Skip to main content
main-content
Top

Table of Contents

The Context of British Politics

Frontmatter

Chapter 1. Politics, Democracy and Power

Abstract
Politics is a subject that arouses conflicting emotions. Some are intensely interested in political issues and follow politics keenly. For others politics involves distant institutions, remote politicians and obscure complex issues with little direct relevance for immediate everyday life. Others again show a strong distaste towards political parties and politicians who are ‘all the same’ or ‘on the make’, and ‘only interested in what they can get out of it’. Unsurprisingly such critics argue it would be much better if education, or health, or agriculture could be somehow ‘taken out of politics’.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 2. Economy, society and politics

Abstract
If politics arises out of disagreement and conflict, it is important to know something of the economic and social divisions in a country like the United Kingdom that can give rise to political differences. The population of the United Kingdom can be subdivided into numerous categories by statisticians and social scientists, and some of these divisions may have considerable political significance. Yet often it is not the (reasonably objective) categories into which people can be pigeon-holed that really matter in terms of political ideas and behaviour, but how people think about who they are — what is sometimes characterised as ‘identity politics’ (see Box 2.1). In this chapter we begin by looking at some of the relatively objective divisions within the United Kingdom, such as the distribution of the population by location, age and sex, but this inevitably merges into consideration of felt identities and distinctions, such as national and religious identities, ethnic differences, and gender relations.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 3. The historical context: British politics since 1945

Abstract
This chapter rests squarely on the assumption that British politics today cannot be properly grasped without an understanding of the country’s post-war history. British politics was transformed in the last half of the 20th century by an interplay of external and internal pressures. Britain’s changing role in the world, resulting from loss of empire and world power status, and its growing engagement with Europe, has involved a painful process of readjustment, which remains incomplete. The attempt of successive British governments to maintain a world role adversely affected the British economy, which was simultaneously stretched by a huge expansion in government spending at home from the 1939–45 war onwards. This involved the development of a new welfare state providing a system of social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 4. Political ideologies: the battle of ideas

Abstract
The study of politics from at least the time of Plato onwards has attached particular importance to political ideas. Ideas, it is suggested, can change the world. There is nothing so important as an idea whose time has come. In this chapter we explore political ideas, and the impact of particular political perspectives or ideologies on political behaviour. We examine the development of the British versions of the ‘mainstream’ ideologies, liberalism, conservatism and socialism, and their changing inter-relationship over time with the major political parties. We also look at other ideologies such as nationalism, racism, feminism and green thinking. We conclude with a discussion of the impact of globalization on political thinking, and the renewal of the ‘end of ideology’ debate.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Participating in Politics

Frontmatter

Chapter 5. Ways of participating in politics

Abstract
This chapter examines political participation and political culture. We ask, what are the main forms of political participation, what proportion of the population may be considered active in politics, and who are the active participants? Are the patterns of political participation changing? What are the causes of falling participation rates in the most basic form of political behaviour — voting — and how might this trend be reversed? We then turn to the beliefs and attitudes shaping political behaviour. We ask, what is political culture and more specifically, what are the main characteristics of the British political culture and how have these changed? Finally, we examine the controversial political debate concerning both the nature and meaning of citizenship in contemporary Britain.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 6. Election systems and electoral reform

Abstract
Elections play an important and complex role in most political systems. Even undemocratic societies hold elections in order to legitimise the existing political order. In democratic societies elections help resolve political conflict in a non-violent way, for even the losers may accept that their defeat was fair. Because elections are held regularly there is always the chance that the losers will do better next time, especially if the winners do poorly in government. In this way, elections help hold government accountable to the people. Generally, elections offer people a choice in who is to represent them, which then gives the winning candidates a mandate to govern. But the way in which the people’s votes are translated into winning seats — the electoral system — influences who will win and who will lose. This chapter examines electoral behaviour as well as electoral systems used in Britain. There is much debate in Britain about the need for further electoral reform regarding general and local elections.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 7. Voting behaviour

Abstract
This chapter moves on from electoral systems to examine why people vote as they do. In the late 1960s a political scientist could observe with considerable justification that in Britain ‘class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail’ (Pulzer, 1967: 98). Thirty years later social class appears to explain much less about variations in political behaviour, and today political scientists talk of ‘class dealignment’ as having taken place. But, as we shall see, there is much disagreement about the extent to which dealignment has occurred. Political scientists have developed various models to help explain the changes that have taken place in voting behaviour. Each model is useful in that it explains some aspect or other of voting, but none explains voting patterns entirely. How far do they help in analysing recent general elections? On the surface, in 1997 and again in 2001, Labour enjoyed landslide victories of historic proportions, but are there other explanations that put Tony Blair’s successes into perspective?
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 8. Political parties

