The 20th century - Historical background and social situation

When Queen Victoria died, England was one of the most powerful nations in the world, the British Empire was huge, the Navy and the Army were well trained and invincible, the manufacturing and trading middle class was prosperous.

But the 20th century saw the decline of Britain partly caused by the impressive growth of German industry and also by new emerging powers, the USA and Japan.
During his reign, Victoria’s eldest son, Edward VII, pursued a policy of peace and good relationships with foreign countries. England lived in the wave of Victorian optimism: the illusion that the economic and social situation of the country was destined to prosper forever even if the gap between the rich and the poor still existed (Disraeli’s “The 2 nations”).

Society was organized like a pyramid, at the top of the social ladder there was the aristocracy with its privileges, it was followed by the middle class divided into upper (professionals and managers) and lower (shopkeepers and clerks) at the bottom there was the working class divided into skilled and unskilled workers whose families were very large with high infant mortality rate, very bad housing conditions still subject to social injustices.

In this period the Liberal party won the general election and launched a program of social reforms to help the poor and the old, laying the foundations of the welfare state. It was the first time the British Government decided to spend money on the welfare of people; the most important reforms were:
· School Meal Act: providing meals for children in need
· Coal Mines Regulation Act: 8 hours working day
· Old Age Pension: for people over 70
· Parliament Act: to weaken the power of the House of Lords
· National Insurance Act: to insure workers against sickness

In this period (1903) the movement of Suffragettes was born asking for universal suffrage for all women, it came in 1918 (for women aged 30) and in 1928 (for women aged 21) after they chained themselves to railings, broke windows and cried their rights. In was the first form of battle for emancipation.

When George V went to the throne in 1910 he had to face the event which changed the face of the world: World War I. The main cause was the ambition of the German Emperor William II who abandoned the policy of peace of Bismark and wanted his country to become more powerful than England and France. He wanted to conquer the Balkan State to cut off Russia from the Mediterranean and England from its control over Egypt and India.

The occasion was the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a Serbian student. So Austria attacked Serbia and Germany attacked the neutral territory of Belgium. On the other side Russia supported Serbia, while England and France declared war to Germany.

It was Britain’s first European war since Napoleonic times apart from the Crimean war. George V decided to abandon his name “Hannover” and changed it into Windsor. The war lasted four years, Russia collapsed in 1917 because of the Bolshevik revolution, Italy, which was neutral at the beginning and had sided with England, France and Russia in 1915, was defeated by Austria at Caporetto, while the USA joined the war in 1917 as a “crusade for democracy” and accelerated the German defeat. The armistice was signed in 1918 and the Peace treaty was signed at Versailles in 1919.

The war caused the ruin of the four great European Empires and made possible a communist revolution in Russia. The American President Wilson devised a plan to keep peace so the League of Nations was born, but the American Senate voted against involvement in European matters, so the USA never joined the league. During the years of the first post-war period enthusiasm was replaced by discomfort and disillusion. The consequences of the war were:
· even if unemployment disappeared thanks to a rise in demand for war production, there was a rise in prices which led to inflation and rise in taxation;
· the process of emancipation of women started because women proved to be competent in every field during the absence of men who were at war (suffragettes); a step towards equality of the sexes;
· laboures became conscious of their rights so trade unions grew in power and importance;

· there were many social reforms and even living habits changed: cigarette smoking, cinema, gambling, use of contraceptives;

The growth in industries in Asia and Japan caused a deterioration of European economy, great depression, which was made worse by the wall street crash in 1929 followed by the new deal policy established by the American President Roosvelt. It was an age of reforms according to which people were set to work on jobs which were useful to the community as building new roads, schools, hospitals. It was only towards the end of the 30s that the situation improved. Industries were reorganized new sectors were created such as electricity, artificial fibres, plastic, motor-vehicles. Mass production led to the creation of chain stores, advertising became very important, the growth of the population slowed down because of birth-control practices, families became smaller and women with more leisure time became more independent.

As regards England, the two main events were the situation in India and the Irish question. As for India the situation worsened because many Indians had fought for Britain in the I world war and asked for more freedom but the English Parliament refused so Gandhi started a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation until the British government declared to leave India in 1947. Thus India was divided into two parts a Hindi one and a Muslim one later called Pakistan and Gandhi was killed by a fanatic in 1948. Even other dominions of the former British Empire acquired their independence as Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth was created.

The most serious problem was in Ireland where the Catholic minority who did not want to be submitted to the Protestant government of Britain organized an army IRA (Irish Revolutionary Army) which opposed the British Police using terrorist methods. The civil war ended when the British in 1921 established the Irish Free State called Eire while the remaining part of Ulster in the north remained part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland with its capital in Belfast. However the problem is still open in Ulster.

As regards politics, in 1918 the Liberal Party was replaced by the Labour Party even if power was always in the hands of the Conservatives, who faced the II World War. When in 1936 George V died, his son Edward VIII went to the throne but his reign only lasted 10 months because he abdicated in favour of his brother George VI to marry a twice-divorced American lady. George had to face the II world conflict. It started in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and in 1940 Denmark and Norway and then Holland, Belgium and France. England and France formed a coalition to stop Germany, the USA decided not to join the war at first, Roosvelt only obtained consent from the Congress to send war material to England.

In 1940 Italy declared war to France and England, France was defeated and in England there was the Battle of Britain wan by the pilots of the Royal Airforce. In 1941 Germany attacked Russia and Japan bombed the American naval base of Pearl Harbour forcing the USA to enter the war. Because of the cold Russian winter Germany and Italy were defeated, Italy was invaded by the Americans in 1943 and in 1944 the allies invaded Normandy and freed France. The USA, using atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima destroyed Japan so the war was over. In 1945 after Hitler’s suicide Germany surrendered.

The English Prime Minister Winston Churchill drew up the Atlantic Charter aiming at the respect of human rights because this war cost more civilians than soldiers for bombing of towns, atomic bomb and racism against the Jews. After the war the Labour Party won the elections and followed the ideas of the Beveridge Report which promoted a series of measures to be taken in order to protect and promote the welfare of British people.

The welfare state was born, it was a series of schemes and services assumed by the Government and local authorities to deal with all types of social problems such as housing, education and health. The main acts were:
· Education Act which established compulsory and free education from the age of five to fifteen
· National Insurance Act to assure assistance in case of sickness, unemployment, maternity, retirement
· National Health Service to provide free medical assistance
There was also a policy of nationalization for the control of power (electricity, gas, coal, iron, steel), of transport (airlines and railways), of credit (the Bank of England).

In 1952 George VI died and was succeeded by his daughter Elisabeth II married to Philip Duke of Edinburgh. During her reign she has faced different problems as
· The Suez Crisis (1956) - caused by the nationalization of the canal by the Egyptian Government
· The Falkland War (1981) - for the possession of the islands in front of Argentina
· The Gulf War (1991) - because Iraq invaded Kuwait which was a member of the UN
· The Irish Question – which is still open
· The Oil Crisis – (1970s) until the discovery of oil in the North Sea

After the Labour Party had dominated the scene in the second post-war period, the Conservatives returned to power in 1979 with M. Thatcher “the iron lady” who dismantled the policy of the Welfare State. She was followed by John Mayor (Conservative) and in 1997 by Tony Blair (Labourist) in 2007 by Gordon Brown (Labourist) and Cameron (Conservative).

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