The context of political life in
Britain and the United States*
Political systems are shaped by the societies in which they function. For this
reason, it is helpful to know something about the historical, geographical, social
and economic settings against which they operate, and to understand something
of the values and ideas which have mattered and continue to matter to those who
inhabit any individual country.
In this introduction, we examine the background factors that help to shape the
way in which political life and processes operate in Britain and America. In
particular, we examine similarities and differences in the political culture of the
two countries, for some commentators have attempted to identify broadly shared
attitudes, belief systems and values that characterise the people of a country.
Inevitably, this is to some extent an impressionistic topic and analysts tend to fall
back on generalisations about national characteristics.
People's beliefs and values are based on the different experiences to which they are exposed throughout their lives. Growing up in Birmingham (Alabama) is different from growing up in rural Wyoming or New England, just as growing up in Birmingham (West Midlands) is different from growing up in Cornwall or the Lake District. Growing up in Birmingham on either side of the Atlantic is also very different, even if they are both large conurbations with a substantial ethnic mix. These different experiences reflect regional differences and affect what people believe and care about. Further differences derive from such matters as class, ethnicity, gender, language and religion.
The term 'culture' refers to the way of life of a people, the sum of their inherited and cherished ideas, knowledge and values, which together constitute the shared bases of social action. In assessing the attitudes and way of life of a people, it is easy to fall back on generalisations as a shorthand means of describing what they are like. Sometimes, these are related to ideas
* Strictly speaking, Great Britain is comprised of England, Wales and Scotland, and the United
Kingdom is made up of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Throughout this book, however, we use
'Britain' and 'United Kingdom' interchangeably. Similarly, US, the USA and America are all used to
mean the United States of America.