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Published on August 28th, 2013 | by Nathan Wilson
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Examining Pressure Group Influence in Britain

Pressure Groups are non – governmental organisations whose main aim is to try and influence governmental policy. These groups do not want to become the government as they tend to pursue single issue areas rather than the large programmes which major parties follow. The most enduring categorisation of pressure groups is insider and outsider groups. Insider groups are regularly consulted by the government and provide them with important information which has an influence over policy, eg. British Medical Association on health issues. On the other hand, outsider groups have yet to establish a consultative relationship with the government normally because they behave irresponsibly so the government will not trust them, eg.Fathers4Justice or because they have little or no relevant information to provide.

The distinction between insider and outsider groups is a good starting point for understanding pressure groups but contrary to what might sound obvious this classification does not help us to explain whether a group is powerful or not. The success of a pressure group or lack of it depends on three main factors: the individual group themselves, the political party in power, and the time period the group are operating in.

Despite this, on the whole insider groups are more likely to influence the government than outsider groups simply because they are involved in a cosy, out of the public eye, and friendly relationship with politicians and civil servants. They also tend to have vast swathes of knowledge in a certain policy area and so the UK government can be almost totally reliant on them for access to information when making policy in a relevant field. For example only farmers can implement farming policy which results in the National Farmers Union enjoying a powerful insider status, so the government could possibly find itself in a position where this union has the power to tell them that they are not going to implement a particular farming policy that they disagree with.

However it is problematic to analyse the impact pressure groups have on the government by separating them into these two categories as outsider groups can and do influence the government. For example, Snowdrop managed to force the government to ban all handguns due to the huge public backing they received after the Dunblane massacre on 13th March 1996. Additionally, if an outsider group is able to get a high profile celebrity to support their cause and use this as a means of gaining the support of the public then the government may find it irresistible to respond to their demands. The crucial role that the actress Joanna Lumley played in the successful campaign to allow Gurkhas the right to settle in the UK is evidence of this. Therefore the individual group is what is important when measuring pressure group success as outsiders can be as successful as insiders.

The other two main factors which determine the influence a group has on the policy process are how the party in power reacts to them and the time period they are operating in. For example after the Second World War, the trade unions became a crucially important and influential political interest and the importance of business associations was likewise enhanced. The governments between the period 1945 – 1979 developed a close working relationship with the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry as they were vital to obtaining wage restraint on the one hand and price restraint on the other.

However the election of a Margaret Thatcher led Conservative administration dramatically altered this. The TUC and CBI found themselves side lined, with a greater welcome being given to organizations such as the Institute of Directors which were more in tune with government thinking.

Indeed the example of the trade unions illustrate that the party in power and the time period are intertwined when examining pressure group influence as they had held a profuse amount of power since the close of the Second World War. However they had become increasingly strike prone, which had dire consequences for the British economy resulting in it appearing as though it was in the country’s best interests for the unions to forfeit their massive influence.

Despite this it wasn’t until Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister that the government began to weaken the unions, and if Labour had won in 1979 the unions would almost certainly have remained big players in British politics. Thus while the times were starting to suggest the unions time was up, it wasn’t until the Conservatives returned to power that they started to lose their power.

It should also be noted that two governments belonging to the same party can be very different in how they behave towards pressure groups. For example, in the Conservative party, the Heath government tried to develop a close working relationship with the trade unions while the Thatcher government tried to destroy them.

Therefore the individual group, the party in power and the time period are what determines how influential a pressure group is rather than what category they fall into.

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About the Author

Nathan Wilson

Nathan is an undergraduate politics student at the University of Strathclyde. He is mainly interested in British politics but also has an interest in certain international and global issues particularly globalization.

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