The first thing to say in any debate on this topic is that the British political system, forged from more than 800 years of continuous development, is a hugely complex beast. Today's post is devoted to the easy bit, you'll be glad to know. The Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled is the full title of the lower house of the national parliament. It currently has 650 members, elected from all four corners of the United Kingdom. Nice and easy. The first partially-elected parliament (of England) was called in 1264 by Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman who led a rebellion against King Henry III and became the effective king after his victory at the Battle of Lewes. While he was later killed at Evesham, and King Edward I took the throne, the position of the parliament was now established and over the next few centuries its powers grew and grew until it was acknowledged as the most important part of the constitution during the nineteenth century. During that period, England unified with Scotland in 1707 and Great Britain with Ireland in 1800. In 1922 five-sixths of Ireland became independent (this is just history, you don't need me here).
The current membership is divided between three main parties, and a few others with just a couple of members each. The government of today is what can only be described as an uneasy coalition between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, while the Labour party, who governed from 1997-2010, provide the Official Opposition. Of these, the Conservatives have the longest history, being ultimately descended from the Tories (they are still often called by this name) who sprung up in the later seventeenth century in support of the right of royal succession to fall to anyone, even a Catholic, during the Exclusion crisis of the 1680s. The party that supported the removal of James, Duke of York from the succession because of his Catholicism developed into the Whigs, and over the centuries these two parties began to solidify into movements we'd now describe as liberal and conservative, with the Whigs supporting constitutional separation of powers (in a broad sense) and the nonconformist tradition while the Tories supported the monarch's power and the high Church of England. These parties renamed themselves into the Liberals and Conservatives in the Victorian era.
From the early 1900s, the incipient trade union movement began to get more and more members elected to parliament, and the socialist Labour party emerged, first taking government in 1924. Labour quickly supplanted the Liberals as the second party, so much so that in the general election of 1951 95% of voters supported either Labour or the Conservatives, and the Liberals won just six seats - in five of those there was no Conservative candidate. At this point, it would be clear to see genuine ideological differences between all three. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher, Conservative leader, became prime minister. She was a radically different leader, moving the Tories into a new era of libertarian neoliberalism based on the ideas of Friedman, Hayek and others. In an attempt to combat this, Labour elected Michael Foot as their leader in 1980, the furthest left leader for many years. This was the last straw for many in the moderate faction of the Labour party. Four senior party figures left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party on the European model. While they hoped to wrestle the mantle of official opposition from Labour, it quickly became apparent that they could not and so the SDP formed an Alliance with the Liberals, who were experiencing a slight revival themselves. This Alliance grew in power over the following years, and the two parties eventually merged to form the Liberal Democrats, despite the opposition of SDP leader David Owen, who remains an independent to this day. Neither Labour nor the Lib Dems could provide a credible challenge, however, to Thatcher, or her successor Major.
In an attempt to become electable, Labour elected Tony Blair as their leader, and effectively renounced socialism, most notably via the elimination of Clause Four of the party constitution, which committed the party to nationalisation of industry. (Note: loads more stuff happens before this, as this is very simplistic, but you can find that out yourselves, I'm sure.) Labour was elected in 1997 and effectively continued the radical policies of Thatcher and Major, deregulating banking, supporting private industry at the expense of the state, and so on. Many felt that the Lib Dems had become the real party of the left, by continuing to support wholeheartedly the welfare state, high taxation and progressivism. However, the Orange Book of 2004 in fact showcases the Lib Dem commitment to radical centrist policies. It is therefore possible to suggest that all three parties are of the radical centre to centre-right, at least at the leadership level, though there are signs that new Labour leader Ed Miliband is attempting to move back to a more defined centre-left social democratic tradition.
Man. That was LONG. And I only covered half of what I wanted to. Questions? Leave them in comments. Follow this blog, go to twitter, and dance like a kangaroo. https://twitter.com/#!/antmoorfield