The first decades

Great Britain: from AD 1707

The inhabitants of Britain - the island containing England, Wales and Scotland - live in a state of some confusion over their group identity. Their cars, travelling abroad, display the letters GB (for Great Britain). Their diplomats, at international conferences, sit behind the letters UK (for United Kingdom).

Neither phrase is much used in ordinary conversation. The English, by far the majority within the United Kingdom, have a tendency to call their nation England - with notorious disregard for the sensibilities of the Welsh and the Scots, with whom they have been linked since 1536 and 1707 respectively.

The more widely acceptable name, also in common use, is Britain. Its prevalence is reflected in phrases such as the British empire (something which even the English have never claimed as their own) and in the colloquial modern term 'Brits' for inhabitants of the island.

Historically 'united kingdom' begins life in informal use during the 18th century to describe the newly combined nation of England and Scotland. It becomes official in 1800, in the Act of Union with ireland, when the enlarged kingdom is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The earlier Act of Union, of 1707, states merely that England and Scotland shall 'be united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain'.

Act of Union: AD 1707

Given the centuries of hostility between Scotland and England, with warfare even in the 17th century under a shared Stuart king, the union of the two kingdoms seems to come with surprising suddeness. It has been under discussion for a considerable time, for James VI and I tries to achieve it after inheriting the English throne in 1603. But the idea meets with little favour (although imposed during the Commonwealth) until the early 18th century.

The motivation in 1707 is largely economic for the Scots and political for the English.

Scotland has recently suffered a disastrous failure in setting up a colony in 1698 in Darien, on the isthmus of Panama. By the time the experiment is abandoned, in 1700, it is estimated to have cost £200,000 and some 2000 lives. Tariff-free access to all English markets, both in Britain and in the developing colonies, seems commercially a rather more attractive option.

For England, engaged in lengthy wars with the French (who are sympathetic to the Exiled stuart dynasty), it is attractive to remove the danger of any threat from the country's only land border. The union of the kingdoms creates an island realm.

The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

There is unrest and warfare in Scotland during much of the 18th century because a strong faction, particularly in the Highlands, supports the Jacobite cause (the claim to the throne of the exiled Stuarts). This discontent erupts twice, in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. But the majority of Scots are content with a new role in a kingdom united under the title Great Britain. A renewal of Scottish nationalism must await the 20th century.

The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

With Scotland and Wales both now governed from Westminster, the history of England becomes - at any rate for the next three centuries - the central thread of the history of Great britain.

Hanoverians and Jacobites: AD 1714-1715

The death of Queen Anne in August 1714 brings into effect the Act of settlement of 1701. Anne's heir under that legislation, the electress Sophia of Hanover, has died just two months previously. So the new king is Sophia's son, the elector of Hanover, who arrives in England in September as George I.

His accession to the throne is peaceful but nevertheless controversial. As in 1688, the inheritance is a political issue between Whigs and tories. Some Tories still hanker for a return to the direct line of the Stuart kings. The infant whose birth sparked the Crisis in 1688 is now living in France as James Stuart, known in English history as the Old Pretender. His father, James II, has died in 1701. In terms of divine right, he is the undeniable heir.

James is a devout Roman Catholic and has resisted the argument recently put forward by some in the Tory party that he should convert to Protestantism and reclaim his father's crown. He is sustained in his hopes by a small but passionate minority which supports his claim regardless of religion.

This faction, remaining loyal to James II and now to James his son, becomes known as the Jacobites (from the Latin Jacobus for James). Jacobite feeling is strongest in the Highlands of Scotland, where the massacre of Glencoe has given the cause some martyrs in the first years of James II's exile.

A Jacobite uprising in Scotland, launched by the earl of Mar in September 1715, tempts James to cross from France later that year. He lands in December and goes to Scone, where preparations are under way for his coronation. But, finding his supporters disorganized and incompetent, the Old Pretender decides that discretion should indeed be the better part of valour. By February he is back in France.

The fiasco of this uprising of 1715, often known simply as the Fifteen, ensures that the Hanoverians are secure on the English throne. But the Jacobite cause remains a romantic one, passionately held. It surfaces again thirty years later in a final and more serious attempt, the Forty-five, led by the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The Whig supremacy: AD 1714-1784

From the accession of George I the Tory party suffers from two major disabilities. Its leaders, Oxford and Bolingbroke, have been active in the Jacobite cause (indeed Bolingbroke flees to France in 1715, escaping impeachment, and becomes secretary of state to the Old pretender). The result is that the Tory name bears the taint of treachery.

In addition, the party itself is profoundly split on the Jacobite-Hanoverian issue. At least half the Tories are in the Hanoverian camp because of their loyalty to the Anglican religion.

When George I forms a Whig ministry in 1714, rewarding his own faction, he initiates a period of seventy years in which the Tories lack effective influence. They will not recover a significant role in British politics until the party regroups in 1784 under the young William pitt.

For much of this time the Whigs, as a party, are not in power either. George III, on the throne from 1760, contrives to rule with cronies and factions irrespective of their party allegiance. Meanwhile in the early years, from 1714 to 1720, the Whigs are so divided among themselves that they provide their own opposition. But a financial crisis of 1720, the South Sea Bubble, brings to power the great Whig minister Robert walpole.

South Sea Bubble: AD 1720

The company at the centre of England's notorious bubble of 1720 has been in business for nearly ten years. It was established in 1711 as the South Sea Company, with a monopoly of British trade to South America and the Pacific. It first becomes a fashionable share to buy in 1718, when the king becomes a governor.

The bubble begins only in 1720, prompted by a scheme for the company to take over much of the national debt. This is done by offering holders of government bonds the chance to exchange them, at an extremely beneficial rate, for shares in the company. The price of the shares begins to rise, in a self-perpetuating frenzy of excitement which takes no account of any underlying value.

By August the price is eight times higher than in January, but the slump once it begins is even more rapid. In December the shares are back to their January level, representing a fall of nearly 90% in a few months (even so, this is a modest crash in percentage terms compared to the contemporary Mississippi bubble in France).

As many fortunes are made on the way up as are lost on the way down. But in an age without financial regulation the turmoil and the pain inevitably raise suspicions of corruption. The king and his German mistresses, along with certain government ministers, are noticed to have done well.

Meanwhile the investment frenzy has made possible the launch of a great many other speculative schemes, the majority of which (unlike the South Sea Company itself) are fraudulent. In these cases fortunes pass directly from the gullible to the criminal.

The bad taste left by these experiences leads to the rapid passing of the Bubble Act before the end of the year. For a little over a century, until repealed in 1825, it restricts the forming of joint-stock companies, harming the honest entrepreneur as much as deterring the confidence trickster. In practice legal loopholes are found. Many joint-stock companies are set up under other names in Britain during the 18th century, particularly in insurance.

The Bubble Act is repealed in England in 1825 because it is a time of economic boom and there is increasing public pressure to invest. But the act is repealed without any alternative regulation to replace it.

The public is exposed anew to the dangers inherent in fraudulent schemes, particularly with the Industrial revolution gathering pace and requiring ever more capital. Not until the Joint-Stock Companies Act of 1844 are effective regulations introduced.

The age of Walpole: AD 1721-42

The politician to benefit most from the South sea bubble is Robert Walpole, a leading Whig. He has the good luck to sell his own shares near the top of the market, laying the foundation of his fortune, yet his hands are clean politically.

Walpole holds high government office from 1715, as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, until he resigns in 1717 on an issue of foreign policy. He is therefore out of office during the build up towards the crisis of 1720. Moreover he argues forcefully against the South Sea Company being allowed to offer its shares in place of government bonds.

In the turmoil following the financial chaos of 1720 Walpole manages to preserve Whig control of parliament. In 1721 he is again appointed to his two earlier posts, as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer. He holds both offices until 1742, developing a personal control over the British political system unrivalled in length by any minister before or since.

Walpole himself always rejects the term 'prime minister', but he is subsequently regarded as the first British politician to have held that office.

In building and maintaining his power, Walpole is shameless in placing allies in lucrative posts. His success launches a political system of jobbery and corruption which prevails in Britain for a century and more, until swept away by the Reform act of 1832. Nevertheless, in Walpole's case, it works.

Walpole expects from his placemen loyalty and regular atttendance in the House of Commons in support of his two main aims - to preserve the house of Hanover on the throne, against smouldering Jacobite opposition, and to provide the prosperity which he believes will breed contentment with both Hanoverians and Whigs.

The thrust of his policy is lower taxation, increased trade and peace abroad - excellent intentions which Walpole does much to achieve. Late in his administration, and to his distress, he fails to prevent Britain going to war with Spain in 1739 after the dramatic episode of Jenkins' Ear (see the War of Jenkins' Ear). This conflict merges, in the following year, in the broader War of the austrian succession.

Walpole resigns during the war, in 1742, and retires to Houghton hall, the house which he has built in Norfolk. In his creation of this great mansion, containing a superb collection of pictures, Walpole is a grandee very much of his time. For this is one of Britain's first stately homes in the Palladian style.

Palladianism and the English stately home: 18th c. AD

Britain in the early 18th century is the scene of a strong reaction against the self-indulgence of Baroque architecture, replacing it with the clear-cut classical lines of Palladio. The style of the great Venetian architect is known in England only from his four books of designs (the Quattro Libri) and from the London masterpieces of an enthusiast returning from Italy, Inigo Jones. These are the Banqueting House in Whitehall (1622) and the Queen's House in Greenwich (1629-40).

Inigo Jones's pioneering work in the Palladian style remains very little imitated for the rest of the 17th century, a period dominated by Baroque.

Baroque still prevails in the early 18th century as the preferred style for any grandee planning a magnificent country seat. The most obvious examples are two buildings designed by Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor in partnership - Castle Howard for the earl of Carlisle in 1700-26, Blenheim Palace for the duke of Marlborough in 1705-22.

But while Castle Howard and Blenheim are under construction, the prevailing fashion changes. A collection of classical designs in the Palladian style is published in 1715, under the title Vitruvius Britannicus, by a British architect, Colen Campbell.

Vitruvius Britannicus launches a new fashion in 18th-century England. In 1717 the earl of Burlington employs Campbell to remodel his London house in Piccadilly in the Palladian style. In 1722 Robert Walpole commissions him to build Houghton Hall, a large Palladian country house in Norfolk.

Significantly, in this transition period, Walpole adds cupolas at the corners of Campbell's design, giving a touch of Baroque. Perhaps he feels the need for a little more of the grandeur of Blenheim or Castle Howard.

Aristocrats all over Britain soon follow the fashion, providing themselves with Palladian or neoclassical mansions in which they can enjoy their surrounding estates. Country seats spring up with pillared porticos to impress the outside world and with interiors graced by columned halls (like Roman Baroque) or domed reception areas (echoing the Basilicas). The stately home becomes a feature of the British countryside.

The demand keeps many distinguished architects exremely busy (none more so than Pantheon towards the end of the century). Meanwhile the proud owners also require a surrounding landscape of equal elegance, to delight the eye from the windows of the house.

Landscape gardening is a very ancient profession. Potentates have always wanted to beautify their surroundings, from the Robert adam of Babylon to the formal vistas of Picturesque. But the landowners of Britain add a new element in the 18th century.

Instead of the formal arrangements fashionable in earlier periods, they now want a landscape which looks natural - but rather better than nature on her own can achieve in the agricultural regions of England or Scotland. This requires a new sort of landscape gardener (pre-eminent among them Capability Brown), who will create lakes and waterfalls, wooded slopes, ancient temples and romantic ruins to achieve an impression of the effortlessly Hanging gardens.


Britain's industrial advantages: 18th century AD

The conditions enabling Britain to pioneer the Industrial Revolution during the 18th century can be divided into two categories, natural and political.

On the natural side the country has in abundance three important commodities - water, iron and coal. Water in Britain's numerous hilly districts provides the power to drive mills in the early stages of industrializaton; the rivers, amplified from 1761 by a developing network of Canals, facilitate inland transport in an age where roads are only rough tracks; and the sea, never far from any part of Britain, makes transport of heavy goods easy between coastal cities.

The ability to make effective use of Britain's iron ore is greatly enhanced by technical advances in the early 18th century, associated particularly with the Darby family. And the abundant supplies of coal become of crucial importance in the second half of the century when steam power is successively applied to every branch of industry thanks to the efforts of Watt and boulton.

On the political front, the contribution of entrepreneurs such as Abraham Darby and Matthew Boulton is made possible by the changes resulting from the Revolution of 1688.

With royal power greatly reduced after 1688, and the nobility enjoying none of the privileges associated with France's ancien régime, a new middle class emerges more forcefully in Britain than elsewhere. There is money to be made, and members of this class are willing to back new inventions and mechanical improvements.

In this atmosphere exceptional men such as Richard Arkwright can rise through their own endeavours from low beginnings to exceptional wealth and prestige (though the duke of Bridgewater may justifiably insist that such flair is not limited to the middle classes).

As a final ingredient in this promising blend of circumstances, Britain can offer its budding entrepreneurs an unusually large market. The Union in 1707 of Scotland and England removes internal tariff barriers. The developing British empire provides trading opportunities for much of the century in the American colonies - and when these are lost, begins to replace them with others in India.

And British control of the seas, increasingly established during the century, contributes to a general prosperity which supports the Industrial Revolution. Much of the profitable carrying trade in the world's commerce can be secured for British merchant vessels.

Ironmasters of Coalbrookdale: 18th century AD

Until the early 18th century the working of iron has been restricted by a practical consideration. The smelting of iron requires large quantities of charcoal, with the result that ironworks are usually sited inaccessibly in the middle of forests. And charcoal is expensive.

In 1709 Abraham Darby, an ironmaster with a furnace at Coalbrookdale on the river Severn, discovers that coke can be used instead of charcoal for the smelting of pig iron (used for cast-iron products). This Severn region becomes Britain's centre of iron production in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Its pre-eminence is seen in the Darby family's own construction of the first Iron bridge, and in the achievements of John Wilkinson.

Lancashire and cotton: 18th century AD

Just as the Severn gorge in Shropshire emerges as the centre of the iron industry, so Lancashire dominates in cotton goods. And textiles are the natural product to lead developments in the new Industrial Revolution.

Food and clothing are the two basic requirements for any population. Unlike food, cotton goods are sufficiently light and long-lasting to be easily transported to any market. The immediate purchasers are the rapidly growing population of Britain itself. But as soon as machines are developed which can slash the cost of production, it even becomes feasible to ship manufactured cotton goods for sale in regions such as India where the raw material has been produced.

Lancashire has certain natural advantages in cornering this lucrative trade. A moist climate makes it easier to work cotton threads, which become brittle if dry (the first reference to cotton goods being produced in the region is in 1641). Plentiful fast-flowing streams make it easy to provide water power for Mills. The area has a long textile tradition in the production of woollen goods (there is a mill for fulling wool in Manchester as early as 1282).

And above all Lancashire has, in Liverpool, one of Britain's two main 18th-century ports. It is rivalled only by Bristol as a base for the great East and West Indiamen which now ply regularly across the oceans.

The rapid growth of the textile industry during the 18th century results from these advantages combined with a succession of mechanical inventions which speed up the processes of manufacture. Spinning and weaving, the two very ancient crafts involved in the production of textiles, are both well suited to relatively simple mechanization.

Weaving leads the way, with Kay's flying shuttle of 1733. Spinning at first struggles to keep up, and then does so very effectively with the innovations of Hargreaves in about 1764 and Crompton in 1779. Spinning wins the race in the application of Water power, in 1771. By 1787 there are some forty cotton Mills in Lancashire deriving their power from mill races.

War 1744-63

French and British on land: AD 1744-1745

After the War of the spanish succession the French and the British often act in a somewhat uneasy alliance. The main reason is that both nations have political leaders, Cardinal Fleury and Robert Walpole, who see peace as a necessary aspect of national prosperity. But Walpole resigns in 1742 and Fleury dies in 1743.

There is nothing now to restrain the long-standing enmity between these two Atlantic nations, each with a developing empire overseas. In March 1744 the French declare war on Britain and make plans for an invasion across the Channel in the company of the Jacobite pretender Charles Edward Stuart.

Bad weather damages the French fleet and causes the plan for an invasion in 1744 to be abandoned. In the following summer the French divert their energies to an attack on the Austrian Netherlands. Maurice Saxe, commanding a French army which includes an Irish brigade, wins a victory at Fontenoy in May 1745 over a combined force of British, Hanoverian, Austrian and Dutch troops under the duke of Cumberland, son of the British king.

Saxe continues his successful campaign, conquering the whole of the Austrian Netherlands by the end of 1746. For much of this time he has no opposition from the British army. The regiments and the duke of Cumberland are recalled in October 1745 to meet a new threat in Scotland.

The Forty-Five: AD 1745

The Scottish threat derives from Charles Edward Stuart. Abandoned by the French after the Abortive plans for an invasion in 1744, he becomes convinced in 1745 - with Britain losing to France in the campaign on the continent - that he stands a chance of success in Scotland even without foreign support.

The prince is a romantic figure known to his Jacobite supporters as Bonnie Prince Charlie (but to the English as the Young Pretender). He lands in the Hebrides early in August 1745. The Highland clans rally to his cause and the prince marches south, gathering forces as he goes. On September 16 he enters Edinburgh. On the next day he proclaims his father James viii of Scotland.

Within a week Charles has to defend this claim on the battlefield. At Prestonpans, on September 21, he meets and defeats an army led by Sir John Cope. After this victory (news of which promptes the recall of Cumberland and his army from the Netherlands) Charles marches south to invade England. He takes Carlisle in November and by early December has progressed as far south as Derby.

At this point his followers lose heart. They are too far from safety in Scotland, and the promised French support has not materialized. On December 6 Charles heads back north, pursued now by the Duke of cumberland.

The two sides finally meet in pitched battle on 16 April 1746 at Culloden. Charles has marched his force of about 5000 Scots through the previous night in an attempt to surprise the larger army (some 9000 men) of the Duke of cumberland. The battle, on an exposed moor, lasts only an hour. The Scots are competely routed.

It is the end of the Jacobite cause. A price of £30,000 is put on the Pretender's head, but he manages to escape back to France after five months in hiding (thanks to the romantic intervention of Flora Macdonald). Cumberland acquires the nickname 'butcher' because of his brutal persecution of Jacobite sympathisers. And the government introduces severe measures to Pacify the highlands.

French and British at sea: AD 1745-1748

French successes in northern Europe under Marshal saxe, in 1745-6, prove in the long run less significant than Britain's stranglehold on French trade by sea. Once war is officially declared, in 1744, the British navy harasses French merchant fleets en route for the West Indies or India. Closer to home the harbours of France are blockaded, preventing the transport of commodities up and down the coast (by far the easiest route in the age before decent Roads).

By 1748, after four years of low-keyed naval warfare, France is ready for peace. Significantly the only important territories which have changed hands are overseas.

In 1745 militiamen from British north America have seized from France the harbour of Louisbourg, at the entry to the Gulf of St Lawrence (of strategic importance in relation to French Canada). In India, in 1746, the French have occupied British Madras.

Both are returned in 1748 in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle - restoring the status quo, but also postponing an inevitable colonial conflict between what are now Europe's leading powers. Frederick the Great says of France and Britain: 'they see themselves as the leaders of two rival factions to which all kings and princes must attach themselves'. Within less than a decade the kings and princes will again have to take sides, in the Seven Years' War.

Pacifying the Highlands: AD 1715-1782

The abortive Jacobite Uprising of 1715 makes the Whig government and the Hanoverian monarch well aware that the Highlands of Scotland require careful control. The most important response to the challenge is a programme of road building. Intended purely to facilitate the rapid movement of troops, the new roads are incidentally of great economic benefit to Scotland.

The task of building them is entrusted to George Wade, who is commander-in-chief of North Britain from 1724 to 1740. He supervises the construction of 240 miles of roads across the Highlands, to a very high standard for the period, together with some forty bridges.

After the much more serious rebellion of 1745, the British government takes more punitive measures. Estates are forfeited, Highlanders are not allowed to carry arms, and - in the most symbolic and widely remembered gesture - the wearing of Highland dress and tartan is forbidden in the 1747 Act of Proscription (the restriction is lifted in 1782).

The crisis of 1745, even though in the nature of a civil war, is used by the Hanoverian majority to stir up a fervour of national sentiment. The first recorded occasion of a British crowd singing the national anthem is at Drury Lane in September 1745, a month after the Young pretender has landed in Scotland.

On this occasion George Wade's efforts in Scotland earn him a place in the lyrics. The crowd fervently sing out their hope that the famous general will 'like a torrent rush, rebellious Scots to crush' and thus will 'confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks'.

