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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Great Britain after World War II

During the late 1900s, many countries in Western Europe tried to consolidate the economic gains in the early postwar period. Other countries made political advances, turning from dictatorships and military governments toward democracy. Although progress was far from smooth, Western Europe generally made significant strides toward political and economic integration.

Great Britain
By the mid-1960s, Britain's postwar recovery seemed uncertain. By the end of the decade, the country faced severe economic problems and had decided to pull back from significant defense commitments overseas. Outdated factories, low productivity, and worker apathy made it difficult for Britain to compete with other industrial nations. The economy came under even greater stress as the government raised taxes and increased borrowing. The 1980s would witness a turnaround for British productivity, but unemployment and inflation would continue.

Margaret Thatcher. In a decisive victory in the general election of 1979, Britain's Conservative Party came to power. The party's leader, Margaret Thatcher, became prime minister, the first woman to hold that office. She argued that the government regulated business and industry too closely and taxed the British people too heavily. She planned to start Britain on the road back to prosperity by substantially reducing the government's role in the economy.

Over the next few years, Thatcher began to implement her ideas. She oversaw cuts in social spending, including the complete elimination of some programs. Her opponents charged that Thatcher's real intention was to dismantle the welfare state completely. Thatcher pressed ahead nonetheless, leading successful efforts to reduce taxes and to ease government regulation of business. She also began to privatize Britain's many government-owned industries. Not least, Thatcher managed finally to break the overwhelming influence that Britain's labor unions had exercised over the economy since the 1970s.

Aided by the development of new oil fields in the North Sea, the economy had begun to rebound by the mid-1980s, most notably in southern England. The country's northern areas did not fare as well, however. In this predominantly industrial region, unemployment remained very high. This was partly the result of a general shift in Britain's economy, like in the United States, from heavy industry to services. Although Thatcher pointed to an overall improvement in the economy, critics charged that her policies favored the wealthy and created an unequal society.

Thatcher brought a strict, no-nonsense approach to Britain's foreign policy as well as to economic affairs. In 1982 she ordered British troops and naval forces to retake the Falklands after Argentina invaded the British-held islands in the South Atlantic. Maintaining strong ties with the United States represented a consistent theme of Thatcher's approach to foreign policy. In 1990 she played an essential role in forming the international coalition that ultimately forced Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait in 1991.

Leadership changes. With a downturn in the British economy during the late 1980s, Thatcher began to lose popularity. Even her support within the Conservative Party began to weaken. Her situation became critical following her implementation of the so-called poll tax. This tax, which replaced property taxes as the source of funds for local government, charged all taxpayers the same rate, or percentage, regardless of their income level. The tax proved highly unpopular with the British people. Many Conservatives realized that they would have to reverse the tax if their party was to win the next election. Thatcher, however, continued to support the poll tax as the fairest and efficient way of financing local government.

As Thatcher's popularity continued to fall, her opponents in the Conservative Party challenged her leadership. Convinced by her closest advisers that she could not win the fight for the party's administration, she stepped down in November 1990. More than a decade after first taking office, Margaret Thatcher had served longer than any British prime minister in this century when she left.

In her place, the Conservatives chose John Major, a leading member of Thatcher's cabinet. Major was generally considered more moderate than Thatcher in many of his views, especially on a closer union with Europe. Still, he shared Thatcher's belief in free-enterprise economics and her support for incredibly close relations with the United States. Major was a strong supporter of the United States in the Persian Gulf crisis of 1991. During his term of office, Britain's economy began to pick up once again.

After nearly 18 years of a Conservative government, however, the British electorate decided on a change, prompted by scandals and incompetence in the government. In 1997 the Labour Party, led by the young moderate Tony Blair, won control of the government for the first time since 1979. Although Labour promised several changes, they did not propose to restore the British welfare state to the level it had reached in the 1970s. Many of Thatcher's political and economic ideas had taken hold. Several challenges faced Blair nonetheless. Among them was the lingering problem of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland. After creating the independent Republic of Ireland in 1922, Northern Ireland had remained part of Britain. Many people hoped that the old antagonism between Britain and Ireland would finally diminish, but new disagreements soon emerged. Over the years, the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland gained control of the government and dominated the country's economy. The lack of political power and the limited economic opportunities among Northern Ireland's Catholic minority increasingly produced resentment and ultimately erupted in violence.

In the late 1960s, Catholics in Northern Ireland began to demonstrate an end to discrimination in employment and housing. At first peaceful, these demonstrations soon turned violent. To keep the peace, in 1969, the British government sent troops to Northern Ireland, and the Catholics saw these troops as representatives of a foreign power. This stationing of soldiers in Northern Ireland became a permanent policy. Large numbers of British troops remained garrisoned there into the mid-1990s.

Throughout the 1970s, the violence in Northern Ireland escalated as Catholic and Protestant extremists alike took advantage of the situation. Assassinations, car bombings, and attacks on British troops became an almost daily occurrence. The most active extremist group was the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Almost entirely Catholic, the IRA wanted to drive the British out of the north and unite Ireland. The IRA took its "war of liberation" far beyond Irish borders, bombing public sites in several British cities and attacking British soldiers in other parts of Europe.

In addition to taking solid military measures, the British government tried to end the violence in Northern Ireland through political means. Progress came in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which gave the Republic of Ireland a voice in the affairs of Northern Ireland. In time, however, both Catholics and Protestants denounced the agreement. In the early 1990s, generally improving relations between Britain and the Republic of Ireland combined with growing pressure from Europe and the United States brought new hope for a settlement in Northern Ireland. In 1993 the British and Irish prime ministers jointly pledged their commitment to self-determination in Northern Ireland. The IRA declared a cease-fire the following year, but the British insisted that the IRA would have to disarm before talks could begin. The IRA refused and, in 1996, renewed its campaign of terror. Peace talks resumed, however, following the Labour Party's victory in the British elections of 1997. A breakthrough seemed to come with the Good Friday peace accords, signed in 1998. Hopes were high that a lasting peace might soon become a reality.


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