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2: The Political Development of the British State

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    The First Modern State

    In most comparative politics textbooks, the United Kingdom, the official name for the country often referred to simply as Great Britain or Britain, is the first case study. We might ask, Why is this? Britain’s global presence is now very far from what was in the early 20th century when it possessed a vast global colonial empire. While it is still one of the largest economies in the world and an important diplomatic player in many regions, its role in global affairs is likely to continue to decrease in the years ahead and it is safe to assume that it will never again play the kind of dominant role it did in the past. In the global politics of the 21st century, Britain is probably the least important country we will study this semester.

    Still there are several important reasons why we start with Britain. While it is less visible today, we are in many ways living in a world that the United Kingdom played a huge role in creating. The making of the British state and empire affected every region of the world, a point that will be clear in the other cases we will examine. The impact on Germany and Russia is unquestionable and profound. India and Nigeria are former British colonies that would not, for better or worse, exist in their present form without British colonialism. Britain did not formally colonize China and Iran, but the actions of British commercial interests and military forces profoundly shaped the path of their political and economic development in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The impact of Britain in Brazil is lesser but important nonetheless. One way or another, Britain is going to be present in our examination of political development. Therefore, we must understand the role its colonial and commercial empire played in the development of the British state and how that process shaped events in places elsewhere.

    We also start with Britain because it was the first country to go through processes of modern political development that all states after have been forced to confront one way or another. By the beginning of the 18th century, the country had developed the foundations for what became the first modern nation-state. This did not happen quickly, and its implications were by no means evident to the country’s leaders, but the structures that emerged reflected their response to four fundamental challenges that have faced the leaders of subsequent states.

    Since Britain was the first to develop a modern capitalist economy and representative institutions, political scientists and policy makers have sometimes looked to it as a model for countries attempting these processes later. The modern field of comparative politics emerged after World War II with scholarship and policy frameworks heavily influenced by assumptions about what had made Britain successful. Its success in addressing the challenges of modern state building suggested that other countries, and especially newly independent “developing countries” could look to Britain to provide a path to a similar future. We will see however that many of those policy frameworks did not translate well in other political settings. For that reason, a closer look at the experience of Britain can help identify what is unique to its historical development and what lessons we might derive and apply to other settings.

    Finally, the history of political development of the United Kingdom is important also because of the decline of British power. Powerful empires of the past rose, fell, and then often were conquered and disappeared. Britain is still with us and understanding how Britain has dealt with the process of decline and evolved from a major power to a “regular” country provides important comparative lessons. The current debates about Brexit and Britain’s relationship to Europe is not new and illustrates that no political settlement, however stable it may appear, is ever fixed and permanent. Fate reshuffles the deck and political leaders, with mixed results, respond. Britain provides important and revealing opportunities to examine that process

    The Long Struggle for Democratic Representation

    As the first country to go through the industrial revolution, Britain generated an unprecedented level of wealth and reset the goal posts for economic wealth for every country thereafter. It was also the first country to develop a modern parliamentary system in which a representative body, based on a principle of consent of the governed, was the preeminent ruling body. While representative institutions had existed in smaller scale settings in some European cities, the consolidation of power by the British Parliament vis-à-vis the monarchy across the whole territory of the United Kingdom also created a new framework and political standard for establishing political legitimacy. It is the framework which continues to govern, not without significant challenges, the United Kingdom today.

    One of the truly unique features of the British political system is the absence of a constitution in the usual sense of the term. Nearly every other nation in the world, with the exception of Israel, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and a couple much smaller states, has a written constitution that lays out the structure of the government, mechanisms for establishing leadership, the definition of citizenship and the rights that pertain to it, etc. The British Constitution is not a single document but a thousand years of political processes and practices. This includes acts of parliament including the passage of a Bill of Rights in 1689, as well as the Magna Carta by which the responsibility of the King to consult with wealthy barons was initially established. The constitution also includes conventions, practices that are not codified in a specific document but have emerged over time as relatively inviolable precedents. Before 2011 and the passage of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there was no specific constitutional provision that required an election at least every five years, but no prime minister would violate this convention. Periodically, there is discussion of the need for a written constitution but the strong majority view has been that this constitution has proven flexible and effective in ruling Britain over a very long period during which many countries have seen multiple constitutions but not experienced the relative stability and continuity of Britain.

