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Outline Political History 1800-1999

King George III died in 1820 and his son became King George IV who died in 1830, succeeded by William IV who died in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne.

In the nineteenth century the British political system was changing (following the lead set by the French) with power moving to political parties, propagandist organisations and organised economic groups. In parliament the world was split between two main parties, the Whigs and the Tories.

The Whig Party of the late eighteenth century had held power for most of the preceding hundred years. The party had been established by people opposed to the autocratic power of the Crown but had been supported by George I. Supported by non-conformist religious groups and traders the Whigs of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century were supporters of free trade and demanding parliamentary reform.

The Tory Party gained most of their support from the landed gentry and the established church. They regained power when the (German) George III ascended to the throne as he wished to be an 'English Gentleman' and felt an affinity for the tories. The Tories gained ground in the mid eighteenth century and formed the government for most of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Tory Party were not in favour of the laissez-faire approach taken by the Whigs and often fought for the common people against the hardships of the early industrial revolution. The Tories held power for most of the late eighteenth century and the first thirty years of the nineteenth.

In 1830 the Whig party returned to power and in 1832 they passed the Great Reform Act which laid the foundations for modern democracy by extending the vote to middle class men (working class men and women of all ranks were still excluded however). The Reform Act of 1832 gave the vote to almost half a million more men, about one in five men then had the vote but women were still excluded, the Whigs then joined with the Radicals to form the Liberal Party. The Tory party gained power in 1834 but lost again in 1835 and the Whigs then remained in control until the 1840's.

In the mid 1840's the Tory leader Peel championed the repeal of the Corn Laws (protecting British farmers against cheap imports) which caused a split in the Tory Party which had many of the landed gentry in its ranks. This destabilised the party and the Whigs held power for most of the first half of the nineteenth century. About this time the Tory party reformed itself as the Conservative & Unionist Party (usually just called the Conservative Party these days).

In 1855 there was a major change in the way the country was run when the Civil Service became a proper professional body with entry by competitive exam (prior to this civil servants were appointed by the monarch). This freed the Civil Service from political interference (concerns over which had prompted this change in the rules). Politicians naturally did not like the independent Civil Service but it was not until the later 1980s that the rather bureaucratic 'two-party' system allowed them to wrest much of the control back into their hands by appointing large numbers of 'advisors' (in effect a non-independent Civil Service, less concerned with the country and more responsive to the needs of the 'Party' that pays them).

For the later nineteenth century power moved between the Liberal (Whig) party and the Conservatives (Tory) but with the Conservatives having the major say in policy. The second Reform Act of 1867 pushed through by the Conservative leader Disraeli, gave the vote to all rate payers and doubled the number of people eligible to vote. Following this Act roughly ten percent of the population had the vote but women were still excluded and by this time the Women's Suffrage Movement was regularly holding demonstrations. In 1869 the law was changed, allowing women ratepayers to vote in municipal elections.

The Ballot Act of 1872 introduced the secret vote (often called the Australian vote at the time as it was first introduced in South Australia in 1858).

In 1892 the first socialist MP was elected to parliament, a Scot by the name of Keir Hardie (he was actually a communist, the Labour party did not exist as such). In 1900 the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society joined forces and formed the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party.

At this time most of the actual power in the country was represented by established interests, agricultural and industrial) and for the next half century or so the country was mainly run by a series of coalition governments with no one party having a clear measure of control.

In 1901 Queen Victoria died and Edward VII became king.

In the early Twentieth Century the Conservatives started well but lost to a Liberal landslide in 1906. The first Labour MPs were elected in 1906 (the same year that F. G. Hopkins discovered Vitamins) and pressure for improvements in working conditions increased. The Liberals, fearful of the growing popularity of the newly re-named Labour Party, passed several laws to aid the working people. One of the most important was the Trades Disputes Act of 1906 which allowed workers to strike without breaking the law. Also in 1906 Finland became the first European country to give all women the vote, followed in 1907 by Norway.

In 1910 King Edward VII died and George V became monarch. In 1911 the Parliament Act dramatically reduced the power of the House of Lords. The former mighty Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was collapsing and Britain and Russia were maneuvering for control of Afghanistan. The situation in the Balkans, where the end of the old order had unleashed deadly animosities, was a matter of real concern to all European countries and was in part responsible for the First World War. This war saw large numbers of women moving into industry to take up the jobs left behind by the soldiers and that helped change the view of women in society. A coalition government was formed during the First World War.

