Society and the state

Key moments in technological change in UK over 20th century.

At the start of the 20th century, British society was divided into classes – aristocracy, middle class and working class. By the end of the 20th century, class boundaries became blurred as attitudes, fame and popularity played a bigger part in defining social groups rather than income. Some see the 20th century as the period when individuals became more important than wider society. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even said: There is no such thing as society... There are individual men and women. The changes in society were brought about by many events, both big and small, but some of the key changes were:

  • War - two world wars altered Britain by changing the role of women, accelerating technological advances and opening the way for increased immigration.
  • Politics - interest in politics waned. When Labour won the 1950 election, the turnout was 84 per cent. In the 2001 election, the turnout was 59 per cent. Young people became more interested in single issues such as the environment, than party politics.
  • Mass media - the growth of cinema at the start of the century followed by the arrival of radio in the 1920s and regular television broadcasts from the mid-1930s onwards meant people could be informed and entertained on a huge scale. Although a private company at first, the BBC became a not-for-profit organisation when it gained its royal charter in 1927. The BBC was the UK's first broadcaster and is licensed to operate by the government.
  • Civil rights movements - groups that had previously had their rights controlled by the government began to make their voices heard. From Suffragettes in the early part of the century to racial equality groups and gay rights organisations, many people have campaigned to be fully included in British society and politics.
  • Welfare State - after the Second World War the government felt that the British people needed a country "fit for heroes". The NHS and welfare state were set up in 1948 to take care of people when they were vulnerable and sick.
  • Education - in the early 1900s working class children often worked half the day and then went to school for half the day to learn the '3 Rs' - reading, writing and arithmetic. After 1945, all children got a good education and by the 1960s children had full-time education, free milk and more leisure time. In the 1960s, the number of students going to university doubled.
  • Multiculturalism - the arrival of immigrants from places such as the West Indies and south Asia brought about the idea of multicultural Britain. Some feel that multiculturalism has not worked and that it has created a more segregated society. Others believe it is an important aspect of modern Britain.