| The Romans
first conquered and settled the major part of the British mainland
between the 1st and 5th centuries AD, their influence was limited
in the northern and western regions. After they withdrew (410-442)
the island was invaded by Jutes, Saxons and Angles,
who established seven kingdoms south of Hadrian's Wall. Scotland
and Wales remained Pictish and Celtic. By the early-9th century
Wessex had emerged as the dominant kingdom and was the spearhead
of resistance to the Danish invasions, mainly during the reign of
Alfred the Great.
By the time of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), England
was the most organised state in Europe and this position was consolidated
when Norman military feudal organisation was declared by
William I and his successors (notably Henry I and
Henry II) after 1066.
Dynastic marriage and inheritance had given England control of most
of France by the 12th century, and the territorial fights were not
settled until the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453.
The constitutional history of England between the 11th and 15th
centuries can be seen in terms of the gradual expansion of the powers
of the crown and the efficiency and sophistication of the monarch's
administration. This was a policy which ran contrary to the interests
of the aristocracy and on many occasions, notably during the reigns
of Stephen, John, Henry III, Edward II
and Richard II, constitutional conflicts arose which checked
or reversed the trend; indeed the last two of these were deposed
to make way for a leader whom the barons felt would be more amenable
to their wishes.
The deposition of Richard II and the accession to the throne of
his cousin Henry IV of Lancaster ushered in 60 years of weak
government and low royal prestige (notwithstanding Henry V's
outstanding victory at Agincourt in 1415 and his conquest
of most of France) which culminated in the dynastic conflict known
as the Wars of the Roses. The throne changed hands six times
between 1461 and 1485, when the Tudor Henry VII defeated
Yorkist Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.
One of the most able monarchs, Henry VII, managed to revive
the power and prestige of the crown considerably. In 1509 his son
Henry VIII succeeded to a stronger and wealthier state than
it had ever been before. Scotland's development during this period
was dominated by largely unsuccessful royal attempts at centralisation;
nevertheless the kingdom was able to protect its independence in
the face of constant English aggression, largely due to the talents
of the members of the House of Stuart who preserved some
semblance of royal authority, despite the fact that every ruler
between 1437 and 1625 came to the throne as a minor. Their rewards
came in 1603 when James VI succeeded Elizabeth I of England
(see below). Wales remained as a Principality during this time,
occasionally united and usually at the mercy of English political
The Tudor period in England (1485-1603) went through several
important developments: the re-establishment of central power, the
break of relations with Rome under Henry VIII, the start of overseas
expansion, the union of England and Wales and the flowering of Elizabethan
and Jacobean drama. Looking back, possibly the most important
development was the growth of the power of Parliament. Accustomed
to its slightly hazy beginnings in the baronial revolts of the 1260s
to representing grievances and - particularly as a consequence of
Edward III's urgent need for money to fight the French - granting
taxation, the institution acquired a new sense of purpose in the
1530s. Henry VIII used Parliament for passing the Act of Supremacy
and other legislation pertaining to the break with Rome, thus giving
Parliament the prestige and self-confidence to influence the affairs
of state, which it never lost.
Elizabeth I was
succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, although the
union of the countries was not effected until 1707. The power of
Parliament (see above) was to prove a more effective force in curbing
the power of the crown than the medieval barons had been, and the
English Civil War in the 1640s proved how effective this
power had become: the conflict ended with the dramatic and horrific
spectacle of the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment
of a confused series of republics and protectorates during the English
Despite the wealth of political ideas which came about in this period
- ranging from the re-establishment of the monarchy under Oliver
Cromwell to the creation of an Evangelical Republic to prepare
for the expected Second Coming - by 1660 the Revolution had run
out of ideas and Charles II was invited back almost on his
own terms. Amazingly, within 20 years he almost managed to assert
absolutism, although this opportunity disappeared with the abdication
and flight of the unpopular (and Catholic) successor, his brother
James II. This time, Parliament made no mistake, inviting
(this time on their terms) the Protestant William III of Orange
to the crown in 1689.
From this date on the powers of the crown became curtailed: his
successor, Queen Anne, was the last monarch to refuse the
royal assent to an Act of Parliament.
The 18th century saw Great Britain's emergence as a major colonial
and industrial power, mainly at the expense of France, in conflicts
as the Seven Years' War. The American colonies were lost
in 1776, but victory in the Napoleonic Wars confirmed British naval
supremacy. By now, Great Britain was one of the world's leading
military and industrial powers, having launched techniques in almost
every field of production during the Industrial Revolution. While
the growth of the colonies provided sources of raw materials, the
demographic increase gave the new industries a supply of cheap labour,
and the explosion of urban wealth and population was the most dramatic
social change since the introduction of feudalism.
Great Britain and Ireland were united in 1801 under the name of
the United Kingdom. The long reign of Victoria (1837-1901)
is associated with the period of greatest British conquest, involvement,
evangelisation and overseas settlement, as well as further domestic
economic and demographic growth. At the height of her empire, Britain
ruled vast parts of the globe. The legacy of empire still continues
today with conflicts worldwide that can be directly attributed to
the drawing of national borders, not on ethnic or national lines,
but as a result of colonial expansion at the dictate of commercial
gain. World War I, in which Britain suffered heavy losses, marked
the end of the old system of colonial empires and was followed by
a depression, the first signs of a relative economic decline that
is still evident today. Relations between Britain and Ireland, never
good, flared into civil war in 1916, and all but the six, largely
Protestant counties in the northeast became independent in 1921.
