|Quotes • Headscratchers • Playing With • Useful Notes • Analysis • Image Links • Haiku • Laconic|
British politics since 8 May 1945, the end of the Second World War in Europe. Useful for understanding post-war history, relevant literature and hopefully, providing you with a good laugh.
After Germany was defeated, the National Government created for the duration broke up and the first election since 1935 was called. This being the days before opinion polls were actually done properly, everyone expected Winston Churchill to win.
Boy, did they get the shock of their lives. The British showed their gratitude to Churchill by kicking him out of office (he didn't help his case by claiming that Labour would need a Gestapo to run the new socialist state). Labour won in a landslide, forming its first majority government. In came...
"The Man in the Empty Taxi" -- Clement Attlee (1945-51)
Attlee wasn't all that charismatic (hence the title- one of Churchill's many memorable criticism of the man), but it didn't really matter back then. His government was responsible for the National Health Service, British Railways and very much other nationalisation. He created what became known as "the post-war consensus" of high public spending and national ownership. Britain also began the steps to becoming one of the Five Nukes under Attlee.
The period had somewhat of an argument going on between the right and left of Labour. It wouldn't be the end of it.
The beginning of the end of the British Empire began here as well.
Attlee in popular culture:
- The 1954 Goon Show episode "The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-On-Sea" includes a mention of Attlee being struck with a batter pudding (the implication being that Churchill did it).
- Name-checked in Bjørge Lillelien's famous comment after Norway beat England in a 1981 World Cup qualifier, which has been oft-parodied on the rare occasions that England pull off a major victory.
- "We have beaten England! England, birthplace of giants. Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper, Lady Diana--we have beaten them all. We have beaten them all."
- In the last episode of Goodnight Sweetheart, Nicholas Lyndhurst's character saves Attlee's life and cannot return home as a result.
Labour won again in 1950, but narrowly. Attlee went to the country again in 1951. Due to the vagaries of FPTP, Labour just won the popular vote, but the Conservatives got a majority of seats. This led to the return of...
"The Old Bulldog" -- Winston Churchill (1951-55)
So Winston came back. He didn't really do that much due to his ill-health. What he did do generally wasn't very well-received or popular, leading to the common view that he was a better wartime leader than a peacetime leader. He stepped down in 1955, leading to...
"Crashing Into The Suez Canal" -- Sir Anthony Eden (1955-57)
Eden is remembered for primarily one thing -- Suez. Quite simply, the British, French and Israeli governments came up with the Protocols of Sèvres, an agreement in which Israel would invade Egypt and then Britain and France would come in on the grounds of separating the two parties. In reality, they all wanted to kick out Colonel Nasser, who'd nationalised the Suez Canal.
It went wrong. Very, very wrong. The Americans were very unhappy, the invasion was roundly condemned by the United Nations, and the USSR threatened to intervene. When it came out (because the Israelis didn't destroy their copies of the Protocols) that Eden knew what was going on, he had to leave. In came...
"Supermac and his Moustache" -- Harold Macmillan (1957-63)
Harold's first name was actually Maurice. Dubbed "Supermac" by the press as an insult, it became an endearing part of the man, who became rather popular.
Mac won the 1959 election in a landslide and later declared "You've never had it so good". He's also famous for the Profumo scandal.
In 1963, John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler, a showgirl. She was also sleeping with Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché in the Soviet Embassy -- and a spy (like all attachés in the Soviet Embassy). While no secrets ended up in the Soviet Union (despite the efforts of Ivanov and Stephen Ward, the latter of whom was actually working for MI 5), Profumo had to resign. Ward ended up being charged with living off immoral earnings and killed himself on the last day of his trial. Ivanov's wife left him.
Shortly afterwards, Macmillan resigned on health grounds. The Conservative Party at the time chose its leaders via something called "the magic circle", in which the bigwigs had a chat and chose a person. The two front-runners were Rab Butler and Quintin Hogg. After a lot of public argument (involving, among other things, Supermac actively blocking Rab Butler's succession), a compromise candidate was found...
"Alec Douglas-Who?" -- Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963-4)
You've probably never heard of this guy. Don't worry, most British people haven't either. Douglas-Home (pronounced Hume) spent just under a year as Prime Minister. A Lord when he was appointed (as the Earl of Home), he forfeited his Peerage to stand in a by-election (by this point, governing from the House of Lords was seen as awkward). Had a head like a skull and was really just biding time for the Tories until the election had to be called. The Tories narrowly lost and we got...
