The Church of England Is Established and Parliament Reigns Supreme
During the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), the church in England asserted its independence from the Roman Catholic Church. Under Edward VI and Mary, the two extremes of religious fanaticism were reached, and it remained for Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I (1558–1603), to set up the Church of England on a moderate basis. In 1588, the Spanish Armada, a fleet sent out by Catholic King Philip II of Spain, was defeated by the English and destroyed during a storm. During Elizabeth's reign, England became a world power. Elizabeth's heir was a Stuart—James VI of Scotland—who joined the two crowns as James I (1603–1625). The Stuart kings incurred large debts and were forced either to depend on parliament for taxes or to raise money by illegal means. In 1642, war broke out between Charles I and a large segment of the parliament; Charles was defeated and executed in 1649, and the monarchy was then abolished. After the death in 1658 of Oliver Cromwell, the lord protector, the Puritan Commonwealth fell to pieces and Charles II was placed on the throne in 1660. The struggle between the king and parliament continued, but Charles II knew when to compromise. His brother, James II (1685–1688), possessed none of Charles II's ability and was ousted by the Revolution of 1688, which confirmed the primacy of parliament. James's daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, then ruled.
England's Empire Grows While the American Colonies Revolt
Queen Anne's reign (1702–1714) was marked by the Duke of Marlborough's victories over France at Blenheim, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet in the War of the Spanish Succession. England and Scotland meanwhile were joined by the Act of Union (1707). Upon the death of Anne, the distant claims of the elector of Hanover were recognized, and he became king of Great Britain and Ireland as George I. The unwillingness of the Hanoverian kings to rule resulted in the formation by the royal ministers of a cabinet, headed by a prime minister, which directed all public business. Abroad, the constant wars with France expanded the British Empire all over the globe, particularly in North America and India. This imperial growth was checked by the revolt of the American colonies (1775–1781). Struggles with France broke out again in 1793 and during the Napoleonic Wars, which ended at Waterloo in 1815.
Democratic Government Emerges
The Victorian era, named after Queen Victoria (1837–1901), saw the growth of a democratic system of government that had begun with the Reform Bill of 1832. The two important wars in Victoria's reign were the Crimean War against Russia (1854–1856) and the Boer War (1899–1902), the latter enormously extending Britain's influence in Africa. Increasing uneasiness at home and abroad marked the reign of Edward VII (1901–1910). Within four years of the accession of George V in 1910, Britain entered World War I when Germany invaded Belgium. The nation was led by coalition cabinets, headed first by Herbert Asquith and then, starting in 1916, by the Welsh statesman David Lloyd George. Postwar labor unrest culminated in the general strike of 1926.
King Edward VIII succeeded to the throne on Jan. 20, 1936, at his father's death, but he abdicated on Dec. 11, 1936 (in order to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Warfield Simpson), in favor of his brother, who became George VI.
Britain Enters WWII
The efforts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to stem the rising threat of Nazism in Germany failed with the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, which was followed by Britain's entry into World War II on Sept. 3. Allied reverses in the spring of 1940 led to Chamberlain's resignation and the formation of another coalition war cabinet by the Conservative leader, Winston Churchill, who led Britain through most of World War II. Churchill resigned shortly after V-E Day, May 8, 1945, but then formed a “caretaker” government that remained in office until after the parliamentary elections in July, which the Labour Party won overwhelmingly. The new government, formed by Clement R. Attlee, began a moderate socialist program.
(For details of World War II, see Headline History, World War II .)
Britain Enters European Community and Margaret Thatcher Becomes First Female Prime Minister
In 1951, Churchill again became prime minister at the head of a Conservative government. George VI died on Feb. 6, 1952, and was succeeded by his daughter, Elizabeth II. Churchill stepped down in 1955 in favor of Sir Anthony Eden, who resigned on grounds of ill health in 1957 and was succeeded by Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home. In 1964, Harold Wilson led the Labour Party to victory. A lagging economy brought the Conservatives back to power in 1970. Prime Minister Edward Heath won Britain's admission to the European Community. Margaret Thatcher became Britain's first woman prime minister as the Conservatives won 339 seats on May 3, 1979.
An Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, involved Britain in a war 8,000 mi from the home islands. Argentina had long claimed the Falklands, known as the Malvinas in Spanish, which had been occupied by the British since 1832. Britain won a decisive victory within six weeks when more than 11,000 Argentine troops on the Falklands surrendered on June 14, 1982.
Although there were continuing economic problems and foreign policy disputes, an upswing in the economy in 1986–1987 led Thatcher to call elections in June, and she won a near-unprecedented third consecutive term. The unpopularity of Thatcher's poll tax together with an uncompromising position toward further European integration eroded support within her own party. When John Major won the Conservative Party leadership in November, Thatcher resigned, paving the way for Major to form a government.
