Climate change and habitat loss present serious threats to nature. Yet, due to a lack of historical land-use data, the potential for land-use change and baseline land-use conditions to interact with a changing climate to affect biodiversity remains largely unknown. Here, we use historical land use, climate data and species observation data to investigate the patterns and causes of biodiversity change in Great Britain. We show that anthropogenic climate change and land conversion have broadly led to increased richness, biotic homogenization and warmer-adapted communities of British birds, butterflies and plants over the long term (50+ years) and short term (20 years). Biodiversity change was found to be largely determined by baseline environmental conditions of land use and climate, especially over shorter timescales, suggesting that biodiversity change in recent periods could reflect an inertia derived from past environmental changes. Climate–land-use interactions were mostly related to long-term change in species richness and beta diversity across taxa. Semi-natural grasslands (in a broad sense, including meadows, pastures, lowland and upland heathlands and open wetlands) were associated with lower rates of biodiversity change, while their contribution to national-level biodiversity doubled over the long term. Our findings highlight the need to protect and restore natural and semi-natural habitats, alongside a fuller consideration of individual species’ requirements beyond simple measures of species richness in biodiversity management and policy.