This Unhappy Breed

British Politics in the Collectivist Age

by Samuel Beer
Knopf, 390 pp., $8.50

“Happy the Country in which consensus and conflict are ordered in a dialectic that makes of the political arena at once a market of interests and a forum for debate of fundamental moral concerns.” With these words, reminiscent of the Whigs extolling the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the perfection of the eighteenth-century British Constitution, Samuel Beer concludes his admirable study of British political organization today. Why then is Britain today so notoriously unhappy?

Not because Beer has mistaken the nature of Britain’s politics. On the contrary, his model is wonderfully constructed out of the researches of the past fifteen years, which he has put together in an original form. He starts from the premise that a consensus exists among all parties and organizations on the necessity for governing the country through collectivism and a managed economy. He then demonstrates that this consensus does not result in dim Butskellism rendering Government and Opposition almost indistinguishable. In this two-party state the Conservative and Labour Parties hold completely divergent views about the nature of politics, and their ideas impose upon them different policies, different party structures, and a different conception of the relation of man to the State which create two opposed styles of politics. But their ideological differences are held in check by a third factor. In modern Britain the “interests” have become institutionalized. At every point in government, both central and local, but most especially in the Executive, i.e., in the Whitehall ministries, pressure groups are officially and unofficially brought into the process of legislation and administration, and mediate between the political parties and the electorate. It is not only the trade unions whose members sit in Parliament and on innumerable ministerial committees. Producer and consumer associations ranging from the automobile makers to the Cake and Biscuit Alliance, or welfare organizations such as the Society for Crippled Veterans are to be found pressing to initiate or amend legislation and lobbying M.P.s who will speak for their interests. Pressure groups are now a new estate in the realm and the parties have to modify their principles to meet them in practice. Here, he might have added, are the equivalent of grass roots politics in America, an outlet for the ordinary citizen to ensure that his own particular concerns are not ridden over roughshod by a centralizing government mounted on an ideological hobby-horse.

This thesis is refreshing because it convincingly challenges the prevailing mode among British historians and political scientists of playing down the role of ideas in politics. Beer is too polite to challenge R.T. Mackenzie openly but his whole book is a refutation of Mackenzie’s well known analysis of British political parties in which, after contrasting the apparently authoritarian Conservative Party structure with that of the apparently democratic Labour Party, he concluded that the Party Whips ensured that both were equally monolithic and impervious to revolts within the party. Beer is particularly successful in analyzing the way in which different strands of Tory and Whig principles have been modified but…

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