Tony Blair and the Labor Party End Conservative Rule
Eighteen years of Conservative rule ended in May 1997 when Tony Blair and the Labour Party triumphed in the British elections. Blair has been compared to former U.S. president Bill Clinton for his youthful, telegenic personality and centrist views. He produced constitutional reform that partially decentralized the UK, leading to the formation of separate parliaments in Wales and Scotland by 1999. Britain turned over its colony Hong Kong to China in July 1997.
Blair's controversial meeting in Oct. 1997 with Sinn Fein's president, Gerry Adams, was the first meeting in 76 years between a British prime minister and a Sinn Fein leader. It infuriated numerous factions but was a symbolic gesture in support of the nascent peace talks in Northern Ireland. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, strongly supported by Tony Blair, led to the first promise of peace between Catholics and Protestants since the beginning of the so-called Troubles.
Along with the U.S., Britain launched air strikes against Iraq in Dec. 1998 after Saddam Hussein expelled UN arms inspectors. In the spring of 1999, Britain spearheaded the NATO operation in Kosovo, which resulted in Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic's withdrawal from the territory.
In Feb. 2001, foot-and-mouth disease broke out among British livestock, prompting other nations to ban British meat imports and forcing the slaughter of thousands of cattle, pigs, and sheep in an effort to stem the highly contagious disease.
In June 2001, Blair won a second landslide victory, with the Labour Party capturing 413 seats in parliament.
Britain Supports Post-Sept. 11 America, Enters the Iraq War
Britain became the staunchest ally of the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks. British troops joined the U.S. in the bombing campaign against Afghanistan in Oct. 2001, after the Taliban-led government refused to turn over the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden.
Blair again proved himself to be the strongest international supporter of the U.S. in Sept. 2002, becoming President Bush's major ally in calling for a war against Iraq. Blair maintained that military action was justified because Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that were a direct threat. He supported the Bush administration's hawkish policies despite significant opposition in his own party and the British public. In March 2003, a London Times newspaper poll indicated that only 19% of respondents approved of military action without a UN mandate. As the inevitability of the U.S. strike on Iraq grew nearer, Blair announced that he would join the U.S. in fighting Iraq with or without a second UN resolution. Three of his ministers resigned as a result. Britain entered the war on March 20, supplying 45,000 troops.
In the aftermath of the war, Blair came under fire from government officials for allegedly exaggerating Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. In July 2003, Blair announced that “history would forgive” the UK and U.S. “if we are wrong” and that the end to the “inhuman carnage and suffering” caused by Saddam Hussein was justification enough for the war. The arguments about the war grew so vociferous between the Blair government and the BBC that a prominent weapons scientist, David Kelly, who was caught in the middle, committed suicide. In Jan. 2004, the Hutton Report asserted that the Blair administration had not “sexed-up” the intelligence dossier, an accusation put forth by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. The report strongly criticized the BBC for its “defective” editorial policies, and as a consequence, the BBC's top management resigned. In July 2004, the Butler Report on pre–Iraq war British intelligence was released. It echoed the findings of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee of the week before that the intelligence had vastly exaggerated Saddam Hussein's threat. The famous claim that Iraq's chemical and biological weapons “are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them” was especially singled out as highly misleading. But like the U.S. report, it cleared the government of any role in manipulating the intelligence.
On May 5, 2005, Blair won a historic third term as the country's prime minister. Despite this victory, Blair's party was severely hurt in the elections. The Labour Party won just 36% of the national vote, the lowest percentage by a ruling party in British history. The Conservative Party won 33%, and the Liberal Democrats 22%. Blair acknowledged that the reason for the poor showing was Britain's involvement in the war in Iraq.
Terror Strikes at Home
On July 7, 2005, London suffered a terrorist bombing, Britain's worst attack since World War II. Four bombs exploded in three subway stations and on one double-decker bus during the morning rush hour, killing 52 and wounding more than 700. Four Muslim men, three of them British-born, were identified as the suicide bombers. On July 21, terrorists attempted another attack on the transit system, but the bombs failed to explode. A leaked document by a top British government official warned Prime Minister Blair more than a year before the bombings that Britain's engagement in Iraq was fueling Islamic extremism, but Blair has repeatedly denied such a link, contending that the bombings were the result of an “evil ideology” that had taken root before the Iraq war. Blair proposed legislation that would toughen the country's antiterrorism measures, and he suffered his first major political defeat as prime minister in November, when his proposal that terrorist suspects could be held without charge for up to 90 days was rejected.
In April 2006, the Blair government weathered a major scandal when it was revealed that since 1999 it had released 1,023 foreign convicts—among them murderers and rapists—into British society instead of deporting them to their countries of origin.
