Hear, hear and over there

July 7, 1995

Samuel Beer discerns the Americanisation of British politics and the decline of party government.

Recently a British journalist recalled that Baroness Thatcher had once said that it would be a great achievement if she could leave office with British looking like American politics, the Conservatives as a kind of Republican party alongside Labour as the Democrats. The journalist made this allegation while arguing that in her political career Lady Thatcher has been mainly motivated by malice.

I myself would not regard such an achievement as entirely blameworthy. In any case, it would be inaccurate to put the blame for it on any one person. Tony Blair's purge of socialism from the Labour party complements Lady Thatcher's demotion of Tory paternalism among Conservatives. Intentionally, or not, both changes reflect a trend toward Americanisation.

It was not always thus. In the postwar years when I first took up the study of British politics, many Americans - and this included politicians as well as professors - looked to Britain as the exemplar of how democracy could and should cope with the problems of modern capitalism. From the end of the war until the mid-1960s the British record was a story of solid political and economic success. Building on pre-war foundations, successive governments created a welfare state and a managed economy that provided proximate solutions to some of the worst problems of industrial society.

This postwar settlement was confirmed by a process of mutual adjustment which converted the confrontation of socialism and capitalism into bipartisan consensus. In admiring American eyes the key to this success was party government: that is, a stable two-party system based on mass memberships which provided governments with cohesive majorities supporting distinctive programmes. In contrast with Washington's disorderly regime of pressure groups and the unstable multi-party systems of the Continent, this system displayed both responsiveness and order - with the stress on order. Conceivably, in the US, party organisation on a national scale could bridge the divisions of power established by the constitution sufficiently to approximate that fusion of executive and legislative power which gave special strength to party government in Britain.

The British phenomenon, however, reflected more than organisational structure and constitutional principle. There was also the civic culture. The Tory tradition embodied the noblesse oblige and deference of a premodern hierarchy, while the strong sense of solidarity which informed socialism drew on the values of an older organic community. In the absence of such a heritage, American politics lacked Toryism on the right and socialism on the left, thereby making our differences, sharp as they often were, variations on a common liberalism. Without the steadying influence of such a cultural base, American politics verged on indiscriminate responsiveness at the expense of strong and effective government.

In the 1960s this happy continuum was suddenly and unexpectedly disrupted by a cultural revolution which swept through Britain attacking authority and order in nearly every sphere of life. The upheaval was not confined to Britain, but raged through all the western democracies. In Britain the consequence was the collapse of the civic culture. Deprived of the guidance of this invisible hand, party government faltered and failed.

The very success of the model was a reason for its failure, as the pluralism engendered by the welfare state and managed economy defeated the agent of their creation. The two evenly matched parties competed for the votes of beneficiaries of the new social programmes, raising public expenditure to inflationary heights. Groups of producers in business and labour frustrated attempts at management of the economy.

The unions, for instance, found that they could no longer mobilise the solidarity that earlier had enabled them to impose wage restraint, an essential control for any fully employed economy. That loss of function undermined the unions' dominant position in the Labour Party, as the Social Democrats recognised when they seceded from Labour in 1981, breaking with the unions and shedding socialism. This fateful split removed that essential balancing force of party government, a credible opposition, thereby opening the way for a full scale assault by Thatcher on the postwar settlement.

Although her neo-liberal strategy was little different in principle from the approach Ted Heath had tried in vain to carry out a decade earlier, Thatcher was immensely successful in her attack on the managed economy. Her effort to cut welfare state spending, however, did not succeed, the overall tax burden and the proportion of national product going to public expenditure hardly changing between 1980 and 1994. Disciplined by repeated defeat, Labour has moved so far towards acceptance of market choice and care for fiscal balance as to suggest that in economic policy a new consensus is in the works.

While in this respect policy has been stabilised, the prospects for the political process are full of uncertainty. Practice has fallen off sadly from the old model of party government: political culture, class/party nexus, party membership, independence of MPs, challenges to party leaders and so on. There remains that fusion of executive and legislative authority under the British constitution which means that the system, to quote a recent German observer, "concentrates power more ruthlessly" than any other representative government.

What will the movement for constitutional reform do to this formidable power? Rising out of that explosion of distrust in the 1960s, this movement has matured in a programme of demands which gathers force. Consider, for example, the very great support given to proposals put before respondents in the May 30 MORI survey for the Rowntree Trust. To mention only a few: a Bill of Rights, an elected second chamber, proportional representation, and, not least, a fixed-term parliament which would deprive the prime minister of that mighty tool of party discipline, the power of dissolution.

Intentionally or not, every one of these proposals is directed at weakening the executive, so much so that if they were actually adopted, governments would be so enfeebled that Britain would be obliged to adopt another reform, the most American of all, a popularly elected President.

As a note of friendly advice, I must report that in the United States we have long had all these institutional devices, except PR, and that nonetheless popular distrust of government and dissatisfaction with its performance are as deep and persistent as in Britain.

The upheaval of the 1960s destroyed the never strong promise of party government. Increasingly American voters split their tickets, giving the presidency to one party and one or both houses of Congress to the other party. Under this unco-ordinated bipartisan sponsorship public expenditure soared, fiscal discipline being restored only by the arrival of President Clinton.

Then last autumn something even more unprecedented happened. As the Republicans took over both Houses and Senate, the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, in a performance as theatrical as his name, launched a massive legislative programme mandated by an election manifesto and supported by a firmly united party in the legislature. Party government, which had been repeatedly pronounced dead in recent years, came alive with a bang.

Samuel H. Beer is Eaton professor of the science of government, emeritus, at Harvard University.

The ICBH conference is sponsored by HaperCollins publishers.

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