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About this book

In recent years British politics has seemed increasingly unpredictable. The Conservative Party's return to single-party government in 2015 surprised commentators and the electorate alike, and Labour's choice of Jeremy Corbyn as its leader marked a striking change in direction for the party. Cuts to public welfare and spending have led to growing dissatisfaction among sections of the public, and the increasing popularity of parties critical of the government's immigration, economic and social policies appears to represent a call for fundamental change in British politics. With a question mark hanging over the country's global standing following the EU referendum, and with further calls for Scottish independence, Britain's immediate future seems uncertain.

In the 10th edition of this highly acclaimed text, leading authorities reflect on the latest developments in British politics. Drawing on current research, the chapters provide a state-of-the-art, yet accessible, account of British politics today. All the chapters are newly commissioned for this edition and together they provide a systematic analysis of key trends, issues and debates. Topics covered include the legacy of Cameron's governments, the politics of austerity, immigration, and the question of what, if anything, is distinctively 'British' about the British political system.

Table of Contents

1. What’s British about British Politics?

Britain is a settled polity. It has been a full democracy for almost 100 years, and it has representative institutions and a continuous political tradition stretching back to the seventeenth century. During that time its external fortunes have risen and fallen but it has not experienced either internal revolution or external invasion and occupation. Many have argued that it is this experience that has made Britain special, the essential context for understanding its politics, and its success in managing orderly and peaceful change. Britain is also a troubled polity. The unity of the UK was first broken when Ireland separated in 1921, and in recent decades it has been threatened again by the conflict in Northern Ireland and by the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to dominate the politics of Scotland. The SNP only narrowly lost the referendum on independence in September 2014, and the issue has not been closed. Britain held another referendum on its future within the European Union (EU), in June 2016, with public opinion divided on the merits of leaving or remaining. Britain’s external standing and global reach has declined sharply in the last hundred years as its empire collapsed and its industrial pre-eminence receded.
Andrew Gamble

2. Britain’s Experience of Coalition Government: Continuity and Change

Traditionally ‘British government’, or at least that part of it which is conventionally known as ‘Whitehall’, has been seen as centralised, powerhoarding, majoritarian and hierarchical – characteristics reinforced by a long line of single-party majority administrations. So when David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, issued his ‘big, open and comprehensive offer’ of coalition government to the Liberal Democrats (henceforth Lib Dems) following the May 2010 general election, it could be seen as much of a challenge to Whitehall’s way of doing things as it was to Westminster’s. With power shared between two parties, could things really work – should they really work – the way they had for decades? Would coalition lead to more consultation and perhaps, therefore, to policy based more on evidence than ideology? Or would it be one long tale of disruption, dither and instability? In practice, both the positive and the negative possibilities brought about by coalition turned out to be exaggerated. The 2010–2015 experience has demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to run a coalition at the national level without decisions being unduly delayed or contested. In spite of persistent media reports of ‘crisis’ and ‘splits’, the coalition was in fact remarkably stable both in Westminster and Whitehall. But coalition government did not remedy the purported weaknesses of the latter.
Ben Yong, Tim Bale

3. Voting Behaviour and Electoral Outcomes

The general election of 7 May 2015 was seen in advance as the most unpredictable for decades. The polls put the two main parties – Conservative and Labour – almost neck and neck. A second consecutive hung Parliament seemed very likely. It appeared that the traditional pattern of British electoral politics, where two dominant parties competed to form single-party-majority governments, might finally – having been weakened in 2010 – be consigned to history. In fact, the election delivered no such result (see Table 3.1). The Conservatives increased their share of the vote compared with 2010 and secured a slim majority of seats in the House of Commons. The British electoral system appeared to have reverted to type, delivering majority power to one party on the basis of a plurality of votes. Indeed, in a sense, the election was exceptional in the degree to which change did not happen. For the first time in any post–Second World War election, the vote shares of both main parties moved by less than 2 percentage points. Those parties’ seat totals changed by fewer than 30 seats each. The Prime Minister remained in office. The composition of government changed only because the Conservatives moved from just under to just over the majority threshold. Beneath this surface calm, however, the 2015 election saw two dramatic shifts. First, the combined vote share of the three traditional parties – Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats – dropped precipitously.
Alan Renwick

