Britain in the 20th Century

By Tim Lambert

Britain changed hugely during the 20th century. Life for ordinary people was transformed and became much more comfortable.

Life was hard for the working class at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900 surveys showed that between 15% and 20% of the population were living at subsistence (bare survival) level. Worse between 8% and 10% of the population were living below subsistence level. These figures seem shocking to us but remember things had always been that way. Indeed earlier in history, things were worse. There had always been a large part of the population living at subsistence level or below it.

In 1906 a Liberal government was elected and they introduced a number of reforms. From 1906 local councils were allowed to provide free school meals. In 1907 school medical inspections began. In 1908 an act limited miners to working an 8 hour day. Then in 1909, the Trade Boards Act set up trade boards that fixed minimum wages in certain very low paid trades. Also in 1909, an Act set up labour exchanges to help the unemployed find work.

In 1908 an Old Age Pensions Act gave small pensions to people over 70. The pensions were hardly generous but they were a start. From 1925 pensions were paid to men over 65 and women over 60. Widows were also given pensions. In 1911 the National Insurance Act was passed. All employers and employees made contributions to a fund. If a worker was ill he was entitled to free treatment by a doctor. (Normally you had to pay and it was expensive). If he could not work because of illness the worker was given a small amount of money to live on. However, his family was not entitled to free medical treatment.

From 1911 workers in certain trades such as building and shipbuilding who frequently had periods of unemployment all contributed to a fund. If unemployed they could claim a small amount of money for a maximum of 15 weeks in any year. Again it was hardly generous but in 1920 the scheme was extended to most (not all) workers and they were given money for more than 15 weeks. By 1912 most people had Saturday afternoon off work. However, shop workers were usually forced to work all day on Saturday. An act of 1912 compensated them by stating they must have half a day off during the week.

Meanwhile in 1902 Balfour’s Education Act created state secondary education. In the early 20th century the upper class went to public schools. The middle class went to fee-paying grammar schools and the working class went to elementary schools. From 1907 grammar schools were given grants if they gave 25% of their places to poor pupils. Working-class children could take an exam and if they passed could go to grammar school. However, some children won a place but did not go because their parents could not afford to buy the school uniform and equipment.

In 1909 the House of Lords rejected Lloyd George’s budget. In response, the Liberals passed the Parliament Act, which stated the House of Lords, could not interfere with financial bills. The Lords could no longer veto any bills but only delay them for two years. In 1949 that was reduced to one year.

By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote but women were not allowed to. So in 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organization was moderate and its members were called suffragists.

However in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were called suffragettes. Some suffragettes committed crimes like arson and vandalism. They also planted bombs. However, the WSPU did not want votes for all women -only those who met a property qualification. The suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.

By no means all women were suffragettes. Many women were anti-suffragettes. They opposed women being allowed to vote. In Britain, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed in 1908. Its president was Mary Humphry Ward, a famous novelist. On the other hand, many men supported the suffragettes and wanted women to be allowed to vote.

In 1918 in Britain all men over 21 were allowed to vote. Women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men).

Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. A British expeditionary force was sent to France, led by Sir John French. It fought the Germans at Mons on 23 August. The Germans continued to advance but the French and British halted them at the Battle of the Marne in September. The Germans tried to outflank the allies but were blocked. Both sides dug trenches to protect themselves and soon the trenches ran in a continuous line. The war became a stalemate.

In 1916 the British launched an attack on the Somme. Both sides suffered horrific losses. However during this battle, the British unleashed a secret weapon – the tank. The first tanks were too unreliable and too few in number to affect the outcome of the battle but they were a sign of things to come.

In 1917 Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare. They sank any ships from any country attempting to reach Britain. As a result food in Britain ran very short but the crisis ended when the convoy system was introduced. Merchant ships traveled in groups protected by warships. Nevertheless, in 1918 rationing of meat, butter, and cheese began. Furthermore, as a result of the German policy, the USA entered the war.

In the Spring of 1918 Germany launched a series of offensives in northern France. The allies fought on with their ‘backs against the wall’ and in August the British launched a counter-attack using tanks. The Germans were gradually pushed back and on 11 November they signed an armistice (ceasefire).

