History of Great Britain

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Conservative Rule (1951-1964)

Its program of social reform apparently accomplished, the Labour governments parliamentary majority was sharply reduced in the general election of 1950, and the election of 1951 enabled the Conservatives under Winston Churchill to slip back into power. Except for denationalizing iron and steel, the Conservatives made no attempt to reverse the legislation or the welfare-state program enacted by Labour, and the early 1950s brought steady economic recovery. As income tax rates were reduced and the framework of wartime and postwar regulation largely dismantled, housing construction boomed and international trade flourished. With a veteran world statesman heading Britains government, the accession of a young queen drew the attention of the world to London for the coronation of Elizabeth II in June 1953. During these years Britain perfected its own atomic and hydrogen bombs and pioneered in the generation of electricity by nuclear power. Churchills hopes for another diplomatic summit meeting were disappointed, but Stalins death in 1953 led to an easing of the Cold War.

Eden and Macmillan

Churchills successor, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, led his party to a second election victory in the spring of 1955. In the same year he helped negotiate an Austrian peace treaty and participated in a summit conference at Geneva.

Edens tenure as prime minister, however, was cut short by the crisis that followed Egypts nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. British forces had been withdrawn from the canal only a year earlier, and an Anglo-French reoccupation in 1956 was halted by Soviet-U.S. pressure. The episode led both to the loss of much of Britains remaining influence in the Middle East and to Edens resignation. His successor, Harold Macmillan, presided over a period of renewed consumer affluence. In 1959 he led the Conservatives to their third successive election victorythe fourth time in a row that the party gained parliamentary seats.


In Africa, Macmillans government followed a deliberate policy of decolonization. The Sudan had already become independent in 1956, and during the next seven years Ghana, Nigeria, Somalia, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Kenya followed suit. Most of these states remained members of a highly decentralized multiracial Commonwealth, but the Union of South Africa, dominated by a white minority of Boer descent, left the Commonwealth in 1961 and declared itself a republic. Independence was also given to Malaysia, Cyprus, and Jamaica during Macmillans tenure.

Even as imperial ties loosened, tens of thousands of immigrantsespecially from the West Indies and Pakistanpoured into Britain. Their arrival caused intermittent social strife and led to efforts to limit further immigration sharply, while ensuring legal equality for the immigrants and their descendants.

As Britons turned their attention away from their overseas empire, they became increasingly aware that their economy, although prospering, was growing less rapidly than those of their Continental neighbors. In 1961 Macmillan applied for British membership in the European Community (EC), or Common Market (now called the European Union). Many Britons felt unprepared to cast their lot with continental Europe, but for the moment their feelings proved immaterial, because the application was vetoed by President Charles de Gaulle of France. In 1963 Macmillan was replaced as Conservative prime minister by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In the general election of 1964, however, the latter was narrowly defeated by the Labour Party, headed by Harold Wilson.

The Permissive Society

During the 1960s, Britain experienced a widespread mood of rebellion against the conventions of the pastin dress, in music, in popular entertainment, and in social behavior. The phenomenon had its positive consequences in helping to make swinging London a world capital of popular music, theater, and, for a time, fashion. Among the negative side effects, however, were a rising crime rate and a spreading drug culture.

Harold Wilsons Labour government sympathized with some of these trends. It sought both to expand higher education opportunities and to end a high school system that separated the academically inclined from other students. During the later 1960s, laws on divorce were eased, abortion was legalized, curbs on homosexual practices were ended, capital punishment was abolished, equal pay for equal work was prescribed for women, and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.

In economic life the Labour government became more rigorous. A persistent trend toward inflation, unfavorable balance of trade, and unbalanced government budgets led to a wage-and-price freeze in 1966 and attempts thereafter to secure severe restraint. These actions eased certain economic problems but at the price of alienating many of Labours union supporters, and in 1970 the Conservatives returned to power under Edward Heath.

: 14/02/2008