Abstract
Politics for many people today means purely and simply ‘party politics’, a specialist and rather unsavoury activity undertaken by party politicians. This very narrow interpretation of politics is odd when one considers that organised political parties competing for power are a relatively recent phenomenon, the product of the last two or three centuries in western political systems, and more recent still elsewhere. Yet although the confusion of ‘politics’ with ‘party politics’ is misguided and misleading, it does underline how important parties have become in modern politics.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 9. Pressure groups

Abstract
Pressure groups are important institutions in modern democratic societies. They cover a broad spectrum, from the large business in high-level contacts at national government and European level to the smallest local group, and embrace an equally wide range of activities, from the secret, behind-the-scenes lobbying to highly visible protest. More people belong to pressure groups than to political parties. Study of the groups and their influence is therefore vital to an understanding of how the political system works. Starting with a definition and some leading examples of pressure groups, this chapter analyses their role in the political system and considers key recent trends in their activities, as well as the emergence of new social movements, before moving to a consideration of their targets for influence and the factors on which that influence depends. There follows a discussion of the debate on ‘pressure groups and democracy’ and the importance of authentic political representation through pressure group politics.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 10. The mass media and politics

Abstract
The communication of political information is an important process in the political system, and the mass media play a central role in this activity. The mass media provide most of the electorate with a framework for understanding past, present and future events. Yet there is extensive debate about both the extent and the character of the impact of the mass media on politics. Some theorists believe that the mass media in Britain facilitate democracy by allowing a wide variety of views to be expressed. Some believe that the media are anti-democratic because of their power to manipulate the way people think about politics at home and abroad. Others are more concerned with discovering the meaning of media content through analysing interaction between media messages and the culture of specific audiences. Many critics have accused the mass media of trivialising politics. Because different television channels and newspapers find that they are competing for a limited number of viewers and readers, there is the tendency to make the news more attractive by treating it as entertainment rather than as a serious business.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

British Government: Westminster and Whitehall

Frontmatter

Chapter 11. The evolving British Constitution

Abstract
The British system of government is in the midst of radical change, which could lead eventually to the most extensive transformation of the way in which Britain is governed for 300 years. The changes not only affect specific institutions and processes, but have implications for long-entrenched constitutional principles. Textbooks on British government (including this one) must be rewritten extensively. All this needs saying at the outset, because it is insufficiently appreciated. This is partly because constitutional reform does not seem to excite the public, nor win elections. However it also partly reflects the Labour government’s rather low-key and fragmented approach to its own reform programme. A series of radical initiatives have been pursued almost in isolation from each other, and, critics suggest, uninformed by any overall vision. Thus the full significance of the reforms and their potential implications for the British Constitution have not generally been grasped.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 12. Prime Minister and Cabinet

Abstract
The powers of the state are conventionally classified as executive, legislative and judicial, which can be related in many countries to distinctive institutions, whose functions are kept separate. In Britain there is no clear separation of powers, particularly between the executive and the legislature. Moreover, even the definition of the executive in Britain is somewhat problematic.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 13. Ministers, departments and the civil service

Abstract
In the last chapter the focus was on the central direction and coordination of policy in Britain by the core executive, with particular reference to the prime minister and the Cabinet. However, the proportion of departmental decisions that are either sufficiently important or controversial to be taken to Cabinet has become very small indeed, and the vast majority of governmental decisions are made in departments. Not only do departments take the bulk of decisions — from the relatively minor to the undeniably major — it is no accident that they do so. For whenever new responsibilities are created by legislation, Parliament confers them squarely upon departments. New powers developed by statute are given to ministers, not to the Cabinet or the prime minister. The political and administrative importance of departments stems directly from their legal-constitutional pre-eminence. How decisions are taken within departments is consequently of vital significance in British government.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 14. 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 some argue that despite its venerable age and prestige, Britain’s Parliament is no longer very powerful, but is dominated by the executive which largely controls the legislative process which is nominally Parliament’s main reason for existence. The House of Commons does not fulfil its functions particularly effectively, while the composition of the House of Lords has long been so indefensible as to render it incapable of exercising much effective power.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 15. The law, politics and the judicial process

