Skip to main content Accessibility help

Opposition in the British Political System

  • Nevil Johnson


BY 1997 THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY HAD BEEN IN POWER FOR EIGHTEEN years, the longest period of uninterrupted rule by a single party this century. To many it looked as if the alternation of two parties in government had stopped. And if that really had been the case, it would have meant that the British conception of opposition as the institutionalization within the workings of everyday politics of a standing alternative to the government of the day had broken down or been abandoned. But this is not what happened. The official opposition, the Labour Party, had re-established itself as a viable alternative government and was then able to gain not just an effective, but an overwhelming majority in Parliament in the general election of 1 May 1997. This outcome testified to more than the triumph of one party over another, marking the revival of the victor and the exhaustion of the loser: it also reasserted a crucial element in the constitutional practices of modern Britain.



Hide All

1 MacPherson, J., A Short History of the Opposition during the Last Session of Parliament, London, 1779, quoted in A. S. Foord, His Majesty’s Opposition 1714–1830, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964, p. 322.

2 Writing in German over twenty years ago about opposition in Britain the author used the formula ‘Opposition als Staatseinrichtung and Alternativregierung: das britische Modell’—opposition as a state agency (or institution) and as alternative government. There still seem to be no compelling grounds for substantially modifying this earlier view: see Johnson, , ‘Opposition als Staatseinrichtung…’ in Oberreuter, H. Nevil, (ed.), Parlamentarische Opposition: ein internationaler Vergleich, Hamburg, Hoffmann and Campe, 1975, pp. 2551.

3 The most thorough and fascinating account of the rise of opposition down to 1830 is to be found in Foord, op.cit.

4 The phrase was apparently first used by Sir John Cam Hobhouse in 1826 in the House of Commons and was immediately taken up by others.

5 The qualifications that have to be made in relation to Conservative dominance in the inter‐war years are set out in R.M. Punnett, ‘Must Governments Lose? British Inter‐party Competition in Comparative Perspective’, in Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Autumn 1981.

6 The 1937 statute has now been supplemented by the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975. The leader of the opposition’s salary counts as ‘Other!’.

7 For a succinct treatment of opposition and the form it assumed in twentieth‐century politics see the contribution written thirty years ago by Allen Potter., “Great Britain: Opposition with a Capital ‘O’,” in Dahl, Robert A. (ed.), Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, 1965.

8 Lowell, A. L., The Government of England, New York, Macmillan, 1924, Vol. I, p. 451.

9 Jennings, Sir Ivor, Cabinet Government, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 16.

10 Hockin, Thomas A., ‘The Roles of Loyal Opposition in Britain’s House of Commons. Three Historical Paradigms’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. XXV, 1971–72, p. 66.

11 The crucial significance of public argument and debate for the development of both government and opposition has often been stressed by Crick, Bernard, for example in The Reform of Parliament, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964. Also the same author’s review of Foord’s book (op. cit.) in Government and Opposition, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 116–21.

12 The author, writing in 1976, noted the nature of opposition in Britain as something like the institutionalization of the role of Goethe’s Mephistopheles—‘ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint’: Johnson, Nevil, In Search of the Constitution: Reflections on State and Society in Britain, Oxford, Pergamon, 1977, especially Ch. 4.

13 For a table offering an analysis of the use of time in the House of Commons in 1985–86 see Griffith, J. A. G. and Ryle, M., Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures, London, Sweet & Maxwell, 1989, p. 12. Despite the majority of 179 seats enjoyed by the present Labour Government some degree of Opposition cooperation in the handling of Commons business remains both necessary and desirable, as soon became apparent after 1 May 1997.

14 What are now called ‘Opposition Days’ grew out of Supply Days which had for the best part of a century been allocated to the opposition, ostensibly to discuss financial estimates. In practice they were used for matters of general concern to the opposition and not for financial control. Since the revisions of 1985 it is has been customary for the opposition parties who have an allocation of time to make up to one whole day available for use by one or more of the other smaller parties in the House. Whole Opposition Days may be used also for two half‐day debates.

15 The opportunities open to HM’s Opposition as well as to other opposition parties are set out in some detail in Griffith and Ryle, op. cit., Ch. 9. It is uncertain at the time of writing whether any changes affecting HM’s Opposition and other opposition parties will be recommended by the select committee set up soon after the general election to consider ‘modernization’ of House of Commons procedure.

16 For details of all payments to opposition parties see Winetrobe, Barry K., ‘Parliamentary Pay and Allowances: The Current Rates’, Research Paper 97/1, House of Commons Library, section 14, p. 23. Also an earlier paper, ‘Short Money: Financial Assistance to Opposition Parties’, House of Commons Library, Research Paper 93/99, by the same author. Since the general election of 1997 resulted in the return of a much smaller official opposition (165 Conservative members elected) and a much larger third party (46 Liberal Democrat members), the distribution of funds in support of opposition parties will be substantially different. Under existing provisions the official opposition might receive little over $1 million, but it is probable that new formulae will be agreed for calculating the total provision available and its distribution to the parties.

