Remaking British politics

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First published: Summer 1991

A potential change of government from one party to another is a fairly routine matter in British politics. But what underlies the decline of the present Tory government, and the evident inability of the Labour Party to present any convincing alternative, is something more fundamental. Britain is approaching one of those great turning points in political history which have so far occurred roughly only once a century, which imply a shift in the entire party political system, that is in the form of bourgeois political hegemony.

Since the English bourgeois revolution of 1642–49 there have been only four crises of equivalent scale – 1688 with the ‘Glorious Revolution’, 1783 with the turning point after the American War of Independence, 1832 and the passing of the first Reform Act, and 1886 with the fatal split in the Liberal Party over Irish Home rule. In order to grasp the scale and nature of what is unfolding in British politics today it is therefore valuable to step back from immediate issues and consider the general course of British political history.

The existence of a variety of political parties is a defining feature of bourgeois democracies. It represents one of the distinctions between a situation where the bourgeoisie exercises political dictatorship, through one party or figure, and where it exercises political hegemony – where opposition of various types is permitted provided it does not pass certain limits.

It follows from this that it is an error to make the fundamental unit in analysing bourgeois democratic political systems the individual political party. The fundamental element of analysis must, of course, be the state and, within that, the system of political parties, that is the sum total of political parties through which the bourgeoisie exercises its hegemony or those through which, more rarely, its political hegemony is contested. So in the US it is necessary to study the specific nature of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, in Germany the Christian Democratic, Free Democrat, Christian Social Union and Social Democratic Parties, in France the Gaullists, Giscardians, Socialist and Communist Parties, in Britain the Conservatives, Labour, Liberals, Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru etc.

Considered in this framework there have been four periods of political party systems in British political history – using ‘party’, in Gramsci’s sense, to indicate not simply organised parties in the modern sense but, in earlier periods, groupings of political interests. The first term was between Whigs from 1688–1783; the second between the ‘new’ Tory party created by Pitt and the Whigs from 1783–1832; the third between the Whigs/Liberals and, following 1846, the new Conservative Party created by Disraeli; and finally the division between the Conservatives and the growing Labour Party. The features of the new, fifth, party political system which is currently developing are discussed below.

What distinguishes these party political systems, is that within the system one party is typically dominant, with this dominance shifting from period to period and the transition from one system of party dominance to another constituting major watersheds in political history. Thus, for example, if the modern history of the United States is considered, party dominance was exercised from 1860–1932 by the Republicans, the only significant period of Democratic presidency during this period being that of Woodrow Wilson from 1912–1920, and from 1932–1968 by the Democrats – the only Republican president in this period being Eisenhower. Since 1968 dominance in national US politics, although not locally, has been exercised by the Republicans – the only Democratic president being Carter.

In British political history since the bourgeois revolution, it can be clearly seen that there have been four periods of party dominance corresponding to the political party systems outlined earlier. These are: (1) 1688–1783 dominance of the Whigs over the Tories; (2) 1783–1832 dominance of the new Tory Party over the Whigs; (3) 1832–1886 dominance of the Whig/Liberal Party over the Tories/Conservatives; (4) 1886 to the current day dominance of the Conservatives over first the Liberals and then Labour.

Naturally there can be argument on the precise dating of these periods. Each sees a period of central dominance bounded at either end by a phase during which the parties fight for supremacy – we have taken the turning points of the periods as those in which the party dominance of the previous period definitively collapsed.

For example what is generally referred to as the Whig Party – although it was a loose grouping of ruling class factions – was in office continuously from 1715 to 1760. This is an obvious period of supremacy. It is debatable when the Tory Party’s supremacy at the end of the eighteenth century should be dated from – either the beginning of its revival after 1763 or its definitive victory after 1783. However these are details analysing at what point the domination of the old party clearly begins to break up and at what point the supremacy of the new party is clearly established. Each of these political periods is constituted by a central core of almost total domination by a single party with greater fluctuations at the beginning and end. Various transitional groupings also naturally exist at the point of transition from one party system to another.