Abstract
As we have seen (Chapter 11), the main functions or powers of the state are classified as legislative, executive and judicial. Thus the state is involved in law making (Chapter 14), executing the law through its ministers and public officials (Chapters 12 and 13), and adjudicating on the law when disputes arise between private citizens, or between the state and its citizens (this chapter). While some political theorists argued that these functions and the personnel exercising these functions should be kept strictly separate, and this separation of powers has been enforced as far as practicable in some constitutions (notably the US Constitution), this has not been the case in Britain. Yet if there is no clear separation of powers in the British system of government, the legal and judicial system is often considered to lie somehow outside and beyond politics.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Multi-Level Governance: Government and Politics above and below Whitehall and Westminster

Frontmatter

Chapter 16. Britain and the European Union

Abstract
Among the other levels of government beyond Whitehall and Westminster that are now affecting the everyday lives of people living in Britain, the most important is the European Union, an organisation that did not exist even in embryo at the end of the Second World War, and which the United Kingdom only joined in 1973. Yet it should already be clear from the discussion of many topics in earlier chapters that the European Union has already had massive implications for British politics. It is now necessary to provide in this chapter some more detailed analysis of the European Union, its development, institutions and processes, in order to understand more fully the often problematic relationship between Britain and Europe, and the implications of UK membership of the EU for the British state, its politics and its policies. We will conclude with a brief examination of the future of the EU, and the UK’s role within it.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 17. Devolution: the 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 (see Chapter 16), others suggest that it could disintegrate into smaller component parts in response to demands for further devolution and decentralisation. It cannot be assumed simply that the British state will go on for ever, in its present form with its current boundaries. In this chapter we review some of the pressures threatening the unity of the United Kingdom. We examine the variously expressed nationalist pressures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, culminating in very different forms of devolution for each area, with considerable but as yet unclear implications for the future of the British state and the majority nation, England. We conclude with a brief analysis of alternative scenarios.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 18. Local governance

Abstract
Local governance clearly fits into the framework of multi-level governance under which the European and devolved dimensions of British government have already been discussed (Chapters 16 and 17). Yet it may be questioned whether it belongs in a part of the book that is explicitly related to the developing modern British governmental system as opposed to the traditional Westminster model outlined in Part III. After all, some features of local government and politics are fairly old and familiar. A comprehensive system of local councils was in place before the end of the 19th century. Yet democratic local institutions have been subject to almost continuous change over the last 40 years, as their structure, functions, finance and internal workings have been radically and sometimes repeatedly reformed. Moreover, this chapter is not just concerned with elected local authorities, but with the whole range of (largely appointed) local public bodies that have grown up in recent years to form part of a local public sector which works extensively with the private sector in formal and informal partnerships and with the voluntary or third sector in policy networks.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 19. The new British state: towards multi-level governance

Abstract
In this final chapter in Part IV we seek to bring together some of the strands identified in previous chapters as well as some additional material, in an attempt to characterise the newly emerging British state. While it is clear that the British state has changed and will almost certainly be subject to further transformation, there is less agreement on the nature of the British state today. Here we will outline and evaluate some of the contrasting verdicts on modern British government, and in the process review concerns over non-elected government (quangos), the growth of regulation, and government secrecy. We examine the New Right criticism of government and the public sector, and New Labour’s approach to governing, which has emphasised partnership with the private and voluntary sectors, policy networks, and ‘joined-up government’. We conclude with a discussion of the role of the fast-changing British state within a system of multi-level governance.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Policies and Issues

Frontmatter

Chapter 20. The policy process

Abstract
Earlier chapters in this book have introduced the machinery of government and the wider political, social and economic environment within which it operates. This chapter examines how government works in terms of how it deals with political issues and the nature of the public policy that emerges. Why do some issues get high on the political agenda and become hotly debated while other seemingly more pressing or urgent issues remain excluded from political consideration? In this chapter we look at how governments make policy, and differences in policy making style between governments. Who participates in policy making? In what ways do they set about solving problems? How important is leadership to successful policy making? Some theoretical approaches are explored which will help in answering these questions.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 21. Managing the economy