By the early 20th century the trade unions had become powerful and they were increasingly militant. However, they met with opposition. In 1901 came the Taff Vale case when a court decided that trade unions could be sued for damages if they held a strike. It was repealed by the Trade Disputes Act 1906. In 1909 came the Osborne Judgement, which said that trade unions could not use members’ subscriptions to fund political parties (i.e. the Labour Party). The case was brought by a man named W. V. Osborne, who was secretary of the Walthamstow branch on the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants. It was repealed by the Trade Union Act 1913, which allowed individual trade union members to opt-out of paying political fees.

From 1923 to 1929 Britain had a conservative government with Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) as prime minister. (Except for a short period in 1924 when a minority Labour government held office). During this time the general strike was held. During the 1920s old industries like coal mining were declining. So in 1921 employers cut wages. In 1926 they proposed to cut wages and increase working hours. The miner’s leader A.J. Cooke said ‘Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day’. the miners went on strike and appealed to the other unions to help them. The result was a general strike from midnight on 3 May 1926.

However the government was prepared. Realizing trade unions might unite and call a general strike they formed the Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies in 1925. Middle-class volunteers helped to run services like buses and kept supplies moving. Troops and special constables also helped. The general strike ended on 12 May although the miners remained on strike for another 6 months. In the end, the miners went back to work defeated. In 1927 the Trade Disputes Act made general strikes illegal.

In 1922 the BBC began broadcasting radio programs. Radio first became common in the 1930s. By 1933 about half the households in Britain had a ‘wireless’ and by 1939 most of them did. Television began in 1936. It was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. In the 1920s some people went to see silent films but from about 1930 all films were ‘talkies’. During the 1930s cinema-going became much more popular and many people went once or even twice a week.

In 1929 the world was plunged into a severe economic recession. By 1932 22.8% of insured workers were unemployed. However, unemployment began to fall in 1933. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. By 1938 it stood at around 10%.

However in the late 1930s the North of England remained depressed and unemployment in the region remained very high. Traditional industries such as textiles and coal mining were severely affected by the Depression. Yet in the Midlands and the South of England new industries brought some prosperity and unemployment was lower. New industries included making cars and aircraft and electronics.

During the 1920s and 1930s a series of ‘hunger marches’ were held from depression areas to London. The first was from Glasgow in 1922 but the most famous was the Jarrow march of 1936 when 200 shipyard workers marched from Jarrow to London. The hunger marches gained a great deal of publicity for the plight of the unemployed but they did not succeed in their aim of actually reducing unemployment.

However because living standards had risen so much an unemployed man in 1936 was about as well off as an unskilled worker 30 years before. Nevertheless, life for the unemployed was grim. They lived in relative poverty.

Nevertheless despite the mass unemployment of the 1930s for most people with a job living standards rose substantially. That was partly due to a fall in prices. The price of essentials like food and rent fell 15% during the decade. So for most people life became steadily more comfortable during the 1930s. Furthermore, from 1939, all workers were entitled to a minimum of 1 week’s annual paid holiday. Before then the only paid holidays many people had were bank holidays.

When war began on 3 September 1939 it was feared that the Germans would bomb British cities causing great loss of life. So children from the cities were evacuated to the countryside. Altogether 827,000 schoolchildren with 103,000 teachers and helpers left the big cities. Furthermore, 524,000 children below school age and their mothers left. However, most of the ‘evacuees’ soon returned home. The bombing raid on British cities failed to materialize – at first. It was severe in 1940-41.

On 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill became prime minister of Britain.

Rationing in Britain began in September 1939 when petrol was rationed. As the war continued rationing became stricter and stricter. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon, and ham were rationed. Tea was rationed from July 1940. Then in May 1941 cheese was rationed and from June 1941 eggs were rationed. From July 1941 clothes were rationed and you had to save up coupons to buy them. From July 1942 sweets were rationed.

From 1942 dried (powdered) eggs arrived from the USA. Meanwhile, the people were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ and the amount of land under cultivation increased from 12 million acres in 1939 to 18 million acres in 1945.

