45 minutes. To many MPs, this was the deciding factor in favoring war, which commenced in March 2003.
At the end of May, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan reported that the government had "sexed up" the threat in the September dossier in order to get war approval. Parliament began hearings to investigate the intelligence. The government responded by attacking the BBC, forcing them to reveal their source, Ministry of Defence microbiologist and former weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly. On July 18, the body of David Kelly was found in a park, his wrists slashed. It was thought that Hutton Inquiry report might be the end of Blair's tenure, but it wasn't.
Lord Butler conducted a further inquiry, this time directly into the government's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The Butler Report was enlightening.
The July 2005 bombings in London, claimed to be the work of the Al Quaida terrorist group, were the first major attacks on civilians since the days of active Irish terrorist attacks. Although Britain had developed a reputation for tolerance of its many foreign immigrants, one result of the attacks was the same sort of security crackdown seen in the U.S. after 9/11. As in the U.S., civil rights were routinely abridged in an effort to obtain security. However, the bombings themselves reminded people of World War II and the London blitz. Those older adults who had been through the war responded quickly and effectively at the bomb sites. More than once they forced panicked and screaming young people to pull themselves together if they were not seriously injured, shaming them into helping others. Britain's history lives on in its citizens.
The election of a coalition government in the spring of 2010 marked divisions in the electorate, as Conservative PM David Cameron was forced to lead with Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic party. They promised reforms, and spending cuts would be necessary in the recession that began in 2008. Surprised by the events of spring 2011 in the Middle East, when demonstraters rose up against oppressive leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (including former colonies such as Egypt and Bahrain), the government engaged in support for rebels in Libya. By 2015, refugees were flowing in from Middle East and north African countries with the rise of groups like Islamic State, and the UK was one of many countries absorbing the immigration, with resulting social and political conflict.
Social inequities became a major issue following the global financial crisis which began in 2008. This video about street artist Stik ties together a number of the concerns:
Note how Stik mentions NHS, the National Health, as having saved his life. The National Health has its problems like all large systems, but in general the British people want it preserved and improved. It was even advertised as a national gem in the opening ceremony of the Olympics in London in 2012. Also note his mention of gentrification - the redevelopment of housing for the poorer people into middle-class neighborhoods, which both reduces crime and raises prices so that ordinary people cannot live there.
Social change was evident after 2010. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013 allowed gay couples to marry. The Welfare Reform Act of 2012 contained the controversial "Bedroom Tax" on oversized rental properties and introduced the idea of Universal Credit to replace complex systems designating those who are poor and unemployed. A restructuring of the NHS was the goal of the Health and Social Care Act of 2012, which increased privatization and caused protest by doctors and nurses.
In other class news, the desire to reform the House of Lords into an elected body of some kind speaks to a reaction against the traditional status of the upper class, however much that has been undermined throughout the 20th century. The royal wedding of the second heir (after his father, Prince Charles) Prince William to the middle class Kate Middleton in April 2011 also showed this trend, as did the birth of their first child. The anti-royalist Republic movement, which campaigns for an end to the monarcy, held alternative street parties. It is estimated that 20% of the UK has republican leanings, but a larger groups (a consistent 62%, according to the Guardian) finds the monarchy still relevant. Historically, royalty has been seen as a natural ally of the disenfranchised. During the Middle Ages, royalty could appeal to the peasants as their defenders against nobles. Beginning in the 18th century, the monarchy could appeal to workers as well, abused by capitalists and industrialists, then a professional middle class which dominates the government to this day.
The big issue of the mid 2010s was "Brexit", the idea that Britain should leave the European Union. I think the best response to this idea was a parody on the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian:
For the most recent news of Britain, see today's news at the BBC.
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