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Britain 20th Century

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Britain 20th Century

The 20th century saw some of the biggest changes in British history and is full of significant events for British culture and society. A key turning point was the end of the Second World War in 1945, which saw the previous society of Empire and class dissolve to accommodate rising social tensions. Let's look at some critical moments in the history of 20th century Britain that changed society.

20th Century Historical Events Timeline

This timeline will provide a brief overview, showing some of the critical events of the 20th century in Britain that helped shape and change society.

DecadeWar/ConflictPolitics/LegislationCultural Events
1900s
1908 – 1909
Old Age Pension Act, Free School Meals, People's Budget, Minimum Wage
Early 1900sIncreased awareness of poverty led to the introduction of Welfare reforms and class
1910s
1911
National Insurance Act
1914–1918
First World War
1918
Women have the right to vote
1919– 1921Irish War of IndependencePost 1918Disillusionment after WWI, returning soldiers experience class issues
1920s
1924
Ramsey McDonald is the first Labour Prime Minister
1926
General Strike - miners protest proposed decrease in wages.
1929 – 1939
The "Great Depression" hits the UK, unemployment rates rapidly increase.
1930s
1939–1945
Second World War
1940s
1942
Beveridge Report is published
Post 1945
Class System begins to change
1947
Indian Independence
1948
Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan establishes the National Health Service
1948
Empire Windrush arrives in London with over 1000 Jamaican immigrants
1950s
1950s
Teddy Boy youth subculture takes off
1951–1964
Anti-Establishment Era
1956
Suez Crisis
1958
Notting Hill Riots in response to Windrush generation mistreatment
1960s
1960s–1990s
The Troubles in Northern Ireland
1961
The Birth Control Pill becomes widely available
Late 1950s – 1970s
The Permissive Era
1967
Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalises male homosexuality. The Abortion Act is also legislated.
1969
Divorce Reform Act is legislated
Late 1960s–early 1970s
Mods and Rockers youth subcultures
1970s
1975–1990Margaret Thatcher takes office as the first female Prime Minister
1980s
1982
1984–1985
Coal Miners Strike
1990s

Now we have an overview of some of the 20th-century historical events in Britain, let's look at how they affected society.

Britain At The Start of The 20th Century

To understand the social changes throughout the 20th century, let's look at the atmosphere at the beginning of the 1900s.

Britain 20th Century Map of british empire 1921 StudySmarter1921 marks the height of the British Empire, with all the red areas showing British colonial territory. However, colonial attitudes in Britain were set to change after the Second World War. (Source: wikicommons.org)

Abolition of slavery

The abolition of slavery in the early 19th century demonstrated a change in attitude in public regarding the Empire.

  • In 1807, the slave trade was made illegal when King George III signed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.

  • After this time, a process known as 'apprenticeship' was still used on plantations, simply slavery under a different name. Abolitionists continued to protest this poor treatment of the British Empire's subjects.

  • In 1838, the Slave Emancipation Act abolished the apprenticeship scheme.

  • Morality was becoming a crucial part of society and began to outweigh the economic benefits of the Empire for the British public.

Effects of the Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution began in 1760, Britain's economy grew significantly, providing employment in factories and creating a new working class. However, it also resulted in important social changes.

  • Living standards were very poor in the cities due to overcrowding to accommodate the rise in workers.

  • Charles Booth famously conducted a poverty survey between 1886–1903 which demonstrated the levels of the population living in abject poverty through maps. The results started a movement to improve the lives of the lower classes.

  • At the start of the 20th century, the upper classes understood that poverty was not a result of immorality or poor work ethic but instead due to unemployment and social barriers.

  • The 1908 Old Age Pension Act and the 1909 introduction of minimum wage provided economic benefits, especially for the lower classes of society.

Class system

Despite the increasing morality of the British public, the class system was still very much in place.

  • Your family situation often decided the kind of work you could do, and it wasn't easy to climb the social ladder.

  • Trade Unions were formed for the working class in Britain during the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. Unions organised strikes against wage decreases and mistreatment of the working population.

  • The presence of Trade Unions allowed for effective action by the working classes and started the fight for employment equality, and eventually challenged the class divide.

  • An example of this is the 1912 Miners Strike which forced the government to provide clear minimum wages for coal miners.

