When we examine Britain it is a little like looking into a slightly distorted
mirror, many of the fundamental aspects of American and British societies seem
to stem from similar impulses. Both societies are democratic and practice an
individualistic style of capitalism that differs significantly from the French
and German models. There is also a substantial crossover in terms of popular
culture with many common popular television shows, movies, bands, etc. Of course
there is also the English language, though it has been said that Britain and
America are “divided by a common language”.
Yet, these similarities should not be overstated. Britain and America also differ in many ways. First of all, Britain is formally a constitutional monarchy, yet this is somewhat of a misnomer as Britain, unlike America, does not have a single codified constitution. Rather its laws and governance are based on a variety of sources. Also, the presence of the British monarchy is a significant difference and indeed may be said to be one of the primary causes of the existence of the United States as an independent country rather than as a British colony. Secondly, Britain has a formal state religion - the church of England (Anglican-Episcopalian and the relevance for Charles), yet the Brits are far less likely to attend church than Americans.
Thirdly, while the United States largely expanded into territories that were geographically contiguous, Britain is a former imperial power who once ranged far afield to conquer and rule distant lands and distant peoples - in 1900 it ruled 25% of the world’s population and 20% of its territory. Yet, since the Second World War (India and Pakistan celebrated the 50th anniversary of their independence in 1997) this empire has shrunk substantially and with the loss of Hong Kong, Britain’s empire is reduced to a series of dots on the map. While the British empire may be condemned to history, the influence of the Westminster political system (parliamentary rule) can be found in locations as disparate as Canada, India, Australia, etc.
Fourthly, the idea of social class remains one that is very relevant in a discussion of Britain. It is often pointed out that the United States does not have a feudal past - though arguments could be made about the American south. Britain does, and more importantly, it did not have any kind of revolution to mark a break from this past. We still see remnants of this system in the hereditary peers in the House of Lords, and indeed the concept of social class permeates most aspects of British life.
The concept of social class has been an important one in Britain - over the past several centuries the upper echelon was occupied by the titled landholding aristocracy, with the levels below being merchants, trades, farmers and workers. However, with the change from an agricultural to an industrial economy in the 19th century the merchants and trades persons saw their importance in the economy and eventually in political life increase. The punitive taxes imposed by the post-war Labour government also helped erode the position of the rural gentry.
Presently one can view the class distinction in Britain as occurring largely along occupational lines, with the white collar workers making up the middle class while the blue collars make up the working class. Within these two main classes one can find a number of subgroups (upper working, middle working, lower working etc) and we should not presume that mobility is precluded.
Your text also points out that a majority of Brits still think of themselves as working class, whereas in America it seems as though everyone considers themselves to be middle class.
There are significant social differences between the classes with the working class tending to read different newspapers (the Sun) than the middle class (the Times), participate and follow different sporting activities (Soccer vs. Rugby, Cricket, Golf, etc) and most importantly support different political parties.
The Labour party evolved from a joint effort by the Unions and the Fabian Society, which had been founded in 1884 by intellectuals in an effort to prepare the masses for socialism. The name is important, it is drawn from Fabius, a Roman General who achieved victory by out waiting Hannibal. This reflected the view of Fabians that time and education were the most important factors in bringing about socialism. An organization formed by the intellectual elite, which sought to improve the life of all, particularly the working classes. The Fabians advocated the abolition of private property and the free enterprise system, in short a complete reorientoring of the free enterprise system. Yet, they also advocated the preservation of the moral ideas of liberalism (basic freedoms), and the expansion of the political component, to include a greater role in the process for the working classes. They saw this as an advanced form of individualism, where all would benefit from the freedoms afforded by society. This group was to be the basis for the formation of the British Labor Party. Uneasy marriage between the Intellectuals and the workers. Something that characterizes social democratic parties to this day.
Anyway, the unions have had a central role in the evolution of the LABOUR party and this party exists as a formalized expression of the working class.
New Labour - other interests: Minority rights, environmentalism, social change, economic responsibility.