On 7 September 1940 the Germans began bombing London and by 1 January 1941 over 13,000 Londoners were killed. Other cities heavily bombed during the ‘blitz’ included Birmingham, Coventry, Bristol, Portsmouth, and Plymouth.

German bombing lessened after mid-1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. From then on most German armed forces were concentrated in the east. However, in June 1944, the Germans unleashed a ‘secret weapon’. It was a kind of rocket called a VI flying bomb. (The British public called them ‘doodlebugs’). From September 1944 V2 rockets were launched. altogether 1,115 V2s hit England and about half of them hit London. The last V2 was fired on 27 March 1945. At first, the government claimed the explosions were caused by exploding gas mains (which didn’t fool anybody!). They did not admit the truth until November 1944. Hitler called his new weapons vengeance weapons yet German bombing failed. It failed to dent British morale and it failed to seriously affect industrial output.

About 1 million houses were destroyed or severely damaged during World War II. About 40,000 civilians were killed. After the war, Britain was left with a severe shortage of housing. The Housing Act of 1946 gave grants and subsidies for building houses. By 1951 900,000 new houses had been built.

Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. Immediately afterward a general election was held (the first since November 1935). The Labour Party won by a landslide and Clement Attlee (1883-1967) became prime minister until 1951. Labour set about introducing a welfare state. By the National Insurance Act of 1946, everyone was entitled to unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, old-age pensions, and widows pensions. The National Health Service was introduced in 1948. (Many of the ideas for the welfare state were laid out by a Liberal named William Beveridge 1879-1963).

During World War II Britain was run by a coalition government. In 1944 it passed the Butler Education Act. (It was named after a Conservative, Richard Butler). In the future, all 11-year-old children would sit an exam (it became known as the 11+). Afterward, some went to grammar school to study academic subjects while others went to secondary modern schools to study technical subjects. Both types of schools were supposed to be equal. (In the official phrase they had ‘parity of esteem’). However in the eyes of the public if you ‘passed’ the 11+ you went to a grammar school. If you ‘failed’ you went to a secondary modern. In 1947 the school leaving age was raised to 15.

However, the period 1945-1951 was one of ‘national austerity’ when many goods were in short supply and long queues were common. Rationing continued and it grew stricter than during the war. Conditions were hardest in 1947 when there was a severe winter. Bread was rationed in July 1946 and in November 1947 potatoes were rationed.

The Labour Party also nationalized certain industries (made them state-owned). Coal was nationalized in 1947. So were the railways. In 1948 gas and electricity were nationalized. Meanwhile, shortages gradually lessened. Clothes rationing ended in 1949 and petrol rationing ended in 1950. However, the rationing of butter and meat lasted until 1954.

However, in the mid-1950s, Britain became an affluent society. For the first time, ordinary people had substantial amounts of money to spend on luxuries. Consumer goods became common. By 1960 44% of homes owned a washing machine. In 1959 about 2/3 of homes owned a vacuum cleaner.

In the 1960s Britain became a truly affluent society. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners became near-universal. Cars and fridges became common. Foreign holidays became common for the first time. Central heating, electric blankets, electric kettles and toasters, and a host of other goods became common in the 1960s. By 1975 90% of homes had a vacuum cleaner, 85% had a fridge and 70% owned a washing machine. Furthermore, 52% had a telephone and 47% had central heating.

Meanwhile, until the mid-1970s, there was full employment in most areas of Britain. For most of the period 1945-1973 unemployment was less than 5%. By 1973 it was creeping upwards but it was still only 3%.

From 1951 to 1964 Britain was ruled by the Conservatives. From 1951 to 1955 Winston Churchill was Prime Minister. Anthony Eden who was Prime Minister till 1957 replaced him. He was followed by Harold Macmillan who was prime minister till 1963. Sir Alec-Douglas Home was prime minister for a short period in 1963-64. However, in 1964 Labour won a general election and Harold Wilson became prime minister. Labour won another election in 1966. Wilson remained prime minister until 1970.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, most secondary schools became comprehensives. Also in the 1960s, there was a big expansion of further and higher education. In 1945 there were only 17 universities. By the 1970s there were 46. There were also 30 polytechnics. (In 1992 they were upgraded to universities). In 1973 the school leaving age was raised to 16. In 1988 a national curriculum was introduced.

