The nation's post-war social, economic and political landscape is radically altered and it begins to dismantle the empire.
Clement Attlee and his Labour party won the election in the dying days of World War II with a commitment to build a better Britain with full employment. They took over a country which was effectively bankrupt and worn out after six years of warfare; many were homeless or living in inadequate accommodation and some foodstuff was in desperately short supply. The Butler Education Act of 1944, which guaranteed the introduction of secondary education for all children, and the 1942 Beveridge Report, which set out proposals for the foundations of a welfare state funded by a fresh national insurance scheme, were widely regarded as the essential foundation blocks for a fairer Britain and social improvement in the post-war years.
The new government still ruled an empire, which some Labour MPs regarded as an anachronism, and India’s long campaign for self-rule demanded immediate attention. Moreover, Britain’s authority and prestige had been weakened in the oriental colonies conquered by Japan. Ireland severed its last slim connection with the Commonwealth in 1949. Even the ‘white dominions’ had become assured, independent nation states, which would never again regard the ‘mother’ country with the same deference they had shown during the two world wars.
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An added responsibility was British involvement with the post-war situation in Europe. The British army and many government and professional organisations were actively involved in restoring order and the norms of civilisation to the western sectors in Germany, where many cities were completely destroyed. Millions of refugees and displaced persons posed great social and health problems for the allied authorities as they tried to restore a semblance of order. British lawyers played major roles in the prosecution of twenty four leading Nazis tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Tribunal 1945/6.
Relations with the Soviet Union quickly declined as Stalin set about bringing Eastern Germany and all the other countries occupied by the Red Army into the Soviet economic and political system. Churchill described Europe as divided by ‘an iron curtain’. The United Kingdom took its seat as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in January 1946, but the whole world was dominated by the military/political ambition of the Soviet Union and the economic muscle of the United States armed with the nuclear bomb. In Asia, Imperial Japan was ruled absolutely by the American General MacArthur. The ancient empire of China was still riven by war, as Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces renewed the struggle with Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists. The Dutch East Indies and French Indo-China, like Britain’s Asian colonies, came out of Japanese occupation with many people unwilling to resume colonial rule.
Once peace was declared, the Labour government set to work implementing its manifesto pledges. The National Health Service Act of 1946 established a comprehensive health service and the NHS came into operation in 1948, under the guidance of the Minster of Health Aneurin Bevan. The NHS was to be funded through income tax, with the rich paying proportionally more, while all users of the NHS were to receive the same free service. This was all part of Labour’s re-distribution of income and wealth policy. The National Assistance Act 1948 re-placed the remnants of the 1834 Poor Laws which had caused sick, disabled and elderly people and anyone else unable to provide for themselves to apply for maintenance in the workhouse system. They were now to be given financial aid and local government support.
The Bank of England was nationalised in February 1946, followed by the coal industry in January 1947. During that winter’s exceptional cold weather, fuel supplies to homes and industry were gravely disrupted. The railways were also badly effected by the weather and they, together with long-distance road transport organisations, bus companies, canals and ports were nationalised in January 1948, followed by nationalisation of the electrical supply and gas industries later that year and iron and steel in 1949. The National Parks Bill was also enacted in 1949. The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 set out procedures to control and supervise the supply of new homes and other construction work needed in the post-war period; all property owners would henceforth need planning permission for all non-agricultural development and no longer had the right to use property for other purposes without planning permission
The 1947 Agriculture Act aimed to increase domestic food production, reduce imports and encourage the agricultural industry. Farming had been in decline, with the exception of brief prosperity during the two wars, since the onset of a depression in the 1870s due to competition from low-priced imports. The act guaranteed prices to farmers and supported marketing boards to promote the sale of certain foodstuffs. Experimental farms were set up to help improve quality of food and production methods. The government also encouraged the use of marginal land for livestock farming, resulting in a substantial increase in sheep farming on the fells. Imports of some goods were restricted by standard quantities.
These efforts to reform the nation were somewhat offset by a mixture of economic pressures and international conditions. Britain was committed to maintaining large troop numbers in Germany. In Palestine, British authorities struggled to control the animosity between the Arab inhabitants and a flood of Jewish refugees from Europe, who were supported and encouraged by Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organisation which blew up the British military HQ at the King David Hotel, Jerusalem in 1946. The difficulty of policing India, as communal disturbances increased ahead of independence, was also adding to Britain’s costly military responsibilities.
In 1946 the government, struggling with a bankrupt economy, sent a party to America, headed by the celebrated economist Maynard Keynes, with instructions to negotiate a grant of $5 billion to replace Lease-Lend, which was abruptly terminated at the end of the war. The Americans refused to give any more money and Keynes was eventually obliged to accept terms for a loan of $4.34 billion (double the size of the then British economy) to be repaid over fifty years. The final repayment was made in 2006. Most of the loan was used to finance Britain’s imperial and overseas commitments and shore up her position as the banker of the Sterling Area, despite the fact that her gold and dollar reserves were insufficient for that role. By the end of 1947 the American loan was spent and very little had been used for the renewal of Britain’s clapped-out infrastructure and industries. The government then imposed rigorous exchange controls to prevent a flight of capital out of the UK and help conserve gold and foreign currency reserves; the convertibility of sterling, whereby foreign holders could demand conversion of their pounds into dollars at the fixed exchange rate of $4.03 to the £, was also suspended.
That same year George Marshall, the American Secretary of State, announced the Marshal Aid Programme to help rebuild war-shattered Western Europe and halt the spread of communism. This presented a chance to modernise Britain whilst her European rivals were still recovering from defeat and occupation. However, Britain’s share of Marshall Aid was again used to pay for imports and to prop up the reserves. Sir Stafford Cripps took over as Chancellor of the Exchequer and introduced austerity - a policy of high taxation, tight public spending, retention of some wartime rationing measures and a voluntary wage freeze - in order to reduce consumption and stabilise sterling. In 1949, with the economic situation beginning to skid out of control again, he was eventually forced to devalue the pound sterling from $4.03 to $2.80. However, high social spending was retained as an essential part of Labour’s political commitment. Unemployment was low and inflation remained at a subdued level during those years.
Despite economic problems, the Labour government remained heavily involved in foreign affairs and was committed to playing the role of a great power. In 1947, fearing Soviet aggression and faced with the United States adoption of a non-cooperative nuclear policy, it decided to press ahead with the development of a British independent nuclear deterrent.
In June 1948, the Soviet Union blocked all forms of land access from the west into Berlin unless the new Deutchmark was withdrawn from use in West Berlin, where it was undermining the East German currency. The allies responded with the Berlin Airlift, which kept the West Berlin population supplied with all necessities through to 30th September 1949. At the height of the airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds - The USAAF supplied 76.4% and the RAF 23.3% of the cargoes. The airlift encouraged the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in April 1949 which tied the USA and Canada into a mutual defence pact with the UK and most West European countries. On 23rd May the three allied zones of Germany were amalgamated into the Federal Republic of Germany with its capital at Bonn. By 1950 Britain was fully involved in the ‘cold war’ with the Soviet Union and its acolytes.
Out in the Far East, Britain was less active. Japan was firmly under American control and, as the struggle for control in China moved to its final conclusion, Britain was essentially a bystander. However, an incident on the River Yangtze in 1947 briefly excited attention when the frigate HMS Amethyst, on a mission to safeguard members of the British legation in the Nationalist city of Nanking, came under fire from Mao’s Red Army. Amethyst sustained damage and 22 fatalities, among whom was her captain. After a high-speed dash down-river under fire, the ship successfully reached Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek was forced to evacuate the mainland in 1949 and retired to the island of Taiwan, leaving Mao and his communist party masters of China. Britain, careful of its responsibility for the colony of Hong Kong and its valuable commercial interests, became the first western country to formally recognise the People’s Republic of China in January 1950.