"Yes, I Like My Pipe" -- Harold Wilson (1964-70)
Harold Wilson was the first media PM. He was famous for smoking a pipe during his television appearances (remember, this was before the smoking ban).
Under Wilson, The Sixties fully kicked into gear and The Vietnam War entered its next phase. Wilson, rather wisely, kept Britain out of the war militarily, although offered occasional rhetorical support. The Troubles started in Stroke Country and England won The World Cup. Wise to the popular mood, he had The Beatles honoured (although two soon returned their medals due to UK "support" for the Vietnam War). He is alleged to have said, when asked why Britain did not publicly condemn U.S. action in Vietnam, that "you do not kick your creditors in the balls" (the UK was still heavily in debt from WW 2, and indeed did not pay off the last of the war loans until 2006).
In 1966, Wilson and Labour won in a landslide. In 1970, it looked like they were going to win again, so Wilson went to the country. Then three things happened. First, England were knocked out of the World Cup. Second, there was a unexpectedly bad balance of payments report. Third, there was a guy called Enoch Powell. How racist Powell was is a matter for debate. A former member of the Conservative Shadow Cabinet, he'd been very publicly sacked after the "Rivers of Blood" speech claiming that uncontrolled immigration would lead to Britain being changed dramatically (the far-right today claims he was right) and quoting a letter from a woman who was apparently the only white woman in her street, who would face prosecution under the new Race Relations Act for refusing to let rooms in her house to West Indian immigrants. His views on immigration (then primarily from The Commonwealth) probably brought a lot of voters to the Conservative side in 1970.
- Racism in the media and elections was considerably more prevalent than it is today. Remember, it took about 20 years longer for "blacking-up" to cycle out of UK fiction, and there was one seat at an election where a Conservative leaflet actually used the N word in claiming that voting for Labour would get you a black neighbour.
It's also been suggested that pirate radio may have influenced the vote. Wilson's Government had outlawed offshore broadcasting in 1967, but a new station called Radio North Sea International began broadcasting in February 1970. Its signal was jammed by order of the Government, and in protest it began encouraging its listeners to vote Conservative in the upcoming election, the first in which the voting age had been lowered to 18.
In any event, the Conservatives won a surprise victory, putting Ted Heath into Whitehall.
There's a Viking named after him in Asterix.
"A Sailor In Whitehall" -- Edward "Ted" Heath (1970-1974)
Ted Heath was the most recent bachelor to become Prime Minister. He'd become leader of his party after Douglas-Home had brought about the election of a leader after the 1964 defeat. He was responsible for Britain's entry into the European Economic Community (now the European Union), and had Douglas-Home as his Foreign Secretary. Troubled by both the unions and his own party, and finding it increasingly difficult to govern a fractious and divided nation, he finally decided to ask the country to decide "who ruled Britain". The answer was "Not you, mate."
"MI 5 want to kill me" -- Harold Wilson, Act Two (1974-1976)
After Ted Heath's failure to form a government, Harold Wilson came back into power. He didn't do an awful lot, frankly, though he did deploy the British Army to "sort out" the Troubles. The most interesting thing about this period was the part where the CIA thought he was a KGB spy and MI 5 may well have cooked up a plot to get rid of him and replace him with Lord Mountbatten. He did give the British a referendum on the continued membership of the European Community in which the hyes vote prevalied by 2 to 1.
Harold Wilson suddenly announced on 16th March 1976 that he was retiring. He died of Alzheimer's Disease in 1995.
"Never Got Elected" -- James "Jim" Callaghan (1976-1979)
Jim Callaghan was the Labour Party's replacement for Harold Wilson. He didn't go terribly well. He strung along the Conservatives by seeming to promise an election; then, in September 1978 announced his decision against it. Adding insult to injury, he proceeded to sing "Waiting at the Church" in the style of music-hall star Marie Lloyd. In the House of Commons. During a debate. It is considered that he thoroughly deserved the "Winter of Discontent" that followed (even if the rest of the nation didn't), a period of economic depression that forced him to actually call an election, via a vote of no-confidence in the Commons.
Callaghan was also responsible for ordering the Trident ballistic missile system from the Americans (the warheads and subs would be British).
"The Iron Lady" -- Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)
Waitress: "And what about the vegetables?"
Mrs. Thatcher: "Oh? They'll have the same as me..."