17 The fact that no public funds are payable to the majority party in Britain points to a remarkable difference between British and continental European practice. In Germany, for example, the generous system of public funding for political parties channels money directly to all parties which qualify for a share, and the same conditions apply to funds made available for the support of parties in the Bundestag. As a result a degree of separation between party organization and leadership in government is encouraged.

18 The most comprehensive account of the shadow cabinet down to about 1973 is to be found in Punnett, R. M., Front Bench Opposition, London, Heinemann, 1973.

19 An unusual feature of the shadow cabinet appointed by William Hague after his election as Leader of the Conservative Party in June 1997 is that it contains no Shadow Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales, having instead only a Shadow Minister for Constitutional Affairs. This move reflects both the imminence of legislation on devolution and fact that the Conservative Party no longer has any Scottish and Welsh MPs.

20 There is evidence to suggest that the Labour Party in opposition before 1997 received growing support from private sources, and that since 1992 it had made considerable efforts to develop new sources of financial support, including trusts into which private donors paid funds. In 1997 it was reported that the Leader’s office had a staff of more than 20, whilst the deputy leader had 7 and the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 5. A lengthy report on these arrangements appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 12 March 1997.

21 A classic exposition of the contrasting ‘Whitehall’ and ‘Westminster’ views of the constitution was provided in Birch, A. H., Representative and Responsible Government, London, Allen & Unwin, 1964.

22 The idea of sending the potential government to school was vividly expressed in the series of seminars at Templeton College, Oxford, which members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet were reported to have attended in the course of 1996. Presumably one of the aims was to tell them something about the management skills called for in government.

23 During the 1992 general election campaign party political broadcasts were allocated on a ratio of 5:5:4 as between the two major parties and the Liberal Democrats. A ratio of 5:4:3 would have been closer to the proportionate distribution of votes in the 1987 election. But then that would not have treated government and alternative government equally. This pattern was repeated in 1997. Remarkably, however, the broadcasting authorities shied away from a Prime Minister versus the Leader of the Opposition TV debate in the face of threats by the Liberal Democrats to challenge such a decision in the courts. No account seems to have been taken of the fact that the Leader of the Opposition is constitutionally in a privileged position.

24 It should be noted that the main political parties keep a sharp look‐out for any traces of what they regard as bias against them in a wide range of BBC and ITV programmes. In the years since 1945 there have been many moments of tension in the relations between the BBC and successive governments (and especially prime ministers) arising out of suspicions on the part of the latter that they were not getting what they regarded as fair treatment.

25 The best account of the development of BBC policy in relation to television and party politics is to be found in Wyndham Goldie, G., Facing the Nation: Television and Politics 1936–1976, London, The Bodley Head, 1977.

26 The effect of the Alliance vote in facilitating Conservative success in the 1980s is best illustrated by some voting statistics allowing comparison of results during the period since 1950. The following Table provides these for selected years:.

27 For more detailed comments on the Labour Party in opposition after 1979 and Mr Kinnock’s approach to reforming the party in the years before the 1987 defeat, see David Denver., ‘Great Britain: From Opposition with a Capital ‘O’ to Fragmented Opposition’, in Eva Minsky (ed.), Opposition in Western Europe, London, Groom Helm, 1987.

28 Changes in the rules for electing the party leader had already been made in 1982. The Parliamentary Labour Party ceased to be solely responsible and the election was entrusted to a much wider party‐based electorate. This change was put through by the Left in the interests of democratic control, but ironically played into the hands of New Labour and its leader. At the same time compulsory re‐selection of constitutency candidates was introduced, though this has had relatively little impact on sitting MPs.

29 In October 1989 Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned, ostensibly on account of signs that he no longer had the Prime Minister’s confidence in economic matters, but in reality because he disagreed with the thrust of her attitudes towards European monetary integration. In the summer of 1990 Sir Geoffrey Howe left the government too, and made it clear in biting terms that this was both on account of the way in which the Prime Minister ran the government, and the hostility she showed towards the European Community.

30 Minor parties nearly always stand to gain from virtually any form of PR. The Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland have continued to support relative majority voting on principle (i.e. it is the British system) and because they believe that they benefit from it.

31 It is a remarkable fact that electoral law reformers in many parts of the world have become convinced of the virtues of the German electoral system. For example, in countries as diverse as Japan, New Zealand and Italy changes have recently been made reflecting in varying degrees the main features of German electoral law. The Labour Party Commission on Electoral Reform under the chairmanship of Lord Plant which finally reported in 1993 referred sympathetically to the German system, but avoided too definite a recommendation. It should be noted that the attractiveness of German electoral law appears often enough to stem from a basic misunderstanding of it. It is usually referred to as a ‘mixed system’. This suggests that it combines features of relative majority voting with the fair treatment offered by PR. This is a mistake, since the overriding principle of the system is proportionality and by and large it achieves that.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Opposition in the British Political System

  • Nevil Johnson


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.