Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

In addition to politics, the book covers a great many areas of British life: crime, decolonisation, defence, the economy, education, foreign policy, immigration and racism, the media, the monarchy, public opinion, religion, social change, the changing position of women. As an added bonus, it also bravely tackles events in Northern Ireland. Two introductory chapters take us through the interwar period outlining both domestic and international trends. The war years are covered in two further chapters and the author asks us to consider what would have happened had Britain not gone to war in 1939. Nine chapters trace both the progress, and the more impressive, decline of Britain between 1945-94. The final chapter discusses the reasons for decline. Twelve useful tables and a bibliography complete the book.

Table of Contents

1. Interwar Britain, 1919–39

Abstract
Virtually anyone who was alive in the interwar period was marked in some way by the ‘Great War’ of 1914–18. Those who were too young to have been in it, or even remember it, had relatives who had served. One heard of them, one also heard the survivors’ tales, not always sad or horrific. For many, it was clearly their greatest experience of life. There were also the many limbless ex-servicemen to be seen. Some 745,000 men from Britain had been killed — that is, 9 per cent of all men aged 20 to 45 (many victims were younger than 20). About 1.7 million were wounded and 1.2 million of them received disablement pensions, though some of these did find employment. The war was remembered too in countess films — The Great Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front — books, plays and in the haunting pictures of Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and Percy Wyndham Lewis. Once a year there was also ‘the Great Silence’ which engulfed the land at 11 a.m. on 11 November. This remembrance ceremony for the war dead brought the whole country to a halt and was at once both impressive and frightening. Whether it was intentional or not, it became a medium of inspiring patriotism, reinforcing subservience and enforcing control.
David Childs

2. Britain and the World, 1919–39

Abstract
Anyone who had suggested in 1931 that by 1961 the most important parts of the British Empire would be independent and that by 1991 Britain would be merely a medium-weight European state, would have been regarded as, at best, a fool and, at worst, a traitor. The monarch, politicians, churches, the education system and mass media, all contributed to the myth of the Empire. Under the terms of the peace settlement in 1919 more areas of the globe were painted pink, the colour traditionally used to indicate British territory. Officially, this was done on the authority of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, and these areas were not colonies but mandated territories. In Africa, Britain took over German East Africa, calling it Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania), Togo and German South West Africa (Namibia). Britain created Iraq and Transjordan (Jordan) from Arab lands which had been part of the Turkish Empire. Both were indirectly under British control. Britain virtually controlled the strategically important Egypt and oil-rich Iran. Palestine became a British mandate.
David Childs

3. Britain at War, 1939–41

Abstract
At 11.10 a.m. on 3 September 1939, Premier Neville Chamberlain told R. A. Butler, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to inform the Service Departments that they ‘might consider themselves at war’ with Germany. The British people heard the same news from the tired, despairing voice of the Prime Minister, broadcasting at 11.15 on that same Sunday morning. Many who heard Chamberlain felt a mixture of fear and relief. The fear was born of the widespread expectation that massive aerial bombardment would shortly follow a declaration of war. The relief stemmed from the end of the uncertainty which had prevailed from at least March 1939.
David Childs

4. From European War to World War and Victory, 1941–45

Abstract
’A marvellous morning, with the smell of roses and hay and spring in the air … the 7 o’clock news announced that Germany had invaded Russia… Most people in England will be delighted.’ That was from Harold Nicolson’s diary entry for 22 June 1941. Nicolson was not very happy at the prospects; ‘80 per cent of the War Office experts think that Russia will be knocked out in ten days’. He feared Hitler would get Russian oil and be free to ‘fling his whole force against us’.1
David Childs

5. Britain under Attlee, 1945–51

Abstract
In some respects, most British people seem to have had a fairly realistic view of Britain’s postwar position in the summer of 1945. According to a Gallup poll, the United States were seen as the most influential country in world affairs by 38 per cent, followed by the Soviet Union (31 per cent) and Britain (14 per cent). In the same survey, 52 per cent thought that the atomic bomb would make war less likely in the future. A remarkable 51 per cent were prepared to see the abolition of national armies in favour of an international force.1
David Childs