The crisis was never as great as such dramatic treatment makes it seem. The majority of Scots, living an increasingly prosperous existence in the more comfortable Lowlands, have little sympathy with wild and dangerous Highland schemes. They are busy turning Edinburgh into one of the most civilized of 18th-century cities, in both architectural and intellectual terms - as the home of the Scottish enlightenment.

The fight for empire: AD 1754-1759

The colonial struggle between Britain and France reaches its decisive years during the 1750s. In India Robert Clive takes daring action (even though on a very small scale) against French interests at Arcot in 1751. By the end of the decade - after the battle of Plassey in 1757 - he is establishing a much increased British presence in India through his control of Bengal.

In America armed hostility breaks out in 1754 on the frontier between British and French territories. For the first three years the advantage goes to the French, but then the tide turns - culminating in the events which have stamped a particular year, 1759, as a wonderful one in British history.

Annus mirabilis: AD 1759

1759 becomes known to the British as annus mirabilis, the wonderful year, because of a spectacular run of victories. The greatest is Wolfe's capture of Quebec in September, but there are two successes at sea which are equally important. They save England from the threat of a French invasion.

French troops have been amassing along the English Channel this summer, awaiting a fleet to ferry them across. Either of two fleets could do so, and Britain's survival in the war depends on destroying both. One is in Toulon. In August it slips out of the Mediterranean, sailing past Gibraltar on its way north. Off Lagos, in sourthern Portugal, it is caught and defeated by Edward Boscawen.

The other fleet is in Brest. It puts to sea in November and is confronted in Quiberon Bay by Edward Hawke. On the afternoon of November 20 the fleets engage in a three-hour battle. The British lose two ships, which run aground. Most of the French fleet is either destroyed or is irreparably damaged when escaping into shallow waters.

The victory prompts David Garrick to write a song, Heart of Oak. Its title refers to the wood the British ships are made of, and by extension to the brave sailors themselves: 'Heart of oak are our ships, Heart of oak are our men.'

The letter-writer and wit Horace Walpole responds languidly to this flood of good news in 1759: 'We are forced to ask every morning what victory there has been', he observes, 'for fear of missing one.'

This Seven Years' War is history's first approximation to a world war, with engagements on land and sea in America, in Europe and even in a simmering confrontation in Asia. Of all the various theatres of war, by far the best news for Britain now comes from America - the place where the Conflict with france originally began, and began so badly.

Peace treaties: AD 1763

Two separate peace treaties are signed during February 1763. The earlier of the two, by five days, is agreed in Paris between Britain, France and Spain. The second, between Austria and Prussia, is signed at Hubertusburg in Saxony.

The settlement between Britain and Spain restores to Spain both Havana and manila, captured in the previous year. But it rewards Britain with the acquisition of Florida (which reverts to Spain from 1783 to 1819), completing the stretch of British territory along the entire east coast of the American continent down to the Caribbean. The northern part of this stretch, in Canada, is acquired by Britain from France in the one major upheaval contained in these treaties.

France cedes to Britain all the territory which it has previously claimed between the Mississippi and ohio rivers, together with the original territories of New France along the St Lawrence. This brings to an end the French empire in America (only New orleans and its district remain in French hands under the treaty). The British become unmistakably the dominant power in the northern half of the continent, in one of the major turning points of history.

The lands more notionally claimed by the French between the Mississippi and the Rockies are ceded to Spain. (They are later acquired by the USA, in 1803, in the Louisiana purchase.)

The peace treaty agreed at Hubertusburg between Prussia and Austria maintains the recent status quo in central Europe. Frederick the Great, twice the aggressor, is again allowed to keep Silesia.

This conclusion strengthens the influence of Prussia within the German empire and reduces that of the official imperial power, Habsburg Austria. It also leaves Poland flanked by two increasingly powerful neighbours, Prussia and Russia, who since 1762 have been in alliance. The development does not bode well for Poland's future. Austria too attends the feast, when it begins in 1772.

America 1763-83

Mounting antagonism: AD 1763-1773

If the results of the wars against France leave the British colonists in America with a new sense of confidence, they also make parliament in London increasingly aware both of the value of the American colonies and of the likely cost of defending them.

British America now consists of the thirteen colonies founded or developed by Britain between 1607 (Virginia) and 1732 (Georgia), together with four provinces won through warfare - Nova scotia in 1713, and then Quebec and West and East Florida in 1763.

The British government feels that this important bloc of overseas territory now requires more coherent control and better defence - both to be supplied from London. But many in the original thirteen colonies are beginning to regard any such interference as an intrusion.

This difference in attitude leads inevitably to friction. London, sending over British troops (known from their uniform as redcoats), expects the colonists to contribute to the expense and to allow the soldiers to be quartered in American homes. The colonists see this as an unacceptable imposition, in both financial and personal terms.

Similar resentment results from British measures to control the judges and courts in America, to lessen the power of the elected assemblies in each colony, and to collect more effectively the customs due on trade between the American mainland and the West Indies.

But it is British taxes which provoke the most deeply felt grievances and the most effective American response. Between 1764 and 1767 London passes a series of taxes on goods imported into America: the Sugar Act of 1764 (covering wine and textiles as well as sugar), the Stamp Act of 1765 (a stamp duty on legal documents and newspapers), and the Townshend Acts of 1767 (taxes on glass, lead, paper, paint and tea). In retaliation the colonists organize very effective boycotts of British goods.

The boycotts affect British commercial interests in London, where several politicians (in particular William Pitt and Edmund Burke) are anyway inclined to find an accomodation with the colonists. The Stamp Act is repealed in 1766. Similarly the new import duties are lifted in 1770, with one exception - the duty on tea.

This exception is seen as London's emphasis on the right of parliament to tax the American colonies. Yet the colonists have no elected voice in the Westminster assembly. 'No taxation without representation' is a central theme in the colonial argument, and tea now becomes a symbolic substance at the heart of the conflict. A new Tea Act, in 1773, heightens the tension.

Boston Tea Party: AD 1773

Early in December 1773 three East india company ships are in Boston harbour, waiting for their cargo of tea to be unloaded. No one will take it off the ship, because it will pay British duty as soon as it is transferred to American soil. However, if it is still in the harbour on December 17, the cargo can be legally seized by the British customs and sold.

At a mass meeting in Boston on the evening of December 16 the question is pointedly raised: 'Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?' Soon some Bostonians appear, roughly disguised as Indians. With the 'Indians' in the lead, the crowd marches to the harbour, boards the ships, and throws some 350 chests of tea into the water.

The night ends with a triumphal march through Boston to the accompaniment of fife and drum. The exciting news spreads rapidly through the colonies, but it takes more than a month for details to reach London of this direct act of defiance. The response of the prime minister, Lord North, is that the time for conciliation has passed. As an example to the other colonies, Boston must be brought to heel.

A succession of acts are passed in London during the summer of 1774. Known officially as the Coercive Acts (but in America as the Intolerable Acts), their purpose is to punish Boston - at the very least until compensation for the tea is paid to the East india company.

The first of these parliamentary acts closes Boston's port. Subsequent ones place the city under the military command of General Thomas Gage and provide new arrangements for the quartering of troops. It is a policy which can only inflame the situation.

In colony after colony during 1774 provincial assemblies voice their support for Boston, bringing them into direct conflict with their own British governors - who in some cases use their powers to dissolve the assemblies. As a result a new idea gains rapid and excited support. Each colony is invited to send delegates to a congress in Philadelphia in September. Only Georgia hangs back from this next act of defiance.

First Continental Congress: AD 1774

Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies convene in Philadelphia. They are leaders of their own communities (George Washington is here for Virginia). Their voices will carry weight, and the message that they send to Britain is uncompromising.

They state that the recent measures passed into law at Westminster violate natural rights (a theme developed two years later in the Declaration of independence) and that as such they are unconstitutional. They declare their united support for Massachusetts. In more practical terms they announce a joint boycott, from December, of all imported goods from Britain and the British West Indies. It is to be followed nine months later by a similar block on exports to those markets from America.

The delegates agree to reconvene in May 1775, but it is clear that the Congress has made war probable. This is welcome news to half the American colonists, who become known as the Patriots. Those who still hope to find an accomodation with Britain (perhaps 25% of the population) acquire the name of Loyalists.

The Patriots spend the winter in preparation, and events soon prove they are right to do so. An exasperated parliament in London decides that more forceful measures are needed. General Gage, commanding the redcoats in Boston, is sent an order to employ his troops more forcefully. He decides to make a surprise raid on the Patriots' stock of military supplies in Massachusetts.

Lexington and Concord: AD 1775

The target of General Gage's supposedly secret foray is a store of weapons held at Concord, twenty miles northwest of Boston. But the secret leaks out. When a force of 700 redcoats moves from the city, a horseman gallops from Boston to warn the local Patriots of their approach.

Popular tradition has long identified the horseman as the distinguished Huguenot silversmith Paul Revere. The tradition may well be correct. Revere, one of the 'Indians' taking part in the Tea Party of 1773, often rides with urgent messages from Boston's Committee of Public Safety.

On April 19 the redcoats reach Lexington, on the road to Concord. They find some seventy-five minutemen (the local name for volunteers ready to mobilize at a moment's notice) waiting to oppose their passage. It is not known who fires the first shot - later immortalized by Ralph Waldo Emerson as 'the shot heard round the world'. But after a brief engagement eight minutemen are dead and ten wounded.

The British contingent marches on to Concord, only to find that all the weapons have been removed. Meanwhile the Massachusetts militia has assembled in force. The redcoats suffer heavily from snipers on the journey back to Boston. The American Revolution, also known as the War of American Independence, has begun.

The loss of the American colonies: AD 1775-1783

From General Gage's unsuccessful expedition against the patriots at Concord to the final surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the war between Britain and her American colonies drags on for six painful years. For much of the time there is no clear advantage in terms of battle honours.

It is probable that Britain could never prevail against the determined colonists, with their sights firmly set on independence, in a war 3000 miles away across the ocean. But the likely outcome is decisively tilted against Britain after 1778 when France, eager to avenge her losses of 1763, enters the fray in support of the rebels.

Britain ends the war humiliated (a new experience for a generation remembering the triumphs of 1759) and with the exchequer severely depleted. But soon after this disaster national self-esteem recovers, surprisingly rapidly, under one of the country's most exceptional prime ministers. British troops linger on in parts of America until 1783, withdrawing from New york only in November of that year. In the very next month the king, George III, appoints a 24-year-old as his chief minister.

In March 1784 the young man wins a good majority in a general election and is able to form a stable government. He is William pitt, second son of Pitt the elder. He comes to power in a Britain beginning to be transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

The economy 1767-92

Richard Arkwright entrepreneur: AD 1767-1792

By the 1780s, on the eve of the French Revolution, Britain is a society profoundly changed from a century earlier. The form of monarchy characterized by the Stuarts, and still practised by the Bourbon rulers in France, has given way to different structures. There is now political power in middle-class hands. And new opportunities are available in the developing Industrial Revolution.

There is no more striking example of this flexible society, in which merit can find its own rewards, than the career of Richard Arkwright. Born the youngest of seven children of a barber and wigmaker, he dies sixty years later immensely wealthy and a knight of the realm.

Arkwright begins his career travelling the country in his father's trade, buying hair for wigs and dying it by his own secret process. But soon he becomes interested in spinning. In 1767 he begins to construct a spinning machine. In 1769 he patents it and sets up a mill in Nottingham where his machine is worked by a horse.

Two years later Arkwright takes several steps of great significance. He raises capital to build an entirely new mill at Cromford, on the river Derwent in Derbyshire. He successfully adapts his spinning machine, making it work by the much greater power of the river and a mill wheel. And he builds cottages to house workers in the immediate vicinity.

Arkwright thus creates the factory environment. His industrial workers are a community centred on the factory - in strong contrast to the traditional working life of peasants, dependent on the fields and the seasons.

Within the factory, Arkwright's employees specialize in different tasks, each providing his or her own particular service for the relentlessly demanding machines. Discipline is essential if this system is to work, for the machines cannot be left untended. But it is no longer the variable discipline of sunrise and harvest. It is the inflexible and potentially harsh pressure of clock and overseer.

Arkwright's factory system works brilliantly - and in its early small-scale river-based form the environment of industry has considerable picturesque appeal, as Arkwright's surviving mill at Cromford still demonstrates.

Arkwright builds cotton mills on suitable rivers elsewhere in the country, as far away as Scotland. By 1782, just fifteen years after his first attempt to build a spinning machine, the great entrepreneur has a capital of some £200,000 and is employing 5000 workers. And British society welcomes this rapidly self-made man. In 1786 he receives a knighthood. In the following year he is appointed High Sheriff of Derbyshire.

Derby's great painter of the period, Joseph Wright, records features of this impressive story. In 1783 he paints a view of Cromford Mill by moonlight, contributing to a growing perception that industry and its processes provide a romantic subject. In 1789 Wright provides a portrait of the great industrialist. He sits alone, appearing prosperous but slightly gross, in a room decorated only by a model of his spinning machine.

In the following year Joseph Wright paints Arkwright's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in three group portraits. They look like the most elegant and refined of aristocrats, to the manner born - compelling evidence of the new flexibility of English society when William Pitt becomes prime minister.

Funds and tariffs: AD 1784-1786

If British industry is prospering when Pitt the Younger becomes prime minister in 1784, the same cannot be said of the national finances. After the expense of the war against the American colonies, the national debt stands at the extraordinarily high figure (in the currency of the time) of £250 million.

Pitt sets to work with a series of well-judged and effective measures of good housekeeping. He greatly simplifies the tax system, introducing new taxes in some areas but greatly reducing them in others while taking strong measures to end smuggling. (It is he who introduces income tax for the first time in England, at 10% on incomes over £200, but only as a temporary measure from 1799 to pay for the war against France.)

Pitt also rationalizes the administrative system of the Exchequer. Tax revenues and government expenditure have until now flowed in and out of a confusing multiplicity of funds. He replaces this with a single 'consolidated fund' which introduces an element of clarity to the government's affairs (and which remains Treasury practice two centuries later).

The efficiency of Pitt's measures enables him to introduce another kind of fund to mend the nation's finances. This is the 'sinking fund' established in 1786. From that year he puts aside an annual £1 million of government money to form a fund, growing at compound interest, which can be used as a buffer against national debt.

In his policy on trade Pitt is up to date in following the ideas of Adam smith. Rejecting the protectionism of Mercantile economics, he attempts in 1785 to bring Ireland into a free-trade commercial union with Britain. In the following year he negotiates a treaty with France which gives both nations free access to each other's ports and a low tariff rate, instead of the restrictive measures which have prevailed during a century of intermittent warfare.

Both schemes are frustrated: the one with France because there is soon yet another war; and the Irish attempt because of the intractable complexity of Anglo-Irish relations.

Ireland 1778-1800

Anglo-Irish tensions: AD 1778-1785

Considerable concessions have been made to the Irish before the end of the war against the American colonists, and as a direct result of the conflict. By 1778 many of the British troops normally maintained in Ireland are overseas in America. In that year France enters the war against Britain. It is clear that Ireland is dangerously exposed both to internal unrest and to invasion. The Protestants enlist enthusiastically as volunteers. Soon they outnumber the regular British forces in the island.

This accidental circumstance gives unprecedented weight to the political demands coming from Dublin (on topics such as free trade and the power of the Irish parliament), which in normal times receive scant attention in Westminster.

Between 1778 and 1782 much legislation is passed to reduce Irish grievances. Most of the restraints on Irish trade are removed. The ancient and repressive Poynings' law is modified almost out of existence. Irish judges are given the same tenure of office as their English colleagues. And some of the restrictions on Roman Catholics are eased (particularly in relation to the Ownership of land).

In 1785 Pitt attempts to carry this process further, but his bill to merge Ireland in a full commercial union with Britain and the colonies does not pass. He fails to find a compromise to satisfy the objections of British traders and the demands of the Irish. And Irish demands are anyway about to escalate, as a result of the French Revolution.

United and disunited Irishmen: AD 1791-1795

The heady achievements of the early years of the French Revolution prompt similar excitement in Ireland. In 1791 Wolfe Tone and others establish in Belfast (with a subsequent branch in Dublin) the Society of United Irishmen. The society's aim is to demand Catholic emancipation, but also to involve Irish Protestants in a joint campaign for political reform - extending even to universal male suffrage.

By 1793, when Britain is again at War with france, Pitt is eager to have the support of the predominantly Catholic population of Ireland. He passes in 1793 the Catholic Relief Act. It is a cause which happens also to have his strong personal support.

Under the new act Catholics have the franchise on the same terms as Protestants; they are no longer barred from most government offices; they are admitted to Trinity College, Dublin's only university at this time. In 1795 Pitt goes further, founding the seminary of Maynooth to educate Catholic priests (the college at Douai having been closed by the anti-clerical policies of the French Revolution).

But by this time the political situation in Ireland has become much more radical. A section of the United Irishmen has been transformed by Wolfe Tone into a secret society aiming for a free Ireland. In 1795 a secret Protestant group, the Orange Society, is formed to resist Irish nationalism (see the Orange Order). The island's turbulent future is taking shape.

Irish rebels: AD 1796-1798

In 1796 Wolfe Tone travels to Paris to persuade the Directory that it only needs the spark of a French invasion to ignite an Irish uprising against their English oppressors. His argument convinces. In December of that year Tone sails home in the company of 14,000 French soldiers commanded by Lazare Hoche. But a storm disperses the fleet off southwest Ireland and no troops are landed.

Tone is still abroad, in 1798, when his revolutionary colleagues in Ireland succeed in launching an armed rebellion which gives the British government considerable trouble. British troops are defeated in several engagements in the Wexford region.

It is Wolfe Tone's misfortune that calm has already been restored by the British when he arrives on the coast of Donegal, in September, with a French force of 3000 men. Captured and taken to Dublin, he makes a stirring speech at his trial about the need for an Irish war of liberation. Two days later he cuts his throat to cheat the British gallows. Ireland has the first of her many revolutionary heroes.

The events of 1798 convince Pitt that the Irish problem requires precisely the opposite solution from the one advocated by Wolfe Tone. Instead of a separate and independent Ireland, he sees the answer in full-scale union between Ireland and Britain.

Act of Union: AD 1800

The Act of Union of 1800, effective from 1 January 1801, brings into existence a political entity called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (though almost invariably referred to by most of its inhabitants as Britain).

Pitt only succeeds in forcing this measure through the parliaments of Westminster and Dublin by a great deal of the political jobbery characteristic of the time. His motive is not just a cynical wish to bring the Irish to heel. He has a genuine concern for the plight of the Catholics in Ireland. And he believes that emancipation will be easier if Catholics are a minority in a United Kingdom rather than the vast majority in the kingdom of Ireland.

The act abolishes the parliament in Dublin, providing instead for Ireland to be represented at Westminster by four bishops and twenty-eight peers in the house of lords and by 100 elected members in the house of commons.

The result pleases no one. Ireland's political classes, members of the Protestant ascendancy, have played leading roles in their own parliament. Now they are small fry in the larger English establishment. Yet the change also means that they spend less time in Ireland. Dublin declines in glamour and prosperity. Estates in Ireland become subject to the neglect and decay associated with absentee landlords.

The Catholics have the most to resent at the way things turn out. The ruling Protestant minority has naturally been opposed to the abolition of the Dublin parliament. Pitt sidetracks their opposition by well-placed bribes and by winning the support of the Catholic majority. This he achieves by a pledge which he fully intends to honour - the promise of Catholic emancipation, giving the community full equality of rights with the Anglo-Irish Protestants.

But Pitt has failed to allow for passionate opposition to his plan on the part of George III, who considers any relief for Catholics a betrayal of his coronation oath to defend the Anglican church. (The extreme of popular opinion on the issue has been demonstrated twenty years earlier in the Gordon Riots.)

The Act of Union is passed without any element of Catholic emancipation, and Pitt resigns in February 1801 when it becomes obvious that the king's opposition makes it impossible for a subsequent bill to redress the omission. (George III concludes his case by lapsing into his second Bout of insanity, which he later blames on this crisis; when he recovers, a month later, Pitt promises not to raise the Catholic issue again during the king's reign).

Pitt is out of office for only three years, until the king recalls him in 1804 to continue the war against Napoleon. But the damage done in Ireland is longer lasting.

The determination to break the union becomes the central theme of Irish politics during the 19th century. It surfaces almost immediately in the uprising led by Robert Emmet in 1803. The event has been conceived at a high level, including even a meeting between Emmet and Napoleon in Paris in 1802, but chaotic planning reduces it to a fiasco in which Emmet marches on Dublin with only about 100 men. Nevertheless he is still revered today as a romantic rebel, largely because his capture and execution results from his trying to stay near his fiancée Sarah Curran.