The 1918 The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gave the vote to women householders over 30.


In 1918 the war ended and the law changed when the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30, providing they had certain educational and economic qualifications, ordinary working women were not in the main included. In the same year Germany gave all women the vote. In the 1918 General Election the Irish Countess Constance Markiewicz (who's husband was Polish) became the first woman MP, but as she believed in independence for Ireland she refused to take her seat in Parliament. In the following year Lady Astor became the first woman MP to take a seat in Parliament and the law was changed to allow women to work in various professions and also made them liable for jury duty. In 1920 the Americans gave all women the vote (Australia, New Zealand and various other countries had done so many years earlier).

Between the wars the Conservatives dominated the political scene (in part due to the rise of Labour eating into the Liberal vote) but coalition government was still commonplace. By 1922 the Labour Party was officially recognised as the principal opposition party and in 1924 the first (minority) Labour government was elected with Ramsay Macdonald as the Prime Minister. In 1928 all women received the vote, by this time all men over the age of 21 had been enfranchised. In 1929 the Labour party, with the aid of the Liberals in a loose coalition, again formed a government but in the early 1930's several of Labour's leaders joined with the Conservative government in a coalition to deal with the Great Depression. This coalition government, calling itself the National Government, lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War whereupon it reformed as the War Cabinet.

The 1931 Electoral Reform Act ended 'plural voting', everyone got only one vote regardless of how many homes they owned in different areas.

In 1936 King George died and Edward VIII ascended to the throne, however there were problems with his loyalty and his desire to marry a divorced American and he abdicated. George V had never expected to be king, a shy and quiet man he proved his courage by remaining in London during the Second World War in spite of suggestions that he should be evacuated to Canada. The post war election brought a majority Labour government to power in 1945. The Conservatives regained power in 1951 and in 1952 King George VI died and Queen Elizabeth was crowned.

The Labour gained to power in the mid 1960's but by the end of that decade the cosy world of two-party British politics was more to do with 'beating' the other party than with running the country. Under the Labour leader Harold Wilson policies had increasingly been replaced by vote winning 'initiatives' and presentation was increasingly displacing content. The Conservatives returned to power in the early 1970's and one of their 'initiatives' was the abolition of 'retail price maintenance'. This had formerly allowed manufacturers to stipulate the price their goods would be sold at, and prices were commonly printed on the packaging by the manufacturers. It was a certain Mr Cohen, who happened to own the Tesco supermarket chain, that persuaded the prime minister that its abolition would be a vote winner as it meant that supermarkets could buy in bulk and sell cheaply. The longer term effect was the end of the smaller independent high street traders and 'corner shops', with all the social consequences that go with that. It also effectively shifted the balance of economic control from the government to the supermarket owners to the point where the government is forced to ask the supermarkets (many of whom have no allegiance to or concern for Britain) if any given planned initiative is acceptable to them. The full implications of this weakening of the governments position and the social consequences of the loss of independent traders will take many years to develop but the early signs are not encouraging. One effect is that wealth is siphoned out of communities instead of being re-invested. Older folk and the poor are of no interest to the chain stores as they do not spend much money, so no provision is made to cater for these groups and with the loss of corner shops those who do not own a motor car are gravely disadvantaged.

Edward Heath as Conservative Prime Minister went to the polls over the growing problems caused by strong and militant Unions in the mid 1970's and Labour just managed to oust him. Labour then held power until the end of the decade when the Conservatives swept back with a landslide victory under Margaret Thatcher's leadership. Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister for the whole of the 1980's, becoming the longest sitting prime minister in history, but resigned in 1990. She adopted a policy known as 'monitarism' (based on work done by an American economist), this was much talked about at the time, less publicised was the fact that the author of the policy had deliberately fudged the figures and by the time this policy was quietly dropped it had been completely discredited. Mrs Thatcher had felt that the Civil Service was not functioning as she wished and believed that their 'inertia' was in part to blame for the failure of her policies. She determined to undermine the power weilded by both the civil service and the trades unions, passing legislation to restrict the unions and appointing 'advisors' to help implement her ideas. There were a number of scandals that undermined confidence in the Conservative party and Mrs Thatcher herself ended up being very unpopular, she was ousted by a political coup and was replaced by John Major. Much to everyone's surprise the Conservatives under John Major won the following election (1992) but the party itself was in some disarray. To achieve the election victory they had spent a fortune on advertising, running the party into massive debt. The other parties then copied this approach, focusing on advertising rather than policy with the result that but the Labour and Conservative parties ran into serious debt problems and ended up being investigated for fraud and for selling peerages.