6. From Churchill to Macmillan, 1951–60

Abstract
At seventy-six Churchill was eager to form a government after the Conservative victory of October 1951. Perhaps he was encouraged by the thought of Adenauer, West Germany’s leader since 1949, who was 75 and Statin who was 72. Churchill, however, was far from being a young 76-year-old. When Adenauer visited him in December 1951 Churchill’s speech was jerky, spluttering and hesitant.1 It seemed unlikely that he would continue to 1955.
David Childs

7. Conservatives on the Run, 1961–64

Abstract
The last years of Macmillan and his successor, Home, were years when there was increasing doubt about the Conservative agenda. Some, even among Conservatives, believed Britain had fallen prey to materialism and decadence. Many others were convinced urgent reforms were needed if the country was to keep up with its competitors.
David Childs

8. Harold Wilson at the Helm, 1964–70

Abstract
The nerve-wracking wait endured by Harold Wilson and his colleagues ended at 2.47 p.m. on 16 October, the day after polling, when they knew Labour had won Brecon and Radnor, their 315th seat, and thus a majority in the Commons. The first sign of the transfer of power was the arrival of two detectives at Transport House (the Labour HQ) to act as personal bodyguards to the new Prime Minister.1 Later, Wilson’s family and assistants satin a room at Buckingham Palace talking about horses to Palace officials, while he saw the Queen. Among them was Marcia Williams, Wilson’s private and political secretary, who wrote later: ‘It struck me at the time as an ironic beginning to the white-hot technological revolution and the Government that was to mastermind it.’2 Richard Crossman was no less negatively impressed when he and his fellow ministers had to spend their precious time being taught how to walk backwards, for when they were to be formally appointed by the Queen.3 Meanwhile, sterling plummeted. James Callaghan, who had been appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, felt it was the start of a great adventure as he sat with Wilson and George Brown, on 17 October. They decided there and then not to devalue the pound.4 It was a difficult choice to take. They faced a financial crisis not of their own making. Devaluation should have stimulated exports but increased the cost of many imports.
David Childs

9. Trouble and Strife, 1970–74

Abstract
Heath was not lucky with his cabinet. Ian Macleod, who was a popular figure in the Conservative Party, died suddenly after only a month in office. He was replaced as Chancellor by Anthony Barber. Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, was forced to resign in 1972 because of his involvement with the corrupt architect John Poulson. Poulson had spread his net widely and dragged down Labour and Conservative politicians, mainly at the local level. One unusual appointment was that of the former Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, serving as Foreign Secretary. This was the first time that a former leader had served under his successor since Chamberlain was a member of Churchill’s 1940 government.
David Childs

10. Trouble and Strife, 1974–79

Abstract
Wilson had a daunting task. The new Labour government was in a worse situation than in 1964. It had no clear majority, was faced with a much worse trade deficit than the large one of 1964, with higher inflation (19 per cent compared with 3 per cent), declining production, national disputes awaiting settlement, rising nationalism in Wales and Scotland, the issue of the EEC unresolved, and the conflict in Northern Ireland getting worse. Moreover, Labour was itself divided on many issues. Wilson had four advantages. First, he could claim he had once again inherited a Tory mess. Secondly, he knew the electorate would not take kindly to a party which forced his government out of office without giving it a chance. Thirdly, he could claim that the world economy, and not just Britain’s, was suffering from the oil-price explosion. Fourthly, his team was largely an experienced one. No less than 13 out of the 21 members of the new Cabinet, including Wilson, had previous Cabinet experience. There were a record number of women members — two: Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Social Services, and Shirley Williams, Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. The aim was to act, giving the public the conviction that the new government meant business. Denis Healey presented a Budget which raised income tax and corporation tax and extended VAT to sweets and petrol. James Callaghan, Foreign Secretary, won praise from the Left by cancelling naval visits to Greece and Chile because of their authoritarian regimes.
David Childs

