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About this book

Systematically revised and updated, British Politics is an accessible and definitive guide to the shape of Britain's political institutions and processes. The new edition covers significant developments and events in British politics, such as the financial crisis and the 2010 general election, and provides full analysis of the first year of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Incorporating useful learning aids throughout, the book examines the state of British politics set against the background of devolution within the UK and an ever-changing European and global environment.

Key features

• 'Comparative politics' boxes highlight differences and similarities with other political systems
• 'Academic controversy' boxes summarize debates on key issues
• On-page glossary explains key words and concepts
• Chapter summaries, questions for discussion and further reading to stimulate and reinforce learning
• Illustrated 'key thinker' profiles
• A companion website – www.palgrave.com/foundations/leach – containing valuable additional material for students and lecturers

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Politics, Democracy and Power

Abstract
Politics has engaged some of the greatest human minds, from Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century BCE onwards. It continues to fascinate, to judge simply from the increasing numbers studying the subject. Yet the fascination is far from universal. Why We Hate Politics is the title of one recent book by a British academic (Hay, 2007), written in response to evidence of increasing political disillusionment and apathy, and before the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 powerfully reinforced public alienation in Britain from politicians and political parties. This alienation is disturbing, not least because the United Kingdom, along with most other countries in the world, claims to be a democracy, a system of government that requires some public political interest and involvement. Indeed another prominent political scientist has found it necessary to explain Why Politics Matters (Stoker, 2006).
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 2. The Shadow of the Past: British Politics since 1945

Abstract
Much of British politics can only be understood in the light of history, including distant episodes beyond living memory, and more recent developments which generations still alive today experienced, and which helped to shaped their own political ideas. Thus in early twenty-first-century Britain there remain millions of older pensioners who lived through the Second World War — some who fought in it, many more who experienced the bombing and wartime shortages and privations of the civilian population. Others grew up in the early post-war years, when the welfare state was established and Britain still appeared to rule an extensive empire abroad. These subsequently experienced the rapid, sometimes painful, disengagement from empire and partial engagement with Europe, as well as the sexual revolution of the Sixties, and the economic and industrial problems of the seventies. A later generation, sometimes dubbed ‘Thatcher’s children’, reached maturity in the long period of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 3. Economy, Society and Politics

Abstract
The economic and social circumstances of a country have significant implications for its politics. Marxists have long argued that political power reflects economic power and economic inequality drives political change. British political scientists have acknowledged the importance of economic class divisions especially for party allegiances and voting. Yet it is also clear that other social divisions based on national identity, ethnicity, religion, culture, gender and age also increasingly affect political perceptions and allegiances and the extent of political participation.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 4. Participating in Politics

Abstract
If politics is for the many and not just the few, then ordinary people can and should participate in the political process and influence decisions on issues that interest and concern them. This chapter focuses on participation in politics, and serves as an introduction to the succeeding chapters on elections and voting (Chapter 5) political parties (Chapter 6), ideologies, parties and interests (chapter 7), pressure groups (Chapter 8), and political communication and the mass media (Chapter 9).
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 5. Elections and Voting

Abstract
Elections are central to modern representative democracy. They reflect the principles of popular sovereignty, that ultimate power rests with the people, and governments derive their authority from the people’s support. Yet the composition of the UK parliament and government may only imperfectly reflect the preferences of voters, due in part to a disproportionate electoral system. Defenders of this system have long argued that it delivers strong stable government, although parties (such as the Liberal Democrats and Greens) who are under-represented have demanded electoral reform. A variety of more proportional systems have already been introduced for devolved government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (see Chapter 16), for London government (see Chapter 17) and for British elections to the European Parliament (see Chapter 15). These systems (new in the UK but long familiar in other countries) have produced markedly different results in terms of voters’ behaviour, the choice of representatives, relative party strengths and the nature and style of government.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 6. Political Parties