Notorious for her iron control over her cabinet, Margaret Thatcher was Britain's first and so far only female Prime Minister. She's famous for far more than that, including her radical free-market economic policies (Thatcher was a direct inspiration on Reagan) and reforms as well as her conservative social views. She curbed the trade unions, abolished many of Britain's inefficient nationalised industries (including coal mining and steel) and sold off many of the others, as well as introducing the "Right to Buy", in which the 85% of Brits who lived in state provided housing were given the chance to buy their dwelling for a knock-down price, an offer taken up by tens of millions of people. It has also been argued that, by moving the Conservative Party to the right on immigration, she helped wreck the rising support for far-right movements such as the National Front which had plagued the 1970s.
She brought The Eighties to Britain -- big business, yuppie culture and the Nouveau Riche flourished under her premiership. In the very end, her own party turned on her in protest at some of her policies and she was forced to resign, though most agreed in November 1990 that she had left the nation and its balance sheet in a much better state than she had found it in May 1979. Her government had overseen a rise in the wealth of the average person, but also high and sustained unemployment; a doubling in the rate of poverty, which by the time Labour came to power would be the highest in Europe and extensive damage to the National Health Service.
Her premiership remains one of the most remembered in British history. Everyone seems to range from "utter worship" to "sheer frothing rage". Around the world she is seen as a great woman for, along with her great friend Ronald Reagan, having pressured the Communist side in the cold war to the brink of collapse.
There were a number of notable events of the Thatcher long premiership that warrant further mention.
"They may be rocks, but they're British rocks" -- The Falklands War
The Falkland Islands, Islas Malvinas to the Argentines, located in the South Atlantic, had been a subject of dispute between the UK and Argentina for a while (it's a long story partly involving the international equivalent of squatters' rights). Partly in order to save money, the UK planned to withdraw the warship it kept on station as a deterrent to the Argentine junta.
This was, unintentionally, a "come and take it, it's yours" message to them. Needing to divert attention from poor economic performance at home, the junta invaded the place. The (entirely British) local population offered token resistance and then surrendered as they didn't actually stand a chance.
Not many people had heard of the place, but these were British rocks and something had to be done. The British sent a naval task force. While that was on its way, the RAF worked on an operation that became much better known via a recent book called Vulcan 607.
In the BLACK BUCK missions, the ageing Avro Vulcans, using multiple Handley Page Victor tankers (who refuelled each other as well), carried out bombing raids that wouldn't be exceeded in range until the Gulf War. The first of these, which very nearly had to be aborted, rendered Port Stanley airfield largely inoperable, diverted a Mirage fighter squadron to defend the mainland and so cut the Argentines' strike power considerably. A Crowning Moment of Awesome for the Vulcan, in essence.
The war really got started with the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano, an Argentine cruiser by the submarine HMS Conqueror, the only nuclear submarine to have ever sunk a ship in a real war. This was pretty controversial at the time (the ship was outside a declared exclusion zone amd was steaming away from the Falklands when attacked), but the attack was perfectly legal, the Argentines had been informed in advance that any of their ships were now targets, and the cruiser had earlier been actively trying to draw the Task Force into a pincer attack, which had been called off due to bad weather. The fact that 323 deaths occurred and the war was escalated considerably meant many weren't convinced, especially when the log book of HMS Conqueror mysteriously disappeared soon afterwards. Militarily, it also worked -- the Argentine Navy retreated to its territorial waters and played not much more part in the war.
The Argentines, however, had another weapon up their sleeves. They only had five of them that could be launched from a plane (the surface versions were on the ships, which were out of the way) to begin with -- if they'd had more, things might have been different. The name of the missile would enter the English vocabulary.
This French built anti-shipping missile, launched by French Super Etendard strike fighters, would sink HMS Sheffield on its own and a merchant ship, Atlantic Conveyor (it was aimed at another ship, which decoyed it with chaff -- the missile went on and hit the Conveyor). A surface launched version fired from a truck damaged HMS Glamorgan as well.
The Argentines mostly used conventional iron bombs to attack ships and got a few that way. One reason why they didn't get more was the Sea Harrier.
This aircraft, capable of taking off and landing vertically, had the ability, by using its thrusters, to turn very quickly. Due to the RAF's great training, the Argentines' woeful training, the Mirages and Skyhawks operating at the limits of their range and the AIM-9L Sidewinder, 21 Argentine aircraft were shot down by them in air-to-air combat for no losses to the British. Six Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire, but they took out a lot of aircraft on the ground. The Royal Navy's ships got a few too.