11. The Thatcher Era, 1979–87

Abstract
More than anyone, it was the Left who did Margaret Thatcher the honour of giving her policies the coherence of an ideology by inventing the term ‘Thatcherism’. To a considerable extent this is a misnomer. Thatcher’s policies were simply the platform of the Reaganites, adapted to Britain. Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States in 1981, but long before this he had campaigned, as Governor of California, on a robustly free-market and anti-welfare agenda. This agenda sought to rol back the state, reducing its activities drastically by privatisation and deregulation. Private bodies, it was argued, subject to market forces, were better suited in virtually every case to produce positive results. Deregulation was meant to increase competition and release the creative energy of individuals. The encouragement of private businesses would further this process. For the same reasons, individuals should be weaned off welfare dependence and encouraged to provide for themselves. This implied measures to gradually reduce eligibility for state benefits, in order to get people back to work. Also important was the fight against inflation. Little, or preferably nil, inflation would encourage people to save and enhance confidence in the economic system. It was also part of this platform to proclaim ‘Victorian values’ — thrift, hard work, self-reliance and moral rectitude, though the arguments for the economic agenda were not necessarily dependent on these values.
David Childs

12. Thatcher in Decline, 1987–90

Abstract
The Alliance challenge to Labour had been routed in 1987 and many thought having two leaders — Steel and Owen — had not helped. Many too felt that it was logical that the two parties should merge. Continental experience showed that this was not necessarily so. Two separate, but allied, parties could often attract a wider spectrum of voters than one party. However, the longer two parties remained, the more likely they were to start bickering — the more so if they were not as successful as they had hoped. In the 1987 election there had been voters who were put off by Owen’s ‘Thatcherism’.1 Some Owenites suspected the Liberals of being soft on defence and perhaps much else. But a majority in both parties were looking for a merger. David Steel voiced these wishes immediately after the 1987 election without having fully consulted Owen on the matter. However, once it was in the open there was no going back. It took three ‘horrible’2 meetings of the SDP executive before a membership ballot was held which voted by 57.5 per cent in favour of a merger and 42.5 against. Negotiations with the Liberals then followed, after which the SDP was brought to an end with the final ‘loveless’ meeting of the executive. Owen resigned from the leadership before the end, being replaced by Bob Maclennan, who took the majority into the new party — the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD).
David Childs

13. Major’s Avalanche of Problems

Abstract
When British troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia, in 1990, to take part in the liberation of Kuwait, there can be no doubt that, as with the Falklands, few Britons had more than a vague idea where Kuwait was. It had been a British-protected state until 1961, and threatened by Iraq since the British withdrawal in that year. The reason for Iraqi and Western interest in this small Arab kingdom was its oil. In 1990, it was thought to possess 13 per cent of the proved world resources of oil. The UN first agreed economic sanctions against Iraq and then set a deadline for withdrawal. Mrs Thatcher was prominent in advocating a tough line. Soon an American-led military coalition was put together with troops from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and some other Arab states, joining American, British, French and Italian units. With 45,000 British service personnel in the Gulf, Britain’s force was second only to that of the United States. As the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, did not respond to the entreaties of personalities such as the UN Secretary General, President Waldheim of Austria, Edward Heath and others who made the trip to Baghdad, Iraq and Kuwait were subjected to massive aerial bombardment. Once the coalition troops moved forward, the Iraqis were effectively demoralised and fell back. Hussein then saved his own position by quickly agreeing to UN demands, and the coalition forces were halted.
David Childs

14. Britain and Ireland in the 1990s

Abstract
Northern Ireland entered the 1990s with the bombs and bullets of a very small minority preventing the great majority from cooperating to solve the many practical problems which faced their society. Unemployment, higher than elsewhere in the UK, remained the most pressing. Yet Belfast surprised the visitor by its air of prosperity, fine shops, public buildings and parks. To a degree the armed police and soldiers spoiled the image.
David Childs
Additional information