After this shaky start, the repeal of the union emerges as a movement of lasting significance during the 1820s under the leadership of Daniel O'Connell.

Napoleon 1800-15

Napoleon against Britain: AD 1800-1802

The conflict between France and Britain, continuously at War since 1793, tends always towards stalemate. The two nations are evenly matched but have very different strengths. Britain has a much smaller population (11 million compared to 27 million in France in 1801). This disadvantage is offset by Britain's wealth (from a more developed economy and extensive overseas trade) and by the British superiority at sea. In 1803 France has 23 ships of the line; Britain has 34 in service and another 77 in reserve.

For these reasons the British contribution to any war against France in continental Europe is largely limited to providing funds for allied armies.

The naval clash between Britain and France is a strange one - not so much a sea war as a coast war. It is the permanent concern of the British navy, commanding the seas, to harm France and her allies by preventing any merchant ships other than those of Britain from reaching continental ports. And it is the permanent concern of the French armies, commanding the land, to prevent British vessels entering those same ports.

Third parties suffer as much as anyone from this form of economic warfare, particularly after Britain adopts the policy of seizing goods carried by the ships of neutral nations if they are destined for a harbour under blockade.

Indignation at this British policy, heightened by diplomatic pressure from Napoleon, prompts Russia, Sweden and Denmark to form in December 1800 a League of Armed Neutrality. They declare the Baltic ports out of bounds to British ships. The embargo is strengthened when the Danes seize Hamburg, the main harbour for British trade with the German states.

Britain responds by sending a naval fleet into the Baltic. The second-in-command is Nelson, who sails into shallow and well-defended waters in Copenhagen harbour. There is heavy fighting, during which the commander of the fleet flies the signal for Nelson to withdraw (this is the famous occasion when he puts the telescope to his blind eye).

Nelson destroys many of the ships in the harbour and damages the shore defences in this battle of Copenhagen (2 April 1801). His victory prompts the Danes to make peace in May. Sweden does so in the same month, and Russia follows suit in June.

By now, as after Campo formio, Britain and France are the only two nations still at war. From the British point of view one affront still needs to be righted. In March 1801 a fleet is sent through the Mediterranean to help the Turks expel the French from Egypt. The French command in Cairo surrenders in June, followed by Alexandria in August.

Both sides are now exhausted. There have been tentative peace talks since February. Terms are agreed in October, putting an end to hostilities. The peace is signed in Amiens in March 1802.

Napoleon's negotiators do well for France. All Overseas territories taken by Britain in the past nine years (including several West Indian islands) are returned into French hands. Similarly Minorca reverts to Spain and the Cape colony in South Africa to Holland. But Britain keeps Sri Lanka (taken from the Dutch) and Trinidad (previously Spanish). Egypt is to be Turkish again. Malta (taken by Napoleon in 1798 and by Britain in 1800) is to be restored to the Knights of St John.

The peace of Amiens: AD 1802-1803

Peace is eagerly greeted by Europeans starved of the pleasures of travel - particularly the British, cooped up in their island for years, who now flock across the Channel to enjoy once again the pleasures of Paris. But this is to prove only a breathing space. Nothing has been resolved in the long rivalry between Britain and France, and each government soon finds much to complain about in the behaviour of the other during the interlude of peace.

Napoleon annoys the British by failing to allow the spirit of harmony into the market place. His refusal to agree a commercial treaty means that British merchants are penalized by high tariffs in French and allied ports. They conclude that peace seems no more profitable than war.

Meanwhile Napoleon alarms the British government by his expansionist behaviour in regions not covered by the treaty - for example in his annexation of Piedmont in 1802, to bridge the gap between France and the Cisalpine republic.

Britain gives France more specific cause for complaint by not fulfilling the terms of the treaty of Amiens. It has been agreed that she will withdraw from Malta. Her failure to do so would be justified in modern eyes by the expressed views of the Maltese. Horrified at the prospect of the return of the Knights of St John, the local assembly passes a resolution inviting George III to become their sovereign on condition that he maintains the Roman Catholic faith in the island.

However, the wishes of local inhabitants carry little weight in diplomatic negotiations in the early 19th century. And Britain, remaining in possession of the island, is undoubtedly in violation of the treaty.

Napoleon complains but avoids pressing the issue to the brink of hostilities. It is likely that his long-term intentions towards Britain are not peaceful, but he is not yet ready for a renewal of war. He needs time, in particular, to build up his fleet. The same logic makes Britain prefer an early renewal of the conflict. For no very good reason, other than long-term self-interest, the British government declares war on France in May 1803.

The war at sea: AD 1803-1805

For two years, after the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, Britain is the only nation at war with France. Napoleon returns to the Scheme of 1798 for an invasion across the Channel, but now on a much more elaborate scale.

In ports from Brest to Antwerp he gathers a fleet of nearly 2000 craft for the transport of men, horses and artillery. During 1803 he assembles what later becomes known as the Grand Army, amounting to some 150,000 men bivouacked (so as to remain inconspicuous) in four widely separated camps but ready to converge at any moment on Boulogne for embarkation. Meanwhile the British, well aware of the threat, are dotting their south coast with the circular fortifications known as Martello towers.

Napoleon's initial plan is for his fleet to launch on a single tide and to cross the Channel unobserved, perhaps under cover of fog, and so escape the attentions of the British navy. But this is impractical for such large numbers. He needs a fleet capable of protecting the invading force.

In December 1804 Napoleon persuades Spain to join him in war against Britain, thus acquiring the support of the Spanish navy. His strategy is now to divert the British fleet, or at least part of it, from guard duty in the Channel.

The result, during 1805, is a game of maritime cat and mouse - with French and British squadrons criss-crossing the Atlantic, between the West Indies and the European coast, in an attempt to second-guess and outwit each other. With the primitive communications of the day, it is difficult even for allied fleets to achieve an intended rendezvous in distant waters. Inevitably Napoleon's somewhat elaborate plans go adrift.

In August the combined French and Spanish fleet, under the command of Villeneuve, withdraws to Cadiz. But the port is already under observation by three British ships of the line. Word is urgently sent for reinforcements. At the end of September Nelson arrives to take command.

On October 19 Villeneuve sails from Cadiz, intending to head south and enter the Mediterranean. He has thirty-three ships of the line. Nelson shadows his movement from several miles out to sea, keeping his twenty-seven ships of the line out of sight and receiving information by signal from his frigates.

Nelson closes in, off Cape Trafalgar, on the morning of October 21. The battle begins just before noon. Five hours later some nineteen French and Spanish ships have surrendered or been destroyed, with no British losses. But Nelson himself is dead, mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory by a sniper firing from the topmast of the Redoutable.

Trafalgar confirms Britain's reputation at sea and has the effect of preventing the French fleet from playing any major part in the remaining years of the war - though Napoleon keeps ships of the line in readiness in French harbours, putting Britain to the considerable expense of mounting permanent blockades.

In his struggle with Britain, Napoleon now reverts to the longer-term strategy of sealing the continent against British goods in the policy which becomes known as the Continental system. But meanwhile others of his old enemies are up in arms again, and he is back in his element - on the battlefields of Europe.

The Continental System: AD 1806-1807

The purpose of Napoleon's Continental System is to ruin Britain's economy by preventing British goods from reaching any market in continental Europe. It is not, as it would be in modern warfare, an attempt to starve an island enemy into submission.

Educated in the 18th-century mercantilist school of economics, Napoleon believes that nations thrive primarily through wealth earned abroad. He therefore allows surplus French corn to be sold to Britain in 1809 and 1810, even though a shortage is already causing his enemy grave difficulty in high bread prices. Nevertheless a complete blockage of British exports would in itself be extremely damaging if it could be made watertight.

Napoleon begins to build his system when he is wintering in Berlin after defeating the Prussians at Jena. In November 1806 he issues the Berlin decree, denying the ports of France and her allies to any ship sailing from Britain or a British colony.

This proves insufficient, since it fails to prevent a neutral ship from bringing in British goods. At Fontainebleau in October 1807, and in Milan a month later, Napoleon adds extra clauses: all colonial goods entering a port will be regarded as British unless producing some other certificate of origin; and any ship submitting to British orders in council, or sailing from or to Britain, will be regarded as a lawful prize if seized at sea.

The orders in council, issued in January and November 1807, are Britain's response to the decrees that put in place the Continental System. In them the British government states that any port closed by this system is now considered under blockade; and that any vessel trading into such a port must first receive a licence from Britain, paying customs of 20% or more on its cargo. The effect of these measures and counter-measures is particularly damaging to neutral ships, which now risk being apprehended at sea by the British and in port by the French.

Meanwhile, from Napoleon's point of view, the immediate practical problem is to ensure that every European nation with a coastline joins his scheme.

By the end of 1807 Denmark, Russia, Prussia and Austria have done so. Sweden, an ally of Britain's from the start of the Third coalition, refuses to comply - so, as planned at Tilsit, she is invaded by Russia (in February 1808).

Securing the Baltic may be left to Russia, but the Iberian peninsula is clearly France's own responsibility. Spain is a feeble ally of France, usually acting only under compulsion. Portugal is at best a neutral nation with a soft spot for Britain. This unsatisfactory situation tempts Napoleon into an undertaking which harms his cause in the Iberian peninsula, and becomes one of the factors in his ultimate downfall.

Vimeiro to Corunna: AD 1808-1809

The Peninsular War of 1808-14 looms large in British history for two reasons: it is the only significant involvement of British troops on land in the Napoleonic wars until the final campaign of 1815; and it is the stage on which the duke of Wellington rises to prominence as a national figure. Nevertheless in the broader picture of the European war it is little more than a sideshow, affecting the final result only because it ties up French troops whom Napoleon would dearly like to use elsewhere.

The war is provoked by Napoleon's invasion of Portugal in 1807 and by the subsequent French capture of Madrid in March 1808.

A British army lands in Portugal on 1 August 1808 under the command of Wellington (at the time plain Sir Arthur Wellesley), who wins a decisive victory over the French at Vimeiro, near Lisbon. Wellington is prevented from pursuing and further damaging the French army on the command of Hew Dalrymple, an officer senior to him who arrives just after the battle to take charge of the campaign.

By an agreement made at Sintra on August 31, Dalrymple allows the French army to withdraw from Portugal. The advantage is that the British can liberate Lisbon without further conflict. But an affronted Wellington returns home to resume a career in British politics.

Meanwhile Spanish forces are engaging the French in northern Spain. In October John Moore, newly in command of the British army in Portugal, marches north to assist them. The French situation in Spain appears so critical that Napoleon himself arrives (on November 6) to take charge of the campaign.

By late December Moore's army, near Burgos, is in danger of being surrounded. Moore beats a hasty retreat of some 250 miles through snowclad mountains to Corunna (or La CoruÑa). A French army arrives there shortly before the British fleet sent to evacuate the troops. Moore himself dies in January 1809 in the rearguard action to cover the embarkation, but his army escapes safely back to England.

Wellington in the ascendant: AD 1809-1814

In spite of the reverse suffered at Corunna, the British government undertakes a new campaign in Portugal. Wellington, who has won the only victory there so far, is returned to his command. He reaches Lisbon in April 1809 to find that the French have again pressed south into Portugal, against dwindling Portuguese and Spanish opposition, and have captured Oporto.

Wellington's campaign of 1809 includes successful sorties northwards in Portugal and an ambitious march to the east against Madrid. This ends with a hard fought battle on July 27 at Talavera, where Wellington holds off strong French assaults and is able to withdraw, relatively undamaged, to Portugal.

It is clear that the British position in the peninsula is tenuous. Wellington's response to this fact is the most imaginative strategic move of the Peninsular War. He turns the region north of Lisbon into a gigantic fortress by building the lines of Torres Vedras - a continuous fortification stretching twenty-five miles from the Atlantic coast through Torres Vedras to the broad Tagus river.

With British naval power protecting the port of Lisbon, there is now a large territory behind these impenetrable lines in which Wellington's army has a secure base in which it can be reliably supplied from the sea.

Campaigns in subsequent years involve prolonged fighting over the fortified towns between Portugal and Madrid; both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz are eventually taken by Wellington in 1812. Later in that year he wins a significant victory at Salamanca and briefly occupies Madrid.

The decisive campaign comes in 1813, when Wellington moves north from Portugal and meets the army of Napoleon's brother Joseph bonaparte (technically at this stage king of Spain) at Vitoria on June 21. Wellington captures the entire French artillery train, of some 150 guns, and all the baggage - including Joseph's impressive collection of art, which now graces Apsley House (Wellington's residence in London).

Further successful operations in northern Spain allow Wellington to cross the border into France in October - the first enemy army on French soil since the Campaign of 1792-3.

Wellington's succession of titles, acquired during the Peninsular War, provide an intriguing vignette of how to progress through the English peerage. After Talavera in 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley is made Viscount Wellington; after the fall of Ciudad Rodgrio in 1812 he becomes an earl and later that year, after Salamanca, a marquess. When peace is agreed, in May 1814, the final rung is achieved. It is the duke of Wellington who attends the Congress of vienna as Britain's representative, and returns in a hurry for Waterloo.

The need for reform

End of an era: AD 1815-1830

The years after the victory at Waterloo are uneasy ones in Britain. There has been industrial unrest even before the end of the war. In 1811 bands of masked men in Nottingham launch night raids on factories to smash the textile machines which they see as a threat to their livelihood. They become known as Luddites, because to preserve anonymity the leaders are all referred to as King Lud. The violence spreads to other industrial regions until a mass trial of suspects in York in 1813, followed by hangings and transportation, brings a lull.

But after the end of the war economic hardship, aggravated by an appalling harvest in 1816, brings another burst of Luddite activity.

This mood of violence, with continuing economic depression in the country, makes the ruling classes neurotically fearful of suspected radicals and obsessively inclined to measures of repression. Peaceful protest and nervous authority come face to face in Manchester in 1819.

A crowd of citizens, gathering on St Peter's Fields to demand the reform of parliament, is so alarmingly large (some 60,000 people) that the magistrates order troops to clear the area. Mounted soldiers charge in and lay about with their sabres. Eleven people are killed and about 500 wounded in an event which becomes known as the Peterloo massacre, in an ironic echo of the British army's rather better performance four years earlier at Waterloo.

Later in the year parliament passes the so-called 'Six Acts', designed to enforce public order by such means as limiting the right of assembly and the freedom of the press. But it proves impossible to suppress the radical journalism of campaigners such as William Cobbett - who in his weekly Political Register (with an astonishing circulation of about 50,000 copies) describes in pungent prose the harsh conditions of the poor and the nest-feathering of the self-indulgent rich.

The society which Cobbett and many others are desperate to reform has at its head a caricature of all that is wrong, in the person of George IV.

Though king for only ten years (1820-30), George IV is in effect the monarch for the previous decade as well. George III is prone to fits of insanity (now thought to be the result of a physical condition known as porphyria). His son, already notorious for a dissolute life of drink and gambling, becomes prince regent in 1811 when George III's new bout of insanity seems likely to be permanent.

The prince regent, though a Whig in his youth (with the brilliant but unpredictable Charles James Fox as a favourite drinking partner), retains his father's Tory ministry to the end of his reign. By then there has been an unbroken spell of thirty-six Tory years since George III appointed the young Pitt as his prime minister.

In some respects the Tories prove themselves well able to move with the times. George Canning, foreign secretary from 1825, is strongly supportive of the liberation movements in Greece and in Latin america. He becomes prime minister in 1827 but dies after only a few months - to be followed by a much more reactionary figure, albeit a national hero, the duke of Wellington.

Wellington astonishes even his supporters by stating that he sees no need for any element of political reform in Britain. But in one important respect events overtake him. Confronted by a sudden crisis, he pushes through a reform which had eluded even Pitt - that of Catholic emancipation.

Daniel O'connell and Catholic emancipation: AD 1823-1829

The issue of Catholic emancipation is brought back on to the agenda by a brilliant use of grassroots politics. Daniel O'Connell, an experienced campaigner who first achieves prominence in 1800 for his speeches in Dublin against the Act of union, organizes from 1823 a network of Catholic associations throughout Ireland. Their purpose is to demand an end to discrimination. The campaign is unmistakably an expression of popular will, being funded only by the members' subscriptions of a penny a month.

There is considerable sympathy in England for this cause and several bills for Catholic relief are put forward - only to be rejected in the house of lords.

In 1828 O'Connell raises the stakes. Even though his religion prevents his sitting in parliament in Westminster, he contests a by-election for the county of Clare. The election has been arranged so that Vesey Fitzgerald, invited by the duke of Wellington to join his cabinet as president of the board of trade, can be hurried into parliament. Sensationally, O'Connell wins the seat. The result puts Catholic Ireland in an uproar.

Wellington, the prime minister, and Robert Peel, his home secretary, have both been strongly opposed to any concessions to the Catholics. But in the circumstances they persuade George IV (equally disinclined) that something must be done.

The Emancipation Act is passed in 1829, removing nearly all the barriers against Catholics holding public office. The crucial clause, in the immediate context, is the one dropping the requirement for members of parliament to deny on oath the spiritual authority of the pope. O'Connell takes his seat.

He soon becomes the leader of the Irish members and works towards the achievement of his main aim - the repeal of the Union of 1800. But for the moment, as he himself recognizes, this cause takes second place to the frenzy now gripping Westminster in the battle for and against parliamentary reform.

The Reform Bill: AD 1831-1832

There has been no such prolonged period of intense political excitement in Britain as the fifteen months, from March 1831 to June 1832, during which repeated attempts are made to achieve a measure of parliamentary reform.

The need for reform, widely agreed around the country, is evident both in the laughable nature of much of tbe system inherited from the past, and in the inadequacy of the existing arrangements to cope with the present.

The anomalies from the past are famously evident in the so-called pocket and rotten boroughs. Pocket boroughs (or those where the nomination of the candidate is in the pocket of a single individual) have no electors at all; the owner's nominee automatically becomes a member of parliament, and ownership of the borough can even be put up for auction. By 1831 one such borough is entirely notional. Coastal erosion means that it has vanished under the sea, but it still returns a member to Westminster.

Rotten boroughs are those with very few electors. Old Sarum becomes the most notorious. Its seven voters have the right to elect two members, though in 1831 the constituency's rolling fields contain not a single habitable building.

These relics of the past give maximum opportunity for corruption in a system where there is not yet a Secret ballot. Votes are bought for openly stated prices and the election campaigns become gross orgies of competitive hospitality. Even worse, landowners sometimes victimize tenants who fail to vote for their nominees.

If these traces of the past are a bad joke, the failure to address present realities is even more serious. The rapidly growing new Industrial cities are for the most part unrepresented in parliament. A significant step in the crescendo of demand for reform comes in 1830 when the Tory majority in the house of commons rejects a bill to extend the franchise to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.

By the end of 1830 Wellington's Tory government has fallen. A new Whig ministry, headed by Earl Grey, is committed to parliamentary reform. By March 1831 a bill is ready.

Presented to the house of commons by Lord John Russell, the bill causes astonished delight in the country, and outrage on the Tory benches, by the bold sweep of its proposals. Most of the pocket and rotten boroughs are abolished, with their seats in the house transferred to the Industrial cities; the property qualification for electors, previously different all over the country, is rationalized. Debate rages for seven nights, and when the time comes for a vote the result could hardly be more dramatic. The bill passes by a majority of one.

Grey and his cabinet persuade the king (by now William IV) to dissolve parliament for an election to be held, effectively on this one issue. During the campaign there are passionate meetings and rallies around the country - mainly attended by people unable to vote, since the election is still on unreformed lines.

The Whigs sweep in with a majority of more than 100, and immediately carry in the house of commons a second Reform Bill. It is rejected in the lords in October 1831 by a majority of forty-one. A third and modified bill is carried in the commons in March 1832, and then in the lords by a small majority of nine. But crisis strikes when this bill too is rejected by the peers at the committee stage in May.

The Whig cabinet resigns and Wellington attempts to form a government committed to more moderate reform. In the mood of the country few members of parliament will support him, and within a few days he recommends that the king recall Grey. The Whigs return, with the king's reluctant agreement to create sufficient new peers to carry the bill if necessary. But Wellington now exerts himself to ensure acceptance by the lords.

On 7 June 1832 the bill receives the royal assent and becomes the Reform Act.

