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Part 8: England in the 20th Century

Something of a miracle occurred just when the world's oil producing nations doubled the cost of their product: Britain herself became a major oil producer. Since 1962, she had been conducting seismic prospecting for oil and natural gas in the North Sea, and full-scale activities had begun in 1964, the first oil find came five years later. Great expansion of the oil fields then took place in the 1970's so that in 1979, the country's oil production exceeded its imports for the first time. Britain's ports also adapted to the new container vessels, spelling the end for such great traditional ports as Liverpool, Glasgow and East London.

Continuing violence between Catholics, committed to union with Eire and Protestants, committed to retaining their British identity, led to the Government imposing direct rule over Northern Ireland, but hopes for peace were shattered on "Bloody Sunday" when British troops opened fire on protesters at Londonderry (January 30, 1972). The IRA brought their violence to Britain, killing a leading Conservative M.P. in March. In Ireland, violence continued and Lord Mountbatten was killed by an IRA bomb in August.

In 1974, the whole of Britain felt itself under siege from a vicious bombing campaign. Violence continued almost unabated. In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was an attempt to end it, with both Britain and the Irish Republic agreeing to confer over the problems and to work together against terrorism. It took the outrage of the Inniskillen bombing in 1998, however, to shock both sides into realizing that governments could do little; peace had to come from the initiatives of the people themselves.

Along with most of the industrialized nations of the world, Britain entered a period of depression in the 1970's. A tremendous blow to British pride came in February, 1971 when Rolls-Royce declared bankruptcy, forcing the government to bail out the company to avoid job losses and to restore national prestige. Britain's post-war lead in the production of motor-cycles had long been surrendered to the Japanese. In 1974, the great strike by the country's coal miners (over the government's "freeze" on wages) caused the Conservatives to lose the general election but under Labour, inflation spiraled and economic decline continued despite the social contract between the government and the trade unions.

Bitter confrontation between unions and government continued to escalate. A strike by London dock workers idled hundreds of ships and prevented goods from being exported. In March, 1979 Prime Minister Callaghan lost a vote of confidence by one vote in the House of Commons and Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher became the nation's first woman Prime Minister in May. Her promises to cut income taxes, scale down social services and reduce the role of the state in daily life had wide appeal and gave her a large majority. Many in Britain also wished to curb the power of the unions, which they believed had grown into a monster, almost out of control.

Margaret Thatcher
Though married to a millionaire, Margaret Thatcher was perceived as a grocer's daughter, hard-working and thrifty, a complete no-nonsense person. She was the first female Prime Minister in the nation's history and gained her reputation as "the iron lady" for her tight control of Britain's monetary policy. Her emphasis on "self-help" encouraged private enterprise, but her cutting back of expenditures on health, social services and education made her extremely unpopular with the masses. Then, in 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, claiming sovereignty over the small group of islands they called the Islas Maldivas in the South Atlantic that was home to a few thousand British settlers.

Prime Minister Thatcher sent a task force to recapture the islands; and after two months, the better-trained and disciplined British infantry, aided by its highly maneuverable airplanes (launched from carriers), won the day. The nation was jubilant, and Mrs. Thatcher was regarded as something of a national hero. The problems resulting from the country fast-becoming multi-national, with whole areas of the larger cities occupied by those whose religion, dress, food and social mores were considered "anti-British" were swept aside in a euphoria of jingoism.

Mrs. Thatcher's government was also helped by the splitting off of some Labour members to the Social Democratic Party, who later joined with the Liberals in "the Alliance." Then, in Mrs. Thatcher's second government, begun on such an optimistic note, the miners went on strike to protest the closing of many pits deemed unprofitable. Under their dynamic and outspoken leader Arthur Scargill, the miners also protested against overtime work. The bitterness caused by the strikes and the insensitivity of the government to their demands deeply divided the whole of British society. The Conservatives, once again helped by a split in opposition ranks, retained their control of the government. Its legislation, the closing of so many pits, and the switch to oil, had defeated the unions.

Mrs. Thatcher continued her policies of tight economic control, the privatization of industry and "dismantling" (when possible) of the Welfare State. Privatization of British Gas, British Telecom, the Water Authorities, British Airways and the electricity industry (termed by Macmillan as 'the family silver") proved a godsend to government revenues and also created a new class of British shareholders. The 1980's indeed, despite riots in the deprived areas of some of England's biggest cities, and continued IRA terrorist attacks, were a decade of prosperity (many immigrants, at the bottom of the social scale, especially those from the West Indies and some African states would disagree).

The number of videos acquired by British families was far greater than those in the US or Europe. The British were, on the whole, better fed, better housed, better clothed, cleaner and warmer than at any time in their history. No wonder the Labour opposition was in complete disarray. Spirits were also warmed in July, 1981 when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer (and another kind of spirit benefited from the "real-ale" campaign that protested against the mass production of pasteurized beer).

In addition, many promising development in science occurred. In 1974, mainly with income derived from the sale of Beatles records, the computed axial tomography scanner was developed in England, revolutionizing diagnostic medicine in immunology, (essential for organ transplants). In July, 1978, British doctors at London's Oldham Hospital created the world's first "test tube baby" Louis Brown. British scientists retained their lead. The 1990's saw the birth of the famous sheep Dolly (the first mammal produced from a donor cell taken from an adult rather than from an embryo), and then Polly, a transgenic animal produced through cloning.

Britain was also busy creating its own "silicon valleys" adapting the new micro-chip technology to replace traditional industries. In 1981, the Humber Bridge was completed; at 4,626 feet the world's longest Suspension Bridge. The world's longest high-speed optical fiber link connected Birmingham with London. British television projected an image of quality throughout the world. In addition, one of Britain's oldest shoe companies, now named Reebok, made impressive gains in the world market in competition with Nike.

General optimism, however, was tempered with distrust of one who was acquiring almost dictatorial powers, and in 1990, the Iron Lady's imposition of the "Poll Tax" caused unrest and street demonstrations. (The tax was an attempt to reform local government and finance by replacing household rates, which made each voter bear a full share of the costs incurred by prodigal spending). Inflation and interest rates also remained alarmingly high. Mrs. Thatcher's decision to send British land and sea forces into the Gulf to participate in the United Nations multi-national task force raged against the government of Iraq divided the country, especially when it was learned that English casualties came mostly from "friendly" (i.e. US) fire.

The government was mainly split by the question of integration into Europe, with some prominent members disagreeing with the purchase of the Westland Helicopter by Americans rather then Europeans. Other such issues, heightened by what Sir Geoffrey Howe (deputy leader of her own party) called her anti-European paranoia, brought a challenge to Thatcher's leadership, and in November, 1990, the Thatcher Era came to an end. The longest ministry of the century, it had glorified the Victorian values of self-help and nationalism.

For many, the main achievement of the Iron lady was to free her country from the iron grip of the trade unions. For others, it was the restoration of British pride in the victory in the Falklands. For most, it was apparent that Britain was beginning to come to terms with the loss of much of its heavy industry and the increasing reliance on finance, communications, oil, insurance, tourism, accounting and other service industries.

Resource Information

Chapter 8, Continued

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