India, on the other hand was at the forefront of Attlee’s mind when he assumed power. He had been a member of the pre-war Simon Committee which investigated constitutional arrangements for the government of India. The influential Sir Stafford Cripps had also made a failed attempt to buy Indian support for the British war effort in return for a promise of self-government. Gandhi then formed the Quit India movement, which demanded immediate British withdrawal from India and Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League objected that there was no proposal for Muslim self-determination. The elections of 1946 confirmed the religious divide, with the Congress party, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, winning 91 percent of the vote in non-Muslim constituencies and the Muslim League winning most of the Muslim vote. In August violent communal riots broke out in Calcutta and thousands were killed. The killing spread to other parts as a Congress-led interim government was installed, with Nehru as prime minister of all India.
Attlee decided to recommend the prestigious figure of Earl Mountbatten of Burma as Viceroy, hoping his experience as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia would succeed in bring the factions together in an agreed formula for the Independence of India. Mountbatten assumed the responsibility at the end of March 1947, accompanied by large-scale communal disturbances in Delhi, Bombay and Rawalpindi. The riots helped persuade him to seek a quick transfer of power before the year was out, although old India hands favoured a more gradual timescale to independence.
Attlee and Mountbatten wished to retain the unity of India, but Jinnah was unyielding in his insistence on the formation of a separate Pakistan state, formed from the Muslim majority areas to the East and West of the sub-continent. Nehru and Gandhi were also opposed to partition, but V. Patel, a senior member of Congress, was becoming concerned about the internecine conflict; he feared it might well degenerate into a Hindu-Muslim civil war, resulting in the fragmentation of India by encouraging at least some of the 600 plus princely states to seek their own individual independence. Patel came to accept the idea of a separate Pakistan, but he insisted that Punjab and Bengal were partitioned, so that Hindu-majority areas were excluded from Jinnah's demand that the whole of the two provinces be included in the state of Pakistan.
Mountbatten presented the proposed Indian Independence Act, which acknowledged the partition solution, in June and Patel persuaded Congress to accept it against the wishes of Gandhi. A boundary committee drew up boundaries for the new nations which split the two countries along the newly-adjusted Punjabi and Bengali borders. 14 million people found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the borders and very many of them tried to flee to the other side when the new lines were announced. More than half a million were killed in sectarian clashes as Hindus and Sikhs tried to migrate from Pakistan into India, and Muslims attempted the reverse journey from India into East and West Pakistan. Neither the retiring British authorities nor the newly formed governments had anticipated such an enormous two-way migration. While previous communal riots had been deadly, the scale and level of brutality during the partition massacres was unprecedented and something for which the new authorities were completely unequipped.
India and Pakistan attained independence as dominions within the Commonwealth at midnight on the night of 14-15 August 1947. Mountbatten had been able to charm or cajole most of the Indian princes to join the Indian Union, but the important state of Kashmir, composed of mainly Muslim and Sikh populations and governed by a Hindu prince, was and still remains a subject of intense rivalry between the two new countries and the various religions.
On 30th January 1948 Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, was assassinated by a Hindu extremist. He is remembered as one of the truly great figures of the twentieth century.
Ceylon gained its own independence as a dominion, later known as Sri Lanka, in February 1948 and Burma had become the independent republic of Myanmar in January. The whole of the British Raj was swept away in a few breathless months and an orgy of violence, 347 years after a few merchants and speculators first formed the East India Company.
The thorny problem of Britain’s Palestine mandate was also a matter of increasing concern in 1947. Jewish settlers, supported by Zionists elsewhere, objected to the creation of the Kingdom of Jordan, claiming it was part of Palestine which Jews were entitled to settle as part of their homeland. The U N Resolution 181 (II) adopted in November 1947 recommended the creation of separate Arab and Jewish States and a special international regime for the city of Jerusalem. Conflict between Jews and Arabs immediately erupted. British authorities quickly relinquished control of Tel Aviv, home to more than half the Jewish population, to a Jewish police force. As the Jewish-Arab war spread, British civil authorities were withdrawn and plans to end the mandate were brought forward from August to May 1948. The future Jewish Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, declared the Jewish State of Israel was to come into being at midnight on 14th May 1948 (5708 in the Hebrew Calendar). The United States immediately recognised Ben-Gurion’s provisional government as the de facto authority and British forces completed their evacuation. They left a land which was engulfed in an Arab-Israeli War, as neighbouring Arab states sent armed forces to help their brethren in Palestine. The Arabs failed to dislodge Israel from most of the old Palestine, except for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
London hosted the XIV Olympiad games in the summer of 1948. It was a make-do and mend event but successfully brought together young people from many parts of the world in the first Olympic Games since the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In February 1950 Clement Attlee called a General Election. The country’s finances remained precarious after the devaluation of sterling and consumption of sugar products, meat and petrol was limited by rationing. The government struggled to control a thriving black market which was prepared to remedy shortages illegally and at a price. The Labour Party had high hopes that its welfare policies and nationalisation programme would prove popular at the polls, but with a very high turnout of 83.9% Labour lost 78 seats and only squeezed back into power with an overall majority of six. Events failed to go Attlee’s way throughout his remaining period in office and Labour’s plans were scuppered when the Korean War erupted in June 1950.
At the end of the war, the Japanese colony of Korea had been occupied by Soviet and American forces who divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th line of latitude north. The two parts were developed into separate states by the occupying powers. In June 1950, the leader of North Korea Kim Il Sung, launched an attack on the south, with the consent of his Soviet and Chinese allies. The United States referred the matter to the United Nations and the Security Council demanded Kim implement a ceasefire and withdrawal. When Kim disregarded the instruction, a second UN resolution requested that member nations provide support for the defence of South Korea. A United Nations Command was created and President Truman was asked to appoint the UNC commander; the president appointed General MacArthur. His UN force was composed mainly of American and South Korean troops, but fifteen other UN members, including the UK joined the US in defending South Korea. British troops went into action in Korea on 6th September and a fairly local matter turned into a major war, when 180,000 Chinese ‘volunteers’ came to the aid of Kim Il Sung in November.
This was a blow to Labour’s efforts to reduce government spending and stabilise the economy. Hugh Gaitskell, the new Chancellor, imposed charges on spectacles and dentures to help pay for rearmament. This breach of his free NHS pledge led to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, soon followed by President of the Board of Trade Harold Wilson, which left Attlee almost powerless to lead a government. Perhaps hoping for financial improvements to show up following the devaluation of sterling and a developing recovery in the economy, Attlee put off calling another election until October 1951. He commanded the support of a majority of the people with 48.8% of votes cast against the Conservative’s tally of 48.0%, but Winston Churchill came back to power with a majority of seventeen seats. The Bevanite faction gave some evidence of seeds of discord in the Labour campaign, whereas the Conservatives presented a united front. Apart from promising to denationalise coal and steel, they signalled their acceptance of the welfare state and the mixed economy.
Attlee is regarded as one of the most successful prime ministers of the 20th century. He was an effective chairman, letting others talk, but ensuring matters reached an effective conclusion. He presided over the setting up of a welfare state with a National Health Service, which has become almost a state religion, and he set Britain on course for a post imperial future in the second half of the twentieth century. His nuclear aspirations were successfully concluded when Britain exploded a nuclear device in October 1952, and became the third member of the nuclear powers club.