Meanwhile, in the years after 1945, the trade unions grew very powerful. By 1970 their membership had almost doubled. Nearly half the workforce belonged to a union. In the winter of 1972, the coal miners went on strike and the government was forced to give in to their demands. They went on strike again in the winter of 1974. This time Heath was determined not to back down and he called an election in February 1974 on the issue ‘Who governs the country?’. However, Heath lost the election and Wilson became prime minister again. Wilson won another election in October 1974.

Meanwhile in 1973, Britain joined the EEC (forerunner of the EU). The first elections for the European Parliament were held in 1979.

By 1973 the long period of economic prosperity was coming to an end. By the spring of 1975 unemployment had climbed to 1 million. It was over 5% of the workforce. By 1977 it had risen to 5.5% and in 1979 it stood at 5.3%. Meanwhile, there was also high inflation.

In 1978 to tackle inflation the government tried to persuade trade unions to limit pay rises to no more than 5%. The trade unions refused to accept the limit and Britain was hit by a wave of strikes. As a result, the government’s popularity diminished and in may 1979 the Conservatives won a general election. Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister.

In 1980-82 Britain suffered a severe recession. Unemployment rose sharply. By January 1982 it was 11.5%, double the May 1979 figure. Not surprisingly the government was deeply unpopular. However, in April 1982, the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands. The British sent a task force and on 14 June 1982, the Falklands were recaptured. The war greatly boosted the government’s popularity and it contributed to the government’s victory in the general election of 1983. (The Conservatives won a third election in 1987).

Meanwhile, the recession ended in the autumn of 1982 and recovery began. Furthermore, unemployment leveled off. (However, unemployment remained very high until 1986. In the summer of that year, the official figure was 14.1%. However, unemployment then fell steadily. The government also succeeded in greatly reducing inflation. Despite the mass unemployment of the 1980s, most people with jobs experienced a significant rise in their living standards during the decade.

On the other hand, the percentage of people living in poverty increased. That was partly due to mass unemployment. Another cause was the rapidly rising number of single-parent families many of whom lived on state benefits.

The Conservatives also sold council houses cheaply and the number of council houses fell significantly. The government also privatized industries. British Aerospace and Cable and Wireless were sold in 1981. Then in 1982-83 the National Freight Corporation and Associated Business Ports were sold. British Gas was sold in 1986. British Telecom was sold in 1984. British gas was sold in 1986.

A showdown between the government and the trade unions took place with the 1984-85 coal strike. The National Coal Board announced the closure of certain collieries. Some Yorkshire coal miners went on strike in March 1984. However, the miner’s trade union leader, Arthur Scargill, refused to call a national ballot to decide if all miners should go on strike. Instead, it was left to each region to decide. That was a fatal mistake because miners in Nottinghamshire (who were much less likely to lose their jobs) stayed at work. As long as some miners kept working the strike could not succeed.

Furthermore, the government was in a strong position. For one thing, they had stockpiled coal. Other generating stations that usually burned coal could burn a mixture of coal and oil. Also, striking miners could not claim welfare benefits. So all the government had to do was wait until poverty forced the strikers back to work. The miner’s strike began to crumble in November 1984 as miners drifted back to work. By January more than half of all strikers had returned to work and the strike ended in March 1985. It was a severe defeat for militant trade unionism. Furthermore, during the 1980s the government passed a series of laws restricting the powers of the trade unions.

In 1990 the government introduced a new tax in England called the community charge (popularly known as the poll tax). It was very unpopular and in 1993 it was replaced by the council tax. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990. She was replaced by John Major.

In the middle of 1990, a long recession started and unemployment rose sharply. Economic recovery began in 1993. From 1993 onward unemployment fell steadily and by 2000 it was at a level not seen since 1979. Meanwhile, in April 1992, the Conservatives won another general election, even though the country was in recession. However, in 1997 Labour finally won an election and Tony Blair became prime minister.

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