4. The Party System: Turbulent Multipartyism or Duopolistic Competition?

How should we best characterise the British party system in the wake of the 2015 general election? Has it undergone a significant and enduring realignment, or merely experienced a moment of passing turbulence, after which things have returned to the seemingly eternal verities of stable two-party competition? The notion of party system realignment was pioneered by US political scientists (Key 1955; Burnham 1970) and essentially refers to the process by which blocs of electoral support which have habitually been associated with particular parties shift towards their rivals; such a process also generally entails a change in the ideological or programmatic nature of party competition. The closely related concept of a ‘critical election’ refers to an election in which the process of changing links between social groups and parties is catalysed by the impact of particular issues, candidates or events. These are the moments when a long-term process of realignment becomes manifest. While realignment may be something that only occurs once every few generations, and is therefore likely to be driven by gradual forces of underlying change, it may take one or sometimes two consecutive elections for these forces to achieve a critical mass that will effect the realignment. In the United States, such critical elections are widely held to have occurred in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and 1964.
Paul Webb

5. Ideological Politics and the Party System

This chapter provides an assessment of some of the most important streams of political thinking in the UK between 2010 and 2015. Most political commentary tends to home in on the personalities, factions and tactics that figure in the daily political battle. But this makes it harder to see the broader ideological patterns which shape perceptions of, and thinking within, politics, and that ultimately provide essential resources which enable political behaviour. In order to bring these into view, we need to take several steps backwards to get a better sight of the language, concepts and ideas that actors – be they politicians, parties, campaigning groups, think tanks or citizens – employ when they are formulating plans, justifying their actions and arguing with opponents. Political ideologies are best seen as fluid webs of belief that offer flexible, but familiar, maps of the political world, and furnish the conceptual language that make possible the many ‘speech acts’ that lie at the heart of politics (Freeden 1998). Academic specialists disagree profoundly about whether traditional ideologies, like conservatism and socialism, have disappeared as a source of ideas and allegiance in British politics, with some viewing the current era as a post-ideological one, and others stressing the ubiquitous and shifting character of ideological patterns in political life.
Michael Kenny

6. Parliament: A Significant Constraint on Government

Parliament sits very visibly at the heart of British politics. Worldwide, the Palace of Westminster is an emblem not just of parliamentary institutions but of democracy itself. Yet at home the Westminster Parliament has often been dismissed – as out of touch, old-fashioned or, perhaps most damningly, peripheral to the policy process. The classic twentiethcentury view saw British politics instead as executive (i.e. government) dominated. In recent years, Parliament has undergone important changes. Shortly before the 2010 general election, the MPs’ expenses crisis risked further undermining public confidence in the institution. But the crisis also opened up opportunities for reform, and for the Commons to become more assertive. The general election then resulted in the formation of the first coalition government at Westminster since 1945, bringing further opportunities to reshape Parliament’s relationship with the executive. In 2015, the election of a Conservative government with a narrow majority might be seen partly as a return to the status quo ante. But its closest recent comparator was the delicate Conservative majority of John Major’s 1992 government, whose relationship with Parliament was extremely rocky. Plus, some fundamentals had changed. Aside from the tenfold increase in Scottish National Party (SNP) representation in 2015, reforms implemented in 2010 had strengthened backbench independence in the Commons. In the Lords, the Conservatives faced – for the first time ever – a potential centre-left majority that could block their policies. These changes suggested increasing tensions, and possibly further reforms, ahead.
Meg Russell

7. Political Recruitment and the Political Class

The House of Commons elected in May 2015 was a disproportionately white, male, middle-class and middle-aged institution. Just 29 per cent of MPs were women – making the UK one of the worst countries in Western Europe for female representation – and just 6 per cent of MPs were from ethnic minorities. A full third had been educated at fee-paying schools in a county where the figure for the population as a whole is just 7 per cent, and a mere 2 per cent were under the age of 30. The Commons was, in the words of that hackneyed phrase, ‘male, pale and stale’. The House of Commons elected in May 2015 contained more women MPs than ever before, putting the UK in the best 20 per cent of countries in the world for female representation; it contained more MPs from ethnic minorities than ever before; and it contained not only more out lesbian, gay, and bisexual MPs than ever before, but more than in any other parliament in the world. The Commons was, to quote one study of its composition, ‘the most diverse in 100 years’ (Criddle 2015). Both of the above paragraphs are accurate – and the tension between them is one of the themes of this chapter. British political institutions, and not just the House of Commons, remain unrepresentative of the British population in a descriptive sense. That is, in almost every case, those doing the representing do not resemble those they are representing. ‘They’ are not like ‘us’.
Philip Cowley