An aged Churchill returned to Downing Street. Nobody had more experience of great national affairs than he. Anthony Eden was Foreign Secretary and heir apparent to lead the party, but his health was not good and he was overshadowed by Churchill’s towering presence and consuming interest in foreign affairs. The other ministers had a freer hand: the Chancellor ‘Rab’ Butler set about cutting bureaucratic controls, began to cut taxes and adopted a more active monetary policy when he raised bank interest rates to help curb inflation and reduce consumption. Harold MacMillan was entrusted with the Tory’s main commitment of building 300,000 new houses per year.
Churchill’s good relationship with King George VI was ended when the king died in February 1952, leaving a young Elizabeth II to take on the task of ruling the United Kingdom and its diminishing empire. Churchill’s health was a matter of concern. Many in his cabinet were expecting or hoping for his resignation, but the old man wanted to be by the young queen’s side through her early time as sovereign. However, in June 1953, shortly after the coronation, Churchill suffered a serious stroke. Eden was also unwell and the prime minister’s illness was concealed until he returned to public view in November. He carried on for another year before colleagues had the courage to tell him it was time to go. The queen received his resignation in April 1955. America had elected General Eisenhower to be their next President in 1952 and, in March 1953, the tyrant Joseph Stalin died.
Churchill probably continued in office too long, but events were to show his successor was even less fit than him for the onerous task of governing the country in those changing times. Much of his long political history is told here in these pages and it only needs to be repeated that, despite many policy mistakes and misjudgements in his long career, in the end he will always be remembered as the greatest war leader Britain ever knew. People loved and hated him but he could never be ignored. Churchill remained an MP, occasionally returning to the House, the scene of some of his memorable performances, until he stood down at the 1964 general election.
Eden called a general election in May 1955; the Conservative majority was increased to 60, reflecting their 49.7% share of the popular vote. Food rationing was ended and there were strong indications of revived economic hope; the coronation had led to an upsurge in the purchase of TV sets and a variety of new cars in various colours were appearing on the roads of Britain. Meanwhile, Labour was involved in an internal conflict between those who supported the centrist policies of Hugh Gaitskell and the Bevanites who were intent on restoring a more socialist slant to the Labour party agenda.
On the international scene, the Korean War was stalled. An armistice agreement, signed in July 1953, established a demilitarized zone along the frontline which vaguely followed the 38th Parallel; it is still in place. Elsewhere British troops were involved in a struggle with communist guerrillas which had been going on in the Malayan jungle since 1948; they were also operating against a troublesome anti-colonial insurgency in Kenya in 1952, led by a group known as the Mau Mau.
British foreign interests, however, were mainly fixed on the Middle East. The Anglo Iranian Oil Company, a British company, operated enormous oil concessions in Iraq and Iran and owned the largest oil refinery in the world at Abadan. In 1951 ARAMCO, an American company, agreed to share Saudi oil profits on a 50/50 basis, far more than Anglo Iranian paid to Iran. This persuaded the Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeq to nationalise Anglo Iranian in May 1952. Herbert Morrison, the new Labour foreign secretary, persuaded other countries not to purchase Iranian oil. The Abadan refinery was closed and Anglo Iranian increased the output of its other reserves in the Persian Gulf. Although the US was relying on Britain’s help in Korea, it was unwilling to agree to an armed intervention in Iran. The incoming Conservative government continued Morrison’s policy of seeking to overthrow Mossadeq, but an attempt to replace him failed in mid-1952 and led to riots against the Shah. The following year, John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State in the new Eisenhower administration, started to worry that Iranian oil assets might fall into communist hands. The Shah was encouraged to issue an edict which forcibly removed Mossadeq from power in December 1953 and he was kept under house arrest until his death in 1967.
Iranian oil began flowing again, but Anglo Iranian remained highly unpopular in Iran. Is name was changed to British Petroleum (or BP) and the British government retained a large shareholding in the company. The company became part of a consortium of European and American oil companies, to which it relinquished control of Iranian oil production. The consortium was known as the Seven Sisters and dominated the global oil markets. It came to control around 85% of the world’s oil reserves until it was brought down by OPEC in the oil crisis of 1973.
In the summer of 1954, the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden played a leading part in the Geneva Conference, which attempted to sort out the political problems resulting from the collapse of French colonial rule in Indo-China. For this and his successful efforts to end the western allies’ military occupation of West Germany, allowing it to become a sovereign state and member of NATO, he was made a Knight of the Garter. He was at the height of his popularity and influence soon after Churchill finally made way for him to become prime minister in April 1955.
That year, Eden took the lead in organising a new coalition in the Middle East. Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, the kingdom of Iraq and the UK formed the Baghdad Pact in a defensive belt which stretched along the southern boundaries of the Soviet Union. All the countries involved saw positive consequences for their own regional and economic advantage, but it proved to be a rickety edifice and never achieved the same solidity as NATO.
Countries throughout the Middle East were becoming affected by nationalist movements. In Egypt, army officers led by Colonel Abdel Nasser had overthrown the effete King Farouk’s monarchy in 1952 and formed a one-party state. In October 1954, under American pressure to improve relations with Egypt, Eden made major concessions when he agreed that all British troops would be withdrawn from Suez within 20 months, but he retained the right to return and safeguard the canal for the next seven years. Britain had previously also agreed to give up its responsibility for the Sudan. Nasser soon began to develop a Pan-Arabist policy, with the intention of becoming leader of the whole Arab world.
Foster Dulles, viewed Nasser with favour and sought to make Egypt central to a new anti-Soviet Arab defence organisation. Nasser accepted the money offered by Dulles, but he refused to join the proposed alliance. In early 1955, the Baghdad Pact agreement was signed and the Israelis launched a sudden assault on the Gaza Strip, which had been the base for Fedayeen attacks against Israeli settlements. Nasser saw the Baghdad Pact as a western attempt to promote the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said as an alternative leader of the Arab world, and believed the Israelis action in Gaza had the connivance of American Zionists.
Nasser intended to re-equip his forces with non-British equipment and tried to buy American arms, but Congress was worried that armaments sold to Nasser would be used against Israel, and no deal was agreed. In September 1955 Nasser announced that he had placed a large order for Soviet arms from Czechoslovakia. Israel and the West were shocked, seeing the deal as a major boost to Soviet influence in the Middle East. Sir Anthony Eden was further outraged when Britain’s close ally, the young King Hussein of Jordan, was forced to dismiss Sir John Glubb, or Glubb Pasha, as commander of the elite Arab Legion at the instigation of the Cairo-led radio station Voice of the Arabs.
Eden was ready to overcome Nasser by force, but the United States was still inclined to conciliate him. France, struggling with a revolt in its North African colony of Algeria, was also worried about Nasser’s growing influence in Arab affairs and developed a close relationship with Israel; large amounts of French arms were shipped to Israel, which had decided to attack Nasser before the Egyptian army was fully equipped with the new Soviet weaponry.
