Modern Britain. From the end of the Victorian era to the current day Britain has undergone a great deal of change. The Empire has become the commonwealth. Suffrage has become universal for all aged 18 or over. Working life has changed, numerous times. The nation has been engaged in two World Wars and a participant in several others. There has been the intrigue and fear of the Cold War. Music, Art and Culture became more accessible as first radio, then Television and later the Internet changed the way that we entertain ourselves.
The early 1900’s saw Britain at it’s height as an Imperial nation. The world map had huge swathes of pink to denote the colonialism that had spread far and wide. There was disharmony in South Africa as the British fought the Boer War. That war taught the country several lessons. One of which was that the recruits to the armed forces were quite simply not healthy enough at times. This caused alarm. It contributed to a desire for change. Coupled with reports into the conditions in several industrial town and cities and the emergence of a new Labour party, the Liberal Party developed a series of policies that at the time were quite radical.
The Liberal Party was elected in 1906 after running a campaign based on social changes. Using ideas from other developed nations, notably Germany, they sought to reform the way in which welfare was provided for those in need. The existing provision was dated. The Speenhamland system of poor relief was prevalent though it varied from town to town and had its roots in Elizabethan laws on poor relief.
Poverty and health were to be tackled. The Liberals wanted to introduce National Insurance which comprised contributions from the employer, employee and state to cover the cost of things such as sick pay. Old Age pensions would improve the lives of the elderly. The conditions in which many children lived was to be addressed through medical check ups and the provision of free school meals. The reforms were wide reaching. They were controversial as well. They led to the ‘People’s Budget’ being rejected by the house of Lords and a constitutional crisis that led to changes in the powers the Lords have to amend acts of Parliament.
This period of reform was one in which three other issues were of ongoing concern.
The Government had to deal with debate over the future of Ireland. The Irish Question was around whether Ireland was an integral part of Great Britain, or a part of the empire in much the same way as the Dominions are. It was politically charged and led to many problems for successive governments, culminating in warfare in Ireland and terrorism that continued late into the twentieth century.
Votes for Women was an issue that was pressing. The suffrage movement had gathered momentum in the latter years of Victoria’s reign and by the beginning of the Liberal governments tenure was seeing a moral campaign acting as a pressure group but also a militant group intent on wreaking havoc until the vote was won. Opinion within government was divided on the issue of votes for women and further split on ways in which to tackle the issue of the Suffragette campaigns.
The third issue was that of national military might and the ability to protect the empire. The Boer War had highlighted concerns. Aside from that, other nations were pursuing imperialistic ambitions and tensions around these were rising. To protect the empire, Britain had to have the navy to combat any threat. Dreadnoughts were the answer, a revolutionary type of ship that was a clear statement of intent to any other nation. The statement was noticed, it led to an arms race.
The latter of those issues was one on the main factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Britain had a small but professional army based on mainland Britain. This British Expeditionary Force was dispatched to France and Belgium at the declaration of war. It was a war that lasted far longer than had been foreseen by many. Britain found herself committing more men to the army than ever before. The Navy and Merchant Navy faced an underwater menace for the first time. The country was forced to adapt. The workplace opened up to women. Conscription was introduced.