    The Magna Carta is often seen as the originating point for liberal democracy in Britain and this is true but only in a very limited way. The agreement between the barons and King John established a parliament but it took a few more centuries for the body to have the right to review laws. Initially the powers of the feudal barons only consisted of the right to consent or not consent to the king establishing special taxes, however by the fifteenth century Parliament had the right to make laws. Nonetheless, representation in this body was limited to a very narrow group of wealthy landowners.

    The Protestant Reformation generated conflicts throughout Europe and Britain was no exception. Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church when it would not annul his marriage and permit him to remarry, and established the Church of England. After the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I ended, James I and Charles I sought to strengthen royal authority and began to use the concept of divine right to legitimate their authority even though it had not been a part of the constitutional tradition in England. They also moved the Church of England towards what seemed a more Catholic form of liturgy and structure. Growing conflict between Charles and parliament led to the English Civil War in 1642 when Charles battled armies of the English and Scottish parliaments. In 1647, Charles was captured, put on trial, and executed in January 1649. After 10 years of conflicts and authoritarian rule, Charles II became king in 1660, and was followed by his brother James II. Parliamentary opponents forced the king to abdicate and his daughter Mary and her husband William took the throne in 1688. Known as the Glorious Revolution, this was a crucial turning point in British politics. The new monarchs accepted limits on the power of the monarchy which strengthened the hand of parliament especially regarding the power to tax. Over the next century, kings sought to restore their power in a few instances, but by the beginning of the 19th century, a clear division between the Prime Minister, elected by the majority in Parliament, as the Head of Government and the Monarchy as the largely symbolic Head of State. British statesman and scholar Walter Bagehot wrote the most famous work on the British Constitution in which he differentiated between the “dignified” (monarchy) and “efficient” (Parliament) branches of government. In effect, the monarchy provided a symbol of tradition and continuity as well a focus of citizen loyalty, while Parliament, led by the Prime Minister and Cabinet, carried out public policy and global diplomacy. After the Glorious Revolution, religion also ceased to be an important issue in British politics. This was not to be the case in most other European countries, including Germany, for another couple of centuries.

    These events occurred while the British state was achieving a far greater level of territorial unity. England and Wales unified with the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542. It was not until 1603 that Scotland and England unified when James VI of Scotland took the English throne. While England, Scotland, and Wales were thereafter known as ‘Great Britain,’ they remained politically divided for another hundred years, when they came together with the Act of Union of 1707. While Britain was often involved in wars in Europe and in the Americas (and occasionally in Asia), its territorial control was not at issue. As an island apart from the rest of Europe, Britain did not face the same kinds of security issues, and the need for as large a standing army, as other countries on the continent. Its leaders placed particular emphasis on developing the country's naval power both for the protection of the country and in support of expanding British commercial power in other regions of the world. While Britain was involved in European wars, they usually took place on the continent and Britain was able to keep its involvement limited. For example, Britain fought the Battle of Trafalgar, its last major battle during the Napoleonic Wars, in Spanish waters and the British fleet of 27 went almost unharmed against the French and Spanish fleet of 33 ships.

    The factors we have just analyzed—unification, resolution of religious conflicts, and the establishment of a stable parliamentary system—gave Britain some important advantages in developing a modern state. It enabled an emerging commercial class to become politically dominant and shape policies that led to the industrial revolution occurring in Britain first. While other European leaders dealt with territorial battles and internal conflicts over religion and authority, Britain’s industrialization occurred in a relatively stable domestic political environment. While it was losing its colonies in what became the United States, Britain was developing a much wider colonial empire through the combination of its expanding naval and commercial power.

    Colonialism and a Global Commercial Empire

    The industrial revolution began in Britain when growing commercial wealth and new technologies enabled Britain to develop a global economic network. As a relatively small country, it sought markets and raw materials elsewhere. Powerful British trading companies, most famously the British East India Company, had been extending their reach into the Americas and Asia throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Inventions such as the cotton gin provided immense new opportunities in textiles and other new manufacturing industries, and generated a push for new markets for British goods and new sources of the raw materials needed to make them. Cotton provides the clearest example of this dynamic. Britain relied on foreign markets to supply the materials, and to buy the products made with them. British interests provided capital for the expansion of cotton production in the United States, a process which also deepened the importance of slavery in the economy of the new country. A combination of private British companies and the powerful British Navy forced open markets in China and India, undermining local manufacturers in the process. Some regions, like China and parts of the Middle East became subject to British economic power while others, like India, eventually became colonial subjects of the British Crown. While it did not develop new colonies in the Americas in the 19th century, Britain became the major source of investment capital for the development of new mineral and agricultural exports from Latin America. During the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837-1901, the British empire encompassed more than 25 per cent of the world’s population and had direct colonial rule of over four dozen countries, along with indirect rule over other independent states such as China. Britain did all this while facing virtually no competition from Europe. By the time the United States and Germany got interested in Asia, Britain was in a position of dominance that was very hard to challenge

