Britain is facing the most difficult and perhaps important period in its modern history.
The British electorate is divided. The voting this week will have a major effect on the country’s social and economic future. But it appears the election results will do little to end political divisions that could extend into the next generation.
During the 20th century, Britain fought alongside and against Europeans. The peace that followed World War II helped make the British economy grow strong and many of its citizens wealthy.
This election will decide whether Britain’s relationship with the European Union ends or continues.
During World War II, Britain faced years of punishing conflict, German bombings raids and self-sacrifice.
When the fighting ended in 1945, many British voters were ready for change. After Victory in Europe Day, voters rejected wartime leader Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party. They instead elected Labour Party candidates, who had promised to rebuild the economy.
In the nearly 75 years since then, there have been other big votes – in 1964, in 1979, 1997 and 2010.
This Thursday, the “Brexit election” will shape the country’s future. Politicians and reporters use the term Brexit when talking about Britain’s decision to exit, or withdraw, from the EU.
Churchill Ousted as Prime Minister in 1945
Churchill came to symbolize Britain in its war years: His fighting spirit and the famous victory sign are world famous. Yet that did had little effect on voters in 1945. They were tired of war and everyday shortages. Those voters provided the biggest election swing in the country’s history.
No elections had been held since 1935. Churchill’s Conservative Party had led a national government during the war. It was removed from power by the Labour Party, under Clement Attlee.
Labour candidates won on an economic program that observers likened to the 1930s New Deal in the United States under President Franklin Roosevelt. In Britain, the National Health Service and welfare state came into being. The goal was full employment with social reform. These programs lasted until after Conservative Margaret Thatcher took power in 1979.
Labour’s Wilson ends Conservative rule in 1964
In the early 1960s, the Conservative government began to experience problems. The country still faced economic problems and the old party establishment could not keep up with social changes. Finally, party members were linked to the Profumo Affair, a sex scandal that had threatened national security.
Voters wanted change. Labour’s Harold Wilson, an economist, seemed to represent the end of the class structure that had governed much of life in Britain. He had moved up in life from a small northern town to the job of prime minister.
During the 1960s, Britain was known for pop culture, especially its rock-and-roll music. The Beatles were the country’s greatest export. But Wilson had to fix the still-broken economy. He devalued the pound, British money, when government debt became too big.
Wilson also faced plots to throw out his leadership both in the 1960s and again when he served as prime minister in the 1970s.
Thatcher taking power in 1979
The “Winter of Discontent” is a term used to describe a time in the late 1970s when British trade unions launched a series of nationwide strikes. This opened up the leadership to a new kind of prime minister: Margaret Thatcher. Her years would lead to sharp divisions in the country.
Thatcher was known as the “Iron Lady.” Britain’s right-wing press fully supported her government. Thatcher saw the unions as the “enemy” and wanted them destroyed. Under her leadership, Britain fought a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and won.
Parts of British society profited under Thatcher during the 1980s. But then, unemployment and poverty worsened, especially in the north of the country where long-established industries, like mining, were destroyed. Thatcher won three consecutive elections, but was removed from her own party over her opposition to strengthening Britain’s partnership with the EU.
Blair’s ‘New Labour’ takes power in 1997
After 18 years of Conservative power, Tony Blair won over many voters in 1997 with a promise of a fresh start. Blair brought in a centrist government that was friendly to businessmen. No longer would the Labour Party be a home for extreme politics. It would also work to bring its country into the EU.
At first, Blair declared his most important goal was “education, education and education.” But military interventions followed in the war between Kosovo against Serbia and in Sierra Leone in 1999 and 2000.
After the 2001 attacks against the United States, Blair decided his country should “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the U.S. government. He followed President George W. Bush into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. London was then targeted in deadly terror attacks in 2005. After 10 years, Blair stepped down as prime minister, with the job going to Gordon Brown.
Cameron’s coalition wins 2010 elections
Brown led the country during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the economic weakness that followed. The Associated Press notes that his leadership was less appealing to voters than Blair’s.
In 2010, Brown faced a young David Cameron on election day. Cameron attempted to make Conservatives appear more caring than in years past.
Now British Conservative Party leader and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are about to show that politics in Britain are about one thing: Brexit, and no one knows how it will turn out.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
symbolize – v. to represent; to be a sign of something
swing – n. the act of moving or changing from one position to another
welfare – adj. a social system in which a government is responsible for the economic and social condition of its citizens
scandal – n. an event in which people are shocked and because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong
consecutive – adj. following continuously
right-wing – adj. conservative or reactionary