The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Britain in the twentieth century (summary)

Category: 20th century

Queen Victoria died in January 1901, and Edward VII, the son of Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Edwardian Britain was a powerful and rich country, much of its wealth coming from business abroad. By that time, British money had been invested in many countries, and British banks and insurance companies had customers and did business all over the world, and, as the result, much of the policy and affairs concerning the Edwardian Britain at that time were the international ones.

In 1902, when  Germany, supported by the Triple Alliance, became extremely powerful and the ambitions of  the Kaiser became evident, Britain entered the Anglo-Japanese alliance to avoid political isolation.  The war of 1904-1905 between Russia and Japan made the first one and Britain nearly enemies, with the end of the war political situation changed. In 1907 the Triple Entente of Great Britain, Russia and France was achieved as a countermeasure to the expansion of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy in Balkans.

Still, while the reign of King Edward VII was taking place, many of the British were concerned with domestic matters. Some important changes in the way that people lived and were governed happened.

In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee, which soon became the Labour Party, was formed. Its aim was to see working people represented in Parliament, with the powerful support of trade unions.

The Education Act of 1902 met the demand for national system of secondary education. The government began providing such kind of education, although only a small number of schoolchildren could pay for the secondary school, and the rest had to be clever enough to pass the scholarship exams.

The general election of 1906 gave the Liberal Party an overwhelming majority in Parliament, with the programme including old-age pensions, government employment offices, such as Employment Exchanges, unemployment insurance, a contributory programme of national medical insurance for most workers, and a board to fix minimum wages for miners and others; but women still were not given the right to vote.

The years 1911 to 1914 were marked with strikes by miners, dock workers, and transport workers, as wages scarcely kept up with rising prices; suffragists carried out numerous demonstrations in favour of the enfranchisement of women, and while the Britain was in the midst of these domestic problems and disputes, World War I broke out.

The first large operation in which the British expeditionary force took part was the battle of Marne in 1915, which also happened to become the turning point of the whole war in the West front. The German advance across the French territory was halted, and it made the quick victory of the Germans impossible and gave time for great but slowly mobilized material resources of the British Empire to have their effect. In the course of the following years the war turned into the stalemate with mostly positional fighting and no significant advances of any of the combatants; the peace among Germany and Britain was signed in 1918.

World War I had both positive effect on the British industry and negative effect on the internal political situation. The Irish problems drew to the 1916 Easter Rebellion. If necessary, the Irish nationalists were ready to seek German aid and support in fighting the British government. The rebellion led to some several hundred casualities and imprisonment and execution of most of the Irish political leaders. The civil war in Ireland began and lasted until the peace treaty of 1921. Most of the Ireland became the Irish Free State, independent of British rule in all but name. One more result of the disturbances in Ireland was the development of the new Irish Sinn Fein political party.

World War I created more opportunities for women to work outside domestic service. Women aged 30 and over were granted the vote by the Reform Act of 1918, and the same Act granted the vote to all men over the age of 21. In 1928 women were given voting rights that were equal to those of men.

The immediate post-war years were marked by economic boom, rapid demobilization, and much labour strife. By 1921, however, the number of people without work had reached one million. Between 1929 and 1932, the depression more than doubled an already high rate of unemployment. Unemployment rose to more than 2 million in the 1930’s. In the course of several years, both the levels of industrial activity and of prices dipped by a quarter, and industries such as shipbuilding collapsed almost entirely.

Between 1933 and 1937, the economy recovered steadily, with the construction, automobile, and electrical industries leading the way. Unemployment remained high, however, especially in Wales, Scotland, and northern parts of England.

In 1936 King Edward VIII ascended the throne, and a remarkable occasion took place. Edward preferred to be happy in private life rather than to dedicate himself to the royal duties and discharged his duty as a king and emperor in favour of a love affair. Edward VIII was succeeded by his brother, George VI.

In 1939 World War II broke out. After the surrender of France in 1940, Britain remained the only resisting country in the West front. In 1940, also, one of the greatest aerial battles in history took place. The so-called Battle of Britain was the British answer to the permanent attempts of Germany to ruin the industry of United Kingdom and to suppress the spirit of the British people by heavy air bombardments. By the end of 1940 almost all aircraft factories in England were destroyed, and a few British fighter squadrons remained operational, but the ability of Luftwaffe to carry out offensive operations in the West was almost zeroed due to very heavy losses. The real help in struggle against Germany was that beginning early in 1941, the still-neutral United States granted lend-lease aid to Britain.

Luckily, the British Isles experienced no ground fighting throughout the whole war, and no British troops were engaged in ground operations until the Allies landing in France in 1944. Before that date, British took part in the coordinated Anglo-American operations in North Africa, fighting against German troops there, the most significant battle being that at El Alamein, where the Allies managed to defeat one of the best German commanders-in-chief Rommel. After the landing in Normandy, which didn’t play the big role in the course of war, but helped to bring it to closure sooner than it was expected, it took only ten month to make Germany to surrender on 8 May, 1945.

When World War II ended, the British government launched a number of important programmes in an effort to restore the county’s economy. The National Insurance Act of 1946 was a consolidation of benefit laws involving maternity, disability, old age, and death, as well as assistance if unemployed. In 1948 the National Health Service was set up. The general election of 1945 gave the Labour party the majority in Parliament, and the party launched a programme of nationalization of private industries to improve the economical situation.

In 1949 Britain joined other Western powers in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which was created as a counterweight to the Warsaw Block countries, leaded by USSR. Also, the late 1940’s in the British Empire were marked with the beginning of decolonization.

In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II inherited the throne from George VI.  The early 1950’s brought economic recovery with flourishing of trade and the boom of housing construction, and since that time Britain has been steadily developing in economical, political, social and scientific aspects, becoming one of the leading countries in the world.

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