The 20th Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century people did not, of course, realise that they were living at the end of an age. There was still a general belief in the "liberal idea", that the nation could achieve steady economic and social improvement as well as democracy without revolution. Things for Britain could only get better and better. In 1909 Labour Exchanges were opened, where those without work could look for jobs. Two years later all working people were made to pay for "national insurance". It was another new idea that those unable to earn money through sickness or unemployment would be helped by the state. The New Liberals had begun to establish what became the "welfare state". By doing so, they made important changes to the free capitalism of the nineteenth century.

Government, said the Liberals, had a duty to protect the weak against the strong. In 1911 another important political event occurred. The battle of wills between the two Houses produced a crisis when the Liberals tried to introduce a new budget in 1909 which was intended to increase the taxes paid by the rich, particularly the large landowners. The Lords turned down the new budget. The new king, George V, put an end to the crisis by warning that he would create enough new Liberal lords to give the Liberals a majority. The Lords gave in. One result of the dispute was that taxation was increasingly seen as a social matter as well as an economic one.


The 20th century was a period of constant warfare, latent or actual. It began with the Boer War between the British and the farmers of Dutch origin for control of major parts of South Africa (1899-1902).

The First World War (1914-1918) was a terrible experience, with hundreds of thousands  of British soldiers, mostly from the working class neighborhoods of the industrial cities, dying wretchedly in the mud of Flanders (northern France and southern Belgium).
In all 750, 000 British soldiers died, 2.5 million were seriously wounded. An equally large number of French and German soldiers died. 

Germany nearly defeated the Allies, Britain and France, in the first few weeks of war in 1914. It had better trained soldiers, better equipment and a clear plan of attack. The French army and the small British force were fortunate to hold back the German army at the River Marne, deep inside France. Four years of bitter fighting followed, both armies living and fighting in the trenches, which they had dug to protect their men. Apart from the Crimean War, this was Britain's first European war for a century, and the country was quite unprepared for the terrible destructive power of modern weapons. In addition, poison gas was used with terrible effect. At Passchendaele, the following year, the British army advanced five miles at the cost of another 400,000 dead and wounded. Modern artillery and machine guns had completely changed the nature of war. The invention of the tank and its use on the battlefield to break through the enemy trenches in 1917 could have changed the course of the war.

In the Middle East the British fought against Turkish troops in Iraq and in Palestine, and at, Gallipoli, on the Dardanelles. There, too, there were many casualties, but many of them were caused by sickness and heat. It was not until 1917 that the British were really able to drive back the Turks. Somehow the government had to persuade the people that in spite of such disastrous results the war was still worth fighting. The nation was told that it was defending the weak (Belgium) against the strong (Germany), and that it was fighting for democracy and freedom. German submarines managed to sink 40 per cent of Britain's merchant fleet and at one point brought Britain to within six weeks of starvation. When Russia, following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, made peace with Germany, the German generals hoped for victory against the Allies. But German submarine attacks on neutral shipping drew America into the war against Germany. The arrival of American troops in France ended Germany's hopes, and it surrendered in November 1918.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

  The poet Wilfred Owen, one of approximately 9,000,000 fatalities in World War I, was killed in action on the Sambre Canal just seven days before the Armistice on November 4, 1918. He was caught in a German machine gun blast and killed. He was twenty-five years old.

     Teaching in continental Europe in 1915, Owen visited a hospital and became acquainted with many of the war's wounded. Deeply affected by these visits, the 22 year-old young Owen decided to enlist in the British Army. Owen described his decision to enlist in September, 1915: "I came out in order to help these boys--directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first." Owen was injured in March 1917 and sent home; he was fit for duty in August, 1918, and returned to the front where he was killed shortly afterwards. The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury, England, to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent's home, bringing them the telegram informing them their son was dead.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    -Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
   Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
  Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
  And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
   Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
  The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

T. S. Eliot  (1888-1965)

   Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Eliot felt ill at ease in the United States. In 1914 he first met Ezra Pound, who advised him to live in England. In 1915, he published ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ which then formed the basis for his first volume of poetry in 1917. In that year he also began to work for Lloyds Bank.

