Wilson, Frank L. 1999.
European Politics Today: The Democratic Experience. 3/e.
Compiled by Jeremy Lewis. Revised 6 Dec. 2004.
The collapse of communism and popular calls everywhere for democratic polities led many to proclaim the victory of democracy in the long ideological struggle of the postwar era.
However, since that moment of triumph, the road to democracy for the most of the former communist states of Eastern Europe has not been an easy one. Most of these states still have a long way to go before they succeed in building democratic societies.
Political philosophers such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Immanuel Kant saw democracy as the ideal form of government. Viewing democracy as a natural political end of the civilizing process, they hoped for and predicted an almost inevitable movement toward democratic forms of government. They believed that democracy, when properly organized, would be durable.
The crisis of democracy turned out to be much less threatening than originally feared. But there were important challenges to respond to: shifting values among citizens that led to greater skepticism about democratic institutions; new forms of direct citizen participation that threatened public order; a sense that government was overloaded and could no longer solve many of the social and economic problems; the weakening of political parties and interest groups that had served as key links between the people and their government; and the threatened erosion of civil liberties.
This book will explore how Britain, France, Germany, and Italy are responding to four important issues:
Britain has long been regarded as one of Europe’s, and indeed the worlds, most durable and successful democracies. With political traditions dating back to medieval times, it has preserved a sense of continuity while changing into a modern democracy.
Britain has major problems in adjusting to the changing nature of sovereignty. Britons are divided over their willingness to continue in the venture of sharing sovereign powers with their partners in the European Union.
British political institutions are still widely respected, but many aspects of the country’s unwritten constitution are currently under examination in Britain.
Decades of economic stagnation brought down Britain’s economy. After
much economic difficulty, the British economy had recovered by the mid-1990s
and showed strength compared to rival economies in Europe. However, Britain’s
decision no tot join in the European single currency leads to concerns
about its economy’s ability to remain competitive in European and international
Chapter 1. Social Change and Tradition in Britain
One of the most notable features of British history is the sense of political continuity…one has to go back to the seventeenth century to find a regime change- Cromwell’s military and parliamentary dictatorship.
While old institutions and practices persist, they often do so with entirely new purposes and derive their public acceptance for completely different reasons. For example, the monarch’s role changed from that of a feudal overlordship, to a royal absolutism, to a monarchy, to a limited constitutional monarchy, to finally, a ceremonial figurehead in a parliamentary democracy.
Over the past three hundred years, while revolution and political turmoil shook other European countries, Britain’s political institutions evolved gradually and rather peacefully into their contemporary democratic forms.
The conservative tendency to accept was complemented by the willingness of those wanting change to seek it through reform and compromise. Instead of insisting upon radical and rapid change, the socialist and liberal forces adopted a gradualist approach to their social and political goals, often accepting the partial reforms handed down by Conservative governments.
British political history and contemporary social and economic patterns important challenges to the state: adjusting the legacies of the past to the realities of present, the loss of class as an organizing force in society and politics, the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland, racial conflict, and a stagnant economy with staggering unemployment.
Briatin’s pathway to democracy is not unique. Several other European
countries gradually transformed themselves from absolute monarchies to
constitutional and democratic monarchies during the nineteenth and early
Chapter 2. British Citizens and Politics
The patterns of individual political participation in Britain are similar to those in many Western Democracies.
Recent trends in voting behavior suggest greater voter volatility, but their shifting reflects more consideration of the issues at stake, especially economic performance, and the parties’ stands on those issues.
The electoral system used for all British elections (except regional elections in Northern Ireland) is the "first past the post" plurality system.
British women lacked a mobilizing issue to invigorate the feminist movement during the 1970s and 1980s. Women remain politically active but less so in specifically feminist movements and more in issue-related movements such as those championing the environment, animal rights, and civil liberties.
The strong influence of party reduces the significance of gender in
voting choice: for voters to see their preferred political leader selected
as prime minister, they must vote for whomever represents that leader’s
party in their district.
Chapter 3. British Political Parties and Interest Groups
The British remain very skeptical of referendums even in the historical form of paper ballots much less of new electronic versions.
Traditional parties remain the focus points for individual political participation.
