Divided Kingdom

Professor Pat Thane, King’s College London

 

I wrote this book at the suggestion of the editor at CUP. I resisted for quite a while, but then reflected that I had been teaching twentieth-century British history for over 40 years and it would be interesting to pull my ideas together and, probably, learn something new about areas I had neglected – as I did. I also hoped that students would benefit from a succinct, chronological survey.

Then the excellent editor, Michael Watson, suggested that I might focus the survey around the theme of inequalities, which is clearly of enduring importance and I have written about socio-economic, gender and age inequalities and edited the book Unequal Britain surveying also inequalities of race, sexuality and disability since 1945. It was he, also, who suggested the title Divided Kingdom when I was at a loss to sum up the main theme. It’s particularly appropriate because I start the book by describing how the ‘United Kingdom’ came about, the meanings of the various names this nation has – ‘UK’, ‘Britain’, ‘Great Britain’, ’British Isles’ – which baffle many foreigners, while the constitutional status of some of the ‘Isles’- the Isle of Man, the Channel Isles – baffles most of us. Regional inequalities are also discussed through the book.

Around 1900 is a good point to start discussing the inequalities which have pervaded UK society ever since because it’s when so many of them became prominent, urgent political issues. Indeed the Kingdom as it stood in 1900 did not remain United very long. Through the 1900s Irish nationalism intensified, as did opposition to it in Northern Ireland, leading to independence for the South in 1922.

The trade union movement was also increasingly militant, challenging inequalities of income, and helped found the Labour Party in 1900 with its central mission to eliminate the inequalities which disadvantaged working-class people. Awareness of these was reinforced by the poverty surveys of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree (both published 1902), revealing alarming poverty including among people in full-time work, not just the idle ‘shirkers’ of right-wing mythology, while other studies revealed the concentration of income and wealth in very few hands. The revelations contributed to demands leading to the first modern state welfare measures including free school meals and old age pensions.

At the same time, women demanded equality with increasingly militancy. This was symbolized by the campaign for the vote, but the vote was not only important in itself but, they hoped, as the first step towards women achieving the political power to gain wider equality with men, including before the law and at work, and to improve social conditions which a male-dominated parliament had so neglected. When women partially gained the vote in 1918 it was a step in a long, still-ongoing, struggle for gender equality.

Another issue which was prominent at this time and hasn’t gone away, was racism, particularly antisemitism directed at the thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Russia. They congregated in cities, especially in East London, soon making substantial contributions to the economy, but accused of taking jobs and homes from the native population, disrupting their communities and culture and reducing living standards. This led to the first restrictions on immigration to the UK in the Aliens Act, 1905. Now, to remain, immigrants must show they could support themselves and their dependents ‘decently’ and could ‘speak, read and write English reasonably well’. As PM Balfour told parliament, ‘We have the right to keep out everybody who does not add to … the industrial, social and intellectual strength of the community’.  It sounds all too familiar and restrictions have continued, especially intensely since the 1960s.

The restrictions did not apply to Black, Asian and other immigrants from the vast British Empire. People born within the Empire had always been defined as UK citizens with full rights as residents here. This was reinforced by the British Nationality Act, 1948, which affirmed the status of those born within what was now the Commonwealth as full citizens. Until recently I thought I was one of very few people aware of this – until the Windrush Scandal alerted us all. The Home Office was among the majority who had forgotten, with much less, indeed no, justification. But it is not entirely novel for Empire/Commonwealth migrants to suffer for lacking documentation when required. Even in the early twentieth century, if they came to official notice – e.g., by claiming unemployment benefit between the wars – they could be excluded if they could not prove their place of birth; often difficult for poor people who did not routinely have, or could not easily afford, birth certificates.

All these inequalities are still urgently with us and became prominent in the later twentieth century, including issues of age and disability. But most shocking is the similar levels of poverty in 1900 and now. Rowntree found 25% of the people of the fairly typical city of York in poverty, 52% of them in families with at least one full-time worker on inadequate pay. The Rowntree Foundation (created in his honour) found in 2015/16 20% of the UK population in poverty, 60% in households with an inadequately paid full-time worker and the numbers have worsened since. Definitions of poverty are less stringent in this much wealthier society, though the large and growing numbers of people using food banks (unheard of in Britain until recently) and homeless, sleeping rough on the streets, makes one wonder how many are in absolute poverty similar to the 1900s. Poverty surveys then led to the beginning of a ‘welfare state’, improved living standards and a narrowing of inequalities of wealth and income to their narrowest point in the 1970s. Poverty in 2018 follows the erosion of the welfare state, growing income and wealth inequality and the return of stigmatization of supposed ‘shirkers’ on benefits since Thatcher’s 1980s.

Sadly the Kingdom is as divided now as in 1900.

 

Divided Kingdom: A History of Britain, 1900 to Present
is available from Cambridge University Press

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About the author: Pat Thane is Research Professor in Contemporary British History at King’s College London and the Honorary President of the Social History Society. She is a leading authority on the political, social and welfare history of modern Britain. Amongst her many publications are The Foundations of the Welfare State (Longman, 1996) and Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (Oxford University Press, 2000).

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