Parties and Politics in Britain, 1914-1974

Module code: HS3625

Module co-ordinator: Stuart Ball

Module Outline

British politics went through major changes during the two World Wars and in the decades after them. The party system was transformed by the decline of the Liberal Party – which had dominated most of the nineteenth century – and the rise of the Labour Party in its place. The Reform Acts of 1918 and 1928 introduced our modern democracy, with votes for all adult men and women. The role of the state in social policy was greatly extended, especially with the founding of the Welfare State after 1945. The course follows these themes through the six decades from the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 to the fall of the Heath government in February 1974, which marked the break-down of the post-war ‘consensus’. 

Topics covered

The main focus of the course is on the fortunes of the political parties. It begins by examining the impact of the First World War, which turned British politics upside down – the two parties in the driving seat in 1914 (the Liberals and the Irish Nationalists) being almost completely destroyed, and the two parties which were struggling in 1914 (the Conservatives and Labour) being raised up in their place. As well as the Liberal decline and rise of Labour in the 1920s, the course examines why the Conservative Party did so well in the age of mass democracy – the Conservatives were the largest party in the House of Commons for 90% of the period from 1918 to 1945. Coalitions initially formed to deal with national emergencies were a feature of the inter-war period, and we look at the reasons for coalition in the First World War, the spectacular fall of the Lloyd George Coalition in 1922, and the crisis of August 1931 which unexpectedly created the National Government – which then even more unexpectedly remained in office until 1940.

Other topics covered include the failure of the challenge from Fascism and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, the making of Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, the performance of the 1945-51 Labour government, and the controversy over whether there was a post-war ‘consensus’. In the following period, we look at the reasons for Conservative dominance from 1951 to 1964 and why this came to an end, the divisions in the Labour Party in the 1950s, the emergence of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, the beginning of a recovery from near-extinction for the Liberal Party, and the problems of the Wilson and Heath governments from 1964 to 1974 in coping with national decline, industrial unrest, inflation and unemployment.

Along the way, we encounter a range of the major figures in modern British political history, and assess their role and impact. We begin with Asquith and Lloyd George, continue with Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald and the Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, and then move on to the key figures of the Second World War and post-war politics: Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson and Heath.


As a third-year option, this course is taught by seminar classes. After an initial briefing meeting, there are eighteen one-hour sessions, each of which focuses upon a specific important topic. Each class begins with some explanatory context from the course tutor, and then one or two short oral presentations (of about three minutes each) in which students talk about a particular aspect of the seminar topic which interests them. After this, the course tutor introduces key questions and issues about the topic, for general discussion and debate by the whole class.


Students write one essay of 2,500 words, which counts for 50% of the marks, and there is also an exam which counts for 50%. The very extensive published literature in books, biographies and articles makes it possible to examine specific topics in depth in the coursework essay, and students have a range of different questions to chose from, each of which is provided with its own individual list of recommended reading.


W.D. Rubinstein, Twentieth-Century Britain: A Political History.

Kenneth O. Morgan, Britain since 1945: The People’s Peace.

Stuart Ball, The Conservative Party and British Politics 1902-1951.