A primer on UK politics
by Ben P, Mon Feb 07, 2005 at 11:30:27 AM EST
To start, in the 19th century when British popular politics began, the Conservative party tended to represent aristocrats, rural communities, and the Anglican Church and was in favor of "national greatness" through empire, the monarchy, the military, and the "established" (Anglican) church. The Tories (as they are often called) were in favor of protectionism to buttress domestic agricultural and the idealized, hierarchical vision of Britain the rural order allegedly represented. To this day, many of themes still echo and are relevant to the Conservative party, especially its strength of support in rural Britain and a lingering sense of aristocratic "noblesse oblige" to the "less fortunate" that mean it is not a dogmatic capitalist party like the GOP, or at least to the extent the GOP is.
In contrast, the Liberal Party tended to represent the bourgeoisie of rising industrialists in cities like Manchester, the middle class (both small entrepreneurs and professionals), and more or less, the working classes as they became gradually enfranchised. The Liberals were in favor of free trade, the dimunition of the established churches priveleges, minimal government spending (including on the military) and the abolition of aristocratic and historical privelege. As to why the working classes generally supported this platform through the course of the 19th century is a very interesting question that is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that the working class saw government intervention as antithetical to their interests because of the view (with good reason) that government intervention in the working of British society tended to favor those with economic and historic power. Also, many in the working classes were members of "nonconformist" religions, meaning Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, etc., who were for much of the 19th century excluded in important ways in British society at the expense of the established Anglican church. As a final note, the Liberals - especially under the leadership of William Gladstone - were in favor of Irish "home rule" (or defacto independence) while the Conservatives were not. This issue was critical in breaking Liberal dominance of British politics in the late 19th century.
The 20th century has seen great changes to this original order. With the increasing urbanization and industrialization of British society, and especially with the rise of trade unions, the Labour Party came to prominence int he early part of the 20th century (it had formed around the turn of the century). With this development, the Liberal middle/working class coalition broke apart, as the Conservatives were able to succesfully reposition themselves as defenders of middle class interests against the specter of the Labour Party's alleged socialism and trade union militance. Although it was a more complicated process than I am suggesting (that involved key splits in its leadership - particularly during World War I) the Liberal Party was squeezed in the middle by this realignment of British politics along class lines, and had effectively become a minor party by the 1920s. It is of crucial importance to note the fundamental class basis of British politics that developed at this time. For all intents and purposes, Labour was (or at least perceived as) a working class party, and this continues to be a major reason why it is mistake to compare the Labour Party to the Democrats (too closely, at least).
The Labour Party formed two short-lived governments in the interwar period (1918-1939), but it was not until 1945 that the Labour Party was in power for any extended period of time. The Attlee government (1945-1951) basically finalized the construction of the British welfare state, creating the NHS (universal health care) and nationalizing several key industries (including coal mining and the railroads). While the Conservatives came back to power in 1951 - and in fact would be in power for much of the next half century - the Conservatives basically accepted the welfare state as it was defined by Attlee's Labour government, at least until Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Thus, while the Conservatives might have won elections, Labour won the argument.
Thatcher detroyed this settlement. Thatcher came to power in 1979, on the back of what many saw was a Britain in terminal decline, wracked by strikes, economic stagnation, overly high taxation, racism, imperial decline, and a whole series of other issues. Although I was only 3 at the time, people tell me it is difficult to understand the kind of turmoil British society was experiencing at the time, much worse than anything the US has experienced since probably the 1930s. In some ways, Thatcher and the Conservatives had the good fortune of being out of power during the late 70s crisis, as Labour largely got shouldered in the public mind with the series of problems of which they probably only had a little bit of direct responsibility for. Still, whatever the case may be, Thatcher came to power and in her 10 plus years in office, set about dismantling key elements of Attlee's "New Jerusalem," privatizing a series of previously nationalized industries, lowering taxes, selling previously state owned council housing to its tenents, etc.. But key elements of the welfare state were left untouched, particularly the NHS. While many - and not just her supporters - have acknowledged (if only grudgingly) the importance and beneficience of at least some of her pro-market reforms, Thatcher's legacy was in many ways surprisingly bad for the Conservative Party. Why is this, you may ask? Well, for two reasons. Firstly, while Thatcher frequently commanded strong commons majorities during the 80s, the size of the Conservative parties majorities masked the fact that the Conservative Party traditional bases of support - rural areas, the Anglican Church, people with strong cultural ties to an "old" England (think "Masterpiece Theater" style British culture) were shrinking - while Thatcher did a lot to alienate many of the growing constituencies of "modern" Britain through her personal style of old-fashioned Victorian rectitude and "stiff upper lip" Englishness that in many ways her economic reforms were doing much to disintegrate. But secondly, she forced the Labour Party to reposition itself.
