Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
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Visual History of the World
First Empires
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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Contemporary World

1945 to the present


After World War II, a new world order came into being in which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, played the leading roles. Their ideological differences led to the arms race of the Cold War and fears of a global nuclear conflict. The rest of the world was also drawn into the bipolar bloc system, and very few nations were able to remain truly non-aligned. The East-West conflict came to an end in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent downfall of the Eastern Bloc. Since that time, the world has been driven by the globalization of worldwide economic and political systems. The world has, however, remained divided: The rich nations of Europe, North America, and East Asia stand in contrast to the developing nations of the Third World.

The first moon landing made science-fiction dreams reality in the year 1969.
Space technology has made considerable progress as the search for new
possibilities of using space continues.



Great Britain: From Commonwealth to European Union

SINCE 1945

Despite the loss of its former position as a superpower, the United Kingdom was influential in the global reorganization after 1945. As a close ally of the United States, politically the country stood opposed to the Soviet Union in the division of Europe and the world. Great Britain was one of the founding members of the United Nations and is a permanent member of its Security Council. The process of decolonization contributed to fundamental changes in the country and its foreign policies. Since 1973, Great Britain has been a critical but active member of the European Community.


see also: United Nations member states -
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


British Domestic Politics from the 1960s to the Present

Relative economic prosperity reigned in Great Britain through the 1960s. Thereafter, the country was gripped by a long-lasting economic crisis.


Britain, the birthplace of industrialization, had already lost its industrial and technical lead to European and American competition as far back as 1900, but as London was then the flourishing 1 hub of world trade, the British did not tailor their economic policies to this development.

1 Royal Exchange in London, 2000

When the pound continually weakened during the 1960s, however, the roots of the economic crisis were laid bare: The British economy threatened to collapse as a result of outdated production facilities, loss of production through numerous strikes, and the overstretching of the budget through steadily rising social expenditures. Conservative and Labour governments replaced each other, neither able to control the financial crisis.

Beginning in 1979, the newly elected Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, followed strict liberal economic policies.

These included the state's withdrawal from the economy, extensive privatization, and tax relief, but also a 3 reduction in workers's rights and state social benefits.

As a result, inflation slowed and investment rates increased, but large numbers of companies also went bankrupt. The number of unemployed reached a record three million in August 1982, and the disparity in incomes widened even more.

With decreasing popularity in the electorate, the Conservative Party rebelled at the beginning of the 1990s, when a further recession was begun and Thatcher wanted to introduce a 4 poll tax despite nationwide resistance.

3 Miners on strike in Nottinghamshire, 1984

4 Demonstrators against the poll tax, 1991

The party elected 2 John Major her successor as prime minister in 1990, but the privatization of railways, postal services, and coal mining that he implemented was no more popular.

In 1992 the value of the 5 pound fell dramatically again, forcing Britain to pull out of the European Monetary System, which controls monetary stability in Europe.

The parliamentary elections of 1997 brought a landslide victory for the Labour party under the leadership of Tony Blair. The new prime minister, leading a party he referred to as "New Labour," attempted to find a "third way"— one that would equally consider free enterprise and social demands—in which to lead the country. Tony Blair was reelected in 2001 with a clear majority. In May 2005, he became the first prime minister in history to win a third term.

2 John Major, British prime minister, 1992

5 Hustle and bustle at the stock exchange in London



Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher, 1983

The chemist and barrister Margaret Thatcher was a Conservative member of Parliament in the House of Commons from 1959 to 1992.

She became leader of the opposition in 1975, then prime minister from 1979 to 1990; since 1992, she has sat in the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.

As a result of her inflexible determination, she was dubbed the "Iron Lady." The term "Thatcherism" was coined for the reduction of state economic and social involvement and giving the "powers of free enterprise" free reign in the battle against inflation.




Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

prime minister of United Kingdom
in full Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, née Margaret Hilda Roberts

born October 13, 1925, Grantham, Lincolnshire, England

British Conservative Party politician and prime minister (1979–90), Europe’s first woman prime minister. The only British prime minister in the 20th century to win three consecutive terms and, at the time of her resignation, Britain’s longest continuously serving prime minister since 1827, she accelerated the evolution of the British economy from statism to liberalism and became, by personality as much as achievement, the most renowned British political leader since Winston Churchill.

Early years
The daughter of Alfred Roberts, a grocer and local alderman (and later mayor of Grantham), and Beatrice Ethel Stephenson, Thatcher formed an early desire to be a politician. Her intellectual ability led her to the University of Oxford, where she studied chemistry and was immediately active in politics, becoming one of the first woman presidents of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After graduating in 1946 she worked for four years as a research chemist, reading for the bar in her spare time. From 1954 she practiced as a barrister, specializing in tax law. In 1951 she married a wealthy industrialist, Denis Thatcher (b. 1915—d. 2003), who supported her political ambition. The couple had twins, a son and a daughter, in 1953.

