The illusionary norm of political stability: The unruly democratic politics of the United Kingdom

by Helen Thompson

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.

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Why political analysis needs probability and history to address uncertainty

by Helen Thompson

Political punditry has had a bad couple of years. Indeed, the failure to predict the dramatic political outcomes of a number of elections and referendums in 2016 and 2017 has itself become part of the political landscape. Nothing illustrates this fact better than the rise of Donald Trump. Electoral predictions frequently go awry because they are not sufficiently attuned to questions of probability. Helen Thompson explores the challenges which uncertainty poses to political science, and argues that unexpected political outcomes are more understandable if we locate political life in a historical context.

The revolt of the Country: Brexit, history, and English nationhood

by Helen Thompson

For a country said to be obsessed with its past, Britain has a politics in which there is often little understanding of the legacy of history. Having long looked politically insignificant, the idea of English nationhood has resurfaced in the past few years – not least in relation to Brexit. Helen Thompson argues that Englishness has been such a potent force in the debate over Brexit because it builds on a long history of Country resistance to a cosmopolitan Court, which dates back to the Norman Conquest. “Take back control” was such a powerful message precisely because English identity has so often been premised on that very political imperative.