Nasser’s great prestige project was to build a new dam across the Nile at Aswan, large enough to end flooding and bring electric power to every part of Egypt. He had secured United States and British financial backing, but America, convinced that the project and its finances was beyond the capability of Egypt or the Soviet Union, cancelled the agreement in July 1956, following news of the Soviet arms agreement and Egypt’s recognition of the People's Republic of China. In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, intending to use its tolls to pay for his High Dam project, which the Soviet Union assured him it was capable of constructing. Eden regarded the nationalisation as a violation of the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1954. He was under immense pressure from Conservative MPs, who drew direct comparisons with events leading to the Munich Agreement in 1938. There was a widespread conviction that military intervention in Egypt was necessary to avoid the complete collapse of British prestige in the region; the Labour party leader Hugh Gaitskell indicated that he gave his support, but he also warned that Labour could not support Britain acting alone against Egypt.
United States attempts to reduce tension in the region during the rest of the summer 1956 had no success, but President Eisenhower remained opposed to the use of force. Eden, however, was convinced the Americans would accept British and French military action once it was an accomplished fact. France and Israel already had plans for a joint enterprise against Egypt and Eden finally joined them in a secret military pact aimed at regaining control of the Canal. It was agreed that Israel would invade the Sinai and Britain and France would then intervene, on the pretext of keeping the warring forces away from the canal. They would then argue that Egypt was unable to control the canal’s safety and it should be placed under Anglo-French management. As final plans were made for the operation, the First Sea Lord Earl Mountbatten advised Eden against plans to seize the canal, arguing that such a move would destabilize the Middle East, undermine the authority of the United Nations, divide the Commonwealth and diminish Britain's global standing.
Israel attacked on 29th October and swiftly drove the Egyptians into headlong retreat in Sinai. The planned Anglo-French ultimatum was sent and Nasser responded by sinking forty ships in the canal, rendering it inoperable. British and French troops commenced landing at Suez. A United Nations threat to impose sanctions sparked a run on the pound. Eisenhower, pretending no foreknowledge of the planned action, moved to deny Britain and France any financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund; millions of pounds drained from British reserves in the first week of November and, faced with the risk that it might be necessary to devalue sterling once more, Eden reluctantly accepted a UN ceasefire on 7th November. The British and French forces withdrew from Suez in December; Israel finally bowed to U.S. pressure and relinquished control of the canal in March 1957.
Britain, and Eden personally, were utterly humiliated. Already suffering from the ill effects of serious operations in the recent past, his health now broke down completely. He went to Jamaica to recuperate but, on his return, he discovered he had lost the support of senior members of the cabinet - Rab Butler, Harold MacMillan and Lord Salisbury. Eden resigned in January 1957, less than two years after becoming prime minister. Recently held in the highest regard by his countrymen and fellow politicians, he left office a broken man, perhaps held in contempt by those who knew he lied to Parliament when he declared "there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt". Although the media expected Butler would get his job, the Queen found Harold Macmillan was the nearly unanimous choice of the cabinet and he became prime minister on 10 January 1957.
During the Suez crisis, the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev threatened to attack with nuclear missiles if the invading forces did not withdraw, but he was not unhappy that world opinion was diverted from his own crisis - a full-scale rebellion against Soviet rule in Hungary which began on 23rd October. After initially seeming to accept the revolutionaries’ demands, Khrushchev sent a large Soviet force into Budapest on 4th November which violently set about re-imposing communist control on the country. By 10th November, the Hungarian resistance was utterly crushed.
Khruschev had become the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1953. He was an old style Bolshevik, having been governor in Ukraine during the Stalinist purges and he was a senior commissar at the Siege of Stalingrad. Previously, Moscow had treated all non-communists as potential enemies. Now Khrushchev courted the leaders of the third world or non-aligned countries, offering arms and displaying support for their anti-imperialist feelings. His efforts were greatly aided not just by the Suez debacle, but also by John Foster Dulles, who lost much goodwill among non-aligned countries when he spoke of neutrality as an outdated and immoral concept, and displayed distaste for anyone who did not support the United States in its anti-communist views.
Harold MacMillan had been a strong supporter of the Suez operation, but as chancellor, he was the first senior minister to change his views. He argued the invasion must be stopped before the country was bankrupted by a run on the pound. When he became prime minister he had the difficult job of improving his country’s battered and besmirched image. Most of the newer commonwealth leaders, such as Nehru of India, would never trust Britain, and many British colonies were eager to throw off the weak and discredited yoke of imperial power. Relations with the United States were at a very low ebb. The nation itself was deeply divided between those angry that the job had not been completed and others disgusted at the subterfuge and inadequacy of the whole operation, especially as it had provided a fig leaf for the Soviet Union’s wretched re-conquest of Hungary.
MacMillan was the last prime minister who had personal experience of serving in the Great War. He opposed appeasement and was a one-nation Tory who accepted the concept of the welfare state and a mixed economy. He was well-regarded in the Conservative party and the country at large for his success in achieving the target of building 300,000 new homes in a year. By 1958 he had acquired such political pre-eminence in the country that he was known as Supermac. He projected a calm, stylish image, but his avuncular, cultured country gentlemen appearance hid a wily character who could more than hold his own in British politics and on the world stage.
He easily won the 1959 election, despite the resignation of his Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft and supporting ministers Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell, who was regarded as one of the intellectual leaders of the younger Conservative party members. They wished to pursue a strict monetary and fiscal policy, imposing tight control on government spending and the amount of money in circulation in order to control inflation. Thorneycroft believed Britain could not afford a comprehensive welfare policy paid for by the government and, at the same time, remain a great military power with a nuclear deterrent. MacMillan, however, did not want to do anything to restrict the domestic economy, or cut down on welfare in the year leading to the election in 1959, and he certainly did not want to give up Britain’s seat at the top table of international relations. He dismissed the Treasury team resignations as ‘a little local difficulty’.
By carrying on with a quasi-Keynesian economics policy, MacMillan created rising real wages and a consumer boom which delivered a majority of 100 the following year. However his period in office became known as a time of ‘stop go’ economics, when periods of inflationary spending were followed by interest rate hikes, public expenditure freezes and other controls on spending. Nevertheless, the Macmillan years were epitomised as an age of affluence; the standard working week was reduced from 48 to 42 hours, unemployment remained low and a rapidly developing consumer market allowed him to claim as early as July 1957 that most people “have never had it so good”. Shops were offering hire-purchase deals to encourage people to buy their first TVs, washing machines, refrigerators and motor cars. Families could afford a holiday at Butlins or one of the growing number of caravan parks, and working class young people had money to spend on ‘teddy boy’ gear and the ever-changing women’s fashions on display in High street shops.
Widespread racial discrimination against people of colour began to manifest itself at this time. Ever since the Empire Windrush brought the first passengers from Jamaica seeking a new life in Britain, with their citizenship guaranteed by the British Nationality Act of 1948, there had been rumbles of discontent. Increasing prosperity encouraged people from other parts of the Commonwealth, especially the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka, to come to Britain’s cities, where they were willing to take relatively low-paid jobs in public services, whilst some of their better-educated countrymen found employment in the National Health Service or set up business in small restaurant or corner shop type enterprises. The newcomers were a cultural challenge and viewed as competitors for jobs, housing and welfare. As with previous waves of immigrants, people of the same culture tended to band together, but this time the different racial communities were easily identified by the colour of their skin. In the late summer of 1958, racial tensions erupted into Britain’s first race riots in the Notting Hill area of London and Nottingham. From this time an element of racial discord became apparent in British society and the government, realising a free for all immigration policy was politically dangerous, moved to control it with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962.
In 1960, MacMillan toured Africa and delivered his ‘wind of change’ speech to the South African Parliament, which made clear Britain’s disapproval for the Nationalist government’s policy of apartheid (separation of races). A month later, the Sharpeville Massacre brought worldwide condemnation, and South Africa decided to withdraw from the Commonwealth. MacMillan’s speech also clarified the government’s intention of rapidly freeing itself from the remaining colonial burden in Africa.
