POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC
Political change in Britain has always been characterized by its gradual nature. Gradualism in turn established strong traditions. This process helps to explain the transition in policy-making power from the king to Parliament. That transition may be traced to the days shortly after William the Conqueror defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In order to ensure his claims to English lands, William (a Norman) gathered support from the nobility by promising to consult them before he taxed them. This arrangement led to a gradual acceptance of a "House of Lords," and as commercialism created towns and a new middle class, eventually the establishment of a "House of Commons." Both were created through evolution, not revolution. Of course, there are important "marker events" that demonstrate the growing power of Parliament &endash; the signing of the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, and the Glorious Revolution &endash; but the process was gradual and set strong traditions as it developed.
Despite the overall pattern of gradualism, Britain's political system has had to adjust to internal economic changes, as well as international crises. Some sources of change have been the Industrial Revolution, imperialistic aspirations, the two world wars of the 20th century, and the economic crisis of the 1970s. These events have had significant consequences for Britain's political system.
ADJUSTING TO THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The Industrial Revolution that began in England during the late 18th century created two new social classes that were not accommodated under the parliamentary system: the middle class and laborers. At first, Parliament resisted including them, thinking that it might lead to disaster, perhaps even a revolution like the one that France had in 1789. However, the tradition of gradualism guided their decision to incorporate the new elements into the political system. The decision is a reflection of noblesse oblige. Starting in 1832, the franchise gradually broadened:
EXTENSION OF VOTING RIGHTS
The gradual inclusion of the people in the political process meant that Marxism did not take root as it did in many other European countries.
19TH CENTURY WORK AND WELFARE REFORMS
During the 19th century, labor unions formed to protect workers' rights on the job. By the end of the 19th century, some basic provisions were made for social services. For example, in 1870, mandatory elementary education was put into law. From 1906 until 1914, laws were enacted providing for old age pensions.
POLITICAL EFFECTS OF THE EXTENSION OF RIGHTS TO THE "COMMON MAN"
The balance of power between the House of Commons and the House of Lords changed slowly but surely, as the new commercial elites became Members of Parliament. By 1911, the House of Lords was left with only one significant power - to delay legislation. The House of Commons was clearly the dominant legislative house by the early 20th century. By then political party membership was determined largely by class lines. The Labour Party was created in 1906 to represent the rights of the newly enfranchised working man, and the Conservative Party drew most of its members from middle class merchants and businessmen.
With the enfranchisement of the working class, a demand for welfare measures put pressure on the political system to change. Reform measures were passed by Parliament, including legislation for public education, housing, jobs, and medical care. With these demands came a new party - Labour. By the end of World War I, Labour had pushed the Liberals into third place where they have remained ever since. Labour was never Marxist, but it combined militant trade unionism with intellectual social democracy to create a pragmatic, gradualist ideology that sought to level class differences in Britain. The Trade Union Council emerged as a coalition of trade unions that has been a major force in British politics since. The British labor movement has always been tough, resentful of being treated like inferiors. That militancy carries through to today, only to be softened in very recent years by party leaders Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and Tony Blair.
EFFECTS OF WORLD WAR II &endash; COLLECTIVE CONSENSUS
Under the leadership of Winston Churchill Britain united behind the World War II effort. Churchill emphasized the importance of putting class conflicts aside for the duration of the war. Although he gained the Prime Minister's post as leader of the Conservative party, he headed an all-party coalition government with ministers from both major parties. The primary objective was to win the war. After the war was over, the spirit of collective consensus continued until well into the 1960s, with both Labour and Conservative parties supporting the development of a modern welfare system. Before the war was over, both parties accepted the Beveridge Report, which provided for a social insurance program that made all citizens eligible for health, unemployment, pension, and other benefits. One goal of the Beveridge Report was to guarantee a subsistence income to every British citizen. In 1948, the National Health Service was created under the leadership of the Labour Party. Even when Conservatives regained control in 1950, the reforms were not repealed. Although the electorate was divided largely by social class, with 70% of working class voting Labour and even larger percentages of middle class voting Conservative, both parties shared a broad consensus on the necessity of the welfare state.
CHALLENGES TO THE COLLECTIVE CONSENSUS SINCE 1970
During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Britain has experienced considerable economic and political turmoil. The era began with a serious decline in the economy, followed by a growing divide between the Labour and Conservative parties. Labour took a sharp turn to the left, endorsing a socialist economy and serving as a mouthpiece for labor union demands. The Conservatives answered with a sharp turn to the right, advocating denationalization of industries and support for a pure market economy. During the 1990s, both parties moderated their stances, and the economy showed some signs of recovery.
ECONOMIC CRISIS OF THE 1970s
The collective consensus began to break apart with social and economic problems beginning in the late 1960s. Britain's economic problems included declining industrial production and a decline in international influence, both exaggerated by the loss of colonies and the shrinking of the old empire. The impact of OPEC (Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries) was devastating. The quadrupling of oil prices and the oil embargo by oil producing countries caused recession, high unemployment rates, a drop in the GNP, and inflation.
The economic problems led labor unions to demand higher wages, and crippling strikes, such as the coal strike of 1972-73, plagued the nation. The Labour Party lost membership, and many voters turned to the Liberals, the Conservatives, or the various nationalist parties. Many middle class voters reacted against Labour, and the Conservatives selected Margaret Thatcher as their leader. Her very conservative stance on political issues was appealing enough to sweep the conservatives to power in 1979.
Margaret Thatcher blamed the weakened economy on the socialist policies set in place by the government after World War II. Her policies were further influenced by a distinct movement left by the Labour Party that gave a great deal of power to labor unions. In response, she privatized business and industry, cut back on social welfare programs, strengthened national defense, got tough with the labor unions, and returned to market force controls on the economy. She was a controversial prime minister for eleven years. Her supporters believed her to be the capable and firm "Iron Lady", but her critics felt that her policies made economic problems worse and that her personality further divided the country. Thatcher resigned office in 1990 when other Conservative Party leaders challenged her leadership.
TONY BLAIR'S THIRD WAY
After the jolts of the economic crisis of the 1970s and Margaret Thatcher's firm redirection of the political system to the right, moderation again became characteristic of political change in Britain. Thatcher's hand-picked successor, John Major, at first followed her policies, but later moderating them by abolishing Thatcher's poll tax, reconciling with the European Union, and slowing social cutbacks and privatization. The Conservative Party retained the majority in the 1993 parliamentary elections, but only by a very slim margin. Then, in 1997, Labour's gradual return in the center was rewarded with the election of Tony Blair, who promised to create a "New Labour" Party and rule in a "third way" &endash; a centrist alternative to the old Labour Party on the left and the Conservative Party on the right.