A Level Politics

Improving your grade

Exam technique: the decline in political participation

Posted by Matt Walker on October 5, 2011


Recently I set my students a full exam question for Edexcel Unit 1, encompassing the short, medium and long answers, looking at democracy and participation. The 10-mark part (b) question was, “In what ways has political participation in the UK declined in recent years?”

The first thing to note is that this question is asking you how participation has declined, not why it has declined. Failure to appreciate this distinction will cost you valuable marks.  Neil McNaughton’s AS level textbook points out that participation has declined in 3 main ways:

1)  Voter turnout

2) Party membership

                                               3) Partisan dealignment

For this type of question, 7 marks are awarded for Knowledge and Understanding (AO1), and 3 marks are allocated for your level of explanation (AO2). Good exam technique to access all these marks is:

              1)  Write 3 paragraphs

              2)  Focus on a major point in each paragraph, e.g. voter turnout

              3)  Include 2-3 facts in each paragraph – e.g. levels of turnout across a number of elections

              4)  Explain your facts by linking to the question – e.g. why voter turnout is an important indicator of levels of participation.


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Human rights and the UK’s liberal democracy

Posted by Matt Walker on October 2, 2011

In my previous post I outlined the main criticism of the UK’s liberal democracy. Today’s comments by Home Secretary, Theresa May, illustrates this criticism perfectly. Today’s Sunday telegraph reports her as saying that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped because it causes “problems” at the Home Office, particularly when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants, some of whom “are perhaps terrorist suspects”. A summary of what she says can be found on the BBC News website.

The Human Rights Act enshrines into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights, and is the main cornerstone of human rights within the UK constitution (apart from the Magna Carta of 1215, which was aimed at the barons of the Middle Ages rather than 21st Century peasants like you and me). Aside from the arguments for and against the Human Rights Act, it is interesting to note that if there were a majority Conservative Government in this country they might well repeal the Human Rights Act, thereby changing my rights, your rights and everybody else’s rights just by passing an ordinary law through Parliament. To have such an effect on American citizens’ rights, for example, the US Government would need  two-thirds support from both Houses of Congress, as well as the support of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Put another way, human rights are not entrenched in the UK which means they are easily tampered with. Entrenchment would mean protecting our rights from being swiftly reversed. From the government’s point of view it would mean accepting human rights law even if it does inconvenience and cause “problems” to the UK Home Office.

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Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 26, 2011

In many respects it seems obvious to conclude ‘yes’ to this question, that the UK is a liberal democracy.  The UK enjoys free and fair elections, experiences smooth transitions of power from one government to the next, and is generally a tolerant society whose politics has been opened up by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, there are some major criticisms which we can level, and these stem from the fact that the UK constitution does not successfully limit governmental power,  nor does it entrench our human rights. On the latter point, any British government could in theory alter our key human rights by simply passing a Bill through Parliament. In most liberal democracies, it would require a lengthy challenge to a constitution, making it harder to make any such changes to citizens’ rights.

With regards to the UK’s failure to limit government power, a good example (see video link below) is the decision by the Labour Government to go to war with Iraq in 2003. As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry indicates, Tony Blair made this decision himself, largely side-lining Cabinet and Parliament in the process. This particular issue demonstrates that in the right circumstances, the UK Prime Minister is very powerful.

Any assessment of the success or otherwise of liberal democracy in Britain cannot ignore this point, and in any essay you write making such an assessment will require you to tackle this issue.

Click here for video link.

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Liberalism and negative freedom

Posted by Matt Walker on July 10, 2011

Do you remember those primary school days when another child would stick their tongue out at you? And when you challenged them  they would  reply, “It’s a free country!”. Back then no one has the capacity to retort, “In what way is this country actually ‘free’?”. Because of course, we are not free to do whatever we want. If we wish to steal someone else’s brand new Mercedes Benz, and hit them over the head with a rolling pin in the process, then we are likely to feel the full force of the law, created by the state and upheld by the judicial system.

