The Illusory Standard of Political Stability: Britain’s Unruly Democratic Politics: Democratic Audit

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Democratic politics in the UK is currently rife with conflict because this multinational state encourages it, writes Helene thompson (University of Cambridge). Maintaining political stability has historically required prudence and pragmatic restraint. Minority governments and more frequent elections have taken place when the UK’s economic and political relations with the rest of the world are contested and at times of tension within the union.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at the Official Opening of Parliament, 2017. Photo: UK Parliament, via CC BY-NC 2.0

By recent standards, democratic politics in the UK looks rather extraordinary. A minority Conservative government, held in power by a confidence and supply deal with a party in Northern Ireland, strives to implement a decision taken by the electorate to change the constitutional order with far-reaching consequences economic and international. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has promised a second independence referendum, and there has not been a decentralized government in Northern Ireland for a year. However, these times are less exceptional than they seem.

Governing the political system of the United Kingdom has historically been fraught with difficulties. The UK is a multinational state in which the articulation of a common British nation has been forged in a now ended imperial world, and is inherently weak when it comes to Catholics in Northern Ireland. Yet despite the presence of national fault lines, the political tradition that has endured from constitutional monarchy to full-fledged representative democracy has made serious political change relatively easy through the conjunction of parliamentary sovereignty and the electoral system. Therefore, maintaining political stability favored prudence, while offering quite opposite temptations to those who came to power in Westminster. This reality encouraged a clear distinction between high political issues – primarily foreign policy and macroeconomics – which were contested in democratic politics via elections and party leadership changes, and policy areas to be depoliticized, at least in partisan politics, even if that meant accommodating preferences (as with immigration controls in the 1960s and 1970s) that caused unease.

Prudence is a rare quality in any policy and is always at the mercy of events and changes in external conditions. When either the position of Ireland and then of Northern Ireland in the Union, or the economic and political relations of the United Kingdom with the rest of the world generated substantial difficulties which divided the main political parties, the United Kingdom United has historically experienced minority governments and more frequent elections. The period between 1972 and 1979 was an acute example of such turbulence, when the collapse of the post-war economic order, divisions between and within parties over membership of the European Community, the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalisms and the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland produced three general elections, three referendums, two periods of minority government and the separation of the Ulster Unionists from the Conservative Party.

In contrast, from 1982 to 2005, politics became relatively easy for the ruling parties, with the exception of the Major government after September 1992 when it became easy for the opposition. As a result, long-term governments have become cavaliers. The Thatcher governments engaged in an “enemy inside” approach to the unions and were particularly reckless of Scotland. The Blair government pushed for a constitutional change that would inevitably produce a multinational regime problem once Labor was no longer in power in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff. He also made significant changes to immigration policy without worrying too much about electoral consequences, and Blair pushed the Iraq war with cavalier disregard for the discontent it sparked. It was only in Northern Ireland that obvious governance problems remained. Although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the violence, direct authority was restored in 2002 and lasted for five years. Yet even then the size of the Labor majorities kept Northern Irish issues out of Westminster parliamentary politics.

The reasons for this period of stability came from within and outside British politics. When in opposition, none of the major parties, except Labor under Blair’s leadership, could come up with a credible alternative government. In the meantime, from the mid-1990s, a decade of relatively benign international circumstances prevailed, providing an escape from the pound sterling crises that had haunted British politics since 1918. Instead of the relative decline that prevailed in the 1960s in the 1980s, the UK economy generally performed better than its European counterparts. Equally important, the relative stability of the pound sterling from 1995 onwards allowed non-membership of the euro to remain a relatively settled issue. The opt-out of the treaty which guaranteed the maintenance of national monetary sovereignty also served as a model for addressing the further integration otherwise required by the Treaty of Amsterdam, while membership of the European Union depoliticized certain economic issues beyond macroeconomic policy.

The start of the return of domestic unrest was the 2005 general election, even as the electoral system allowed Labor to form another majority government with just 35% of the vote. Following the 2004 European Parliament elections, which saw UKIP win 16% of the vote and Labor and Conservatives fall to their lowest shares of the national vote since 1918 and 1832 respectively, the three main parties in Westminster were sufficiently worried about the EU. question of including in their manifesto a promise to organize a referendum on the draft constitutional treaty. The Conservatives have also politicized immigration policy in party terms, making the issue their main campaign message. In Northern Ireland, Ulster’s Unionist vote collapsed, leaving Democratic Unionists the largest party in the province for the first time.

When, after the 2005 election, the Tories elected themselves in David Cameron as the plausible alternative prime minister, they were unable to establish another period of one-party domination, even after the economy entered its deepest recession since 1930-191. Instead, the upcoming general election brought a coalition government back to Westminster with a political commitment on immigration that could not be implemented in the EU and a commitment on referendums for further integration. of the EU which would ensure that the UK becomes an effective obstacle to the new EU treaties. . Meanwhile, a minority nationalist government won power in Scotland in 2007, promising a referendum if a majority was obtained, and the re-established executive in Northern Ireland that same year was led by Democratic Unionists and the Sinn Fein.

Democratic politics in the UK are now rife with conflict because this clumsy multinational political organization encourages it, especially when politicians have failed to find clear and lasting answers to questions of what economic relations should be. and UK foreign policies. It may not be an edifying spectacle, but the recent lack of serious democratic competition appears to have eroded the pragmatic restraint upon which the UK’s survival as a multinational democratic regime depends.

This article represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. This article first appeared on Long-term, Cambridge University’s Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) blog, Available here.


About the Author

Helene thompson is a professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge and a regular speaker on the Talking Politics podcast. She also tweets @ HeleneHet20.

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