Social and Political Trends 1940-2010

Russell Haggar

Site Owner


Social and Political Trends 1940-2010

Page Last Edited: 13/02/2010

This document has been contributed by Paul Harley who teaches AS and A2 Level Sociology at Wymondham High School. It should help beginning Sociology students to recognise the importance of many of the major trends and significant events of the last 80 years of UK social and political history many of which they will be studying in much more depth in the  specific As and A2 Sociology Modules.

The 1940s  The 1950s  The 1960s  The 1970s  The 1980s The 1990s The 2000s


The 1940s

In the 1930s the UK had witnessed the so-called Great Depression which at its worst in 1931 resulted in   UK unemployment approaching 3 million [ representing  around 22% of the UK workforce] and rates of unemployment of 60%-90% in unemployment black spots in Scotland, Wales and Northern England. Welfare State benefits were low and subject to means testing which resulted in severe hardship and poverty for the unemployed and their families.. Unemployment fell to about 10% by 1939 partly due to rearmament and to very low levels as a result of the outbreak of the Second World War and military conscription..

1939-45 War time coalition government led by Churchill from 1940. .

It is recognised that once the 2nd World War ends politicians must try to do more to ensure that there is no return to the economic depression which blighted the 1930s.

William Beveridge writes Beveridge Report  which  recommends huge social reforms – it is the blueprint for the post-war Welfare State which is to be extended so that it can slay the “5 Giants” :  Idleness, [i.e. unemployment],  Want, [i.e. poverty],  Squalor, [i.e. poor housing],  Ignorance, and Sickness .

Unemployment will also remain relatively  low from 1945 to the late 1960s partly as a result of successive Labour and Conservative governments use of Keynesian economic policies to manage the economy. Keynesian policies are those based upon the economic theories of the famous economist J .M. Keynes.. It is recognised that without appropriate economic policies to secure full employment and economic growth it will be impossible to extend the Welfare State  significantly and so post -1945 Welfare State is sometimes known as the Keynes-Beveridge Welfare State..

1945 Labour victory (Clement Atlee is PM ) – poverty to be eliminated by introduction of Welfare State which will look after people “from the cradle to the grave”. This is the main reason for Labour’s election victory. Few want to go back to the economic depression of the 1930s and Labour has the vision of the “New Jerusalem”

Labour introduce  state ownership and control (nationalisation) of key industries. Nationalisation of Mines Water, Electricity, Gas, Rail etc results in development of mixed economy (mixture of state controlled industry and private enterprise/free market).

NHS introduced. Pensions, unemployment benefits, etc, . Tripartite Secondary Education [Grammar Schools, Secondary Modern Schools and some Technical Schools] along with  the 11+ examination were introduced via the  Butler Education Act of 1944 which was passed by the Coalition Government but actually implemented by the Labour Government after the war.

Many women who had been employed during the war were now expected to stop working. Black immigration starts with the Empire Windrush arriving in Southampton. Blacks from the empire had of course helped fight 2 world wars. Full Employment, hence need for more workers.

Cold War begins. The end of the Empire begins with India and Pakistan getting independence.


The 1950s

1951 Tories win General Election .The Tories also win subsequent election in 1955 and 1959 and remain in power until 1964.

By this time the leadership of the Conservative Party is dominated by so-called Right Progressives or One Nation Conservatives who are prepared to accept the broad outlines of major policies introduced by Labour Governments between 1945-51. Thus they accept the expansion of the Welfare State , most of Labour’s nationalisation of industry [although they oppose the further nationalisation of industry and the Iron and Steel industry is de-nationalised.], the use of Keynesian economic policies and the involvement of Government, Business and Trade Unions in so-called Tripartite decision making processes. and membership of NATO.

Because of these broad policy agreements 1950s and early 1960s are described as the era of post -war political consensus. …..they are also described as the era of Butskellism which is an amalgamation of the names of R. A. Butler [a senior Conservative politician but never leader of the Conservatives] and H. Gaitskell [Leader of the Labour Party 1955-1963]. This, however, does not mean that there are no serious disputes between the Labour and Conservative parties.

Further Immigration is encouraged to overcome labour shortages.

Sustained if rather slow economic growth combined with full employment resulted in steady improvements in average living standards and skilled manual workers became more affluent enabling them to afford a wide range of consumer durables such as TVs, refrigerators and washing machines. Conservative PM Macmillan tells the electorate that they’ve “never had it so good”  and should therefore continue to vote Conservative.

Some sociologists explained the tree successive Conservative General Election victories of 1951, 1955 and 1959 in terms of the EMBOURGEOISEMENT THESIS which suggested that affluent manual workers were actually becoming increasingly middle class and therefore more likely to vote Conservative. However the limitations of this thesis were increasingly recognised from the 1960s onwards

The contraceptive pill gives women control of conception. Teenagers are a new market – records and clothes.