Significant social changes began with welfare reforms in the 1900s, such as the 1908 Old Age Pension Act and the introduction of a minimum wage in 1909. The National Insurance Act was passed in 1911 and protected workers against income losses due to sickness, injury or unemployment. However, progress was relatively slow at this time, and it wasn't until the events of the World Wars that significant reform led to societal and cultural changes in Britain.

The Most Important Events Of The 20th Century in Britain: World Wars (1914–1918, 1939–1945)

20th century Britain norwich anderson shelter WWII StudySmarterThe World Wars brought devastation to both British troops abroad and civilians at home. In the process of rebuilding the country, many social changes occurred. (Source: wikicommons.org)

The Wars instigated nationwide changes to the pre-20th century system. Some key challenges to the British societal framework were:

Gender equality: Women in the 20th Century

With the joint efforts of men and women during World War One, feminism had more justification than ever for its movement towards equality.

  • Many men enlisted to fight whilst women stayed home to work in munitions factories and keep Britain running. All British citizens, regardless of gender, could aid the war effort and so wanted recognition.

  • After WWI, the 1918 Representation of the People Act allowed women to vote for the first time but only for those over 30. Women and men were given equal voting rights in the 1928 Equal Franchise Act.

  • This turning point for Feminism in Britain spurred further dramatic changes for equality throughout the 20th century.

Social class

Social class in the United Kingdom was increasingly challenged due to the wars.

  • People from many social backgrounds joined the British forces to fight, developing camaraderie and integration between classes.

  • The arbitrary social barriers were questioned in another case for equality.

Empire

The Second World war, in particular, spelt the end of the British Empire.

  • The World Wars had been expensive for Britain, meaning that sustaining the colonies in its Empire was becoming increasingly difficult.

  • Furthermore, the atrocities witnessed during the Wars and the prevailing morality gave anti-colonial movements more influence to end Empire.

  • The first major domino to fall was when India gained Independence in 1947, and many other colonies followed suit.

Immigration

As Britain was suffering financially after the Wars, the government encouraged immigration from its Commonwealth members to bolster the economy.

  • The 1948 British Nationality Act declared all colony populations British citizens.

  • Ahead of this announcement, Empire Windrush transported over 1000 passengers from Jamaica to London in 1948, looking for employment in Britain.

  • Many of the immigrants were not given proper documentation on arrival, so they were unable to access the NHS or prove their legal status. The poor government handling of immigrants led to the subsequent civil rights movement throughout 20th century Britain.

Public welfare

A significant change in legislation came when the 1945 Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, introduced the Welfare State in 1946.

Welfare state

A system in which the state plays a crucial role in protecting the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens.

  • The 1942 Beveridge Report publishes guidelines for a Welfare state to improve the lives of British citizens.

  • The 1946 National Insurance Act and the 1946 Health Service Acts saw significant governmental intervention in the welfare of British citizens.

  • Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan introduced the National Health Service in 1948. The Wars had improved the administering of health care on the front line and at home, making the welfare reforms easier to coordinate.

  • The change in governmental attitude towards public health was partly due to the nationwide medical crisis of the World Wars.

The world wars resulted in significant social reforms enacted through parliament. Once the fire was lit for the idea of equality, British society began to use its voice to enact further changes to the country's systems.

The Anti-Establishment Era

Beginning roughly six years after WWII, the anti-establishment era introduced a new mindset to the British public. A number of factors motivated the rise in challenging political and social systems, such as:

  • The relative success of immediate post-war activism such as feminism and anti-colonialism

  • The shift to the political left with the election of the post-war Labour government.

This was expressed in various ways.

Britain 20th century mods and rockers on motorbikes StudySmarterThe Mods and Rockers were rival youth subcultures. Mods were often seen riding mopeds or scooters whilst Rockers rode motorcycles. (Source: wikicommons.org)

Subcultures

The British Youth Cultures that emerged throughout the 20th century demonstrate how younger generations were fighting for their place in society, or removing themselves from it.

  • The Teddy Boys were prevalent in the 1950s as young people gained employment and became independent earlier in the post-war era.

  • Immigrant communities brought different cultures, music and fashion to Britain, creating youth subcultures and diversifying the country.

  • Youth cultures in the 1960s and 1970s came to be associated with anti-establishment protests such as campaigns for Nuclear Disarmament and against the Vietnam War, mainly due to the rise in education creating groups of like-minded young people.

  • In the 1960s, two major subcultures emerged, the Mods and Rockers. They were rivals and were often associated with violent clashes between each other.