In Aug. 2006, London police foiled a major terrorist plot to destroy several airplanes traveling from Britain to the U.S. Intelligence sources asserted that the plan was close to execution, and had it succeeded, it would have been the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11. A number of young men, most of whom are Britons of Pakistani descent, were arrested in connection with the plot.
Blair announced in Feb. 2007 that as many as 1,600 of the 7,100 troops stationed in southern Iraq would leave in the next few months. “What all this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis,” Blair said.
Gordon Brown Succeeds Blair
In May 2007, Blair announced that he would leave office on June 27. Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, succeeded Blair. Brown is a study in contrasts to Blair. Brown, typically dour, lacks Blair's charisma and quick wit. The new prime minister faces the task of shoring up the Labour Party, which has not fared well in recent elections, and of regaining the public's trust. Both have suffered from Britain's support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Just two days into Brown's term, police defused two bombs found in cars parked in the West End section of London. The attackers, who officials say are linked to al-Qaeda, tried and failed to detonate the bombs using cell phones. Police detained several foreign-born suspects, several of whom were doctors. The next day, on June 30, an SUV carrying bombs burst into flames after it slammed into an entrance to Glasgow Airport.
In July 2007, four Islamist men, all originally from the Horn of Africa, were sentenced to life in prison by a British judge for attempting to bomb the London transit system on July 21, 2005.
On June 11, 2008, despite much opposition, a new counterterrorism bill passed by a nine-vote margin in the House of Commons. The bill allows the detention of terrorism suspects for up to 42 days without charges, extending the current 28-day detention limit. The vote was seen as a much-needed victory for beleaguered prime minister Brown. On Oct. 13, 2008, in a setback for Brown, the House of Lords rejected the bill in a 309 to 118 vote.
Gordon Brown and Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki made a joint announcement in December 2008, stating that all British troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of July 2009.
A Historic Changing of the Guard
In January 2009, amidst global economic and financial turmoil, the Bank of England cut interest rates by more than a percentage point, from 3% to 1.5%—the lowest level in its 315-year existence.
In May 2009, the Daily Telegraph reported that several MPs had submitted dozens of inappropriate or inflated expense claims, including those for mortgage interest; home repairs and renovations; personal items, including television sets, beds, and manure. As part of the fallout, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was forced to resign in June 2009 amid criticism of his handling of the controversy. He was succeeded by Conservative John Bercow.
Brown called early elections in April 2010, just three years into his term. He never found wide favor among his constituency, and his aloof and often gruff demeanor hurt his popularity ratings. In addition, the global financial crisis left Britain mired in a recession for six straight quarters, beginning in April 2008.
In the May elections, Brown faced off against David Cameron of the Conservative Party and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. The candidates participated in the country's first ever televised debates. Clegg's charismatic and informed performance boosted his profile and he emerged as a serious contender in the race, making the election one of the most exciting and followed in Britain's history. Cameron was considered the frontrunner throughout the campaign, but his showing in the May 6 election did not meet expectations. Indeed, the election produced a hung Parliament, with none of the competing parties winning enough seats (326) to form a majority government. Conservatives took 306 seats, Labour 258, and Liberal Democrats 57. Brown resigned as head of the Labour Party on May 11, ending 13 years of rule by Labour.
The Conservatives wooed the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government, offering to put electoral reform—a main point in the party's platform—to a referendum, establish a five-year, fixed term for Parliament, and give the Liberal Democrats five cabinet posts, including Clegg as deputy prime minister. The arrangement marks the first such partnership between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and the country's first coalition government since World War II. The unlikely partnership raised more than a few eyebrows in Britain and beyond, leaving many to wonder how long the two parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum could work together amicably, especially given the agenda that lies ahead. The government faces the daunting task of imposing austere cost-cutting measures to shore up the flagging economy. Nevertheless, Cameron and Clegg, the young dynamic duo—both are age 43, promised unity and a new direction for the country.
Royal Wedding Precedes Media Scandal
On April 29, 2011, Kate Middleton married Prince William in a $20 million ceremony watched by more than 3 billion people. A million people lined the streets of London, half a million gathered in front of Buckingham Palace, and two billion tuned in via television or computer to watch the couple take their vows at Westminster Abbey. Middleton received rave reviews for wearing a modern, but restrained wedding dress designed by Sarah Burton, the creative director for the late Alexander McQueen.
A media scandal involving the News of the World, the British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, riveted England during the summer of 2011 and had observers all over the world closely following the constantly evolving story. Murdoch shuttered the 168-year-old paper after several allegations surfaced that staffers hacked into voicemail accounts belonging to not only a 13-year-old murder victim, but also the relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, members of the Royal family, and other public figures. Prime Minister David Cameron ordered two separate investigations after Andy Coulson, Cameron's former communications director and a former editor of News of the World, was arrested under suspicion of corruption and conspiring to intercept communications.