Following the Suez crisis, freedom movements were appearing everywhere and it was realised that the leisurely pace of colonial independence must accelerate. Iain MacCleod became Colonial Secretary after the 1959 election, with the duty of putting into effect the decolonisation programme. Kenya, Nigeria and a number of smaller colonies quickly became self-governing states. His greatest problem was the Rhodesian colonies, where a strongly entrenched white population in Southern Rhodesia was strongly opposed to black majority rule. Macleod’s efforts to find an acceptable solution met with opposition among his fellow ministers in London; Lord Salisbury described him as ‘too clever by half’ and Macleod was moved on to another cabinet post in October 1961.
Eventually Northern Rhodesia, with a less entrenched white population, became the independent state of Zambia in October 1964. The following year, the prime minister of Southern Rhodesia Ian Smith, unilaterally declared his country was now the independent state of Rhodesia and began a long period of struggle with the British government.
In addition to realigning relationships within the Commonwealth and Empire, MacMillan was determined to repair Britain’s association with Eisenhower’s America. It was his good fortune that, when he was resident minister in Algiers during the war, he had developed a good relationship with Eisenhower. At a meeting in Bermuda in March 1957, MacMillan tried to convince the President that he should ease the Dulles policy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had shocked America when they launched the world’s first artificial satellite in October, and Macmillan probably hoped this might persuade the US to resume nuclear co-operation with Britain. However, American intelligence agencies remained dubious, following revelations of Soviet spying activity in Britain. It was agreed, however, that American intermediate range missiles would be based in England under joint control. A successful British thermo-nuclear or hydrogen bomb was tested in November 1957 and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was inaugurated in London the same month.
The Middle East, with its oil riches and nationalist pan Arab movement, remained a delicate subject. During the brief Suez war, the Iraq leadership had derided Nasser, but the Iraqi population expressed strong admiration for him and the loyalty of military officers was suspect. In July 1958 Iraqi troops shot King Feisal and his family. Nuri al Said the prime minister was also killed and his corpse was mutilated. The new Iraqi leader, General Abdul Karim Qasim, withdrew from the Baghdad Pact and adopted a non-aligned stance. In the next three years Macmillan sent ground troops or the RAF to defend Britain’s few remaining allies in the area: the Sultan of Oman in 1957, King Hussein of Jordan in 1958 and Kuwait in 1960.
Meanwhile, the Cold War between NATO and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact countries became more intense. East Germany began to erect the Berlin Wall to cut off West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic in August 1961. It was a sign of the complete failure of east-west communication; the threat of war, perhaps culminating in a nuclear disaster, was widely feared, as portrayed by the increasing numbers who attended the CND marches each year. In October 1962, their fears were almost realised when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and America, now led by a new president John F. Kennedy.
The Cuban crisis underlined Britain’s worries about the V bomber force becoming obsolete, due to improved Soviet surface to air missiles making it difficult to deliver nuclear weapons to their intended targets in Russia. Various options, including the Blue Streak ballistic missile and an American air launched missile which would extend the service life of the V force, had been cancelled. MacMillan met Kennedy at Nassau in December 1962. By this time they had developed a friendly relationship. Bearing in mind that Britain was already providing facilities at the Holy Loch for the US Navy submarine ballistic missile fleet, Kennedy agreed to provide Britain with the Polaris submarine-launched missile, which was to arm Britain’s new nuclear submarine force.
MacMillan was the motivating force in negotiating a nuclear test ban treaty, which banned all nuclear tests above ground, in August 1963. However, by that time MacMillan had lost his Supermac image at home. He had dismissed seven members of his cabinet in July 1962 in an attempt to arrest the fall in Conservative popularity. He also adjusted his view of Britain’s relationship with Europe. For some time he had become increasingly concerned by Britain’s weakening position compared with the economic success of the European Economic Community, which had brought France and West Germany together in a close economic and political bond when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. In 1960 Britain had chosen to join a pure trade association, the European Free Trade Association, which was sceptical about the political integration part of the Community project. MacMillan changed his mind and applied for Britain to join the EEC in 1962, but President Charles de Gaulle of France vetoed the application, citing Britain's dependence on the United States as being incompatible with membership of the EEC.
In March 1963 MacMillan received another disappointing shock; his government was weakened when the Secretary of State for War John Profumo was forced to resign after lying to Parliament about his relationship with Christine Keeler, who also shared her favours with a Russian spy/diplomat. It all seemed part of the social revolution which was sweeping across Britain, heralded by TV satirical programmes and the magazine Private Eye which relentlessly disparaged MacMillan’s old-world style and attitudes. The revelation that Kim Philby was the third man in the notorious Cambridge spy ring also added to his troubles.
He was also facing a new opponent in the Commons. Hugh Gaitskell had died suddenly in January 1963 and was succeeded by Harold Wilson, widely viewed as a Bevanite left winger. He was, however, a shrewd politician and made the most of the government’s declining prospects.
MacMillan was actively considering resignation when he was taken to hospital for a prostate operation on the eve of the Conservative party conference in October 1963. He took the opportunity to let it be known he intended to resign and soundings were to be conducted by senior party figures about who should succeed him. This caused an outbreak of electioneering at the party conference. Rab Butler was once more favoured as the most experienced and trustworthy candidate. However, he was not popular among the party grandees and most of the country was shocked when MacMillan finally offered his resignation and the Queen sent for the 14th Earl of Home, the Foreign Secretary, who was the successor chosen by the Tory 'Magic Circle’.
No prime minister had sat in the House of Lords since The Marquess of Salisbury who retired in 1902, but Lord Home had an escape route prepared for him. The previous July, the Peerages Act 1963 was passed to allow Viscount Stansgate to renounce his peerage and reclaim the seat in the Commons which he had held as Anthony Wedgewood-Benn before he inherited the title. Lord Hume renounced his title, became Sir Alec Douglas-Home and was returned as MP for a safe Conservative seat in Scotland.
MacMillan survived his operation and lived for another 23 years. He became Chancellor of the University of Oxford and continued to be regarded as a man who had served his country well. He always maintained the appearance of an old-fashioned, rather dim, man, but he was responsible for restoring the credibitity of his party and the country after the shame of Suez. Life had definitely become more pleasant, if less assured, during his time as premier.
Nobody had great expectations for the Douglas-Home government. Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod refused to serve in his administration and the Labour party thought he was a lightweight of no consequence. He was ill at ease in front of the TV cameras, whereas Wilson was a natural performer. Like everyone else he was shocked by the assassination in November 1963 of President Kennedy, whom he knew quite well. During his brief period in office, his chief concern was foreign affairs, leaving Reginald Maudling with more or less a free hand at the Treasury. Maudling’s pre-election budget was termed ‘a run for growth’. Suddenly the economy was booming again and was undoubtedly a factor in the Conservatives doing better than anticipated in the October 1964 general election. Douglas-Home’s greatest achievement as Conservative leader was restricting Labour to a four seat majority. Some thought that had the Soviet putsch of October 13th against Khrushchev taken place a few days earlier, the nation would have preferred to leave government in his experienced hands. He continued to serve on the Conservative front bench in and out of power until 1974. He was a loyal lieutenant and safe pair of hands under the leadership of his successor Edward Heath.