8. Political Participation

Political participation involves all those actions carried out by citizens to influence political decision-making (Pattie, Seyd and Whiteley 2004). It is the central means whereby citizens can articulate and act to promote their interests, whether individual or collective. Political participation includes more mainstream, or conventional, types of activities such as voting or being a member of a political party, as well as more confrontational, or unconventional, modes of participation such as occupying a square or taking part in a protest or demonstration. Political participation is typically seen as fundamental for a healthy democracy, since without it there is no effective representation of the people. Given the importance of political participation for democratic practice, it is particularly concerning that in recent years Britain, like many other polities, has witnessed a steady decline in political engagement. There is clear evidence that conventional forms of political participation such as turnout and involvement with political parties have declined. While protesting and other forms of unconventional participation such as occupying have been more visible in the news, only a small minority of individuals are actively engaged in such forms of activism. This chapter will examine recent developments in political participation in Britain. While on the one hand it might seem that recent events such as ‘Corbynmania’, and protest against public spending cuts and student fees, signal a resurgence of activism, we need to be careful not to extrapolate too readily from short-term trends and anecdotal examples.
Maria Grasso

9. Developments in the Civil Service

The UK civil service is ‘both a component and a product of the UK’s constitutional system’ (Burnham and Pyper 2008: 5). The constitutional basis for UK government is reflected in the role of officials, who are employed by and serve the Crown but are directed by ministers. In line with the traditions of the UK constitution, the principles underpinning the role of the civil service depend to a great extent on precedent and convention. Unlike other countries, aspects of its role have only recently been put on a statutory basis. Many of the principles that are seen to lie behind today’s UK civil service hail from a seminal 1854 report, referred to as the Northcote- Trevelyan report (after its authors). This formalised a system in which there would be a clear demarcation between democratically elected ministers and the permanent body of officials who reported to them, advised on policy and were responsible for its implementation. At the heart of this reform was the principle of appointment on merit, based on skills and experience, in place of political patronage. It solidified the idea of officials’ roles separate from those of politicians and impartial in serving whatever government they served. The core principles of today’s civil service are expressed in different ways to the actual Northcote–Trevelyan report, but are seen to represent the spirit of that reform.
Catherine Haddon

10. Politics and the News Media: Messages and Messengers

Online platforms change the way the media makes and communicates news and how citizens access it. The ‘mainstream’ media, however, still reports and explains politics. Having migrated online, television and newspapers, if supplemented by newer forms of communications, continue to be the principle way politicians speak with the public and the means by which electioneering takes place. Traditional reportage and commentary (now reported in non-traditional fashion) thus continues to have a key role in creating a space for politics. Often, however, the news media is the space within which politics takes place. Especially when, being a watchdog, charged with holding politicians accountable, the news media is a political actor in its own right. Because it participates in the politics it reports, not merely spectating them, the news media remains for politicians both obstacle and resource. It continues to influence the ways in which ‘they’ (and ‘we’ citizens) ‘do’ politics. Age old questions of bias and partisanship, patterns of ownership, especially for newspapers, continue to attract attention, but the online format of the modern news media, the means by which it enacts its traditional functions, prompts further consideration of its role in contemporary politics. Particularly so, when the ‘print’ and broadcast news increasingly form part of the same 24/7 news culture reflecting the speeding up of the reporting of news at a time when the notion of ‘newsworthy- ness’ continues to be challenged and reconstructed.
Richard Heffernan

11. Governing in Times of Austerity

In 2015, as the general election was being fought, a drama unfolded in the euro area. Greek voters rejected austerity imposed by the country’s creditors, and debt default and euro exit looked likely. Critics argued that austerity had crippled the Greek economy and, indeed, slowed the recovery of the euro area as a whole. Policymakers in Northern Europe, particularly in Germany, were said to be in the grip of the ‘dangerous idea’ (Blyth 2013) that the norms of good housekeeping should be the basis of economic management, and that governments should therefore not spend more than they raised in revenue, regardless of the condition of the wider economy. The tenor of the debate about austerity in the UK presents a striking contrast. Policymakers might have believed for a time that austerity was necessary to satisfy creditors, but any threat of a government bond crisis quickly faded after 2010. Austerity was a policy choice, made by the Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Democrats, and not categorically opposed by Labour. The 2015 election result suggests that it was not devastatingly unpopular. This chapter considers several possible explanations of why this was. One is that austerity has not actually taken place: for all the talk, the really damaging cuts to public expenditure have yet to come. This claim is largely rejected on the basis of the evidence presented below, but the government did soften the blow of cuts in public expenditure by also cutting taxes.
Deborah Mabbett