1958 Notting Hill race riots. 1962 first Immigration Act limiting entry to commonwealth citizens.

Winds of Change speech marks end of empire and granting of independence to African colonies

Functionalist perspective dominates sociology

The 1960s

Critics of Conservatism argue that by the early 1960s the Conservatives have become increasingly out of touch with the modern age. Labour Leader Harold Wilson argues that a Labour Government will end 13 years of wasted government in accordance with the Tories’ “grouse moor mentality” . a view popularised by satirists of the day such as David Frost and Peter Cooke in TV programmes such as “That was the Week that was.”

1964 Labour Govt. .narrowly elected .

All local education authorities told to draw up plans to introduce comprehensive schools. 11+ exam seen as unfair, condemning majority of secondary school pupils to second class education in secondary modern schools. Growth of new universities ( UEA, Warwick, Essex etc ) and big growth in students, encouraged by grants and no tuition fees. Open University set up.

“Swinging 60s.” Youth increasingly seen as a problem. Hippies, mainly middle class, preach the joys of free love, rock and roll etc (‘turn on, tune in, and drop out’) Clashes between mods and rockers at seaside resorts. Beatles, Stones, Dylan. Ideas about youth subcultures emerge.

PM Harold Wilson faced political problems as a result of the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Wilson generally believed in the UK-USA Alliance and recognised also that the parlous state of the UK economy might at some point make the Labour Government dependent upon USA financial help. All of this meant that his criticisms of the USA involvement in Vietnam were rather limited which annoyed many relatively left-wing members of the Labour Party who believed that USA involvement in Vietnam amounted to naked , militaristic, imperialistic aggression. Wilson had to perform a t balancing act which proved difficult even for a man often described as a political acrobat but, importantly, he never sent any UK troops to Vietnam. To have done may have split the Labour Party and cost Wilson his premiership.

1966 Labour Government re-elected

Abortion Act (1967), Divorce Reform (1969). Equal Pay Act (for men and women 1970) Homosexuality legalised (consenting males over 21)

Marxism (much of it from new universities ) begins to dominate sociology

Feminism starts to grow. Portrayed in the press as “bra burning”. 3 main types emerge Marxist, Liberal and Radical. Feminist influence important in changing laws that discriminate against women.

Becker and labelling theory begin to have influence in sociology – increasing influence of Interactionism in sociology

Rediscovery of Poverty in a relative sense

General agreement that Labour Governments 1964 -1970 failed to deal effectively with UK economic problems although rates of unemployment and inflation were much lower that would subsequently occur in the 1970s and 1980s.

The 1970s

1970 Tories win General Election .  .

1973  Britain joins Common Market /European Economic Community/EEC under Tory PM Ted Heath. [The EEC  later becomes the European Union/  EU) ] 

Ted Heath tries to curb the power of the trade unions which some think are running the country. 3 day working week for weeks while miners on strike and power cuts hit the country. Heath calls General Election for Feb 1974 and some wag suggests that we should “vote for Ted and have three days in bed”.

In the Feb 1974 General Election Labour gains fewer votes than the Conservatives but more 4 seats and no overall majority and so Labour governs as a minority government. This is not practically sustainable in the long term and so there is another General Election  in Oct.74. This time Labour wins with a narrow overall majority and governs 1974-79 .

IRA bombing campaign starts in mainland Britain

The post- war political consensus begins to break down. The Labour Party begins to move to the left and the Conservative Party begins to move to the Right.

Unemployment rises, as do strikes.  The rate of Inflation reaches approximately 25% partly as a result of very large increases in oil prices in 1973-4

Sex Discrimination Act (1975) – shows increasing influence of feminism, especially liberal feminism

Race Relations Act (1976)

High unemployment results in higher total expenditure on social security benefits  while tax revenues decline as unemployed people pay less tax all of which creates budgetary problems for the government .  A serious foreign exchange crisis in 1976 forces the Labour Government to negotiate a large loan from the  IMF  [International Monetary Fund] which grants the loan only on the  condition that UK government spending must be reduced on receipt of the loan which contributes to further disunity in the Labour Party.. The economy stagnates and there is high  inflation  leading to the invention of a new word : “stagflation”)

1976 Punk music starts

1976 Harold Wilson resigns as PM and is replaced by James Callaghan. [YouTube – Click Here} BROKEN LINK

Stan Cohen uses the term moral panic in study on media and mods and rockers. [Folk Devils and Moral Panics 1972].