From:  The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

In 1922 his great poem, ‘The Waste Land’ (much revised by Ezra Pound) was published in the first issue of Eliot’s literary quarterly The Criterion.

The opening lines of 'The Waste Land'

April is the cruellest month, breeding  
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing  
Memory and desire, stirring  
Dull roots with spring rain.  
Winter kept us warm, covering   
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding  
A little life with dried tubers.  
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee  
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,  
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.  
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.  
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,  
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,  
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,  
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.  
In the mountains, there you feel free.  
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.  
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow  
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,  
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only  
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,  
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,  
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only  
There is shadow under this red rock,  
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),  
And I will show you something different from either  
Your shadow at morning striding behind you  
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;  
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

In 1925 he left the bank and started to work as a director of the literary publisher Faber and Faber. In 1927 he became a British subject and a member of the Church of England. He considered that this was the logical fulfilment of his spiritual pilgrimage, but many of his admirers, especially in the United States, felt that he had betrayed them by adopting a religious faith (Christianity) for which they felt no affection. Eliot’s greatest explicitly Christian poetry includes ‘Ash Wednesday’ and culminates in the poems of Four Quartets (1935-42). Eliot also wrote a number of poetic dramas, of which the most powerful may be Murder in the Cathedral (1935).  His critical writings were equally important; he coined the term “dissociation of sensibility” in 1921 to express the way in which he felt the modern age to be different from earlier ages, until the 17th century. He also coined the term “objective correlative” and launched the modern admiration for the Metaphysical Poets.

Social Welfare

As it entered the 20th century, British society continued the developments begun in the 19th. Social welfare provisions were introduced by the "New Liberal" government eager to earn working-class support: free school meals came in 1907, an old age pension scheme in 1908; state-run employment exchanges for people seeking information about available jobs opened in 1909; in 1911 national insurance payments were introduced, to provide funding for payments to those who were sick or unemployed. In 1911 the House of Lords (dominated by Conservatives) caused a crisis when it tried to block a Liberal government bill to increase taxation of the rich. The king himself intervened, the government passed the Parliament Act, and the House of Lords found itself deprived of almost all its power. Also in 1911, MPs began to receive a salary instead of it being assumed that they would have private means. In 1906 29 Labor Party MPs had been elected, working-class men who had no money. In 1918 the right to vote at elections was given to all men aged 21, and (at last!) to some women. The number of voters was doubled by this. In 1924, the Labour Party (founded by the TUC in 1900) won the majority in Parliament and formed its first government. The vote was given to women in part because during the war they had replaced men in every kind of occupation, and proved that their supposed "weakness" and "inferiority" were nonsense.


The Irish had for long campaigned for self-government. The Protestant Irish nationalist Charles Parnell had founded an Irish Party campaigning for home rule and in the 1885 elections 86 of its members were elected to Westminster. The Liberals were sympathetic but the Conservatives refused to accept the idea. The main problem lay in the northern regions, the only part where Protestants were in the majority. They realized that most of the Irish population was Catholic and threatened to start a civil war if Ireland was given its own government. When war came in 1914, the Irish were asked to wait for peace to come, and serve as British soldiers. At Easter 1916, a group of fiery young radical Irish nationalists staged a small armed uprising, taking control of the main post office in Dublin. The British put this down with great violence, then executed all the leaders, alienating many moderate Irish. Elections were held in 1918, where Irish Republicans were elected everywhere except in the north (Ulster). Those elected did not go to London, but formed an Irish parliament in Dublin. They established a separate army, the Irish Republican Army, whose members started a guerrilla campaign against the British. In 1921, London agreed to independence ('home rule') for the southern part, with Ulster still part of the United Kingdom. The British king would still be titular head of state. Radical republicans fought against this. In 1937, the southern portion (Eire) was declared an independent republic. In 1969, the situation in Ulster degenerated, social resentments turned into violence and a small civil war developed between militia of the two opposing sides, with the British army caught in the middle. The situation only reached apparent reconciliation in 2007.

