Top Progressive Achievements of the 20th Century (UK): Pt1

15. Establishment of the Open University (1969)

open university

The OU’s provision of distance learning and its open entry policy, stating that previous academic achievement was no bar to course enrollment, allowed thousands of adults to gain qualifications while still in full or part-time employment. By widening access to higher education, the OU has arguably been a significant contributor to social mobility. Today the OU is the largest academic institution in the UK, with over 250,000 people enrolled in its courses.


14. Defeat of the Poll Tax (1990)

Photo Credit: eddymanzano via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: eddymanzano via Compfight cc

The Community Charge, also known as the poll tax, was introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government from 1989. A campaign of opposition, including an infamous riot in London’s Trafalgar Square, expressed the huge unpopularity of the tax, and contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. John Major announced the poll tax’s replacement by council tax in his first speech as Prime Minister.


13. Payment of MPs (1911)

‘Passing of the Parliament Bill’ drawing by S. Begg, 1911

Today, raising the salaries of MPs is not considered to be a popular or progressive thing to do, but before 1911, the lack of payment for parliamentary duties meant that only those wealthy enough to possess an independent income could enter politics. Payment for MPs was one of the chief demands of the Chartist movement for political reform, and was achieved with passage of the 1911 Parliament Act by Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government.


12. The National Minimum Wage (1998)

Licensed image from DepositPhotos
Licensed image from DepositPhotos

Created by an act of the same name in 1998, a national minimum wage of £3.60 per hour for adult workers over the age of 22 came into force on 1st April 1999. The policy was a key pledge in the Labour Party’s election-winning 1997 manifesto. Around one million workers are paid the minimum wage today.


11. Trade Disputes Act (1906)

A 1901 case brought by the Taff Railway Company made unions liable for damages caused by strikes

A crucial piece of legislation for trade unions, in that it prevented them from being pursued in the civil courts for damages incurred during strikes. The act was encouraged by several earlier legal judgements that had ruled otherwise and therefore threatened the principle of collective bargaining. This act essentially enshrined the ‘right to strike’ and was a cornerstone of union power.


10. Formation of the First Labour government (1924)

Ramsay MacDonald

The Conservative Party failed to win a majority in the 1923 general election, thus enabling Ramsay MacDonald to become the UK’s first Labour Prime Minister, with the support of the Liberal Party. The breakthrough was, however, short-lived, with the coalition collapsing after just 9 months. The infamous forged ‘Zinoviev letter’, claiming a link between Labour and Soviet communists, was blamed for the 1924 election defeat. Labour had to wait until 1929 for a return to government.


9. Decriminalisation of Homosexuality (1967)


The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 made private homosexual acts between two men exempt from prosecution, provided they were at least 21 years of age. It was proposed by MP Leo Abse and Lord Arran, in response to a rise in prosecutions of homosexuals, and following the recommendations of the 1957 Wolfenden Report which said that the state could not realistically control the private sexual affairs of consenting adults. The same freedom was not spread to Scotland and Northern Ireland until the 1980s. The act was the only major piece of LGBT rights legislation until the 1990s.


8. Comprehensive Education (1965)

Licensed image from DepositPhotos
Licensed image from DepositPhotos

Although some ‘experimental’ comprehensives had existed since 1946, it was during Anthony Crosland’s period as Secretary of State for Education in the mid-to-late 1960s that comprehensive education was first rolled out nationally. The logic of the comprehensive was to provide a common standard of education by ending the bipartite system of grammar schools and secondary moderns supported by the division of children by ability at age 11. By the mid-1970s, most schools had been converted, despite Conservative Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher ending the compulsion on local authorities to do so.


To be continued… sign up for blog updates to ensure you don’t miss the second half of ‘The Top Progressive Moments of the 20th Century’. What would you like to see included? Please leave a reply below!

Author: radicalteatowel

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3 thoughts on “Top Progressive Achievements of the 20th Century (UK): Pt1”

  1. Many pieces of legislation by the Liberal government of the start of the 20th century were arguably extremely significant as they kicked off the whole idea of the welfare state (pensions, union rights, job centres, house of lords reform etc) – hoping to see more of these in the second part!

  2. The formation of the first labour government might have been a “significant” event in terms of its being the first time a (partially) socialist government was elected in Britain, but can MacDonald’s ministry actually be credited with “achieving” much in terms of actual change? As this very post points out it was a short-lived disaster in political terms. It stands out from the other “achievements” listed here, and looks more than a little partisan.

  3. Many of these listed ‘achievements’ can be regarded as reformist and even enterprising, but ‘Progressive Achievements’?
    The payment of MPs (item 13) might have seemed an attainment in its day, but a touch of foresight would have warned that unless it was tied somehow to the salaries of other public sector workers (nurses or firemen or similar) it would abused, and it has been.
    If MPs in the 21st century were unpaid as a century ago, doing the job as a public service as they usually claim, they might have more regard for that public.

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