British politics still has a radical tradition

20 Jul 2017

 The radical tradition in British politics can be traced back to the days of George Lansbury, David Lloyd-George, and even Keir Hardy. One of the great historical writers of the last century, A.J.P Taylor, wrote about this tradition in his 1957 work The Trouble Makers. Here, Taylor writes about the dissident tradition in British foreign policy making and how those who had criticised the government, rather than simply obeying, should be celebrated. Some people could argue that we have forgotten this tradition and that Westminster is now filled with politicians who strictly follow the party line. On the other hand, sometimes there will be a politician who stands out from amongst the rest. These radical politicians quickly get a reputation for being troublesome; whether that be by the public, the press, or even their own party.


These radicals then go on to cause an uproar in the British political system and even going so far as to split their parties. Most people wouldn’t consider Margaret Thatcher and Jeremy Corbyn to have anything even remotely in common, I disagree. I believe that Thatcher and Corbyn have much more in common than people think, and they have transformed the political landscape of the United Kingdom, as well as the course of their parties.


Before Corbyn became known to the wider British public, he was considered a radical by his own side. Often accused of cosying up to extremists and being unpatriotic, he is simply a man of principle and seeks only to better the lives of others. When he was elected as the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, the Conservative Party and right-wing press leaped at the chance to paint him as a far-left lunatic, hell bent on taking the United Kingdom back to the 1970s. I’ve come to see this in a different light. Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in British politics, someone who has refused to play along with the norm.


The same could also be argued for Margaret Thatcher. When Thatcher entered the House of Commons in 1959, she was one of 25 female MPs and never expected to become a member of the cabinet let alone the first female prime minister. Margaret Thatcher, much like Jeremy Corbyn, transformed the image of her party. Both politicians have been labelled as anti-establishment, and this is somewhat true. Margaret Thatcher came from a humble background as the daughter of a grocer. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn was the son of a maths teacher. Neither were the typical type of politician born into wealth and privilege; although both did attend grammar school. Both Corbyn and Thatcher transformed their prospective parties in quite similar ways.


One of the key ideas of Thatcherism is that where you’re born does not determine where you end up. This was the type of ideology that Thatcher based her policies on, the idea that hard work will bring its own rewards. The Thatcher premiership saw one of the greatest examples of social mobility as people who had once been living in state owned council houses were now owning their own home, driving expensive cars, and buying shares. This was unheard of,  people who were making gains from the Thatcher government were accused of selfish individualism which they revelled in.


This was the first time that shareholders were outnumbering trade union members, something which 10 years earlier would have been unimaginable. This radical shift from not only angered the right-wing establishment, who weren’t too keen on the idea of the lower classes having a share in their lifestyle. It also angered the left who thought that Thatcher was stealing who the left regarded as “their people”. This influx of the New Right wasn’t from Eton or well-off families, they were from the lower middle classes.


Like Thatcher, Corbyn also refused to follow the stream. Even as the leader of the Labour Party, he refuses to backdown from his principles. And also like Thatcher, he managed to transform the lives of another group in society that felt secluded and ignored. For years, young people had taken little notice of politics as very few politicians made them feel important. Corbyn has completely overturned this after attracting over 150,000 new members and securing over 61.5 per cent of the youth vote in the recent general election. This is a generation who would otherwise never even contemplated getting politically involved.


No party, let alone a politician, could inspire such a radical influx of politically active young people and continue to inspire. This focus on greater involvement in public and political life for those who had otherwise felt marginalised was a huge turn in the direction of British politics. Particularly with the increase in the 18-24 share of the vote, some Conservative politicians went so far as to suggest that students don’t register to vote in their university towns. Supposedly thinking this would deter them voting; which of course it did not.


So, if lifelong Labour supporters had flocked to vote for the Conservatives in 1979 following such a disastrous Labour government; could modern day Conservative voters do the same today? Could the recent post - election surge in the polls for Labour suggest that they’re perhaps on their way for a similar result? It may seem unlikely, but politicians have surprised us before. Let’s keep up and celebrate this radical tradition in British politics.


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