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  • David Harrop

How Does History Shape Different Political Systems?

A political system is the set of formal constitutional and legal institutions that form a state. For instance, the political systems of the UK and USA differ greatly as both have unique histories which have shaped their legal and constitutional frameworks in different ways. The cumulative effect of different constitutional traditions and the impact of war, economics and leadership establishes different path dependencies for both political systems, spawning diverging political cultures. Therefore, history has had a great external influence in shaping modern political systems in an adaptive and reactive manner.

The impact of the First World War on the British political system was immense, with the reform to the franchise giving all women over the age of thirty the right to vote as a reward for their patriotic service. More broadly, across Europe the strains of the war broke the back of authoritarianism and heralded in waves of republican fervour. The leadership provided by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, during the war completely transformed British society and politics, such that the size of the state in 1918 would have seemed antithetical to the British Liberal government in 1914- nationalised industry, a censored press and subsidised food. Thus, from the debate chairman style of premiership of Asquith emerged the modern, hands-on approach of Lloyd-George. The unprecedented demands of this total war required a radical reform to the British political system, such reforms were spearheaded by a group of senior politicians such as Lord Milner, Bonar Law, Arthur Henderson and Lloyd-George. This demonstrates how the British political system was reshaped by an historical epoch with such changes facilitated by strong leadership, setting a precedent and establishing a path dependency within British political culture. The abandonment of liberal principles in the name of defending liberalism perhaps being the ultimate irony of the war. Whereas the USA had not endured four years of total war and the necessary economic commitments, and so no such transformations were undertaken, except perhaps the validation of an isolationist foreign policy. Therefore, the war acted as a cause for broad changes to the British political system, the likes of which were not seen in the USA which maintained its business-as-usual perspective.

Furthermore, the old two-party system of Liberals-Conservatives would be broken and rebuilt within the cauldron of the war. Lloyd-George would be the last Liberal Prime Minister, by empowering the Conservatives within the wartime coalition, compounded by his 1916 intrigues against Asquith’s faction, he split the Liberal vote and created a vacuum that the Labour party would quickly exploit. Indeed, the post-war optimism in Britain evaporated with high taxes, the Irish Civil War and Russian intervention which threatened to sink the Lloyd-George ship. Largely ballasted by Unionist MPs, Conservative leader Bonar Law scapegoated and sacrificed his wartime partner to return the first Tory government in almost twenty years. Within this fractious political conflict festered up to six million unemployed, fed on a lukewarm diet of the Daily Worker and increasing rents, angered by the failing post-war settlement for a supposedly victorious nation. The vacuum left by Lloyd-George is still present in the modern political system- the number of Liberal MPs returned even in 2005 pales in comparison to the disastrous 1922 election. Therefore, the legacy of WW1 irrevocably reshaped the century-old political consensus in the UK, with perhaps its greatest ever Prime Minister tainted by winning the war but losing the peace.8 However, there would be no comparable reshaping of the party system in the USA as the Socialist Party was racked by civil war and alienated its more moderate voters, which was not seen in the UK, where a Labour government would be formed in 1923. Therefore it is clear that in more than one way, the effect of the First World war reshaped the British political system in a lasting and far-reaching way.

Similarly, in the USA, presidential leadership and the impact of war has played a key role in shaping the modern political system. It was under Woodrow Wilson’s presidency that the USA would enter the world stage as a political and economic heavyweight, laying the foundations for an internationalist political system and establishing key institutional blueprints for a new world order, from the Fourteen Points to the League of Nations. Wilson’s idealism formed an historical institutional legacy that culminated in the Bretton Woods system and the formations the UN, NATO, the WHO and the CIA within forty years of his presidency. Wilson would also accelerate the institutionalisation of racial segregation, setting a mould that would prevail for fifty years, fully executing the Plessy vs Ferguson ruling by segregating the military. The question of civil rights would ultimately be answered by the sitting president, whether in the way of Wilson or Lyndon Johnson. The legacy of either men’s policies are still felt in the modern US system, with current affirmative action programmes justified clearly by Johnson’s remarks upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights act, “to close the springs of racial poison,” and his Howard University speech in 1965. Also domestically, the post-war consensus over Roosevelt’s New Deal was moderately nurtured and extended by both Truman’s Democratic and Eisenhower’s Republican administrations as a product of the economic prosperity resulting from wartime expansion; with state intervention becoming politically palatable and desirable electorally. This political consensus was not too dissimilar from that within the UK political system after WW2, perhaps indicating that both political systems were oriented away from adversarial policies in a similar way. Hence the far-reaching policies that transformed the US political system, both nationally and internationally, was the product of historical presidential leadership.

