The 10 Most Important Events in British History: Part Two – 1500 AD to the Present Day

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.
Last week we looked at ten crucial moments in British history – both celebrated and unheralded – which have helped shape the nation which we currently know. This article picks up where the last left off, and examines ten of the most important events in our national story since that point.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell: a man with a chequered life, but an undeniably large effect on British history.

1. 1659 – The Failure of the Commonwealth

One of the remarkable continuities of British history is the absence of fanaticism. There is no equivalent of the continental tradition of anti-Semitism (the occasional Plantagenet pogroms being debt repudiation schemes rather than ethnic crusades). There is surprisingly little Protestant-Catholic violence, despite the Tudor burnings, as most of the country seemed happy to change with fashion (the French massacres of the Huguenots stand in contrast to the English preference for punishment by denial of access to Oxford, Cambridge and Parliament). The one exception to this tradition is the reign of Cromwell whose combination of martial brilliance and religious fanaticism was as alien to England as it was effective.
The failure of the Commonwealth shortly after Cromwell’s death marked the end of absolute rule in England. The democratic institutions, which had existed in some form and accessible only to the elite since the fourteenth century, were already at that time sufficiently robust, sufficiently entrenched that their suspension and direct rule have proved beyond any prospective potentate ever since. The English conceptualisation of liberty as something expressed in a negative sense (freedom from authority, rather than the continental sense of national greatness arising through concentrated authority) could now be seen as a meaningful political force. It was to go on to have a significant influence on world affairs – one of the significant reasons for which those parts of the Empire populated by expatriates proved so head-strong and independent was that this government model proved to be equally durable on foreign soil as at home.

2. 1688 – The Glorious Revolution

A very English revolution in that it began at an Oxford college and escalated over a disagreement an arcane procedural point, the Glorious Revolution finalised English religious identity and constitutional structure at what was comparatively a very early stage in national life. When Parliament, resentful of the religious tolerance which James II had associated himself with, invited William of Orange to take the throne with his wife Mary, it cemented the notion that survives to the current day that the monarch rules with the consent of the nation, not through divine right. Moreover, it locked in the aggressively Protestant style of national administration that built the colonial empire, and in removing James ensured the enmity of France, an enmity which lasted until the late 19th century.

3. 1707 – The Act of Union

No one single moment brought the current constitutional arrangements uniting the constituent parts of the United Kingdom into being. England formalised its de facto union with Wales in two early sixteenth century Laws in Wales Acts, which both extended the English justice system to cover Wales and provided for Welsh representation at Westminster. Likewise, the Union of the Crowns, which came in 1603 with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English and Irish thrones, provided for a personal dynastic union but not a political or institutional union with Scotland.
The Act of Union came about when this arrangement broke down under the pressure of the English Alien Act, which formalised the status of Scottish citizens as foreign nationals and placed an embargo on sales of Scottish goods into England. This pressure, and a generous dollop of bribes to Scottish political power brokers, secured the union which England had long sought as a means of protecting its northern border. The Scottish intellectual revolution as well as its military and engineering prowess would hence forth be allied with English capital and the Royal Navy. The most successful national union in history was born.

4. 1807 – The Slave Trade Act

Slavery was never legal on British soil, a fact confirmed in Somerset v Stewart in 1772, a judgement which may have had the unfortunate consequence of fuelling the separationist movement in the American colonies. Slavery prospered beyond Britain, however. The Arab and African slave trades were well established prior to the appearance of Europeans in Africa, but the appalling deprivations suffered by those unfortunate souls captured, chained and transported on British and European ships to the New World persuaded Britain it had a duty to act. The resulting parliamentary bill did not abolish slavery in the Empire (that was to come in 1833), but it did abolish the slave trade, not just for British ships, but for everyone. Moreover, this was an act with teeth. The formation of the West Africa Squadron, which went on to free 150,000 Africans meant that naval dominance translated into the imposition of Britain’s moral stance on other empires, whether they liked it or not.
Britain is still deeply ashamed of its role in the slave trade. This is a just and proportionate thing, but what is often lost is quite how unique and impressive the decision to abolish it was. Over one hundred and fifty years before the United States would recognise absolute equality between races through the legal system, the British evangelicals were able to persuade a nation to use its hegemonic position on the water to do exactly that at a severe economic cost to itself. The British abolition of slavery was the epitome of the liberal Empire – the privileging of morality over economics – and the uniqueness of Britain’s contribution in this area stands as a rebuke to those who attack the Empire as little more than a land grab.

5. 1815 – The Battle of Waterloo

Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo put to an end French dreams of European mastery. It confirmed the lesson from Blenheim a century earlier – that Britain was capable (through a mixture of bribery and naval coercion) to put together land armies capable of maintaining order in Europe. The failure of Napoleon was also the failure of the Continental System, and a demonstration that Britain’s trading influence was already so great that removing her from European markets would affect the continent more than it would Britain.
The Battle of Waterloo had profound effects for the British. Firstly, it put to an end the battle over land in Europe, which had lasted from the fall of Rome. Peace would reign until the Crimea, not a sign that Europe was unimportant, but a sign that land here was now so important that it could not be won without a holocaust. The next great conflicts in Western Europe would be total wars, a form in which Britain was very poorly placed to participate (both in terms of manpower and a liberal political tradition). Secondly, balance in Europe unleashed the scramble for territories elsewhere – from Africa to the Pacific – which were to prove both echo points for British civilisation, but also points of little economic contribution and ingrained strategic overstretch. When the great conflict did arrive, the obligation to guard all points from Sydney to Gibraltar diluted British battlefield presence and naval advantage. Finally, the peace that Western Europe now enjoyed until 1870 marked the only real achievement of that perpetual aim of British foreign policy – a self-sustaining balance of power in Europe, something never before or after achieved without active British involvement.