- The Falklands has featured in some media, being the inspiration for the film of Whoops Apocalypse and featuring in a few movies and TV dramas. The Falklands Play wasn't actually made until 2002 (in truncated form), possibly because it was seen as too pro-government. The Argentines have made a few movies on the subject- it had a bigger impact on them- but there's nothing especially famous abroad. About the closest is a joking reference in an episode of The Simpsons, used to date a Krusty rerun.
- Naturally, this also had an impact on the English-Argentine football relationship -- "The Hand of God" was scored against England and Maradona stated it was revenge for the war.
- The war is also responsible for the most infamous headline in history -- The Sun and "GOTCHA!" on the Belgrano.
"Hiring taxi drivers to render yourselves unelectable" -- Labour's Militant Problem
Following Callaghan's defeat, he stood down as Labour leader and was replaced by Michael Foot. Foot wasn't a brilliant leader, but he had an even bigger problem -- the rise of Militant. Militant, despite identifying with the "Labour Left", were in fact a Marxist-Leninist entryist group who had infiltrated the Labour Party over a long period with the intention of using it as a springboard to get their members into high office where they could bring about the "socialist revolution". They played a massive role in shaping the 1983 election manifesto. This manifesto promised to abolish the House of Lords (with no replacement), eject US missiles from the UK and cancel Trident (ergo, the nuclear disarmament of Britain) and leave the EEC. Then-Shadow Education Secretary Nieil Kinnock's comments about soldiers dying in the Falklands to prove Thatcher was tough really didn't help. Gerald Kaufman, a moderate Labour MP (and author of a rather good, if dated, book on how to be a minister) declared it "the longest suicide note in history".
He was right. Labour lost by about 15% of the vote, lost 3 million votes from 1979, got only 27.9% of the vote and almost came third to the Alliance. Disenchanted by the way Labour was going, four high-profile figures, known as the "Gang of Four", had resigned very publicly and formed their own party -- the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They attracted about 20 sitting members, allied with the Liberals in the Alliance and later merged with them to form the Liberal Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, in London, Labour gained control of the Greater London Council. There was then an internal coup in the Labour Group (exactly as the Conservatives had predicted), which meant that a newt breeder by the name of Ken Livingstone become Leader of the Council. Red Ken put the fire in firebrand. Highly left-wing, he put up a statue of Nelson Mandela (who was still in prison and viewed by the Conservatives as a terrorist), declared London a nuclear-free zone, and placed a board showing London's unemployment level on the side of County Hall (opposite the Houses of Parliament on the other side of the river). He did practically everything he could to annoy Thatcher. The Conservatives, after their 1983 landslide, proceeded to abolish the GLC and the other (Labour-controlled) metropolitan councils, and sold off County Hall, which now hosts the London Aquarium, among other things.
Deciding that since they couldn't stop a Government with a majority of 150 seats from passing whatever it felt like passing, Militant decided to start breaking the law, refusing to comply with central government instructions on local rates. The whole thing ended focusing on Liverpool, where the Militant-controlled council, after being told in August 1985 it would no longer be able to pay the wages of its workers due to lack of a central government grant or a budget, proceeded to issue notices to all 30,000 of them that they might lose their jobs in ninety days time, as a means of increasing public pressure. It backfired spectacularly. While not redundancy notices, the difference was irrelevant to the workers and the media.
Kinnock had become leader after the 1983 election and was not happy to see his party almost get electorally killed. After the Liverpool debacle, he famously denounced Militant in that year's Conference speech.
I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council! - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.
Militant was not happy, and several Militant members, including a few Liverpool M Ps, publicly walked out of the conference hall. But even Labour were turning on them, and eventually proscribed Militant members from joining in 1989. Kinnock's criticism of Militant worked to a degree, but he never saw the premiership after ten years as Labour leader.
"Tap Dancing Your Way Out Of A Job" -- the Miner's Strike
The 1984 Miners' Strike -- and the events both leading up to and stemming from it -- is one of the main reasons why Margaret Thatcher is still widely hated, particularly in the North of England.