For most of the 20th century, British politics has been dominated by two political parties: the Conservative (or Tory) party and the Labour party. But the system is not a two-party system such as in the United States; the two major British parties have nearly always faced important rivals at the polls.
In the mid-1970s, both major parties began to move from the political center toward their respective ideological poles. Under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, the Conservative party abandoned the consensus on a planned economy with a social-welfare state, and called for a return to free enterprise. Meanwhile, the Labour party moved sharply to the left with a new party program….
But the voters remained in the center.
The Thatcher era marked a departure from tradition for the Conservative party. Thatcher’s doctrinaire style and the radical content of her policy thus departed from traditional Tory pragmatism. After Thatcher was forced to step down as prime minister, her successor, John Major, gradually moved the party back toward more traditional values and policy standards.
The modern Labour party developed out of a schism during World War I between the trade union branch of the old Liberal party and the party regulars. In 1994, Tony Blair became party leader and completed the party’s transformation.
The Liberal Democrats seek to define a political space between the Conservative and Labour parties. The Liberal Democrat party is a combination of the old Liberal party and the social democratic dissidents who left the Labour party when it radicalized in the early-1980s.
Interest group politics is changing too with a more chaotic and fragmented pattern emerging to challenge the past domination by broad interest confederations.
Chapter 4. British Policy Making
Unlike the other countries included in this book which have written and rewritten their constitutions to form more perfect democracies, the British political institutions are the product of centuries of political and social evolution.
Britain has preserved the traditions and institutions of its monarchal past, while placing them in a democratic context. In theory and in law, all acts of government are performed in the name and by the authority of "Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth the Second."
She promulgates laws, negotiates treaties, selects the prime minister, names other political and religious leaders, and grants pardons.
Britain is a parliamentary system with executive powers delegated from the popularly elected House of Commons to a government made up of the prime minister and nearly one hundred ministers.
Three idiosyncratic elements play important parts in determining the prime minister’s powers:
*Finally, the public’s view of the prime minister is important.
Parliament refers to three distinct elements: the monarch, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.
In Britain, it appears that the relationship between institutions on
the one hand and political culture and behavior on the other is one of
interdependency. The practices and power relationships of British political
institutions have evolved gradually and harmoniously with the democratization
of political attitudes and behavior.
Chapter 5. Democracy in Britain
Democracy in Britain evolved during times when the sphere of governmental activity was limited generally to providing for national defense, maintaining domestic order, providing a currency, and policing, in a minor way, the economy.
Social welfare is not a new concern for the British government. As early as 1908, the British government enacted an old age pension program, and in 1911 it passed the National Health Insurance Act providing governmental assistance to meet the medical needs of the poor.
Attempts to reduce the gap between the wealthy and the poor have included progressive taxation and the providing of necessary social services to all. A major share of the government’s receipts comes from a progressive income tax: the higher the income, the greater the tax rate.
Britain’s economy shows the impact of the growing interdependency of European democracies. National sovereignty refers to the ability of a country to make autonomously all decisions affecting its people. More so than any other large EU member state, Britain has been very hesitant about surrendering sovereign powers to Europe.
Despite its Northern Irish problems, Britain is the epitome of democratic stability in the eyes of many, including the overwhelming majority of its own citizens. The legitimacy of the British political system is virtually unchallenged. There is general satisfaction with the political system’s performance in managing conflict and policy making.
The strength of British political institutions is attested to first by their durability: Parliament had its origins over seven hundred years ago; the House of Commons emerged as a separate chamber by the middle of the 14th century; the cabinet dates back to the 15th century and assumed its modern form by the early 18th century; the major political parties date back to the beginning of this century.
In contrast to Britain’s steady, evolutionary path to democracy, France has had a much more turbulent past. It has taken the formation and reformation of five separate democratic republics to achieve the generally stable and effective democracy of contemporary France.
France has long been viewed as the exception to the usual patterns of European democracy because of its past instability and ineffectiveness.
Chapter 6 France: The Historical and Social Background to Politics
The persistence in France of traditional patterns of political action and of social cleavage has produced widely used adage: le plus ça change, le plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it is the same thing).
France has not escaped its past despite the revolutionary and evolutionary sociopolitical changes of the last 200 years.