Representation of the people: AD 1833-1918

In the election for the first reformed parliament, which assembles in January 1833, the Tories do predictably badly - winning only 172 seats compared to 486 for the Whigs. Yet the new members are less different in kind than those fearing reform had predicted (though the duke of Wellington claims to be unimpressed by the standard of dress, commenting sourly that he has never seen 'so many shocking bad hats').

The reason is that the property qualification to become an elector is still high. Even under the new system only 813,000 people qualify to register as voters in 1832. But this is now a middle-classs electorate, in place of one representing mainly the landed gentry.

The immediate change may not be great, but the shift in direction is immense. As yet only a few radicals are arguing that everyone should have a vote (and even these few have in mind only an electorate including all adult males). To everyone else it seems obvious that those with a material stake in the economy should be the only people with power to influence political decisions.

Once it is accepted that the level of this stake can be changed, anything becomes possible. The reform of 1832 in Britain, together with similar movements in other countries, makes possible the progression towards the universal suffrage now taken for granted in 20th-century democracies.

In Britain the successive stages are four measures, each known as a Representation of the People Act. That of 1867 reduces the property qualification to the point where the urban working class wins the vote. The act of 1885 effectively does the same for workers in the countryside. (Between these two the Ballot Act of 1872 introduces the secret ballot, a measure which provokes a great deal of parliamentary opposition.)

The act of 1885 still contains a financial threshold, albeit a low one. This is done away with in the act of 1918 which makes proof of residence the only qualification. This act also finally achieves universal suffrage in Britain, since it introduces Votes for women.

Victorian era 1837-1854

Liberals and Conservatives: from AD 1832

In the shifting political landscape after the Reform Act, the old party loyalties of Whig and tory take on new colours. Because of pushing through the new legislation, the Whigs are now seen as the party of reform; and during the 1830s they begin to acquire a new name as Liberals (a term first applied only to the left wing of the party, where members are in favour of the 'liberation' movements already successful in Latin America and now under way elsewhere - see Liberal and conservative).

At the same period the Tories begin to call themselves Conservatives, making the most of their recent opposition to reform by suggesting that their policy is to conserve all that is best in the traditional British way of life.

In practice the two parties are rarely predictable in their attitudes to the great issues of the century. In broad terms the Liberals are more inclined to pass measures of Social welfare (the Factory Act of 1833, the Ten Hours' Act of 1847), yet the greatest campaigner on these issues is a Conservative MP, Lord Shaftesbury, and his party is responsible for the Mines Act of 1842.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the great issue of the 1840s, the repeal of the Corn laws. Forced through parliament in 1846 by a Conservative prime minister, Robert Peel, the issue splits the party. Eventually Peel's own minority faction merges, after his death, with the Liberals.

Many such parallels can be drawn. It is the Conservatives who Extend the franchise to bring in more voters in 1867, and the Liberals who continue the process in 1884. The two most aggressive prime ministers in their foreign policy, on behalf of British interests abroad, are the Liberal Palmerston and the Conservative Disraeli. And when a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, presses for Home rule for Ireland, half his party hive off as the Liberal Unionists.

For these reasons the century is best described not under a succession of prime ministers of one party or the other, but in terms of the great issues of the day. One of the most pressing is the recent growth of new cities.

The growth of industrial cities: 18th - 19th century AD

The availability of work in Britain's mills and factories, particularly after the introduction of Steam power, has the effect of drawing ever-increasing numbers of people from the countryside into rapidly expanding cities. Manchester and the closely related town of Salford have 25,000 inhabitants between them in 1772. In 1821 the joint population is 181,000. By 1851 this conurbation has grown to 455,000.

The growth of Manchester's Textile industry brings equivalent prosperity to the nearby port of Liverpool - just in time since the Slave trade, the previous source of Liverpool's wealth, is made illegal in 1807. Cotton saves the day. Eight new docks are built in Liverpool between 1815 and 1835.

The amount of raw cotton brought ashore in Liverpool shows a threefold increase between 1820 and 1850, from half a million bales a year to 1.5 million. There is a comparable rise in the population - with a leap of 60% in a single decade, the 1840s, from 250,000 to 400,000 inhabitants.

The other great industrial city of the era, Birmingham, starts from a lower base. Its population increases from 86,000 to 233,000 between 1801 and 1851. Birmingham's interests are broader than those of Lancashire, where textiles predominate. Birmingham is blessed with an abundance of coal, iron and wood in the immediate neighbourhood, and with a position at the very heart of England.

Birmingham's real potential is realized only with the arrival of the railway. The line to London is completed in 1838. By then the city's workshops, specializing in metal-based industries, are ready to supply a wider market. A French visitor in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, describes the place as 'an immense workshop, a huge forge', where one sees only 'busy people and faces brown with smoke' and hears 'nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of Steam escaping from boilers'.

To a detached observer the Industrial Revolution can seem Romantic in the 1780s and fascinatingly strange in the 1830s. But it is also becoming evident that it creates an environment in which it can be extremely unpleasant to work.

Factories and slums: 19th - 20th century AD

In any peasant community children work in the fields. As families move in from the countryside to work in Britain's developing industrial cities, there is nothing intrinsically strange about children joining their parents in the factories. And the entrepreneurs who own the factories welcome a supply of labour trapped by economic circumstances into accepting long hours and low pay.

The living conditions of the poor in any rapidly growing city, without sanitation, are invariably worse than the condition of peasants in the countryside. But in Britain in the early 19th century it is exploitation within the factories which prompts the first measures of reform.

The first Factory Act, in 1802, introduces a regulation which by later standards seems astonishing. It limits the amount of time which a child may work in a factory to twelve hours a day.

After much opposition the reformers achieve significant improvements in the Factory Act of 1833. Children under nine are now not to work at all. Those aged between nine and thirteen are limited to eight hours of work and must be given two hours of education each day (this is the first small step towards compulsory education in Britain). And an inspectorate is set up for the factories, albeit initially with only four inspectors for the entire country.

The last significant regulation of hours of work is achieved in the Ten Hour Act of 1847, which stipulates that number of hours as the maximum working day for women and children in the nation's factories and textile mills. This act is largely the achievement of Lord Shaftesbury, who is responsible also for the Mines Act of 1842. This makes it illegal for women of any age and for boys under thirteen to be employed underground.

By the mid-century Shaftesbury is much concerned with the condition of London slums, campaigning actively for improvements in housing and public sanitation. In the 20th century environmental pollution comes to be seen as another deficit to be charged against the Industrial Revolution.

Industrialization, with its blend of benefits and drawbacks, spreads gradually round the world from its first manifestation in Britain. When a developing country has an adequate transport system, and the ability to provide the starting costs of industrial enterprises, it can begin to manufacture its own goods, from its own raw materials, rather than buying them from a more advanced economy. In certain industries the cheap labour of a developing economy can soon give a competitive edge in world markets.

Exploitation and slums remain characteristic of the Industrial Revolution anywhere in the world. But gradually, along with the pain and the misery, the average standard of living rises in any nation which takes this familiar path.

Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League: AD 1838-1846

Two political organizations are founded in the same year, 1838, in London and in Manchester. They are very different, but each evolves in a sense from the Reform Act earlier in the decade.

The People's Charter is drafted and published in May by the London Working Men's Association. It is partly a response to economic depression and high unemployment in the recent two years, but it is also a protest against the middle-class limitations of the Reformed parliament. The document makes six political demands: universal male suffrage, constituencies of roughly equal size, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, no property qualification for MPs, and annual parliaments.

These are regarded by the Liberal government, now headed by Lord Melbourne, as seditious proposals (though all of them, except annual parliaments, are taken for granted a century later). During 1839 many of those speaking around the country in the Chartist cause are sentenced to one or two years in gaol. Even so, by 1842 the Charter has attracted more than three million signatures, collected by a network of local organizations. Chartism has evolved into Britain's first national working-class movement.

Meanwhile the middle classes are making even more impressive progress with their own pressure group, which is also connected with the shift of power promised in the Reform Act.

The influence of the landed gentry in parliament, absolute before the Reform act and still strong after it, is seen in the continuation of tariffs against foreign grain. Designed to guarantee a sufficiently large British crop in time of war, the effect of the Corn Laws in peace time is to keep prices artificially high - considerably boosting the income of the landed grandees.

It is an issue on which the interests of the working classes coincide with those of their employers in the mills, since cheap bread benefits both groups. In October 1838 seven merchants and mill-owners in Manchester found the Anti-Corn Law League to campaign for abolition of the restrictive laws.

Two men, Richard Cobden and John Bright, emerge as the driving force within the League. Both enter parliament in the early 1840s; both devote themselves to campaigning in the house of commons and around the country on the issue.

Gradually their arguments prevail. Robert Peel, the prime minister, is already wavering when the Irish potato famine of 1845 clinches his view of the matter. Cheap imported food is now, more than ever, essential. In June 1846 Peel carries the bill to repeal the Corn Laws with the support of a minority of his own Conservative party, backed by the Liberals. He resigns four days later, having courageously taken an important step in the direction of free trade - even though the predictable effect is a Split in his party.

Victoria Albert and the Great Exhibition: AD 1837-1851

The campaigns of the Chartists and of the Anti-Corn Law League take place during the years immediately after the accession to the throne of the 18-year-old Victoria, who succeeds her uncle William IV in 1837. Her reign of sixty-four years can later be seen as one of the defining periods of British history, matched only by that of another queen - Elizabeth i.

Many elements contribute to the powerful brand image known as the 'Victorian age'. Some are economic, connected with Britain's leading role as the First industrial nation and the pioneer of railway transport. Some are imperial, reflecting the importance of India as the most significant colony of the century.

Other elements in the Victorian image are personal, centred very specifically on the queen herself and the German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom she marries in 1840 when both of them are twenty-one. Visibly in love, and soon the parents of nine children, the young couple could not possibly provide a stronger contrast with the queen's debauched and childless uncle, George iv, who has set the tone in the early decades of the century.

When the earnestly moral qualities of prince Albert himself are added to the mixture, the new Victorian ethos is complete - confident, prosperous, forward-looking, family-minded and profoundly worthy.

The best of the Victorian age is seen in the extraordinary event of 1851, the Great Exhibition. A brainchild of Prince Albert, its intention and scope is evident in its full title - The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. This is to be a celebration of the new industrial era and of Britain's leading role in bringing it to pass.

Astonishingly the first committee to discuss the proposal, chaired by Albert in January 1850, meets a mere sixteen months before the agreed opening date. In that brief period exhibits are invited and gathered in from all over the world. Meanwhile discussions start from scratch on what new building should house them in London's Hyde Park.

An architectural competition is launched, resulting in the submission of 245 designs. From these proposals the members of the building committee, in somewhat high-handed fashion, produce a composite design of their own. It is extraordinarily dull (a long low brick building, like farm outhouses, capped by an incongruous dome), and it suggests to Londoners that Albert's exhibition is going to be equally dreary.

In June 1850 tenders are about to come in for the construction of this building when Joseph Paxton, superintendent of the gardens at Chatsworth, submits a bold design for a massive hall of glass and iron.

The building committee is understandably cautious (no tests exist to prove that such a building will even withstand a strong wind), but Paxton clinches the issue by publishing his design in the Illustrated London News. London buzzes with excitement and a journalist suggests a perfect name, the Crystal Palace.

Work starts on the site at the end of July and the building is completed in January 1851. The exhibition opens on schedule on the first day of May. By the time it closes, in October, six million visitors have marvelled at this new-age palace and its contents.

Ten years later, in 1861, prince Albert dies of typhoid. His adoring wife becomes the archetypal widow, forty years in mourning and once again another kind of symbol of her Victorian era, strait-laced and yet sentimental, heavily upholstered spiritually as well as physically.

The Crystal Palace is dismantled in 1852, but its neighbourhood remains heavy with memories of Albert and his great success - the Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, both built in his memory in the 1860s, and down the hill the Victoria and Albert Museum, founded in 1852 with profits from his international exhibition. Meanwhile, in the last decade of his life, Britain has some less peaceful international involvements - in the Crimea and in China.

Gunboat diplomacy: AD 1850-1856

The decade of the Great Exhibition begins with an event which suggests a new British attitude to foreign policy. This is the approach later characterized as gunboat diplomacy, in which military force is used to impose the nation's will on another country.

Known as the Don Pacifico incident, the event concerns a Portuguese Jew of that name trading in Athens. When an anti-Semitic crowd burns his house, in 1847, he sues the Greek government for damages - with little result, until he appeals to Britain for help on the grounds that he is a British citizen (as a result of being born in Gibraltar).

The Liberal foreign secretary, Palmerston, provokes fierce controversy by the vigour of his response. He sends a naval squadron into the Aegean in 1850 to seize Greek ships to the value of Don Pacifico's claim. Censured in the house of lords, Palmerston wins a majority for his action in the commons where he argues that 'a British citizen, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong'.

Four years later the watchful eye and strong arm of England are in the care of a Conservative prime minister, Lord Aberdeen. He too sends warships to the Aegean to back up diplomacy, this time in support of Turkey.

A joint British and French fleet steams through the Dardanelles in 1854 as a gesture of warning to Russia. The result in this case is full-scale War in the crimea. A few years later Britain and France again act together in distant waters. They use two minor incidents which would normally be the stuff of diplomacy (in the British case the offence of some Chinese officials in 1856 in boarding a British merchant ship and lowering the red ensign) as a pretext for launching a renewal of the Opium Wars.

The steam-assisted warship has made it possible, as never before, for a strong nation to police the entire world in its own interest. And to an unprecedented degree ordinary members of the public now feel closely in touch with events.

Victorian era 1854-1901

The reporters war: AD 1854-1856

Recent developments in many fields make the Crimean War the first modern war, in the sense that the public at home becomes rapidly and intensely aware of what is going on at the front.

The first important changes are in transport and printing. When the editor of the Times in London decides to send a reporter out to join the British army in the Crimea in April 1854, he knows that reports will get back to London (with the best available combination of ship, train and electric telegraph) faster than from any previous conflict. And his mechanized steam presses will be able to supply a large readership with news of unprecedented immediacy.

His chosen reporter is William Howard Russell, whom the Crimea soon transforms into a national figure - Russell of the Times. Appalled at what he sees in British army camps and hospitals, Russell makes himself intensely unpopular with the authorities by describing the conditions in vivid detail. His account of British patients at Scutari, in September 1854, compares their condition unfavourably with the French hospitals. He makes a passionate plea for 'devoted women' to come out from England to tend them.

It is a measure of the new immediacy that one devoted woman, destined to be even more famous than Russell, responds directly to his words. Florence Nightingale sails for the Crimea, with thirty-eight nurses, in October.

The Crimean war lives with similar immediacy in images. It is the first war assignment undertaken by a photographer. Early in 1855 a Manchester publisher, Thomas Agnew, decides to send a photographer to the front. He selects Roger Fenton, who becomes a familiar figure of great curiosity to the troops. He travels round in a converted delivery vehicle with the words 'Photographic Van' painted on the side. Inside is the dark room where he develops his large glass plates.

Needing exposure times of up to twenty seconds, Fenton's photographs are mainly of soldiers posed among the paraphernalia of war in the Crimean landscape. They are published by Agnew in five portfolios before the end of 1855.

Meanwhile a British print dealer, Dominic Colnaghi, has used the same approach in a more traditional art form. He sends out the artist William Simpson, who arrives at Balaklava in November 1854 and stays with the army until the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855.

Advances in printing mean that Simpson's watercolours can be rapidly produced in London as realistic Tinted lithographs. Two series are issued in 1855-6 under the title The Seat of War in the East. Simpson, with his pencil and brush, can capture the drama and pathos of war in a way not yet available to Fenton. His picture of Florence Nightingale among the wounded at Scutari, published in April 1856, contributes to her legend.

Photography soon catches up, to establish itself as the medium best equipped to convey the horrors of war. In 1860 an Italian-born British photographer, Felice Beato, photographs the dead defenders sprawled in a fort which has just been captured in the second Opium War. A bystander sees him at work and describes the rush of adrenalin of the authentic war photographer.

The first war to be fully covered photographically is the American civil war. Thanks to the enterprise of Mathew Brady, who sends teams of photographers to the various battle fronts, some 10,000 glass negatives survive as a detailed visual record of four years of conflict.

This History is as yet incomplete.

British India: AD 1857-1876

A year after the Crimean war, and at the same time as the second Opium War in China, an event occurs which transforms British involvement in India. This is the traumatic Indian Mutiny. It suggests that the East india company's interests in the subcontinent have reached the point at which they should more properly be the concern of government.

Until this time all the British in India, including even the soldiers, have been employees of the East india company. The India Act of 1858, passed by the Conservative administration of Lord Derby, places the Indian army and the Indian civil service under the direct control of the British government.

This development introduces the 19th-century concept of empire, in which European states administer far-flung parts of the world - primarily for economic advantage and without their own nationals settling in large numbers as an indigenous ruling class (as happened in the earlier Spanish empire and that of the British in America).

By the end of the 19th century the European nations engage in a competitive rush to increase their portfolios, particularly in Africa. But India remains the most significant of these imperial possessions, becoming known as 'the jewel in the crown' of Queen Victoria. This status is emphasized in 1876 when her prime minister, Disraeli, secures for her the title empress of India.

Gladstone and Disraeli: AD 1868-1885

Political identities in mid-19th-century Britain are somewhat blurred, largely owing to the split in the Conservative party in 1846 over the repeal of the Corn laws. The Peelite minority, which separates at the time from the mainstream Conservative party, contains many of the outstanding politicians of the period - who subsequently feature in several different contexts.

The scene is complicated also by shifts of allegiance as the Tories and Whigs of the era before the Reform act transform gradually into Conservatives and liberals. Thus Palmerston, who enters parliament as a Tory in 1807, later serves in a succession of coalition and Whig governments before finally aligning himself fully with the Liberals.

The coalition government of Lord Aberdeen, which takes the country into the Crimean War in 1854, is a good example of this flexibility. Aberdeen himself is a Conservative of the Peelite faction, as is his young chancellor of the exchequer William Gladstone (later to become leader of the Liberal party). Palmerston, the home secretary, is an old-fashioned Tory transformed into a Liberal. Lord John Russell, briefly the foreign secretary, is the only one with a clear pedigree - as a Whig who is now a Liberal.

Almost the only stable feature in British party politics at this time is a profound personal animosity between Gladstone and a very different politician five years older than himself, Benjamin Disraeli.

Gladstone and Disraeli are fellow Conservatives until the split over the Corn laws in 1846. Gladstone leaves with the Peelites, Disraeli remains to become the most talented member of the mainstream Conservative party. Thereafter their careers are like mirror images, in a succession of personal clashes.

Disraeli's first major role is as chancellor of the exchequer in 1852. Gladstone's attack on his first budget contributes to the fall of the Conservative government, whereupon Gladstone follows his rival as chancellor. Similarly Disraeli's first brief spell as prime minister, in 1868, is brought to a rapid end when Gladstone defeats him in an election in that same year and forms a government.

Gladstone remains in power for six years (1868-74) and Disraeli then follows him for another six (1874-1880). This is the period when the Liberal and Conservative parties at last settle down into clearly defined opposition, personified in the hostility of the two leaders - and in their very different characters.

Gladstone is solemn and pious, concerned to safeguard the rights and welfare of the individual. Disraeli is flashy and opportunistic, with great personal charm and a liking for the grand gesture. Both administrations in the 1870s push through a great deal of social reform in their home policy. It is in foreign affairs that the difference between the protagonists is most clearly marked.

The Corn laws of 1876 is a case in point. It is Gladstone who touches the conscience of Europe with his campaign against the Turkish atrocities. But it is the aggressive Disraeli who wins the argument, sending out British battleships to defend the Turks against their Russian enemies and whipping up the inherent Bulgarian crisis of the British public in support of his policy.

Similarly Disraeli has a foreign policy triumph with his cavalier and unathorized purchase of shares in the Jingoism. In 1875, hearing that the impoverished Egyptian khedive needs to sell, Disraeli borrows the money from the Rothschilds to buy a controlling share at a knock-down price before even securing parliamentary approval.

Above all, the contrast between the two prime ministers is seen in their relationship with Queen Victoria. The imperious but very feminine monarch finds Gladstone cold and aloof, complaining that he speaks to her as if she were a public meeting. But Disraeli she adores, in what becomes a famous friendship between the country's leading widow and widower (Disraeli's wife dies in 1872). Typically he is shameless about his methods: 'everyone likes flattery', he tells a friend, 'and when it comes to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel'.

Disraeli dies in 1881. Gladstone, grappling with Home Rule for Ireland, eventually becomes in the queen's eyes 'an old, wild, and incomprehensible man of eighty two and a half'.