Following the surprise 1992 defeat the Labour party reconstructed itself to become 'New Labour' with Tony Blair as leader. They had enthusiastically adopted the use of 'advisors' in place of properly trained civil servants and deployed large numbers of 'media consultants' to put forward a sort of ad-hoc populist 'policy' based on the views of the 600 or so people invited to join 'focus groups'. Naturally with such an advertising lead campaign, and the problems within the Conservative and Liberal parties, New Labour won a landslide in the 1997 election. By this time the post-war two-party system of 'simplified democracy' was deeply entrenched so politicians should have felt very secure, however it was becoming increasingly apparent that the government had in fact handed away much of the control it had once held and divested itself of many of its former responsibilities. Care for the elderly was now the responsibility of charities such as Help the Aged, the homeless are dealt with by the charity Shelter.

Unfortunately some idiot told the politicians just how much money was being given to charity, inside Westminster pudgy little fingers began making involuntary grasping movements and more legislation was passed allowing central government to get a bigger 'cut'. The damage done to charity in the country was incalculable, under the new government guidelines 80% of the charity workers now spent 80% of their time begging for money to pay themselves wages. Of course these wages are taxed and the new 'limited company' model for charities meant they also faced additional indirect taxation burdens. It has been estimated than something like 20% of the money donated to the 'needy' is now siphoned off by Westminster and charities are faced with 'mission creep' as the government insists they implement strategies designed to support the political parties advertising campaigns rather than the people they were set up to help. At one point the Prime Minister tried to hijack a charity conference for a sales pitch and got a well deserved slow hand clap from the ladies of the WRVS.

This move toward an amoral and cynical 'corporate culture' approach to 'the business of politics' soon backfired as people became increasingly disenchanted by 'sound bites' and the social and financial instability caused by poorly drafted legislation. The resulting loss of interest in politics saw a steady decline in the number of people bothering to vote, by the later 1990s the 'political party' as a mass movement has virtually ceased to exist. In terms of the membership the New Labour party was in fact the smallest political party ever to rule the country. Westminster began looking at ways to get more votes cast, postal voting was implemented (in spite of the fraud it generated), mainly because if too few people bothered to vote the present constitution allows the Queen to select a government. This was obviously something of a worry in Westminster and a general move toward removing that constitutional safety net was started, although the general public and the armed forces did not really see the benefits of setting up an elected dictatorship.

The party politicians were getting increasingly desperate as merely being a loyal party member was no longer a guarantee of a cosy and comfortable life. This was a matter of some concern for politicians, who awarded themselves pay rises and sought appearances on television to 'raise their profile'. Policy and principle were abandoned and all parties hired public relations experts on exorbitant fees, who urged a move toward 'focus groups' selected from the 'floating voters' (people who said they had no particular political allegiance) by opinion pollsters. This lead to the whole business of government being much more tightly controlled by newspaper editors, who set the agenda for the floating voters (to the point that when a foreign businessman who happened to be a major British newspaper owner visited the country politicians of all partied dropped everything to rush round and curtsey before the 'great man'). Legislation then became a matter of some urgency as the 'vote winning initiative' had to be passed whilst the topic it related to was still in the papers, and a flood of hastily drafted and ill considered legislation was generated with predictably messy consequences. Unsurprisingly the population became aware of this, further reducing the perceived authority of central government. When an attempt was made to quietly pass a law allowing government ministers to dream up laws and push them through without any vetting by parliament (the Regulatory Reform Bill, often referred to as the Abolition of parliament Bill)the general public realies that this was simply a method of speeding up legislation to keep it in sync with the media agenda and objected strongly enough to stop the law being passed (at least for a time). This greatly annoyed the Westminster crowd, the fury and frustration in the replies to letters on the matter shows just how important this was to their PR offensive.