One can see certain similarities between Labour and the Democratic party, but the American version has been substantially to the right of the BLP - clause 4 of the constitution (which Blair recently had removed) called for the nationalization of the economy and the socialization of the means of production. As we will discuss later in the semester, Labour has moved to the right over the past decade, and was never able to transform the British economy during its periods of governance, but through most of its history it has pledged to bring about socialism through democratic means.
Conversely the conservative party exists as a representation of the middle class. Primarily stresses economic freedom - traditional purview of parties of the right. Historically concerned about the idea of the collateral damage produced by change and both promote security, stability, tradition, and nationalism. Similar to the republicans and both accept the basic tenets of democracy - a government under law, representative government, the increased participation of all people, the welfare state.
Yet, there are some differences between the conservative party and the Republicans. The Brits hold more to the idea of natural leaders existing within a society (the elite who went to the right schools) and the idea of noblesse oblige. (Impact of class)- There has also been somewhat of a mistrust of the market and of those who have become wealthy through industry - sort of a hangover from ancient times. Yet, there has been a residual mistrust of those who have acquired new wealth - gaudiness, etc. This has been a cause of conflict within the party during the time of Thatcher - she sought to promote a more entrepanuerial Britain. She won, but there are still some residual effects.
- Belief in the monarchy as a unifying force (though this is not to discount the idea of parliamentary superiority) for Britain and a symbol of national unity.
American conservatism tends to reject the idea of elitism on anything other than achievement. However, it does emphasize the perks of wealth. The role of competition is strongly promoted, social Darwinism and the survival of the fittest. More in line with classical liberalism - primacy of the individual, rejection of the ruling class, concern as to the concentration of governmental power " the best government is that which governs least".
Fifthly, the educational system is much more elite based than that of the United States. Only 46 universities existed in GB in 1992 and a vast majority of these (28) were founded after the second world war. Still an elite based education - public school (private - explain this misnomer) graduates make up less than 10% of those who graduate from British High Schools, yet this group makes up more than a quarter of those who matriculate at the older universities. Schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, etc. occupy a much greater position in British society than their American equivalents.
Ex. Waterloo and the “playing fields of Eton”, school ties, etc.
The Physical Setting
In common usage, we often hear the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain and England used to refer to the same political entity. While this is probably a mistake that I will myself make this semester, it is not correct. The United Kingdom refers to the united kingdoms of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK has a land area of 94,000 square miles, or a little more than twice the size of Pennsylvania. Yet, into this limited space resides a population of roughly 58 million, this means a density of roughly 9X that of the United States.
There are four main components to the United Kingdom (excluding the principalities and remaining colonies): England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Each of the four sends representatives to the Parliament at Westminster, though the lions share (no pun intended) comes from England. Indeed, the other groups within the UK, to varying degrees tend to interpret the United Kingdom as an English union forced upon them, more on this in a moment. Labour and their plans for devolution.
England is the largest of these units, it consists of roughly half the territory of the UK and contains a vast majority of the population - 47.5 million in 1990. Also, 8 of the 10 largest cities in the UK are in England and London exists as a primate city (explain this concept). It is also worthy of note that there are geographic divisions within England - the south concentrated around London as one of the financial, service and entertainment centers of the world; the industrial midlands of Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool; and the mining of the North and the Cornish coast. These geographic divisions have played out within British politics with the Thatcher conservatives being far more popular in the south than in the rest of England.
Scotland is the second largest of the four parts, with a territory roughly the size of South Carolina and a population of just over 5 million. Scotland, was once an independent Kingdom, became linked with England in 1603 and has been governed by a common parliament since the early 1700s. However, Scotland has kept separate legal, educational and religious institutions. In 1885, a separate minister for Scottish affairs was created. The Scottish office has assumed administrative control over health, education, agriculture, housing and economic development. This minister is a member of the cabinet and all laws affecting Scotland have been historically formulated by Parliament in London. However, over the past 18 months this has come under change (mention Labour and their electoral platform). On September 11 of 1997, the Scots went to vote on a referendum which would bring about a devolution of power from Westminster to a Scottish parliament. It passed, and while London is to retain control over the constitution, defense, foreign affairs, social security, taxation, company regulation and management of the economy.
