The economic development of Great Britain was characterized by a decline in competitiveness in the last third of the 19th century. This slowly eroded the foundations of British power, even if Great Britain was still able to maintain its position as the leading economic world power until the last quarter of the century, because the British economy continued to expand: imports rose from £ 133 million to £ 297 million in 1854-72. £, exports from £ 97 million to £ 256 million. According to Philosophynearby, the main imports were raw cotton from the USA and wheat. Agriculture mainly switched to the processing industry through animal husbandry, in 1870 already 43% of the cultivated soil was grassland. However, Britain maintained the lead in terms of the volume of foreign trade, merchant marine and foreign investment. Annual capital exports peaked in the 1880s. The merchant fleet grew to over 8 million GRT by 1900. Since 1896, Great Britain has been the only country to maintain free trade without protective tariffs.
In the years after 1873, however, the “Great Depression” marked a turning point. From then on, with the general fall in prices, profits fell. The former leading sectors of industrialization, the cotton and iron industries, began to suffer from sales difficulties. The competition grew on the world market; v. a. the US and Germany achieved growth rates that exceeded those of the UK. The production and export of industrial finished products were particularly hard hit; here the British share in world trade shrank from 41% (1880) to 19% (1913). At the same time the productivity rate of industrial labor fell. In particular in the new industries (chemistry, electrical industry), which indicated a further phase of industrialization, Great Britain was inferior to the competition from Germany and the USA.
In view of the small European power base of the island empire, maintaining peace among the great European powers was also an important prerequisite for British world empire policy, for which new course-setting had been announced since the 1870s. Disraeli acquired 9 ⁄ 20 of the shares in the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, in 1875. He got the Queen to assume the title of Empress of India in 1876 and intervened in 1878 when Russia strengthened Bulgaria after defeating the Turks. It came to the Berlin Congress under the chairmanship of Bismarck. Great Britain let Turkey grant itself to Cyprus; in South Africa it annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal in 1877, but released it again in 1881. Gladstone, again Prime Minister 1880–85, was opposed to an imperialist policy that Great Britain now pursued along with Germany and France, but developments urged him to consolidate British rule in Egypt in 1882 through troop intervention. The British colonial pioneers also ensured profits for their homeland. When Gladstone’s plans to resolve the Irish question (Homerule) failed in 1886, it split the Liberals. In 1895 they took over again after Disraeli’s death from R. Salisbury Conservatives run the government. The Queen’s anniversary in reign (1887) gave rise to the first of the British colonial conferences, which had been held since 1907 under the name Imperial Conferences.
Domestically, the Salisbury government continued the course of Disraeli by also democratizing rural administration through popularly elected county councils. On the Irish question, however, the Conservatives were only willing to undertake certain agrarian reforms. In 1895, J. Chamberlain joined Salisbury’s Second Cabinet, which had set itself the goal of tying the British Empire together to keep rising rivals such as the United States, Russia and the German Empire in check. But he and his followers failed with this project. It is true that the Boer War was waging (1899-1902) for the annexation of the two Boer republics to Great Britain’s South African possession, which in 1910 after the example of Canada (1867), Australia (1901) and New Zealand (1907) became Dominion, that is, part of a rather loose association of white settlement colonies with the Motherland, for which the Commonwealth designation, which was already used in O. Cromwell’s time, has prevailed since the First World War.
In order to maintain its independent position, Great Britain had not allowed itself to be included in the network of alliances (including the Triple Alliance 1882, the Reinsurance Treaty 1887) that v. a. Bismarck had knotted across continental Europe after 1870. But when, after its overthrow, the new German policy with its goal of a “place in the sun” questioned the European equilibrium and at the same time appeared as a competitor overseas, London gave up its previous “free hand policy” and now struggled with success, the potential for tension with its classic European rival France (1898/99 Faschoda crisis) and Russia to reduce. An agreement was reached with both of them on the delimitation of non-European spheres of interest, in 1904 in the so-called “Entente cordiale” (Entente) with France and in 1907 in negotiations with Russia. This made it possible for Great Britain to relocate the heavyweight of its fleet to the North Sea – to protect against the German Navy, which had been expanding since 1898 and which was a direct challenge for Great Britain, whose policy since 1889 (Naval Defense Act) expressly relied on the claim was directed that his fleet always had to be stronger than the sum of the maritime armed forces of the two subsequent sea powers (two-power standard). This led to extraordinary burdens when the German Reich with the transition to the ship type of Dreadnoughts was able to reduce the British lead. The construction of the Baghdad Railway also raised concerns, as Germany threatened to expand its influence to the Persian Gulf.
Edward VII (1901-10) had already contributed to the conclusion of the Entente cordiale. After his mother, Queen Victoria, died on January 22nd, 1901 after 63 years of reign, he proved that the ruler still had opportunities to play a role in politics, even within the constitutional limits.
The Liberals who came to power in 1905 remained in office for a decade. With them the younger, “imperialist” liberals now played the decisive role (Archibald Philip Primrose, Earl of Rosebery [* 1847, † 1929], E. Gray, R. Haldane). D. Lloyd George broke new ground: the wealthy classes, especially the large landowners, were burdened more heavily in order to be able to finance the new social policy as well as armaments (1908 old age pension, 1911 compulsory insurance against illness and unemployment).
Since the House of Lords had rejected the budget, its previous equality with the House of Commons was revoked in 1911: since then, financial laws no longer require its approval, and all others are now deemed to have been adopted if the House of Commons passed them in three successive sessions. The Labor Party emerged as a new domestic political factor at the turn of the century, with which the labor movement was integrated into the political party structure without fighting. On the other hand, the controversial question of the suffragettes’ right to vote for women remained until 1918 (after the electoral reform of that year women were allowed to vote from the age of 30, and only in 1928 did they receive the same right to vote as men).
Although, as a result of conservative legislation, most of the great British landed property in Ireland had passed into the hands of Irish farmers, the Irish question remained unsolved. A home rule law passed by the House of Commons in May 1914 could not be enforced because of various opposition in both Great Britain and Ireland. The outbreak of World War I postponed the decision.