In the modern period it is possible to use exact election figures as the indices of these party developments. In earlier periods, with corrupt and ‘rotten’ elections, other indicators must be used. But nevertheless the shifts are clear. We will consider these periods in order.

The bourgeois revolution of 1642–49 was consolidated by military dictatorship under Cromwell, which left no space for organised political parties. The restoration of the monarchy in 1661 inaugurated a struggle among bourgeois factions over the attitude to attempts at monarchist counter-revolution – crystallised by the attitude to the succession of James II and his attempt to rebuild a powerful absolutist state apparatus. The nucleus of the Whigs constituted the faction resolved to take decisive measures to block this – succeeding in this task with the flight of James II in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

While 1688 inaugurated Whig power, there followed three decades of conflict with the Tory minority within the ruling class. The Whigs secured a permanent anti-Tory majority in the judiciary from 1696 onwards and firm control of the House of Lords from 1701 – reflecting the Whig dominance among large landowners. In the House Of Commons a struggle between organised Tory and Whig factions continued – in particular in the seven general elections fought between December 1701 and 1715. In 1710–14 the Tories won decisive electoral victories in reaction to the financial burdens placed on the country by the Whigs during the 14-year War of Spanish Succession against Louis XIV.

In 1715 the Whigs utilised the occasion of the succession of the Hanoverian kings, and the Jacobite Stuart rebellion in Scotland, to totally destroy the Tories as a governmental force. From 1715–1760 the Whigs were in office without a break – their domination becoming so great that they dissolved into a series of loose groupings.

From 1760 onwards, however, amid the Seven Years War against France, which once more financially strained the country, increasing turbulence unsettled Whig domination. From 1760–1782, a period of political instability and factionalism, marked by the government of Lord North, set in. This culminated in the great political crisis in 1783 following British defeat in the American War of Independence – in which year there were no fewer than three governments. After 1783 a quite different period commenced with the more than 20-year prime ministership of William Pitt and the emergence of what became a new period characterised by Tory supremacy.

The curve of the Whig Party is a period of rise from 1688–1715, a period of total supremacy from 1715–1760, and a period of decline from 1760–1783.

If the social base of this first party system is considered, the Whigs represented the interlocking of large landed and mercantile interests. The Tories represented primarily lesser landowners. The working class of this period was too underdeveloped to play a major political role.

Within this system the Whigs were dominant. However in periods of sustained conflict with other ruling classes, notably the War of the Spanish Succession of 1700–1715 and the Seven Years War of 1756–1763, the predatory policies of the Whigs resulted in overtaxation and overstrain of the economy during which the Tories would rise in influence in order to bring the war to an end. Whig dominance would then be resumed as economic recovery set in.

Whig dominance collapsed amid the debacle of the war with the American colonies – accompanied by external military defeat and rising internal discontent marked by the Gordon riots of 1780 in which, as George Rudé has graphically illustrated, for the first time the developing working class turned to an assault on property.

Confronted with external defeat and a new class threat internally, the Whig system of dominance collapsed. The task of the bourgeoisie was to create a new base for its foreign policy and a new social bloc capable of confronting the working class.

The new dominant bourgeois bloc after 1783 was organised by William Pitt. Pitt brought together an alliance of ex-Whig factions and the remnants of the old Tories – initially cemented by patronage from George III. Cumulatively during the 1780s, starting with the election of 1784, Pitt assembled these groupings into a more and more coherent force. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, with both an external threat to the dominance of British capitalism and the risk that revolutionary ferment would ignite the new British working class, forged a dominant ruling class bloc against the threat of ‘French capitalism’ externally and ‘Jacobin’ agitation internally. (The extreme policies of repression carried out by the Pitt regime internally, and the struggle against them, are classically chronicled in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.)

Ideologically the expression of the new dominant bloc was Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Socially it comprised a bloc of the rising industrial bourgeoisie, whose economic interests were pursued by Pitt, with the majority of landowners, who exercised direct political control, in an alliance characterised by repression, against the working class. Such a social bloc, in a more reforming form, was later known as ‘Bismarckianism’ after the similar bloc constructed in the industrialisation and unification of Germany.

