A primer on UK politics

I was going to write this as comment responding to someone below, but realized it was going to be a very long comment because I was going to go back to the 19th century to explain British politics and why it is very difficult and not really appropriate to make direct analogies with the US system.

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 Conservative Party dominated British politics until 1945. It is important to note that the Conservative Party could not have achieved this dominance without attracting a significant minority of working class voters to its cause, largely through appeals to traditionalism, the monarchy, and patriotism, especially to workers not in unions. Their policies were in actuality quite centrist, as they in many ways facilitated the growth of the British welfare state, albeit at a rate much slower and at a level much less than the Labour Party advocated.

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!

Tags: Foreign Elections (all tags)



Very hopeful primer
There do seem to appear to be a few wing-nuts, although they are mostly Canadian imports.  Read: Lord Black.

I've always been interested in the Tory/Whig splits and utterly ignorant at the same time.  There were some very aristocratic Whig families.

As an Anglican, I do watch the rise of Evangelicals within the C of E alarming.  Unfortunately the liberals aren't really growing, and the evangelicals seem to be able to self fund in a way that the rest of the church can't.

I had a soft-spot for the post 1997/2001 Michael Portillo myself.

Matthew Parris is always going on about how many Tory Grandees looked down on Margaret Thatcher.  That may be why the class stuff broke down under her.

I made the point once that it seemed to me that the Liberals were very middle class.  An old friend of mine who is a Labour supporter (her father was a lawyer for coal miners suffering from black lung disease) always says that all the Liberals live on Boar's Hill and not in the East End.

I'm very interested in learning more about the Liberals in Scotland.  I haven't heard much about their ability to transcend their natural base in Scotland.  Does this have something to do with the failures of the Conservatives to win Cosnervative seats in Westminster representing Scottish constituencies?

by Abby 2005-02-07 11:49AM | 0 recs
Re: Very hopeful primer
Meant to write helpful, but it may be hopeful as well.
by Abby 2005-02-07 11:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Very hopeful primer
Another point about the LDP being very middle class, that is actually VERY common for small parties in the center-left or left-wing. That is true with the Green Party almost everywhere, the Democrats in Australia, the Radical Party of Italy, the Alliance in New Zealand, the Democrats '66 in the Netherlands, , Mertz in Israel, the Radical Liberals of Denmark...  These type of leftish parties usually get dominate by intellectuals and technocrats who have trouble relating to and moving the working classes.  Therefore they stay with the main main social democratic party of their country, regardless of if it is to the right or left of the smaller party.
by Corey Olomon 2005-02-07 05:23PM | 0 recs
Re: Very hopeful primer
The Liberals between 1923-1983 were often said to be "confined to the fringes, both ideologically and geographically".  Indeed the 5-15 seats it usually won was in places like the Scottish highlands, rural Wales, Cornwall, etc.  The Liberals has always had an appeal to the Celtic minorities because of its opposition to the English aristocracy of the Tories without the urban/socialist baggage of Labor.  Since the union with the SDP, the Liberals have basically dominated the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which are not wealthy but prefers the LDP to Labor (which is usually viewed to just be for the "city folks") or the secessionists Scottish National Party.

As for the LDP having non-middle class support, while  it has only made modest gains in working class federal seats (such as some recent by-election wins), it has done very well in blue collar municipal elections.  They dominate several working class city councils such as Liverpool, Stockport, and others.  It also does well in high-income Tory-tied councils as well.  In local elections (and to a certain extent in Westminster elections as well) it focuses on local practical issues (known as "pothole politics" and ignores ideological and socioeconomic issues.

by Corey Olomon 2005-02-07 05:02PM | 0 recs
Thanks Ben
British politics have been a poorly understood phenomenon for me. I've tried to get the gist by reading the Economist and Guardian, but there were too many missing pieces. I'm sure there are good political histories out there somewhere, but I've never bothered to pick one up, because I wouldn't be able to detect either a right or left wing bias in the author's perspective.