France’s long tradition of state economic intervention has eased in the last decade. Government’s regulations have decreased; state subsidies to private enterprises have diminished; state controls over foreign investment have disappeared, and the public sector – the state-owned part of the economy- has dropped as many once publicly owned enterprises have been privatized or sold to private shareholders. Much of this change has been fostered by the European Union’s insistence on free-market principles.
Chapter 7 French Citizens and Politics
The French now appear to be disinterested in ideologies and are pragmatic in their approach to political and social issues.
There is growing evidence that the general public has developed a broad consensus on the major sociopolitical questions that once seemed to divide the French: the constitutional framework, role of government in society, church/state relations, and foreign defense policies.
Voting is the only poltical act for the vast majority of French citizens. Election turnout is generally quite high with almost 80 percent customarily voting in national elections.
Chapter 8 French Political Parties and Interest Groups
There is a broad and growing consensus among the general population on once-divisive social and political questions. But among the political elites, the old passions prevail and give a distinctive color to French party politics and interest group politics.
Parties in France include the following:
1. The Gaullists,
2. The Union for French Democracy
3. The Moderate Conservative Coalition: The Alliance,
4. The Socialist Party,
5. The French Communist, and
6. The National Front
In the past, the political parties and interest groups contributed to instability in France by their excessive pluralism and ideological polarization.
Parties stands are vague in order to appeal to so many and their members are no longer as active or committed. With parties taking vague positions on important issues, voters may look for new ways to convey their political concerns.
Chapter 9 French Policy Making
One of the interesting aspects of recent constitutional developments in France is the use of constitutional reform to alter long-standing political features and practices. French constitution hoped to change certain patterns of behavior and practices thought to be desirable.
Between elections, the government is much freer than most to function without paying heed to shifting public opinion or to clamoring interest groups. Distance from popular demands gives the French state greater flexibility in responding to new situations.
Political leaders in France are less vulnerable because of their strength of the political institutions, the aloofness, and dominant position of the executive, its disciplined parties and major coalitions, the highly centralized state, and its integrated hierarchal bureaucracy.
Chapter 10 Democracy in France
While France had a thriving private sector and market economy, the state had an important role in these “thirty glorious years” of economic development and prosperity. The state’s tools in economic management were several. The government engaged in formal economic planning with business and labor to set the general direction of the economy.
Privatization is clearly a success; the public has supported denationalization in principle and in fact by buying shares.
Programs under the social-welfare state are costly, amounting to over one-fourth of the gross domestic product.
Greatest risk to the current and rather successful system is the long
tradition of revolt in France.
In 1990 Germany, which had been divided since 1945, became a single country. This union involved the voluntary incorporation of the communist-dominated German Democratic Republic (East Germany) into the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
Formal reunification of Germany came very quickly but the achievement
of a genuine unity has proceeded slowly and with many problems, including
1. The economic prosperity and visions of consumer goods that motivated many
East Germans’ interest in reunification has been difficult to achieve.
2. After 8 years of unity, living standards and the economy in the eastern states are well below the levels of the western states barely back to the levels that existed under the old Communist regime.
3. East Germans complain about their inability to break into positions of economic and political leadership even in the eastern states.
4. West Germans attribute higher taxes and unemployment in the western states to the burden of supporting the less developed economy in the east.
Chapter 11 Democracy in a Hostile Setting?
The Germans find their history a subject of great debate and even embarrassment. Germans worry if exploring the past, and especially the recent past, will lead to rationalizations of Hitler’s atrocities.
German unification was a goal that inspired poets and statesman throughout the centuries. Other values such as social change, individual freedom, or representative democracy were ignored or delayed while the goal of national unity was sought.
Germans worry that the old stereotype of heel-clicking, obedient Germans is being replaced with a new stereotype of complacent, self-satisfied, and prosperous Germans without a vision loftier than their own enrichment.
The Germans have overcome their historical liabilities and indeed have learned to be free and democratic.
Chapter 12 Citizens and Politics in Germany
Contemporary Germany offers an unusual case of a successful democratic country where many of its citizens grew up under an authoritarian regime.
Voting turnout in Germany is high, among the highest rate of electoral participation in Western Europe. Germans enjoy the resources needed for political participation: time, education, and information. They use these resources in active participation in national affairs.