The man who resents this infringement on his freedom to steal cars and hit people on the head with a rolling pin might well decide to spend some time on a desert island. For surely on the desert island he would be truly free? There would be no authority above our man, telling him what to do or placing restrictions on his freedom. He could run around shouting at the top of his voice until three in the morning, and ‘steal’ all the fruit from the trees. No one could curtail his freedom of speech, nor make laws which could result in his imprisonment. In this sense, we could argue that our man on the desert island is entirely sovereign over himself. He is free from all external constraint.

And this is what classical liberals espouse. This faction of liberalism suggests that individuals should be sovereign. No authority should unnecessarily restrict a person’s freedom to act as they see fit. But crucially, classical liberals believe in the need for some authority. If there are no rules, a rational human being might well infringe someone else’s rights for their own benefit. Consequently, classical liberals advocate the need for a state based on the notion that people’s rights need protecting. But if that state were too powerful, it would end up encroaching on the sovereignty of the individual.

Hence, classical liberals advocate the minimal state. The purpose of this state is to protect civil liberties but very little else. Over matters deemed to be self-regarding, people can do what they want. But when their actions involve others, and potentially infringe their rights, the state must intervene. This can be achieved via a judicial system, police force, an army, and the legal enforcement of contracts. The aim is to promote freedom by reducing the external constraints placed upon people. This type of freedom is known as negative freedom.

Back to our man on the desert island. He could be said to benefit from negative freedom. But is he truly free?

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Liberalism and the individual

Posted by Matt Walker on July 7, 2011

Political ideologies have a set of core values which make them what they are. Michael Freeden likens this to a room in a house. A kitchen is defined as such because of the furniture within it, so that we couldn’t call a room a kitchen without a perhaps a cooker in it.

Just like a cooker is essential for a kitchen, individualism is essential for our understanding of liberalism. We tend to take the significance of individualism for granted in 21st Century Britain. Our individual human rights are reasonably well-embedded: we vote, we say and think as we please, and have a right to life and own property, all protected by the state. Furthermore, within the consumer society in which we live we are encouraged to value individual choice. So much so, that we automatically expect choice in almost every area of our lives, whether it is buying a new mobile phone or deciding where we should send our children to school. The current government’s NHS reforms are part of the same trend.

To a large extent, 21st Century Britain is the product of over a century of liberal thought. Following the breakdown of feudal society and the onset of industrialisation and enlightened thought, people have increasingly thought of themselves as individuals, rather than part of wider social groups within which their own identities were subsumed. Furthermore, with the development of science and rational thought over the past 200 years or so, adherence to religious belief has declined, which has perhaps encouraged people to  look less beyond themselves, and more into themselves.

Hence, liberalism has focussed on the sovereignty of the individual, stipulating that  was up to the individual and rational human being to decide what was best for themselves, rather than some other authority bossing them about. And once you accept this, it is a very short step to say that an individual’s human rights need protecting.

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The origins of liberalism

Posted by Matt Walker on July 3, 2011

Ideologies are an amalgam of concepts and values which have developed over many years. Put another way, no individual sat down one day and thought, “I know: I am going to create something called ‘liberalism’.” What actually happens is that different theorists and thinkers respond to the world around them and write about it. The works and ideas of these people then start to fit together into a collection of concepts labelled  ‘liberalism’.

Thus, ideologies are very much shaped by the historic circumstances their main contributors lived through. Liberalism emerged in Britain and Europe at a time when personal, intellectual  and economic freedom were not the norm. In 17th Century England, for example, those early thinkers who are now seen to be early liberal  thinkers lived through a time of great upheaval, with a civil war fought over who should govern: the monarch (King Charles I) or Parliament. The subsequent English republic, led by Oliver Cromwell, was strictly Puritan and prescriptive about religious belief. Hence thinkers such as John Locke espoused the values of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.

Liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith looked at the world through economic eyes, promoting free market economics during the Industrial Revolution as a counter to economic restrictions which belonged in a pre-industrial world. Hence, liberals became advocates of economic freedom. This in turn developed further because of the social context of a rapidly industrialising Britain, so that by the early 20th Century some people questioned whether economic freedom promoted personal freedom – it perhaps didn’t if you were poor, uneducated, and sick. Hence, these liberals believed freedom was best promoted by a welfare state which helped people avoid such social ills.

