Has there been a political consensus in Britain?
Although the style of politics in Britain is adversarial there may still be an underlying consensus about policy. There are two periods when it has been suggested that a basic consensus over policy existed between the parties:-
The Post-war Consensus
It has been argued that the experience of the two parties working together during the Second World War on how improvements to society would be made after the war, helped to create the conditions for a political consensus. This was compounded by Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945 which convinced Conservative leaders that voters wanted a change of direction. Governments in the 1950s and 1960s broadly agreed on:-
- A mixed economy with the retention of public ownership in most of the industries that Labour had nationalised between 1945 and 1951 but within a market economy overall.
- Government management of the economy to prevent high levels of unemployment.
- A relationship with the trade unions that left their legal privileges alone and allowed them to bargain with employers for better wages and conditions, with Government only intervening to mediate if a dispute was likely to have a serious effect on the national economy.
- A welfare state to provide a free health service and benefits to deal with poverty and unemployment.
- The gradual decolonisation of the British Empire and the retention of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
In the 1970s rising unemployment and high inflation meant that the economic and social benefits of the earlier period were difficult to deliver. Ideas on the left and right diverged with Mrs Thatcher winning power with a more radical free market agenda and a determination to reduce the power of the unions. The Labour Party moved for the left arguing for stronger Government intervention in the economy and steps to remove Britain’s independent deterrent.