    The expansion of British economic and military power had immense consequences in the places that fell under their domination. Britain’s promotion of free trade policies, and the use of British military power to force open markets on other regions, created the foundations of an international economic order which remains the basis for inequalities between the nations of the Global North and South to this day. The British saw themselves as a force of progress, and a national identity developed around the idea of carrying the “white man’s burden” to less “civilized” places in the name of what they viewed as universal and God-given principles of open markets and free trade.

    The Social and Political Impact of Industrialization in Britain

    The process of industrialization and the new social processes and relationships it created also drove the expansion of voting rights and full political citizenship in Britain. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 reflected the idea that legitimate authority of a state should derive from the consent of the governed. Initially, those who were entitled to give their consent was limited to a small elite but as the idea of popular sovereignty became more powerful in the wake of the American and French Revolutions, the notion of citizenship as the principle basis for membership in a political community became stronger. At the same time those entitled to be recognized as citizens were relatively few and political power in Parliament lay mostly in the hands of rural landowning elites.

    The basis for that power was gradually being transformed by industrialization and economic development, however. Between 1750 and 1850, a rural society based on clear hierarchies and a complex network of kinship, professional, religious, and class relationships transformed into an urban commercial society in which many of the connections that created identity and a sense of belonging gave way to far larger and more impersonal cities and workplaces. This rapid urbanization caused the emergence of features such as inequality, exploitation, and a larger working class. Labor conditions in these new industrial settings were harsh and workers had  few rights. The growth of commerce also created a new middle class of accountants, lawyers, social workers, teachers, and other professionals who formed the leadership of new political parties and movements demanding the expansion of political representation.

    Conflicts developed between the interests of rural and urban economic interests emerged, as reflected in battles over the Corn Laws in the 1830s and 1840s. These tariffs protected agricultural producers from foreign competition but caused higher food prices in the cities. Sustained protests against the tariffs, which led to their repeal in 1846, was one reflection of the emerging political power of the urban working class and middle class population. Yet, Britain was still far from meeting the contemporary definition of a democracy. Voting rights were limited to less than 5 per cent with rural areas still dominant. With increased pressure, a small section of the male middle class achieved the right to vote from the Reform Act of 1832. The act only extended the right to vote to 7 per cent of the population, however, and continued to include property requirements. In response, the Chartist movement emerged in the 1830s to call for universal male suffrage and the end of property requirements, but it took almost another century for their demands to be fully enacted. The Representation of the People Act of 1867 expanded the right to vote to 16 per cent of the population. The Franchise Act of 1884 doubled that percentage but it was not until the Representation of the People Act of 1918 that a majority of men and women over the age of thirty had the right to vote. Finally, by 1928, all men and women ages 21 and up gained voting rights. The voting age was lowered to 18 in 1969, the same year as it was in the United States.

    Thus, while the Glorious Revolution established the dominance of Parliament and a representative system of government, it took 240 years for the achievement of universal adult voting rights. Britain was not a democracy in the contemporary sense of the term until the beginning of the 20th century. The length of this process is important to highlight because it reflects an important difference between Britain and the other cases we will examine. The pressures for the expansion of political rights came after Britain had established effective territorial control and industrialized. Countries facing these challenges after would not have the luxury of 240 years in which to democratize. The demand for political rights would occur more quickly and in a far more globally competitive context in a setting in which Britain had already established a global economic order that well served its interests. Countries coming to these processes later would have to play "catch up" and encountered challenges that Britain was largely spared.

    British Political Development in Comparative Perspective

    By nature of being first, the United Kingdom enjoyed the privilege of more time to develop a modern state and economy in a more organic and gradual way. In the initial period of industrialization, Britain faced no global competitors with the same range and power. The United States would eventually catch up and surpass its former colonial power that would take most of another century. China was still an important power in the East but as our case study of that country will show, when the crunch came, Imperial China could not match the military power of Britain. Britain fought wars with France quite often, but they had ceased to be an important rival in the Americas by the late 18th century and spent a lot of the 19th century in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Tsarist Russia was a massive empire but remained economically and culturally feudal until late in the 19th century. Britain’s most important rival in Europe in the early 20th century was Germany, but it was not to unify until 1870. It developed rapidly afterwards but in the shadow of and living in a global economic order shaped very much by Britain. Germany was forced to face the four challenges of state building at the same time in a very competitive global environment which seemed, especially to German nationalists, to place real limits on their ability to develop.

