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About this book

This comprehensive study describes the major political events of the Twentieth-century in Britain in a cogent, lucid way. William D. Rubinstein presents the history, key personnel, problems and achievements of Britain's administrations, from Lord Salisbury's government in 1900 to Tony Blair's 'Cool Britannia'. Ideal for both students and general readers, Rubinstein's book provides a detailed examination of Britain's political evolution in the Twentieth-century.

Table of Contents

1. Britain in 1900: Salisbury and Balfour, 1900–05

Abstract
As the twentieth century opened, Britain and its Empire arguably remained the largest and most important geopolitical unit in the world. Britain had peacefully transformed itself, during the previous seventy years, into something like a democracy, and was free of much of the internal unrest present elsewhere in Europe; in particular (in contrast to Germany and France) it had no significant socialist party, and there were no domestic threats to the authority of the British government apart from Irish nationalism. Britain’s political system consisted of a seemingly stable two-party system, with the Liberal party (frequently referred to in the press as the ‘Radical party’) and the Conservative party alternating in power after General Elections. Since 1886 the Conservative party had been allied with, and increasingly absorbed, a significant breakaway group from the Liberal party known as the Liberal Unionists. Officially, the Conservative party was, in 1900, known as the ‘Unionists’ in recognition of the end which had brought the Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists together: maintenance of the political union with Ireland and opposition to Irish Home Rule. Popularly, too, the Unionists were also known as the ‘Tories’ as the Conservative party still is.
William D. Rubinstein

2. The Liberal Government, 1905–10

Abstract
Balfour’s expectations that the Liberals would be unable to form a stable government appeared to be firmly grounded in political reality. A few months earlier, in September 1905, Asquith, Grey, and Haldane, the three most prominent Liberal Imperialists, had met at Relugas, Sir Edward Grey’s fishing lodge in Morayshire, and contrived what has become known as the ‘Relugas Compact’ under which none would serve in a future Liberal government unless Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the party’s leader, agreed to go to the House of Lords, becoming a figurehead leader with real power lying in the hands of the Liberal Imperialists in the Commons. There was also the question of whether the former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, who had been increasingly estranged from the Liberal party, would serve. After being asked by the King to form a government, Campbell-Bannerman proceeded to do so with considerable skill. There was no question of his actually going to the Lords, and, despite the ‘Relugas Compact’, all the principal liberals agreed to join the government, the exception being Rosebery, who refused to serve but was not missed: he never held any office again. The Liberal Cabinet formed by Campbell-Bannerman in 1905 was acclaimed even at the time as a ‘government of all the talents’, and has assumed legendary status since, but it is important to note that many of its members, so famous now, were little known then, or had reputations very different from their historical ones. David Lloyd George, for instance, was known then chiefly as a troublemaking Welsh radical and ‘Little Englander’. Although obviously articulate, his capacity for office was unknown as he had never before held any government position.
William D. Rubinstein

3. The Liberal Government, 1910–14: A ‘General Crisis’?

Abstract
Two General Elections were fought in 1910. The second was held at the end of the year because the new King, George V, insisted that another General Election be held before he would agree to create the several hundred peers apparently necessary to reform the House of Lords. These elections are known respectively as those of January 1910 and December 1910. Both produced remarkably similar results, and their outcomes were partially responsible for the troubled political situation in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the First World War. Both the Liberals and the Unionists were disappointed in the results of the January 1910 election. The Liberals expected their popular anti-House of Lords cry to be echoed by the electorate, while the Unionists expected to win back the ascendancy with the electorate that they had enjoyed before the abnormality of 1906.
William D. Rubinstein

