Brief History of Modern British Politics!
In response to a query on the Urban 75 boards from someone who said they were not originally from Britain and wanted to understand how British politics got to where it was and what various things meant, I and various other posters offered up our humble contributions. An edited version of my contribution is reprinted below. Please let me know if you spot any inaccuracies of fact (as opposed to interpretation!)
Greenman's Brief History of Modern British Politics
The roots of the three largest British political parties go back to the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Tories (Conservatives), after some occasional early regional dalliances with the alternative (Catholic/Absolutist) Jacobite claimants to the British throne, evolved into the "Kings Men" - backing Church (i.e. Anglican/High Anglican) and Hanoverian monarchy (The Georges etc) against the Whigs who were more liberal (though also loyal to the Hanoverian succession) and had connections to the radical wings of the aristocracy, the rising merchant class and the nonconformist religious sects who had ridden high at the time of the English Revolutions in the 17th Century. As the vote was gradually expanded to more of the "non-propertied" classes the Whigs came to represent the middle classes - and so supported mercantilism, the more 'enlightened' of the new factory owners, and gradually an imperialist policy overses (liberal imperialism). Toryism came to represent the rural landlords, aristocrats and more reactionary elements of the mercantile and industrial classes. In the 19th Century working class radicalism rose with Chartism, demands for suffrage, republicanism and nascent socialism, trades unionism etc. The struggle for Catholic emancipation and that for independence for Ireland also had an effect across the whole British Isles. Whilst there was for some time a movement called "Radicalism", for the most part the early electoral representatives of the working classes had to deal uncomfortably under the Liberal banner.
This situation gradually became more intolerable for the politically aware working class and various small socialist groups and trade unionists began to move towards independent political organisation (something that Blair and some New Labour ideologists now are believed to have seen as a mistake which "divided the left" - i.e divided the working class from the radical bourgeoisie and industrialists - hence their creation of "New Labour" in the Labour Party as an attempt at recreating the old turn of the century Liberal Party.)
The Labour Party was formed from trade/industrial unions and groups with Syndicalist, Socialist, and radical democratic ideas (- also influenced by radical Methodism, a populist split from the established Anglican Church), and for much of the 20th Century the Party held the alliegance of most of the British working class and a good portion of the radical middle class too. They instituted various reforms that served class interests, democracy and progress, but had the common 20th Century flaws of centralism and state bureaucracy, later amplified by the supposed success of the 'command economies' of the East - something which seems funny now, but that was how it was seen up to the 1950s/60s or so with the rapid industrial development and nuclear and space achievements of the Soviet Bloc)
Britain never had a significant Communist Party like other European countries, though their industrial militants did punch above their weight from say the 1930s to 1970s. The New Left came about in the 1950s and 1960s following disillusion of Labour members with bureaucratic social democracy and CP members with the repressive nature of the Soviet bloc shown by events in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The development of youth culture in 1950s and 1960s Britain and America also affected the development of this new left. The British new left was also influenced by and to some extent included the Trotskyist movement that had existed in Britain since the the period around the second world war (with exiles and refugees playing prominent parts at the start) This meant that in Britain the Trotskyists were the most influential current on the left outside Labour and the CP by the 1970s, and were more influential than the CP, and influential inside (entryism) the Labour Party by the 1980s. Unlike some other parts of the world, Britain never had more than a tiny Maoist movement
Labour's success and changing economic conditions at the end of the post-war 'boom' provoked a rethink on the right which was inspired by Eastern European exile anti-communists and free-marketeers. This led to the Thatcherite political 'revolution' of the 1980s and 1990s that dismantled the post war social-democratic consensus in Britain and led to the privatisation of almost all state controlled or owned sectors with the exception of Civil Service and Security Services, Police, Military, Health Service and Education.
In turn the New Labour experiment was forged in the fire of battles with peak of their influence Trotskyism and new leftism in the Labour Party of the 1980s. Large numbers of the Trotskyists were harassed and expelled out of the party, and the soft-left cowed into obedience. The Blairites (Mandelsonites or Giddensites really - as these were their heavyweights, Blair is just a figurehead) capitulated to a whole sector of Thatcherite thought, whilst cynically using reformist left ideas (of Gramsci-ite Eurocommunists and mutualists, co-operativists and libertarian socialists) as "left cover" for their real project (the reinstitution of 19th Century mercantile liberalism and liberal imperialism as the best vehicle for the 'progressive elements' of the British ruling class). 'New' Labour came to dominate the Labour Party by the mid 1990s and so formed the core of the 1997 Labour government. The government has shifted farther right and become more authoritarian since the first term - the left have been further marginalised. The soft left can still win conference votes, but the Blairites have rigged the Party so that the leadership can effectively ignore the conference. The Blairites have pushed the Thatcherite agenda even further, moving towards privatisation of the remaining disposable state assets - education and health, whilst vastly strengthening the repressive and surveillance arms of the state. At the same time they have pursued a social control agenda which has had some reditributive effects to keep the soft left happy. However, their authoritarianism and arrogance, control fetishism etc - inherited from earlier manifestations and aspects they share with the similar ex-leftist 'neo-cons' of the USA - and the Iraq war (liberal imperialism in action) - seem likely to be their undoing.
Meanwhile the New Left has developed along with the environmental, peace, feminist, and identity movements into the broad movement of NGOS (Non Governmental Organisations) we see today. These have also affected the rise of the Green Parties, (which often had conservationist and conservative roots, but gradually evolved to the left and gained activists with socialist and anarchist backgrounds) The left nationalist parties (Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru) have increased in influence in Scotland and Wales. These relatively new forces to some extent combine the ideas of the New Social Movements with some of the old radical socialist ideas and the longer democratic and (social)libertarian traditions of the 19th and 20th Century. Battles between left and right are not very far beneath the surface of these organisations either, though perhaps conducted in a more civilised manner than in some of the main parties. The pressing ecological imperatives and decentralist tendencies are likely to continue as major drivers for the growth of these currents.
The situation is very fluid, but currently the Tories appear to be reverting to the protectionist/ruralist 19th Century model as opposed to Thatcherite neo-liberalism, tempered with Heathite "one nation Toryism". New Labour is in crisis as the 'success' which kept the left at bay begins to evaporate in the face of the contradictions of their support base, policies and philosophy. Meanwhile the focus of the Liberal Democrats (the fusion of the social democratic split-off from Labour - when the left dominated in the 80s - with the rump historic Liberals) appears to be becoming more like their European counterparts - i.e Thatcherite economically but socially liberal - though even this element is under attack from the 'Orange Book' right.
All this leaves the old working class in the cold, particularly when the remaining left appear to them to over-focus on segmented groups like the muslim community at the expense of issues directly concerning the whole class. Hence the growth in support in some working class and lower middle class areas for the BNP (British National Party) - who combine Tory protectionism with Labour statism and reactionary, authoritarian, racist elements. This has had a response on the left in the form of the IWCA (Independent Working Class Association) who concentrate on 'working class' issues and communities - but they are tiny and relatively localised compared to the Far Right and traditionalist/Leninist Far Left.
Apart from all this popular movements and demagogues can spring from nowhere in the climate of political alienation (Fuel Protests, Countryside Alliance, some environmentalist campaigns, Tax protests) and electoral turnout is erratic.
One thing is certain - British politics definitely appears set to change over the next five years as economic and environmental factors make waves.