    In these ways, British political development benefited from several luxuries not available to those who came after. Still, these advantages had an expiration date. By the beginning of the 20th century, Britain’s declining power was starting to show. Allied with France, they could not have defeated Germany without the United States. A long running Irish independence movement led to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1922, covering all but a small area in the north of Ireland that had a Protestant majority. By the end of World War II, it was apparent that Britain no longer had the economic resources or political ambition to maintain a colonial empire. Moreover, the battle against Hitler's effort to establish a regime based on racial and ethnic purity forced many in the West to reexamine the assumptions of cultural superiority which had made colonialism seem not only necessary but proper to the advancement of progress. To many in Britain, taking up the "White Man's burden" no longer seemed justifiable. This did not end racist attitudes that had been propagated over centuries, but it did lead Britain to, more quickly than some of its European neighbors, end colonial rule by the mid 1960s.

    Free Markets and Democracy

    The impact of universal suffrage also pushed the British political system in new directions which had an impact on its global role. The Labor Party formed in 1906 to represent the political interests of the British working class, and became a political voice in opposition colonialism and empire on both financial and moral grounds. They also pushed for the development of new social programs similar to those emerging in other European countries, most notably Germany, and challenged the long time dominance of economic policies based on laissez-faire principles of limited state intervention. The years between the two World Wars was a time of continual conflict between powerful new unions representing importing economic sectors such as mining and transport on the one hand, and a state dominated by commercial interests. These conflicts reflect the tensions between free market policies, which generate growth but also tend to foster inequality, and the demands of democratic citizens for policies that both foster growth and address those inequalities at the same time. In countries where politicians have to be responsive to these demands, the result has been variations on a set of social programs known generally as the Welfare State. In the United States, this term often connotes programs focused on the poor, but elsewhere it refers to universally available benefits. Examples include health insurance, social security, free public education, and unemployment insurance.

    Post World War Policy: From the Collectivist Consensus to Thatcherism

    It was not until after World War II, however that “welfare state” programs were fully developed. The most prominent example was the National Health Service, which guaranteed access to health care to all British citizens. The British state became much more actively involved in the management of the economy and nationalized several important sectors including steel and coal. The two dominant parties, Labor and Conservative, generally agreed with the terms of a “collectivist consensus” that the state should play a larger role in regulating the economy.

    These policies helped Britain recover from the Depression and WW II but by the 1970s, the British economy was facing serious problems. State policies had not helped Britain keep up with other European countries and many of its industries were less competitive globally than they had once been. Labor relations also grew more conflictive and costly strikes and work stoppages led to Britain being tabled the "sick man of Europe" by critics. New voices within the Conservative Party questioned the Party’s embrace of higher levels of state intervention. When Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Party in 1975, she pushed for a rejection of the collectivist consensus and a return to more free market policies. She argued that state intervention had undermined the country’s economic dynamism and fostered a culture of dependency on the state which had undermined competition and made the population flabby. It was time, she argued, to scale back the welfare state and “life on the dole” in favor of a return to a culture of competition and entrepreneurship. She questioned the premise of the collectivist consensus in very fundamental terms:

    We have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. (Interview, Women's Own Magazine, September 23, 1987)

    The economic challenges of the 1970s produced divisions within the Labor Party as militant trade unionists protested Labor government policies which had limited the growth of wages and led to increased unemployment. A series of crippling strikes during the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79 brought down Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan and led to new elections which brought Thatcher and the Conservatives back to power in May 1979. Prime Minister Thatcher pursued policies designed to dismantle statist policies, scale back the welfare state and restore Britain’s global competitiveness. Over the next several years, her government privatized virtually all state run companies, selling them to private investors. Her programs had harsh effects initially, producing higher employment, and they provoked strong protests. Growth rates did improve over the course of the 1980s, but so did inequality. Thatcher was not successful in her efforts to scale back the welfare state or privatize the National Health Service but her policies returned Britain to much more free market economic policies and became the opening wave of neo-liberalism as a global economic policy framework with immense consequences.