12. The Politics of Immigration: Old and New

Immigration has been one of the dominant issues on the British political agenda over the past decade – the numbers of newcomers coming to Britain has never been higher, nor have the numbers of voters naming the issue as one of the nation’s political priorities. Anxiety about immigration was also a key driver behind the dramatic rise in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the most successful new political party in a generation, and was a central issue in the referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU). Much of this reflects recent structural shifts such as the expansion of EU free movement rights to new countries in 2004, the demand for labour generated by the economic boom of the mid-2000s and the decline in the costs of cross-border travel. Yet immigration is not a new issue in British politics. The first wave of sustained mass migration began over 60 years ago, and the changes it sparked continue to reverberate in debates over multiculturalism, discrimination and identity. The new political conflicts generated by the recent surge in immigration have interacted with, and sometimes reinforced, older divisions, the political salience of which has also been rising. The public is fundamentally divided over the impact of immigration; consecutive governments have struggled to meet public demand for immigration limits; and political parties struggle to respond to a polarised electorate whose views are changing rapidly.
Maria Sobolewska, Robert Ford

13. The United Kingdom after the Scottish Referendum

The territorial constitution of the UK has been radically reshaped since the late 1990s and has yet to find a settled equilibrium. The biggest challenge to that equilibrium so far was the referendum on Scottish independence held in September 2014. Although in the end the result was clear, with 55 per cent of Scots opting to remain in the UK versus 45 per cent voting for independence, the debate prompted by the referendum was long, intense and divisive, and the outcome was for a time quite uncertain. The question – ‘Should Scotland be an independent country’ – drew a stark dividing line through complex and nuanced issues. It pitted the UK and Scottish governments, pro- and anti-independence campaigns and, often, friends and families against one another. In doing so it prompted perhaps the most comprehensive popular engagement with a political question the UK has ever seen. Ordinary Scots took political participation to a new level amid formal campaign events on either side of the debate, in countless communitylevel meetings and ultimately in a record electoral turnout in Scotland of over 85 per cent. For many the intensity of the debate energised a political commitment which has extended beyond the referendum and shifted the terrain of Scottish politics, invigorating the Scottish National Party (SNP), the party that pressed for but lost the referendum. It also severely undermined the Labour Party which had dominated Scottish politics for most of the period since the Second World War and had been the biggest player in the victorious anti-independence campaign.
Charlie Jeffery

14. Britain beyond the European Union?

On June 23 2016 Britain voted to ‘take back control’ and to leave the European Union (EU). For good or ill, this epoch-making decision, taken by 52 percent of the people to 48 on a 72 percent turnout, will reshape British politics and the country’s place in the world. The scale of the decision was made evident by the resignation of Prime Minister Cameron being only the third item on the BBC evening news bulletin on June 24. Referenda, however, do not necessarily provide verdicts that are conclusive and definitive. The ‘yes’ vote made by the British people at the 1975 referendum on membership of what was then known as the European Community (EC) or ‘Common Market’ was neither wholehearted or unequivocal. The outcome of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum hardly put that matter to rest. While highly unlikely that the decision to leave can be reversed, the leave vote raises as many questions as answers and requires fundamental renegotiation with the EU to redefine the relationship. A criticism of the leave campaign was that there did not seem to be a plan for Brexit. The future of the UK itself has been be plunged into doubt as a Scottish government led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) is almost certain to push for another independence referendum. The dust had barely settled on the 2015 general election campaign before battle lines were drawn for the referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The Conservatives’ 2015 general election manifesto proposed ‘real change’ in Britain’s relationship with an EU characterised as too big, bossy, bureaucratic and undemocratic (Conservative Party 2015).
Andrew Geddes

15. Developments in (33 years of) British Politics

If, according to Harold Wilson’s political calculus, ‘a week is a long time in politics’, then 33 years is an eternity. Yet it is now almost exactly a third of a century since the very first edition of Developments in British Politics (henceforth Developments 1) was published. It appeared just before the 1983 general election, though with a hastily revised re-edition published early in 1984 to take account of the re-election of Margaret Thatcher. Much, of course, has changed since then. The task of this concluding chapter is to gauge quite how much – how, if you like, developments in British politics have … developed. In so doing, I return to and draw on the concluding chapter of the original volume, Patrick Dunleavy’s characteristically crisp, lucid and still extremely useful ‘Analysing British Politics’ (1983). My central question is whether and, if so, to what extent, we can still make sense of and analyse British politics today in and through the categories, terms and theoretical perspectives that he set out so clearly a little over three decades ago. To start with, however, it is useful just to remind ourselves a little of the world in 1983. Ronald Reagan was President of the US, and Peter Davidson was Doctor Who. The Cold War was at its height, the Berlin Wall had yet to fall, Gorbachev was not yet general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the terms glasnost and perestroika were, as yet, entirely unfamiliar even to Western diplomats.
Colin Hay
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