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Politics in Britain

Politics in Britain: From Labourism to Thatcherism

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Politics in Britain
    Book Description:

    Controversial when the first edition was published in 1983, Colin Leys' analysis of the changing face of British politics has been confirmed by events of the late 1980s. The second edition, revised throughout, is brought up to date with substantial new material on the Thatcher era.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-2320-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the Revised Edition
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. PART I

    • 1 British Politics and Political Science
      (pp. 3-17)

      The dominant postwar tradition of texts on British politics defined politics in a distinctive way. What it discussed was not so much politics as the institutions through which a particular segment of political life – parliamentary party competition and the conduct of government – is carried on. What is more, these institutions were to a large extent not so much critically analysed as celebrated – even though, from the 1960s onwards, the celebration was increasingly tinged with doubt and anxiety.

      The basis of this tradition was the political standpoint from which most of these books were written – the standpoint...

    • 2 Britain in Crisis
      (pp. 18-41)

      A hundred and fifty years ago, when the industrial revolution was at its height, people in Britain had no doubt that the country was in the grip of powerful forces which were drastically changing its economic, social and political structure. The breathtaking accumulation of wealth, the dramatic expansion of the industrial towns, impressed themselves on contemporary observers as ‘great and extraordinary facts’, ‘almost miraculous,’ ‘unparalleled in the history of the world’.¹ By 1840, the industrial revolution was almost universally recognised as ‘probably the most important event in world history, at any rate since the invention of agriculture and cities’.² And...

    • 3 The First Crisis
      (pp. 42-58)

      Even if some of the structural constraints which Britain’s early start imposed on her manufacturing sector seem less absolute than Hobsbawm implies, one thing is clear: speaking generally, British capitalist manufacturers never did compete successfully against othercapitalistmanufacturers. What they did was to overwhelmpre-capitalistproduction everywhere; and it was the comparative ease of this victory, rather than the commitment of capital to particular sectors, such as textiles or railways, or to particular forms of business organisation characteristic of early capitalism, that led to later problems.

      Until the last years of the nineteenth century, British capital still depended very...

    • 4 Labour and the New Political Order
      (pp. 59-71)

      The second crisis was separated from the first by four decades. Two world wars and a decade of slump had effected far-reaching changes in the economy, the parties, the state and social life. New ‘science-based’ industries had been established and they provided some compensation for the continued decline of the old staples of textiles, coalmining and shipbuilding. The new consumer-goods industries were concentrated in the Midlands and the South-East. London became, for the first time in its history, a major industrial centre.*

      Private and public suburban development, based on new urban road-transport systems, drastically altered the geography of work and...

    • 5 The Paralysis of Social Democracy
      (pp. 72-87)

      From 1961 onwards British politics became dominated once more by the country’s economic problems. Britain’s share of world exports of manufactures fell persistently (from 15.7 per cent in 1961 to 9.5 per cent in 1978), while foreign manufactures increasingly penetrated the British domestic market, reaching 25.6 per cent of total domestic sales (nearly 60 per cent, in the case of car sales) by mid-1979. The overall rate of profit (before tax) fell from 14.2 per cent in 1960 to 4.7 per cent in 1978. Investment remained static, falling further and further behind the levels of competing economies abroad. By 1978,...

    • 6 Into the New Crisis
      (pp. 88-100)

      After the Conservative Party’s defeat in the 1964 election many party activists and MPs felt that, in effect, Wilson’s charge that it was led by an amateur, backward-looking elite contained an uncomfortable element of truth. There was a growing distrust of the party’s traditionally upper-class leadership – the ‘magic circle’, the former Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod called them – including Macmillan himself, and his successor Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Home had become Prime Minister and leader of the party in 1963 on the basis of advice tendered to the Queen by Macmillan (when he had to resign from ill-health) after informal...

    • 7 The New Conservative Project of Margaret Thatcher
      (pp. 101-126)

      The failure of the ‘social contract’ as a basis for economic recovery had finally driven British politics towards a radical realignment. For the first time the leadership of a major party was committed to a project which went to the heart of the relationship between capital and labour. Thatcher had long subscribed to the individualist, anti-state, anti-union, anti-egalitarian views of her party’s right wing. Shortly before her election as leader she also adopted the ‘social market’ and monetarist economic doctrines to which her friend and counsellor Sir Keith Joseph had recently been converted. Unlike the ‘competition policy’ of Edward Heath,...