I've always been extremely impressed by the level of debate they manage to have when I watch CSPAN. I read on Britain comment that Tony Blair is not considered an exceptional speaker by British standards. Perhaps slightly above average. Amazing.

by Gary Boatwright 2005-02-07 12:00PM | 0 recs
Debate in the HOC
One thing to understand about the lively debate in the House of commons is that since the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority coalition in Parliament (and because the plurality party almost always has a majority in the UK), the PM's can pass major legislation almost at will, particularly if it is in line witht he party platform.  Consequently, the Commons is more of a place to debate the rationale behind legislation rather than to make compromises and hammer out the details of the legislation, as the latter function is handled by the executive.

Not to say that there isn't any horse trading, but not like there is in the US Congress.

by Valatan 2005-02-08 06:23AM | 0 recs
Great Post!!
I really enjoyed this post.  I think British Politics is extremely interesting and hope to see more of it with their election coming up.
by dbeard115 2005-02-07 12:10PM | 0 recs
You forgot John Brown
the leader who died suddenly of a heart attack who took over after Kinnock.

He was the one responsible for setting up the conditions for winning in 1997, which Blair benefitted from. Also, the death of the popular Brown gave a certain amount of sympathy vote as well....

Blair is what he always was....a political opportunist. He was not one of the main architechs behind Labour's new middle, but rather was the person who took advantage of Kinnock and Brown's work....

So due consideration to Mr. Brown.

One wonders what would have been the stance of the Labour Government had Mr. Brown been in charge.

by Nazgul35 2005-02-07 12:17PM | 0 recs
Re: You forgot John Brown
I meant John Smith.....ops.
by Nazgul35 2005-02-07 12:17PM | 0 recs
Re: You forgot John Brown
Fair point. I honestly think most any person Labour would have chosen in the '97 election to lead the party would have won in a landslide.

Ben P

by Ben P 2005-02-07 12:26PM | 0 recs
So the Liberal Democrats are...
...the centralist party, and Labour is the "liberal" party, making Blair's support of the Iraq war even more weird.
by Geotpf 2005-02-07 01:40PM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
Kind of: On some issues, the LDs are too the left of Labour - like drug legalization and law and order type issues. But on things like government spending, taxation and so forth, the LDs are to the "right"
by Ben P 2005-02-07 02:38PM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
Please explain how they are to the right of Labour, or at least New Labour.

Sometimes when you listen to a lib-dem, you'd think that all the world's problems could be solved, if only there were an extra penny to the pound of income tax.


by Abby 2005-02-07 02:47PM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
OK - you probably make a good point. I think Blair has - in policy terms - moved Labour to the right of the LDs. But Blair is not the Labour Party.
by Ben P 2005-02-07 02:55PM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
Blairs father was a prominant member of the Tory party.  In the 1960's he planned to stand for election as a Tory but an illness foced his withdrawl.  Tony Bliar has taken his Conservative upbringing and made it into new Labour, he has an imortant element of Labour that is only loyal to him and would probalby leave the party if he or one of his fellow new Labour members did not run the party.
by THE MODERATE 2005-02-07 06:08PM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
Interesting. I didn't know this. How large is this coterie of loyalists?
by Ben P 2005-02-07 06:24PM | 0 recs
Sure sounds DLC-like to me
by Geotpf 2005-02-08 07:34AM | 0 recs
Re: So the Liberal Democrats are...
So the LD's American equivalent would be the Libertarians?  Makes sense, they're probably claiming "liberal" in a classical sense of the term.
by sh59 2005-03-20 07:12PM | 0 recs
by nwprogressive 2005-02-07 02:06PM | 0 recs
To make things more complicated
there's the separatist parties - Scottish Nationalist and Plaid Cymru (Wales) and the totally separate four-party system in Northern Ireland (where the Big Three don't even contest the seats).  As a pragmatic matter this means that if the ruling party wants a non-coalition government, they have to win their 50% plus one with 40 to 50 seats out of play.
by jdeeth 2005-02-07 02:52PM | 0 recs
Re: To make things more complicated
Yep. I didn't even bother getting into Welsh and Scottish or Northern Irish politics.