Despite widespread confusion on the electoral system, evidence suggests that German voters are becoming more rational in making their electoral choices. Many voters are still guided by loyalties derived from their social class, religion, or association memberships.
Chapter 13 German Political Parties and Interest Groups
Numerous citizens have demonstrated their willingness to challenge established norms of political behavior even at the risk of unsettling the social and economic climate. After some problems accommodating these new participants and their often unconventional methods of political action, the regime now seems capable of managing the greater participation without disrupting overall political stability and public order.
Now the major issue is the challenge of the new political parties and
movements to the parties. The parties include the following:
1. The Christian Democratic Parties,
2. The Social Democratic Parity,
3. The Free Democratic Party, and
4. The Greens.
Germans are interested in politics and seek appropriate means to express their views. Unification brings the additional challenge of extending the reach of these parties and interest groups to the East Germans.
Chapter 14 German Policy Making
The record of the postwar political institutions in bringing a stable democracy to a nation without any democratic heritage is a major triumph for Germany.
It is easy to overemphasize the importance of institutional arrangements in making democracy work well; more important are the attitudes of the public and the leaders.
In Germany, whatever the individual political style of the chancellor, the institutional framework- with its more powerful parliament, federalism, and the decentralized administration- nurtures a more open policy-making style.
Chapter 15 from “The German Problem” to “Model Germany”?
For over 100 years, German advocates of democracy tuned westward for models of successful democracy. Now, at the end of the 20th century, many turn to Germany as an example of how to organize stable and effective democracy.
German is a good source because its success in building institutions
that have gained public confidence and have proved able to handle both
ordinary and crisis situations has helped compensate for the lack of a
democratic tradition, a problem facing most of the new democracies.
Like Germany, Italy is a relatively new democracy, created on the ruins of a fascist regime. In contrast to the stability of the postwar German state, Italy continues to be plagued by considerable instability.
Three problems have been especially difficult for Italy: governmental instability, which has brought over 50 different governments since 1946; management of the economy; and the weakening of the major parties.
Chapter 16 The Background to Italian Politics
In contrast to Germany, Italy looks back on a glorious past.
Italy was one of the founding members of the European Union.
Social class has lacked the political significance in Italy it has in other industrialized democracies. Class alignment with political parties has always been much weaker than the effect of religion and region on voting decisions.
Italy is facing the same modern challenges as are other Western European countries: the restructuring and modernization of aging heavy industries, the promotion of new high-technology industries, the financing of the costs of popular, but expensive social-welfare programs, the problems of inflation, and the competition from new economies around the new world.
Chapter 17 Citizens and Politics in Italy
Improved education and urbanization since World War II have helped produce a more politically alert Italian citizenry. But an important part of the public still has little or no political interest and knowledge.
The Italians that are politically aware are often pictured, and correctly
so, intensely partisan in their behavior. There are strong partisan ties
in Italy and because if this it is not surprising that Italy has one of
the highest turn-out rates for national elections.
The participation level is close to 90 percent for national elections.
Italians express much cynicism about their politics and their political system. Life in Italy is highly political; it is a society “saturated by politics”.
Chapter 18 Italian Political Parties and Interest Groups
Political parties and interest groups are key linkages between the people and their government in modern representative democracies. In Italy, parties have been prominent not only in politics but also the country’s society and economy.
Italy is often used as an example by those who see multiparty systems as sources of political and governmental instability. Italy has had more governments threatened by collapsing parliamentary coalitions than any other contemporary Western European democracy.
Italy has not seen the blossoming of new social movements that has happened elsewhere in Europe. There are signs of growing involvement in neighborhood associations.
Chapter 19 Italian Policy Making
For decades, Italy has been used as a stereotype of the dangers of governmental instability and chaos in a multiparty state. The instability has been s great that observer have described Italy as a “republic without government,” or its parties as “surviving without governing.”
The government is composed of about one hundred political leaders: a prime minister, a cabinet of approximately twenty ministers, and a large number of junior ministers.
The relationships between the central government and the regional governments, between the central government and the ninety-five provincial and eight thousand local governments, and between the regional governments and provincial and local governments are still evolving.
