Changes within Living Memory

Reference guide for primary

Published: 13th January 2011

Britain since 1930

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Post-1930s Britain has been transformed by a technological revolution ranging from the atom bomb and space travel to the internet, laptop computers, DVDs and mobile phones. Communications technology in its various forms has permeated every aspect of life in Britain.

The past 75 years have seen Britain change from a predominantly manufacturing to a service economy: mining and factory production have been overtaken by the financial, entertainment and catering industries. In the late 1940s there were one million coal miners in Britain; by the 1990s there were more actors (and more workers in Indian restaurants) than miners, and Britain had become a wealthy consumer society.

Major themes

The full establishment of the welfare state

This ensured that all inhabitants of Britain were entitled to free health care, education and social care. The result has been improved health and increasing longevity. In 2007 people over 100 became the fastest-growing age group in the UK.

Privatisation of industries

Steady privatisation from the 1980s onward of nationalised industries such as coal, gas, steel, railways and telephones.

Growing equality for women

In particular, greater working opportunities for women and changed attitudes to their role in society. Women also gained more power over their lives thanks partly to better birth control methods and inventions that reduced time spent on housework.

Growth of popular culture

Including cinema, television, music, dancing, bingo.

Increased liberalisation of laws

For example the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, and the recent legalisation of same-sex marriages.

Population growth and diversity

Britain's history is one of settlement from abroad, from the ancient Beaker people, Celts and Romans to the 20th century's post-war immigrants who have come from around the world but are dominated by people from the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Population movement

Between 1930 and 1980 emigration outstripped immigration as Britons in search of a better life left the UK to settle in North America or Britain's (ex)-colonies. This trend has now been reversed. Internally, too, there has been greater mobility of people. Britain's largest cities experienced drops in population, as people moved to the suburbs and satellite towns. By the beginning of the 21st century there was a significant difference in wages between the north and south of the UK, as people moved south after the closure of many of the large northern industries.

Links with Europe

On the wider stage, the period saw Britain joining the European Union, although the UK has retained its traditionally ambiguous attitude towards Europe. The recent campaign to leave the European Union (Brexit) has been very divisive. 

Conversely, the experiences of two world wars strengthened Britain's belief in the ‘special relationship' with the USA. World War II was the largest and most devastating war of the period for Britain. However, she has sent her troops to fight in several smaller conflicts since 1950 ( including Korea, Suez, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq) as well as in her colonies in Asia and Africa.


Britain's extensive empire came to an end, sometimes involving armed conflict. Most of her former colonies joined her in a loose Commonwealth with the Queen at its head.

Questions to ask

  • How has Britain changed since 1930?
  • Has Britain changed for the better since 1930?

Outline history of Britain and wider world since 1930

The period divides nicely into decades, with each decade having its distinctive character.


Britain: the Depression, hunger marches by workers, 3 million Britons emigrated in search of a better life abroad. Wider world: rise of Hitler, persecution of Jews in Germany, rise of Fascism, Spanish Civil War. Growth of new industries like radios, fridges, cars for those who can afford it. Arguments over appeasement.


Britain: fighting a world war: the Home Front, the Blitz, Churchill, evacuation of city children to the countryside. Post-war, the welfare state introduced.

Wider world: World War II, dropping of the first atomic bombs - on Japan. Post-war, the Iron Curtain dividing Eastern and Western Europe and the start of the Cold War; founding of Israel and beginning of the enduring conflict in the Middle East.


Britain: slow recovery from the War. Festival of Britain (1951), Queen Elizabeth II crowned (1953). Immigration from the Caribbean. First motorway opens. Teenagers invented. Rock and roll. Start of decolonisation.

Wider world: the Korean War and the Suez Crisis. Space age begins with launch of Sputnik. The Arms Race between Russia and the West.


Britain: rising prosperity (Macmillan, Prime Minister 1957-1963: ‘You've never had it so good'). The Beatles phenomenon; the 'Swinging 60s'. Comprehensive education introduced. Abortion and homosexuality legalised. Asians from Commonwealth countries come to Britain, including those from Africa escaping persecution by leaders such as Uganda's Idi Amin.

Wider world: Global confrontation between communism and western liberalism/democracy (e.g. Vietnam War, Cuban Missile Crisis). In China, Mao's Cultural Revolution begins. Youth revolts all over the western world. Hippie counter-culture flourishes. First men land on the Moon.


Britain: Landmark Equal Pay Act advanced the cause of women's equality. Decimal coins introduced (1971). CND and Anti-Apartheid protests widespread. Punk rock. High taxation, economic weakness, crippling strikes. The Troubles in Northern Ireland begin. First test-tube baby born – in Oldham.

Wider world: Britain joins European Community. End of Vietnam War.


Britain: Margaret Thatcher the first female Prime Minister; 'Thatcherism'. Cult of individualism. Privatisation of nationalised industries, collapse of coal mining and large-scale manufacturing. Fragmentation of society.

Wider world: 1989 collapse of communism in Russia, fall of Iron Curtain, spread of AIDS, invention of desktop computers and the internet.


Britain: Prosperity of the majority. Church of England ordains its first women priests. Eastern Europeans arrive in large numbers as their countries join the European Union.

Wider world: Bosnian War between former Yugoslavian states. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait – First Gulf War.


Britain: crisis of confidence about British society – concerns about debt, immigration, inner-city crime, obesity, drugs.

Wider world: Al Quaida attacks American and other targets, e.g. 9/11 (2001). Results in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by US, Britain and some other countries. President Obama elected in USA.


Britain: 2012 Olympics in London, 2013 PS4 and X-Box One launched, 2016 referendum about leaving the European Union.

Wider world: 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, 2015 over 1 million electric cars worldwide, polio is eradicated, China becomes a superpower.

Teaching Britain since 1930

This unit offers a variety of opportunities to combine history, local and community studies, citizenship and indeed, most other subjects. The era is the only one where oral history can be used: older people will have lived through some or all of the period, and will be a valuable source of information about it. Many older people are more than happy to come into school, bringing photographs and other items to show the children and to answer their questions (see Magdalen Road).

The unit also provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate the diversity and richness of British society, to hear the voices and histories of families and children who have settled in Britain since 1930.

This is a unit with more information available than for any other period – it is rich in still images, film, music, stories, documents and objects, so selection can be difficult.

There is also a danger of over-emphasising specific aspects, if the children do not understand how these aspects fit into the overall picture. One way to establish an overview is to split the unit into decades, divide the class into groups, and give each group a decade to research. They then present the key headlines, features and themes of their decade to the rest of the class. This approach presents the children with a real challenge – to select what is significant and what is characteristic.

Most local studies libraries will almost certainly have a good selection of resources about World War II, from photographs to war notices and posters, from newspapers to personal reminiscences. Contact your local authority, too, as many have produced packs of resources for teaching themes such as the Home Front. There is some very good children's fiction that will enhance both literacy and history if the books are used as class readers. Books such as Goodnight Mr Tom, Carrie's War or The Silver Sword, for example, vividly depict the effect of the war on children and their families. For both history and personal and citizenship education, The Diary of Anne Frank is an unrivalled resource for understanding the Holocaust and the issues it raises for us as humans in society.

Key concepts

  • Economic depression
  • Welfare State
  • Immigration and Emigration
  • Technological revolution
  • Diversity
  • Privatisation
  • Consumer society
  • World War
  • Cold War
  • Decolonisation
  • Commonwealth
  • Global warming

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