Change in British Politics

Change in British Politics

Change in British Politics

Change in British Politics


The most striking change in British politics, during the seventies and early eighties, was the undermining and then the end of the post-war British consensus. That consensus had been long in decline before the final seals were set by Mrs Thatcher's victories in 1979 and 1983. The elements which were sapping, and which finally destroyed, the consensus, and the end itself, had profound effects on the British polity: they unsettled the distribution of power within the political parties (and hence the working of the institutions of the government); the direction of economic policy, the character of local government, and relations between government and interest groups were transformed.

It would be wrong to see Adversary Politics and Consensus Politics as mutually exclusive alternatives. 1 For much of the post-war period, whilst the spirit of government was consensual, much of its form was adversary. The two parties, wrote Robert McKenzie in 1955, 'conduct furious arguments about the comparatively minor issues that separate them'. 2 Indeed, the contrast between the spirit and form of parliamentary politics contributed to the disillusionment with Adversary Politics at both elite and mass level.

The consensus was the political counterpart of a long-lasting compromise in which government, labour and capital were in uneasy equipoise. It reflected the incorporation of the manual working class in British society, and an apparent softening of class feeling.

The decline of the consensus was accompanied by the revival of the pre-1914 centre-periphery cleavage, which seemed likely to disrupt, and indeed, may yet disrupt, the unity of the British state. In the short run, the politics of the periphery became intertwined with the politics of the old class parties; the unhappy conjuncture of the devolution referendum in Scotland and widespread strikes by public service trades unions during the Winter of Discontent of early 1979, arguably destroyed Mr Callaghan's Labour Government.

What accounts for the ending, in the mid-1970s of the 'policy consensus' which characterised British politics for most of the post-war period? These essays seek to explore the causes, and some of the consequences, of this breakdown.

First, we must note the apparent failure of corporatism. Corporatism requires, not merely agreement between government and the national leaderships of business and labour, but the ability of those two estates to deliver the support of their followers. Rod Hague's essay on the trades unions makes clear why corporatism could not succeed in Britain; the structure of the trade unions, their sectional jealousies and traditional . . .

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