By recent standards, democratic politics in the UK looks rather extraordinary. A minority Conservative government, held in power by a confidence and supply agreement with a party from Northern Ireland, is endeavouring to implement a decision made by the electorate to change the constitutional order with profound economic and international consequences. Meanwhile, the Scottish government has promised a second referendum on independence, and there has been no devolved government in Northern Ireland for a year. Yet these times are less exceptional than they appear.
Historically, governing the polity of the UK has been fraught with difficulty. The UK is a multi-national state in which the articulation of a common British nationhood was forged in a now-ended imperial world, and is inherently weak in regard to Catholics in Northern Ireland. Yet, despite the presence of national fault-lines, the political tradition that endured from constitutional monarchy to full-franchise representative democracy made serious political change relatively easy through the conjunction of the sovereignty of Parliament and the electoral system. Consequently, maintaining political stability put a high premium on prudence, even whilst offering quite the opposite temptations to those who won power at Westminster. This reality encouraged a sharp distinction between matters of high politics – mainly foreign policy and macro-economics – that were contested in democratic politics via elections and changes of party leadership, and those policy areas to be depoliticised, at least in partisan politics, even if that meant accommodating preferences (as with immigration control in the 1960s and 1970s) that caused unease.