A constitutional crisis over the role and power of the unelected House of Lords is the backdrop to two general elections in the same year, 1910. The Liberal Party wins both, and the Lords' power to veto legislation is trimmed. Home rule for Ireland is one of the most fiercely debated political issues. Edward VIII dies, but the constitutional monarchy remains strong, and George V becomes king.
Britain's declaration of war on Germany effectively suspends party politics, and from 1915 Britain has a coalition war government. Laissez-faire Britain experiences a dramatic expansion in the power and authority of government. A 1916 rebellion in Dublin and its suppression by Britain mark the beginning of the Irish war for independence.
A split in the Liberal Party marks its decline as one of the two main parties. The granting of universal male suffrage and limited women's suffrage triples the electorate. It makes Britain's move from aristocracy to democracy largely complete, and provides the base of support for the working-class Labor Party. In 1921 dominion status is conceded to the Irish Free State (Southern Ireland).
In 1924 the Labor Party, under Ramsay MacDonald, forms its first (minority) government. It lasts just one year but marks Labor's replacement of the Liberals as the main alternative party. The 1926 General Strike is a turning point in industrial relations. Trade union power is curbed, and the number of strikes declines. In 1926 Britain formally recognizes its imperial dominions as autonomous.
The year 1931 sees the greatest political upheaval in peacetime Britain. Faced with the fallout of the Great Depression and a sterling crisis, MacDonald's second Labor government falls, replaced by an emergency national coalition government. A general election ends in a Conservative landslide that transforms the make-up of the coalition. A series of national coalitions rules Britain for a decade.
In 1936 newly crowned King Edward VIII causes a political storm when he abdicates to marry an American divorcée. Faced with a fascist uprising in Spain, Germany's military buildup, and Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, Britain follows an overall foreign policy of nonintervention and appeasement. Nevertheless, vast air force and naval programs ready Britain for war.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) begins a bombing campaign in Britain, demanding that British troops withdraw from Ireland. As World War II begins, a British setback in Norway discredits Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain; Winston Churchill replaces him. The war overrides Britain's tradition of individual liberty: Conscription is mandatory, and jobs are made to serve the war effort.
A Labor landslide ends Churchill's coalition government, and Clement Attlee becomes prime minister. Labor's first parliamentary majority marks a political change of direction for the country towards socialism, with sweeping economic and social reforms. At Yalta, then Potsdam, the victorious Allies -- Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States -- meet to divide up postwar Europe.
The Conservatives under Churchill are returned to power in 1951, where they remain for the next 13 years. They retain the welfare state and continue most other Labor policies. "Consensus Britain," in which political parties broadly agree on Keynesian economic policy, will last for three decades. Queen Elizabeth II accedes to the throne of an empire in retreat in 1952.
In 1955 Churchill retires, and Anthony Eden becomes prime minister. After Egyptian President Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal, Britain tries to reoccupy it in a belated attempt to arrest the retreat from empire. But international pressure forces Britain to withdraw and Eden to resign. His replacement, Harold Macmillan, successfully patches up Britain's damaged relationship with the U.S.
The long Conservative tenure comes to an end, and a Labor government comes into power. The economic situation in 1966 forces Harold Wilson's government to resort to crisis management. Unrest in Northern Ireland increases; the British army takes over responsibility for security, and troops will remain for 30 years. In 1969 the legal voting age is lowered to 18.
Edward Heath, the new Conservative prime minister, tries to break the increasing power of the trade unions as strikes and industrial disputes proliferate. He attempts to ban strikes and calls a general election over the question, "Who governs Britain?" But Labor wins the election, and Harold Wilson, prime minister for the second time, complies with the unions' demands.
Labor's government grows fragile when it loses its majority in a series of by-election defeats and defections. Labor-sponsored referendums in Wales and Scotland to create devolved assemblies meet with defeat. Harold Wilson and his successor, James Callaghan, cannot come to terms with the labor unions. The result is crippling all-out strikes, the "Winter of Discontent."
The year 1979 marks a milestone in British history, with the election of the first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, at the head of a rejuvenated Conservative Party. Thatcher renounces the years of political consensus and sets out to end socialism in Britain. In 1982 Britain successfully repels an Argentine force from the contested Falkland Islands, and Thatcher's popularity soars.
Thatcher wins a resounding second victory in the 1983 general election, with a huge majority in Parliament. She begins a gradual limitation of the power of the trade unions that ends with a yearlong strike by the National Union of Mineworkers over the closure of 20 coal mines considered unproductive. The government's victory in the standoff marks a major shift in political power.
Thatcher wins an unprecedented third general election in 1987. But her insistence on replacing local property taxes with a deeply resented poll tax (a fixed per capita levy unrelated to ability to pay) and her unwillingness to fully integrate the pound into a common European currency alienates many in her own party. Faced with internal opposition, she resigns in 1990 and is replaced by John Major.
The Conservatives win their fourth consecutive election in 1992, but as an economic recession lingers, their popularity plummets. The question of Britain's union with Europe splits the party, but in 1993 Major ratifies the Maastricht Treaty with Britain's social chapter and single currency opt-outs. Personal scandals and the "mad cow disease" crisis embarrass the government.
Tony Blair's rejuvenated "New Labor" Party wins the 1997 election in a landslide. Purged of its traditional socialism, Labor now accepts many of Thatcher's reforms. Referendums establish "devolved" regional assemblies in Wales and Scotland. In 1998 the Good Friday accord is signed, and a new elected Northern Ireland assembly established. Labor is triumphantly reelected in 2001.
Tony Blair and the Labor Party maintain dominance; Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith fails to revive the opposition. But Blair faces opposition within his party and public protest as he pursues a strong alliance with the United States over possible war with Iraq. The Good Friday accord in Northern Ireland falls apart, and the province is again under direct British rule.
Tony Blair wins Commons backing for joining the U.S. in war against Iraq, but divisions over the war and the government's failure to deliver on promises to improve public services lead to a major Labor Party rebellion. Several Labor MPs resign, including Commons leader Robin Cook. Unlike U.S. president Bush, Blair advocates a strong role for the U.N. in post-conflict Iraq.
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