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The British Context

A.

Historical growth

Britains constitutional title today is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and
Northern Ireland or UK. The nation comprises large and smaller islands off the
north-western European mainland, which at various points are touched by the
North Sea, the English Channel, the Irish Sea or the Atlantic Ocean.
In prehistory, these areas were visited by Old, Middle and New Stone Age
nomads. Some of whom settled permanently.
From about 600 BC-AD 1066 / invasions and settlements from people originated
in mainland Europe: Celts, Belgic tribes, Romans, Germanic tribes (Anglo-Saxons),
Scandinavians and Normans (French). These immigrants collectively created a
multi-ethnic British population with mixed identities and different origins.
Between the ninth and twelfth centuries AD settlers and invaders contributed to
the building of blocks on which were gradually established the separate nations
of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Developments within the islands were influenced first by expansionist (military
aims of English monarchs) and second by a series of political unions.
Ireland and Wales have been under English control since the 12 th and 13th
centuries.
Scotland was joined dynastically to England in 1603.
Movement towards a British state was achieved by political unions between
England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) in 1707 and between Great Britain
and Ireland in 1801. In 1921 southern Ireland left the union while Northern Ireland
remained part of the UK.
These historical developments encouraged the gradual creation of a centralized
British state, the UK, which owed much to English models and dominance. State
structures, social organizations and constitutional principles 1 developed slowly
and unevenly with periods of violent upheaval. The modern British state
developed in an evolutionary and pragmatic manner supposedly thanks to
insular and conservative mentalities with peoples preference for
traditional habits and institutions. Some influences may have come from
1 Parliamentary democracy, government, the law, economic systems, a welfare
state and religious faiths.

abroad but the absence of any successful external military invasion since the
Norman Conquest (AD 1066) has allowed the nations to develop internally in
distinctive ways. The structures and philosophies of British statehood have been
imitated by other countries or exported abroad through the creation of a global
empire from the sixteenth century and a commercial need to build world markets
for British goods.
British Empire: English monarchs tried military expansionism within the islands
and mainland Europe. Following initial reversals in Europe they sought raw
materials, possessions, trade and power overseas.
Successive agricultural revolutions added to the countrys wealth, exports,
prestige and international trade. Britain became an industrial largely urban
country from the late eighteenth century because of a series of industrial
revolutions and inventions been responsible for major influential scientific,
medical and technological advances.
By the nineteenth century the country had become a dominant industrial and
political world power, a main player developing Western ideas and principles of
law, property, business, liberty, capitalism, parliamentary democracy and civil
society.
Political union within Britain encouraged the idea of British identity (Britishness)
which all components countries of the UK could share although national identities
in the four countries of the union persisted. Changes have come in the latest
century first with the partition of Ireland in 1921 second in devolution of some
political power from the London parliament to Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland by 1998-9. A fierce debate about the nature of Britishness national
identity within the union and the future constitutional and political structure of
the United Kingdom is still alive.
There have been other political reforms as extension of vote in the nineteenth
and twentieth century, diminishing power of aristocratic House of Lords and
increasing authority of elected House of Commons or parliamentary monarchy
and substantial collectivist social changes such as nationalization and creation of
a welfare state.
Significant change and relative decline experienced in the twentieth century. Its
social and economic strength was reduced by the effects of the two world wars
and dismantling of the imperial power, increased foreign competition and internal
social change. Its ethnic composition, state structures, social policies, religious

beliefs and economic institution have been all affected by profound domestic
developments and external pressures.
The nation has been forced into a search of a new identity, internationally and
nationally while maintaining many of its traditional worldwide commercial,
cultural and political links. It has moved from empire toward a membership of the
European Union.
Britain has rarely seen itself as an integral part of mainland Europe. Its
psychological and physical isolation from Europe is slowly changing increasing
the cooperation between Britain and other European Countries (opening of a
Channel train between England and France in 1994). Nevertheless in many British
people still appear scepticism about Europe linked with historical impulses to
national independence and isolation.
British politicians argue that isolationism is not a viable option in a globalized
world and Britain has been involved in recent overseas military action (Bosnia,
Afghanistan, etc) attracting terrorism threats itself (Bomb attack in 7 July 2005).
These terrorist attacks have raised debate about the nature and loyalty of the
countrys multi-ethnic population.

B.

Structural change

Contemporary Britain is facing a variety of structural or institutional issues that


will determine how the society develops. Historically, structural change has been
inevitably

conditioned

by

social,

economic,

legal,

religious

and

political

developments. Some abrupt and violent, others slow and pragmatic.


In the major formal features, such as Parliament, law and government
(concerned with state of public business) decisions are taken by centralized
and multi-level bodies in the power hierarchy and then imposed to lower
levels (top-down). Some of these processes are criticized because of their
democratic deficit.
British people complain that they should be consulted more about institutional
changes. Elites and bureaucrats may lack competence and waste taxpayers
money

with

inadequate

policies.