The Labour Party, to say the least, experienced a bit of a crisis in the 1980s. In the wake of their 1979 general election defeat, the Party decided to swing markedly to the left (or not so much "decided," but key leftist elements in the party won control) and became in many ways more left wing than it ever had been. As a result, the "right wing" of the Labour Party led by MPs like Roy Jenkins and Shirely Foot split the Party to form the new Social Democratic Party. The SDP formed an alliance with the long-beleagured Liberal Party - who typically won less than 10% of the vote in post WWII elections - for the 1983 general election, an alliance that would eventually coalesce into today's Liberal Democratic Party. In social terms, the SDP/Liberal alliance cum LDP found its base of support primarily amongst the middle class, who disliked Thatcher (even if they agreed with some of her reforms) while they found the Labour Party's program of socialism to be unacceptable. In the short term, this new party split opposition to Thatcher, having the effect of making the Conservatives seem electorally stronger than they ever really were. As an aside, it is important to note the fundamental amorphousness of the Liberal Democrats social base of support, which in many ways consists of people who don't like the other two parties, not people who are passionately committed to Liberals in and of themselves. Also, it is important to note the fundamental MIDDLE-CLASSNESS of Liberal voters, who form the majority of their supporters, with some exceptions, particularly in Scotland.
After the 1983 debacle, in which the Labour Party won 27% of the vote, the Party began its slow move towards Tony Blair's New Labour, under the auspices at first of Neil Kinnock, who would lead the party gradually to the center while experiencing two GE defeats in 1987 and 1992, the 1992 defeat being particularly demoralizing, which led to Kinnock stepping down as Labour Party leader.
Finally, we come to Tony Blair and "New Labour." In some respects, Blair and the Labour Party were beneficiaries of the Conservative Party's problems, especially Thatcher's increasing megalomania (see for example the Poll Tax controversy) as well as the scandals and splits (particularly over Britain's role in Europe between Tory "europhiles" and "euroskeptics") during John Major's ill-begotten premiership. However, I think just viewing Labour success as a product of Tory failures is inaccurate. Blair and the Labour Party were able to capitalize on a series of important socio-cultural transformations Britain has experienced since the 1960s, trends the Conservatives have done little to understand and in many cases have been outright hostile too. These include the effect of immigration and the rise of a multicultural Britain (it is crucial to understand that Britain was almost a 100% "white" country as late as the 1950s), increasing globalization - especially the increased imbrecation of Britain in a broader Europe, the effect of three important NATION-WIDE youth cutural movements (the "sixties," the rise of punk, acid house and ecstasty culture - which I would add only one of which has been a truly national phenomenon in the US, a not unimportant distinction between the two countries), and the increasing breakdown of the social stigma attached to working class culture (something seen, for example, in the rise of football (soccer) as by far the most dominant sport in the nation). All of these trends have done much to alter the socio-cultural frames of reference for much of Britain, especially people under the age of fifty, and all of which the Conservatives have largely been oblivious or outright hostile to (as I noted already).
All this said - and even taking into account the decline in the economic basis of class division that have been so central to the nation since the industrial revolution - the Labour Party remains, at core, a working class party that governs for the benefit of the working class and the poor, while attracting the young, racial minorities, and middle class "reformer" types. Because of the Iraq War, Labour has lost some of the latter groups to the Liberal Democrats. But because the Liberal Democrats are a rather amorphous party based in the middle class, and because of the difficulites attached to being perceived as a "third" party, they will not replace Labour any time soon. The Conservatives are still in crisis as well, as they in large measure an aging party attached to a vision of British society that really no longer exists, augmented by Britain's very small smattering of neocons and radical freemarketers as well as by anti-Europe xenophobes and bigots (for whom the Conservatives need to compete with minor parties like UKIP - the UK Independence Party). The Conservatives remain a "major" party, but they have not yet figured out a way to adequately present themselves to a populace living in an increasingly multicultural, cosmopolitan society.
As a final note, both the Liberal Dems and Labour's economic, social, and cultural policies would put them on the left end of the democratic party - they would both be considered "out of touch with mainstream America." The Conservatives, in policy terms, range in American terms from moderate Dems to moderate/conservative Republicans like John McCain. Wingnuts don't exist, except in minor parties like UKIP.
I know this is a long post, so I hope there are people who are curious about British society!