4. The First World War, 1914–18

Abstract
It might be that more has been written on the origins of the First World War than on any event in modern history apart from those connected with the Nazis and their regime. While it is seemingly possible to arrive at any number of different views as to how the conflict began, the reasons for Britain’s entry into hostilities seem fairly straightforward. From the 1890s onwards, Germany appeared to challenge, in an increasingly provocative way, two of the cardinal principles on which British foreign policy had rested for the previous century. Germany appeared to desire continental hegemony in Europe and her policy appeared to be to build up a navy to rival Britain’s. As well, Germany’s rulers seemed to wish to make trouble for Britain wherever they could, anywhere in the world, especially in the Ottoman Empire. The most important area of dispute between Britain and Germany was their naval rivalry: freedom of the seas, guaranteed by the Royal Navy, had been the very foundation of British foreign policy since Trafalgar if not since the Armada; Germany’s very threatening and unnecessary programme of naval building appeared to be chiefly designed to undermine Britain’s superiority at sea. Probably no other single factor did more to alienate British opinion from Germany, or to confirm that the understandings entered into between Britain, France, and Russia would determine British policy if war broke out. There were many other factors as well which caused Britain to be increasingly suspicious of Germany, from long-standing economic rivalry to the popular spy and adventure novels of the day, which often centred on what would happen in a war between Britain and Germany. These were sufficient to outweigh the important commonalities and links between Britain and Germany — the close relationship of the two reigning families, important cultural and financial linkages, and the widespread sense (discussed in a previous chapter) that the governance of the world in the twentieth century would be divided among the Protestant great powers of Britain, Germany, and the United States. Had the German ruling elite showed any cleverness at all, their country might well have formed an alliance with Britain rather than against her, with incalculable consequences for the world. Yet, time and again, Germany chose to oppose Britain; German elites often viewed her as an ageing but formidable power which obstinately stood in the way of Germany taking its rightful place in the world.
William D. Rubinstein

5. Lloyd George’s Post-War Coalition, 1918–22

Abstract
The First World War had also brought with it great political changes, of which four stand out as especially notable. The first and most important was that the basis of the franchise and the electoral system was altered very considerably by the Representation of the People Act 1918, passed in June of that year while the war was still raging. Its origins were to be found during the war, in a concerted drive launched in 1916 to enfranchise all soldiers. The debate on the bill led to a continuous enlargement of its provisions, so that the final act went well beyond any franchise bill which would have been acceptable to a Conservative-dominated government prior to 1914. Its most famous provision, of course, was the enfranchisement of every woman over 30 years of age, provided that she or her husband was a qualified voter on the local franchise. Despite this provision’s limitations, at a stroke over eight million women became voters. The Act also had almost equally far-reaching effects upon male voters. All men over 21 (apart from prisoners, peers of the realm, and lunatics) now received the vote after living for six months in a constituency. Soldiers received the vote at 19, although, in a display of wartime spite, conscientious objectors were disenfranchised for five years. The 1918 Act added far more voters to the electorate than any of the previous Reform Acts. In 1910, the British electorate comprised 7710000 voters, about 28 per cent of the 26.1 million adults in Britain (and 58 per cent of adult males). In 1919, the electorate had nearly tripled, to 21756000, or 78 per cent of the adult population of 27.4 million. None of the nineteenth-century Reform Acts had added even a remotely similar number of new voters.
William D. Rubinstein

6. Britain in the 1920s: Bonar Law, MacDonald, and Baldwin

Abstract
Bonar Law was faced with the prospect of forming his Cabinet without the support of most of the heavyweight Tory members of Lloyd George’s government. Thirteen Conservative ministers in the former government declined to support the new government. The most important of these were Austen Chamberlain, Birkenhead, Balfour, and Sir Robert Horne (1871–1940). Indeed, only four Cabinet ministers in the former government were willing to join the Bonar Law Cabinet — Curzon, Baldwin, Viscount Peel, and Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen. Curzon decided at the last minute to desert Lloyd George. This probably cost him the dukedom which he apparently expected as a reward, whenever Lloyd George left office. (He would probably have become Duke of Scarsdale, one of his family titles.) It did, however, gain him reappointment to the Foreign Office, an important source of continuity between the two governments. Curzon was (it was universally conceded) a good Foreign Minister, one of the strongest and most experienced of the century. Deserting Lloyd George did, however, enhance Curzon’s reputation for untrustworthiness, which may have cost him the Prime Ministership less than a year later. Bonar Law gave the Exchequer to the then little-known Stanley Baldwin, President of the Board of Trade in the previous government, and one of the principal speakers in favour of ending the Coalition at the Carlton Club debate. Baldwin was a successful businessman, and the appointment was perfectly sensible, although Bonar Law’s first choice had been the Liberal businessman Reginald McKenna, whose lucrative appointment as Chairman of the Midland Bank prevented him from taking up the offer.
William D. Rubinstein