May

people

disenchanted

distrust

of

politicians and they are withdrawing from political processes.


However, many other structures on both public and private levels of social
activity (sports, families, leisure, youth culture, etc.) have their own particular
value systems and organizations. They often have a bottom-up form in which
policies and behaviour are linked closely to concerns of societys grassroots with
more localized, informal and democratic characteristics than the top-down

model. But these communities can also be dominated by elites. This situation at
both local and national levels may provoke a sense of alienation and
powerlessness in the excluded groups.
The British way of life and British identities are determined by how people
function within and react to social structures (in their daily lives). These structural
features reflect a range of practices on both high and popular cultural levels on
Britain.
High cultural forms may often appeal to a minority and be connected to wealth
and class concerns although now they are opened up to more widespread
participation.
Popular cultural activities have always been present in British society. They have
become more numerous since 1960s because a great affluence, more varied life
opportunities and new accessible forms. Such a mass popular culture is now
significant and influences social patterns, behaviour, economic consumption and
the adoption of very diverse lifestyles which is for some a trivialization of British
life.
The number and variety of top-down and bottom-up structures mean that there
are many different and often conflicting ways of life reflection of the
pluralistic nature of the society. Some critics defend that the main defining
features of British life are a healthy diversity and change at all levels meanwhile
other believe these phenomena have led to social fragmentation and antisocial
behaviour, a weakened sense of community.
It has historically been argued that national and local behaviour in Britain has
often reflected a strong individualistic streak in the British mentality which views
authority with suspicion. In the latest general election (2010) was debated
whether the country was an entrepreneurial, a cooperative or a centralized state.
It was also questioned whether traditional notions of community, engagement
and commitment are failing in Britain leading towards a broken society without
fixed social or familiar points.
Traditionally organizational structures must adapt themselves to new situations if
they are to survive and their present roles may therefore be different from their
original functions. They are nowadays supposed to respond to current public
worries. It is questioned whether British national and international institutions are
able to cope with and reflect the needs and demands of a complex contemporary
life.

It is also questioned how the country should be organized socially, politically and
economically. It is debated whether this soul-searching results in action or
promotes divisive. After 2010 election these doubts and concerns remain.

C.

Contemporary conditions

Since the last thirty years a multicultural Britain can no longer rely for its
cohesion on a common background, the old certainties no longer prevail.
Immigration has enhanced and enlivened the country; it has brought to Britain
people with beliefs, values and backgrounds at odds with the prevailing culture.
A

misunderstood

multiculturalism

has

led

to

social

and

cultural

fragmentation.
Britain is today a complex society in which diversity and change have created
problems as well as advantages. There are divisions caused by such factors as
the influence of London on the rest of the country, the cultural distinctiveness of
Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, demands for greater autonomy,
less centralized control from London and greater democracy; disparities between
affluent and economically depressed areas, cultural and economic gaps between
areas (north-south) political variety, position of women, special-interest groups
and minority ethnic communities,

demands for a variety of individual and

collective rights, a gulf between rich and poor, a growing underclass of


disadvantaged; tensions between the cities and the countryside; and increasing
generational differences between young and old in all ethnic groups.
These divisions suggest a decline in the traditional deference to authority,
consensus

and

support

for

national

institutions.

Britons

are

now

more

nonconformist, multi-ethnic, secular and individualistic; they have become more


aggressive, selfish and less tolerant, less kind, less moral, less honest and less
polite.
There is an increase in antisocial behaviour, yobbishness, public scruffiness,
vandalism, serious alcohol and drug abuse, violent crime and assaults, the
growth of criminal gangs. Individual liberty, social cohesion, identity and
community have been replaced by dysfunctional families, social fragmentation,
instability, isolation and community disintegration.
Results of Populus poll (2010)
82% felt it was time for a change / 70% British society was broken / 73%
believed British politics were broken / 64% Britain was going in the wrong
direction / 56% hardly recognized the country / 42% would emigrate if they could