Home Rule for Ireland: AD 1869-1893

By the time Gladstone is an old man of eighty-two and a half, introducing his Home Rule bill of 1893, Irish grievances have been an urgent issue, on and off, for ninety years - since the abortive uprising of Robert Emmet. And Gladstone himself has been actively involved in the Irish question for nearly a quarter of a century.

At the start of his first administration, recognizing the oppressive nature of Protestant rule in Ireland, he introduces a bill in 1869 to disestablish the Anglican church in Ireland. He follows this in 1870 with an Irish Land act, granting Irish peasant farmers secure tenure and compensation for improvements to their holdings. In the same year a Home rule association is founded in Ireland.

During the 1870s the Home Rule cause, led in the house of commons by Isaac Butt, can count on the support of more than fifty members of parliament. Its programme is limited to Irish autonomy in internal affairs, with no demand as yet for the rupture of the union itself.

This soon changes after a much more dynamic figure, Charles Stewart Parnell, is elected member for Meath in 1875. He rapidly takes over from Butt the leadership of the Home Rule party and introduces a more vigorously disruptive policy. This includes active obstruction of parliamentary business at Westminster (to the extent that as many as thirty-six Irish members are at various times suspended) and the fomenting of rural unrest in Ireland.

In 1879 the Irish Land league is founded by Michael Davitt, recently released from a gaol sentence for sending firearms to Ireland for the use of the Fenians. The league's purpose is to promote insurrection among Irish smallholders (the predicament of Captain Boycott is an early result). Parnell becomes president of the league, but he disowns terrorism - in particular the murder in Phoenix Park in 1882 of the new Irish chief secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his under-secretary.

By 1885 Gladstone is converted to Home Rule for Ireland, partly from a sense of the justice of the cause and partly because the activities of the Irish lobby are making government impossible.

Gladstone and Parnell stand together on the Home Rule bill which Gladstone brings to parliament in 1886. But the issue is deeply unpopular with the English upper classes. It splits Gladsone's Liberal party just as the Corn laws divided the Conservatives forty years earlier. Liberals in favour of the Union (calling themselves Liberal Unionists, and the origin of the subsequent Unionist party) join with the Conservatives to defeat the government.

Gladstone resigns and devotes himself in the following years to campaigning for the Home Rule cause. He does so in a continuing partnership with Parnell - until scandal intervenes.

Parnell and Kitty O'Shea: AD 1889-1891

There have been rumours for some time in political circles about a relationship between Parnell and Kitty O'Shea, the wife of one of his parliamentary colleagues, Captain William O'Shea. But the broader public is astonished when O'Shea, in December 1889, files a petition for divorce and names Parnell as the 'corespondent'. Astonishment turns to moral indignation when the charge is not even contested. Judgement is given in court in 1890 against Parnell and Mrs O'Shea. In the following year they marry.

Nonconformists in England are outraged at the adultery. Catholics in Ireland are offended at the remarriage.

The nonconformist reaction convinces Gladstone that he can no longer afford to be associated with Parnell, while loss of Catholic support erodes much (but by no means all) of Parnell's political base in Ireland. When he dies in 1891, four months after his marriage, his reputation may be tarnished but he is mourned in Dublin as a great Irish hero.

Gladstone soldiers on alone. In 1892, in extreme old age, he forms his fourth administration. The following year his sheer persistence gets a Home Rule bill through the house of commons - only to have it thrown out by a massive majority in the House of lords. The intransigence of the lords eventually proves self-defeating. But Gladstone dies (in 1898) before this final victory.

The slow trend to freedom: 19th century AD

Though the forces of reaction delay every step (particularly in the house of lords, which makes a habit of rejecting liberal legislation), there is a steady trend in Britain during the 19th century towards greater personal and political freedom.

The Catholic emancipation which allows O'Connell into the house of commons in 1829 without disowning the pope is eventually followed, after equally prolonged opposition in the lords, by an act enabling Lionel Nathan Rothschild to become in 1858 the first Jew to sit as a member of parliament (taking his oath on the Old Testament rather than the full Christian Bible). Similarly the atheist Charles Bradlaugh wins the right in 1888 to affirm rather than swear on oath.

There is a similarly gradual trend in the political freedom of ordinary citizens, as seen for example in the progress towards trade unions. The example of the French Revolution so alarms the government that Combination Acts are passed in 1799 and 1800 classing any association of labourers as a criminal conspiracy.

These acts are repealed in 1824. But freedom to combine brings so much working-class political activity, in the era of the Reform bill, that the government attempts to quell it by making an example of six farm labourers from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle. Their establishing a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labours is no longer illegal, so the authorities find a new repressive device in 1834.

The six are prosecuted for administering unlawful oaths and are transported to Australia. The result is national outrage, contributing considerably to the growth of the Chartist movement.

The sentences of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they become known, are remitted in 1836 and the six are brought back to England. But the trades union movement now has some valuable martyrs, and it progresses steadily in respectability - even to the point of being able to establish, in 1868, the Trades Union Congress (or TUC) as an umbrella organization for the nation's affiliated unions. Three years later the Trade Union Act of 1871 gives the unions an assured legal status.

By this time London is something of a centre for left-wing political activity. Karl Marx arrives in 1849, finding it the safest place for an avowed revolutionary in the repressive climate following the events of 1848, and the city becomes his home for the rest of his life.

In 1864 an assembly in London of International workers' organizations results in the formation of the International, in which Marx himself plays the leading role. Seven years later, when Bismarck attempts to suppress the International throughout Europe, it survives because the British government refuses to outlaw its London activities.

The emergence of British socialism: AD 1881-1905

Britain acquires its own proto-Marxist party in 1881, when Henry Hyndman forms a Democratic Federation in London. In 1884 the group adopts a fully Marxist programme and changes its name to the Social Democratic Federation.

In that year, a significant one for British socialism, the new Federation suffers its first split when Engels encourages William Morris and others to break away and form an independent Socialist League. But far more important in the long run is a quite separate event of 1884. A group of intellectuals forms the Fabian Society, with the express purpose of working towards a democratic socialist state.

The Fabian Society's name indicates how far its intentions divert from Marx's policy of sudden revolution. It commemorates Fabius cunctator, the Roman general who weakened Hannibal by a campaign of slow attrition. This approach is described in 1884 in one of the society's first pamphlets, entitled simply Manifesto and written by George Bernard Shaw. Other influential figures are the tireless left-wing couple Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

In 1889 the society publishes Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by Shaw. Fabian policies by now influence many in left-wing British politics, including a trades union activist, James Keir Hardie, who has recently founded Britain's first labour party.

Hardie, who has gone down the mines in Lanarkshire at the age of ten, travels round Scotland from 1878 trying to organize a miners' union. In 1888 he founds the Scottish Labour Party. He has no electoral success in Scotland, but in 1892 he wins a seat in London as an independent Labour candidate.

In 1893 an Independent Labour Party is formed with Hardie as chairman. In 1900, at a congress of trades unions, this is expanded into a Labour Representation Committee. And in 1905, in preparation for a general Election in 1906, the name is changed to the Labour Party. The party's candidates win twenty-nine seats. Labour is for the first time a democratic power to be reckoned with.

The electoral success in 1906 of the British Labour party is a significant step in the 20th-century split between Socialism (in the western sense) and Communism. Once it is evident that political progress can be made by these means, the socialist parties of the west commit themselves to parliamentary democracy and to a modified version of Marxist economics. They aim to nationalize the 'commanding heights' of the economy, but not to abolish private property in its entirety.

The fully Marxist programme achieves its first success in Russia, where in this same period of 1905-6 there is a dramatic outburst of revolutionary activity. But the roots of radical Russian politics go back much further.

Jubilee Years: AD 1887-1897

Victoria's long reign draws to its close in triumphant mood, with the queen empress emerging from a long period of unpopularity to seem like the serene matriarch of much of the globe. In her middle years, after being Widowed in her early forties, she withddraws from public affairs into her private grief. Even as late as 1886 there are hostile press comments about the queen's seclusion. But the celebrations for the Golden Jubilee in 1887, fifty years after her accession to the throne, change the picture.

The festivities have a common touch. Even in Westminster Abbey the queen refuses to wear her crown and robes of state, preferring instead a white bonnet - albeit a very special one, brimming with lace and diamonds.

That evening there are fireworks and bonfires all round the country, and the next day (June 22) the queen joins 30,000 schoolchildren for a huge party in Hyde Park. Each child is given a bun and a Jubilee mug full of milk.

The nation's sense of self-satisfaction derives largely from the existence of the British empire. A map of the world published at this time shows Britain's extensive colonies in their characteristic red, with Britannia lolling on a globe accompanied by a British soldier and sailor, a turbanned Indian with elephant and tiger, a bare-breasted Aborigine accompanying a kangaroo, and other such exotic fruits of empire.

Senior representatives of the colonies are naturally in London for the Jubilee, and the opportunity is taken to hold an assembly which can now be seen as the first in a long line of Imperial and Commonwealth conferences. Ten years later, for the Diamond Jubilee of 1897, the mood is even more ecstatic. 2500 beacons are lit on the nation's hills, four times as many as in 1887.

The queen, driven in an open carriage through six miles of London streets, notes in her diary: 'The crowds were quite indescribable,and their enhusiasm truly marvellous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening, and every face seemed to be filled with real joy.'

The colonial leaders are in town again, and they hold a second conference. The sight of troops from all over the world, marching past in the procession, moves a journalist of the Daily Mail to sentiments of imperial pride very much of their time (but politically as incorrect as it is possible to be by the standards of a later age).

At the royal level this international gathering is very much a family affair. Victoria's numerous descendants (thirty-seven great-grandchildren at the time of her death) have married into almost every royal family in Europe. Alas, this is no guarantee against family quarrels. In World War I one of the old lady's grandsons is the British king (George V), another the German kaiser (William II).

Salisbury Chamberlain and the empire: AD 1897-1903

The imperial conference held at the time of the queen's Diamond Jubilee, in 1897, is a much more weighty affair than its predecessor ten years earlier. This time the prime ministers of the colonies have made the long journey to attend the festivities in person. And the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (appointed to this office in 1895), is a man with a passionate commitment to strengthening the commercial and political ties between the increasingly self-governing colonies.

His prime minister, Lord Salisbury, is a less ardent imperialist. But he is nevertheless much more interested in foreign affairs than in home issues.

The patrician marquess of Salisbury (a Cecil, whose family link in politics goes back to the reign of Elizabeth I) is the last British prime minister to govern from the house of lords. He is also the last to act as his own foreign secretary. He does not share Chamberlain's vision of a federal empire, but he is much involved in the diplomacy between the European nations which accompanies the frantic scramble for colonies in Africa in the late 19th century.

The era of Salisbury and Chamberlain sees extensive British activity in the southern part of the African continent. The region being developed by the commercial activities of Cecil Rhodes is proclaimed as Rhodesia in 1895, with its chief town named Salisbury in honour of the prime minister.

In that same year the disastrous Jameson raid causes major diplomatic problems for the British government (Chamberlain is accused of complicity in it, but is cleared of any involvement by a commons committee in 1897). The raid increases the likelihood of serious conflict in the region, and this breaks out in 1899 as the Boer war.

At first the war is unpopular in Britain, with Liberal opposition to it reinforced by a succession of British defeats, but in 1900 the news from the front improves. Salisbury calls an election, branding the opposition as unpatriotic, and is returned with a greatly increased majority - causing this to become known as the 'khaki election'.

The next election, also fought indirectly on an imperial issue, is less successful for the Conservatives. Salisbury resigns from ill health in 1902, entrusting the premiership to his nephew Arthur Balfour. But in 1903 Chamberlain dramatically escalates his campaign for a strengthened empire. Speaking in his home town of Birmingham, he advocates a tariff on goods from non-colonial sources.

His purpose is to strengthen the colonies and their link with Britain, and also to raise funds for social measures at home. But the proposal goes against the principle of free trade, considered sacred since the repeal of the Corn laws. Even worse, as a handle for political opponents, it represents a tax on food.

Chamberlain's policy immediately splits the Conservative party and leads to resignations, including his own, from the cabinet. Chamberlain takes the issue around the country in a programme of public meetings, until Balfour finally resigns at the end of December 1905 having lost control of the party. The Liberals are returned early in 1906 with a huge majority.

Free trade has carried the day. The trend in imperial policy is now towards more independence for the colonies rather than greater protection. Dominion status, already possessed by Canada and Australia, is granted to New Zealand in 1907 and to the four newly united provinces of South Africa in 1909.

The 1906 election brings the Liberals to power after twenty years (since Salisbury's first administration in 1885) during which the Conservatives have exercised almost uninterrupted control - with elected majorities in the house of commons and a guaranteed hereditary majority in the lords.

The country is ready for change, and the incoming parliament is radically new in including 57 Labour members (29 in the Labour party and 28 Liberals elected in the labour interest). The Liberal government immediately embarks on an energetic programme of social reform - which must lead, sooner or later, to a direct clash with the Conservatives in the house of lords.


Liberal reforms: AD 1906-1911

The first five years of Liberal government, from 1906, represent the greatest single period of reform in the popular interest in British history. In the very first year the Trades Disputes Act greatly strengthens union rights by protecting their funds from employers' claims for damages. In 1908 a measure is passed for a non-contributory old age pension (albeit only five shillings a week at this stage). In 1909 bills are introduced to improve housing standards and to provide labour exchanges.

These bills eventually win the approval of the house of lords, but others fail to do so - in particular a licensing act (an attempt to curb drunkenness) and an education bill, both important to the Liberals' Nonconformist supporters.

The tension between the Liberal administration and the house of lords reaches crisis point in response to David Lloyd George's budget of 1909. A previous budget in 1907 (presented by the then chancellor, Herbert Asquith, who is now prime minister) has already introduced a controversial distinction between earned and unearned income for tax purposes. Lloyd George goes much further, with a surtax on higher incomes, an increase in death duties, and a capital gains tax on the sale of land.

Seen as an assault on property, these measures outrage the Conservatives. But there is a well-established convention that the lords do not interfere with financial bills. Lloyd George almost certainly assumes that his budget will pass.

Instead, to everyone's astonishment, the lords reject the budget in November 1909. In doing so, they play into the Liberals' hands. The increase in taxes is earmarked for two main areas of expenditure: social reforms to benefit the poor, old and unemployed; and rearmament to meet the threat from the fleet of Dreadnoughts being built by the Germans. Both are popular causes and this becomes known as 'the people's budget'. Conservative opposition can be presented as greedy self-interest. Moreover if the lords can throttle the nation's finances, then hereditary aristocrats have the power to bring down an elected government.

Asquith, seeing his chance, calls an election.

As it turns out there are two elections in 1910. The first, in January, is held on the question of the budget; the second, in December, on the issue of the house of lords itself.

The first election reduces the number of Liberal seats (from the peak achieved in 1906), but still leaves Asquith with a working majority over the Conservatives. The lords now allow the budget through, but are then immediately confronted by Asquith's Parliament Bill to curb their powers. He proposes that the lords shall in future only be able to delay bills (financial bills by one month, others by two years). It is inconceivable that the existing house of lords will accept this measure, so Asquith resorts to the tactics used by Grey to pass the Reform bill.

The king, Edward VII, is willing only to say that he might consider creating enough Liberal peers to swamp the house of lords (as many as 300 would be needed) if Asquith wins an election on the issue. But Edward dies during the crisis, in the summer of 1910. In the autumn his son, George V, gives with some reluctance a more positive assurance on the same terms.

Asquith wins the December election, and in the final confrontation the lords back down. Saving themselves from dilution by a horde of outsiders, they pass the Parliament Bill in August 1911 by a majority of just seventeen votes. (The preamble to the bill threatens worse to come, proposing soon to replace the hereditary second chamber with one selected on a 'popular' basis.)

The humbling of the house of lords is one of the most significant reforms of Asquith's Liberal government, but it is not the last. Other measures of 1911 include the Shops Act, which introduces a weekly half holiday for staff (or what becomes known throughout Britain as 'early closing day'), the National Insurance Act providing unemployment and sickness benefits for workers (pioneered in Germany by Bismarck), and one of the long-standing demands of the Chartists - payment for members of parliament.

In the following year, 1912, the government's agenda includes Home Rule for Ireland - a thorny issue which this time must surely pass, since the lords can now only delay it. But, as soon becomes evident, there are other obstacles.

Ulster volunteers and Irish volunteers: AD 1911-1914

Orangemen, the most Protestant region of Ireland since the 17th century, is where the union with Britain has its most passionate supporters. And from 1910 the Unionist members of parliament have a brilliant and ruthless leader in the person of Edward Carson.

In September 1911, when it is known that a Home Rule bill is in the pipeline (but six months before it is placed before parliament), Carson gives warning of what is to come when he addresses a crowd of 50,000 Ireland and Unionists outside Belfast. He tells them that the morning after Home Rule is granted to Ireland, they must be ready to administer and defend their own 'Protestant Province of Orangemen'.

That winter Orangemen is full of Protestants drilling (a licence to drill can be acquired from any Justice of the Peace, as long as the intention is to defend the United Kingdom's constitution). In the following spring Carson, with at his side the new leader of the Conservative party, Andrew Bonar Law, reviews another gathering of Orangemen volunteers outside Belfast. It shows every sign of being a military parade.

100,000 men march in columns past a saluting base above which flies a gigantic union jack. This event is held on 9 April 1912, two days before Asquith's Home Rule bill is presented to the house of commons.

The final gesture of unionist solidarity during 1912 is the Solemn League and Covenant, a document in the militant Ulster which is signed from September 28 in the Belfast town hall. Hundreds of yards of desks enable more than 500 people to sign simultaneously. Eventually almost half a million men and women do so, committing themselves to disobey any future Home Rule government.

Finally, in January 1913, with the Home Rule bill now making its way through the house of commons, the unionists take an openly military stance. They decide to raise an Orangemen Volunteer Force of 100,000 men aged between seventeen and sixty-five. Dummy wooden rifles now appear in the drill parades held in Orange halls.

These developments prompt a similar response on the nationalist side. In November 1913 a body calling itself the Irish National Volunteers is formed in Dublin and begins its own programme of recruitment and drilling. Six months later it too claims 100,000 members.

By now the wooden rifles are giving way to real ones. In April 1914 Carson's organization succeeds in landing at Larne more than 24,000 rifles and three million rounds of ammunition purchased in Germany. In July a much smaller shipment of arms, also from Germany, comes ashore in Howth for the Irish volunteers (resulting on this occasion in a clash with the military, on the Dublin quays, and several civilian casualties).

The prospect of civil disorder is made worse by evidence that the British government will be powerless to cope with it. There is much discussion whether the British army should be ordered to quell Protestant resistance in Orangemen, and if so whether the order would be obeyed. In 1914 a commanding officer foolishly asks the cavalry regiment stationed on the Curragh in Dublin whether they would accept such an order or prefer to be dismissed from the army. The officers reply they would choose dismissal.

The so-called Curragh mutiny suggests that little can prevent the Ireland from wrecking Home Rule. But greater issues postpone the crisis. Two days after the contraband weapons are landed in Dublin for the Irish volunteers, Austria declares war on Serbia.


World War I: AD 1914-1918

The rapid escalation of the crisis which flares into World War I lasts only a few weeks, from the assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 to Britain's declaration of war on Germany on August 4. Europe's first experience of total war, involving continuous effort and sacrifice from every citizen, inevitably transforms the social and political landscape in the countries taking part.

The appalling nature of trench warfare, with its gruesome level of casualties, is the main new reality to which families must adapt. But the war brings many other unexpected innovations.

For the first time the bombing of cities is an alarming aspect of warfare; London suffers its first air raid on 1 June 1915, when small bombs (weighing only about 10 lb at this early stage) are thrown overboard fron a German Zeppelin.

Conscription, introduced in 1916, is another aspect of war new to the British. So is the rationing of food, an unpopular measure delayed until 1918. Income tax is raised to the unprecedented level of six shillings in the pound, or 30%. But perhaps the greatest change is the mobilization of women, not only now in their familiar role in Textile mills but also in the heavy labour of producing shells and bullets in the munitions factories for the use of their absent men.

By 1917 women are themselves serving in the forces, in the newly formed WAC (Women's Auxiliary Corps) and WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service), to be followed a year later by the WRAF (Women's Royal Air Force). These changes make possible an easy end to the long struggle of the Suffragettes. In 1918, before the end of the war, parliament passes acts granting the vote to women and allowing for female members of parliament.

The other burning issue of the pre-war years, Home rule for Ireland, is harder to resolve.

In the second month of the war, September 1914, Asquith tries to defuse the issue for the duration of the more urgent crisis. He secures the royal asssent for his Home rule Act, but accompanies it with another act placing the subject of Home rule in abeyance until the end of the war.

