UK Political Parties

Who were the Whigs, and who was Oliver Cromwell? Join me in a whirlwind political history tour of the UK Political Parties. We are going to look at the UK party system, the types of parties we can find in the UK and focus on the right-wing parties, and the main parties.

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Table of contents

    History of UK political parties

    The history of the UK's political parties can be traced back to the English Civil War.

    The English Civil War (1642-1651) was fought between royalists who supported the absolute monarchy that reigned at the time, and parliamentarians who supported a constitutional monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch's powers are bound by a constitution, a set of rules by which a country is governed. The parliamentarians also wanted a parliament with the power to make the country's legislation.

    The English Civil War was also fought to decide how the three kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland, and England should be ruled. At the end of the war, parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell replaced the monarchy with the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, unifying the isles under his personal rule. This move consolidated the rule of Ireland by a minority of English landowners and members of the Protestant church. In turn, this further split Irish politics between Nationalists and Unionists.

    Cromwell's commonwealth was a republican system that lasted until 1660 when the monarchy was reinstated. However, the English Civil war and the commonwealth were crucial in establishing the precedent that the monarch will need the parliament's support to govern in the UK. This principle is called “parliamentary sovereignty”.

    TermDefinition
    ParliamentThe body of a country's representatives.
    Irish NationalismAn Irish national self-determination political movement that believes the people of Ireland should govern Ireland as a sovereign state. Irish Nationalists are mostly Catholic Christians.
    Irish UnionismAn Irish political movement that believes Ireland should be united with the United Kingdom, loyal to its monarch and constitution. Most Unionists are Protestant Christians.
    Republican systemIt's a political system where the power sits with the people, and excludes the existence of a monarchy.
    Parliamentary sovereigntyIt's a core principle of the UK constitution, which gives parliament the power to create and end laws.

    This set of events led to the emergence of the first political parties. These were the royalist Tories and the parliamentarian Whigs.

    It wasn't until the 19th century, following the Representation of the People Acts of 1832 and of 1867, the two parties clarified their political positions to attract the new voters' support. The Tories became the Conservative Party, and the Whigs became the Liberal Party.

    The Representation of the People Act of 1832 introduced changes in the electoral system of England and Wales. These included defining a “voter” as a “male person” for the first time and extending the vote to land and business owners and those who paid a yearly rent of at least £10.

    The Representation of the People act of 1867 further extended the right to vote, and, by the end of 1868, all male heads of a household could vote.

    UK political party system

    These historical events set the scene for the political party system that the UK still has today: the two-party system.

    The two-party system is a political system in which two major parties lead the political environment.

    The two-party system is characterised by a “majority”, or “governing” party and a “minority”, or “opposition” party. The majority party will be the party that has gained the most seats, and it's responsible for governing the country for a set amount of time. In the UK, general elections, are usually held every 5 years.

    In the UK, the elected Parliament body consists of 650 seats. A party has to gain at least 326 to become the governing party.

    The role of the opposition is to

    • contribute to the policies of the majority party by offering constructive criticism.

    • Oppose policies they disagree with.

    • Propose their own policies to appeal to voters with the following election in mind.

    Check out our article on the Two-Party System for more details on how this system works!

    Types of political parties in UK

    Political parties are typically divided into the “left” and “right” wings. But what do we mean by this? These are types of political parties that we see in the UK and across the world.

    Did you know that the differentiation of the “right” and “left” wings goes back to the time of the French Revolution? When the National Assembly met, to avoid clashing with each other, supporters of religion and the monarchy used to sit to the right of the president, while the supporters of the revolution sat on the left.

    Generally, right-wing politics supports keeping things the way they are. In opposition to this, left-wing politics supports change.

    In the context of the French Revolution and of the English Civil War, this equates to the right-wing supporting the monarchy. The left-wing, instead, supported the revolution and the introduction of a parliament representing the needs of the people.

    This differentiation still exists today. So, in the context of UK politics, have a look at the chart below, where would you place the parties you already know about?

    UK Political Parties left-right political spectrum StudySmarterFig. 1 Left-right political spectrum

    Now, let's be a bit more specific. Left-wing politics, today, support an equal society, brought about by government intervention in the form of taxes, regulation of business and welfare policies.

    Welfare policies aim to ensure the people in a society with the lowest income, have their basic needs met.

    In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) and the benefits system are the two main examples of the Welfare State

    Right-wing politics, instead, supports traditional hierarchies, minimal state intervention, low taxes, and the preservation of individual freedom, especially in economic terms.

    Traditional hierarchies refer to social hierarchies such as the aristocracy, middle classes and working classes, but also religious and nationalistic hierarchies. These last two imply respect for religious figures and prioritising the interests of one's own nations over others.

    Laissez-faire capitalism is the economic system that embodies right-wing politics. It stands for private property, competition, and minimal government intervention. It believes the economy will be fuelled and enriched by the powers of supply and demand (how much there is of a certain product and how much people need it) and individuals' interest to get wealthier.

    Given everything we have learnt so far, what do you think we mean by centre-politics?

    Centre politics attempt to merge the social principles characteristics of left-wing politics, while also supporting ideals of individual freedoms. Centre parties usually support capitalist economic principles, albeit somewhat regulated by the state.

