Policy Papers

Unequal Britain: equalities in Britain since 1945

Pat Thane |

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Executive Summary

  • Despite the political rhetoric about Britain's traditions of 'liberty' and 'tolerance', the UK actually has a long history of inequality and discrimination on grounds of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
  • Yet awareness of these different forms of discrimination has been uneven and historians can contribute significantly to understanding the factors which have inhibited it or driven it forward.
  • The first major advances came during the long period of prosperity after 1945, which led to a more confident, less deferential and more open-minded nation: groups which had until then been at best objects of philanthropic concern, and at worst criminalised and persecuted, began organising and speaking for themselves.
  • Partly in response to this there was a remarkable run of legislation in the late 1960s under Labour governments, much of it initiated by backbenchers, but which could not have passed without government support.
  • This in turn stimulated larger-scale, more colourful campaigning during the 1970s and the emergence of new campaigning groups.
  • After Britain joined what was then the European Community, these groups were able to use the European Court of Human Rights to challenge UK legislation, culminating in another wave of reforms promoting equality under a new Labour government after 1997.
  • However, progress in legal protection has not translated directly into social, cultural and political equality.
  • One of the key inhibitors has been the persistence of hostility and prejudice, reinforced and reflected by some sections of the media.
  • Meanwhile, one of the key drivers toward equality has been organised activism by people experiencing inequality, with the support of others, and using media opportunities that were unthinkable in 1946.
  • This paper briefly considers the latest stage in the UK's progress towards equality: the Equality Act 2010.


As the Equality Bill goes through parliament we should reflect on why it is now possible for a government credibly to propose a statutory duty on public authorities to address the inequalities experienced by members of their workforce and the communities due to their gender, race, religion, age disability, sexual orientation or socio-economic difference, and to ban discrimination on many of these grounds. Even at the end of the Second World War most of these issues were not seriously regarded as dimensions of inequality. Since then, there have been greater changes than at any time in British history in public perceptions of such inequalities.

In 1945 inequalities of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability were deep-rooted, taken-for-granted facts of British culture, rarely openly discussed or challenged even by most of those who suffered from them. There has since been a remarkable growth in recognition that these inequalities exist and are unjust and some long marginalised groups have acquired legal rights, entitlements, social respect and cultural recognition to a degree unimaginable in 1945, though substantial inequalities remain. How and why have these changes happened? Why are they still incomplete? What are the continuing obstacles to change? And can history help us to understand how further change can come about? What follows is based upon a report prepared by historians in the Centre for Contemporary British History and the History & Policy network, commissioned by the Equalities Review team at the Cabinet Office, which requested answers precisely to these questions, now edited by Pat Thane as Unequal Britain. Equalities in Britain since 1945 (Continuum 2010).

The long history of discrimination

All these forms of inequality and discrimination have long histories. Jews were expelled from England from 1290 until the seventeenth century. The Aliens Act, 1905, the first official restriction of immigration by people not of British nationality, was designed to restrict the immigration of Jews fleeing from persecution in eastern Europe. Roman Catholics were unable to stand for parliament until 1829, despite their substantial numbers in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; or Jews until 1859. Buggery became a hanging offence in 1533 and by the early nineteenth century more men were hanged for homosexual offences than for murder. Gypsies have been simultaneously romanticised and marginalised throughout recorded history. Older and disabled people have always been among the poorest groups in society, discrimination against them largely taken for granted. In his influential and largely humane report of 1942, Social Insurance and Allied Services, William Beveridge could comment, without facing public criticism: 'it is dangerous to be in any way lavish to old age until adequate provision has been assured for all vital needs, such as prevention of disease and the adequate nutrition of the young'. By 'lavish' he meant paying a state pension adequate for more than basic needs, which was not, in fact, forthcoming following his report. Disabled people, especially those who were mentally disabled, benefited least from the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948, though in the early 1950s they occupied half of all hospital beds, often in bleak conditions. Women - not a minority but a majority group through most of British history - had been protesting about inequality for at least a century and had, at last, by 1928, achieved the vote on equal terms with men. But still in 1945 they tended at all ages to be poorer, with more limited opportunities in all spheres of life, than men. Some women kept on campaigning through the 1940s and 1950s, for example for equal pay, which they gained in the public sector in 1955.

Other excluded groups were not wholly silent. Pensioners had been organising to fight for higher pensions since the mid 1930s. The first activist group of Black people in Britain, the League of Coloured Peoples, was formed in 1931; the Indian Workers' Association in 1938. Jews resisted fascists led by Oswald Mosley in East London in the 1930s. The British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology was founded in 1914 to lobby for more enlightened views on homosexuality - deliberately decorously named because it was an issue on which it was almost impossible to speak out publicly. The organisations now known as MENCAP and MIND were founded in 1946 to campaign for improved treatment of mentally ill people and those who were then known as 'backward children'.

