Does the UK Political System Tend Towards Conflict or Consensus Essay

Does The Uk Political System Tend Towards Conflict Or Consensus Essay

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In order to have a stable government it is important to have consensus.  Consensus is a general understanding and agreement on fundamental principles.  In politics there are three main types of consensus, Societal Consensus, Political Consensus and consensus in policy making.

Societal consensus is overall public opinion, the political beliefs of the public.  Normally most people’s political opinions are not too diverse, the majority falling somewhere around the centre ground.  The area of the political spectrum where the bulk of the public’s opinion lies is called the consensus.  To get elected, a political party must also fall in this area, in order to appeal to the public.

Therefore the main political parties all have policies that are similar, as they all want to appeal to the public.  This is Political Consensus.  The parties may still disagree over certain policies or issues, but on key issues their policies are very similar.  If a party was to introduce policies that were outside the consensus, they would lose popularity and would not be elected.  This means that governments often continue the policies of their predecessor.

Consensus in policy making is the practice of involving other groups in determining policies, in addition to the cabinet.  This may be Trade Unions, pressure groups or other appropriate group.

Historically Britain has enjoyed consensus politics.  Following the Second World War a consensus between the main political parties developed.  There was a climate of co-operation between Labour and Conservatives following their coalition government during the war and the parties agreed in certain key areas.  Both parties accepted Keynesianism, an economics system that bridged Capitalism and socialism, arguing for full employment brought about by government intervention in the economy.  There was cross-party support for the report by William Beveridge calling for a ‘Welfare State’

The Labour government of 1945, led by Clement Atlee introduced policies in six key areas, which became the foundation for the post-war consensus.  These were - the commitment to full employment, using Keynesian economic ideas to achieve it.  To have a mixed economy, including both publicly and privately owned industries.  The introduction of a ‘Welfare State’, with the establishment of the NHS and benefits for those in need.  The formalisation of links with Trade Unions, involving them in policy making.  The commitment to reducing the gap between the rich and poor and to help regions with economic problems.  The commitment to NATO and to make Britain a nuclear power, maintaining close ties to America.

In 1951 the Conservative Party was elected and although there were some minor changes, they continued the policies of the previous Labour Government.  They only had a very small majority and so had to rule out any unpopular policies.  This meant keeping most of Labours policies.  The Conservative Party leadership was moderate and the more right-wing MPs were marginalised.  The Tories therefore had no choice or indeed no desire to change the policies started by Labour.

The Conservative economic policy was so similar to Labour’s previous one that the phrase ‘Butskellism’ was coined after R.A. Butler the Tory chancellor and Hugh Gateskell the chancellor under Labour. 

Moderates succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister and so these consensus policies were continued.  They remained unchanged when Labour came to power in 1964.

The consensus policies had remained unchallenged until the 1970’s when they began to be put under pressure.  When Edward Heath came to power in 1970, he did so with a commitment to more right-wing policies, such as curtailing the power of the Unions, reducing state control of industry and promoting the free market.  However in 1972 as unemployment rose to over one million and his policies became less popular he did a ‘U-turn’.  He abandoned his right-wing policies and adopted more consensus policies ;he even adopted some left-wing policies such as nationalisation.  However despite continued consultation and involvement of the Unions, it was the Unions who brought down his government in 1974 with the miner strike.

This followed by a labour government, but they only had a tiny majority of 3 seats.  This meant that the Labour government had to pursue moderate policies despite pressure to introduce radical left-wing policies.  It had to give up on Keynesian economics because of economic problems, causing disputes with Unions.  This led to the ‘Winter of Discontent’.  This was when public sector workers brought the country to a stand still by widespread strikes.  They were very unpopular and the public called for Union power to be curbed.

This spelled the end for the post-war consensus as on the back of this public dissatisfaction Margaret Thatcher came to power with radical right-wing policies.  She abandoned Keynesianism in favour of Monetarism and the free market.  She severed links with the unions and took away much of their power.  She did not pursue full employment, and did not see it as the government’s responsibility to lessen inequality, instead seeing it as an incentive to work harder.  She was however unable to drastically reform the welfare state as it had wide spread public support.  Foreign and defence policy was continued with support for NATO and the nuclear deterrent.  During this time Labour moved further left outside of the societal consensus, making itself unelectable.  Mrs Thatcher’s years in government saw much conflict, with social unrest and inner-city riots in 1981 and 1985 and the Poll-Tax demonstrations in 1989.

With the election of John Major more moderate policies were followed and today a new consensus has emerged to the right of the previous one, with Tony Blair and his so called ‘Third Way’ continuing many policies that would not have seemed out of place in Thatcher’s or Major’s governments.  His belief in ‘inclusive’ politics has seen him abandon many traditional socialist Labour ideas and adopt traditional Tory ones.  The new consensus could be described as not an ideological consensus but as a pragmatic consensus, based around individual issues as they arise rather than deep-seated political beliefs.

New Labours policies of privatising air-traffic control and its commitment to cutting tax are in line with Tory beliefs, but there are still many points on which New Labour and the Conservative don’t agree.  The EU and the Euro is a major source of disagreement in British politics with the Conservatives staunchly Euro-sceptic and against the single currency with New Labour in favour.  However even this divisive issue has brought about a consensus, one between New Labour, the Lib Dems and dissident Tories, in the Britain in Europe group.

There are however many conflicts today in Britain, the obvious one being in Northern Ireland, with the troubles starting in 1969 and having been a source of serious conflict ever since.  The violence between Loyalists and Republicans within Northern Ireland and the IRA terror campaign on the mainland have been the main threat to Britain’s internal security for many years.  There are also many other sources of conflict in Britain today, including the Anti-Hunt lobby and the Countryside alliance and the Anti-capitalist riot in London in the summer.  There are many organisations that may pose a threat in the future such as the ALF, Reclaim the Streets and Earth First.  A potential source of future conflict could be Scottish and Welsh devolution.  This may in fact weaken the union not strengthen it as English resentment at not having an English parliament grows and as Scottish and to a lesser extent Welsh nationalism grows in popularity.

Despite these sources of conflict, British politics tends mostly towards consensus, since there is an agreement amongst both the public and the major political parties on the key issues, such as the belief in the existence of a National Health Service and benefits.  Britain has a stable government with no risk of being overthrown.  This is because the public recognises the government’s right to govern even if they don’t agree with what the government is doing.  The public accepts the democratic principle and therefore the government has legitimacy.  There is no party that wishes to drastically change the political system, although New Labour has introduced the reform of the House of Lords and limited electoral reform, but this is not too drastic.  This is helped by Britain’s mainly two party system as this keeps extreme parties out of parliament.  The new consensus does not appear to have any major opponents and so it is likely to continue well in to the next century.

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