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About this book

A new edition of a popular introduction to all aspects of life in Britain. This version reflects on the ongoing fallout from the global financial and eurozone crises; the May 2015 General Election; the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence; the new tone of debate on immigration; and the June 2016 Brexit referendum.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
Britain is one of those few countries that has quite literally changed the world. Out of a small cluster of islands off the north-west coast of the European continent came three developments with global impact: the industrial revolution, the parliamentary system of government and the English language. It is impossible to talk of economic change without referring back to the inventions that spawned the industrial revolution, and the impact of the writings of Adam Smith on our ideas about capitalism. It is impossible to talk of political change without referring back to the origins of the British democratic model, and the impact of the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and others. And it would be difficult for the citizens of different countries to exchange their views without the help of English, the international language of business, communications, diplomacy and – increasingly – everyday conversation.
John McCormick

2. Historical Context

Abstract
The history of Britain – like the history of most European countries – is one of layers upon layers of change, and of new influences mixing with old to create new identities. For a small country, Britain’s history is surprisingly complex: in order to understand its modern boundaries, its social system, and its place in Europe and the wider world, we need to dig down through nearly 2,000 years of history. That history encapsulates elaborate social change, ongoing political struggles, internal and external imperialism, and economic revolutions, which continue today. Unusually within Europe, Britain is an island state, and this has impacted both its view of itself and its view of the world. And – again unusually – change in Britain has been driven more by evolution than by revolution. The British have mainly been able to avoid sudden departures and changes of course, which is part of the reason why so many of them have found the changes that have come since 1945 so hard to digest.
John McCormick

3. Land and People

Abstract
Like most of its European neighbours, Britain is a small, crowded country. Its residents live in close proximity to one another, the physical dimensions of everything from homes to shops, offices, roads and parking spaces are small, and the landscape everywhere bears the imprint of human activity. It is difficult for Britons to escape each other or permanent human habitation, whether in the form of sprawling cities, small villages or isolated farmhouses. Similarly, it is impossible to ignore the physical changes made by humans; the conversion of land to agriculture has combined with the removal of forests and the use of hedgerows as plot dividers to create a landscape that is almost unique and instantly recognizable: an amalgam of winding roads, carefully maintained fields, patches of woodland, sprawling cities, compact towns and villages, landscaped parks and public footpaths.
John McCormick

4. Social System

Abstract
Britain is predominantly urban, middle class, English-speaking and white. However, like most major industrialized countries, it is a variegated society. As noted in the previous chapters, its early history of invasions from the Continent combined with England’s later incorporation of its neighbours and more recent waves of immigration from the Commonwealth and other European states to bring new diversity. There are economic divisions, too, which began with feudalism, were only partly addressed by the industrial revolution, and live on in a society divided today by class and opportunity; the welfare state and the expansion of educational opportunities have failed to create a level playing field. These divisions are reflected in ongoing social problems, and have in turn had an impact on the distribution of political and economic power.
John McCormick

5. Government

Abstract
Britain is the birthplace of the parliamentary system, the most successful and widely adopted of the world’s different governing systems. Otherwise known as the Westminster model, after the area of central London where the British Houses of Parliament are situated, the key elements of parliamentary government include the following. Because Britain has a long history of parliamentary government, has avoided revolutionary change and has one of the world’s oldest remaining monarchies, it is often assumed that its political system is both stable and predictable. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Even the most cursory review of British political history shows a system that is both settled and unsettled, and in a constant process of mutation. For centuries, the changes were driven by the struggle for power between the monarchy and Parliament. More recently, they have been driven by debates over the appropriate role of government, by declining trust in government, by the fluctuating.
John McCormick

6. Politics and Civil Society

Abstract
The term politics usually connotes government, leaders and institutions. But the lifeblood of politics in a democracy is provided by its people, and by how they use the opportunities provided to them to influence the way their government functions. They live under the jurisdiction of the state, or the rules and institutions by which a community is governed and controlled, but they also live within a civil society, or a community of individuals capable of acting separately from the state on the basis of pluralism, tolerance, civility and mutually accepted rules, and the patterns of association they endorse and accept. Civil society consists of all the voluntary and spontaneous forms of political association that evolve within a democratic state, which are not formally part of the state system but show that citizens can operate independently of the state (see Edwards, 2014).
John McCormick

7. The Economy

Abstract
Economic matters play a primary role in the public life of every society, but in few places has this been truer since the Second World War than in Britain. From being the world’s biggest economic and trading power, with its most powerful currency, Britain has seen itself first outperformed by its competitors, then hurt by the self-serving policies of labour unions and management, then confused by the contradictory inclinations of different governments to play a greater or a lesser role in the marketplace, and – after an era of relative optimism and growth in the 1990s – most recently feeling the effects of the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2007–10 and the eurozone crisis that broke in 2009. It now finds itself held hostage to the uncertainties over its redefined relationship with the European Union.
John McCormick

8. Culture and Lifestyle

Abstract
Western popular culture may have a strong American accent, but – as the birthplace of the English language, and a once aggressive colonizer – Britain has played a primary role in the evolution of the culture and lifestyle that we associate with ‘the West’. Its impact has been greatest in the fields of literature, popular music, film and drama, no reference to which is possible without consideration of the impact of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Austen, Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Hardy, Kipling, Golding and Greene, or of musicians such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, the Sex Pistols, Queen and Adele. The impact of the former has been greater thanks to the spread of the English language, and of the latter thanks to the universal following for rock music. British cinema also plays an important supporting role to the popularity of American cinema, although just how the two are different any more is difficult to say.
John McCormick

9. Britain and the World

Abstract
In a speech to the Conservative Party in 1948, Winston Churchill argued that Britain was located at the intersection of three circles of influence: the British Empire/Commonwealth, the United States and Europe. This notion was to have a lasting impact on British foreign policy, promoting the rather fanciful idea that Britain could act as a bridge connecting the three circles. But the balance among them has changed since 1948, and so has Britain’s international position; the Empire is gone, the ties within the Atlantic Alliance have changed, and Britain’s place in Europe – always questionable – has been fundamentally altered by its decision to leave the EU. Britain today is faced with a Commonwealth that is marginal, a United States whose foreign and economic policies are not as credible as they once were, a China whose global role Churchill could not have imagined, and a changing Europe to which it remains reluctantly but closely tied. It may be able to continue to offer its services as a bridge, but the international system is not what it once was, and Britain is less important than it once was.
John McCormick

10. Conclusion

Abstract
Britain today is a country darkened by dense clouds of doubt and uncertainty. In almost every respect – from the definition of Britishness to the state of its political and economic systems, to its social structure, to its place in the world – Britain is undergoing changes whose eventual outcome are hard to predict. The economic and social changes were already in place before June 2016, when British voters sent shockwaves throughout the world by opting in a national referendum to leave the European Union. A year later, an early general election that was designed to place the Conservative government in a stronger negotiating position on Brexit left it much weaker, and raised numerous troubling questions about the future of the British political system.
John McCormick
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