The Fenians in Dublin are not so easily put into abeyance. In April 1916 they organize the Easter rising, the most dramatic of the many tense events in the long Irish struggle for Home rule. This crisis is soon followed by the disastrous Battle of the Somme on the western front. In these circumstances a political coup against Asquith brings Lloyd George to power as prime minister for the remaining two years of the war.

Asquith and Lloyd George: AD 1915-1922

In May 1915, after the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, Asquith has brought politicians of the other two parties into a coalition government. Now, after the troubles of 1916, the members of the coalition lose faith in Asquith's conduct of the war. Complex secret negotiations in December 1916 between Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Carson have the desired effect.

Asquith is persuaded to resign. His place is taken by Lloyd George (in recent months minister of munitions and secretary of state for war), with Bonar Law as chancellor of the exchequer and Balfour as foreign secretary.

Lloyd George introduces a war cabinet of just five members, in order to streamline decisions. In the war effort at home his energies prove very effective, just as they have previously been in the production of munitions.

There is little that any politician can do to end the stalemate baffling the generals on the western front. But when the allies win the final push in 1918, the Westminster coup of 1916 means that Lloyd George rather than Asquith is the victorious war leader representing Britain at Versailles.

In domestic politics Lloyd George's betrayal of Asquith in 1916 splits the Liberal party, foreshadowing the end of its long-held status as a major player in Britain's essentially two-party system. The split is to some extent masked by the need for wartime unity, but it becomes dramatically plain in the first postwar election.

Immediately after the armistice Lloyd George and Bonar Law agree to continue their wartime arrangement and to fight the election as a coalition. Each of their candidates is given a joint letter from the two leaders, assuring the electors of their status as coalitionists. This document, denied to his faction, is ridiculed by Asquith as a 'coupon' for the election.

But it proves to be a coupon for success. The election in December devastates the Liberal party, of which Asquith is still the leader. He himself loses his seat, and only 28 of his colleagues are returned to Westminster. The coalition has 478 members of parliament. Labour, with 59 members, becomes the official opposition.

Lloyd George is never forgiven by many in the Liberal camp for the damage thus inflicted on their party. But meanwhile he has more immediate concerns: coping with the unemployment and industrial unrest provoked by demobilization and the return to a peacetime economy; and confronting anew Britain's most intransigent problem, the question of Ireland.

The Troubles: AD 1919-1921

From January 1919 to July 1921 Ireland is racked by the first of the two periods known colloquially as the Troubles. The events are more formally known as the War of Independence (in Ireland) and the Anglo-Irish War (in Britain).

The Volunteers, or armed supporters of Sinn Fein, are secretly informed at the end of January that they are now the army of Ireland, fighting on behalf of the newly established Dáil eireann, and that as such they are morally justified in killing enemies of the state - namely British policemen and soldiers. The war of independence is not declared, but in the minds of the combatants of one side it has begun. The Volunteers begin to call themselves the Irish Republican Army, or IRA.

It is inevitably a guerrilla war, and in the way of such wars the violence rapidly escalates. The authorities, confronted by terrorist acts, take drastic reprisals which are then seen as justifying the next retaliation.

The ruthlessly talented leader on the republican side of the war is Michael Collins, who is influential at every level. He is a leading member of the Dáil (a body declared illegal by Britain in September 1919), as well as being the most powerful figure within both the public Irish Republican Army and the secret Irish republican brotherhood. It is he who authorizes the assassination of targeted enemies. It is he who goes secretly to England in January 1919 and springs de Valera from Lincoln gaol with a duplicate key.

The situation in Ireland is even more ugly from June 1920. When the Royal Irish Constabulary becomes depleted by the high number of Irish resignations, the British government ships in half-trained replacements from England. Their violent behaviour makes them notorious in Irish history under their nickname of the Black and Tans (the name of a hunt in Munster, applied to the newcomers because in the rush to send them into action they are issued with a motley blend of black police and khaki military uniforms).

Ambushes, reprisals, explosions and arson (British auxiliaries burn much of the centre of Cork in December 1920) become everyday events - to a mounting crescendo of outrage both in Britain and abroad.

Stumbling towards a settlement: AD 1920-1922

In 1920 Lloyd George secures the passage of a Government of Ireland Act which puts a new spin on the proposal passed into Law in 1914. The partition of Ireland is to be accepted as a necessary compromise, but both southern Ireland (twenty-six counties) and northern Ireland (the six counties of northeast Ulster) are now to have their own parliaments with limited devolved powers. Each parliament is to send twenty members to a joint Council of Ireland, which may at any time merge the two without requiring further legislation from Westminster.

The proposal meets neither Nationalist wishes for a united Ireland, nor the Unionist desire to remain an undifferentiated part of the United Kingdom. But both sides decide to take part in the elections held in May 1921.

In southern Ireland the old Nationalist party, under John dillon, refrains from opposing Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein therefore wins 124 of the 128 seats (the other four being reserved for the strongly Unionist Trinity College in Dublin). These 124 Sinn Feiners now assemble as a reconstituted Dáil. However this is not the southern parliament provided for in Lloyd George's act, and the IRA continues to commit terrorist acts in Sinn Fein's republican cause.

In northern Ireland forty Unionists and twelve Nationalists are elected. Although the Unionists object in principle to this parliament, it is formally opened by George V (with a powerful speech urging reconciliation) in June 1921.

With this much achieved, Lloyd George offers a truce to the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon de Valera, and invites him to London with a view to working out a treaty.

The truce comes into effect on 11 July 1921. Violence in southern Ireland immediately ceases. De Valera sends representatives, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, to the peace talks in London. They agree to terms which fall short of the nationalist demand for a united Ireland, but which nevertheless offer independence to the twenty-six counties. As the Irish Free State they are to have Dominion status, in the formula pioneered by Canada. Republican sensibilities are assuaged by owing allegiance to the British crown only as head of 'the British Commonwealth of Nations'.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty is ratified by the British parliament in December 1921, but it immediately runs into problems in Ireland. De Valera repudiates it, arguing that his envoys have agreed to terms beyond their brief. In January, after a bitter debate in the Dáil, Griffith and Collins carry the motion for their treaty by a narrow margin of 64 votes to 57. De Valera immediately resigns as president of the Dáil. Griffith is elected in his place.

In Northern ireland the new parliament is now functioning, and there has been talk of accommodation of some kind with the south. But civil war south of the border and sectarian riots in the north soon put an end to that. For the rest of the century, from 1922, the Republic of ireland and Northern ireland go their separate ways.

Bonar Law and Baldwin: AD 1922-1929

The recognition of the Irish Free State in 1921 is deeply offensive to the more entrenched unionists in the Conservative party, but it is only one of the factors causing disenchantment with Lloyd George's coalition government. Another is an increasing number of strikes, particularly among two powerful economic groups, the miners and the railwaymen. And in 1922 Lloyd George's personal reputation is damaged, when accusations are made that he has been selling peerages and other honours to build up a personal political fund (Liberal party funds still being in Asquith's control).

Conservative discontent erupts very suddenly, at a meeting in the Carlton Club in October 1922.

The meeting is open to all the Conservative members of parliament. Against expectations a resolution is carried to withdraw from the coalition (this sudden taste of power prompts the backbenchers to form the 1922 Committee, which remains to this day their pressure group within the party).

The result of the Carlton Club vote is the immediate resignation of Lloyd George as prime minister and the holding of a general election. The Liberals, still divided into two hostile factions, fare extremely badly. The Conservatives win 347 seats. The Labour party, strengthening its position with a new total of 142 seats, becomes for the first time the official opposition.

Bonar Law is prime minister of the new government, with Baldwin as his chancellor - a situation which lasts only a few months before ill health forces Bonar Law to retire, in May 1923. Baldwin becomes prime minister. He remains at the head of a Conservative administration for the next six years, apart from a spell of ten months in 1923-4.

The reason for this brief time out of office is a surprise election called by Baldwin in November 1923. He intends to win a mandate to introduce protective tariffs, in favour of goods from the empire. In this he misjudges the electorate. The free-trade tradition has been strong in Britain ever since the repeal of the Corn laws.

After the election the Conservatives remain the largest party, but the Labour party (191 seats) and the Liberals (reunited in the cause of free trade, with 158 seats) have a greater combined strenth. The result is Britain's first Labour prime minister. Ramsay MacDonald forms a minority government with Liberal support.

In October 1924 Ramsay MacDonald's government falls largely because of its friendly attitude to the USSR (the new state is recognized, commercial treaties are agreed). Public unease is increased by the release to the press, just before the general election of 1924, of a forgery, the Zinoviev letter. The Conservatives regain a massive majority, winning 415 seats and bringing Baldwin back to power - to face mounting economic problems.

Strike and Slump: AD 1926-1931

The nation's economic difficulties in the mid-1920s, and the resulting unrest, are most evident in the mining industry - the very heartland of the Labour movement in Britain, from the time of Keir hardie's activities in the 1880s.

The market for British coal has been shrinking, with the result that in 1925 the mine owners demand from their workers an unapalatable combination of longer hours and less pay. The miners are led by a brilliant orator, A.J. Cook, who coins the powerful slogan 'Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day'.

The government temporarily defuses the issue with a subsidy to keep up the level of wages, but this is due to end on 30 April 1926. A few days before this deadline the mine owners offer their final terms, which are so unacceptable to the miners that they interpret them as a lock-out.

With the miners staying at home on May 1 the government declares a state of emergency. The TUC (Trades Union Congress) responds by calling a general strike, to start at midnight on May 3. Some three millions workers respond, crippling transport and all the nation's main industries. Their action launches an extraordinary period of class confrontation, which nevertheless remains for the most part non-violent - and in places almost good-natured.

Members of the middle classes volunteer eagerly to distribute food to the shops, to sort and deliver letters, to drive buses, lorries and even trains, and to serve as special constables.

In these circumstances a quick victory for either side is unlikely. On May 8 the prime minister, Baldwin, uses the fledgling BBC (British Broadcasting Company) to broadcast a message of conciliation - word of which is spread, like other news at this tense time, by the few who have receivers. The mine owners make a compromise offer, which the TUC considers sufficient for them to call off the strike.

The strike ends, after nine days, on May 12 - though the TUC fails to persuade the miners themselves that there are now grounds for a settlement, and it is another five bitter months before they give in and return to work. Their underlying argument, that the piecemeal private ownership of mines is wasteful and inefficient, bears eventual fruit in the nationalization policies of the Attlee government after World War II.

If the general strike of 1926 is a home-grown problem, the next great economic crisis to confront Britain is international in scope. The Slump, or Depression, begins in the USA in 1929. Coping with its effects in Britain falls not to Baldwin but to Ramsay MacDonald.

In the general election of 1929 Labour is for the first time the largest party in the house of commons, though still without an overall majority (287 Labour, 260 Conservative, 59 Liberal). The Liberals agree to support Labour, so once again Ramsay MacDonald forms a minority government.

A major plank in Labour's manifesto has been tackling unemployment, standing at more than a million or 10% of the workforce in 1929. But the Slump makes it impossible even to maintain this level. By 1931 it has doubled to more than two million, with a devastating effect on the government's fund for unemployment insurance.

A report commissioned by the government in July 1931 predicts economic disaster unless there are severe tax rises, cuts in public sector pay and a 20% reduction in the dole. The result is a massive run on the pound (fixed in value because of the gold standard), draining Britain's reserves of gold.

Ramsay MacDonald resigns but is persuaded by the king, George V, to continue at the head of a coalition national government. His decision to do so is regarded as abject betrayal by the Labour party (which immediately appoints a new leader, Arthur Henderson), but is welcomed by Baldwin and the Conservatives.


The National government: AD 1931-1936

When MacDonald and Baldwin (and John Simon for the Liberals) present themselves to the electorate as a national coalition in October 1931, they receive an overwhelming response and win a majority of more than 500 seats - but the result is in effect a Conservative government with a Labour prime minister.

The opposition is a tiny band of 52 MPs representing the Labour party. The national coalition has 473 Conservatives led by Baldwin, 68 Liberals and just 13 ex-Labour MPS, loyal to MacDonald and calling themselves National Labour. Baldwin is therefore the most powerful figure at Westminster, but he works amicably as second string to MacDonald in the continuing national crisis.

In September 1932 unemployment reaches nearly three million, or more than 25% of the workforce. Moreover these troubles are taking place in a Europe increasingly characterized by extremist politics in Italy and Germany.

In October 1932 Oswald Mosley holds his first rally in Trafalgar Square, to drum up support for his newly formed British Union of Fascists. His black-shirted thugs (in imitation of Mussolini's henchmen) become an ugly but relatively minor aspect of Britain in the 1930s, marching through deprived areas, always eager to pick a fight with Communists or Jews.

On the wider international stage, in the second half of the decade, the great issue in Europe is also connected with fascism - in particular the question of how to respond to the expansionist policies of Adolf Hitler.

On this matter the National government eventually becomes associated with the policy of Appeasement. But meanwhile there has been, in 1936, a dramatic internal crisis. Again, as in the General strike of 1926, it is Baldwin who has to deal with it. In 1935 MacDonald cedes to him the role of prime minister. Baldwin wins a general election on the same National government basis, though now his support is almost exclusively Conservative. Then, out of the blue in 1936, he is confronted with the very local problem of a royal love affair.

The abdication crisis: AD 1936

The king, George V, dies in January 1936 to be suceeded by his eldest son, as Edward VIII. Handsome and charming, with a playboy image, Edward is popular with the public - though for those in the know there have been signs of impending trouble in his passionate involvement with Wallis Simpson, an American woman already in her second marriage.

Gossip spreads when the king and Mrs Simpson go for a cruise together in the Adriatic in the summer of 1936. In October Wallis is divorced from her husband and the king tells the prime minister, Baldwin, that he intends to marry her. He accepts that it must be a morganatic marriage (one in which the offspring have no rights of succession).

The issue breaks in the newspapers early in December, after the bishop of Bradford has declared in a sermon that the king should be more aware of his Christian duty. Baldwin, almost certainly in tune with the majority of public opinion, feels that a marriage of any kind between the king and a divorced woman is out of the question. Yet Edward insists that he must marry.

Abdication is the only solution. On December 10 Edward becomes the only British monarch voluntarily to give up the throne, declaring the next day in a historic radio broadcast that he cannot carry his heavy burden of responsibility 'without the help and support of the woman I love'. That same night he embarks at Portsmouth for France.

Edward is succeeded by his brother, as George VI. He and Wallis Simpson marry in France in June 1937. The couple henceforth live a marginal and somewhat embittered existence, in France and the West Indies, as the duke and duchess of Windsor.

By the summer of 1937 Britain has a new prime minister as well as a new king. Neville Chamberlain, previously chancellor of the exchequer, succeeds Baldwin in May as leader of the National government. His troubled three years in office are dominated by one overriding issue - the aggressive aims of the German chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

Expansion and appeasement: AD 1935-1939

The policy which becomes known as appeasement (the belief that compromise with Europe's fascist dictators will provide the best chance for peace) is associated particularly with the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. But it already characterizes the foreign policy up to 1937 of his predecessor, Stanley Baldwin. And it is, to a lesser extent, the policy also of the government in France.

As the two major European powers in the League of nations, Britain and France inevitably have to play the leading role in trying to keep Hitler and Mussolini in check.

A conciliatory attitude, partly made necessary by the lack of readiness in each nation for another war, is evident as early as 1935. In this year Samuel Hoare and Pierre Laval, foreign ministers of the two countries, concoct a peace plan which would allow Italy to annexe large slices of Ethiopia (an independent state, recently invaded by Italian armies).

The plan is rejected, but its very existence encourages Mussolini to complete his conquest of Ethiopia. And this de facto state of affairs is soon accepted by an increasingly enfeebled League of nations.

Earlier in the same year there has been another affront to the League's authority. In March 1935 Hitler informs Britain and France that he is creating an air force, is launching a major programme of military and naval rearmament, and is introducing conscription.

These plans directly contravene the terms of the treaty of Versailles. But in June, to the outrage this time of France, Hoare establishes an Anglo-German Naval Agreement, tacitly accepting the naval aspect of Hitler's plans in return for a pact that German strength at sea will not exceed 35% of the combined fleets of Britain and the Commonwealth.

In March 1936 Hitler makes his first military move in defiance of existing treaties. He marches his troops into the Rhineland, a region permanently demilitarized under the terms agreed at Versailles. At the same time he declares (in what is to become a recurring pattern) that this is his last territorial claim.

The Spanish Civil War, beginning in July 1936, absorbs much of Europe's attention over the next two years (and provides Hitler's new forces with their first unofficial outing). But from 1938 the German dictator's provocative moves come at an ever increasing pace, each of them taking to the brink the good faith of the appeasers.

On March 12 he marches into Austria to reunite the ancient German reich, an event known as the Anschluss (literally 'joining on'). On the previous day he assures the world that he has no designs on Czechoslovakia.

The very next month, in April, he develops a secret plan to annexe the western part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. He is considerably helped in this ambition by the principles of Versailles, for the region has a predominantly German population. Many of these Germans are already Nazi sympathisers. It is easy to argue, against Czech interests, that the principle of self-determination gives these people the right to merge with Germany. During the summer of 1938 Hitler threatens the Czech government at the diplomatic level, while massing troops on the border.

Chamberlain flies from London to confer with Hitler, on September 15 and 22, but by September 27 it seems certain that Hitler's forces will cross the Czech border. France has a defensive treaty with Czechoslavakia. Britain would have to support France. The result would be war.

On September 27 Chamberlain broadcasts to the British people, expressing his appalled dismay at being dragged into the affairs of such a 'faraway country'. The next day he sends a telegram to Hitler, offering to fly again to Germany to discuss the peaceful transfer of the Sudetenland. Hitler postpones the invasion, planned for September 28, and invites Chamberlain, Daladier (the French premier since April) and Mussolini to an immediate meeting in Munich.

Munich and after: AD 1938-1939

The discussion in Munich between Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini lasts a little over twelve hours, beginning in the middle of the day on September 29 and ending with the signing of an agreed document at 1.30 a.m. on September 30. Though the dismantling of their country is under discussion, Hitler refuses to allow any Czech representative to take part. Two Czech diplomats sit in a nearby hotel, effectively waiting to be told what has been decided.

The conclusion is all that Hitler would wish. The Sudeten areas are to be ceded to Germany during the next ten days. Thereafter plebiscites, organized by the four Munich powers and Czechoslovakia, will reveal exactly where the new border should run.

Before boarding his plane, later on September 30, Chamberlain has another meeting with Hitler in which he asks him to sign a joint declaration. This is the document which Chamberlain waves in the air for the cameras on his return to Britain, stating that he has brought back from Germany 'peace for our time... peace with honour'.

The text above Hitler's signature, on which Chamberlain bases his optimism, declares a determination to remove possible sources of difference between countries 'and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe'. Chamberlain's hope is that the sacrifice of the Sudetenland has preserved not only peace but the rest of Czechoslovakia.

The occupation of Sudetenland brings some 3.5 million people within Nazi Germany, 75% of them German and 25% Czech. But in the event these Czechs are no more unfortunate than their compatriots elsewhere. Three weeks after signing Chamberlain's document, Hitler orders the German army to prepare for a move into the rest of Czechoslovakia. The invasion comes in March 1939. Hitler, in Prague, declares that Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia are now under the protection of the German Reich.

But such a brutal betrayal of the Munich agreement transforms the appeasers. When it becomes evident that Poland is the next likely victim, Britain and France are suddenly resolute.

Danzig and the Polish corridor: AD 1938-1939

It is evident from the first weeks after the Munich agreement that Hitler will make unacceptable territorial demands of Poland. The main theme of British and French foreign policy now becomes the forging of diplomatic and military alliances to prepare for any resulting conflict. The four anticipated allies, in resisting German aggression, are Britain, France, the USSR and Poland.

Hitler's demands upon Poland are two. He wants the transfer to his Reich of the free port of Danzig (admittedly an almost entirely German city, and now with a Nazi council). And he wants a German corridor through Poland to the isolated German province of East Prussia.

Both claims are pressed by Hitler with new vigour in October 1938, within days of his winning the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Polish government firmly rejects the German demands. Unlike unfortunate Czechoslovakia, this stance wins a positive response from the western powers.

In March 1939 Neville Chamberlain, speaking with the approval of both France and the USSR, gaurantees help to Poland if her independence is threatened. In April Hitler abrogates his own ten-year nonaggression treaty with Poland, signed in 1934, and secretly orders his army to prepare for a Polish invasion. In May France commits herself to military action against Germany if a conflict begins. But then, in August, Hitler produces a diplomatic bombshell.

Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: AD 1939

In August 1939 a Franco-British military mission is in Moscow trying to persuade Stalin to commit to a treaty for the defence of Poland. Little progress is made, ostensibly because the Poles are refusing to allow Soviet troops to cross their territory to attack Germany. But there is another hidden reason which soon becomes apparent.

The Soviet Union and Communism have always been twin forces of demonic evil in Hitler's oratory, but he now proves himself happy to sup with the devil for a very real strategic advantage. It is important to his plans that he shall not be distracted by a major war on his eastern front. In August he opens negotiations with Stalin. Poland is his bait.

Stalin, invited by the western powers to join an alliance which will almost certainly involve him in a costly war against Germany for no very evident benefit, now finds himself offered a more attractive option - inactivity and a sizable increase in his territory.

It takes the Russian dictator little time to choose. The world is astonished on August 21 by the announcement from Berlin that Ribbentrop is flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with his opposite number, the Russian foreign minister Molotov. This sudden friendship of two implacable enemies would seem less inexplicable if people knew of the secret protocol which accompanies the pact.

The protocol agrees a new set of international boundaries. As modified slightly in a second visit by Ribbentrop to Moscow, in September, it acknowledges Germany's approval of the Russian annexation of the independent nations Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (should any such opportunity occur). And it establishes an agreed division of Poland between Germany and Russia.

With this much achieved, Hitler is ready to take his next step - launched, for propaganda purposes, with a Grisly little charade.

World War II

The act of war: AD 1939

During the night of August 31 a group of German soldiers, dressed as Poles, attack the German radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz. They have brought with them a German criminal, taken for the purpose from a concentration camp. They shoot him and leave his body as evidence of the night's dark deeds.

Berlin radio broadcasts to the world the news of this act of Polish aggression, together with details of the necessary German response. In the early hours of the morning of September 1 Hitler's tanks move into Poland. His planes take off towards Warsaw on the first bombing mission of a new European war.

After a final desperate day of diplomacy, attempting even at this late stage to find a peaceful solution, Chamberlain and Daladier each sends an ultimatum to Hitler. When no answer is received, both nations declare war on September 3.

The Polish army, airforce and civilian population put up a brave resistance to massive German force - increased, from September 17, by a Russian invasion from the east. Within a few weeks 60,000 Polish soldiers and 25,000 civilians die. By September 28 Warsaw has fallen. Poland is once again partitioned, with an eastern slice going to Russia (as so recently agreed in Moscow) and the lion's share to Germany.

This History is as yet incomplete.

The Phoney War: AD 1939-1940

In France and Britain the immediate aftermath of the declaration of war is a return to the defensive tactics of World War I. The French rush troops to the Maginot Line, an elaborate complex of concrete fortifications connected by underground railway lines, which has been constructed along the Franco-German border between 1929 and 1938. (It is named after André Maginot, minister of war from 1929 to 1931.)

France's border with Belgium, running northwest to the sea, is not similarly protected. So, as in World War I, a British Expeditionary Force is immediately sent across the Channel to dig in along this line.

Here the troops of both nations await attack from the conqueror of Poland. But nothing happens.

It is not that Hitler is inactive against his new enemies. He is energetically demonstrating, with the deployment of his U-boats (Unterseebooten, or submarines), that Britain can no longer rely on her famed mastery of the seas. The aircraft carrier Courageous is sunk at sea in September, the battleship Royal Oak is torpedoed at anchor in Scapa Flow in October. Hitler also has a devastating new weapon to unveil - the magnetic mine, dropped into the sea from the air to cling to a passing vessel and explode. Inevitably indiscriminate, one such mine sinks the Dutch passenger liner Simon Bolivar in November.

Nor is there a lack of conflict in Europe. Stalin, assured of a free hand with Finland by the terms of his Nonaggression pact with Hitler, sends troops across the Finnish border in November 1939 (provoking the Russo-Finnish war, also known as the Winter War, in which Finland resists her large neighbour with magnificent resolve). And in early April 1940 the French and British finally agree on their first joint offensive. They will send troops to seize the Norwegian North Sea ports, even though Norway is neutral. The strategic reason is the need to cut the supply of iron ore from Swedish mines to Germany. But they delay in putting the plan into action.

Meanwhile on the western front all is quiet.

As a result the war acquires in Britain and France a name suggesting a dangerous sense of relaxation. In Britain it is known as the Phoney War, in France le Drole de Guerre (the Joke War). By the spring of 1940 the western nations have been able to spend eight useful months building up their armaments. On April 5 Chamberlain is sufficiently confident to declare to the house of commons that one thing is now certain - Hitler has 'missed the bus'.

Four days later a German fleet of warships invades Denmark and Norway. All the important harbours of these two neutral nations are rapidly occupied. Within days British and French troops are on hand to assist the Norwegian resistance. But they have arrived too late and little is achieved.

Enter Churchill: AD 1940

The military failure in Norway heightens dissatisfaction in Britain with Chamberlain's conduct of the war. On May 7-8 he narrowly survives a censure debate in the house of commons (notable for Leo Amery's revival of Cromwell's famous words 'You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing... In the name of God, go!'). Then, on May 10, alarming news from the continent sets the seal on his term as leader.

In the early hours of that morning German divisions smash their way into the Netherlands and Belgium. In this new crisis Chamberlain realizes that an all-party government is essential. But the Labour party refuses to serve under a man associated so strongly with appeasement.

The only possible leader in the circumstances is a controversial figure waiting in the wings. Winston Churchill, after a brilliant early career (first as Soldier and author, subsequently in several high cabinet roles), has been on the sidelines during the 1930s because of his implacable opposition to Appeasement. He has described Chamberlain's 'Peace with honour' at Munich as 'a total and unmitigated defeat'.

Pugnacious and inspirational, Churchill is the ideal man for the crisis now facing the nation. Appointed prime minister on May 10, he asks for a vote of confidence from the house of commons on May 13 - and receives it unanimously.

The leading candidate to succeed Chamberlain in these circumstances is a controversial figure waiting in the wings. Winston Churchill, after a brilliant early career (first as Soldier and author, subsequently in several high cabinet roles), has been on the sidelines during the 1930s because of his implacable opposition to Appeasement. He has described Chamberlain's 'Peace with honour' at Munich as 'a total and unmitigated defeat'.

Pugnacious and inspirational, Churchill is the ideal man for the crisis now facing Europe. Appointed prime minister on the very day when Hitler's troops move west into the Netherlands and Belgium, his first task is to confront the famous German blitzkrieg.

On this occasion, and on many subsequently, Churchill reveals the power of harsh truth transformed by the magic of oratory. His message to the commons is bleak - 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' But as the robust phrases roll on, the speech becomes a clarion call to the nation.

In a similar way each significant moment in this summer of 1940, the most dangerous in British national history, is marked by a high point of Churchillian peroration. The completion, on June 4, of the extraordinary evacuation from Dunkirk is the occasion for 'We shall fight on the beaches'. The loss of France as an ally, after an armistice signed with Germany on June 18, produces the vision of Britain now confronting her 'finest hour'.

Whenever there is a chink in the storm clouds, the prime minister proves as powerful in his commemoration of victory. In August 1940 his young pilots begin to turn the tables on the Luftwaffe in the Appeasement. Churchill coins in their honour perhaps his most famous sentence: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

The first successful allied land offensive against German troops, driving Rommel westwards through north Africa in November 1942, is the occasion for the cautious but resonant hope: 'This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'

Thanks to film and news reels, Churchill in person becomes an inspirational figure to a British public suffering the first prolonged and intense bombing campaign in the history of warfare. His trademark cigar (never seen in a much reduced state) and his famous V-sign are always in evidence when he visits a devastated area in the aftermath of an air raid.

On the international front Churchill's main challenge is enlisting the support of the USA. This is achieved in stages, with the start of lend-lease in 1941 followed by the Atlantic Charter. But the task is completed for Churchill by the Japanese action at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Hitler's invasion of the USSR, in June 1941, brings Churchill his other major ally. The trio of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin become the high command of the allied effort against the Axis powers.

While the Russians sap the German military strength in the bitter campaigns of 1942-3, Churchill and Roosevelt plan the western offensive which eventually takes place on D-Day (6 June 1944). By the time the three leaders meet at Yalta, in February 1945, it is evident that the war is all but won. Much of the discussion now centres on postwar dispensations. But for Churchill himself the last weeks of the war bring a rude shock, from a British public adjusting rapidly to a new social and political environment.

Wartime welfare: AD 1939-1945

The national war effort, more effectively planned than in 1914-1918, has a profound influence on British society. Conscription, introduced for some even before the start of the war (in April 1939), is by the end of 1941 very widely applied - men between the ages of 18 and 61 and women aged from 20 to 30 must all either join the services or work in mines or factories.

In World war i food rationing of a few basic commodities only came in during the last months of the war, from July 1918. This time ration books are ready almost at the start, to become a familiar part of everybody's war from January 1940.

Most basic foodstuffs are already rationed in 1940 (meat, eggs, butter, sugar, tea, milk, cheese, jam), to be followed by sweets and chocolate from 1942. Clothes are rationed from 1941, petrol from 1942.

Many social effects result from these measures. Even if only on a temporary basis, there is a reduction in class barriers. Everyone now is subject to the same restrictions, everyone is joining equally in the war effort (though working-class districts bear the brunt of the bombing, targeted on industrial areas and docks). But there is another more lasting effect of rationing and industrial conscription.

Full employment means that even the poorest families have an income, and rationing provides everybody with the same simple but healthy diet. The war generation in Britain is the first ever in which poor children eat adequately. Their parents, away in the forces or working in a local factory, now see a chance of a better life for the family. And the all-party government headed by Churchill recognizes this fundamental change.

A Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services is set up in 1941, under the chairmanship of William Beveridge. The resulting Beveridge Report, published in 1942, proposes a wide-ranging social security programme - with state insurance against the costs of illness, unemployment, old age and death.

The government accepts the Beveridge Report in principle, though action to put any such sweeping reforms into effect is impossible in the short term. But the Beveridge ideals are very much in the public domain when a general election is called for July 1945, shortly after VE-Day.

Churchill campaigns during the election as the war hero, and as such is widely cheered. He also reverts unashamedly to the role of Conservative leader, painting a dire picture of life under a Labour government. But the Labour party, with Clement Attlee at its head, has a seductive message - for a postwar change of direction, towards a new and fairer society.

The British troops all round the world have a vote, and it takes some time for their decisions to be counted and registered. But when the result of the election is announced, on 26 July 1945, it is nothing short of sensational. Labour has won a landslide victory, with 393 seats in the house of commons to a mere 213 for the Conservatives.

Churchill later describes this surprising turn of events in his own inimitable style: 'All our enemies having surrended unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.'


The Attlee government: AD 1945-1951

Attlee heads the first Labour government with an overall majority, and he has a sweeping mandate to reintroduce the delights of peace - now scheduled to have a socialist tinge. But the realities of a country bankrupted by war mean that these are still years of austerity.

Conditions are made worse by nature's vagaries. In 1946 a world-wide wheat shortage necessitates bread rationing, and the exceptionally severe winter of 1946-7 means that even potatoes are now rationed (both these basics have been freely available throughout the war). The nation's finances too are in severe deficit, until much needed help comes from the USA in the form of Marshall Aid.

The international situation makes a rapid return to peacetime conditions equally impossible. The manpower requirements of the British sectors in Germany and Austria are soon followed by new obligations elsewhere - in Malaya from 1948, in Korea from 1950.

As a result the demob (or demobilization) progresses more slowly than expected. Early in 1947 there are still 1.5 million men and women in the armed forces, and in May of this year conscription (known at the time as national service) is reintroduced for all males at the age of eighteen - at first for twelve months, subsequently for two years. The increasing tension of the Cold War results in Britain's involvement, in 1949, in the formation of NATO.

In spite of these difficulties Attlee and his cabinet achieve an impressive programme of reformist legislation, securing the welfare state in the spirit of the Beveridge report. The National Insurance Act of 1946 consolidates and extends existing schemes of contributions towards state benefits for sickness, unemployment and old age. The National Assistance Act of 1948 does the same for the relief of poverty.

The most fondly remembered reform is Aneurin Bevan's National Health Service Act of 1946. This provides for free medical, dental and hospital services - though protracted negotiations with the medical profession mean that the National Health Service (NHS) does not come into effect until 1948.

On the economic front the commanding heights of the economy are taken under state control, in keeping with socialist theory, but in most instances this is accepted without much protest. The Bank of England is nationalized in 1946, followed in 1947 by the coal mines - an industry so unprofitable in recent years that even the owners are pleased to receive payment in compensation.

The railways (1947) have recently relied heavily on public subsidy, and the gas and electricity companies (1948) have in many cases developed as municipal undertakings. They seem of proper national concern. The iron and steel industry (1951) proves more controversial, being denationalized and renationalized in subsequent years.

In international affairs the Attlee government (with Ernest Bevin as foreign secretary) introduces a major change of direction, beginning the dismantling of the British empire. The empire becomes gradually transformed into a Commonwealth of independent nations, capable of accomodating republics as well as monarchies.

India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka win their independence in 1947 and 1948 (it is India's decision to become a republic which brings this new dimension to the Commonwealth). In the same period the British mandate in Palestine comes to an abrupt and violent end, in May 1948.

Multi-racial Britain: from AD 1948

As the process of dismantling the empire accelerates, people from the colonies begin for the first time to make their way in large numbers to the 'mother country'. There is a shortage of labour in postwar Britain, now reconstructing after the damage of six years of conflict.

In the spring of 1948 the government places advertisements in Jamaica, inviting immigrants to make the journey across the Atlantic - a journey made in the other direction, many generations earlier, by their ancestors in Slave ships. The price of the passage is £28.50. In Jamaica this is a large sum (the equivalent of the value of three cows), but many are willing to respond to the chance of a new life.

The first ship to leave Jamaica is the Empire Windrush. She docks in the Thames, at Tilbury, on 22 June 1948. The new arrivals easily find work, at wages high by Jamaican standards. They are soon followed by many others from throughout the British Caribbean.

The arrival of the West Indians transforms Britain into a multiracial society. There is as yet little religious diversity because the new immigrants are nearly all Christians. At this stage only one long established British group differs from the majority in both race and religion. The Jews, welcomed in Britain from the 1650s and immigrating in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, are now a settled community of some 300,000 people.

The Jews are joined by other minority religious groups when immigration begins from new areas of the British empire - from Africa and above all from the Indian subcontinent, introducing to Britain three important religions. Hindus and Sikhs arrive from the republic of India (and Hindus also from east Africa, after Uganda's Indian population is expelled in 1972). Muslims come from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the 1991 census Britain's ethnic minorities number some 3 million, or about 5.5% of the population. The black community consists of 500,000 of Caribbean origin and 380,000 deriving from Africa and elsewhere. The Asian groups include 825,000 Indians, 500,000 Pakistanis, 165,000 Bangladesis and 165,000 Chinese.

Eden and Suez: AD 1955-1957

Labour narrowly wins the general election of 1950, with an overall majority of just six seats. In the following year, after organizing the Festival of Britain (commemorating the centenary of the triumphant Great exhibition), Labour loses a general election.

So Winston Churchill, still leader of the Conservative party, comes back to Downing Street in 1951 at the age of seventy-six. His return is shortly followed by a change of monarch. George VI, who has been Churchill's partner and steadfast support through the war years, dies in 1952 - to be succeeded by his elder daughter as Elizabeth II.

Churchill himself finally retires in 1955, yielding the premiership and leadership of the Conservative party to a long-serving lieutenant, Anthony Eden.

Though Eden is an expert in diplomacy (as foreign secretary 1935-8, 1940-45, 1951-5), his brief spell as prime minister is dramatically ended by Britain's greatest foreign-affairs disaster of recent decades. During a diplomatic conflict with President Nasser of Egypt, Eden sends British paratroops in November 1956 to join the Israelis and the French in seizing the Suez Canal. Within weeks, after international condemnation, the troops are withdrawn. In the aftermath of the crisis, in January 1957, Eden resigns (see Suez Crisis).

Butskellism: AD 1957-1979

Eden's place is taken by his chancellor of the exchequer, Harold Macmillan, though many at the time expect the home secretary, Rab Butler, to emerge as leader from the arcane series of high-level consultations which serve as the Conservative selection process.

Rab Butler never wins the leadership (Macmillan makes strenuous behind-the-scenes to block him on his own retirement in 1964) but his tolerant middle-of-the-road views are very much of this time. Hugh Gaitskell, winning the Labour leadership after Attlee in 1955, is a man of similarly moderate character. The term Butskellism, based on these two names, is subsequently coined to describe the consensus politics characteristic of this period.

This consensus, representing the left wing of the Conservative party and the right wing of the Labour party, supports a liberal colonial policy (easing the path of the remaining colonies to independence), Keynesian economics (the theory, deriving from Maynard Keynes, that governments should spend their way out of recession by investing heavily in industry and increasing the money supply), and a conciliatory attitude in labour relations.

To differing degrees these policies are applied by Conservative prime ministers (Macmillan 1957-63, Douglas-Home 1963-4, Heath 1970-4) and by their Labour counterparts - Wilson, who wins the leadership after Gaitskell's death in 1963 (prime minister 1964-70, 1974-6) and Callaghan (1976-9).

Overseas the result is a continuing process of liberating the colonies within a framework of democracy. Harold Macmillan warns the settler population of Africa in 1960 that a 'wind of change' is blowing through their continent. And Harold Wilson is resolute after 1965 in resisting the efforts of Ian Smith to lead Rhodesia into a specifically white independence.

Closer to home the great issue of the decade from 1963 is Britain's belated attempt to join the European Community. Macmillan tries to do so in 1963, followed by Wilson in 1967. Both bids are vetoed by the French president, Charles de Gaulle. Edward Heath finally achieves British membership in 1973.

Economically the era is characterized by numerous strikes and restrictive practices. This crippling combination (known elsewhere at the time as the 'English disease') is coupled with rapid inflation - much aggravated by an international factor (the 'oil crisis' of 1973-4) and by exceptionally high rates of tax. By 1976 the top rate of tax on earned income in Britain is 83%, but there is also a 15% surcharge on unearned income - leaving the rich with only 2% of their return from investments.

These circumstances culminate in a spate of strikes so numerous that they cause the winter of 1978-9 to be known (in a phrase from richard iii) as the 'winter of discontent'. The result is a strong reaction in the general election of 1979.

The early Thatcher years: AD 1979-1987

The victory of the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher in the general election of 1979 heralds a sea change in Britain, replacing the old mood of consensus with the aggressively adversarial stance described as 'conviction' politics.

In Mrs Thatchers's view 'there is no such thing as society' (one of her most frequently quoted and reviled observations), by which she means that the only underlying reality of society is individuals and families, all primarily interested in their own well-being. She believes people must be enabled to achieve their own self-betterment with minimum interference from the state or from the restrictive practices of professions and trade unions.

This new version of economic liberalism, threatening the achievements of what Mrs Thatcher calls the 'nanny' state, divides the nation as nothing has for many decades. 'Thatcherism' and 'Thatcherite' become familiar words in the national vocabulary, hated and revered with equal passion by the two antagonist camps.

The prime minister's own choice of language reinforces this split. She divides people of influence into two groups, 'them' and 'us', according to their response to her energetic programme for change. 'Them' includes, very specifically, the doubters (or 'wets', in the phrase of the time) within the Conservative party.

From 1981 the Thatcher years coincide with the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the USA. Reagan agrees with Mrs Thatcher's views, with the result that their shared policies (including privatization) become extremely influential around the world. These policies derive from monetarism, a theory developed by the US economist Milton Friedman.

Monetarism asserts that control of the money supply (and thus the avoidance of inflation, though it is a matter of controversy that this necessarily follows) is the only economic role properly undertaken by the state or its central bank. With that one exception, free market forces are the best regulator of the economy. This is in keeping with the classical economics of Adam smith, in direct opposition to the interventionist policy associated with Keynes.

The unflinching application of monetarism brings hardship to many in Britain, as unemployment soars to levels unknown in recent decades. Beggars reappear on British streets. As a result Mrs Thatcher suffers early unpopularity. She is saved by her resolute handling of the Falklands war.

For part of the electorate she also increases her stature during the miners' strike of 1984-5. This is a fight for which she has been spoiling. The miners were at the heart of the General strike in 1926. They have more recently gone on strike in 1972 (in support of a 47% wage claim) and in 1974 - on which occasion the Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, introduces an emergency three-day week and calls an election.