If the political cement tying landowners and industrial capital together was fear of the working class, the crucial economic policy linking the landowners together, and dictating the policy of repression against the working class, was agricultural protectionism – which guaranteed a high price, and therefore high profits, for agricultural products but at the expense of reducing potential working class living standards. (Agricultural protectionism, consolidating an industrial capital/small landowner alliance, was also the social lynchpin of Bismarck’s Germany and contemporary Japanese capitalism.) The political expression of this bloc was the new Tory party of Pitt which dominated Britain during the decisive period of the consolidation of the industrial revolution. This bloc in turn collapsed amid both internal and external challenges.

By the 1820s, after four decades of Tory supremacy, the industrial bourgeoisie had enormously developed in weight and was no longer content to play a virtually negligible direct political role – commencing the agitation which led to the first Reform Act of 1832. Furthermore, after the defeat of France in 1815 no serious external rival to British capitalism existed, alleviating the need for the extreme national unity between industrial bourgeoisie and landowners required in the wars against the French Revolution. The working class had grown to the point where simple repression risked a revolutionary explosion by a new powerful adversary. Finally the issue around which crisis erupted, agrarian discontent in Ireland, threatened the base of the Tories.

Tory supremacy collapsed in the crisis of 1830–32 in which, first, Catholic Emancipation was decreed, allowing political power to be grasped by the Tories’ rivals in Ireland, and then the first major element of direct political power by the industrial bourgeoisie was gained in 1832.

The curve of development of this Tory Party is therefore one of increasing influence from 1760–1783, the establishment of Tory dominance, and increasing homogenisation of Tory forces, from 1783 onwards, supremacy from 1789 until the 1820s, and Tory crisis and decline from the mid/late 1820s. In the entire period from 1783–1832 the Tories were in office for 45 out of the 49 years.

The period after the 1832 Reform Act saw not simply concessions to the industrial bourgeoisie but a new ‘reformist’ orientation to the working class in an attempt to buy off rising discontent – symbolised by the de facto legalisation of trade unionism. However, initially, this policy was not successful – the working class acquiring increasing political independence through Chartism. The coping stone of the new reformist orientation was only established in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws – that is, the import tariff on agricultural goods. This, at one stroke, opened the country to cheap imports of food, thereby raising working class living standards, and destroyed the economic viability of the small landowners. A new social bloc was created of the industrial bourgeoisie, the largest landowners (who could survive repeal), and the most privileged sections of the working class – who, after 1850, began to organise in new reformist craft trade unions. This political bloc was maintained in the long period of capitalist expansion from 1848–1873. Its political expression became the Liberal Party.

The subordinate party within the new political system was the Disraelian Conservatives, whose essential base continued to be the small landowners concentrated in the South and South East of England.

The Whigs, and then Liberals, won the vote in twelve out of thirteen general elections, and were in office for 40 out of the 54 years, between 1832 and 1885. The Tories were defeated in the vote in twelve out of thirteen general elections, suffered a catastrophic split in 1846, and in 1847 were a party essentially confined to the rural areas of the country. It took 27 years after 1847 for the Tories to win an majority of seats in the House of Commons, and 39 years to win the largest share of the popular vote. There is no problem in establishing the period from 1832–1885 as one of Whig-Liberal supremacy and Tory subordination.

The collapse of the Liberal supremacy, in turn, began with the post-1873 ‘Great Depression’. Rising unemployment and pressure on real wages began to break the working class from the Liberals – crucial symptoms being unemployed riots in London, the formation of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884, and the election of ‘independent’ Liberal candidates in Wales and Cornwall in 1885. Simultaneously, Home Rule candidates achieved dominance in the south of Ireland. The British ruling class thereby found its position threatened both within its own country and in its traditional colony in Ireland.

The first attempt to deal with this was the ‘radicalisation’ of the Gladstonian Liberal Party – with its espousal of Irish Home Rule in 1885 and commencement of anti-landlord agitation. This policy was, however, incapable of containing the situation, the collapse gathering pace throughout the 1880s and 1890s and occurring openly with the creation of the Labour Party in 1900.