  • The progression of subcultures helps to understand the changing social situations of young people throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Civil rights

In the post-war era, Britons strived to realise the society they had fought for; this included empowering marginalised groups with civil rights and equality movements.

  • Britain's fight for LGBTQ+ rights gained traction when the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised homosexual activity between men.

  • The first gay pride rally was held in London in 1972 and protested inequality against members of the LGBTQ+ community.

  • The rise in immigration led to a more diverse British population, which increased the demand for racial civil rights for all members of society.

  • Feminism in Britain also developed in the 1960s, with the birth control pill being made available in 1961 and the legislation of the 1967 Abortion Act and the 1969 Divorce Reform Act. This allowed women in the 20th century greater freedoms in society and helped develop the Permissive Era's sexual, moral, and social revolution.

Permissive era

The sexual liberation of the 1960s lent Britain's culture the name of the Permissive Society. The sexual prudence of Christian moral values was another target of the anti-establishment movement and produced scandals and a move towards an open and more equal society.

  • The permissive era demonstrated how society was becoming more tolerant of marginalised groups from all backgrounds, including LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, and women.

  • A famous case from this time was the Profumo Affair between 1961-3, which involved an MP's affair and other factors such as parliamentary sleaze and Russian spying. The scandal can be associated with the rise of Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1964.

  • Britain's permissive society also demonstrated a move away from the Christian values of British history and towards secularism. Christianity was associated with justifications for colonialism, racism and sexism and hence became a nominal part of British society rather than its key religion.

Secularism

The belief that religious values should not influence state matters; indifference to religion

The Troubles

The late 1960s also saw the rise of a period known as "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Related to the Irish Catholic rejection of Protestant Britain's rule of Ireland, the Troubles arose during the time of anti-establishment against the British government.

  • The paramilitary group of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) wanted to reunify Northern and Republic of Ireland against British rule. The 'Provisional' IRA was formed in 1969 and led attacks against the British Army and a terrorist bombing campaign in Northern Ireland and mainland England.

  • 30 January 1972 was known as 'Bloody Sunday' and marks a significant event where the British Army shot and killed peaceful protesters. Anglo-Irish relations were at their worst.

  • The first ceasefire between Catholic Republican and Loyalist Protestant forces was called in 1994 but was broken two years later by IRA bombings in 1996. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement agreed on how Northern Ireland should be governed and arguably brought an end to the Troubles.

History of 20th Century Britain Summary

The World Wars caused a major upheaval in British society, leading to the end of the British Empire and a revision of moral, social and political values in the United Kingdom. In the second half of the 20th century, attitudes changed away from pre-War values toward a more liberal and tolerant society that was unrecognisable from pre-war Britain. As Modern Britain entered the later stages of the 20th century, society was increasingly adapting to its new cultural focuses, which led to further clashes with inequality and the government.

Britain 20th Century - Key Takeaways

  • Society at the end of the 20th century was unrecognisable due to the concentration of events that occurred throughout the 1900s. Key events include the World Wars, which brought significant changes to societal opinion and rocked the previously established systems of Britain.
  • Welfare Reform began in the early 1900s in response to poor living standards caused by the Industrial Revolution. After WWII, there was a move to the political left with the election of Attlee's Labour government and the welfare state was created. There was also an upheaval in the class system and growing trends towards equality.
  • There was a crucial change in attitudes towards the Empire: the dissolution of the British Empire is seen to have begun with India's Independence in 1947 and signalled a triumph for anti-colonial movements. An increase in immigration to Britain followed, which led to movements for civil rights, and an overall liberalisation of attitudes to marginalised groups.
  • Women gained significant status in the 20th century after demonstrating female power during WWI when they took on male roles in society. Women's suffrage was partially achieved in 1918 and paved the way for future gender equality. Reform in the 1960s saw progress for feminism and LGBTQ+ rights in Britain.
  • The Permissive Era demonstrated a change in Britons' moral, sexual, and cultural values. The increasing secularisation of Britain helped to support the era of Anti-Establishment in the second half of the 20th century, defined by youth subcultures and protest movements.
  • The Troubles in Northern Ireland demonstrated a rebellion against the British presence in Ireland and saw a rise in the domestic conflict in the UK. The violence demonstrated in Northern Ireland can be seen as an extension of the anti-establishment era.