The Second World War

The period prior to the Second World War saw Germany systematically re-arming after being humiliated and brought to economic disaster by the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935-6 Italy waged a colonial war against Ethiopia, and from 1936 - 9 Spain was torn apart by a civil war in which Republicans (liberals, socialists and communists) fought against the Nationalists (royalists, Catholics, fascists). The "Axis" (Germany and Italy) supported the Nationalists while many idealists from across Europe fought on the Republican side. The Nationalists won, and General Franco became dictator of Spain until his death in 1975. In many ways this was a rehearsal for the Second World War, with the introduction of a new form of warfare in which civilian populations were bombed from the air, illustrated by the 1937 raid on the Basque town of Guernica made famous by the painting by Picasso.

The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler led to the outbreak of war in 1939, when the German army invaded Poland. Britain had been fiercely pacifist after the horrors of the First World War, so was not prepared. Germany quickly took control of most of western Europe  In 1940, England under the leadership of Winston Churchill, was expecting an invasion after the intense bombing and aerial battles in May (the Battle of Britain). Instead, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, with which it had signed a non-aggression treaty. That cost them the war. After the United States entered the conflict in December 1941 (with the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor) preparations began for the Normandy landings of June 1944. Fighting in Europe stopped in May 1945, after a race to take control of Germany led to the Russians having control of the eastern regions, the British and Americans with the Free French having occupied the western portion. For the rest of the 20th century, the world was dominated by the Cold War. The Korean War was the last intense conflict in which the British army was involved. The end of the Cold War with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany, together with the establishment of the European Union, mark the beginning of a new stage in European relations.

The Welfare State

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, a Labour government was elected in 1946 and it introduced the Welfare State, with the National Health Service providing free health care for all. National Assistance ensured payments for the old, the unemployed etc. Also the Labour Party undertook a radical policy of nationalization -- the Bank of England, power and transport were all brought under state control.

The end of the Empire

The post-war period saw the end of the British Empire. India gained independence in 1947, with the new state of Pakistan being created for Moslems who felt unsafe in Hindu-dominated India. Britain abandoned Palestine and the state of Israel was established. Then one by one independence was granted to the other colonies. Instead, these were invited to join a free-trade association known as the Commonwealth.

Immigration to Britain

In the 1950s and 1960s, many young people from the West Indies, former African colonies, as well as India and Pakistan, were encouraged to come to Britain to provide cheap labour in the industrial cities. Commonwealth immigration, made up largely of economic migrants, rose from 3,000 per year in 1953 to 46,800 in 1956 and 136,400 in 1961. Then British industry declined rapidly, and many social problems developed when Britain found itself a radically changed country, with a significant number of its unempoloyed population having different cultures, languages and faiths. The challenge of living in a multi-cultural country is now widely recognized. In the 1970s, an average of 72,000 immigrants were settling in the UK every year from the Commonwealth; this decreased in the 1980s and early 1990s to around 54,000 per year, only to rise again to around 97,000 by 1999. The total number of Commonwealth immigrants since 1962 is estimated at around 2.5 million. Since 2000 the majority of new citizens have come from Africa (32%) and Asia (40%), the largest three groups being people from Pakistan, India and Somalia. Around half of the British Caribbean community originate from Jamaica. In 2001 the Black Caribbean community numbered 565,876 and the total Black population was 1.2 million or 2.2% of the population. 2004 estimates show that the British Asian community is 2,799,700. Over 40,000 Koreans live in Britain.