Thatcher first ran for Parliament in 1950 but was unsuccessful, despite increasing the local Conservative vote by 50 percent. In 1959 she entered the House of Commons, winning the “safe” Conservative seat of Finchley in northern London. She rose steadily within the party, serving as a parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1961–64), as chief opposition spokesman on education (1969–70), and as secretary of state for education and science (1970–74) in the Conservative government of Edward Heath. While a member of the Heath cabinet (Thatcher was only the second woman to hold a cabinet portfolio in a Conservative government), she eliminated a program that provided free milk to schoolchildren, provoking a storm of controversy and prompting opponents in the Labour Party to taunt her with cries of “Thatcher the milk snatcher.” She also created more comprehensive schools—introduced by the Labour Party in the 1960s to make rigorous academic education available to working-class children—than any other education minister in history, though they were undermined during her tenure as prime minister. After Heath lost two successive elections in 1974, Thatcher, though low in the party hierarchy, was the only minister prepared to challenge him for the party leadership. With the backing of the Conservative right wing, she was elected leader in February 1975 and thus began a 15-year ascendancy that would change the face of Britain.

Margaret Thatcher

Prime minister
Thatcher led the Conservatives to a decisive electoral victory in 1979 following a series of major strikes during the previous winter (the so-called “Winter of Discontent”) under the Labour Party government of James Callaghan. As a prime minister representing the newly energetic right wing of the Conservative Party (the “Dries,” as they later called themselves, as opposed to the old-style moderate Tories, or “Wets”), Thatcher advocated greater independence of the individual from the state; an end to allegedly excessive government interference in the economy, including privatization of state-owned enterprises and the sale of public housing to tenants; reductions in expenditures on social services such as health care, education, and housing; limitations on the printing of money in accord with the economic doctrine of monetarism; and legal restrictions on trade unions. The term Thatcherism came to refer not just to these policies but also to certain aspects of her ethical outlook and personal style, including moral absolutism, fierce nationalism, a zealous regard for the interests of the individual, and a combative, uncompromising approach to achieving political goals.

The main impact of her first term was economic. Inheriting a weak economy, she reduced or eliminated some governmental regulations and subsidies to businesses, thereby purging the manufacturing industry of many inefficient—but also some blameless—firms. The result was a dramatic increase in unemployment, from 1.3 million in 1979 to more than double that figure two years later. At the same time, inflation doubled in just 14 months, to more than 20 percent, and manufacturing output fell sharply. Although inflation decreased and output rose before the end of her first term, unemployment continued to increase, reaching more than three million in 1986.

Thatcher embarked on an ambitious program of privatization of state-owned industries and public services, including aerospace, television and radio, gas and electricity, water, the state airline, and British Steel. By the end of the 1980s, the number of individual stockholders had tripled, and the government had sold 1.5 million publicly owned housing units to their tenants.

Nonetheless, rising unemployment and social tensions during her first term made her deeply unpopular. Her unpopularity would have ensured her defeat in the general election of 1983 were it not for two factors: the Falkland Islands War (1982) between Britain and Argentina, over possession of a remote British dependency in the South Atlantic, and the deep divisions within the Labour Party, which contested the election on a radical manifesto that critics dubbed the “longest suicide note in history.” Thatcher won election to a second term in a landslide—the biggest victory since Labour’s great success in 1945—gaining a parliamentary majority of 144 with just over 42 percent of the vote.

Thatcher entered office promising to curb the power of the unions, which had shown their ability to bring the country to a standstill during six weeks of strikes in the winter of 1978–79. Her government enacted a series of measures designed to undermine the unions’ ability to organize and stage strikes, including laws that banned the closed shop, required unions to poll their members before ordering a strike, forbade sympathy strikes, and rendered unions responsible for damages caused by their members. In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers began a nationwide strike to prevent the closing of 20 coal mines that the government claimed were unproductive. The walkout, which lasted nearly a year, soon became emblematic of the struggle for power between the Conservative government and the trade union movement. Thatcher steadfastly refused to meet the union’s demands, and in the end she won; the miners returned to work without winning a single concession.

A terrorist bombing at a Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984, the work of the Irish Republican Army, nearly killed Thatcher and several senior members of her government. After battling Ken Livingstone’s Labour-led London government, Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council in 1986. By the end of Thatcher’s second term, few aspects of British life had escaped the most sweeping transformation of Britain since the postwar reforms of the Labour Party.

