British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

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

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  • The British political system has been shaped by past history and shows marked stability and continuity, but has been massively transformed by economic, social and political developments.
  • British politics in the immediate post-war period were shaped by the development of a welfare state and mixed economy at home, and the Cold War abroad.
  • Although people enjoyed rising living standards and low unemployment, Britain continued to suffer relative economic decline, causing political difficulties for successive governments.
  • The fast shrinking British empire and the special relationship with the United States were an obstacle to earlier closer engagement with Europe. Britain joined the European Community too late to shape its rules or share early benefits, and the commitment was less than wholehearted.
  • From the late 1960s onwards the United Kingdom faced threats to the maintenance of the Union from nationalist movements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, culminating in the introduction of devolved assemblies and governments in all three countries. It is not clear yet whether devolution will ultimately preserve the Union or lead to separation.
  • Changes in population, living standards and lifestyles raised new political issues and involved some rejection of traditional values. It helped spark a politics of protest largely outside the traditional party system.
  • The Thatcher government brought a marked shift away from the politics of the post-war decades, involving a rejection of Keynesian economics and a renewed emphasis on market forces.
  • Politics under New Labour showed elements of both change and continuity. Labour’s constitutional reform programme has transformed the system of government, with unclear implications for the future, particularly in the United Kingdom outside England.
  • The credit crunch and recession called into question both Labour’s apparent success in managing the economy and the free market ideas associated with Thatcherite Conservatism that had been largely accepted by New Labour. Keynesian ideas enjoyed a modest renaissance.
  • The 2010 election ended the New Labour government, but unusually resulted in a hung parliament and coalition government between Cameron’s Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.