50% best years of Britain are to come


48% happier than ten years ago
60% looked forward to the future with optimism.
Low rate the political system and performance of national government
(mainly disappointment)
Better rated the National Health Service (NHS)
Britain has dropped to twenty-fifth place on the list of best countries to live
in.
A majority of population want a return to civic responsibility, consensus or
inclusive politics and a caring society. Yet these hopes may conflict with the
changes suffered over the past sixty years and produced a society with diverse
experiences and expectations. Many British do feel negative images of
contemporary Britain are now more apparent in everyday life and are
symptomatic of real social breakdown.
Research demonstrates that the past in Britain was not as idyllic as imagined.
There were periods were levels of crime, aggression, violence and poverty were
far greater than they are now. There is consequently a tension between
presumed tradition and attempts at modernization or change. There is
still conservatism in British life which regards change with suspicion
provoking a tension between the need for reform and nostalgia for an assumed
ideal past, causing difficulties for progress, the evolution of social structures and
the solving of the nations problems.
It is argued that since the 1960s the country has been unwilling to face largescale reassessment of its social, political, economic and institutional structures
and is now being overwhelmed by events beyond its control. A relative economic
decline since the nineteenth century was joined to a political system and national
mentality unable to cope with the reality or needs of the post-industrial and
culturally diverse society. Pragmatic evolution and a complacent attachment to
past habits are no longer sufficient. Yet people have lost their faith in
political process since expenses scandal in Parliament (2008-9). British
capacity for self-denigration may result in events being exaggerated beyond their
national importance.
Britain has changed over the past sixty years, with most of its people enjoying
greater prosperity and opportunities than in the past, so that poverty
today is a relative concept. The economy has experienced strong growth
although was seriously affected by the global economic downturn and recession

of 2007-09. Opinion polls suggest that greater prosperity has not brought greater
happiness for many Britons. Consumerism, increased ethnic diversity, feminism,
greater individual freedom and tolerance for alternative lifestyles, technological
advances and new economic policies have transformed Britain. However,
continuing structural and social problems warn against undue complacency.
Conservative governments under Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) tried to reform
social structures and promote new economic attitudes reducing the states role in
public affairs and replace it with market-forces. The focus was upon economic
growth; competition; privatization; the creation of choice and standards in public
services such as education and health; and the reform of bodies such as the
trade

unions,

some

professions

and

local

governments.

People

were

encouraged to be more responsible of their own affairs without reliance


on the state for support (the dependency culture) and to adopt more
individual competitiveness and efficiency (the enterprise culture).
Such policies were partly successful on some economic and political levels but
they were accompanied by selfishness and social divisiveness. Britons still look to
the state for support in areas such as health, education and social security.
Free

market

or

neo-liberal

economic

programmes

continued

under

the

Conservative Prime Minister John Major (1990-97), Labour Prime Minister Tony
Blair (19997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-10).
Since gaining power in 1997 the Labour government followed the Conservative
economic approach. It also attempted to modernize Britain by creating a new,
young and inclusive society. The Labour Party has modernized its internal
structures and moved to the political centre to appeal to middle Britain. Labour
claimed it was addressing social and economic realities, emphasizing personal
initiative. It spent large amounts of public money on education, health, transport,
social security and the police service but a vast majority of people didnt see
great improvements in public services and they lost their trust in the Labour
leadership. Difficulties continued with a growing disbelief by voters in the Labour
governments ability to steer the country through recession. In 2010 election
Labour lost ninety-one seats in the House of Commons.
Social change can occur in various, interconnected, ways. Some social
structures wither away because they are no longer used while others are
reformed internally. Additional forces for change are opposition political parties,
pressure groups, grassroots movements, campaigns by the media to promote

reform or uncover scandals. However, central government initiatives in London


are the single most important factors in determining structural change.
The British traditionally allow their governments a great deal of power in the
running of the country. However there is a limit and their disquiet may be shown
in public opinion polls, demonstrations (street protests) and general election
results. Most politicians have been traditionally sensitive to the views of the
people so governments usually govern with one eye on the public opinion and
generally attempt to gain acceptance of their policies.
The British assume that they have an individual independence and liberty and
are quick to voice their disapproval if their interests are threatened (protest is a
traditional reaction). Adequate responses may not come from the authorities and
there is always the danger of more serious conflict, apathy and public alienation
as the gap between the voters and elected politicians grows.
The British today are confronting different cultural and economic realities than in
the past when they had a more clearly defined world role and a greater sense of
national identity. The society has seen a decline in traditional certainties and
become more mobile, stressful and conflict-ridden. The old pragmatic methods of
innovation are no longer sufficient.

D.

British attitudes to Britain

Results in opinion polls:

Increasing dissatisfaction with politicians and authority figures.


Scepticism at the performance of institutions and their bureaucracies.
Trend towards political action represented by public protests,

demonstrations, petitions
Individualistic, independent and dissenting British tradition that has been
historically cynical, irreverent and critical about state structures and
powerful individuals.

In recent years the state has intruded further into peoples lives, micro-managing
their work and leisure.
Although polls can be significant and accurate indications of how people are
reacting to the state of British society they have to be approached with a certain
caution.
Most important issues facing Britain today (April 2010):
1.
2.
3.
4.

Economy / economic situation (55%)


Race relations / immigration (33%)
Crime (25%)
Unemployment (21%)

5. National Health Service (20%)


6. Education / Schools (19%)