Murdoch's News Corporation suffered financially as stock prices took a hit and he withdrew his $12 billion bid to buy British Sky Broadcasting. Nearly 20 people were arrested in the scandal, including Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World, on suspicion of illegally intercepting phone calls and bribing the police, and Neil Wallis, a former deputy editor at the tabloid, on suspicion of phone hacking and bribery of police officers. In addition, Paul Stephenson and John Yates, two Scotland Yard senior police officials, resigned amid allegations that police accepted bribes from News of the World employees.
In testimony before a parliamentary committee in July, Rupert Murdoch and his son James apologized for the wiretapping and hacking but denied they knew the unethical practices were taking place at the paper. "This is the most humble day of my life," the elder Murdoch said during the hearing. Another humbling moment occurred when a man threw a pie tin filled with shaving cream at Rupert Murdoch. His wife, Wendi, jumped from her seat and punched the man.
Rioting and looting broke out in several cities throughout the country in early August 2011 after police shot and killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man from north London. The protest over his killing was initially peaceful but turned violent, with demonstrators fighting police with makeshift weapons and setting fire to police cars and several buildings. The riots spread to other cities, and police were widely criticized as ineffectual in stemming the violence and looting. Cameron pledged to "fight back" against the rioters, describing them as "groups of thugs."
London Sets New Olympic Record
For the third time in modern Olympic history, London, England, was the proud host of the Games, making it the first city to achieve such an honor. Channeling social media with apps, updates, streaming, and tweets, the 2012 Summer Olympics lived up to their hype as the first truly "multiplatform Games," which made these Olympics instant, accessible and interactive.
Same-Sex Marriage Bill Passes and Receives Royal Approval
On July 17, 2013, Queen Elizabeth II approved a same-sex marriage bill. Her approval came the day after it passed in Parliament. While the queen's approval was simply a formality, her quick response cleared the way for the first gay marriages to happen next summer in the United Kingdom.
The bill allowed same-sex couples to marry in both religious and civil ceremonies in England and Wales. It also allowed couples currently in a civil partnership to convert it into a marriage.
The Duchess of Cambridge Gives Birth to a Baby Boy—and Later a Girl
Source: Luke MacGregor/Pool Reuters/Associated Press
On July 22, 2013, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, gave birth to a baby boy named George Alexander Louis. The baby was born at 4:24 p.m. and weighed 8 pounds 6 ounces. Catherine gave birth in the private Lindo Wing of St. Mary's Hospital in London, the same place where Prince William was born.
The baby's name was announced two days after his birth. George Alexander Louis would also have the title His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge and would be third in line to the throne, following Prince Charles and Prince William. Due to a rule change in 2011 that ended the long-standing tradition that the crown was only bestowed on a daughter when there were no sons, Prince William and Catherine's baby would have been third in line to the throne no matter the gender, because the baby was their first born.
Prince William and Catherine weren't the only happy couple to receive baby gifts. Any baby born in Britain on July 22, 2013, would receive a silver penny from the Royal Mint.
Catherine gave birth to her second child, a girl Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, on May 2, 2015. She weighed 8lbs 3oz.
Parliament Rejects Cameron's Plan to Strike Syria
In August 2013, Syria was accused of launching a chemical attack in suburbs east of Damascus, killing about 1,400 people, many of them women and children. President Barack Obama announced plans to strike military bases and the artillery that he believes were responsible for the chemical attack. Prime Minister Cameron backed Obama's plan. However, on Aug. 29, the British parliament rejected Cameron's request for authorization to attack Syria—a stunning rebuke to Cameron. The vote was 285-to-272, with 224 members of the opposition Labour Party voting against the request, citing the lessons learned from the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After the vote, President Obama said he would seek Congressional approval of a military strike.
Cameron's government suffered another blow in June 2014 when his former press secretary Andy Coulson was found guilty of phone-hacking when he was tabloid editor.
Cameron Wins a Second Term in a Resounding Victory
Cameron's Conservative Party breezed to victory over Labour in the May 2015 general election. The Conservatives won enough seats to secure an outright majority in Parliament, and Cameron earned a second five-year term as prime minister. It was a stunning loss for Labour's Ed Miliband, who resigned the day after the election. Polls indicated a close race, but it turned out to be a rout for Labour. The Conservatives took 331 of 650 seats in the House of Commons, an increase of 24 seats from the 2010 race. Labour won 232 seats, 26 fewer than in 2010. Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats, who joined the Conservatives in a coalition government after the 2010 election, also fared poorly, taking just eight seats. They secured 57 in the previous election. He also resigned as party leader.
See also Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and dependencies of the United Kingdom.
See also Encyclopedia: Great Britain and England .
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: United Kingdom
Office for National Statistics www.statistics.gov.uk/ .