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Citizenship 1906-2003
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Citizenship 1906-2003

The 20th century saw the resolution of the struggles over representation and trade unionism that had commanded attention in 19th-century Britain. When women got the right to vote on equal terms with men, universal suffrageGlossary - opens new window was finally achieved. The strength of organised labour continued to grow (by the late 1970s trade union membership had reached around 13 million), until new labour laws curtailed trade-union powers. In the 20th century citizenship also had to address issues such as pressure for improved economic and social conditions, the end of empire, membership of the European Union, and the impact of increased immigration.
LNER newsletter, 1926 - opens new window
LNER newsletter, 1926
Document (176k) | Transcript
'Help to win the Battle of Britain at your own back door' (cartoon) - opens new window
'Help to win the Battle of Britain
at your own back door'
Document | Transcript

Social and economic rights

Throughout the course of the century, the government became increasingly involved in efforts to eradicate poverty and improve the living conditions of ordinary citizens. The provision of old-age pensions (1908) and national insurance (1911) by Herbert Asquith's Liberal government signalled the start of state planning aimed at improving welfare. A tremendous sacrifice was demanded from the population during the two world wars, and people needed to feel they were fighting for a better future. In 1918 Lloyd George had declared his intention 'to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in', and between the wars there was partial success in clearing slums and building better housing.


However, it was not until after the Second World War that real progress was made. In 1945 the British people signalled their determination for change by voting the Labour Party into power with a landslide victory. Clement Attlee's government was able to implement the Beveridge Report (1942), which provided a blueprint for a comprehensive system of welfare benefits. These included a national health service, universal pensions and unemployment insurance, and family allowances. Family allowance poster
Family allowance poster

Empire and Europe

From the late 1940s through to the 1970s, the British empire was dismantled. The Atlantic CharterGlossary - opens new window of 1941, signed by Britain, stated that colonised people had a right to choose the form of government they wanted to live under. Although at the time this was seen as a long-term ideal, after the Second World War Britain lacked the resources to hold on to colonial possessions in the face of determined independence movements.


In 1973 Britain found a new international role as a member of the European Economic Community (EEC) - later the European Union (EU). British citizens became citizens of Europe. The Single European Act (1987) meant that by 1992 people of EU member states had the right to live, work and study in any EU country.
The recklessness of nuclear explosions, 1957 - opens new window
The recklessness of
nuclear explosions, 1957
Document | Transcript
'Re H Bomb Tests' (protest letter) - opens new window
'Re H Bomb Tests' (protest letter)
Document | Transcript
Some in Britain feared loss of national sovereignty as the EU expanded its role. The Maastricht Treaty of 1997 proposed economic and monetary union, and a common foreign and security policy. In the area of social policy a 'Social Chapter' committed member states to promoting employment, improving living and working conditions, providing proper social protection and dialogue between management and labour, and developing human resources. Initially the British government chose to opt out from both the Social Chapter and monetary union, although later (in 1997) they signed the Social Chapter. European laws came to have important consequences for human rights and working conditions in the UK.

British citizenship

During the 20th century British society became increasingly multicultural. People from around the world came to settle in Britain, among them Irish families escaping economic hardship, Jews fleeing from Nazi Germany, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians coming to work in Britain during the 1950s, Asians expelled from Uganda in 1972, and residents leaving Hong Kong before the colony was handed over to China in 1997.


Family allowance poster

Indian Independence Bill - opens new window
Indian Independence Bill
Document (198k) | Transcript
At the beginning of the century, if you could prove you were born within the British empire you could claim full nationality rights in Britain. The British Nationality Act of 1948 conferred the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects and recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them. However, Commonwealth immigration generated hostility out of all proportion to its size, especially during times of economic downturn. Consequently, the right to reside in the UK was restricted by the 1971 Immigration Act. From 1971, 'right of abode' was limited to those with a prior link to the UK, such as a parent or grandparent who was born here - which had the effect of virtually ending 'primary' immigration.
The British Nationality Act of 1981 abolished the 1948 definition of British citizenship and replaced it with three categories: British citizenship, citizenship of British dependent territories, and British overseas citizenship. Of these, only British citizenship provides the right to live in the UK. Today, British citizenship can be acquired by birth (if at the time of birth either parent is a British citizen settled in the UK), descent (for a person born abroad, if either parent is a British citizen at the time of birth) or naturalisationGlossary - opens new window. The latter is at the discretion of the Home Secretary and is dependent on criteria such as residence, language, employment and good character. Family allowance poster
Family allowance poster

Civil and human rights

In 1969 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. However, in recent years apathy amongst voters has been noticeable. The turnout at the 2001 general election was the lowest since 1918, and both among young voters and within ethnic communities there is considerable scepticism about politics.

In recent decades the rights of the individual have been the subject of closer scrutiny, and laws have been passed banning discrimination on grounds of gender, race or disability, with the aim of creating an equal and inclusive society. In addition, there is now a greater emphasis on the role of education in combating prejudice and promoting both the concept of citizenship and the value of participation in the democratic process.
Family allowance poster

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