Employment in the UK

In Britain, for at least 150 years before 1939, the supply of labour always exceeded demand except in wartime, and economic crises accompanied by mass unemployment were recurrent from 1785. The percentage of unemployed in trade unions averaged 6% during 1883-1913 and 14.2% (of those covered by the old Unemployment Insurance Acts) 1921-38. World War II and the rebuilding and expansion that followed meant shortage of labour rather than unemployment in the Western world, and in Britain in the 1950s the unemployment rate fell to 1.5%. Fluctuation in employment returned in the 1960s, and in the recession of the mid-1970s to 1980s was a worldwide problem. In Britain deflationary economic measures tended to exacerbate the trend, and in the mid-1980s the rate had risen to 14% (although the basis on which it is calculated has in recent years been changed several times (ostensibly to make it 'more understandable' by the public) and many commentators argue that the real rate is higher). Since Sept 1988 it has been measured as the total or percentage of the working population unemployed and claiming benefit. This only includes people aged 18 or over, since the under-18s are assumed to be in full-time education or training, which is not always the case. As the British economy experienced significant economic growth between 1986 and 1989, the rate of unemployment fell to a low of 5.6% in April 1990 (using the post-1988 definition) but rose again during the subsequent recession, reaching a peak of 10.5% in April 1993. As the economy recovered, it fell once again, standing at 9.5% in April 1994.

Trades Unions


A law passed in 1562 called 'The Statute of Artificers' made it illegal to employ men or women in a trade before they had served a seven year apprenticeship. (It was never strictly enforced for women, as many guilds still allowed members to employ their wives and daughters in workshops.)

With the development of industrialization in the later eighteenth century there was an increasing rift between those who owned the factories (those with capital) and the people who worked in them (the workers). This lead to a number of laws intended to maintain the rights of all concerned but these were in general poorly administered. Most notable was the Combination Act of 1799 which effectively outlawed trades unions completely (this legislation was officially introduced to prevent the development of revolutionary organisations which might topple the state).

In the early nineteenth century ordinary working people (as opposed to skilled craftsmen) began to form themselves into trades unions, which worried both the government, who were largely drawn from the land owning rich, and the increasingly powerful industrialists. In 1819 the army along with the local militia, commanded by a local land owner by the name of De Trafford, was used to `suppress` a peaceful gathering on an open area called Saint Peter's field in Manchester. The cavalry charged with drawn swords, killing several people and wounding hundreds more, the event (on the site of the present day Peter Street) went down in history as the Peterloo Massacre.

The new industries brought new trades and new working practices, as machinery developed there came a division between 'fitters' who use hand tools and 'turners' who use machine tools. Home workers such as weavers had little need for a trades union although they did operate their own 'guilds', but factory work required a change in approach and the trades unions were gaining strength.

The economic recession of the early nineteenth century brought great hardship and people were demonstrating in large numbers. There were a series of attacks on knitting machines around 1812, the army was called out and the ringleaders were arrested. These people were branded 'Luddites' but in the main they were only calling for the proper implementation of the existing laws.

The principal laws on employment dated back to the Middle Ages (known as the Master & Servant Law), and made strikes illegal. Under this law a worker could be imprisoned for 'breach of contract' if he went on strike, the employer could be fined if he failed to pay the agreed rate of pay. Unions and associations were formed however and several skilled trades operated a 'closed shop' where only members of their organisation were allowed to work in a particular factory or workshop.

In 1824 the Combination Act was repealed but there was a sudden increase in violence and new laws were passed in 1825 restricting the unions. The existing General Union of Trades (set up by skilled weavers and spinners in Lancashire) was reformed in 1830 as the National Association for the Protection of Labour but this organisation collapsed in the face of economic recession in 1832.

In 1834 six men from the Dorset town of Tollpuddle were sentenced to be transported to the penal colony in Australia for swearing an oath of allegiance to their union (the law stated that you were only allowed to swear allegiance to the King or Queen). These men have become known as the Tollpuddle Martyrs, what is less widely known is that due to the public outcry over their treatment the six were brought back to England and given a cash settlement in compensation.

The modern trades unions really began with the publication of the Charter of the London Working Men's Association in 1838. This document called for all men to have the vote in a secret ballot, the equalisation of electoral districts, the abolition of property qualifications and the introduction of pay for MP's, and annual elections. The Chartist movement gained support in the 1840's from the Ten Hours Movement (demanding a basic ten hour working day in the new mills and factories) and the Anti-Poor Law Movement (campaigning for the repeal of the 1834 New Poor Law and its workhouses. There was a general economic depression in the later 1830's, bringing unemployment on a scale which the Poor Law could not deal with. The people were frightened and the Chartists gained in strength.