  5. PART II

    • 8 Capital and Labour
      (pp. 129-159)

      The warp and weft of British society consists of the relations between the owners and the non-owners of its productive resources. These relations are fundamental to the formation and nature of classes and parties, and are implicit in almost every sphere of culture, sacred and profane. But the way classes, parties and culture are based on and refract the relation between capital and labour is complex. This chapter seeks to outline the basic relationship at its most direct and simple level.

      Three broad phases of development in the relation between capital and labour can be distinguished: the phase of competitive...

    • 9 Social Classes and British Politics
      (pp. 160-190)

      During the ‘age of affluence’ in the 1950s a rather strange argument was advanced, that this ‘most class-ridden country under the sun’ (as Orwell called it) was positively united by its class differences. The most characteristic example of this was held to be the ‘deferential’ working-class voter who voted for the Conservatives because he (or she) felt that the ‘upper class’ was bred to rule (‘Breeding counts every time. I like to be set an example and have someone I can look up to’).¹ In other words, British people were supposed to know their place in the class system and...


    • 10 The Conservative Party
      (pp. 193-212)

      Political parties are the natural victims of general crises. The Liberals succumbed – as a party of government, and for three decades as a significant political force – to the crisis of 1900–1914. Neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party were guaranteed to survive the crisis that set in during the sixties, and any description of their main features in the late 1980s must be more than usually provisional. The Conservative Party, moreover, has been poorly served by scholarship. Material on the party’s leaders and doctrines is abundant, but critical studies of its social base and political economy are...

    • 11 The Labour Party and the Left
      (pp. 213-241)

      The crisis affected the Labour Party even more fundamentally than the Conservatives. By the end of the 1960s the left wing of the party in the constituencies and the trade unions, and a small group of Labour MPs, had become impatient with their traditional role as the ‘conscience’ of the party, prominent when the party was in opposition, but disregarded by the party’s parliamentary leaders when in office. From 1972 onwards they began organising to commit the party to a more uncompromisingly socialist programme; after 1979 they also mobilised to change the party constitution so as to make the parliamentary...

    • 12 Beyond the Two-Party System?
      (pp. 242-270)

      By 1974 popular support for the two major parties had been declining for over twenty years (see Table 5.1). Fewer people were engaged in any form of party politics: fewer voted (turnout at general elections declined from 83.9 per cent in 1950 to 72.8 per cent in October 1974); and fewer were members of any political party. Political energies flowed out of electoral party politics into various forms of extra-parliamentary politics such as claimants’ unions, campaigns against new motorways or airports, or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Rank and file trade union activism also rose, drawing in new segments of...

  7. PART IV

    • 13 The British State
      (pp. 273-312)

      Until the mid-1970s few books on British politics, and virtually no textbooks, referred to the state. This was because the most influential theories of the state were incompatible with the tenets of pluralism. Hegel had seen the state as the embodiment of the ethical and rational principles of the nation and glorified the Prussian autocracy as its supreme expression, while Marx, on the contrary, understood it as the embodiment of the interests of the dominant class. Pluralists rejected the concepts of both nation and class. For them, ‘western’ societies were systems of constantly changing combinations of groups competing to control...

    • 14 The State and the Economy
      (pp. 313-334)

      The same circumstances that made it necessary to extend the franchise – leading to the circumscription of democracy described in the previous chapter – also necessitated the continuous growth of the state. This growth persisted and reached its apogee in the 1970s. The economic role of the state became so large that its policies profoundly affected the economy whether it sought to ‘manage’ the economy or not. Before 1939, economic orthodoxy in Britain largely rejected the implications of this fact. After the slump, Keynesian ideas of ‘demand management’ gradually gained credence and the state came to accept, in theory, responsibility...

    • 15 Consent and Social Control
      (pp. 335-369)

      The state is ‘hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’:¹ a combination of ideological and practical measures to secure popular consent, with measures of social control. In times of prosperity consensual themes come to the fore and less control is needed. In hard times a different set of ideological themes is resorted to, some popular, some authoritarian; and – eventually – there is more reliance on coercion.

      In the 1950s and early 1960s ‘consumerism’ served as a powerful general ideology which obscured economic inequality and legitimated the state. But even in the ‘age of affluence’ other contradictions emerged and other...

  8. Index
    (pp. 370-376)