1946 First meeting of the United Nations Organisation in London with the United Kingdom sitting as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
~ Churchill makes his Iron Curtain speech at Fulton, Missouri, warning of the Soviet Union threat in Europe.
~ The Bank of England is nationalised.
~ A dollar loan is negotiated by Keynes after Lease Lend was abruptly terminated.
~ The International Military Tribunal tries Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Lord Justice Colonel Sir Geoffrey Lawrence (1880-1971) is the tribunal’s lead British judge.
~ Dame Laura Knight eminent painter of many wartime scenes, paints scenes at the Nuremberg Trial of Nazi war criminals.
~ Jewish terrorists blow up the King David Hotel, the British HQ in Jerusalem.
~ Bread and flour are rationed, butter and fats ration reduced.
~ The TE20 ‘little grey Fergie’ tractor with 3 point linkage is produced by Harry Ferguson (1884-1960).
~ Royal Commission favours equal pay for women.
~ Repeal of 1927 Trades Disputes Act, passed after the General Strike.
~ London Airport opens at Heath Row.
~ The Arts Council of Great Britain is inaugurated.
~ The British mandated protectorate of Transjordan becomes the independent Kingdom of Jordan.
~ TV service in SE England is resumed and the BBC Third Programme is started on radio.
~ Bertrand Russell publishes A History of Western Philosophy.
~ Deaths and Entrances is published by Dylan Thomas.
~ The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan (1911-77) and An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley are produced on the London stage.
1947 Severe winter followed by flooding then a hot, dry summer exacerbates fuel and food shortages.
~ Coal is the first major industry to be nationalised.
~ Exchange controls restrict movement of capital out of the country followed by further austerity measures.
~ India gains independence from British rule and the country is partitioned into two sovereign states – the Republic of India and Islamic Pakistan. Mass sectarian slaughters as people attempt to flee across the new borders.
~ Ceylon (Sri Lanka) also gains independence from British rule and becomes a dominion in the Commonwealth.
~ The Marshall Plan to finance the renewal of European industry is announced.
~ Princess Elizabeth (born 1926) marries Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021).
~ Britain’s first atomic reactor opens at Harwell.
~ The first Edinburgh Festival of the Arts opens, accompanied by a programme of unofficial and uninvited performances which develop into the Edinburgh Fringe.
~ Nobel Prize winners: Sir Edward Appleton (1892-1965) in Physics and Sir Robert Robinson (1886-1975) in Chemistry.
1948 Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) oversees the creation of the National Health Service.
~ Britain withdraws from its mandate in Palestine. An Arab-Jewish war ensues and ends with the creation of the State of Israel.
~ Britain takes part in the Berlin Airlift in response to a Soviet blockade of the Western powers’ zones of control in the city.
~ Railways and transport organisations are nationalised.
~ The National Party gains power in South Africa and begins the Apartheid racial segregation policy.
~ Gandhi starts his last fast unto death in an attempt to stop the communal slaughter in India and he is assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
~ Burma (Myanmar) gains independence from British Rule.
~ The British Nationality Act grants British citizenship to all Commonwealth citizens.
~ The Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury with the first batch of nearly 700 immigrants from the West Indies.
~ The XII Olympiad is held at Wembley.
~ The Landrover utility vehicle and Morris Minor compact car go on sale.
~ T.S. Eliot, Anglo-American poet and playwright, wins the Nobel Prize in Literature.
~ Patrick Blackett (1897-1974) wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on cosmic rays and magnetism in rocks.
~ The Gathering Storm, first volume of Churchill’s war memoirs, is published,
~ Graham Greene publishes Heart of the Matter.
~ Robert Graves publishes Collected Poems.
~ The Red Shoes, a film produced and directed by Michael Powell (1905-90) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988), is released.
~ First performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphony Number 6.
No Highway novel by Neville Shute, talented engineer and writer, is published.
1949 The Pound sterling is devalued – from $4.03 to $2.80.
~ Britain is a founder-member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) formed to resist Soviet aggression.
~ Eire becomes the Republic of Ireland and leaves the Commonwealth of Nations, composed of present and former imperial territories. The word British is dropped from its title.
~ The maiden flight of the De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner.
~ The world’s first non-test operation of a Martin Baker ejector seat from an aircraft.
~ British military operations begin against communist guerrillas in Malaya.
~ National Parks are instituted.
~ Nationalisation of Iron and Steel is enacted.
~ 1984, a novel by George Orwell, is published.
~ Bertrand Russell delivers the first BBC Reith Lecture.
~ BBC Radio begins broadcasts of The Goon Show, a surreal British comedy series.
~ The film Passport to Pimlico, one of a classic run of Ealing Comedies, is released.
~ Thomas the Tank Engine, a children’s classic by the Rev. W. Awdry (1911-1997) is published.
~ Spring Symphony a song cycle by Benjamin Britten is premiered in Amsterdam.
~ Newfoundland referendum result narrowly supports joining the Canadian Confederation.
~ Sir John Boyd Orr (1880-1971), Scottish doctor, biologist and politician and first Director General of the U N Food and Agriculture Organisation receives the Nobel Peace Prize.
1950 General Election. Labour majority is cut to 5.
~ British troops are part of the U N force sent to South Korea to repel a North Korean invasion. National Service conscription is increased from 18 months to two years.
~ Latest of numerous London dock strikes. Attlee condemns communist infiltration of unions.
~ The House of Commons chamber re-opens following restoration after bomb damage.
~ J Sainsbury opens the first British purpose-built supermarket in Croydon.
~ The Stone of Scone is taken from the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey by Scots nationalists. Discovered and returned in 1951.
~ Klaus Fuchs (1911-88), nuclear scientist, is imprisoned as a Soviet spy.
~ The Third Man, a classic mystery/thriller film noir directed by Carol Reed (1906-1976), screen-play by Graham Greene, is released.
~ Bertrand Russell wins the Nobel Prize in Literature.
~ Cecil Powell (1903-69) wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for his study of nuclear processes.
~ The first Formula One world championship motor race is held at Silverstone, Northants.
~ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, first of the Narnia novels, is written by C. Day Lewis.
~ A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute is published.
1951 The Festival of Britain, conceived as a celebration of Britain and its achievements, begins and the Royal Festival Hall is opened.
~ Guy Burgess (1911-63) and Donald MacLean (1913-83), members of the ‘Cambridge spy ring’, defect to the Soviet Union.
~ Hugh Gaitskell (1906-63), successor to Cripps as Chancellor of the Exchequer, imposes NHS charges for dentures and spectacles to pay for rearmament.
~ Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson (1916-95) resign from the Labour cabinet.
~ 1st Gloucester Regt., surrounded and outnumbered on a hill, loses many men to Chinese assaults at the Imjin River battle in Korea.
~ Winston Churchill returns as prime minister after Conservatives win the General Election with a majority of 17.
~ The first volume of Nicholas Pevsner’s (1902-1993) Buildings of England is published.
~ The Peak District, Snowdonia, Lake District and Dartmoor, are the first National Parks to be established in Britain.
~ Billy Budd opera by Benjamin Britten is performed at Covent Garden.
~ The first episode of The Archers, the world’s longest-running soap opera,
is broadcast on BBC radio.
~ Basil Spence (1907-76) designs the new Coventry Cathedral.
~ Anthony Powell (1905-2000) writes the first of his 12 volume sequence A Dance to the Music of Time.
~ C. P. Snow writes The Masters.
~ Nicholas Monsarrat writes The Cruel Sea.