In the 1850's the Amalgamated Society of Engineers started the organised unionisation of skilled workers but in 1860's attacks on non-union workers lead to a series of legal judgements which cast doubt on the unions legal footing. The unions held their first Trades Union Congress in Manchester in 1868, the Miners Federation was the largest union of the time. The legislation preventing the forming of trades unions (the 1799 Act of Association) had been repealed in 1842 but the Trades Union Act of 1871 gave the unions legal recognition and protection for their funds. In 1875 the old Master and Servant Law was finally abolished, being replaced by the Employer and Workmen Act. This change brought an end to imprisonment for breach of contract in the event of a strike and gave employer and employee the same basic legal rights.

Life was still rather hard by modern standards, the Consolidating Factory Act 1878 set the official working week at 56 hours.

1880 The Trades Union Congress (TUC) adopted the principle of equal pay for women (in 2006 this remains a principle rather than a practice).

1885 The age of consent, the age at which people could legally marry, was raised to 16 (from, I believe, 13). As most people died by the age of about 40 (rather younger in towns) having children young was a necessity, it was the mid twentieth century before the number of children dying fell to the point where people could plan the size of their family. As a result women spent much of their life pregnant or raising babies, restricting their ability to seek employment.

High unemployment in the 1870's and 1880's had held back the growth of trades unions but in the later 1880's the unions began to accept non skilled workers. This was a major shift away from the associations formed to protect the skilled craftsmen. In 1913 the National Union of Railwaymen was formed by an amalgamation of several smaller unions and anyone who worked in any capacity for any railway company was eligible to join.

Following the First World War the coal export trade had been crippled, leading to large scale unemployment in south Wales. There was then a mass migration from the coal mining valleys to the relative prosperity of the South East of England. This caused a lot of trouble as the people from Wales often could not speak English and had their own religion (mainly 'Chapel') which seemed rather extreme to the locals of the South East. In London 'taffy bashing' was a serious problem and the London Welsh were forced (as most migrant populations before) into specific areas of employment. In the case of the Welsh it was the green grocery business and as recently as the 1970s most green grocers in London were owned by people with names such as Jones and Davies. There was a lot of industrial unrest in the post war era, culminating in the General Strike of 1926. The strike was largely stage managed by the government (who effectively controlled the mass media) and the TUC called the strike off after a few weeks. Economic recession in the 1920's and 30's reduced the strength of unions the steady decline in British mining saw the mine workers replaced by the Transport and General Workers Union as the largest single body in the Trades Union Congress.

Re-armament in the later 1930's changed the situation and there was actually a shortage of labour which persisted through to the 1960's and the British post-war government offered assisted passage to people from the West Indies to come to Britain to work. Industrial relations during this period were generally stable but, as with the London Welsh in the 1920s the influx of immigrants brought increasing social tensions. As the West Indians were visibly different from the native population this tension remained high for many decades afterwards and even within trades unions discrimination was rife. Historically it takes between three and five generations for a particular influx to be assimilated by the culture, so things would normally be expected to ease off by about the year 2000, however there has been a lot of pressure to 'preserve' the cultures of the immigrant communities. It seems likely therefore that the visible difference of the west indian and later asian imigrants coupled with the enforced cultural aparthide is likely to remain a source of social tension until at least the later twenty first century.

In 1965 the Labour government gave the unions some additional legal protection during strikes and other disputes. In the later 1960's and early 1970's the unions exercised a high degree of influence on government policy but in 1971 the Conservative government passed the Industrial Relations Act which placed limitations on the power of the unions. There then followed a long period of confrontation between the unions and government which came to a head in 1974 when the Conservatives called a general election. Labour won that election but industrial strife continued and when Labour lost power in 1979 the Conservatives were in part elected on their intention to curb union power. They passed the 1980 Employment Act and over the following ten years they introduced a range of legislation to restrict union power.

The New Labour party gained power in the late 1990s but did little to change the established policy. They followed the trendy ideas of the time in abolishing wherever possible government involvement in society by privatising existing structures (even when they were working rather well). As might be expected with such a simplistic approach there were dire consequences in several areas, notably health care, education and public transport.

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