Suffice it to say Northern Ireland is actually the most "conservative" part of Britain - in American terms, at least. While Wales and Scotland are probably the most left-leaning areas. The Conservative Party essentially doesn't exist in either Wales or Scotland anymore. I don't think they hold any seats in either.

by Ben P 2005-02-07 02:57PM | 0 recs
Re: To make things more complicated
Since they have an SMD system (same as ours), they don't have to worry about coalition government.

Thatcher won with about 43% of the vote which translated into 60+% of the seats in the parliament.

The Lib-Dems problems are that while they have 20% support it is spread throughout the country, while the SNP and others are concentrated in certain areas...

As for the SNP, they aren't called the Tartan Torries for nothing....

The Lib-Dems and Labour have been accussed by the Conservatives of working to not compete against each other to ensure that Conservatives don't win when they fight each other...this is driven by the coalition government between Labour-LD in the Scottish Parliament.

The subregional parliaments and assemblies use the German system of election laws (which was considered by Labour to avoid another Thatcher). It is also important to point out that while devolution has been occurring in the UK....the only constitutional body is the Parliament and these lower bodies can be disolved at any time....

by Nazgul35 2005-02-07 06:24PM | 0 recs
Re: To make things more complicated
Yeah, SMD is even more disgusting in a Parliamentary system with 3 major parties and several regional parties.
by Valatan 2005-02-08 06:27AM | 0 recs
Acid house
Can you explain more on the social and poltiical ramifications of the Acid House sub-culture? I can see that punk represented an obvious shift in British youth's view of power structures, but seems to me that Acid House is much more subtle than that, not so explicitly political.
by MrOnion 2005-02-07 03:58PM | 0 recs
Re: Acid house
Right. I think subtle is the word. I'll put it to you this way. On one side, place Margaret Thatcher and John Major: what do you think of? The Anglican church, cricket, sunday roasts, reveration of the monarchy and "England's glory," Night at the Proms, etc.. On the other side, realize that many, many people in Britain under the age of 40 were touched either directly or indirectly by acid house, the rave/hardcore scene, and then the whole processes commercialization in the big club scene by the late 90s. Very hedonistic, anti-Victorian, urban, multiethnic - or at least this is the image people who were attracted to this revolution were buying into. One didn't have to be a total e-head or something to be influenced by this movement. I think this process was in some ways greatly influenced by the whole "Britpop" thing as well, which in many ways was an expression of this ethic.

You are right to say that this has little explicitly to do with politics. But I think the last 15 years of British youth culture has created an entirely new socio-cultural prism through which many people under 40 understand their nation. And I don't think the Tory party has figured on how to connect with this shift. Not to say that Labour or the Lib Dems are exactly seen as super cool or somehow direct expressions of this ethic - although Blair had his whole fling with "Cool Britannia," which was a bit silly really. But these two parties at least feel comfortable and recognize and can in someway relate to these shifts.

I say this as someone who is 28 and in many grew up during this whole shift - living primarily in Canada and the US, but also spending a good deal of time in Britain too. Every time I go back to Britain, I am always struck by how much more, I don't know, "open" and less reserved the country seems than I think it once was.

Ben P

by Ben P 2005-02-07 04:13PM | 0 recs
I heard an NPR segment
today where they played a clip of Bush describing social security and shortly after reported on something in GB and played a clip of Blair speaking.  I was overcome with how different they sounded.  One was coherent and respectable, they other, well, wasn't.  Why couldn't I have been born in Britain?
by Nameless Soldier 2005-02-07 05:02PM | 0 recs
This Blessed Plot
I'm not an expert on British politics or culture by any means, but much of what I know stems from a book "This Blessed Plot" by the late Hugo Young in 1999. Meant to describe the background setting for Britian's troubled relationship with Europe & the EU, in the process it describes the entire twentieth century of British politics (and to a lesser extent culture). I think it would be difficult to find any single one book that had a scope as deep & wide as this one.

I hope this helps someone out!

by Zach in Phoenix 2005-02-07 09:10PM | 0 recs
Very well-written and intelligent.
I really enjoyed this post. Thank you.
by Green Irishboy 2005-02-08 03:55AM | 0 recs


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