    On the other hand, the left and right wings of politics become “extreme” or “far” when they leave moderate policies that try to include a broad range of the population. “Far-left” includes revolutionary ideals, that would entirely change society. “Far-right”, instead closes in to include extreme conservative, nationalistic, and at times oppressively hierarchical principles.

    Right-wing parties UK

    One of the main benefits of a two-party system, is that it safeguards against extreme politics. This is because it makes it difficult to take a prominent part in the country's politics for minority, radical parties.

    Nonetheless, the UK does include a few parties that sit on the right, and far-right wing of the spectrum. Let's have a look at some of them.

    UKIP

    This is the United Kingdom Independence Party, and it's classed as a right-wing populist party.

    Populism is a political approach that aims to appeal to “the people,” by emphasising their interests in opposition to an enemy. In UKIP's case, the enemy is the European Union.

    UKIP promotes British nationalism and rejects multiculturalism.

    Multiculturalism is the belief that different cultures can peacefully coexist side by side.

    UKIP is a relatively small party. However, its political perspective gained prominence in UK politics when it succeeded in influencing the set of events that led to the UK leaving the European Union.

    Find out more about UKIP and Brexit by reading our explanations.

    DUP

    The Democratic Unionist Party is the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the fifth largest in the UK House of Commons.

    The House of Commons of the United Kingdom is the publicly elected body of the UK parliament.

    The DUP is a right-wing party and stands for British Nationalism as opposed to Irish Nationalism. It's socially conservative, opposing abortion, and same-sex marriage. Like UKIP, the DUP is Eurosceptic.

    Euroscepticism is a political stance characterised by being critical of the European Union and European Integration.

    The 2017 general election resulted in a hung parliament. The Conservatives, who gained 317 seats, were able to reach an agreement with the DUP, who gained 10 seats, to create a coalition government.

    A hung parliament is a term to describe when, following an election, no party has gained a definite majority.

    A coalition government is one where multiple parties cooperate to form a government.

    UK Political Parties Theresa May leader of the Conservative Party and Arlene Foster leader of the DUP StudySmarterFig. 2 Theresa May leader of the Conservative Party and Arlene Foster leader of the DUP

    Main political parties in UK

    Even though the UK's main political parties span the political spectrum from left to right, their policies have overlapped with centre politics, even if only for a short amount of time.

    Conservatives

    The Conservative Party is historically right-wing and one of the two main parties in UK politics. Conservative Party policies, however, started overlapping with centre politics when conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli created the concept of “one-nation conservatives”.

    One-nation conservatism is based on Disraeli's belief that conservatism shouldn't benefit just those who were at the top of the social hierarchy. Instead, he put in place social reforms to improve the lives of the working class.

    This perspective was temporarily abandoned during the years when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. However, one-nation conservatism has seen a resurgence through more recent conservative leaders such as David Cameron.

    Find out more by reading our explanation on the Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher, and David Cameron

    Labour

    The UK Labour Party is historically a left-wing party, born out of the workers' union to represent the interest of the working class.

    Workers' unions, or trade unions, are organisations that aim to protect, represent, and further the interests of workers.

    The Labour Party was founded in 1900. In 1922, it surpassed the Liberal party and has since either been the governing or the opposition party. Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, Labour Prime Ministers between 1997 and 2010, merged some centre policies to Labour's traditional left-wing stance, and temporarily rebranded the party as “New Labour”.

    Under New Labour, market economics were endorsed, instead of the traditionally left-wing perspective that the economy should be collectively, rather than privately, managed.

    Find out more by checking out our explanations on the Labour Party, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown!

    Liberal Democrats

    In 1981, the centre-leaning wing of the Labour Party split to become The Social Democratic Party. When they then joined the Liberal Party, this union became the Social and Liberal Democrats, and then the Liberal Democrats.

    In 2015, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party joined to create a coalition government. Other than this, since Labour's success in the early 20th Century, the LibDems have been the third-biggest party in the UK.

    Find out more by reading our explanation on the Liberal Democrats.

    UK Political Parties - Key takeaways

    • The history of the UK's political parties can be traced back to the English Civil War.
    • The UK has a two-party system.
    • The UK political parties span the whole of the political spectrum.
    • The main UK parties are the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.
    • Even though the Conservative Party is traditionally right-wing and the Labour Party is traditionally left-wing, their policies have, at times, overlapped with centre-politics.

    References

    1. Fig. 2 Theresa May leader of the Conservative Party and Arlene Foster leader of the DUP (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Theresa_May_and_FM_Arlene_Foster.jpg) by The Prime Minister's Office ( https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-in-northern-ireland-25-july-2016) licenced by OGL v3.0 (https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/)on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about UK Political Parties

    What is the history of UK political parties?

    The History of the UK political parties can be traced back to the English Civil war, when the seeds were sown for the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and the Irish Unionist and Nationalist parties. The Labour Party was founded in 1900.

    What is left wing and right wing in British politics?

    The left-wing of politics generally strives for change and equality in society through government regulation and welfare policies. The right-wing, instead, aims to keep the traditional social hierarchies, while aiming to preserve individual liberties.

    What are the 3 political parties?

    The three main political parties in the UK are the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party.

    What is the political party system in the UK?

    In the UK, there is a two-party system/

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which political party did the “Whigs” turn into?

    Which political party did the “Tories” turn into?

    Which is the political party system for the UK?

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