British political culture and for that matter, the European political culture provide very interesting case studies of the evolution of liberal democracy and how capitalism, liberalism, and in many cases, socialism have all gone into the making of stable and progressive societies in Europe. Karl Marx, in his seminal book Capital, predicted social and economic revolutions in England and the eventual triumph of the proletariat.
However, the British politics and the way its liberal democracy has evolved over decades and centuries has not only proven wrong the dire predictions of Marx but has catapulted Britain into the league of one of the most politically stable and socially cohesive nations in today's world.
In the following article, I will examine the nature of British politics and its political system and how and why the sort of revolution that Marx predicted as an inescapable fate of a society such as Britain has never occurred.
Marx expected that a revolution would occur in Britain first; due to the advance of capitalism in the country, and the size and increasing political power of its working class. After all, Chartism was the first mass working class political movement in the world and the trade union movement was also well established.
Why no revolution in Britain begs a bigger question; why no socialist revolution in any advanced capitalist country? This is a separate question; perhaps a better one is, "Why is the British (especially the English) working class so passive in their political outlook and action?" I will draw attention to a number of social-structural and, above all, historical factors which help to explain both the relative passivity of the working class and the highly stable nature of capitalist democracy in the present-day UK.
1) The early development of a parliamentary regime and the manner in which the working class was incorporated into the existing political system from the mid 19th century after the defeat of Chartism is central.
From the first extension of the franchise in 1867 and thereafter sections of the working class were drawn into the existing system, with more radical movements marginalized.
2) Even prior to 1867 at least by 1850, bourgeois hegemony in England was largely consolidated, especially among the skilled working class bourgeois values were highly valued, such as self-help, respectability etc, which helped to establish political stability 3) The Labour Party, which was formed in late 1900, was in many respects tied to liberalism and even more so tied to parliamentarianism.
As the late Ralph Miliband argues of political parties claiming socialism to be their aim, the Labour Party has always been the most dogmatic - not about socialism, but about the parliamentary system. The Labour Party, throughout most of its history, has been very reformist, timid and a block on more radical forms of political action.
4) The trade union movement similarly, while powerful and one of the biggest in the world throughout the 20th century, was and still is largely defensive and also weakened by splits relating to craft divisions etc. It has generally left politics to the Labour Party and concentrated on industrial issues; this has had a deep impact on working class politics in the UK.
5) British political culture is tied to political institutions, which have shaped it, the First-Past-the-Post electoral system has played a significant role in marginalizing left-wing political parties, forcing most of left politics into the Labour Party, which has played a very important role in containing these forces.
Communism, for example, was very weak in the UK (compare with France or Italy). The far left in any case is generally very weak, divided and highly sectarian. The British state itself has many aspects that are anti-democratic: monarchy, secrecy and no written constitution which have helped to sustain a pretty conservative political culture.
6) The City of London (the financial hub of UK) has always been central to the British state and via the Treasury it has had significant influence. This factor has always made even social democracy weak in the UK: very limited corporatism (also due to fragmented nature of trade unions in UK), planning etc. These are some of the main historical-structural factors. The present conjecture presents a bleak terrain for working class politics or any socialist/progressive alternative for a number of reasons.
7) Structural changes in the British economy have weakened the basis of trade unionism: heavy industry etc. The working class has changed, but the union movement has found it difficult to organize, especially in the private sector, which is largely service sector based.
8) The impact of Thatcherism at all levels of British society and politics, legal restrictions on unions, massive defeats for the working class and the Left (especially the Miners strike of 1984-85) and the acceptance of most of the Thatcherite consensus by the Labour Party has helped to create a highly apolitical (as against political) working class culture within the UK.
9) Driven by globalization and also due to the impact of consumerism etc, the traditional working class institutions that sustained working class solidarity have radically declined along with a sense of class consciousness, despite the fact that inequality has increased massively since the 1970's.
10) The deionization of the working class, negative portrait of working class people in the media and the way this impacts on working class culture.
11) The general attack on democracy in general in the UK, the ongoing criminalization of protest (evident in how the state has responded to the Occupy protests), the continuing attack on the welfare state and working people in general, which shows no sign of letting up, in other words, the balance of power between labour and capital, being already one-sided, is going more and more in favor of capital, which is using this crisis to finally destroy what remains of the post-war consensus.
While the British society and political culture have been very stable and resilient especially in the decades following World War II, rapid changes in a global scale that are affecting other countries and continents are also having their impacts on Britain, its society and political culture.