First, a bit of background; the Conservative Party and the British coal industry were not the best of friends. Coal was a nationalized and subsidized industry up till this point, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was, if not the most powerful union in the country, then certainly one of the most. An earlier strike in 1974 was widely blamed for bringing down Edward Heath's government. Most of the mines, not coincidentally, were based in Labour country -- Wales and Oop North. Furthermore, most coal mines ran at a loss, and the government wanted to scrap the unprofitable ones and focus on the ones that were making money. As such, Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor as head of the National Coal Board (which managed the industry for the government) -- MacGregor had previously been in charge of British Steel, and had overseen massive cuts in jobs in the British steel industry. The message seemed pretty clear.
However, the miners themselves didn't like the idea of being turfed out of their jobs, and eventually, as pit closures started to be announced, the head of the NUM, one Arthur Scargill, announced a national strike. This soon proved problematic, largely because a ballot hadn't been held among the union members; attitudes to the strike ranged across the miners from passionate to lukewarm to resistant, and some miners (and related workers) didn't end up going on strike, thus earning a reputation as 'scabs' when they tried to cross the pickets to go to work. The strikes were marred by violence, not just between picketers and strike-breakers, but between strikers and the police, sent by the government to ensure the picketers didn't prevent those who wanted to from crossing the pickets. In order to ensure that local police weren't influenced by their feelings of support for their fellow locals, police units were shipped in from across the country. This created a lot of tension which eventually culminated in plenty of dust-ups between miners and police; in particular, 'The Battle of Orgreave', a particularly violent confrontation between police and picketers. Fatalities started being recorded, including a rather murky incident wherein a taxi driver was killed by a block of concrete dropped by strikers while driving a strike-breaker to a pit; the government blamed the strikers, the strikers blamed forces trying to discredit the strikers, but on the whole public opinion started to cool towards the strike rapidly. However, while the striking miners didn't always conduct themselves like angels, it should be noted that the conduct of the police has come under a lot of retroactive criticism since then, with many of the measures they took to ensure strike-breakers could work and strike protests were quelled being considered unnecessarily provocative and violent.
Speaking of people being 'discredited', however, a lot of conspiracy theories started to be raised about what was going on behind the scenes. As mentioned above, the British far-left had been gaining a lot of power in the eighties, and this included the unions -- there were plenty of donations to the NUM coming in from Soviet and Soviet-influenced bodies, and Scargill was variously accused of being a Soviet agent, diverting these funds for his own use, and so forth. This was helped by the fact that the very powerful tabloid media was very much anti-strike and thus used up a lot of ink printing these rumours. Scargill retaliated with accusations that the government was running a smear campaign and that MI5 were running counter-subversive operations, including bugging union leaders phones, infiltrating the union with moles, police intimidation and arrest of strikers on political grounds, soldiers disguised as police sent to break up pickets, and so forth. For what it's worth, a head of MI 5 later came out and admitted that counter-subversive measures were used, but maintained that it was not to the degree Scargill claimed. A real atmosphere of class warfare began to brew.
Ultimately, though, it came down to money -- specifically, the miners didn't have enough of it. Since there was no ballot, the strike was considered illegal, meaning that strikers didn't get benefits for missing work, and the union didn't have enough to support them during the strike -- a big deal, considering how poor some of these areas were and how much the local economies depended on the mines being active. Gradually, public opinion turned against them, morale plummeted, strikers started going back to work. Just under a year after the strike was called, it was ended, and the miners went back to work.
But not for much longer. Emboldened by their victory, the government started ruthlessly culling the industry, closing pits all over the country -- including in areas they'd promised not to, something which caused a lot of betrayed feelings. This spilled into related industries, such as steel and the railways. Local economies were gutted, unemployment in the North skyrocketed, and the region began to languish under a miserable period of poverty that, for some areas, has only recently begun to turn around. When the dust settled, the British coal, steel and manufacturing industries were a shadow of their former selves, Thatcher earned a permanent reputation in the area for being indifferent to both unemployment and the North of England, and even today there's plenty in those areas who will never vote Conservative as a result.
Many people outside the region will probably know the Miners' Strike mainly through the movie / musical Billy Elliot, in which a striker's son discovers his love of dance against the background of the strike. Hence the section name.
"American Nukes Out!" -- CND and the Women of Greenham Common
Thatcher's first government also coincided with a spike in Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union after a brief cooling-off period in the 1970s, which in turn coincided with Ronald Reagan becoming the President of the United States and, initially at least, something of a Cold War sabre-rattler. Reagan and Thatcher were close allies, and soon became closely associated in the public eye. It was a time of cold war paranoia, fear and tension, and it seemed like nuclear war was going to break out any minute.
