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About this book

The comprehensively revised and updated third edition provides a lively and concise introduction to political, economic and social life in Britain. It offers an ideal starting point for students and general readers looking for an introduction to contemporary Britain that is readable, informative, sophisticated and thought-provoking.

Table of Contents

1. The 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 influence and forces 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. 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 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

4. Government and the Political System

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:
  • a fusion of the executive and the legislature
  • a symbolic head of state and a political head of government
  • an executive made up of a head of government and a Cabinet of ministers
  • representative democracy, by which elected officials are held accountable to voters
  • responsible government, by which government ministers are held collectively accountable for their decisions and for running their departments
  • a multi-party system based around strong party discipline within the legislature.
John McCormick

6. The Economy

Abstract
Economic matters play a primary role in the public life of every society, but in few places has this been more true 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. The result has been a series of unsettling shifts in British economic fortunes.
John McCormick

8. 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 there is an ongoing debate within Britain about its place in Europe. 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, and a Europe that is often divided. 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 faced with a dilemma of emphasis.
John McCormick

Conclusions

Abstract
With its long history and many traditions, it is easy to think of Britain as stable and unchanging, and as forming the bedrock of the elements we associate with parliamentary government, capitalism, and Western society. And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Few countries have gone through the kind of near-revolutionary changes that Britain has witnessed in the last three generations, evidence of which can be found everywhere: in the remodelling of the political system; in the upheavals that have altered the fortunes of the British economy; in the changes in the structure of British society; in the redefinition of the place of family, national identity, race and religion; in the changing views on the place of Britain in the world; and in the review of approaches to almost every area of public policy, from welfare to education, health care, transportation, economic issues and foreign affairs.
John McCormick
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