Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Publication on Dialogue and Culture

Publication just out of conference (2019) held in Klagenfurt, State of Carinthia, Vol 36, 2020 with contribution by Dr Melanie Sully on UK, Conflict and Consensus. Full text of all proceedings from the Volksgruppen Büro, Klagenfurt www.ktn.gv.at


 Professor Dr Melanie Sully

Conflict, Dialogue and Consensus with Reference to the UK

A former leader of the British Liberal Democrat Party asked about the current political toxic climate replied that the political culture in the past had often been characterised by division and conflict. On reflection he has a point. The political culture of the UK was often punctuated by bitter conflict. We can think for example of the royal abdication crisis of the 1930s which pitted family members against each other much as Brexit does today. Or the Suez crisis of the 1950s which prompted a public revolt against a so-called imperialist war. A similar outcry it must be recalled was voiced even in the mid-nineteenth century against the Crimean War, with a pun dubbing it "a Crime" in the then nascent print media.

And it was in the nineteenth century that confrontational politics was born with the growth of a modern two party system personalised in the parliamentary battles between Benjamin D’Israeli for the Conservatives and William Gladstone for the Liberals. The century ended with endless debates on the Irish Question which dogged British politics on and off up until the current day. World Wars spattered the subsequent history disrupting much of the social and economic life of the UK.

The transition to Commonwealth from Empire was relatively peaceful in comparison with the experience of other imperialist nations. Indeed the immediate post Second World War era was characterised by a high degree of superficial consensus between the two main parties Conservative and now Labour which had replaced the Liberals in the 1920s, a decade which had witnessed worker strife and a general strike.

With the radical Labour government of 1945 a programme of state ownership and the foundations of a welfare state was laid which was not questioned by successive governments. There was little to distinguish between the Conservatives and Labour and a high degree of Consensus Politics.

For the Conservatives this era of consensus was easily integrated in their philosophy of One Nation politics. Led by Harold MacMillan who represented a northern constituency that had suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Conservatives were keen not to return to the days of unemployment where the jobless could not claim social or health benefits. The welfare orientated cradle to grave society was largely unchallenged.

That’s not to say everything was so cosy in the political scene. In fact the 1960s saw the beginnings of a strong anti-establishment elite politics which has continued until the present day.

With the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s an unswerving belief in the USA also cracked.

The 1970s saw strikes and labour unrest and an early election in winter. The crisis continued throughout the 1970s culminating in a minority government, nail biting votes in parliament and finally a loss of confidence vote by one in 1979 and an election which was won by Margaret Thatcher.

Any consensus had vanished with attacks on the miners and trade unions manifest in bitter clashes with the police which shocked voters at home and abroad.

Throughout all this the troubles in Ireland raged and threatened the mainland as bombs exploded, even rocking the Tory party conference leading to deaths and the maimed.

Poll tax riots characterised the last phase of Thatcher’s government which had also for once and for all alienated voters north of the border in Scotland.

In 1990 came John Major who was to be bedevilled by the eternal question of Europe as the EU moved closer together via treaties such as Maastricht hotly debated in the British parliament. Demands for a referendum on membership were brushed off for fear of losing the argument in the wake of anti-EU sentiment expressed in other countries.

By 1997 the UK was ready for a social reform project headed by Labour’s Tony Blair promising education and more money for welfare, but he was badly derailed by involvement in the Iraq War which cemented the by now largely widespread feeling of disillusionment in politics and distrust in parliament and politicians.

With the financial crisis of 2008 the foundations of the economy and banking system were hit and came within a whisker of collapse damaging further belief in the Labour government’s capacity to run the economy.

But with David Cameron came a new phase in politics and formation of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. It was tempered by compromise, a rare quality in the British political culture. There was a clear structure for ironing out tricky problems before they came to parliament and an acceptance that the coalition partners could on occasions vote different ways without precipitating the collapse of the government. A Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to assist this which has recently held up an early election and contributed to the disastrous Brexit blockage in the House of Commons.

Brexit further opened wounds long festering in the UK including the disillusionment with the Establishment, the gulf between rich and poor, North and South and between the Four Nations. For one-nation Toryism had been replaced by growing identities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The peace process in Northern Ireland was a contribution of not only Tony Blair but the international community including at the time the EU and the USA, external actors which today are unable to facilitate dialogue.

Brexit was also the product of a failure of representative democracy – which for many was no longer representative of them. Neither those in Northern England nor those in Scotland who felt a Tory government in London governed in its own bubble of self-indulgence was seen as truly representative. The disconnect between those governing and the governed had grown despite vast efforts to bring politics to the people via referendum, regionalism, devolution and parliamentary reform.

The focus of Brexit negotiations on Northern Ireland accentuated the fears of those on the island of Ireland where each side claim that the Good Friday agreement of 1998 has been breached.

Today the UK faces a choice in the upcoming election between two different sets of ideologies and conceptions of where the country should be going. It offers voters a choice instead of more of the same but it runs the risk of leading to a government in which half of the country feel let down.

In the past institutions such as parliament, the Monarchy, the Church of England have provided integration and stability. All these have faced challenges and have struggled to provide answers.

Conflict has not been unique to the culture of Britain but rarely has it been so raw as today. Even with Brexit resolved it is unlikely that the wounds opened will be closed.