Fundamental to the modern political system of the UK is the legacy of the Second World War. In the UK the war produced a soft dictatorship of a morally left-wing bureaucratic government topped by several Conservative war leaders with little

influence over domestic policy. Electorally, the old imperialism which Churchill epitomised, was swept away by Attlee’s focus on food, work and homes; running parallel to this was the establishment of a permanent political consensus to decolonise- 1957 even saw a Tory Defence Minister propose a White Paper slashing the military budget. More generally, the post-war consensus would maintain the continuation of economic policies ranging from nationalisation of key industries to priority spending for the NHS, all of which addressed the ‘Five Giants’ of British society that needed to be resolved within the promised ‘New Jerusalem’. The war thus catalysed a great social desire for political change and rejuvenation, willing to cast out an imperialist war hero for a socialist administrator, favouring free spectacles over a creaking empire. The political system shaped by the legacy of WW2 largely exists today, as governments still oversee cradle to grave care and the empire is all but gone. Therefore, the impact of WW2 effectively reshaped the British political system, with the pre-war system being killed off by the popularity of Keynesianism which is still seen to a certain extent in the present day, parallel to a similar consensus within the US system.

Perhaps the greatest historical influence on the American political system is the tradition of constitutionalism and the legal institutions that maintain its sovereignty. The emergence of the federalist system of layered powers, enshrining individual and property rights at a fundamental and institutional level is still preserved within the Bill of Rights. The constitution itself built upon the ideas embedded within the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, of which the founding fathers had played a role, with the primacy of certain inalienable rights, protected by law from a tyrannous government, effectively institutionalising Lockean and Rousseauian philosophy. This means that the US Constitution is the ideological brainchild of the Enlightenment, for instance explicitly enacting Lockean natural rights to property within the third and fourth amendments. The role of the founding fathers in both enumerating and entrenching these fundamental rights in the Constitution was critical, as they implemented several undemocratic devices within Article V. Thus, amendment of the Constitution requires the support of three quarters of state legislatures as well as a supermajority in both houses of Congress. This perhaps explains why only seventeen amendments have been made to the Constitution since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, two of which cancelled each other out. This constitutional stability has created a fundamental path dependency within the US political system, with the Supreme Court having the role of judicial review, giving it the power to declare Acts of Congress or Executive Actions as unconstitutional. In comparison, the UK’s uncodified constitutional framework is the progeny of convention, common law and statute, with the embryonic rights of Parliament and the people enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215. Therefore, the establishment of a codified constitution has shaped the USA’s political system consistently through legal actions and Supreme Court rulings for more than two centuries.

Additionally, the impact of the Great Depression shaped the UK and US political systems differently. In the USA the dire state of the economy after the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the subsequent depression contributed greatly to the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, after which he enacted multiple radical economic policies at the federal level. For instance Roosevelt would embark on severe quantitative easing, in stark contrast to the deflationary and retrenchment policies of the UK, releasing billions in federal funding for new agencies to relieve, recover and reform the economy, such as the CCC, the TVA and the Social Security Act. Despite the radicalism of these policies in the 1930s, a great deviation from traditional Laissez-faire economics, they would become the foundations of the post-war political consensus under Truman and Eisenhower.

The UK political system would similarly be radically altered, with the 1930s seeing the decline of Imperial Britannia and the genesis of modern Britain. The economic impacts of the Depression catalysed a political revolution, with the formation of a national government the likes of which had never been seen in peacetime, with political consensus gravitating around economic recovery in spite of party allegiance. Stanley Baldwin’s famous televised address before the 1931 election was a call for putting ‘country before party’. Both the US and UK political systems were not only radically reshaped by the economic impact of the Depression, but its legacy would become the rallying cry of political consensus in both the short and long term. This shows a clear and significant reaction to crisis on the part of leaders like Roosevelt, Baldwin and George V which served to stimulate lasting change to the political system. Therefore, the impact of the Great Depression broke and rebuilt both political systems, as elected radical leaders enabled radical policies which deviated strongly from tradition, whether in terms of unprecedented levels of quantitative easing in the USA or a National Government in the UK.

Overall, it’s clear that history shapes political systems in different ways. The differing cultural and historical institutionalisms within the political systems of the UK and USA established independent path dependencies, even when the result of the same historical phenomenon, such as WW2 or the Great Depression. This is largely due to the role of leadership within the political systems, and how individuals can enact great and lasting change. Therefore, it is evident that the cumulative effect of historical events triggers a reactive response from the political system, which in turn establishes a unique path dependence which reshapes the system itself.


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