1952 Princess Elizabeth, whilst touring Kenya, becomes Queen Elizabeth II on the death of her father George VI.
~ Britain tests its first nuclear bomb on an island off the coast of Western Australia.
~ The Great London Smog kills over 2000.
~ A State of Emergency is declared in Kenya following Mau Mau (KLFA) activities against white settlers.
~ Dispute with the Iranian government over oil begins.
~ Identity cards are abolished and Tea rationing ends.
~ Michael Ventris (1922-56) deciphers the Cretan Linear B script.
~ Kathleen Kenyon (1906-1978) begins excavation of the neolithic site at Jericho.
~ Archer Martin (1910- 2002) and Richard Synge (1914-94) share the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of partition chromatography.
~ Evelyn Waugh, novelist and English literature stylist, commences his satirical wartime trilogy Sword of Honour.
~ The Mousetrap by best-selling mystery writer Agatha Christie begins a record-breaking run in the West End.
1953 Nobel Prize winners Francis Crick (1916-2004) and James Watson (born 1928) present a model demonstrating the double helix structure of DNA.
~ Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) and Maurice Wilkins (1916-2004) publish their research papers on DNA.
~ Loss of life as the East Coast suffers a severe tidal surge.
~ The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II takes place.
~ The Nobel Prize in Literature is won by Winston Churchill.
~ Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) and Tenzing Norgay (1914-86) reach the summit of Mt. Everest.
~ Iron & Steel and Road Transport are denationalised.
~ Sugar and sweets rationing ends.
~ Treaty of Cairo ends Anglo-Egyptian trusteeship of the Sudan.
~ Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is created.
~ The Royal Yacht Britannia is launched at Clydebank.
~ The Rev. Chad Varah (1911-2007) founds the Samaritans to help people in despair.
~ Myxomatosis is introduced and kills millions of rabbits.
~ Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming (1908-1964) is published.
~ The Go Between by L. P. Hartley (1895-1972) is published.
~ The Confidential Clerk, a play by T. S. Eliot is performed at Edinburgh.
1954 Geneva Conference searches for peace in wars in Korea and Indo-China.
~ Anthony Eden chairs conference which agrees German membership of NATO.
~ The UK and USA support the Shah’s autocratic rule in Iran. BP gives up its Iranian oil monopoly and share its revenues with seven other mainly American companies.
~ Suez Canal Treaty is signed. British troops to withdraw in 20 months.
~ Britain joins SE Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).
~ Demands for Enosis, Union with Greece, in Cyprus.
~ British Medical Council reports a link between smoking and lung cancer.
~ Two fatal crashes of the Comet jet airliner are attributed to metal fatigue and the aeroplane is withdrawn for major structural modifications.
~ Roger Bannister (1929-2018) runs a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 secs, breaking the 4 minute barrier. Diane Leather (1933-2018) is the first woman to run a sub 5 minute mile.
~ Food rationing ends.
~ Turn of the Screw an opera by Ben. Britten is first performed at the Venice Biennale.
~ Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1911-93) and Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), both of which become very influential novels, are published.
~ Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’ first novel (1922-95) is published.
~ Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet, dies 11 weeks after BBC Radio broadcasts his radio play Under Milk Wood.
~ Iris Murdoch (1919-99) publishes her first novel Under the Net.
~ Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) paints portrait of Winston Churchill, which is later destroyed by Lady Churchill (1885-1977).
1955 Churchill resigns, succeeded as P M by Sir Anthony Eden who wins a general election.
~ Attlee is succeeded as Labour Party leader by Hugh Gaitskell.
~ Ruth Ellis (born 1926) is the last woman to be executed in Britain.
~ ITV begins broadcasting a TV service with commercial advertising.
~ The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme is inaugurated.
~ The Vickers Valiant, first of Britain’s V bomber nuclear deterrent force, (the other marques are the Handley Page Victor and the Avro Vulcan) enters service.
~ An emergency is declared in Cyprus.
~ Sir Laurence Olivier’s film production of Richard III is released.
~ Graham Greene publishes The Quiet American.
~ Peter Hall (1930-2017) directs Waiting for Godot by Irish writer Samuel Beckett (1906-89) at the Arts Theatre.
~ Pietro Annigoni (1910-88) shows a highly popular picture of the Queen at the RA Summer Exhibition.
1956 The Suez Canal is nationalised by Egypt. An Anglo-French military attempt to seize the canal fails when American economic pressure threatens to destabilise sterling.
~ Archbishop Makarios (1913-1977), leader of the Enosis movement in Cyprus is exiled to the Seychelles.
~ Calder Hall, the world’s first nuclear power station, opens.
~ The first anti–nuclear Aldermaston march takes place, revealing a split in the Labour Party.
~ Sadlers Wells becomes the Royal Ballet Company.
~ The Clean Air Act introduces smoke control areas for some cities.
~ Premium Bonds are introduced.
~ The Sudan gains independence from British rule.
~ Publication of The History of the English Speaking Peoples vol I by Winston Churchill.
~ Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1929-1994) is performed at the Royal Court theatre, London.
~ Anglo Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson (1913-1991) is published.
1957 Harold Macmillan becomes Prime Minister after Sir Anthony Eden resigns through ill-health.
~ MacMillan and Eisenhower meet in Bermuda to improve Anglo-American relations.
~ Britain successfully tests a hydrogen bomb.
~ The Wolfenden Report recommends legalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults.
~ Women peers approved by House of Lords.
~ The Federation of Malaya gains independence from British rule.
~ Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, gains independence from British rule.
~ Jacob Epstein sculpts Christ in Majesty for Llandaff Cathedral.
~ John Braine (1922-86) publishes Room at the Top.
~ The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch is published.
~ Justine, first of The Alexandrian Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is published.
~ Richard Hoggart 1918-2014) publishes The Uses of Literacy.
~ The Comforters, first novel of Scottish writer Muriel Spark (1918-2006) is published.
1958 The Life Peerages Act allows creation of peers for life only. Four women are among the first life peers to sit in the House of Lords.
~ The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) led by Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins is launched and takes part in an enlarged Aldermaston march.
~ Race riots break out in Notting Hill, London and Nottingham.
~ British influence in Iraq ends with a bloody coup d’etat which ends the Hashemite monarchy.
~ A State of Emergency is declared in Aden.
~ Clean Air Act bans factory dark smoke emissions.
~ The short-lived West Indies Confederation political union is formed.
~ Eight Manchester United players are killed when their plane crashes at Munich airport.
~ Controversial British archaeologist James Mellaart begins excavation of ‘the oldest Neolithic city’ at Catal Höyük in Anatolia, Turkey.
~ Eminent composer Ralph Vaughan Williams dies four months after the premier of his 9th Symphony.
~ The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter (1930-2008) is staged at the Lyric theatre Hammersmith.
~ Collected Poems by John Betjeman (1906-84) is published.
~ Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe is published.
~ The Once and Future King by T. H. White is published.
1959 Conservatives gain a majority of 100 in the General election.
~ Britain becomes a founder member of EFTA, a seven nation European Free Trade Association.
~ Southern part of the M1, Britain’s first inter-urban motorway, opens.
~ The Morris Mini car designed by Alec Issigonis goes on sale.
~ Singapore gains independence from British rule.
~ State of Emergency ends in Cyprus, Makarios becomes president.
~ The Icelandic Cod War. Gunboat fires on Hull trawlers.
~ Enoch Powell (1912-1998) mauls government in a debate about the killing of Mau Mau detainees in Holah camp.
~ The Queen and President Eisenhower jointly open the St Lawrence Seaway, Canada.