    Margaret Thatcher remained Prime Minister until 1991 when she resigned over disagreements with her party on Britain’s relationship to the European Union. Memories of labor conflict in the 1970s and bitter divisions with the Labor Party in the 1980s helped keep the Conservatives in place until 1997 when Tony Blair moved party economic policy closer to the center. His “third way” between Thatcherism and socialism echoed the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton in maintaining the general economic policy of his predecessor but trying to strengthen the social safety net and liberalize social policy in areas like LGBT rights. Blair also oversaw the “devolution” of more power to the parliaments of Wales and Scotland and continued to make progress on the implementation of the Good Friday Accords that ended conflict in Northern Ireland.

    Britain’s relationship to Europe and the EU remained an ongoing issue, especially within the Conservative Party. The party returned to power under David Cameron in 2010 and in 2016, under pressure from "Euro-skeptics" in his party, Cameron presented a referendum on Britain’s participation. In July 2016, a small majority voted for “Brexit” though efforts by Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, to negotiate that exit with the EU led to her resignation and the issue remains unresolved. Unable to resolve the issue, May resigned and new elections brought Boris Johnson, a leader to the "leave" movement, to power in December 2019. He promised the quick negotiation of a new trade deal with Europe and economic policies that would make Britain "Singapore on the Thames." As in so many other places, Covid-19 threw a monkey wrench in these plans and put Johnson in the ICU. Since his recovery, Johnson has focused on containing what was the most lethal outbreak in the world in terms of the percentage of those who died from the virus.

    The Luxury of Time

    Political development in Britain has been a millennium in the making. Other systems we will study have even deeper roots in their country’s history, most notably China and Iran. However, no other country has experienced the degree of gradual, evolutionary change that Britain has experienced. If an English nobleman of the late 17th century were to wake up in modern Britain, he would experience astonishing levels of economic and technological development. Yet, the contours of the political system would be recognizable, even if the levels of popular participation by what he would consider commoners were not.

    How do we account for this gradualism and for the fact that while Britain’s political development has not been bloodless by any means, it has been characterized by far less upheaval and conflict? England’s separation from Europe clearly afforded important advantages throughout its history  and the establishment of territorial unity by the beginning of the 18th century was also not contested by its neighbors in the ways that borders throughout the rest of Europe were until 1945. Spared the need for the kind of land-based army that Germany and France required, it could focus on developing its navy and using it to open up new commercial opportunities around the globe at a time when European powers were battling for territorial control on the European continent.

    The consolidation of parliamentary control and territorial unity were not simply good policy choices, they were gifts of fate and geography that enabled Britain to begin the process of industrialization and global expansion before the age of popular sovereignty. When demands for political and social rights increased, the British state had developed the economic and institutional capacity to address them once they felt the political pressure to do so. The countries who went through these processes later often had to address all four challenges at the same time in periods when universal suffrage was the norm and patterns of inequality were already entrenched in the international economic structures. We will see that political leaders have responded to those challenges in a wide variety of forms, but the common feature will be upheaval on a scale that Britain has not endured, outside of the World Wars, since the late 17th century. In this way, Shakespeare expressed the value of British isolation, as well as how it shapes how the country sees itself in this passage from Richard II which describes England as:

    …this royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands,--This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

    Clearly, Britain's divisions over the European Union have deep cultural and historic roots. Of course, Britain has been far from isolated from the rest of the world. Its economic development reshaped economic and political relations in every place where its merchants and its military set foot. Nonetheless, the desire of many in Britain to take back the sovereignty and control they believe they have lost to the EU demonstrates that our current age of globalization has not weakened national identities but strengthened them in some ways. The crisis over Brexit has raised questions about a larger constitutional crisis. Britain’s millennium long process of political development, and its largely gradual nature, has been a source of continuity and strength but Brexit has clearly revealed potential weaknesses. The system depends on a stable two party system producing strong governing majorities, but the evidence suggests British politics is becoming more fragmented. The battle over Brexit, coupled with increased Scottish nationalism and opposition to immigration also indicates that the issue of national identity in Britain has been challenged by the processes of globalization. Whether the United Kingdom will still exist by the middle of the 21st century is open to question. In this way, the British experience shows us that in politics no political system or political identity lasts forever. The forces of changes pose new questions and new challenges.

    Authors: Marc Belanger and Emily Speybroeck


    2: The Political Development of the British State is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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