W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the great British musical maestros, declared in their 1882 operetta “Iolanthe” that “every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” These were the dominant British political parties of the Victorian age.
The government of the United Kingdom was stable, except for sustained pressure for independence for Ireland. That was granted in 1921, after a bloody struggle.
The nation traditionally has had a stable two-party political system, though that is changing. Early in the 20th century, the Labour Party replaced the Liberals. Over the past half century, the Liberals and successor Liberal Democrats gained, along with Scotland and Wales nationalist parties.
On May 3, local government elections took place in England — though not in Scotland or Wales. Independence in those regions have resulted in elected regional assemblies, and governing powers devolved from London.
The Conservative Party, which holds the national government, experienced small losses. The opposition Labour Party made modest gains.
At the same time, British voters continue to reject extremist movements. The far-right UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) suffered devastating defeat, holding or gaining only three seats while losing 123. This trend contrasts with notable and growing support for far-right parties elsewhere in Europe, including France, Germany and Hungary.
UKIP decimation contrasts with the party’s peak in 2014, and continues a trend visible at the level of Parliament. British voters have been most likely to support UKIP at the level of European Union elections, where representatives have the least power and symbolic statements can be made without fear of significant national political impact.
The Liberal Democrats also gained control of some local councils, though not in total vote. Long-term revival from near-oblivion led to entering into a coalition government with the Conservatives following the indecisive 2010 general election.
Under the cover of formal collaboration, the Conservatives ruthlessly undercut their government partners. The Conservatives won a narrow majority of House of Commons seats in the 2015 general election, which decimated the Liberal Democrats.
Measurable Liberal revival began in the early 1960s, spearheaded by the charismatic party leader Jo Grimond. The 1980s brought the new Social Democratic Party, led by breakaway Labour leaders, which merged with the Liberals into the Liberal Democrat Party in 1988.
Political stability is the bedrock fact of life in British politics that historically is firmly rooted and unchanging. In the 17th century, the nation experienced violent revolution, removal and execution of the reigning monarch, bloody civil war, and military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell.
This lengthy extraordinarily violent period was succeeded in the latter 1600s with restoration of the monarchy, return of the traditional Parliament including an elected House of Commons, and reaffirmation of the rule of law.
In our time, the British have maintained stability through flexibility in institutions as well as policies. Regional assemblies for Scotland and Wales are one result.
Regarding the elections this month, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland argues the results show policy does matter. Specifically, continued public sympathy for Brexit — shorthand for leaving the European Union — helped to bolster Conservative support. Sir John has become an increasingly visible and influential expert on political and public opinion trends.
While Britain’s political processes can appear complex, the long-term success of their representative government and competitive party democracy is clear. Britain’s stability contrasts with some political trends in Europe — and the U.S.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.