The colonial possessions were given up after the defeat of Nazi
Germany in World War II and since then the outlook has been
dominated by European concerns, although British influence in the
ex-colonies remains strong.
Certain vestiges of the empire, such as the Falkland Islands,
Hong Kong and Gibraltar, have caused degrees of friction
with other states. After World War II, the empire was effectively
finished. With the opposition of the USA, which had now assumed
the top of the world's principal power, saw to that. The Liberal
Party was challenged, and quickly overtaken, as the main opposition
to the Conservative Party by the Labour Party, which had its roots
in the labour movement which grew up at the turn of the century.
Labour formed its first government under their leader Ramsay MacDonald
in 1924. After a wartime coalition government of national unity
- with both Conservative and Labour represented under Winston Churchill
between 1940 and 1945 - Conservative and Labour have exerted a two-party
hold on the government of the UK.
The Labour government of 1945-51 was significant for reforms of
the health, housing, education and social service systems. The consensus
started to break in the 1970s as economic stagnation, endemic inflation
and a growing trade deficit made it clear that the post-war prescriptions
were no longer valid or relevant. It was against this background,
and the decline of traditional manufacturing industries, that Margaret
Thatcher came to power in 1979. The 1980s were a decade characterised
by changes with radical domestic policies of privatisation and deregulation
of state-owned industries and public bodies.
Thatcher went on to win elections in 1983 and 1987. It is said that
her finest hour was the military victory over the Argentineans in
the South Atlantic War of 1982. Her political demise in November
1990 came not from a decision of the electorate, but from within
her own Conservative Party about the electoral consequences of her
policies The inheritance of her successor, former Chancellor of
the Exchequer John Major, was Thatcher's agreement to participate
in the US-led UN coalition to oust the Iraqis from their military
occupation of Kuwait. Some 30,000 British service personnel took
part in this successful operation in early 1991.
Iraq has been a continuous foreign policy headache for successive
British governments (see below). However, more important has been
the evolution of Britain's standing in the European Union. The Maastricht
agreement of 1992 took European integration far beyond the original
conception of a common market, bringing major policies to harmonise
legislation in the areas of social policy, immigration, policing
and finance. The British were skeptical of some of the elements
of the Maastricht package and negotiated exemptions from its provisions.
The Conservatives unexpectedly won another general election victory
in April 1992, though with a reduced majority. The Labour Party,
despairing at the prospect of 15 years out of office, launched a
major overhaul of its policies and public image under the leadership
of a new leader - Tony Blair. By 1997, The 'New Labour' was ready.
The Conservatives were stale, bereft of ideas and hounded by 'sleaze'
- a seemingly endless series of personal and financial scandals.
The Labour victory in May 1997 was no surprise but the size of their
majority, over 100, was. The Conservative party has since experienced
the political wilderness. Wracked by in-fighting and unable to produce
a coherent strategy, it was in no better shape after another crushing
defeat at the most recent poll in 2001. A new leader, former Home
secretary Michael Howard, took over in 2003.
Although the Blair government has run into difficulties it has been
sustained by a steady economic performance. Progress on the main
domestic policies emphasized by health and education, has been patchy.
The Government's failure to tackle the legacy of neglect and under-investment
in public services (especially transport) has now becoming a serious
problem. And, in a reflection of its Conservative predecessor, the
Blair government has suffered through a series of financial scandals.
The most important economic decision facing the government - whether
or not to join the 'eurozone', which has now been in operation throughout
most of the EU for 5 years - has been consistently avoided. By early
2004, having espoused its support for entry when conditions were
appropriate, the government has now backed away from any prospect
of entry in the near future. If Britain does ever join, it is now
likely to be at least 10 years from now.
Among its achievements has been the introduction of a working system
of devolution for Wales and Scotland, which now have their own assemblies
for a range of domestic powers. The government has also invested
time and effort in the Northern Ireland peace process but the mutual
hostility between loyalists and nationalists has been exceptionally
difficult to overcome. The process is in abeyance after elections
in the autumn of 2003 returned the Democratic Unionist Party as
the main representative of the protestant/loyalist population and
Sinn Fein as the main catholic/nationalist party. For now, the province
is being ruled directly from London. What is somewhat certain, however,
is that there will be no return to violence which scarred the province
for over a quarter of a century.
The foreign policy arena that was causing the greatest problems
for the government at the start of 2004. The British allied themselves
firmly to the US seeking a means to dispose once and for all of
the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. With the largest troop deployment
since the Second World War, the British invaded and occupied the
southern region of Iraq. The nation was deeply divided: the strength
of opposition was evident from the largest protests ever seen in
Britain, and many feel that the government deliberately over-exaggerated
the threat posed by Saddam and his so-called 'weapons of mass destruction'.
Additionally, many Labour Party members are unhappy at the close
relationship between Blair and US President George Bush. The British-controlled
zone of Iraq has proved somewhat more manageable than the American
regions in the centre of the country, and British troops have not
suffered the level of attacks experienced by their allies.