The second orientation was the regroupment of all landlord forces and a section of the industrial bourgeoisie led by Joseph Chamberlain under the banner of imperialism and, thereby, cementing into this bloc the most privileged sections, around one third, of the working class. This new bloc was the post-1886 Conservative Party – a consolidated expression of British imperial capital and landlordism.

Following 1886, and the split of the Liberal Party between Gladstone and Chamberlain over Irish Home Rule, Conservative supremacy was established. The Tories won the largest share of the vote in twelve out of the thirteen general elections between 1886 and 1945. After being a secondary force for half a century prior to 1886, the Tory Party was then in office, alone or in coalition, for over 70 per cent of the time in the next 80 years. With the sole major exceptions of the pre-First World War Liberal government and the post-Second World War Labour administration, the Tories were in office virtually continuously from 1886 to 1964.

The 1960s, in turn, mark the beginning of the period of the break-up of the Conservative Party dominance. The Tory Party was in opposition for 11.5 out of the next 15 years. It lost four out of five general elections. It was to halt this decline that Thatcher was elected to lead the Conservatives – utilising the temporary new resources given to British capitalism by North Sea oil amid the huge rise in international oil prices that accompanied her first period in office. The current crisis of the Tory party, and John Major’s attempt to reorient it, represents the end of this period.

The curve of the modern Conservative Party is therefore a preparatory period of rise from 1847 to 1886, a period of massive supremacy from 1886 to 1964, and a new period of crisis after 1964. The new features of British politics arise from the break-up of that ability to dominate by the Tory Party.

Before passing on to the present period, if we consider the basis of these phases of party dominance it is clear that each corresponds to a definite period of capital accumulation. The 1688–1783 dominance of the Whigs is the period of accumulation of landed, mercantile, and banking capital in Britain prior to the industrial revolution. The 1783–1832 supremacy of the Tories is the core period of the Industrial Revolution itself – the primitive accumulation of industrial capital. The 1832–85 supremacy of the Whigs and Liberals is the period of classical laissez-faire capitalism. The period of Conservative supremacy from 1886 is the epoch of classical British imperialism based on foreign investment.

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Indeed, taking this last period in detail, it is scarcely possible to imagine a more mechanical relation between the base of the Conservative party and its electoral position – with, as usual, the political and ideological expression simply lagging behind the economic base. To show this, Figure 1 illustrates both the Conservative percentage of the vote at general elections and the ratio of income from foreign investment to GDP. To make the trends clear, and show the lags involved, the ratio of profits from foreign investment to GDP has been shifted rightwards 18 years, i.e. the peak year of profit from foreign investment, 1913, has been placed to coincide with the peak year of the Tory vote in 1931. With this lag, and taking into account inevitable fluctuations in general elections, the Conservative percentage of the vote tracks the income from overseas investment extremely accurately. The basis of the rise and fall of the Conservative Party in the most classical form of imperialism, income from overseas assets, is scarcely in doubt.

This trend also makes clear the reasons for the decline of the Conservatives’ dominance in the exhaustion of this economic system. While there was short term recovery in income on UK assets overseas during the early Thatcher period, and North Sea oil revenue functioned to some extent as a substitute, nevertheless the relentless historical decline in profits from abroad is clear. From a peak of 8 per cent of GDP prior to World War I, income from overseas investment fell to 4–5 per cent of GDP in the inter-war period, around 3 per cent in the immediate post-war period, and 1 per cent of GDP by the 1980s. The weakening of the position of British imperialism progressively undermined the base on which the Conservative Party was built.