7. The Second Labour Administration and the National Government, 1929–35

Abstract
The 1929 election campaign was a rather unsatisfactory affair. The Conservatives, who, despite their unpopularity at by-elections, were favoured to win, campaigned under the rather curious slogan of ‘Safety First’. This was an echo of a successful road safety campaign (and hence already well known as a slogan to the public) and also of previous appeals to the electorate portraying the Tories as the sensible policy of moderation. Labour had produced a gradualist, but in the British context, recognisably socialist programme (written by R.H. Tawney and Ramsay MacDonald) pledging to nationalise land, coal, power, transport, and life insurance, to extend social services, and cut expenditure on armaments. On the crucial issue of unemployment the programme was extremely vague, offering some generalities such as suggestions that waste and inefficiency in industry would be attacked and that there would be ‘a direct increase of purchasing power in the hands of the workers’, a goal obviously impossible to achieve. This last point may have represented an indirect bow to the proposals already offered privately to MacDonald by Sir Oswald Mosley. Mosley (1896–1980), a brilliant aristocrat who joined the Labour party in 1924, tried repeatedly to win MacDonald over to a programme of proto-Keynesian reflation of the economy to cure unemployment, but without much obvious success. As noted, the Liberal party, still led by Lloyd George, campaigned in 1929 on a very similar policy, and held high expectations of winning many seats.
William D. Rubinstein

8. The National Government from Recovery to War, 1935–39

Abstract
For Britain, the second half of the 1930s started quietly enough, with a celebration of the Silver Jubilee of King George V. Nevertheless, the next five years were to prove both as controversial and eventful as any in British history, as the policies of the Appeasement of fascism were formulated and then collapsed under the pressure of Nazi expansion. By the middle of 1940 Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, Labour leader Clement Attlee Deputy Prime Minister, and Britain was at war, fighting alone and for its very existence as a nation.
William D. Rubinstein

9. The Second World War, 1939–45

Abstract
The British declaration of war on 3 September 1939 led to an immediate reorganisation of the government, with Chamberlain forming a small War Cabinet of nine men. This was not the innovation that it seemed, for most, including especially Halifax at the Foreign Office, were holdovers from Chamberlain’s previous Cabinet, while arch-Appeasers like Simon (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Hoare (Lord Privy Seal) were well represented. Some faces were new, above all the appointment of Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. After ten years in the political wilderness, the prime anti-Appeaser was now back in a position of leadership. As noted, Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911–15, and held that post at the outbreak of the First World War. ‘Winston is back’ was the famous Naval signal; there is an equally famous story that Churchill went to the offices of the Admiralty and found the maps on the wall exactly as he had left them in 1915.
William D. Rubinstein

10. The Labour Government of 1945–51

Abstract
By common consent, the Labour government which held power between July 1945 and October 1951 was one of the ablest of the twentieth century, quite possibly the very best, and the government with the most achievements to its credit, at least in peacetime. It set the parameters of the role and dimensions of what the British government, in modern times, could and should do, in a way which remained unchallenged for over thirty years and which, despite modifications, still remains partially in place. It accomplished more than any other peacetime government, arguably before or since, and in many respects represented the culmination of the entire tradition of Britain’s reform movement since the Great Reform Act if not before. As well, despite its great achievements, it was an honourable government, composed of honourable men who rarely deceived or dissimulated.
William D. Rubinstein

