British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 1 notes - Politics, Democracy and Power

Return to full list of chapter notes.
  • Politics involves far more than government and party politics. It is about power and decision-making which affect all our lives, and determines how scarce resources are allocated – ‘who gets what, when, how’.
  • There are disagreements over the legitimate scope of politics. Some distinguish between a public or political sphere and a private sphere, between the state and ‘civil society’. Others would deny that politics can or should be excluded from many areas previously considered private.
  • Although politics is clearly about power, this is difficult to define and measure. A distinction can be drawn between power and authority (or legitimate power). Those without formal power may still have influence over decisions that affect them.
  • Britain is called a representative democracy, implying that the people or the majority have effective influence over government and over decisions that affect them. Britain satisfies most of the conditions commonly laid down for representative democracy.
  • Yet there is disagreement over the distribution in power in Britain. Some argue that it is effectively concentrated in the hands of the few, others that it is widely dispersed. Theories or ‘models’ of power reflect conflicting underlying assumptions and look at different kinds of evidence.
  • Although politics is about the conflicting interests of different social or ethnic groups, it is also about ideas. Political differences commonly reflect contrasting underlying ideological assumptions.
  • Many crucial political decisions that affect people in Britain are made both above and below the level of the British state, for example by international institutions, the European Union, devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local councils and other public bodies. There is no longer a single British government, but rather a complex system of multi-level governance. However, most British citizens are still principally affected by political decisions made in Westminster and Whitehall.
  • Even so the very future of British government and politics is now uncertain, particularly as a result of increased support for Scottish,Welsh and Irish nationalism within the United Kingdom that could lead either to a quasi-federal or fully federal system of government, or the end of the Union.