New Criminology in Sociology ( combines Marxism and interactionism)

Winter of Discontent 1978-1979: a wave of  strikes  increases the unpopularity of the Labour Government [YouTube – Click Here]

1979 The Tories win the election. Mrs Thatcher is the first woman PM in Britain. She introduces New Right policies.( Reagan elected president in USA, also an apostle of the New Right).

Rise of CND, which protests against the increase in nuclear weapons and hotting up of Cold War

The 1980s

Mrs Thatcher on YouTube – Click Here

1981 various inner city race riots, including Brixton and Toxteth.

Falklands war 1982

Mrs Thatcher and the Conservatives win further General Elections in 1983 and1987

Conservative policies between 1979 and 1997 are based very heavily upon New Right ideology which contains elements of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Neo -liberals wish to expand the scope of the market and reduce the role of the state whereas neo-conservatives argue that a strong state is necessary for example to guarantee law and order. Therefore there are some tensions within New Right ideology as well as some compatibilities.

Rates of  Income Tax especially on the higher paid are cut but VAT rate is increased. cut. Right to buy council houses introduced.

1984 Miners Strike – lasts a year – miners defeated, trade union power curbed by new laws

Unemployment rises to 3 million in the early 80s and remains at this high level until the late 1980s..

State subsidies to manufacturing industry are much reduced and economists argue that the de-industrialisation of Britain is gathering pace.. However service industries expand

Most nationalised industries are  privatised ( by mid 90s this includes gas, electricity, BT, and even the railways)

1988 Education Reform Act tries to marketise education. Paves way for school league tables, national curriculum and parental choice. Ofsted and new school inspection regime introduced.

Polytechnics can now call themselves universities. Higher education expands.

Girls had outperformed boys for many years in GCE Ordinary Level Examinations but in the new GCSE examinations their results improve much faster than boys’ results.

Soon girls will overtake boys in Advanced Level too although gender differences in Advanced Level subject choice will remain .

Crime rises. Growth of single parent families, divorce and cohabitation. Market forces rule. Margaret Thatcher says “there is no such thing as society”. Amid mass unemployment and increasing poverty there is much newspaper talk of society breaking down, and the growth of a new underclass in the inner cities. . Rise of single parent families blamed for these problems by many tabloid newspapers influenced by New Right ideology. Welfare benefits cut.. Nevertheless many sociologists are critical of the New Right version of underclass theory as developed mainly by Charles Murray

The combined effects of high unemployment , reduced trade union power, changes in the structure of taxation which reduce the burden of taxation on the rich and increase it on the poor and reduced growth   of social security benefits  all lead to very significant increases in economic inequality and in relative poverty. The Conservatives argue that increased economic inequality will provide greater financial incentives to work, save and invest, increase economic growth and raise living standards for all, including the poorest as the benefits of economic growth “trickle down” to the poor. However there is considerable opposition to these ideas.

The 1990s

1990 Cold War ends as Berlin Wall falls.

1990 Mrs Thatcher becomes increasingly unpopular due to deteriorating performance of economy, disputes with senior ministers, disunity over Europe and the Poll Tax. She is replaced by John Major as PM.

1991 First Gulf War

Raves and dance culture.

April 1992: The Conservatives win a fourth consecutive General Election.

Rise of Postmodernism in sociology as old certainties crumble, critical of the metanarratives of Marxism , Functionalism , Feminism and Interactionism– belief that ‘everything is relative’ (including postmodernism?)

1992 Black Wednesday: Foreign exchange crisis seriously undermines Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence and although the economy actually improves significantly between 1992 and 1997 this economic improvement fails to improve the Conservatives’ opinion poll ratings.

1993 Black teenager Stephen Lawrence murdered in racist attack. Leads to Macpherson Report (1999) and conclusion that the Metropolitan Police are institutionally racist.

PM Major’s government mired in scandal and Tories bitterly divided over Europe.

1997 Labour victory under Tony Blair who claims to have re-branded the Labour Party as b New Labour. Since becoming Leader of the Labour Party in 1994 Tony Blair and his supporters had attempted to convince the voters that the Labour Party had changed fundamentally: it no longer believed in high taxation in order to finance high government spending; it was no longer a political party  controlled by the Trade Unions; and it was prepared to accept many  of the New Right-based Conservative policies introduced 1979-1997. Thus New Labour would not reverse Conservative privatisation ; it would not reverse Conservative legislation which had restricted the power of the trade unions and it would not increase rates of income taxation for the life of one Parliament.

However Labour proposed to introduce a range of constitutional reforms: Reform of the House of Lord, Devolution for Scotland and Wales, A Freedom of Information Act and incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. There was even talk of proportional representation for genera elections but this came to nothing

Labour would try to address social exclusion through New Deal. which aimed to help the unemployed back into work and to help low paid workers via the Working Family Tax Credit. Labour also  introduced a minimum wage but at a relatively low level.

