History of Great Britain

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The Era of World Wars

Although the competitive naval buildup of Britain and Germany is often cited as a cause of World War I, Anglo-German relations were actually cordial in early 1914, and Britain was Germanys best customer. It was Germanys threat to France and its invasion of neutral Belgium that prompted Britain to declare war.

Britain in World War I

A British expeditionary force was immediately sent to France and helped stem the German advance at the Marne. Fighting on the Western Front soon became mired in a bloody stalemate amid muddy trenches, barbed wire, and machine-gun emplacements. Battles to push the Germans back failed repeatedly at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Efforts to outflank the Central Powers (Germany, Austria, and Turkey) in the Balkans, as at Gallipoli (1915), failed also. At the Battle of Jutland (1916), the British prevented the German fleet from venturing into the North Sea and beyond, but German submarines threatened Britain with starvation early in 1917; merchant-ship convoys guarded by destroyers helped avert that danger.

In May 1915 Asquiths Liberal ministry became a coalition of Liberals, Conservatives, and a few Labourites. Lloyd George became minister of munitions. Continued frustration with the nations inability to win the war, however, led to the replacement of Asquith by Lloyd George, heading a predominantly Conservative coalition, in December 1916. Problems in Ireland, chiefly the 1916 Easter rebellion, resulted in several hundred dead. By 1918 the annual budget was 13 times that of 1913; tax rates had risen fivefold, and the total national debt, fourteenfold.

Although many Britons welcomed the end of czarist rule in Russia in 1917, they saw the Communist decision to make a separate peace with Germany as a sellout. Only the entry of the United States into the war made possible General Douglas Haigs successful tank offensive in the summer of 1918 and the German surrender in November. The election called immediately thereafter gave the Lloyd George coalition an overwhelming mandate. The Labour Party, now formally pledged to socialism, became the largest opposition party, while the Asquith wing of a divided Liberal Party was almost wiped out. By then the Reform Act of 1918 had granted the vote to all men over the age of 21 and all women over 30.

Changes Wrought by the War

Lloyd George represented Britain as one of the Big Three (together with France and the United States) at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The resulting treaties enlarged the British Empire as former German colonies in Africa and Turkish holdings in the Middle East became British mandates. At the same time Britains self-governing dominionsCanada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africabecame separate treaty signatories and separate members of the new League of Nations. An intermittent civil war in Ireland ended with a treaty negotiated by Lloyd George in 1921. Most of the island became the Irish Free State, independent of British rule in all but name. The six counties of Northern Ireland continued to be represented in the British Parliament, although they also gained their own provincial parliament. The immediate postwar years were marked by economic boom, rapid demobilization, and much labor strife. By 1922, however, the boom had petered out. That year a rebellion by a group of Conservative members of Parliament ended the prime ministership of Lloyd George, and the wholly Conservative ministry of Andrew Bonar Law represented a return to normal times.

The Interwar Era

During the early 1920s a major political shift took place in Britain. The general election of 1922 gave victory to the Conservatives, but another one, called a year later by Bonar Laws successor, Stanley Baldwin, left no party with a clear majority. As a consequence, Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Party leader, became the first professed socialist to serve as prime minister of Great Britain. His first ministry in 1924, rested on Liberal acquiescence; it lasted less than a year, when yet another election brought back Baldwins Conservatives. Lloyd Georges and Asquiths efforts at Liberal reunion failed to restore the partys fortunes, and it has remained a minor party in British politics. The Baldwin ministry restored the gold standard and enacted several social-reform measures, including the Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, a national electric power network, and a reform of local government. In 1928 women were given voting rights that were equal to those of men.

Between 1929 and 1932 the international depression more than doubled an already high rate of unemployment. In the course of three years, both the levels of industrial activity and of prices dipped by a quarter, and industries such as shipbuilding collapsed almost entirely. MacDonalds second Labour government found itself unable to cope with the depression, and in 1931 it gave way to a national government, headed first by MacDonald and then by Baldwin and made up mostly of Conservatives. The Labour Party denounced MacDonald as a traitor, but the national government won an overwhelming mandate in the general election of 1931. It took Britain off the gold standard, restored protective tariffs, and subsidized the building of houses. Between 1933 and 1937, the economy recovered steadily, with the automobile, construction, and electrical industries leading the way. Unemployment remained high, however, especially in Wales, Scotland, and northern England. Interwar society was influenced by the radio (monopolized by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which was begun in 1927) and the cinema, but British life was little affected by the continental ideologies of communism and fascism. The empire remained a fact, even though the Statute of Westminster (1931) proclaimed the equality of Commonwealth nations such as Canada and Australia. Religious attendance declined, but King George V maintained the prestige of the monarchy. When his son, Edward VIII, insisted on marrying a twice-divorced American in 1936, abdication proved to be the only acceptable solution. Under Edwards brother, George VI, the monarchy again provided the model family of the land.

: 14/02/2008