History of Great Britain

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Disraeli succeeded Derby as prime minister early in 1868, but a Liberal election victory in December of that year gave the post to Gladstone. Gladstones first cabinet was responsible for numerous reforms: the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland; the creation of a national system of elementary education; the full admission of religious dissenters to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge; a merit-based civil service; the secret ballot; and judicial and army reform. During the Disraeli ministry that followed, the Conservatives passed legislation advancing Tory democracytrade union legalization, slum clearance, and public healthbut Disraeli became more concerned with upholding the British Empire in Africa and Asia and scoring a diplomatic triumph at the Congress of Berlin (1878).

A whistle-stop campaign by Gladstone in 1879 and 1880 restored him to the prime ministership. His second cabinet curbed electoral corruption and, with the Reform Act of 1884, extended the vote to almost all males who owned or rented housing. The measure made the single-member parliamentary district the general rule. Gladstone became increasingly concerned with bringing peace and land reform to Ireland, which was represented in Parliament by the Irish Nationalist Party of Charles Stewart Parnell. When Gladstone became a convert to the cause of home rulethe creation of a semi-independent Irish legislature and cabinethe divided the Liberal Party and led his brief third ministry to defeat in 1886. A second effort to enact home rule during Gladstones fourth ministry, which lasted from 1892 to 1894, was blocked by the House of Lords.

Late Victorian Economic and Social Change

The same agricultural depression that led to unrest among Irish tenant farmers in the second half of the 19th century also undermined British agriculture and the prosperity of country squires. The mid-Victorian boom gave way to an era of deflation, falling profit margins, and occasional large-scale unemployment. Both the United States and Germany overtook Britain in the production of steel and other manufactured goods. At the same time, Britain remained the worlds prime shipbuilder, shipper, and banker, and a majority of British workers gained in purchasing power. The number of trade unionists grew, and significant attempts were made to organize the semiskilled; the London Dock Strike of 1889 was the result of one such effort. Social investigators and professed socialists discovered large pockets of poverty in the slums of London and other cities, and the national government as well as voluntary agencies were called on to remedy social evils. Despite a high level of emigration to British colonies and the United Statesmore than 200,000 per year during the 1880sthe population of England and Wales doubled between 1851 and 1911 (to more than 36 million) and that of Scotland grew by more than 60 percent (to almost 5 million). Both death rates and birth rates declined somewhat, and a series of changes in the law made it possible for a minority of women to enter universities, vote in local elections, and keep control of their property while married.

The Late Victorian Empire

A relative lack of interest in empire during the mid-Victorian years gave way to increased concern during the 1880s and 1890s. The raising of tariff barriers by the United States, Germany, and France made colonies more valuable again, ushering in an era of rivalry with Russia in the Middle East and along the Indian frontier and a scramble for Africa that involved the carving out of large claims by Britain, France, and Germany. Hong Kong and Singapore served as centers of British trade and influence in China and the South Pacific. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 led indirectly to a British protectorate over Egypt in 1882. Queen Victoria became empress of India in 1876, and both Victorias golden jubilee (1887) and her diamond jubilee (1897) celebrated imperial unity. The Conservative ministries of Lord Salisbury were preoccupied with imperial concerns as well. The policies of Salisburys colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, contributed to the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899. Britain suffered initial reverses in that war but then captured Johannesburg and Pretoria in 1900. Only after protracted guerrilla warfare, however, was the conflict brought to an end in 1902. By then Queen Victoria was dead.

The Edwardian Age (1901-1914)

In the aftermath of the Boer War, Britain signed a treaty of alliance with Japan (1902) and ended several decades of overseas rivalry with France in the Entente Cordiale (1904). After Anglo-Russian disputes had also been settled, this link became the Triple Entente (1907), which faced the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy. As the reign of King Edward VII began, however, most Britons were more concerned with domestic matters. Arthur Balfours Education Act in 1902 helped meet the demand for national efficiency with the beginnings of a national system of secondary education, but the measure stirred old religious passions. In the course of Balfours ministry, the Conservative Party was divided between tariff reformers, who wanted to restore protective duties, and free traders. The general election of 1906 gave the Liberals an overwhelming majority. Union influence led to the appearance of a small separate Labour Party of 29 members as well. The Liberal government, headed first by Henry Campbell-Bannerman and then by Herbert Asquith, gave domestic self-government to the new Union of South Africa and partial provincial self-government to British India in 1909 and 1910. Under the inspiration of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, it also laid the foundations of the welfare state. Its program, from 1908 to 1912, included old-age pensions, government employment offices, unemployment insurance, a contributory program of national medical insurance for most workers, and boards to fix minimum wages for miners and others. Lloyd Georges controversial peoples budget, designed to pay the costs of social welfare and naval rearmament, was blocked by the House of Lords and led in due course to the Parliament Act of 1911, which left the Lords with no more than a temporary veto. The Conservatives made a comeback, however, in the general elections of 1910, and the Liberals were thereafter dependent on the Irish Nationalists to stay in power. Although the economy seemed to be booming, wages scarcely kept up with rising prices, and the years 1911 to 1914 were marked by major and divisive strikes by miners, dock workers, and transport workers. Suffragists staged violent demonstrations in favor of the enfranchisement of women. When the Liberal government sought to enact home rule for Ireland, non-Catholic Irish from Ulster threatened force to prevent Britain from compelling them to become part of a semi-independent Ireland. In the midst of these domestic disputes, a crisis in the Balkans exploded into World War I.

: 14/02/2008