Post-war prosperity and Labour reforms

But all these groups were small and marginal in 1945. How did they acquire stronger voices? When Attlee's Labour government was elected in 1945 it prioritised economic inequality over other social forms because the facts of mass poverty were so stark. By the 1960s the grosser manifestations of poverty had been eliminated. Other inequalities became more salient and the victims gained voices. One effect of post-war prosperity and improved health and education was a more confident, less deferential and, in some respects, more open-minded nation. The mass media, too, were more assertive and anxious for sensational stories of whatever kind.

In the 1960s groups who were at best, objects of philanthropic concern and at worst, criminalised and persecuted, began organising and speaking for themselves as never before. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was formed in 1958, in the wake of the 1957 Wolfenden Report on prostitution and homosexual offences (whose recommendations to tighten up the law relating to the former were followed by the government, while those to liberalise the law relating to the latter were not). The Minorities Research Group, campaigning for lesbians, was formed in 1963, again deliberately obscurely named; the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination was formed in 1964, following increased immigration, mainly from Commonwealth countries from the late 1940s, and some racist responses; the Disablement Income Group was founded in 1965; the Gypsy Council, in 1966, in a pub displaying an all-too-common 'No Gypsies' sign. The Women's Liberation Movement (formed 1969) made the demand for gender equality a significant public force again. The Gay Liberation Front, formed 1970, did the same, for the first time feeling able to claim publicly that they were 'Good As You'.

The very existence of these organisations, and their increasing visibility in the 1970s, suggests that the previous lobbying of their quieter predecessors had had a certain success and that cultural shifts were in progress, internationally, which gave them all the confidence to 'come out'. An important sign of this was the remarkable run of legislation in the late 1960s, under a Labour government, pre-dating the emergence of more militant movements. The Race Relations Act, 1965, set up the Race Relations Board to investigate complaints of unlawful discrimination, changed in 1968 to the Community Relations Commission with extended powers. Also in 1968 local authorities were required to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers following reports of persecution. 'Homosexual acts' were partially decriminalised in 1967, when abortion was also legalised, a long-standing demand of women's groups. A response to another old demand for gender equality, the Equal Pay Act, came in 1970. In the same year the Chronically Sick and Disabled Act required local authorities to register disabled people and publicise services for them. Cash benefits for disabled people and their carers were introduced and improved community services encouraged. The provision was limited, but was improved in 1975 when Labour returned to office. Much of this legislation was initiated by backbenchers, but could not have passed without government support.

This unusual spate of legislation acknowledged and began to address fundamental inequalities and brought them into the public arena, but did not eradicate them. Rather they stimulated larger-scale, more colourful campaigning during the 1970s and the emergence of new campaigning groups. In 1979 the Trades Union Congress formed the National Pensions Convention and older people increasingly campaigned against the continuing low level of state pensions which left a high proportion of them dependent on means-tested supplements. A newly public group, Transvestites and Transsexuals, became increasingly open in their demands for legal rights. Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League were formed in 1977, militantly opposing continuing racism and the re-emergence of far-right political parties.

The importance of Europe

After Britain joined what was then the European Community in 1973, Europe became a new force for equality in the UK. Campaigning groups increasingly used the European Courts to challenge UK legislation. In 1980 Scotland decriminalised private homosexual acts as England and Wales had done in 1967, following years of campaigning and a case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by the Scottish Homosexual Reform Group. In the same year Northern Ireland's laws on homosexuality were also ruled in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and in 1982 decriminalisation was extended to Northern Ireland. The age of consent for gay men was reduced to 18 in the UK in 1994 following another ruling in the ECHR. Another ruling in the ECHR led in 1999 to the lifting of the government ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces.

European court rulings in the 1980s, in cases brought with the support of the Equal Opportunities Commission, (established under the Sex Discrimination Act, 1975, itself thought to have been a response to European pressure), guaranteed equal pay for certain groups of women workers and led to a new Sex Discrimination Act in 1986, which outlawed discrimination in collective bargaining agreements and extended anti-discrimination law to small businesses. English Gypsies and Irish Travellers were successful in the British courts (where many of the above cases had failed) in 1988 in gaining legal recognition as an ethnic minority and acquiring protection under the Race Relations Act. Since 2000, when the 1998 Human Rights Act incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law, some Gypsies and Travellers have used it to oppose or delay eviction from their sites.

In 2000 ECHR ruled that transsexuals' self-designated gender should have legal status and in 2002 that the British government was in breach of the human rights of trans people to marry and enjoy respect for their private lives. In 2004 the UK Gender Recognition Act gave people the legal right to live in their acquired gender, including to marry. These changes owed much to the transsexual lobby group, Press for Change, formed in 1994 and led by lawyers. In 2006 the Labour government - rather reluctantly, and in a limited way - implemented the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations, introduced as part of a European initiative against age discrimination in the workplace. The Campaign against Age Discrimination in Retirement had been demanding an end to mandatory retirement ages since 1988 but was disappointed that the British regulations applied only to those under age 65.