It was this decline of British imperialism which inaugurated the crisis of the Conservative Party from the early 1960s. The decline of the independent base of British imperialism required reorientation into integration to the new consolidating European imperialist system – which was commenced with Macmillan’s application for EEC membership, taken to its first decisive culmination in Heath’s achievement of EEC membership in 1972, and now consolidated in Labour’s espousal of Europe and Major’s explicit attempt to recast the Conservative party in a European, Christian Democratic, mould. An entire new period of capital accumulation has thereby commenced – one rooted not in an independent British imperialist course but in progressive integration into the EEC and European capital. Such a new period of capital accumulation necessarily requires a new party political system to accompany it. The political events of the last thirty years, reduced to their essentials, are the coming into existence of that new system.

The nature of this new party political system becomes clearer if the trends of development of the old party system are set out systematically. This is illustrated in Figures 2 to 4 which show, respectively, the percentage of the vote gained by the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties in general elections since 1959.

Figure 2

Figures 3-4

As may be seen, the trend of development of the parties is not short-term in its nature. Each shows a clear long-term development. The Conservative vote rises progressively from the mid-nineteenth century to 1931 and then declines. The Labour Party vote rises from its foundation in 1900 to 1951 and then declines – with a revival in 1987 and the certainty of a further recovery in 1991–92. Liberal support falls from the mid-nineteenth century to 1951 and then rises.

It should be clear in considering the Liberals/Alliance, however, that we are not, in essence, dealing with the same party as that of the earlier period, despite possessing the same name. The distinctive feature of the Liberals from the 1950s onwards was their support for Europe – they adopted support for entry into the EEC earlier than either of the two major parties.

In the 1950s the Liberals were forced back to essentially a base among small holders in Scotland, Wales and South West England – the distinctive feature of the social formation there, compared to the rest of England, being the domination of agriculture by self-employed farmers rather than the agricultural capitalist/wage labour system characteristic of the rest of English agriculture (i.e. the ‘Gaelic fringe’ of Liberal support had nothing to do with cultural features but was rooted in a distinctive social formation). From the 1950s on, however, the Liberals sought to carve out a distinctive position through an orientation to big European capital and those sectors of British capital linked to it. This became explicit when they took on board, first through the Alliance and then through fusion, the pro-EEC wing of the Labour Party (Jenkins, Williams etc). This orientation is maintained today with the Liberals the party most strongly in favour of a single European currency, of immediate moves to narrow bands in the ERM, etc.

Indeed the new ‘European’ shape of British politics is already consolidating itself. In each major West European country today the essential forces are a strongly pro-European capitalist party – the Giscardians/Barrists in France, the FDP/CDU in Germany, the Liberals in the UK; a more ‘Gaullist’ bourgeois party with a stronger petty-bourgeois base – the Gaullists/RPR in France, the CSU in Germany, the Conservatives (particularly the Thatcher wing) in Britain; and a strongly pro-EEC social democratic party – the French SP, the Spanish PSOE, the German SPD, and the new Kinnock/Smith Labour Party. The distinctive European political party formation has now replicated itself in Britain.

The essential base of this system of parties across Europe lies in the fact that policies of European integration require such a violent assault on both the working class and the petty bourgeoisie that it is extremely difficult for ‘pure’ parties oriented to big European capital to gain a mass base (even the German CDU is less extremely pro-EC than the small FDP). Hegemony of big European capital is therefore typically exercised by the pro-European party of big capital making, according to the needs of the situation, alliances with either the more pro-petty bourgeois ‘Gaullist’ formation (FDP-CDU-CSU coalition in West Germany, UDR-RPR alliance in France, a potential Ashdown-Major coalition in Britain) or with social democrats (the attempt of the second Mitterrand presidency to forge an alliance with the ‘centre’ bourgeois parties, the FDP-SPD coalition in West Germany, a potential Liberal-Labour coalition in Britain). The peculiarity of Britain is that the ‘first past the post’ electoral system prohibits this coalition system. The essential moment in bringing the new party political system to dominance will therefore be the establishment of the electoral mechanism for such coalitions – the introduction of proportional representation.

The resolution the British political crisis is driving towards – the defeat of the Tories and the introduction of PR – will therefore represent not simply the transition from one government to another but the inauguration of a new party political system. Whether this takes place at the next election, with a hung parliament and a Labour-Liberal agreement to introduce PR, or whether it is delayed beyond the next election is merely a matter of timing. The overall direction is already clear.