Abstract
Britain was the first country to have an industrial revolution and to develop a capitalist economy. Over 40 per cent of the world’s trade once involved British goods. Two hundred years later Britain had an ailing economy and a 6 per cent share of world trade. For many years the economy has been in relative decline, with Britain apparently unable to shake off the reputation of being the ‘sick man of Europe’. Successive governments seemed content to manage Britain’s decline so as to soften the blows and mitigate its worst effects. Some were critical of this fatalistic attitude and argued that there was nothing inevitable about Britain’s decline. They believed that Thatcherite economics would reverse Britain’s fortunes. Were they justified in thinking this? When the economy began recovering during John Major’s Conservative administration, why did the electorate refuse to reward his party by supporting it in the 1997 general election? Have the Conservatives lost their traditional reputation for economic competence to Labour?
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 22. Delivering public services

Abstract
Public services consume large sums of taxpayers’ money, and it has been argued that these services under-perform and provide taxpayers with poor value for money. Recent government measures have attempted to improve the quality of these services, not only through the injection of more cash to make up for years of under-funding, but by making additional resources conditional on meeting tough performance requirements. The country’s police forces, schools and hospitals are compared in their respective league tables and ‘failures’ are named and shamed. New managerial techniques of priority setting, performance indicators and targets supposedly guide each service towards achieving greater quality in delivery. How far are such techniques useful, if at all? This chapter considers the success of target setting on the delivery of healthcare, education, and law and order.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 23. Tackling poverty and exclusion

Abstract
In the 1940s Sir William Beveridge set out a blueprint for the government to follow which would banish the ‘giant evils’ of want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness from Britain. Half a century later, and despite the creation of a welfare state, Britain remains a society plagued by social inequalities. Britain has the fourth largest economy in the world and yet some of its people live impoverished lives in both town and country. Even with some of the trappings of affluence, their lives have all the characteristics of an excluded class. Should the existence of an excluded underclass, seemingly impervious to assistance from well-intentioned politicians, be accepted as inevitable, as in the old adage, ‘the poor are always with us’? Or can government policy transform the lives of the poor by incorporating them into the mainstream of society? The chapter assesses the causes of poverty, examines New Labour policy, and concludes by considering what some argue is a new poverty crisis in the making.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 24. The politics of diversity

Abstract
Fifty years ago, as we have already noted, political scientists could justifiably describe British society as relatively homogenous, with social class being the only politically significant division. National divisions were relatively invisible; little importance was placed on either regional or urban/rural differences; women lacked an ideology with which to express distinctive perspectives; those who led ‘unconventional’ lifestyles did so in secrecy; and with the possible exception of the Jewish community, ethnic minorities were so small as to be politically insignificant.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 25. Politics and the environment

Abstract
What is meant by the term ‘green politics’? How is it possible for the environment to have emerged as an important issue with the public, yet for the Green Party to have failed to win a single seat in Parliament? The major political parties now claim to have policies for the environment; how valid is this claim? Is the idea of sustainable development which has become the focus of Labour’s environmental policy realistic? To what extent has the politics of the environment moved beyond being an issue of political debate to become a serious form of public policy? This chapter addresses these issues, and assesses the impact of the EU and other international commitments on Britain’s environmental policy making. It concludes with an assessment of why the GM food issue climbed up the political agenda and how Labour dealt with it.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 26. Foreign and defence policies

Abstract
Within the memory span of many middle-aged adults, Britain has moved from being a major world power to being a middle-sized regional power. What factors led to this decline? Britain’s changed circumstances have forced policy makers into taking sometimes painful decisions. The EU has grown in importance in relation to British foreign policy, and at times this has created tensions in Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA. As a consequence, Britain is attempting to balance its links with both the USA and the EU. While British foreign and defence policies have traditionally reflected the interest of a small political elite rather than a wider political public, the media, non-governmental organisations and multinational companies are becoming increasingly important actors in shaping external policy. The end of the cold war has not resulted in a ‘new world order’ as some politicians predicted, but in a new disorder which has involved Britain and its allies. Terrorism has emerged as a new threat after 11 September 2001, and the war on terrorism may yet replace inter-state conflict as the main means of defence policy in the 21st century: already British foreign and defence policy objectives have to prioritise homeland defence in its various forms.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

Chapter 27. Who governs? Power and the new British politics

Abstract
In the opening chapter it was argued that politics was about power. At the end of this book are we any nearer to an answer to the question, who has power in Britain? Anyone who has read thus far should at least have learned how difficult it is to provide an easy answer to this apparently simple question. In this final chapter we will try to draw some of the principal themes of the book together, to recapitulate on some of the major questions surrounding British politics and government today, and to provide some tentative signposts to the future.
Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach
Additional information