From 1997, again under a Labour government, there was a succession of legislative reforms promoting equality, often impelled by campaigning groups or initiatives from Europe. Apart from those described above, unprecedented safeguards against racial and religious hatred were introduced when the Race Relations Act was extended in 2000 to include the police and all public authorities and outlawed indirect and direct discrimination. This followed the outcry over the police mishandling of the inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Anti-Muslim sentiment following the 9/11 and the July 2005 bombings in London led to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, 2006, creating for the first time the offence of 'inciting religious hatred'. There were serious and successful efforts by the Labour Party to increase the very low representation of women in the Labour Party with the use of All Women Shortlists in 1993. In 2006 a Public Sector Duty for Gender Equality was introduced. From 2003, workplace discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation became illegal, extended in 2006 to all businesses involved in the provision of goods and services, creating ongoing tensions with providers who have asserted their right not to offer services to gay men and lesbians on religious grounds. In 2004 the historic crimes of buggery and gross indecency were finally abolished and the Civil Partnership Act gave same sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as married heterosexual couples. A series of laws, including the Disability Equality Duty Act, 2006, extended the legal rights of disabled people and their protection from discrimination.

In 2007 all of these groups came within the remit of the newly established Equality and Human Rights Commission, which brought together the laws and statutory bodies that had emerged over the previous 40 years to deal with equality issues. Their proliferation was causing confusion. Also it was recognized that the different forms of inequality were not mutually exclusive: a disabled Gypsy woman, for example could suffer multiple deprivations, subject to different laws.

Continuing inequalities

But real progress in legal protection has not simply translated into social, cultural and political equality. Among many continuing inequalities, mothers of young children, particularly Bangladeshi and Pakistani women, fare particularly badly in the employment market and there is pervasive gender inequality in pay and employment opportunities despite the relative and increasing success of women of all ethnic groups at all levels of education. Recognition that discrimination against older people exists at all has penetrated more slowly than awareness of other forms of discrimination. Older people themselves have been slow to acknowledge that they deserve better treatment and accusations of age and gender discrimination among broadcasters remain pervasive. Religion, more than race, has become a serious fault-line since 9/11. Gypsies and Travellers still have the worst social outcomes of any ethnic group, in terms of education, health and the labour market. Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transsexual people (LGBT) still experience prejudice and bullying. Mental illness remains stigmatised. Hate crime against disabled people, including those with learning difficulties, is all too frequent.

One of the key inhibitors to equality throughout the period since 1945 has been the persistence of hostility and prejudice, reinforced and reflected by some sections of the media. The other major inhibitor is the poverty and cultural isolation that often accompanies social inequality. Economic inequality remains at least as severe as cultural inequality and will not be removed by anti-discrimination legislation and institutions. Hence its inclusion in the Equality Bill is welcome.


But much has changed for the better since 1945. The main drivers towards equality have been:

  • organised activism by people experiencing inequality, supported by others;
  • government institutions established by legislation to promote equality;
  • Labour governments, which have taken more action to further equality than Conservative ones, sometimes against the preferences of voters, as in the late 1960s;
  • the EU and European Courts;
  • cultural change, in particular the effects of higher standards of living and education, increased social confidence, diminished deference and more relaxed social and sexual attitudes;
  • the media, in particular its new and expanding forms, which can give a voice to people experiencing inequality;
  • technological change, in particular in facilitating equal living for disabled and older people.

'Good As You' could have been the campaign slogan of any of the groups whose experience in the recent past is surveyed above. This is what they have all aspired to, in different ways, on different timescales and with different, though all, to some degree positive, outcomes. None has yet achieved the degree of cultural and legal equality they aspire to. But since 1945, especially since the 1960s, they have come closer - some more than others - above all, by making their own voices heard as never before and using media opportunities unthinkable in 1946. This legacy of successfully speaking-up is perhaps their best guide for the future.

Now that the Equality Bill has passed all stages in parliament and has received Royal Assent it is clear that it builds on the experience of the past decades, further extending protection against discrimination, learning from the weaknesses revealed in previous laws by everyday experience, including in the law courts where recent case law has weakened discrimination protection. It also allows ministers to amend UK Equality legislation to comply with European law without the need for primary legislation. Among other things, it provides powers to extend age discrimination protection outside the workplace; extends protection from discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment to school pupils; and provides for legislation requiring that employers review gender pay differences within their oprganizations and publish the results.

Further Reading

E. Breitenbach and P. Thane (eds), Women and Citizenship in Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century. What Difference did the Vote Make? (London: Continuum, forthcoming 2010).

S.Childs, J.Lovenduski and R.Campbell, Women at the Top 2005: Changing Numbers, Changing Politics (London: Hansard Society, 2005).

N. Crowson, M. Hilton and J. McKay (eds), NGOs in Contemporary Britain: Non-State Actors in Society and Politics since 1945 (London: Palgrave, 2009).

Equalities Review, Fairness and Freedom: the final report of the Equalities Review (Cabinet Office, 2007)

B. Taylor, A Minority and the State: Travellers in Britain in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

P. Thane (ed.), Unequal Britain. Equalities in Britain since 1945 (London: Continuum, 2010).

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