British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Chapter 7 notes - Ideologies, Parties and Interests

Return to full list of chapter notes.
  • In Britain the mainstream ideologies of liberalism, conservatism and socialism (or labourism) have developed within a British context, and show distinctive features.
  • British liberalism is a broad ideology which has evolved over time, with some tension between older free market liberalism and the more interventionist New Liberalism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These ideas are still important for the Liberal Party and the modern Liberal Democrats, but have also influenced both Conservatives and Labour.
  • British conservatism has generally sought to preserve the existing social and political order and resist radical change, emphasizing tradition, authority and the interdependence of classes against the individual freedom and rational self-interest of liberalism. Yet from Disraeli onwards Conservatives have favoured limited social reform to benefit the less fortunate.
  • The New Right (or Thatcherism) combined some traditional conservative themes (patriotism, leadership, law and order) with free market liberalism (competition and privatization). Thatcher’s successors were unable to escape from her shadow.
  • David Cameron, however, has shifted the public perception of his party through his new emphasis on the environment, his efforts to make Conservative candidates more representative and his ostensibly progressive social agenda. However, in government he and Osborne have sought to cut the state and public spending more than Thatcher.
  • British socialism (or ‘labourism’) has been gradualist rather than revolutionary, influenced by progressive liberalism and moderate trade unionism, but with a tension between its more socialist and reformist (or social democratic) wings. From 1945 onwards Labour was associated with the welfare state and mixed economy.
  • New Labour under Blair and Brown formally abandoned its commitment to nationalization, and embraced market competition, but also increased spending on public services and pursued constitutional reform.
  • The banking crisis and recession has forced all parties to re-examine their positions on state intervention and regulation, particularly with respect to management of the economy. There was a brief revival of Keynesian ideas. Yet the nationalization of banks was seen as a temporary expedient.
  • While there been some apparent ideological convergence in terms of rhetoric, with all three parties stressing fairness, there remain substantial differences between the major parties particularly on attitudes to the state and public spending.
  • Outside the traditional mainstream, other political perspectives that prioritize different concerns beyond the role of the state and the market are attracting increasing interest and support, with continuing implications for British politics, government and policy.
  • Feminism has prioritized gender issues, while radical feminism in particular has extended the sphere of politics to encompass personal and family relations.
  • Nationalists have re-opened debates over the borders and nature of the state.
  • Greens raise issues over the relationship between humankind and the environment that transcend old issues and conflicts within current human society, concerning generations yet unborn, other species and the very survival of the planet.