United Kingdom - Background

Governments of Britain, 1945-present
No. Year Prime Minister Party composition
1 1945 Clement Richard Attlee Labour
2 1950 Clement Richard Attlee Labour
3 1951 Winston S. Churchill Conservative
  1955 Anthony Eden Conservative
4 1955 Anthony Eden Conservative
  1957 Harold Macmillan Conservative
5 1959 Harold Macmillan Conservative
  1963 Alec Douglas-Home Conservative
6 1964 Harold Wilson Labour
7 1966 Harold Wilson Labour
8 1970 Edward Heath Conservative
9 1974 Harold Wilson Labour
10 1974 Harold Wilson Labour
  1976 James Callaghan Labour
11 1979 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
12 1983 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
13 1987 Margaret Thatcher Conservative
  1990 John Major Conservative
14 1992 John Major Conservative
15 1997 Anthony Blair Labour
16 2001 Anthony Blair Labour
17 2005 Anthony Blair Labour
  2007 Gordon Brown Labour
18 2010 David Cameron Conservative

UK history at a glance

The United Kingdom is essentially a product of the historical dominance of England on the ‘British Isles’. The state began to take its present shape with the Acts of Union (1707), which united the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland to create a "United Kingdom of Great Britain". Subsequently, the Act of Union 1800 joined the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland to create the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland".The legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland was completed on January 1, 1801 under the name of the United Kingdom. However, armed struggle for independence continued sporadically into the 20th century.

Great Britain's industrial revolution greatly strengthened its ability to oppose Napoleonic France. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the United Kingdom (UK) was the foremost European power, and its navy ruled the seas. Peace in Europe allowed the British to focus their interests on more remote parts of the world, and, during this period, the British Empire reached its zenith, encompassing roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of the world's area and population. At home, the UK continued to develop and broaden its democratic institutions in response to popular demands. The same period also saw the initial formations of guilds and trade unions.

The losses and destruction of World War I, the depression of the 1930s, and decades of relatively slow growth eroded the United Kingdom's pre-eminent international position of the previous century. Britain's control over its empire loosened during the interwar period. Ireland, with the exception of six northern counties, gained independence from the UK in 1921.

In 1926, the UK granted Australia, Canada, and New Zealand complete autonomy within the empire. They became charter members of the British Commonwealth of Nations (now known as the Commonwealth), an informal but closely-knit association that succeeded the empire. By 1947 when India and Pakistan gained independence, the remainder of the British Empire was almost completely dismantled. Today, most of Britain's former colonies belong to the Commonwealth, almost all of them as independent members. There are, however, 13 former British colonies which have elected to continue their political links with London and are known as United Kingdom Overseas Territories.

Since the 1920s, the two largest political parties in British politics have been the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. Though coalition and minority governments have been an occasional feature of parliamentary politics, the first-past-the-post electoral system used for general elections tends to maintain the dominance of these two parties. The Liberal Democrats are the third largest party in the British parliament and actively seek a reform of the electoral system to address the dominance of the two-party system. The major partisan alignments in politics are along class lines, with Labour representing the interests of the working classes and the Conservatives (and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats) reflecting the interests of the middle and upper classes. However, ethnic and regional cleavages also play an important role in political affiliations.

The end of World War II saw a landslide election victory for the Labour party. They were elected on a manifesto of social justice and left wing policies such as the creation of a national health service and the provision of council housing. The UK at the time was poor, relying heavily on loans from the United States to rebuild its damaged infrastructure. In 1951 a conservative government was formed by Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister. The Conservatives subsequently remained in power for 13 years. The election of 1964 gave a small parliamentary majority to Labour, re-elected in 1966, but in 1970 a conservative government, under Edward Heath, was returned.

In the general election of May 1979 the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority and governement was formed under Margaret Thatcher, who became the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister. ‘Thatcherite’ policy proved controversial, owing to the austerity of certain economic measures and an accompanying increase in unemployment. New legislation restricted the power of the trade unions. In April 1982 Argentine forces invaded the British dependency of the Falkland Islands. The successful military campaign to recover the islands in June increased the Government’s popularity, despite rising unemployment and strict monetary control of the economy. The Conservatives subsequently remained in power until 1997. Thatcher was replaced by John Major in 1990 as party leader and prime minister. The party experienced increasing hardship as economic recession continued, and the government’s economic policies were criticized not only by political opponents, but also by industrial and business leaders.

Sources:

Colomer, J.M., ed. 2008. Comparative European Politics. New York: Routledge.

Inter-Parliamentary Union: PARLINE database on national parliaments

United Kingdom. 2010. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 21, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://search.eb.com/eb/article-276899

Geddes, A. and J. Tonge (eds.) (2005). Britain Decides: The UK General Elections 2005. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform . Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Recent History (The United Kingdom) , in Europa World online. London, Routledge.