Also, after World War Two, many old RAF bases were loaned out to the Americans as part of Britain's commitment to NATO, to ensure that the American military had a presence in Europe if necessary. This included being furnished with American nuclear weapons. Among these was RAF Greenham Common, which saw firstly American bombers and then, in the 1980s, cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Greenham Common was the first site in Britain to be issued with them.
These two facts are linked.
As a result in the spike of Cold War tensions and the increased fear and threat of nuclear war, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) -- which had been around since the 1950s, but had seen a drop-off in interest and membership since the 1960s (as Vietnam had occupied more attention), began to see it's membership rise again. Between 1979 and 1984, it spiked from 4000 to 10000 -- and one of the key points of contention with official government policy was American nuclear missiles being deployed to Britain -- this was seen to make Britain a greater target in the event of a potential nuclear strike from the Soviet Union. In fact, the organisation was a key promoter of 'unilateralism', which in this case essentially meant the complete termination of Britain's entry into the NATO defense pact and total abolishing of all nuclear weapons from Britain. As such, the CND began to campaign publicly and prominently, with mass demonstrations in London and other cities about nuclear weapons.
In September 1981, a 'peace camp' -- the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp -- was established outside RAF Greenham Common as a form of permanent non-violent protest against the weapons housed within. This commonly took the form of blockades to prevent anything from entering / leaving and human chains around the base. Although it had been around for a while by this point, it became particularly notable when on April 1st 1983, 70,000 protestors formed a 14-mile long human chain between Greenham Common, Aldermaston (site of a prominent atomic weapons facility) and Burghfield (site of a weapons factory). Greenham Common began to inspire more peace camps around other military bases, and while most of these other camps were mixed-gender, the all-female nature of the first one meant that the female protestors at least came to be known as 'the Women of Greenham Common'; they were generally associated in the common mind's eye as various combinations of feminists (usually quite hardcore), hippies, lesbians, pagans and various other left-wing female stereotypes. Contrary to popular belief, men were permitted into the camp (or at least certain sections of the camp; the Green Camp didn't permit any men whatsoever), but they were usually discouraged from staying for too long, by various methods (some of them less-than-pleasant).
Naturally, there were plenty of people not very happy at all this -- the political establishment for one, the American military for another, and various other conservative-leaning types for a third. There were many incidents of people trying to break into these bases by cutting the wire fences surrounding them, and many more accusations of peace camps being infiltrated by moles sent by the police, American military, MI 5 or 'Special Branch' to try and discredit the movement by stirring up trouble. The Greenham Common protestors were often evicted, but usually set the camp up again soon after. More or less, though, things were peaceful.
Your Mileage May Vary over how effective they ultimately were; most of these camps didn't last very long. The Cold War tensions of the early eighties began to warm when Mikhail Gorbachev took over the Soviet Union in the mid-eighties, which began to loosen the appeal; the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s saw concerns about the nuclear threat diminish, and CND gradually lost influence. It's still around (often protesting the Iraq War and Afghanistan), but isn't as influential as it used to be. The Greenham Common camp, however, lasted until 2000 - nine years after the last nukes had been removed from the base it was located by. There's a memorial there now.
"Good At Cricket, Rubbish At Politics" -- John Major (1990-1997)
Nicknamed "the Grey Man" for his utter mediocrity, John Major somewhat unbelievably managed to win the 1992 election. It was all downhill from thereon, however, as the Conservative Party soon became enveloped in a myriad sex and financial scandals, mainly remembered for coinciding with his "back to basics" campaign which seemed focused on conservative morality (Sadly, the greatest sex scandal of them all -- and affair between Major himself and fellow MP Edwina Currie -- went unrevealed until 2002.) Under Major, Britain was involved in the Gulf War (although Thatcher had started the process) and the economic crisis of Black Wednesday.
Despite the popular view, Major was not a total waste of space. For one thing, he did most of the work that lead to the end of The Troubles, ended the institutional Conservative Europhobia (although whether this was his intention, or the effect of pro-europeans, like Michael Hesseltine and particularly his chancellor Ken Clarke, exerting power over their fairly ineffectual leader is unclear), and started an economic boom that lasted for over 16 years.
