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  • The Western Allies 50 Years LaterBritain-Stirrings of Change
  • Dennis Kavanagh (bio)

The Allied victory in the Second World War vindicated the idea of democracy in the West. In Britain it reinforced confidence in the country’s system of parliamentary democracy, including many features that would make Britain unusual among postwar West European polities. Among them are 1) a two-party system, 2) constitutional monarchy, 3) unitary government, 4) an unwritten constitution, 5) a first-past-the-post electoral system, and 6) one-party government. 1

The British have been able to take their parliamentary democracy for granted throughout the twentieth century. Any review of the democratic record in most of Europe during this period would reveal that they have good grounds for satisfaction. The British system rests not so much on formal procedures and guarantees as on conventions and understandings that have evolved over many years, as well as on a certain political culture. Many years ago the Americans Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba characterized it as a civic culture, one that blended participatory and deferential attitudes and was suited to sustaining stable democracy. Would-be imitators have found this culture especially difficult to copy or import.

Interestingly, the democratic stability that Britain has enjoyed since 1945 has been achieved against a background of relative decline, both economic and diplomatic. Many other West European states have achieved stable democracy on the back of “miracles” of rapid economic growth. Historian Sidney Pollard has noted, in The Wasting of the British Economy, that the only “British economic miracle” was its [End Page 19] absence. Indeed, Britain has been a case study in economic decline, spawning a massive literature—both scholarly and popular—as well as numerous university courses on this topic.

The postwar period has also seen a decline in Britain’s international influence. After 1945 it was (briefly) elevated to superpower status as Japan, Germany, and France were temporarily eclipsed. Britain was, as Winston Churchill boasted, at the center of three interlocking circles—Europe, the Commonwealth, and the Anglo-American partnership. Such claims are rarely made today. The second half of the century has witnessed Britain’s steady retreat from responsibility and influence to a position more in keeping with its modest economic and military capacity. Yet its membership in the UN Security Council, the Group of Seven, and other international bodies, as well as its military and diplomatic roles in the Gulf War and in Bosnia, indicates that Britain can still be said to “punch above its weight” in the world.

Britain’s political institutions and practices have shown remarkable durability over the past 50 years. Such liberal democratic features as universal suffrage, free competitive elections, and the rule of law were already well established before 1945. Since then, several measures have deepened electoral democracy. In 1949, the powers of the unelected House of Lords to delay legislation passed by the House of Commons were reduced, and the arrangement by which a university graduate was allowed a second vote (to be cast in the university constituency) on top of that for the constituency in which he or she resided was terminated. In 1970, the vote was extended to 18-year-olds. Most impressive, however, is the overall stability that has characterized Britain’s political arena, as compared with postwar Italy, France, and Germany. Britain’s political institutions, procedures, and major parties have all survived the significant social, economic, and diplomatic shifts that the country has experienced.

In the immediate postwar years, Britain was widely regarded as a model democracy, and concern was expressed about the prospects for democracy elsewhere, largely because of the perceived menace of communism and uncertainty about the stability of the new regimes in France, Italy, and West Germany. Fifty years later, there has probably been an increase in native dissatisfaction with the performance of Britain’s political system, while democracy now looks secure in neighboring European states and has spread to Eastern Europe. Today, few of the other member states of the European Union (EU) look to Britain for democratic inspiration. Indeed, the reverse is true: British advocates of electoral and constitutional reform frequently hold up the other EU member states as exemplars. In...