6. 1855 – The Bessemer Process

The British Industrial Revolution has only been matched by the American Computing Revolution in terms of its addition to the material stock enjoyed by man. While the Bessemer Process was by no means its beginning, the method, which provided access to cheap, mass-produced steel for the first time, typified the immense increase in productivity which the Industrial Revolution had brought about. This was a vital factor in the wealth and success of Victorian Britain. Though never endowed with natural resources to the extent of Germany or America and never as effective at extracting resources from the colonies as folk knowledge dictates, Britain nonetheless became the world’s production hub for a century, thanks to the extent of its ability to innovate. It was this intellectual leadership that, in turn, gave rise to industrial leadership.
Quality of life improved in the material sense for the British working classes over the Industrial Revolution. Labourers became sophisticated consumers in their own right, sharing in the spoils of global production. At the same time, industrialisation saw a transition to an urban workforce, creating the seeds of the current imbalances in the British economy. The failure to privilege or protect industries outside of the cities (unlike France, for instance) has made the British economy lopsided, firstly for industry and secondly for services, ever since.

7. 1914 – 1918 – The First World War

The First World War destroyed Victorian Britain. Around 900,000 British soldiers died in the conflict, 1.6m were wounded, and the flower of the civilian population was savagely stripped away. The abysmal lack of courage that allowed Hitler to rise unchallenged through the 1930s and that timidly sacrificed the fruits of 300 years of Empire shortly afterwards, that abandoned the hard and pragmatic politics of the nineteenth century for the soft-hearted economic incontinence of the twentieth, all these can be ascribed to the deaths of the leading men of the day and the deep scars it left on their successors.
It is very much in vogue to present the views left to us by a handful of war poets as an unchallenged truth. The idea of the war as a pointless sacrifice, of all the participants as essentially equal, of the great squalor and misery of the trenches, was a prevalent view, but only amongst a small, essentially aesthete class of graduates. The reason that British sacrifices were so great was largely because the majority of the population did believe in (European) self-determination, were morally idealistic in this sense, and were prepared to put ancient enmities aside to support the right of the French people to exist. To lay down an Empire for this, and to endure the squalor, death and misery necessary to do so speaks volumes of the moral life of Edwardian Britain – if this all had to be sacrificed, it went in a cause which the British could be proud of.

Black and white picture of Somme battlefield
The Somme: the resting place of many of Britain’s ‘Lost Generation’.

8. 1939 – 1945 – The Second World War

The toll exacted by the First World War can be seen in Britain’s conduct of its successor. The paralysis and weakness which gripped Whitehall as Hitler’s shadow extended first through Austria, then through Czechoslovakia, had no precedent since Tudor times. The war itself was not, as the First had been, a grinding, attritional question of superior force and power eventually overcoming an entrenched enemy; rather it was a miracle of luck and spirit, so badly had Britain prepared for it.
The failure to prepare for war was a dark harbinger of the next half century. It is unquestionable that the British sacrifice against Nazi Germany single-handedly (in 1940 at least) prevented the entirety of Western European civilisation falling under its spell. If no other action could be said to justify a nation’s place in the world, this alone would be enough. And yet, the war was known to be coming. In replacing a national industrial strategy with wishful thinking, the British set out their stall for the dog days of decline and fall which would follow. The lamps which Sir Edward Grey saw going out all over Europe in 1914 were now well and truly extinguished.

9. 1945 – The Foundation of the Welfare State

The Twentieth Century was a Conservative one, yet its two most influential governments were both Labour. The Attlee Government fundamentally changed the relationship between the governed and the state in Britain. Far from being a guarantor of law and order, the new British state would be guarantor against hardship and discomfort, playing a very greatly increased role in national life and requiring a very large sum of money each year from the British people to secure these works.
The advent of the Welfare State committed Britain to old age. No longer content to take the risks of youth travelling the world in search of riches and adventure, no longer ready to apply a lifetime of learning and institutional knowledge to the problems of the day through intellectual leadership, it fell back on security at the expense of dynamism. Established for entirely creditable reasons, the Welfare State nevertheless marked the end of Britain’s global role – no nation which spends such a great deal of time and effort looking after itself is capable of leading others, and henceforth, Britain would not do so.

10. 1997 – The Election of New Labour

In the fifth decade of its dotage, Britain was finally killed off by New Labour. The astonishing degree of constitutional vandalism that was enacted under the Blair government is impressive in its audacity, if not its sagacity. The movement to split Scotland and Wales from England for narrow political advantage was foolish in that it allowed the notion of independence under the watchful eye of a mysteriously benevolent England to take hold (with potentially disastrous consequences in the upcoming Scottish vote). The abuse of the Parliament Act to turn the chamber into an echo chamber for executive authority was bad; the morally bankrupt and pointless wars in the Middle East were worse. The attack on private pensions will cause unnecessary hardship for millions in old age, while the absence of our gold reserves removes a key plank of our domestic financial resilience: both of these moves were undertaken in a spiteful, underhand way for no conceivable advantage other than from an enmity towards tradition.
Most of all, New Labour left a legacy of a Britain that had fewer British people in it. If this series has had a point it is to demonstrate that national character does exist, and that in Britain, certain national traits – martial aggression, evangelicalism, the privileging of education, a deep attachment to institutions – have shaped our national history and identity. Those traits are now in abeyance and new traits will grow up in their place. Britain is dead. Long live Britain.

Image credits: Cromwell; Somme;