Abstract
Politics is commonly associated almost exclusively with ‘party politics’, a specialist and rather unpopular activity undertaken by party politicians. This very narrow interpretation of politics is misguided, yet it does underline how important parties have become in modern political systems. As we saw in the last chapter, elections are fought substantially between parties. That chapter reviewed the shifting support for political parties in the post-war era and some of the reasons for increased volatility in the choice of parties. This chapter concentrates on the functions, types, organization and finance of political parties. It explores briefly the need for parties, reviews the rather unusual party system in Britain, and goes on to explain how and why it is changing. It explores some conventional distinctions between different types of parties, as a prelude to an analysis of the organization and distribution of power and influence within major British parties, and particularly the relationship between the party leadership, parliamentary parties, party members and voters.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 7. Ideologies, Parties and Interests

Abstract
The importance of political ideas and rival political ideologies has been briefly explored in Chapter 1. Here we consider the relationship between ideologies, political parties and material interests. Ideologies are commonly linked to political parties (see Chapter 6) and this chapter seeks to explore in more depth the competing mainstream ideologies of liberalism, conservatism and socialism in British politics and the changing interests they represent. While these ideologies transcend national boundaries, their British interpretations are distinctive and have evolved over time, along with their internal tensions and differences. We review how far they have converged or remain distinctive. The formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has ideological implications (potentially lasting) for both parties and for the Labour opposition.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 8. Pressure Groups and Social Movements

Abstract
Pressure groups perform a vital role in modern democracies. While elections and parties are crucial to the theory and practice of representative democracy they do not necessarily involve much popular participation in day-to-day government and decision-making. Elections are infrequent and blunt instruments offering only a restricted choice between rival teams and programmes. Political parties are no longer mass parties and provide limited opportunities for participation. By contrast, pressure groups offer opportunities for ordinary people to participate in the political process on a continuous basis over specific issues that concern them. Pressure groups normally seek influence over, rather than direct control of, government. However, pluralists argue that power in society is effectively dispersed through the widespread influence of countless groups on government and policy making. Others suggest that some groups are vastly more influential than others, both in Britain and in modern capitalist society generally, and that power remains effectively concentrated in the hands of the few.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 9. Political Communication and the Mass Media

Abstract
Communication is inseparable from politics, and a vital part of any political system in any age. However, the development of the mass media in the course of the twentieth century hugely enlarged the scope of political communication. Dictators like Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, with almost exclusive control of the press, film and radio, as well as the education system, could shape how people thought about politics. Yet the same mass media were equally important for the functioning of a democratic system that assumed effective two-way communication between political leaders and people. The new media (including cable, satellite and digital television, and particularly the internet) have dramatically expanded further the potential for interactive public debate, enabling all kinds of special interest groups to communicate with each other and with the wider public in a globalized communication system.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 10. The Changing British System of Government

Abstract
In this and subsequent chapters the emphasis shifts from the wider political processes involving (to a greater or lesser degree) the whole people to the relative few directly involved in the institutions and workings of government. British government long appeared a model of stability in a changing world. Since the upheavals of the seventeenth century, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the 1707 Act of Union, Britain has not experienced the revolutions and regime changes that have characterized, for example, French government and politics for over 200 years. Instead the British system of government has evolved gradually towards a constitutional monarchy and later a parliamentary democracy, a process substantially completed at the end of the First World War. Reforms were grafted onto traditional institutions. The new was painlessly absorbed into the old and familiar. There appeared no need to spell out the functions of different parts of government, nor the rights of citizens in any authoritative written constitution, such as other states possessed.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 11. Prime Minister and Cabinet

Abstract
In this chapter we consider the institutions which make up the core executive in British government, the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and their supporting staff. We saw in Chapter 10 that the executive in Britain is not separate from the legislature, as it is in many other countries. The British executive is a parliamentary executive. It is not directly elected (as for example is the US President). The key politicians who are members of the executive, the Prime Minister, Cabinet and junior ministers outside the Cabinet, are all members of the House of Commons or the Lords. Moreover, the government, or executive, normally has a working majority in the Commons and dominates its work.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 12. Ministers, Departments and the Civil Service

Abstract
The last chapter focused on the central direction and co-ordination of policy in Britain by the Prime Minister and cabinet. However, relatively few government decisions are sufficiently important or controversial to be taken to cabinet. Most are made in departments. Whenever new government responsibilities are created by legislation, Parliament confers them squarely upon ministers and departments, not on the Cabinet or the Prime Minister. How decisions are taken within departments is consequently of vital significance in British government. Are ministers the real decision-makers? How far does the real power lie with civil servants or, perhaps now, special advisers? This chapter considers the major departments of state, and the respective roles of the ministers who head them and the permanent civil servants and more temporary advisers who staff them. We explore the radical changes in the civil service introduced by the Conservatives after 1979 and substantially maintained, but with some shifts in emphasis, by Labour.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 13. Parliament and the Legislative Process