Whilst you do not need to know the detailed context in which ideologies develop, it will help you to understand the various concepts and theories by bearing in mind that political thinkers observe the world, identify its problems, and offer solutions to those problems.

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What is an ideology: part 4

Posted by Matt Walker on June 29, 2011

On the A2 course we will study a number of ideologies, including the big beasts of the political world, liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. In UK politics, we are familiar with the big beasts of the party system, Lib Dems, Labour, and the Conservatives. These three parties have their own ideological baggage which aids (and sometimes hinders) their policy-making, and of course they partly base their appeal on the ideology most closely associated with them.

However, when we are studying ‘conservatism’ for instance,  we are not studying the ‘Conservative Party’. They are two separate things. Political parties are a means of developing mass support for  the policies they develop. Whilst the Conservative Party may be heavily influenced by conservatism, it is a recipient  of conservative ideas, ideas which have generally been produced outside of the party by intellectuals and academics.

Whilst a politician like Tony Blair was the leader of the Labour Party, a party founded upon socialist ideals, Blair himself (and indeed the Labour Party) have adopted ideas from other political ideologies too.

Hence, when we are talking about say, conservatism, and when you are writing about it in your essays, do not conflate the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘Conservative Party’. We are studying ideologies, not political parties.

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What is an ideology: part 3

Posted by Matt Walker on June 27, 2011

Trying to get your head around what an ideology is, is no easy matter. However, Michael Freedon has written an excellent introduction to this area of political study. Early on, he seeks to explain ideology by asking his reader to imagine stumbling across a large rally, with public speakers calling for the downfall of the government. How would they react?

One person might think great, let’s challenge the government and bring them down (an anarchist or socialist perhaps); another recoils with horror, hoping that the police will take a strong stance against a group of people who might turn violent, and might even bring down the government leading to instability and chaos (a conservative); whilst a final passer-by, whilst not necessarily agreeing with the aims of the protest, rejoices at a plural and free society where a myriad of opposing political views can flourish.

Hence, all people look at the world ideologically. Ideology is the prism through which we interpret  and  provide meaning for the world around us. We don’t just look at a protest group and think, “oh, a group of people”. At least, most of us don’t! Most of us will interpret the protest via our previous experiences and knowledge, ideas built up through years of socialisation. It enables us to understand the protest and make sense of it.

Ideologies therefore enable us to decide what action individuals and groups need to take, or what opinions to hold, in response to events and political plans for the future. This could be regarding the meaning of a protest, how a health service is organised, or whether the rich should pay higher or lower taxes.

Or whether teachers should go on strike.

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Moral obligation or financial burden?

Posted by Matt Walker on June 23, 2011

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What is an ideology: part 2

Posted by Matt Walker on June 23, 2011

When I teach a new class, it doesn’t take too long for my students to enquire which football team I support. One reason for this I guess, is that they want to know whose side I am on. People are often like that. Politics, of course, is particularly susceptible to such tribalism, and there are a whole range of concepts and terms which people can use to label themselves, or perhaps to abuse their enemies. Take any internet discussion forum and within 5 minutes someone will be labelled a ‘Nazi’.

Two terms in common usage are Left Wing and Right Wing. We don’t use these terms very often on this course because they are rather simplistic. But as a rule-of-thumb, they enable us to start considering how different ideologies view the world in general, and in particular what the role of the state within that world should be. Below is a simple way of thinking about Left and Right in politics:




As the diagram indicates, the Left is often associated with those who wish to use the power of the state to achieve greater equality, and will often advocate state interference in economy and society. Hence, someone of the Left might favour a state-run health service as this will mean equal access to healthcare for all citizens irrespective of wealth. The state would need to intervene in healthcare to achieve this. The Right, on the other hand, favours minimal state interference, and might therefore advocate that healthcare be run by the free market for purposes of economic efficiency.

There are many problems with this oversimplification. However, most people can get a very quick understanding of someone else’s political point-of-view when they refer to themselves as simply left or right wing.

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