Frequently Asked Questions about Britain 20th Century

A lot happened in 20th-century Britain. The country experienced two major world wars, its empire crumbled, social reforms changed the class system, the population diversified, and people fought for new equalities.

  • Women gained more rights, including the right to vote.
  • World War I and II
  • Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in Britain
  • Social and educational reform
  • Improvements in healthcare and the creation of the NHS

Britain went through a significant transformation in the 20th century, particularly in social reforms. Groups fought for equality and gained some rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community. However, there were still many barriers for these groups.

It started on 1 January 1901 and ended on 31 December 2000.

Ordinary people’s lives became more comfortable in the latter part of the 20th century due to several social reforms and increased wealth. However, there were still many problems and barriers in day to day life. Recessions caused high youth unemployment, and black people and members of the LGBTQ+ faced continuous discrimination and prejudice.

Final Britain 20th Century Quiz

Question

When was the foundation laid for the beginning of the British Empire?

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In 1497, with successful explorations under the reign of Henry VIII.

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What were the reasons for wanting an empire?

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Finding new countries and building colonies meant more land. The colonies would provide England with valuable materials such as metals, sugar, and tobacco, which in turn could be used by the empire itself or it could be sold to other countries.

 

The colonies would also offer wealthy Englishmen money-making opportunities, and it provided jobs and new places to live for those who needed it.

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When and where did Britain try to set up a colony first?


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In 1585 and 1587. Both were in Roanoke, Virginia, North America.

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When was Britain's first permanent colony settled and where?


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In 1607, in Jamestown, Virginia, North America.

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Where did the placename Virginia come from?


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From one of Queen Elizabeth I's nicknames: the Virgin Queen.

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Where did the placename Jamestown come from?


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From James VI of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland, who was King of Scotland, England, and Ireland at the time

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What did the Atlantic slave trade involve?


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it involved the transportation of slaves from Africa, mainly to the Americas.

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What was the Atlantic slave trade, and what did the middle passage mean?


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The Atlantic slave trade sailed in a particular triangular route between Europe, Africa, and the Americas and the middle passage was the middle part of the three-part journey, which was the most treacherous part.

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Question

What was the biggest event in standing up against slavery?


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The Haitian Revolution, which lasted 13 years, from 23 August 1791 to 1 January 1804.

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Name the two prominent British abolitionists who played a vital role in the successful campaign against slavery.


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  1. Thomas Clarkson
  2. William Wilberforce

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What is the Slave Trade Act of 1807?


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The act made sure that it was against the law for any British ship or subject to trade in enslaved people.

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When did full enslavement end?


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1838

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What is regarded as the beginning of the end of the British Empire?

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India's independence in 1947.

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Which British politician continued the process of ending the empire?


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Harold Macmillan

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What is the name of the famous speech Macmillan gave in South Africa in 1960?


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The 'wind of change' speech.

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The majority of colonies gained independence peacefully. Which two are the exception?

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  1. The Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s
  2. The events in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)

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Name the six cultural marks left across the former British colonies.


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  1. The English language
  2. Sports
  3. Religion
  4. Migration
  5. Imperial System
  6. Driving

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What was the effect on Britain after losing the empire?


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There were no real effects, the exception being that now Britain was not paying unnecessary money to upkeep its colonies.

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What is the Commonwealth?


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It is a voluntary association of 54 member states. Almost all the member states are former British colonies.

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How many member states is Queen Elizabeth II head of state of?

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15

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When does the British youth culture as we know it today start?

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In the 1920s.

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What made the youth market rise?

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The increase in spending power of the youth in the 1920s and 1930s. Youth were in demand for jobs as they were relatively inexpensive.

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What are the four changes in the 1920s and 1930s?

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  1. The flappers (Figure 1): women, especially single women, were employed in factories during World War I, earning a wage and gaining independence. Women showed their newfound confidence and independence with a new fashion style: the flapper, a style that shocked society, with short haircuts and short skirts.
  2. More emphasis was placed on appearance, physique, and hygiene for both boys and girls.
  3. Hollywood in Britain: films from early Hollywood were shown in British cinemas, influencing the language and behaviour of youth. The films also led young people to take up smoking.
  4. Dance halls provided perfect opportunities to meet the opposite sex and dance in a wild, animalistic way imported from the US.
  5. The (increased) wages of the youth made the above changes possible.

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What are the five post-war changes?