Everything else, including health, education, local government, law and order, transport, the legal system, etc. is to be run by a separate Scottish parliament and they would be able to spend the budget presently controlled by the Scottish office as they would prefer. It should also be noted that this parliament would be elected by proportional representation, unlike the Westminster parliament which is chosen on a first past the post basis. This could serve as an example in hastening demands to the parliamentary electoral system. There are two other potential problems to this devolution, first of all, the rate at which the Scots can collect taxes is set very low (three pence on the pound of the basic rate of income tax) so the money will still come from Westminster; this leads to the second inevitable question, how long will the English taxpayers, who currently subsidize Scottish public expenditure, be willing to accept the fact that the Scots, not only have their own parliament, also send a disproportionate number of M.P.s to Westminster and will still collect a large share of money from the English taxpayer.
Wales has a population of slightly under three million and occupies an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. It was unified with England in the 1500s and has been governed by the same laws for a majority of that time. There is also a separate Welsh office within the cabinet, created in 1964. Perhaps the most interesting feature of Wales is its separate language, Welsh of course, yet the language has fallen into disuse with less than 19% of the population presently being Welsh speaking, this contrasts with the beginning of this century when more than half of the population spoke the language.
Wales also has some regional variation, with the South being more populous, urban, prosperous, English speaking and industrial than the largely bucolic northwest.
Similar to the cases in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the Labour government has set out to devolve power from Westminster to Wales. A referendum in September of 1997 was called concerning the creation of a 60 seat Welsh assembly (again elected by PR). However, the proposed power of this assembly pales in comparison to that being offered Scotland. The Welsh assembly would not be capable of primary legislation and would not even have authority over the Welsh language, their powers would consist of administration. The leaders of Welsh claims for devolution have proclaimed that this is only the first step in a larger process of devolution, but the proposed powers delegated to the Welsh remain largely symbolic for the moment.
The case of Northern Ireland is by far the most contentious regional issue facing the United Kingdom. It has been the site of a thirty year (most recent incarnation) civil war between catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups that has left thousands dead. In 1920, in the wake of a failed rebellion, the Easter rising of 1916 (explain how a failed rebellion could produce Irish independence) , Britain partitioned Ireland into two separate entities. The six northern counties, with sustainable Protestant majority populations remained a part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland and the 20 southern countries (majority catholic) became the Irish Free State, later to become the Republic of Ireland.
The Protestants of the north, descendants of the Scots and English that have settled Ireland over the past several centuries, dominated the economic and political framework of the North, to the exclusion of the minority catholic population. The Protestants (about 2/3 of the population) overwhelmingly wish to remain part of the UK, hence they are called unionists. The majority of the catholics wish to no longer remain within the Union and desire union with the Republic of Ireland (hence, republicans). The result has been sectarian violence on a horrific scale.
Until 1972, Northern Ireland had extensive local powers set in a Protestant dominated parliament at Stormont (a suburb of Belfast). A series of demonstrations and acts of violence in the late 1960s caused the British to dispatch troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, largely to prevent the mass slaughter of catholics by Protestant paras. However, this should not presume that the catholics welcomed either the dispatch of troops or their continued occupation. The Brits became involved in efforts to crush the main catholic paramilitary group (IRA) and in an effort to crush the IRA in 1971 they interned hundreds of catholics without trial. For their part, the IRA instigated a bombing campaign in both Northern Ireland and on the British mainland in an effort to bring the war home to the Brits. There has also been sectarian tit for tat killings between the Protestant and catholic groups over much of the past 30 years - catholics killed by Protestants, vice-versa and people killed for close associations with members of the other religion.
In 1972 the British government shut down the parliament at Stormont, and placed the administration of the region in the hands of a Northern Ireland Office under the direction of a Cabinet member. In 1974, the Brits created a short lived Northern Ireland executive, which was to be a body composed of Unionists and members of the catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, but this collapsed following a general strike by Protestant workers, who fear any change in status as the first step toward union with the south. With a certain degree of justification, they believe that Britain would be glad to wash its hands of this problem.