In foreign affairs, the Falklands War illuminated her most significant international relationship, with Ronald Reagan, president of the United States (1981–89). Thatcher and Reagan, who together made the 1980s the decade of conservatism, shared a vision of the world in which the Soviet Union was an evil enemy deserving of no compromise, and their partnership ensured that the Cold War continued in all its frigidity until the rise to power of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. In keeping with her strong anticommunism—a 1976 speech condemning communism earned her the nickname “Iron Lady” in the Soviet press—Thatcher strongly supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, a stance that proved popular with the electorate, given the Labour Party’s repudiation of Britain’s traditional nuclear and defense policies. In Africa, Thatcher presided over the orderly establishment of an independent Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) in 1980 after 15 years of illegal separation from British colonial rule under a white minority. However, she encountered considerable criticism both at home and abroad for her opposition to international sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa.

The second half of Thatcher’s tenure was marked by an inextinguishable controversy over Britain’s relationship with the European Community (EC). In 1984 she succeeded, amid fierce opposition, in drastically reducing Britain’s contribution to the EC budget. After her third electoral victory in 1987, she adopted a steadily more hostile attitude toward European integration. She resisted “federalist” continental trends toward both a single currency and a deeper political union. Her traditionally pro-European party became divided, and a string of senior ministers left the Cabinet over the issue.

The implementation of a poll tax in 1989 produced outbreaks of street violence and alarmed the Conservative rank-and-file, who feared that Thatcher could not lead the party to a fourth consecutive term. Spurred by public disapproval of the poll tax and Thatcher’s increasingly strident tone, Conservative members of Parliament moved against her in November 1990. Although she defeated her most senior opponent, former defense minister Michael Heseltine, by 204 votes to Heseltine’s 152, her total fell four votes short of the necessary majority plus 15 percent, and she decided not to contest the election in a second ballot. On November 22 she announced her resignation as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, paving the way for her replacement by John Major six days later.

Later years
In retirement, Margaret Thatcher remained a political force. She continued to influence internal Conservative Party politics (often to the dismay of Major), and Thatcherism shaped the priorities of the Labour Party, which she had kept out of office for more than a decade. She remained a member of Parliament until the 1992 election and was subsequently elevated, as a peeress for life, to the House of Lords. She continued to speak and lecture, notably in the United States and Asia, and established the Thatcher Foundation to support free enterprise and democracy, particularly in the newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe. In 1995 she became a member of the Order of the Garter. Following a series of minor strokes, Thatcher retired from public speaking in 2002.

Hugo Young

Encyclopaedia Britannica



British Foreign Policy from the 1960s to the Present

 Skepticism of the European Community in Great Britain remained even after the country joined it. The relationship to the United States has characterized foreign policies.


As early as i960 and shortly after the founding of the European Free Trade Association, Great Britain applied for membership in the European Economic Community. The application was denied twice due to the veto of France, but in 1973 Great Britain became a member. By that point, though, the growth spurt that the EEC members had experienced as a result of the introduction of the free market had already slackened. Instead, the explosion in the price of oil in 1973 and the resulting economic crisis put the brakes on economic development. Consequently, EEC membership hardly had a noticeable positive effect in Britain. In 1984, Prime Minister Thatcher was able to gain a considerable reduction in Britain's membership contributions to the community.

Great Britain's relationship to the European Community remained inconsistent also in the ensuing period. The criticism reached a high point when the European Union imposed a ban on British beef imports in 1996 in the face of massive outbreaks of the cattle disease BSE on the island. Anxiety about being dictated to by the EU leadership in Brussels is generally behind the British skepticism of the Union. Nevertheless, the establishment of closer ties to the Continent continues.

An illustration and important contribution to this is the 9 railway tunnel under the English Channel, which connects Great Britain and France and was completed in 1994.

9 Irish construction workers celebrate the breakthrough of the first
tube of the railway tunnel under the English Channel, 1990

The British government pulled out of financing the project, but an international consortium guaranteed the completion of the project. Alongside European involvement, the historical relationship with the United States characterizes British foreign policy.

American satellite information helped the British win victory over Argentina in the 8 war over the Falkland Islands, a British crown colony, in 1982.

As its most significant 7 ally, Great Britain has assisted the United States in its 6 military actions against Iraq.

8 War over the British crown colony Falkland Islands: British paratroopers search Argentinian prisoners of war for weapons, 1982

7 British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and US President George W. Bush, 2004

6 British aircraft carrier on its way to the Gulf region,
January 2003




Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called "mad cow disease," is a disorder that causes changes in the brain. The processing of infected sheep carcasses into animal feed enabled the transmission of the disease to cattle and eventually even to humans.

The disease first appeared in Great Britain in 1986. The European Union's 1996 import ban on British beef led to a severe crisis in livestock farming. So far, only control on the production of feed meal or respectively the banning of the use of sheep carcasses in feed production in 2000 has proven effective in the fight against BSE.


Early diagnosis of BSE is still problematic

The brain of a cow is examined in a laboratory with safety precautions


see also: United Nations member states -
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland



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