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In the postwar period, there were five major changes:

  1. Economic change: the purchasing power and consumer spending of youth increased.

  2. Changes in education: the school-leaving age was raised to 15, which, along with increasing youth employment, paved the way for the emergence of youth tribes in postwar Britain.

  3. Windrush migrants: Immigrants brought new cultures, music, and fashions with them and influenced youth culture. Migration also led to unrest and tension between the black and white communities, resulting in other, less positive youth cultures.

  4. ‘The wild ones’: during this time, youth were referred to as ‘the wild ones.” Teens rebelled, were immature, and often disobeyed their parents.

  5. Mass media also played its part in creating a separate teenage culture. They focused more on their friends than on their families.

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Why is Americanisation important?

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Many youth cultures in Britain had its origins in American youth cultures.

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What economic changes do we see in the 1950s?

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World War II still had a major economic impact on many people in Britain, both because the war itself and the reconstruction of Britain were expensive and because of austerity measures. Among teenagers, on the other hand, we see an increase in leisure-oriented consumerism. Teenagers who had an income spent a lot of money on clothes, records, concerts, makeup, and magazines.

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Name the three youth cultures from the 1950s.

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  1. Teddy Boys.
  2. Hipsters and ravers.
  3. Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

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What was one of the biggest social changes in the 1960s?

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The end of conscription. Young men were no longer obliged to into the army, meaning they had more free time.

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What is the economic change of the 1960s?

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There was a big rise in youth employment, meaning more youngsters had money to spend.

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What is the counterculture?

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The counterculture was an anti-establishment cultural movement that first gained momentum in the US but quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. There were widespread social tensions regarding issues such as human sexuality and women's rights, which were addressed in the counterculture.

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What are the four youth cultures of the 1960s?

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  1. Mods.
  2. Rockers.
  3. Hippies.
  4. Skinheads.

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What were parents concerned about in the 1970s?

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British parents were getting more concerned with the hippie morality of freedom, love, and drugs.

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What was the economic change in the 1970s?

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The 1970s saw a recession that led to massive youth unemployment.

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What are the four youth cultures of the 1970s?

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  1. Skinheads.
  2. Punks.
  3. Glam rockers.
  4. Sound system culture.

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Name a darker side of the social scale in the 1980s.

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The darker side of the social scale was the high levels of unemployment and inner-city deprivation. Black British youth were hit hard, and heavy-handed policing and racism did not help matters, leading to several riots.

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What are the four youth cultures of the 1980s?

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  1. The New Romantics.
  2. Punks.
  3. Goths.
  4. The Casuals.

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What is a nickname given to the Y and Z Generation, and why did they get this nickname?

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They were nicknamed Generation’ E’ because the drug ecstasy (MDMA), also known as ‘E’ spread across Britain’s dance floors.

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What is 'Cool Britannia' and was it successful?

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Cool Britania was a period in the late 1990s that saw a renaissance or rebirth of British art, fashion, design and music. In 1997, newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted to create a ‘New Britain’, and he sought to tap into the energy and enthusiasm of contemporary youth culture.


While the British youth culture became big business, it was not successful. The reason was that many of the big names in British pop culture backed out due to the government not fulfilling its promise to help the young and the poor.

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While there was one youth culture in the 1990s, namely the Lads, what was different about the youth culture in the 1990s compared to previous decades?

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No other youth cultures emerged in this decade. Some youth cultures continued, but the majority of the youth cultures were now about leisure rather than an act of expressing oneself.

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What was the last youth culture of the early 2000s?

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The Chavs.

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What happened in 1921 that played a key role in the beginning of the Troubles?

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The British Army came to the North

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How much power did Stormont have over the North after its establishment?

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Complete control over all legislative areas

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What was the initial goal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920?

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The British Government hoped it would make nationalists reluctant to challenge their status again

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What are paramilitaries?

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Government-funded mini-armies

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What happened in October 1968 that marked the unofficial 'start' of the Troubles?

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Answer

A peaceful protest in Derry was stopped by police officers

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What caused Nationalists to lose faith in the RUC on 1st January 1969?

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Answer

RUC officers refused to attend a nationalist rally

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What major change did the Battle of the Bogside bring to the North?

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Answer

Significant increase in paramilitary activity

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What did the British Army introduce that lost them favour with nationalists?

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Answer

Curfews

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What was being protested when Bloody Sunday began?

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Answer

Internment without trial

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Question

What does it mean when a 'proscription' is lifted from a group?

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Answer

The group can run for seats in government

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