In practice although the growth of income inequality was  slower than occurred between 1979-1997 Labour failed to reverse this growth of income inequality which actually increased under Labour Governments. However there was  some reduction in relative poverty and in child poverty although even here Labour Governments fail ed to hit their own targets..

Continued expansion of Higher education. Grants ended and tuition fees introduced.

Large hospital and school building programme financed party through  PFIs, which uses private money. Huge growth in nursery education. Introduction of specialist schools, and substantial expansion of City Academy programme, all aimed at giving parents a wider choice, though this is often stymied by catchment areas.

Unemployment continues to fall and seems no longer to be such a major  problem….unless you happen to be unemployed

Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament created.

Good Friday Peace Agreement in N. Ireland

The number of Hereditary Peers in the House of Lords is reduced to 92. Further future reform of the House of Lords appears likely.

Gay civil partnership ceremonies now legal. Homosexual age of consent lowered to 16.

The 2000s

Labour General Election Victory 2001: another large overall majority as in 1997 but a very low turnout

2001 9.11 World Trade Centre destroyed – the ‘war on terrorism’ starts. A month later war in Afghanistan to rid them of the Taliban. UK and USA at the forefront.

2003 Iraq War despite massive opposition.

2005 Labour General Election Victory with much reduced majority

YouTube reports on a difficult day for Tony Blair – Click Here

For an interactive Guardian site providing further information on  important events of the 1997-2007 – Click Here BROKEN LINK

David Cameron becomes new Tory leader . It seems likely that he will reposition the Conservative Party closer to the ideological centre of UK politics in an attempt to increase the Conservatives’ vote share. His economic agenda seems likely to remain essentially Thatcherite but he appears more liberal on social issues related to crime the family and sexuality and especially concerned with environmental issues. Broad ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives seem to narrow as both compete for voters many of whom are themselves clustered around the ideological centre. Cameron accepts ‘liberal’ ideas on gays and is not critical of single parents (as old Tory regime had been) although by 2010 he is proposing taxation changes to benefit specifically married couples.

2006 Blair v Brown divisions in Labour party which had existed ever since Blair became leader are increasingly apparent and  Brown is clearly pressurising Blair to resign sooner rather than later.

2007 Gordon Brown PM. After an initial honeymoon period [the “Brown bounce” in the polls] Brown’s popularity declines as he is perceived as indecisive over the timing of the next General Election and blamed for the furore over the abolition of the 10P income tax rate and in some quarters for the financial crisis and onset of recession in the UK.

2008 After more than a decade of economic growth, the credit crunch sets in. Northern Rock bailed out by the government. Nationalisation of various banks in attempt to escape financial and economic crisis. Unemployment rises with fears of an actual economic depression

2009 There are ongoing rumours of a challenge to Gordon Brown’s  leadership and the 2009 European and Local Election results are bad for the Labour Party partly also as  a result of  the fall out of the MPs expenses scandal …. for which the governing party is perhaps blamed most.

The New Labour decade sees influx of immigrants especially from Poland and other Eastern European countries where wage levels are lower than in the UK. It is claimed that these immigrants are “taking British jobs” and also depressing British wages especially in already low paid jobs because they are prepared to work for lower wages than those paid to British workers. On the other hand it is argued that many if not all of these immigrants are skilled and hard working and that they can therefore help to reduce some of the skill shortages in the UK economy.

The UK Population is now 61 million and predicted to grow. For some recent population statistics – Click Here

Britpop and Britart. Tate Modern opens – renaissance in the arts in Britain (Damien Hurst, Tracey Emin and others) also in architecture Sir Norman Foster (the Gherkin, Sainsbury Centre at UEA, Stansted airport),  Richard Rogers (Lloyds building Pompidou Centre) and others.

Although crime has decreased since the mid 90s there is a growth in the fear of crime, possibly fuelled by the tabloids and Labour’s promise to ‘be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. Most recently another dispute over crime trends erupt sin Feb 2010 as the Conservatives are accused of using official crime statistics misleadingly: a criticism which they deny.

By February  2010 the UK economy seems to be slowly coming out of recession but the Conservatives lead the opinion polls and at present it is predicted that the likely result of the coming General Election will be a “Hung Parliament” or a narrow victory for the Conservatives. We shall see..


1 Select changes in attitudes and law towards the family. Highlight them in one colour.

2 Select changes in attitudes and law towards equality. Highlight them in a different colour.

3 Select changes in education policy. Highlight in a third colour.

4 Select the events and policies on race relations. Highlight in a fourth colour.

5 Select sociological trends and highlight in a fifth colour

6 What do you understand by the following terms

a Welfare State

b Affluent society

c Political consensus

d New Right

e Youth culture.