11. The Tories’ Thirteen Years, 1951–64

Abstract
Winston Churchill again became Prime Minister on 26 October 1951 and served for three and a half years, until April 1955. Churchill’s peacetime government was a curious one: despite the world fame of the Prime Minister, it remains one of the most obscure administrations of the twentieth century. Apart from the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the promulgation of ‘Butskellism’, in economic policy, even well-informed persons would be hard-pressed to name any major themes, events, or legislation associated with it. In retrospect, it seems to have been an unprecedented period of tranquillity, a safe haven at last after a long period of continuous strife and turmoil going back not merely to 1939, but, in some sense, to Joseph Chamberlain’s famous Tariff Reform speech of 1903, after which British politics was perpetually in turmoil. It seems an ‘era of good feelings’, when, with Stalin’s death and the end of the Korean War, the danger of nuclear war receded and a genuine consensus existed at home.
William D. Rubinstein

12. Reversing British Decline? Wilson, Heath, and Callaghan, 1964–79

Abstract
Between 1964 and 1979 Britain had three Prime Ministers. Two were Labourites, Harold Wilson (1964–70; 1974–76) and James Callaghan (1976–79), while Edward Heath (1970–74) was a Conservative. Although Heath and the two Labourites were bitter political opponents, in many respects this 15-year period is best viewed as a consistent whole. All the governments of the period attempted, first and foremost, to reverse Britain’s increasingly evident economic decline in what were, broadly, the same ways. This is not to say that their approaches were identical: the Heath government was, almost by definition, more hostile to the trade unions than were the governments of Wilson and Callaghan, but, basically, these administrations were recognisably similar in their presuppositions and formulae for improvement. These governments also existed at a time of rapid and, to many, disturbing social change, and against an often turbulent international background.
William D. Rubinstein

13. The Thatcher Era, 1979–90

Abstract
What we mean by ‘Thatcherism’ combines several separate themes: ‘rolling back’ the scope of the state; abandoning Keynesian notions of full employment in order to tame inflation; refusing to accede to outrageous trade union demands; lowering taxes and privatising many state industries. The Thatcher era lasted for 11 years, and not all of these became government policy at the same time or at once. Many of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet colleagues were not ‘Thatcherites’, and in many respects only her character and beliefs provided a unity to these themes.
William D. Rubinstein

14. In Thatcher’s Wake: John Major and Tony Blair, 1990–2000

Abstract
As Prime Minister, John Major had the difficult task of convincing the Conservative party and the wider electorate that he both was and was not Margaret Thatcher’s ‘son’. He had to show, as clearly as possible, both the continuities and innovations of his new administration. By and large, Major’s Cabinet attempted to do both. Norman Lamont (b.1942), a Thatcherite and Major’s deputy as Chief Secretary of the Treasury, 1989–90, who had been Major’s campaign manager, became Chancellor of the Exchequer. A number of other keen Thatcherites were also appointed, for instance Michael Howard (b.1941) at Employment and the sharp-tongued and controversial David Mellor (b.1949) as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Nevertheless, it was clear that Major had shifted the centre of gravity of the Cabinet to the Left, at least in Tory terms. Michael Heseltine had to be rewarded after his strong showing, and was made Environment minister, with responsibility for replacing the ‘poll tax’. Chris Patten (b.1945), a decided liberal and centrist — a close associate of Major’s — became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Kenneth Baker (b.1934), another relative liberal, became Home Secretary, while Douglas Hurd remained as Foreign Minister. The rhetoric and emphasis of the new order also changed. For instance, Major deliberately invited Ian McKellen, the actor, a homosexual campaigner, to Number 10, and several years later (in February 1994) Parliament voted to lower the age of consent for homosexual acts from 21 to 18.
William D. Rubinstein
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