Heath loses the election of 1974; the Labour government awards the miners a 35% increase; and Mrs Thatcher challenges and defeats Heath to become leader of the opposition. Now, in 1984, she is determined that a miner's strike confronting her government will end differently. It does.

After an exceptionally bitter and violent confrontation lasting eleven months (April 1984 to March 1985), the miners return to work without achieving any settlement. As Mrs Thatcher intends, this event is a turning point in the progressive loss of power of the unions in Britain - a development greeted with dismay on one side ('them') and with rejoicing on the other ('us'), in a typical Thatcherite split within the nation.

Pride before a fall: AD 1987-1990

By the mid-1980s, with those in employment making good money (particularly in areas such as financial services) and with inflation sharply down from its 1970s peak, the mood of the country is swinging to the right. Mrs Thatcher greatly increases her majority in 1983 and does almost as well in 1987. But the defects of her style are also beginning to tell.

It is the Russians who first give her a name which she is delighted to accept - the Iron Lady. But by the late 1980s she is using her apparent sense of invincible power (characterized by the cartoonists as the lethal swing of a handbag) to push through unpopular policies, dispensed like bitter medicine for the supposed good health of the nation.

The most notable example of this is the poll tax introduced with her enthusiastic support in 1989, six centuries after the cautionary tale of 1381. She proclaims it as a fair tax, in the limited sense that everybody pays the same (apart from a few categories eligible for an 80% reduction). In the spring of 1990 there are poll-tax riots in London, followed by an orchestrated campaign of non-payment.

By now Mrs Thatcher's cabinet colleagues find her self-assertion increasingly unacceptable. High-profile resignations (notably Lawson in 1989, Howe in 1990) result in her removal from office by her own colleagues. At the end of 1990 she is challenged for the leadership and loses. The sense of betrayal felt by her faction blights the Conservative party for the rest of the decade.

New Labour: AD 1983-1997

When John Major succeeds Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader and prime minister, in 1990, he faces a Labour party in opposition which is becoming once again a serious challenge. During the early Thatcher years Labour has been in a state of indisciplined chaos.

Michael Foot, as leader from 1980, is unable to prevent the infiltration of local Labour parties by a Trostskyite left-wing group calling itself the Militant Tendency. Instead, there are calls for the expulsion of a group of right-wing Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, who subsequently set up the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the elections of 1983 and 1987 the SDP deprives Labour of many of its more moderate followers. (In 1988 the SDP merges with the Liberals, forming the Liberal Democrats.)

To add to Labour's electoral troubles, the party adopts in 1980 the policy of unilateral disarmament (committing a future Labour government to destroy Britain's nuclear weapons without even using them as bargaining pawns for wider disarmament). This is highly unpopular with the electorate.

The party begins to take the long path back from the wilderness when Neil Kinnock replaces Foot as leader in 1983. He succeeds in ejecting the Militant Tendency and in dropping the commitment to unilateral disarmament. By 1992 the Labour party confidently expects to win the election. But Kinnock loses in that year to John Major.

This is Kinnock's second defeat (losing also to Margaret Thatcher in 1987). He now resigns the leadership, which is won by John Smith. Smith brings in the next necessary reform, narrowly pushing through in 1993 the policy of OMOV (One Member One Vote) for the election of the party leader - in place of the wheeling and dealing in smoke-filled rooms associated with the previous system, where the unions (founders of the Labour party) were able to exercise massive influence through the block votes representing their members.

But in 1994 Smith dies suddenly of a heart attack. OMOV is used in a leadership election within a year of its adoption.

The winner is Tony Blair, after his close friend Gordon Brown stands down in his favour. Over the next three years Blair completes the transformation of the Labour party into what he calls New Labour.

New Labour comes to mean a party with streamlined campaigning systems (based on American examples), strong centralized control and a resolute determination to win the vote of 'Middle England', or the middle classes. This aim is taken so seriously that Blair and Brown make a pre-election promise, in 1997, not to raise taxes above the Conservative levels for at least the first two years of a Labour administration.

The highest rate of income tax has been reduced in 1988 to 40%, a level unprecedentedly low in recent decades. Old Labour is therefore dismayed to hear that the rich are not going to contibute more fully to New Labour's promised investment in the nation's health and education. But Blair and Brown insist that they can raise the necessary funds by a windfall tax on the monopoly utilities, privatized by the Conservatives.

The strategy works. In the general election of 1997 Labour is returned with its largest ever majority in the house of commons - 418 Labour to 165 Conservatives (the Liberals also at their highest level since the 1928 election, win 46 seats). And the windfall tax is duly collected.

The Blair years: from AD 1997

Tony Blair enters Downing Street as a new kind of prime minister, acutely aware of the popular mood. Where Mrs Thatcher could be said to shape that mood, Blair has the ability to reflect it - as seen most famously in his response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, describing her as 'the people's princess'.

But Blair's apprenticeship in the House of Commons has been during the Thatcher years. Though a political opponent, he has admired the achievement and style of the Iron Lady. He leads his party in power with the same ruthless sense of control, tackling reforms - in areas such as education and welfare - with scant regard for the left-wing sensibilities of old Labour.

Blair is accused by his critics of sacrificing Labour's traditional commitments on the altar of middle-class demands, thus risking the loss of the party's core supporters in the nation's many deprived areas in the pursuit of more comfortable (and almost certainly more volatile) voters higher up the social scale. Time will tell whether there is validity in this charge.

Meanwhile Blair, like Thatcher, has his war in the early years of his administration (Kosovo to her Falklands) and proves himself equally pugnacious. But the issue on which he shows the greatest tenacity is one which he inherits from previous administrations - the intractable problem of northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland

A second time of Troubles: from AD 1970

Sectarian violence is endemic in northern Ireland from the start of the 1970s. In 1972, the worst year of all, there are 467 deaths, 321 of them civilians. By 1992 the death toll in this second major bout of Troubles passes the 3000 mark, including more than 2000 civilians.

Among the continuous attempts to find a solution, certain initiatives stand out. The Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed in 1985 by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald for Britain and Ireland, sets up regular meetings between ministers and officials of the two governments. It is a significant step - the first time that the republic of Ireland has had any say, however oblique, in the affairs of the northern province.

A new initiative in 1993 follows a series of meetings between John Hume (the Westminster MP for Foyle and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Gerry Adams, the president of Provisional sinn fein. The meetings are highly controversial, for they can be interpreted as negotiating with terrorists - since Sinn fein and the ira are closely related (how closely is a matter of debate) as the political and military wings of a linked organization.

Nevertheless the two men's initiative leads to another bid for peace at the highest level. In December 1993 the British and Irish prime ministers, John Major and Albert Reynolds, issue a joint Downing Street Declaration.

This again breaks new ground in declaring that Sinn Fein will be welcome at a future conference table if the IRA renounces violence. After months of intense debate on the issue, the IRA declares a ceasefire in September 1994. The Loyalist paramilitaries follow suit a month later.

These unprecedentedly hopeful signs are followed by an eighteen-month peace which has a benign influence on the economic as well as the psychological condition of northern Ireland. The time is spent preparing for all-party peace talks and debating the thorny question of whether the IRA will relinquish their arms once the talks start (their position) or must do so as a condition for taking part in any talks (the British government's position).

George Mitchell, a former US senator, is invited by the British and Irish governments to chair an international group charged with devising a workable solution to this problem. The Mitchell group reports in January 1996, proposing a progressive decommissioning of arms in Northern Ireland as part of an ongoing peace process.

John Major accepts the report in principle, but says that it cannot be implemented until after the election of a peace forum. This response is rejected by Sinn Fein. A few days later, in February, a massive IRA bomb explodes at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands, killing two and doing extensive damage. The precious ceasefire is at an end.

Good Friday Agreement: AD 1997-1999

Sectarian violence resumes after the Canary Wharf bomb, at first with IRA terrorist acts perpetrated only in mainland Britain but from October 1996 in Ulster too. Loyalist terrorists soon retaliate in Ulster.

When the Labour party wins the general election in May 1997, one of the first acts by the new prime minister, Tony blair, is an attempt to kickstart the stalled peace process in northern Ireland. He announces in June that talks on the future of the province will begin in September, regardless of whether or not there is a cessation of violence - adding that Sinn Fein will be welcome to join the talks six weeks after the IRA has declared a new and unequivocal ceasefire.

This introduction of a deadline, after which Sinn Fein will be absent from at least part of the talks, proves effective. On July 19 the IRA announces a ceasefire to begin on the following day, with the result that they can participate when talks begin at Stormont in September. The Unionist side briefly walks out in protest, but within a few days they are back.

On September 23 representatives of all the main political groups in northern Ireland meet for the first time, face to face, for discussions. In October they are briefly joined by Tony blair. Not since 1921 has a British prime minister met with Sinn Fein. Blair shakes the hand of the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, causing outrage in hardline Unionist circles.

The close involvement of Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of the republic of Ireland, is a crucial element in this peace process. In January 1998 the two governments present a joint set of proposals to the peace talks. Their plan combines an elected northern Ireland assembly with various cross-border and British Isles councils - to provide other forums in which to ease local tensions.

Blair's original programme placed a time limit on the talks, insisting that a package be agreed by May 1998 as the basis for a referendum. The deadline is met. In Belfast, on 10 April 1998 (Good Friday), both governments and the relevant political parties formally agree to the holding of a referendum - along lines close to those jointly proposed by Blair and Ahern.

The Good Friday Agreement also mentions the phased release of paramilitary (or terrorist) prisoners, and the gradual decommissioning of weapons as proposed by Mitchell. And there is one important political innovation. The referendum is to ask for approval in the republic of Ireland that the claim to the Six counties be dropped from the constitution.

The referendum takes place in May 1998. A 94% vote in the republic supports the Good Friday Agreement and the proposed change in the constitution. In northern Ireland 71% vote for the agreement. Elections follow immediately, in June, for the Stormont parliament. The various Unionist groups win 55 seats and the nationalists 42 (comprising 24 seats for the SDLP and 18 for Sinn Fein).

Almost Stormont: AD 1998-1999

In July 1998 the Northern Ireland Assembly meets for the first time at Stormont. David Trimble (Ulster Unionist) is elected First Minister.

For nearly a year desultory business continues, without Trimble being able to form a cabinet and begin the proper process of governing. The reason is the long-standing problem of the Decommissioning of arms. The timetable has been left deliberately vague in the Good Friday Agreement. Now the Unionists insist that Sinn Fein cannot be part of government until Decommissioning has begun. The IRA is equally adamant that it will not give up any weapons until Sinn Fein is in the government. In desperation Blair attempts another deadline. Unless there is agreement by the end of June 1999, there will be no Stormont parliament.

Long nights of intense bargaining up to the end of June, and through the first two days of July, end with an ultimatum from the British and Irish prime ministers. They propose now that Sinn Fein should be allowed to take part in the proposed executive on the mere promise of IRA arms Decommissioning, which must begin within a short period and be complete by May 2000. A strict monitoring system for Decommissioning is to be set in place. Stormont will be suspended if the IRA fail to meet stipulated deadlines.

If all parties accept these terms, and meet together in Stormont on July 15 to select the members of the executive, then devolved powers will be transferred to northern Ireland on July 18.

Intense discussion continues over the next two weeks, particularly between David Trimble, on behalf of the Ulster Unionists, and Tony Blair. Trimble complains that no clear evidence has been provided that the IRA does intend to hand in its arms, and no strict timetable for them to do so has yet been agreed. Without better guarantees on this front he refuses to recommend to his party the proposed arrangements for immediate power-sharing.

On July 15 northern Ireland's elected politicians assemble in Stormont. The business of the day is the nomination by each party of their representatives on the power-sharing executive. But the Ulster Unionist seats are empty.

The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland.

The assembly progresses solemnly through a hollow procedure. The SDLP and Sinn Fein are the only parties to nominate ministers, so the ten-member executive becomes exclusively nationalist. Ministerial portfolios are allocated. Then the speaker announces that the executive is invalid because it does not meet the power-sharing requirement.

The peace process goes back into limbo, with a profound public sense of disappointment. The Good Friday Agreement and the referenda still hold good as the basis for future progress, but devolution has been snatched once again from northern Ireland. Meanwhile it has been achieved elsewhere, in both Scotland and Wales - some twenty years after first being on offer.

Devolution and reform

Devolution in Scotland and Wales: AD 1978-1999

After much debate a Scotland Act and a Wales Act are passed in 1978, arranging for a referendum in each region. The acts state that regional assemblies will be established if two conditions are met: a simple majority in favour, but also a minimum turnout of 40% of the electorate.

The referenda are held in March 1979. In Scotland there is a small majority in favour, but only 32% of the electorate vote. In Wales there is a large majority (4:1) against the proposed assembly. Later in 1979 a Conservative government wins a general election, beginning a spell in power which lasts for eighteen years. Conservative policy is anti-devolution (though as a gesture the Stone of Scone is returned to Scotland in 1996). So the issue hangs fire - until 1997.

'Decentralization of power to Scotland and Wales' is in the party manifesto with which Labour wins an overwhelming victory in the general election of 1997. The pledge is quickly delivered. Within weeks of the election a bill is passed, arranging for referenda to be held. The Scots are to be asked two questions: Do they want a Scottish parliament? Do they want it to have tax-raising powers? The Welsh are only to vote on a single issue, whether they want a Welsh assemby with devolved powers which do not include tax raising.

In a 60.4% turnout the Scots vote 74.3% for a parliament and 63.5% for tax-raising powers. In a 50.3% turnout the Welsh vote by a tiny majority (0.6%) in favour of an assembly.

Elections for both assemblies are held in May 1999, on a system of proportional representation. About two thirds of the candidates are returned on a first-past-the-post basis, with the other third added from party lists to achieve the required balance.

In both regions Labour wins the greatest number of seats, while falling short of an absolute majority in either. The second largest vote is in each case for nationalism, with the SNP winning 35 seats in Scotland and Plaid Cymru 17 seats in Wales. The Conservatives come third in both regions, and the Liberal Democrats fourth. But the Liberal Democrats, the most natural allies for Labour, have enough seats to provide a coalition majority in both Scotland and Wales.

It takes Donald Dewar, the Labour leader in Scotland, a few days to persuade the Liberal Democrats to join his administration. The sticking point is the £1000 tuition fee for university students, introduced by the Labour government in Westminster and strongly opposed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. A compromise is reached, and two cabinet places are allocated to the Liberal Democrats. Their 16 seats, combined with the 56 for Labour, give a comfortable majority in the 128-seat assembly. Thus the Scottish parliament resumes business in Edinburgh (though with powers limited to internal affairs) after an Interval of 292 years. The assembly is formally opened by the Queen on 1 July 1999.

In a tragic development for the new institution, Donald Dewar dies suddenly within little more than a year (in October 2000). He is succeeded as first minister by Henry McLeish, who resigns in November 2001, and then by Jack McConnell.

The strength of the Plaid Cymru vote surprises and impresses many, though it is also argued that Labour may have lost support by the centralizing manner in which Alun Michael has been virtually imposed by Tony Blair upon the Welsh Labour party as their leader in the run-up to the election.

With 28 seats in the 60-seat assembly, Alun Michael forms a minority government. The assembly is officially opened on 26 May 1999 in Crickhowell House in Cardiff. A new building for the assembly in Cardiff is meanwhile under construction.

However, within nine months the arrangement stitched up by Tony Blair comes apart. In February 2000 the assembly passes a vote of no confidence in Alun Michael. He is succeeded as leader of the Wales Labour Party, and as First Secretary of the assembly, by Rhodri Morgan - the very man kept out of the job the first time round by the vigorous efforts of Labour party headquarters in London.

House of Lords: AD 1997-1999

In addition to devolution, there is another constitutional commitment in the 1997 Labour manifesto - reform of the house of lords. During the first two years of the parliament there is much negotiation as to how this is to be achieved. The government surprises many by insisting on depriving the hereditary peers of their rights before announcing what shape a reformed house of lords is to take.

A compromise is reached, allowing ninety-two hereditaries (elected by their fellow peers) to remain as members of the house with full voting rights during an interim period until the reform is completed.

The election takes place in November 1999, after which the majority of hereditary peers lose their right to participate in the business of the house - ending more than seven centuries of history since the parliaments of Henry iii. During recent centuries the lords have been on the whole an obstructive force (over Catholic emancipation, the Reform bill of 1831-2, Home rule, the Budget of 1909), though the presence since 1958 of appointed life peers has resulted in much more constructive opposition.

Ten years later, the debate over the future composition of the upper house remains unresolved. At issue is how future peers will be appointed, and whether a proportion of them should be elected.

Fits and starts at Stormont: from AD 1999

The Northern Irish peace process remains in limbo until the US negotiator George Mitchell returns to try and find common ground between the Sinn Fein and Ulster Unionist leaders, Gerry Adams and David Trimble. Their joint efforts end in a breakthrough when both men issue agreed and conciliatory statements on 16 November 1999.

The Ulster Unionists have always said that they will not cooperate with Sinn Fein until the IRA at least begins to hand in its weapons. The next hurdle is for David Trimble to persuade the Ulster Unionist Council that the party should share government with Sinn Fein on the mere promise of this happening. On November 27 he wins this agreement, with the proviso that the party will pull out of government if the IRA fails to hand in any arms by February.

On a historic day, 2 December 1999, both sides convene at Stormont and a ten-strong cabinet is selected with David Trimble, leader of the largest party, as First Minister. But the next crisis looms all to soon. By February the IRA has shown no sign of decommissioning any weapons. Well aware of the harm to the peace process if the Unionists withdraw, the British government preempts the issue early in the month by reimposing direct rule from Westminster - while emphasizing that the Stormont executive is being temporarily suspended rather than dismantled.

After quiet diplomacy there is sudden progress again in May, when the IRA put out their most unequivocal statement to date, offering to put their arms 'completely and verifiably beyond use'.

Their proposed method is the opening of their arms stores to full and regular inspection by independent observers. The question is whether David Trimble can sell this as significant progress to an increasingly sceptical Ulster Unionist Council. In late May he narrowly succeeds in doing so (by 459 to 403 votes, a closer margin than six months earlier), winning the party's agreement to share power again with Sinn Fein on this new basis. Power is once again transferred from Westminster to Stormont. The Ulster executive at Stormont resumes its devolved work early in June 2000.

There is a similar crisis in 2001, involving even the temporary resignation of David Trimble. Once again, at the last moment, the IRA make new promises just in time. Almost against the odds, political life resumes.

Yet another crisis erupts in the autumn of 2002, when there is apparent evidence that a spy working for Sinn Fein or the IRA has been copying top-secret documents from the files of the Stormont administration. David Trimble threatens to take the Unionists out of the government unless Sinn Fein are excluded. Once again the British government decides that the suspension of Stormont is the likeliest way of allowing tempers to cool. Direct rule from Westminster is reimposed.

In spite of this setback both Sinn Fein and the Unionists say that they remain committed to implementing the Good Friday Agreement. There is therefore some hope that the peace process itself remains alive, even if there is silence once again in the corridors of power at Stormont.

Hope for the future?

From 1993 the Irish peace process has lurched forward in fits and starts, but real progress has been made. There will be further crises, but the Protestant and Catholic communities have unmistakably expressed a wish for a normal political situation. At the start of the new millennium the mood is more hopeful than at any time since 1969.

But one underlying cause for concern, in the perspective of Irish history, is the tendency of the Irish republican movement to spawn splinter groups which carry on the murderous work of terrorism each time the leaders of the movement decide to enter mainstream politics.

This happens in the Civil war of 1922; it happens during the time of De valera, when the IRA continues after its former leader becomes taoiseach; and it happens in 1969 with the emergence of the Civil war of 1922 from an IRA by then inclined to renounce terrorism.

In 1999 the pattern seems in danger of repeating itself in the form of the Real IRA, a minority group responsible for placing a bomb in Omagh in August 1998 which causes twenty-nine deaths - within weeks of the Northern Ireland Assembly meeting for the first time at Stormont. Subsequent terrorist acts on the UK mainland suggest that the Real IRA remains a considerable danger.

It is also an alarming fact that violence continues to disrupt normal existence in the province. A ferocious feud breaks out in 2000 between rival groups of Protestant paramilitaries (the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Freedom Fighters) in the Shankhill Road district of Belfast. The level of violence becomes such that troops are brought back on to the streets of the city, in a move welcomed by most of the inhabitants of the Shankhill Road.

And in 2001 Belfast suffers a shocking new outbreak of sectarian violence, with Protestant bigots threatening Catholic children on their route to the Holy Cross school. In 2002 a repeat of this confrontation is followed by riots between sectarian mobs and the temporary closing of the school.
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