The new politics

    Few of the problems of the 1980s were entirely new. However, many people blamed them on the new Conservative government, and in particular, Britain's first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher had been elected in 1979 because she promised a new beginning for Britain. This basic change in British politics caused a major crisis for the Labour Party.  Margaret Thatcher had come to power calling on the nation for hard work, patriotism and self-help. She was not, however, a typical Conservative, for she wanted free trade at home and abroad, individual enterprise and less government economic protection or interference. She wanted more "law and order" but was a good deal less willing to undertake the social reform for which later nineteenth-century Liberals were noted. By the beginning of 1982 the Conservative government had become deeply unpopular in the country. However, by her firm leadership during the Falklands War Thatcher captured the imagination of the nation, and was confidently able to call an election in 1983. As expected, Thatcher was returned to power with a clear majority of 144 seats in the 650-seat Parliament. It was the greatest Conservative victory for forty years.

Thatcher had promised to stop Britain's decline, but by 1983 she had not succeeded. Industrial production since 1979 had fallen by 10 per cent, and manufacturing production by 17 per cent. By 1983, for the first time since the industrial revolution, Britain had become a net importer of manufactured goods. There was a clear economic shift towards service industries. Unemployment had risen from 1.25 million in 1979 to over 3 million. Thatcher could claim she had begun to return nationalised industries to the private sector, that she had gone even further than she had promised. By 1987 telecommunications, gas, British Airways, British Aerospace and British Shipbuilders had all been put into private ownership The most serious accusation against the Thatcher government by the middle of the 1980s was that it had created a more unequal society, a society of "two nations",  one wealthy, and the other poor. According to these critics, the divide cut across the nation in a number of ways. The number of very poor, who received only a very small amount of government help, increased from twelve million in 1979 to over sixteen million by 1983. In the meantime, reductions in income tax favoured the higher income earners.

The division was also geographical, between prosperous suburban areas, and neglected inner city areas of decay. More importantly, people saw a divide between the north and south of the country. Ninety-four per cent of the jobs lost since 1979 had been north of a line running from the Wash, on the east coast, to the Bristol channel in the west. The black community also felt separated from richer Britain. Most blacks lived in the poor inner city areas, not the richer suburbs, and unemployment among blacks by 1986 was twice as high as among the white population. In spite of these problems, Thatcher's Conservative Party was still more popular than any other single party in 1987. There were other reasons why the Conservative Party, with only 43 per cent of the national vote, The 1987 election brought some comfort, however, to two underrepresented groups. In 1983 only nineteen (3 per cent) of the 650 members of Parliament had been women, almost the lowest proportion in western Europe. In 1987 this figure more than doubled to forty-one women MPs (6.5 per cent), a figure which suggested that the political parties realised that without more women representatives they might lose votes. Blacks and Asians, too, gained four seats, the largest number they had ever had in Parliament, although like women they remained seriously underrepresented.

The future?

Britain has more living symbols of its past than many countries. It still has a royal family and a small nobility. Its capital, cities and countryside boast many ancient buildings, castles, cathedrals, and the “stately homes” of the nobility. Every year there are historical ceremonies, for example the State Opening of Parliament, the Lord Mayor’s Show, or the meeting of the Knights of the Garter at Windsor each St George’s Day. It is easy to think these symbols are a true representation of the past. Britain's real history, however, is about the whole people of Britain, and what has shaped them as a society. This means, for example, that the recent story of black and Asian immigration to Britain is as much a part of Britain's "heritage" as its stately homes. Indeed more so, since the immigrant community's contribution to national life lies mainly in the future.

When looking at Britain today, it is important to remember the great benefits from the past. No other country has so long a history of political order, going back almost without interruption to the Norman Conquest. Few other countries have enjoyed such long periods of economic and social wellbeing. It is also important, however, to remember the less successful aspects of the past. For example, why did the political views of the seventeenth-century Levellers or nineteenth-century Chartists, which today seem so reasonable, take so long to be accepted? Why did the women's struggle to play a fuller part in national life occur so late, and why was it then so difficult and painful? Why is there still a feeling of division between the north and south of Britain? Is Britain, which in many ways has been a leader in parliamentary democracy, losing that position of leadership today, and if so, why? 

The questions are almost endless, and the answers are neither obvious nor easy. Yet it is the continued discussion and reinterpretation of the past which makes a study of Britain's history of value to its present and its future.