~ The Obscene Publications Bill, a private member’s bill by Roy Jenkins, is enacted.
~ I’m All Right Jack is released. An acerbic Boulting brother’s film about British industrial and class relations, featuring Peter Sellers as a communist shop steward.
~ Philip Noel-Baker MP wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
1960 Harold Macmillan delivers his Wind of Change speech in Cape Town about the decolonisation of Africa.
~ Sharpeville Massacre. Large demonstration in London at killing of 67 Africans by South African police.
~ The Death of Aneurin Bevan.
~ Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour party leader makes his Fight, Fight and Fight Again speech and wins the debate against unilateral nuclear disarmament at the party conference. He also beats a challenge for leadership by Harold Wilson.
~ The Blue Streak rocket programme, intended to replace the V bomber nuclear deterrent force, is cancelled and replaced by the American Skybolt air-launched rocket.
~ The Wolfenden Report on homosexual offences and prostitution is rejected by the Commons.
~ Coronation Street, an iconic and long-running soap opera begins on ITV.
~ The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is renamed with a mandate to care for war graves/memorials of all Imperial troops killed in past conflicts.
~ The end of National Service conscription into the armed services.
~ The UK retains sovereign base areas for military use when Cyprus gains
Independence from British rule.
~ Nigeria gains independence from British rule.
~ The British Somaliland protectorate gains independence from British rule and forms the Somali Republic.
~ Dr. Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972) is the first Archbishop of Canterbury to meet the Pope since the Reformation.
~ Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial; Penguin Books is cleared of publishing an obscene book.
~ The Caretaker, a bleak, humourless comedy by Harold Pinter, is first performed at the Arts Theatre, London.
~ Miss Jane Goodall, with no scholastic credentials but to become a world-renowned anthropologist, begins her study of chimpanzees in Tanzania.
~ Edna O’Brien (born 1930), the prize-winning Irish female writer, publishes her first novel The Country Girls, banned by the Irish censorship board for its sexual mores and burned as being obscene and sacrilegious.
~ Summoned by Bells an autobiography in blank verse is published by John Betjeman.
~ The premiere of Oliver! a musical by Lionel Bart (1930-1999) based on Oliver Twist, takes place at the New Theatre, London.
~ Beyond the Fringe, a seminal satirical revue starring Peter Cook (1937-1995), Dudley Moore (1935-2002), Alan Bennett (born 1934) and Jonathan Miller (1934-2019), opens at the Edinburgh Festival.
1961 Britain applies to join the European Economic Community (EEC or Common Market).
~ South Africa becomes a republic and leave the Commonwealth after concerted criticism of apartheid.
~ A ‘pay pause’ is imposed on government employees.
~ The Queen meets Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) at the Vatican.
~ Private Eye, the satirical magazine edited by Christopher Booker (1937-2019) soon to be joined by Richard Ingrams (born 1937) is launched.
~ Peter Hall forms the Royal Shakespeare Company.
~ Britain relinquishes the Protectorship of Kuwait (since 1899), but British forces return to counter an Iraqi threat of invasion.
~ Sierra Leone gains independence from British rule. Tanganyika also gains independence from British rule.
~ By referendum British Cameroons decides to split, the North becomes part of Nigeria, the south joins Cameroun.
~ The University of Sussex opens - first of a new tranche of regional universities.
~ The first Comedy Playhouse TV series is broadcast, a launch pad for many successful BBC sit-coms.
~ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a novel by Muriel Spark, is published.
~ A Study of History vol 12 by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) is published.
~ A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1932-2018) is published.
~ The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson is published.
~ Death of Augustus John (born 1878), bohemian Welsh painter, at the peak of his powers earlier in the century.
1962 Russia begins to site missiles in Cuba which leads to confrontation with the United States. RAF Bomber Command as part of NATO goes to a very high state of preparedness for nuclear conflict.
~ The Commonwealth Immigration Act withdraws the principle of free entry to Britain for all Commonwealth citizens.
~ The West Indies Confederation is dissolved. Trinidad and Tobago gains independence from British rule. Jamaica also gains independence but the associated Cayman Islands become a British Overseas Territory.
~ Uganda gains independence from British rule and becomes a republic within the Commonwealth.
~ British troops quell rebellion in Brunei, Sarawak, North Borneo.
~ Dr John Charnley (1911-82) designs an artificial hip joint and performs first successful hip-replacement surgery.
~ Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with Wilfred Owen poems is performed in the new Coventry cathedral.
~ Margot Fonteyn’s career at the Royal Ballet is reignited by her partnership with Rudolph Nureyev (1938-93).
~ Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace is opened to the public.
~ The last Gentlemen v Players cricket match takes place at Lords (held since 1806).
~ Welsh actor Richard Burton (1925-1984) and English-born film star Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) begin a passionate affair publicised across the world whilst filming Cleopatra in Italy.
~ David Lean produces the film Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole (1932-2013).
~ Lawrence Olivier is appointed director of the National Theatre Company.
~ A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1917-93) is published.
1963 President de Gaulle (1890-1970) of France vetoes British membership of the EEC.
~ The Beeching Report recommends a drastic reduction of the British Rail network.
~ The Profumo sex scandal shakes the government.
~ Kim Philby (1912-88) is named as ‘the Third Man’ in the Cambridge spy ring.
~ Hugh Gaitskell dies suddenly and is replaced by Harold Wilson as Labour party leader.
~ MacMillan resigns suddenly, turmoil in the Conservative party ends with appointment as prime minister of Alec Douglas-Home (1903-1995), who resigns his title as Earl of Home.
~ Malaya, Singapore and British North Borneo territories merge to form Malaysia.
~ The Great Train Robbery: robbers steal £2.5million from a Royal Mail express train.
~ The Beatles debut pop music album Please Please Me is released.
~ John Le Carre (1931-2020) publishes The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
~ Joan Plowright’s (born 1929) Theatre Workshop performs Oh What a Lovely War.
~ The Gillette Cup is inaugurated - the first one day knockout cricket event.
~ The first performance by the National Theatre Company takes place at the Old Vic.
1964 Harold Wilson leads the Labour Party to a narrow General Election victory over Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
~ Radio Caroline, the first ‘pirate’ radio station broadcasting pop music from a ship in the North Sea, claims a regular day-time audience of 10 million. Many of its DJs later become well-known broadcasters with the BBC and other legitimate stations.
~ Outbreak of ‘Mods and Rockers’ violence at various resorts.
~ Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), a leading pioneer in the field of X-ray Crystallography, wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
~ Peter A. Allen (1943) and Gwynne O. Evans (born 1940) are the last persons to be executed by hanging in the UK.
~ The Film Zulu, a salute to the ethos of the vanishing imperial era starring Stanley Baker (1928-1976) and Michael Caine (born 1933), is released.
~ Kenya gains independence from British rule, becomes a republic within the Commonwealth.
~ Malta gains independence from British rule.
~ The protectorate of Zanzibar is terminated and unites with Tanganyika to form the republic of Tanzania, a member of the Commonwealth.
~ A brief attempt to unite the Rhodesias and Nyasaland in a federation fails.
~ Ian Smith (1919-2007) becomes prime minister of Southern Rhodesia.
~ The Northern Rhodesia Protectorate gains independence from British rule as the Republic of Zambia.
~ The Nyasaland Protectorate gains independence from British rule as the republic of Malawi.
~ The Sun newspaper starts publication.
~ The Post Office tower in London is completed.
~ The Whitsun Weddings poems by Philip Larkin (1922-1985) is published.