Abstract
We now turn from government to parliament and from the executive to the legislative process in the British political system. Britain’s parliament at Westminster is very old, dating back to 1265. It began as an English parliament, adding Welsh, Scottish and Irish representatives with successive Acts of Union, and losing most of its Irish representatives with the establishment of a separate Irish state in 1922. The Houses of Parliament provide a visual symbol of the heart of British government, the very centre of political power. Indeed, the sovereignty of Parliament has long been regarded as the key principle of the British constitution. Yet it is often argued that despite its age and prestige, Britain’s parliament is no longer very powerful. The government dominates the House of Commons, while the indefensible composition of the House of Lords has long rendered it incapable of exercising real power. It is also questioned how far Parliament really represents the people.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 14. The Law, Politics and the Judicial Process

Abstract
The state is involved in law making (Chapter 13), executing the law through its ministers and public officials (Chapters 11 and 12), and adjudicating on the law, which is the subject of this chapter. Some political theorists have long argued that these functions should be kept strictly separate. While this separation of powers has been enforced as far as practicable in some constitutions (notably the US constitution), this has not previously been the case in Britain. Yet constitutional reforms first announced in 2003, involving the establishment of a separate Supreme Court (finally established in 2009), changes in the system for appointing judges and the reform of the office of Lord Chancellor were intended to emphasize the independence of the judiciary from both the executive and legislature.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 15. Britain and Europe

Abstract
The UK’s membership of the European Community (later Union) from 1973 has had massive implications not only for Britain’s politics and public policy, but also for its whole system of government and fundamental constitutional principles. Yet Britain’s long involvement with the European Union has become increasingly contentious, dividing existing parties, and assisting the emergence of new ones hostile to the whole European project. The European Union itself now faces many difficult challenges, soon after arguably its greatest triumphs: the establishment of a single European currency in 2002, and the political unification of a continent once divided by the Iron Curtain, following the enlargements of 2004 and 2007. These challenges now include a massive ongoing financial and economic crisis, on top of new divisions within a larger, more diverse European Union, and difficult relations with the USA, Russia, China and the developing world over trade, the environment and security issues.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 16. Devolution: A Disunited Kingdom?

Abstract
The British state appears to be under pressure from both above and below. While some fear British national sovereignty is threatened by the growth of a European superstate, others suggest that it could disintegrate into smaller component parts in response to demands from separatist nationalists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the heart of the problem are confused and conflicting national identities and interests within the United Kingdom. We explore briefly the implications of the ideology of nationalism for British government and politics. We examine the growth and possible decline of British nationalism, as well as the variously expressed nationalist pressures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. We go on to discuss the political background to the development of different forms of devolved government within the United Kingdom, and some of the unresolved problems remaining, including the substantial problem of England, and the now stalled prospects for English regional devolution.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 17. Local Government and Politics

Abstract
Government is often seen as remote from the governed. Certainly the government discussed in earlier chapters is remote from most of Britain. Brussels and Westminster, even Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast seem a long way away from the majority of those affected by their decisions. Yet there is one level of government that appears reasonably close to the people: local government. To many, and particularly perhaps the young, local government by definition is parochial and rather dull. It does not have the appeal of the great political questions of war and peace, world poverty, global warming and the environment, that drive people onto the street to demonstrate. Nor is local government much concerned with some of those issues that apparently most exercise voters, such as the management of the economy, taxation, immigration, the National Health Service, security and civil liberties.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 18. The New British State

Abstract
In this chapter we seek to bring together some of the strands identified in previous chapters, as well as much additional material, in an attempt to characterize the newly emerging British state. Some of this involves re-examining the British constitution. How far does the traditional Westminster model still provide an accurate shorthand description of the British system of government? If the Westminster model is defunct, what has replaced it? Yet there are other questions surrounding British government and politics that are not so much linked with constitutional institutions and principles as with the whole role and functions of the state. What sort of things should government be doing, and how should it be doing it? Is the state larger or smaller than it was? Is it different in character? There is a growing literature that uses terms such as the enabling state, the regulatory state, partnership and networks. Increasingly the emphasis appears to be on the process of governance rather than the institutions of government.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 19. Issues, Problems and the Policy Process