In 1985, the British government signed the Anglo-Irish accords with the government of the Republic of Ireland that created a joint committee for the purpose of governing Northern Ireland. This was opposed by the Protestants who interpreted this as a sell out.
In 1994, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, declared that the IRA would abandon its 25 year military campaign in exchange for a place at the negotiating table to discuss the future of Northern Ireland. This truce was shattered in February of 1996, when the IRA set off a bomb in London’s Docklands. Came as a result over the slow pace of the negotiations and Major’s demands that the IRA declare a permanent cease-fire and turn over their weapons as a precondition for Sinn Fein’s inclusion in formal discussions. Reflective of the mistrust between all sides - Republicans believe that the Brits intend to drag out the talks for as long as possible to preserve the peace, and in the end will surrender little; Unionists believe that the Brits are ready to do a deal with the IRA or Sinn Fein and abandon them; and the British tire at the intransigence of the unionists and the Major government was concerned about moving toward a settlement while the IRA still retained its weapons. What was to prevent them from using them as leverage? Of course, from the IRA’s perspective, why would they want to surrender this leverage.
The new Labour government came to power in May of 1997 promising to end the impasse on Northern Ireland and have been making some progress toward this end. On July 20 of that year the IRA called a second cease-fire and the Labour gov’t announced that they would allow Sinn Fein to enter talks six weeks after the start of the cease-fire, it were to be judged credible. Blair has also met two of the Republican’s key demands, he has said that he would not allow the issue of the decommissioning of weapons to hold up substantive negotiations for devolution of power. He has also placed a time limit on negotiations, aiming for a referendum to be called in May of 1998 to vote on the agreement to be reached on devolution.
- May 22 referendum (North and South) passed by wide margin.
- June Elections - PR - 108 seats, 6 each from 18 districts. Ulster Parliament, centre has the right to dissolve after one year if progress is not made.
- Form Cross Border Institutions with the South.
- Republic would amend articles 2 and 3 of its constitution, which claim the north, unification would be based on consent of north.
Only time will tell if settlement of the Northern Irish question is possible in the short term. Both the Republicans and the Unionists will have to compromise if there is to be some sort of agreement to be reached. The Unionists will have to surrender some of their historic dominance of the province. The Republicans must be prepared to accept that union with the Republic of Ireland or outright independence are simply not going to happen - this would be unacceptable to the majority of the citizens in the province and whatever the beliefs of the Protestant extremists the British will not disengage without the approval of a majority consent. Also, the Irish Republic is not particularly anxious to absorb the problems of the North.
The referendi marked an interesting departure from previous negotiations on the province; Blair and Bertie Ahern (Irish PM) made an end run around the extremist leaders of both sides, believing that the majorities of the populations are as tired of the conflict as they are and will vote accordingly. This also places some pressure on the leaders of both sides, by obstructing the talks, they run the risk of being left out of the negotiations of any settlement. The credibility of Sinn Fein is also on the line - if they fail to control the IRA for a second time, their utility would be strongly questioned, why should they be included in the talks if the groups that they purport to represent will not heed their advice.
Yet, there is also potential problems with this approach - the issue of the decommissioning of weapons has yet to be really addressed. Both sides contend that they will not surrender a bullet until a full settlement is reached, yet will they follow through if the settlement is not entirely to their liking. There are republican extremists that are unhappy at the new cease-fire, and there are unionists who chafe under the cease-fire that they declared in 1994. However, perhaps a settlement could further marginalize these groups.
Opportunities and problems with devolution in all three cases.
Sum up differences between the US and UK, recap the regional problems and the efforts of the Blair government to come to grips with them.
1916 - Easter Rising
1920 - Republic of Ireland
1969 - Falls Road - British Army sent in
1972 - Direct Rule
1981 - hunger strike
1984 - Conservative Party Conference bombed, 5 killed
1994 - ceasefire
1996 - docklands, manchester
1997 - ceasefire
1998 - Referendi, creation of assembly in Northern Ireland