Chapter 20 The Performance of the “Unstable” Italian Republic
The state’s impact on the economy has been a key factor in Italian politics and economists. State subsidies to private enterprises, huge public-owned corporations, and the large numbers of state employees linked to the parties through clientele relationships, allowed the state a key role in directing economic growth.
The Italian process of reducing the role of the state was fostered by two political trends. The first was the public’s growing disgust with the corruption of the public sector as a result of the bribesville scandal. Furthermore, in Italy the state’s economic presence in the economy dropped precipitously.
Italy entered the 1900s with major crises looming in the future: vast political corruption scandals, political party decay, a discredited political elite, a struggling economy, enormous social benefit expenses, and attendant social problems.
At the beginning of the decade, two developments gave promise of a new Europe. In the West, the twelve members of the European Community were moving steadily toward the furthering the integration of their economic and political activities.
The lifting of the iron curtain that had separated East and West Europe opened up new opportunities for European cooperation. Easterners turned to the West for political and economic models; Westerners looked to the East for new markets, tourist sites, and the cultural experiences.
Chapter 21 European Unity: Building a New Europe
In the aftermath of the devastation and tragedies of World War II, leaders in Western Europe sought to unite their countries so intimately that they could never again fight amongst themselves.
The EEC provided for the free movement of goods, workers, and services among the member states. The EEC six agreed to work together in setting common policies in several important economic sectors: agriculture, commerce, transportation, regional development, and energy.
With their economies in a slump and facing skyrocketing unemployment, it was politically difficult for European governments to implement the policies needed to reduce public debt, government expenditures, and counter any inflationary tendencies.
Chapter 22 European Union Institutions
Just like any national government, the European Union has executive, legislative, administrative, and judicial organs. These institutions and their powers are products of treaties among the member states. Again, like national governments, the actual power and action of these institutions often differs in reality from the prescriptions in their constitutive documents.
In contrats to the “strong” states of most European countries, the European Union is emerging as a “weak” polity. Policy-making power is diffuse, decentralized, and subject to a variety of different configurations.
The process of making EU policy involves multiple actors at the European and national levels ranging from interest groups to Eurocrats to national cabinet ministers to members of national and European parliaments.
Chapter 23 The European Union and “Agenda 2000”
The EU’s Common Agriculture Program (CAP) has long been the centerpiece of European economic integration. As other parts of the European economy are forced to observe free market principles, pressure to use these same principles in agriculture has mounted. Agenda 2000 includes pledges of additional changes in the agricultural program.
European unification has thrived in a climate of broad support. But that support has always been clearer at the elite level than among the general populations of the member countries. The people have played only minor parts in the process of building Europe other than supporting their leaders.
EU politics is reshaping the domestic politics of its countries. The EU brings specific issues to national political agendas and in the process reshapes priorities and programs.
Any political regime must adapt to changes in its setting if it is to survive. This is especially true for democracies, where the public sometimes perceives poorly adapted government more quickly than do public officials.
In democracies, government ultimately depends upon the confidence of the people. The strength of democracy is found in the automatic corrective of popular elections: the loss of confidence is one set of leaders usually brings the election of a new set of leaders from another party or coalition.
The consequence of this public disillusionment with those who govern is the rise of electoral support for marginal parties. In France and Germany, far right-wing extremist parties and ecologist parties have benefited from this trend. In Italy, the rise of the regional leagues and far right is linked with voter disaffection with the traditional parties. Britain suffers less from this phenomenon since voters recognize the futility of supporting fringe parties in a single direct, plurality electoral system.
The sudden arrival of large numbers of racially different peoples in Western Europe has triggered racial resentment and hatred. In some countries, the resentment is even directed at their own people. There is hostility toward ethnic Germans coming into Germany from the East and toward East Germans moving into the western states. Northern Italians express growing hostility toward southern Italians who have moved into their regions and purportedly brought with them the corrupt practices that have kept the South poor and underdeveloped.
Democracy is valued not because it is viewed as an ideal form of government but because it meets the needs of people better than the less attractive alternatives. Democracy is secure in Western Europe (and the United States) not because it offers the lofty vision of a better world, not because democracy makes better human beings, but because there is no better alternative.