Monday, 29 April 2013


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Thatcher, the rejection of consensus and democracy

Re-blogged from the LSE British Politics and Policy blog 

Professor Martin Smith reflects on the claim that Margaret Thatcher was a politician who rejected consensustaking issue with the underlying assumption that this was a virtue of the former Prime Minister. He argues that this hostility towards consensus has important implications for democracy and policy which have tended to be overlooked.  

Of the many obituaries and reflections on Margaret Thatcher's premiership, the notion that seems to have been met with most approval is the idea that she rejected consensus and stood up for her beliefs. As she said in a speech: 

“The process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?”

Her rejection of consensus is seen as a reflection of her leadership and her ability to stand by principles, unlike the modern day political leaders driven by opinion polls and focus groups. Indeed, for Tony Benn her saying and doing what she believed was an indication of her authenticity as a leader. Yet, in all this approval of her forthright beliefs little or no thought has been given to the democratic and, indeed, policy implications of this approach. What her approach illustrates is the problematic relationship of the British political system to democracy. 

Climate change and political parties

How do political parties formulate their positions on climate change? What are the factors that encourage mainstream political parties to embrace environment and turn it into an issue of party competition? And what factors stop them from doing so? 

Professor Neil Carter explains how questions like these are motivating his latest research, and describes his longstanding interest in environmental politics and policy, political parties and British politics.

"My ongoing project on UK climate policy focuses on an often overlooked feature of the last Labour Government: that it was responsible for a fundamental transformation of climate policy between 2006 and 2010. 

Having adopted a complacent approach to domestic climate policy for almost a decade, the Labour Government introduced a tranche of reforms, notable the ground breaking Climate Change Act 2008, an innovative Low Carbon Transition Plan, policy measures on renewable energy, feed-in tariffs, carbon capture and storage, infrastructure planning and energy efficiency, supported by significant public investment. Of course, plenty of gaps remained, notably in reducing emissions from transport, and much work is still needed, but climate and energy policy was undoubtedly transformed.

My primary aim is to explain why that step-change occurred. Here I have been fortunate to do some work with Michael Jacobs, who was Special Advisor to Gordon Brown on climate change and energy policy between 2004 and 2010. We have a jointly authored paper forthcoming in Public Administration in which we identify, amongst other factors, the critical role played by party competition in ratcheting up the pressure for change. 

In particular, David Cameron’s decision as Opposition leader to use the environment as a tool for detoxifying the ‘nasty’ image of the Conservative Party saw him support Friends of the Earth’s ‘Big Ask’ campaign for a Climate Bill, and take strong positions opposing a third runway at Heathrow Airport and a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, Kent. 

The cross-party consensus on the need for progressive climate and energy policy briefly produced a virtuous circle: while the Labour Government came under pressure from opposition parties, public opinion and the media, equally Government ministers could afford to be bolder in their policy initiatives confident that they would not be crucified by their political opponents. This finding that ‘parties matter’ is supported by recent comparative studies suggesting that party competition over the environment has a positive impact on government policy outputs.

This assumption that ‘parties matter’ underpins my new ESRC project Climate Policy and Political Parties, with Robert Ladrech at Keele University. 

Clearly, the response of parties is crucial, yet we know very little about how parties formulate their positions on climate change. Our two-year comparative study aims to understand and explain the way mainstream centre-left and centre-right political parties in Western Europe develop their positions on climate change policy. It will examine the impact on party policy development of domestic factors, including internal party dynamics and party system competition, environmental and business interests, and external factors, notably European Union legislation and international commitments. The countries we will study are Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. We hope our findings will enhance our understanding of climate politics and identify ways in which policy makers can secure political support for progressive climate policy".

Neil will give the Department of Politics departmental seminar on Wednesday 1 May (D/104, 12.15), entitled