Friday, April 12, 2013

UK parties, the courts, and Margaret Thatcher

The following is a guest post from Susan Sterett, professor of political science at the University of Denver.

Mrs. Thatcher had little patience for the metropolitan governments Labour controlled in the 1980s or for the miners and the miners' union. Anyone who has seen "Billy Elliott" or "The Full Monty" could map that misery to a pop beat that wasn't particularly evident during the strike. In a centralized, unitary state with strong party discipline and a "conviction politician" as prime minister, neither the miners nor the metropolitan governments had much ability to contest her.

What’s less widely discussed in the United States in remembering Mrs. Thatcher is how the rule of law played in political argument as a British ideal to criticize local governments, the central government, and the miners. The debates fed accusations that the courts were an out-of-touch wing of the Conservative party. Through multiple legal contests over how the metropolitan governments set property taxes and the control the Thatcher government was taking, the metropolitan governments largely lost. Courts seldom take on central governments in major policy initiatives, and the courts proved little different in Britain. Her government criticized the miners by decrying the union's leadership for disrespecting the rule of law. In turn, metropolitan governments criticized the central government for its ham-fisted takeover of the property taxes by denouncing the government as defying the British values of the rule of law. The battles in court and public debate did little to stop the dismantling of metropolitan governments' authority, and Mrs. Thatcher lost her leadership over the poll tax that replaced the local taxes. What those debates did do is contribute to critiques of the government as legally unaccountable, setting the stage for later reorganization.

Once Labour came into power in 1997, the difficulty of holding central government accountable made so visible in the Thatcher era contributed to the ongoing reorganization of the courts. Members of the legal profession could take satisfaction in participating in the major issues of the day, not the reputation of a legal profession that had long been educated to the flexibility of consolidating a part of the legal profession as players in national politics, and as actors who fight for human rights. The new Labour government could address the courts, accountability and rights as an inexpensive way to signal departure from central control without enacting a Bill of Rights. Reorganization included enacting the Human Rights Act, eventual appointment of the first woman law lord, and creating a Department of Constitutional Affairs out of the Lord Chancellor's Office, using constitutionalism as a way to "reinvent Britain."

The Labour government enacted the Human Rights Act in 1998, applying the European Convention on Human Rights directly to the United Kingdom. The European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice had already been hearing cases originating in the United Kingdom. There had also been vigorous traffic concerning English immigration law, as well as interest group efforts for police accountability, among other liberty issues. The Act publicly countered the anti-European strain in the Conservative party that had been so important to Mrs. Thatcher.

Sally Kenney’s wonderful new book Gender and Justice (subject of a roundtable earlier this week at the MPSA conference in Chicago) argues that the first woman law lord, or justice in the highest court, was appointed in 2003 as a way of modernizing Britain. The long Conservative rule brought the need to the fore. Kenney's focus on why appoint women has a lesson for the study of courts in political science as well. Judges are public, governing figures, and how they come to their jobs might mean more than counting the decisions judges make. Parties care about more than winning or losing a case; they can care about what the organization of their institutions says to the country. Litigation as well as arguments about courts, the rule of law, and rights changed the conversation about politics and accountability in Britain.

The Thatcher government's long-term significance includes the development of constitutional reorganization in Britain and the rule of law as a critique of government, made even sharper by notorious wrongful convictions overturned after Mrs. Thatcher left office. Parties reorganize courts, rights and legal accountability just as they reorganize the administrative branches of government, sometimes extending an already entrenched party's authority and more pointedly to show they are doing something different from what their predecessors did.


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