Abstract
So far this book has focused on political and governmental institutions and processes, and only incidentally on issues, problems, policies and outcomes. In this chapter we examine how issues and problems get onto the political agenda, how they are analyzed, decided and approved, how policies are implemented (or in some cases not implemented), monitored and reviewed. We will see that issues and problems are regularly addressed, but seldom solved. While the chapter draws on the analysis in earlier chapters of key political and governmental institutions and processes, it also serves as an introduction to subsequent chapters on particular issues and policies. These chapters are not purely illustrative. On the contrary, they focus on problems that are at the very heart of British politics. In considering the outcomes of the policy process, they address the crucial questions asked by Lasswell, ‘Who gets what, when, how?’ (see Chapter 1).
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 20. Managing the Economy

Abstract
Few chapters of this book require more substantive revision than ‘Managing the Economy’. The 2006 edition recorded that New Labour had ‘captured the record of economic competence previously enjoyed by the Conservatives, with a record of low inflation and relatively low unemployment’. However, the next paragraph struck a more cautionary note:
Yet critics allege that the real structural weaknesses of the economy have not been addressed. Productivity … remains poor compared with Britain’s main competitors. Manufacturing industry continues to decline. British economic prosperity seems to depend on a consumer boom, fuelled by mounting debt. (Leach et al., 2006, p. 366)
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 21. Government Spending: Delivering Public Services

Abstract
What services the state should provide and how it should provide them are key issues. The cost and efficiency of public services has become central to political debate in Britain. conservative governments from 1979 to 1997 sought to improve the efficiency of public services by exposing them to increased competition and market forces. This controversially involved more private sector involvement in public service provision. Labour governments after 1997 maintained much of this reform agenda, while increasing substantially spending on health and education in particular. To show extra cash, paid for by taxpayers, involved real improvements in services, Labour imposed tough performance targets, and published comprehensive league tables of the record of all schools and hospitals. However, targets and league tables became politically controversial. Some argued that the whole process involved increased central control and diminished discretion for front-line workers.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 22. Rights, Equality and Social Justice

Abstract
Chapter 20 focused on the management of the economy, and Chapter 21 on delivering public services. This chapter is concerned with issues of distribution, or ‘Who gets what, when, how’ in Lasswell’s terse definition of politics (see Chapter 1). Thus the study of politics may entail measuring ‘who gets what, when, how’ in particular societies, and perhaps drawing some inferences about the distribution of political power. Yet for political philosophers, and many politicians, this is also a moral question, who should get what, when, how. While some substantially defend the existing distribution of income and property, others seek radical redistribution. Essentially, moral concepts are central to this argument, notions of rights, social justice and fairness. All three major British parties proclaim their commitment to universal human rights, although they may have different views on how these rights should be interpreted and implemented.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 23. Politics and the Environment

Abstract
This chapter examines the impact of green thinking on British politics. It evaluates the contributions of pressure groups, mainstream political parties and the Green party to the debate on the environment in Britain. It considers the response of UK governments to environmental problems and concerns, and continuing controversy over energy supply in general and nuclear power in particular as well as ongoing issues over agriculture (such as GM food) and transport. At another level, it examines the ongoing debate over the contribution of humanity to climate change, and the reasons for the apparent failure of the copenhagen summit. It concludes with a brief assessment of prospects for environmental policy under the UK coalition government that took office in 2010.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins

Chapter 24. Britain and the World: Making Foreign Policy

Abstract
Foreign policy often seems part of a closed, secretive world, substantially insulated from the routine political pressures affecting other parts of government, yet with potentially massive consequences for both Britain and, sometimes, the wider world. British foreign policy since 1945 has had to adapt painfully to the loss of empire and world power status. It was shaped by the Cold War between the two superpowers, the USA and USSR and their allies in NATO and the Warsaw Pact, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet empire. The end of the Cold War failed to produce the hoped-for ‘peace dividend’, but instead posed new threats from revived ethnic and religious conflicts around the globe.
Robert Leach, Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins
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