What, therefore, will be the historical role of this new party system? It is driven, given its nature, not simply by developments in Britain but by those across Europe. In that context its function is clear. The role of the new party system for capital is to attempt to destroy the reformist gains made by the British working class under British imperialism and, in tandem with similar moves across Europe, to destroy the welfare state. The two goals, as we will see, coincide.

Taking first the specific context of British imperialism, its historical strength allowed the working class to achieve massive reformist organisation. The Labour Party was the most politically backward mass working class party in Europe, but it was also the one, outside Scandinavia, that received the highest proportion of the vote. The trade unions organised almost half the workforce without the systematic government encouragement given in Sweden. Local government was dominated by the Labour Party.

The British bourgeoisie now cannot afford such luxuries. It has to qualitatively drive down trade union membership and break any possibility of reformism through local government without permitting opposition to this to be expressed through a radicalisation in the labour movement. Proportional representation, blocking the possibility of the formation of majority Labour governments and subordinating Labour to the Liberals, ensures this. Extended into local government, it would allow the Liberals to smash Labour’s base there – rapidly expanding the process of privatisations and cuts. A Liberal blocking mechanism would be created against any attempt to loosen the laws against the unions. These specific attacks on the positions of the British working class dovetail perfectly with the European wave of attacks on the welfare state which will dominate the next decade.

The assault on the European welfare state is determined by a combination of two processes. First the welfare state was itself a compromise produced by the post-war situation in Europe. The working class was unable to overthrow capitalism in Western Europe but at the same time the bourgeoisie felt deeply threatened by the existence of non-capitalist states in Eastern Europe. To ensure the working class in Western Europe did not go beyond reformism the bourgeoisie created the welfare state.

Following the beginning of the destruction of workers’ states in Eastern Europe in 1989 the West European bourgeoisie no longer feels so threatened. It can therefore afford to begin to dismantle the welfare state.

Secondly the bourgeoisie not only has the possibility to but is compelled to begin to eliminate the welfare state. The competivity of the West European economics has now been decisively overtaken by Japan and East Asia. There is no longer the possibility to exact imperial tribute to compensate for the squeeze on Western Europe from the rise of the Pacific economy and the reinforced imperial exactions of the US.

The arithmetic of that squeeze is clear. The Japanese and East Asian economies have achieved a rate of investment, around 30 per cent of GDP, which is qualitatively higher than that of Western Europe – whose average is around 20 per cent. This difference is largely accounted for by the fact that the East Asian economies, as with the US, carry no burden (from a capitalist point of view) of a welfare state. The elimination of the welfare state has therefore become the condition for European capital to compete with Japan and the newly industrialising countries of East Asia. The year 1989, by bringing together economic necessity and political possibility, commenced the assault on the European welfare state.

The first fulcrum of that assault is Germany. The rapid development of unemployment in east Germany exceeds the resources of the German welfare state. Attempted radical reduction of the German welfare state is the inevitable path which the German bourgeoisie will embark on. Reduction of the German welfare state, by the pressure of competition, will tend to spread itself throughout Europe. A similar crisis of the welfare state, arising for different reasons, has commenced in Sweden – where the crushing defeat of the Social Democrats and the inauguration of the most right wing government since the 1930s is already approaching.

The link of the new party system in Britain into this process is clear. The enormous assault now in prospect on the basis both of historical British reformism and the welfare state cannot help but produce a radicalisation of sections of the labour movement. The bourgeois party political system requires a mechanism to exclude the possibility of any reflection of this radicalisation on the governmental level – i.e. a new maintenance of bourgeois political hegemony. The introduction of PR will not be, as those with deep illusions in the bourgeoisie, such as John Palmer, Hilary Wainwright and the Socialist Society believe, the basis for a new advance for the British working class but the occasion for the most vicious and determined assault it has suffered for over a century.

These are the stakes in the coming reorganisation of the bourgeois political system. A new phase of capital accumulation requires a new, and more vicious party political system to accompany it.