User:Mph326/The British Political Tradition

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The British Political Tradition is a concept utilised by a range of authors to explain the nature and practices of British political life, by focusing directly on the ideas and values that underpin and inform the institutions and processes of British politics. The concept is a contested one, with no agreed definition of what constitutes the British Political Tradition.

Classical Usage[edit]

Historically, most explanations of the British political system have been informed by the Westminster Model (WM) and there has been little focus on the ideas and traditions that shaped the institutions of the British political system. Reference to the ideas that underpin the Westminster Model can however be found in major works such as A V Dicey and Sir Ivor Jennings Cabinet Government (1936). Discssion of the ideas that underpin the institutions of the Westminster Model can be found in Anthony Birch’s ‘Representative and Responsible Government’ (1964) and Samuel Beer’s Modern British Politics (1965). Both authors use the phrase the British Political Tradition to describe these. This tradition is also the subject of W H Greenleaf’s 3 volume ‘The British Political Tradition’ (1983 2 volumes; 1987) and the work of conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1962). All of these authors point to the existence of a distinctive British Political Tradition.

Oakeshott (1962) suggests the British Political Tradition was not a consistent doctrine or ideology. Rather, it was a set of intertwined practices, values and ideas. It was characterised by: “pragmatic handling of social problems an aversion to the intrusions of rationalist dogma and a commitment to the rule of law which enables a flourishing of what he termed, a vital civil association” (Kenny 1999: 278).

Anthony Birch (1964) and Samuel Beer (1965) focus on the notions representation and responsibility, with the former arguing that: “Everyone knows that the British Constitution provides for a system of representative and responsible government. These characteristics are almost universally regarded as both desirable and important……….The concepts of representation and responsibility are indeed, invoked in almost every modern discussion of how countries ought to be governed” (Birch 1964: 13). Birch suggests that: “the British political tradition would clearly determine the order as first consistency, prudence and leadership, second accountability to parliament and the electorate and third, responsiveness to public opinions and public demands” (Birch 1964: 245), whilst Beer contends that the BPT is: “a body of beliefs widely held in British society”.

Greenleaf (1983 2 vols; 1987) argues that “the dialectic between the growing processes of collectivism and the opposing libertarian tendency is the one supreme fact of our political life as this has developed over the past century and a half” (Greenleaf 1983b: 3). Thus the British Political Tradition is constituted by the dialectical tension between collectivism and libertarianism.

A critical view[edit]

More recently, a critical conception of the British Political Tradition has been developed and advocated by David Marsh and Tony Tant (1989), Tony Tant (1993) and Mark Evans (1995; 2003). This view stresses the centrality of an elitist or top down conception of democracy based upon a limited liberal view of representation and conservative view of responsibility in which the key mantra is ‘the government knows best’. These authors argue that “executive dominance…has consistently marked the British Political Tradition” (Marsh and Tant 1989: 9) and that “the most striking feature of the British political tradition and governmental practice is its elitist nature” (Tant 1993: 4).

This critical view of the British Political Tradition also forms a key component of the Asymmetrical Power Model developed by D Marsh, D Richards and M Smith (2001; 2003), Richards (2008) and D Marsh (2008).

The most recent exposition of the British Political Tradition can be found in D Marsh and M Hall (2007). In response to the interpretive approach to political traditions developed by Mark Bevir and Rod Rhodes (2003; 2006), Marsh and Hall stress the role of dominant and competing political traditions. They argue that:

· Firstly, there is a dominant conception of democracy which underpins the institutions and processes of British government. This view owes much to the thought of Thomas Hobbes (1651) and Edmund Burke (1790) in that it emphasises the need for strong, decisive government, the dangers of participatory democracy and the political superiority of elites.

· Secondly, that this dominant view fits neatly with the interests and attitudes of politicians and civil servants alike. It also fits neatly with the ideas and attitudes of dominant socio-economic elites in UK society. Indeed it could be argued on this latter point that the linkage between dominant socio-economic elites and the ideas that underpin the British political system has all too often been neglected in the mainstream literature.

· Finally, that challenges to this tradition have to be made within the context of institutions, processes and attitudes informed by it. Indeed the continued dominance of this view amongst the political elite remains a major obstacle to any challenges, albeit not an insurmountable one.

For Marsh and Hall it also is possible to identify competing political traditions which emphasise a more participatory view democracy. This can be seen in the work of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft and the actions of groups such as the Chartists, the Women's Suffrage Movement and more recently, Charter 88 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

This view of dominant and competing political traditions is then used to explain the varying fates of New Labour's constitutional reforms including the creation of the Scottish Parliament, electoral reform and Freedom of information.


Beer, S (1965) Modern British Politics (London: Faber & Faber) Bevir, M & Rhodes, R (2003) Interpreting British Governance (London: Routledge) Bevir, M & Rhodes, R (2006) Governance Stories (London: Routledge) Birch, A (1969) Representative and Responsible Government (London: Allen & Unwin) Evans, M (1995) Charter 88: A Successful challenge to the British Political Tradition (Dartmouth: Dartmouth) Evans, M (2003) Constitution making and the Labour party (London: Palgrave) Greenleaf, W H (1983a) The British Political Tradition: The Rise of Collectivism (vol I) (London: Meuthen) Greenleaf, W H (1983b) The British Political Tradition: The Ideological Heritage (vol II) (London: Meuthen) Greenleaf, W H (1987) The British Political Tradition: A Much Governed Nation (Vol III) (London: Meuthen) Kenny, M (1999) ‘Ideas, Ideologies and the British Political Tradition’ in I Holliday et al Fundamentals in British Politics (London: St Martins Press) (1999) Marsh, D & Tant, A (1989) There is no alternative: Mrs Thatcher and the British Political Tradition (Essex paper No. 69) Marsh, D, Richards, D & Smith, M (2001) Changing Patterns of Governance in the UK (London: Palgrave) Marsh, D, Richards, D & Smith, M (2003) ‘Unequal Plurality: Towards an Asymmetrical power model’ in Government and Opposition 38 Marsh, D (2008) ‘Understanding British Government: Analyzing Competing Models’ in BJPIR, Volume 10, 251-268 Marsh, D & Hall, M (2007) The British Political Tradition: Explaining the fate of New Labour’s Constitutional Reform Agenda in British Politics Vol 2, No. 2, 221-232 Oakeshott, M (1962) Rationalism in politics and other essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) Richards, D. (2008) New Labour and the Civil Service: Reconstituting the Westminster Model, London: Palgrave Macmillan. Tant, A (1993) British Government: The Triumph of Elitism (Dartmouth: Dartmouth Press)