"Controversy, Controversy, Controversy" -- Tony Blair (1997-2007)
Tony Blair became the leader of the Labour Party in 1994, and sought to push the party towards the political centre in a post-Soviet environment that made the socialism seen with Militant Labour publicly untenable. It worked wonders; when the party won a landslide election in 1997, he was perceived as a new start for Britain after eighteen years of Conservative rule. By the time he eventually resigned in 2007, however, he was regarded by many as a slimy war criminal who should be on trial at the Hague. Why? Well, the Iraq War. The cash-for-honours scandal which plagued the last year or two of his premiership didn't help, but it was Iraq and his perceived lies about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that did it, mostly.
Tony Blair was actually involved in four wars during this period. Two of them, Kosovo and intervention in Sierra Leone, were rather popular and regarded as humanitarian causes. Iraq and Afghanistan... less so. One of the biggest blows to Blair's credibility came when Dr. David Kelly, the man who blew the whistle on the fictitious WMDs was found to have committed suicide in suspicious circumstances; since his body was found in woodland near his home, 'being found in the woods' has come to act as a shorthand for any kind of dodgy, possibly government-involved suspicious death in Britain.
The cash-for-honours scandal further compounded Blair's notoriety in making him the first serving British Prime Minister to be questioned by the police regarding a criminal matter (as a witness, it must be stressed, not as a suspect in any criminal activity -- but it nevertheless didn't help his credibility much at the time).
Rather unexpectedly, Blair turned out to be devoutly religious and converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving office. His faith, though with clear precedent in British Christian Socialism, did little to please many of critics on the largely secular left. On the other hand, advising the Pope that the Catholic Church should show more acceptance for homosexual relationships hasn't exactly won him any friends from the religious right either. Later satire of Blair often worked in the image of him as a would-be Messianic leader.
In retrospect, Blair is felt to have had a fairly good domestic policy; among other things, he brought in same-sex civil partnerships, kept economic growth going for a nearly a decade and did more than any other Prime Minister to bring peace to Northern Ireland. His government saw the introduction of the Scottish Parliament, a minimum wage, the Freedom of Information act and Human Rights acts and brought the NHS back to being a first-rate health service.
"Finally, I'm Prime Minister!" Gordon Brown (2007-2010)
After thirteen years waiting in the wings and cultivating an increasingly terrible relationship with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. However, if anything was learned from John Major, it is that the British aren't fond of Prime Ministers who've not won an election. Most of his early acts have been reacting to the global stage and undoing everything that had been put in place by Tony Blair. Having a reputation built on a strong economy (he was the Chancellor Of The Exchequer) isn't such a good thing when said economy starts to collapse around your ears, especially when, at the same time, you have to deal with a bitter reaction to appalling tales of MPs abusing lax rules on claiming expenses for personal gain .
Brown's lasting legacy is an even greater British distrust of their own politicians and the political system, highly controversial levels of spending resulting in a monstrously huge budget deficit (his own Chief Secretary of the Treasury, on leaving office, left as a note to his successor saying simply "Dear Chief Secretary. There is no money left. Best of luck."). He will perhaps be most fondly remembered for his complete lack of charisma, unsettlingly forced smile and dropping the Idiot Ball by calling a Labour voter a bigot in his car while his mic was still on, shortly after having a conversation with her which to everyone else seemed to have gone fine. On the other hand, Brown's efforts in the early days of the financial crisis, particularly his organization of the emergency G 20 summit, did win some praise in the international press.
After the second hung parliament since the Second World War, David Cameron of the Conservatives formed a coalition government with Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats as deputy prime minister. Gordon Brown resigned as leader of the Labour Party, recommending the Queen ask Cameron to form a government. Cameron's government quickly scrapped controversial legislation such as the fourth runway at Heathrow being built and the biometric ID card scheme. Public opinion remains divided on the coalition, with many Lib Dem voters unhappy (Opinion polls show Lib Dem support had just about halved a few months after the election). Hysterical predictions that the coalition would not last for 6 months are looking increasingly unlikely to come true. Coalition government being virtually unknown in Wesminster Politics (the devolved administrations have more experience with it however), both the Tories and the Lib Dems are having to struggle with the intractable in their own parties. Some Conservatives believe that they would have been better off forming a minority government and a significant proportion of Lib Dems are unhappy with their party propping up a Conservative government.
- ↑ The "best" examples involved moat cleaning, a duck island, two porn films and biscuits