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The role and influence of pressure groups in contemporary British politics Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2019


Politics is a major aspect of human life whose influence has remained immense and immeasurable in the world throughout history. Both in Europe, Asia, America and Africa, Politics dominate people’s lives in a wide range of ways. Countless decisions and agreements are reached and ratified as dictated by the political atmosphere and other factors.

In understanding British politics, the question of democracy and the fight for a fair political ground cannot be undermined. Though millions believe in politics as a channel of advancing human rights, this has not been achieved on a silver platter. The involvement of individuals and organized groups of people in shaping British politics is well documented in history (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007).

These efforts are arguably viewed as precursors of the innumerable political gains and milestones that have been achieved. In this regard, the concept of pressure groups has drawn a lot of attention. This essay synthesizes the role and influence of pressure groups in contemporary British politics. To achieve this mega task, definition of pressure groups has been covered coupled with types of these groups and some of the achievements that have been realized in Britain as a result of advocacy groups.


Like several aspects of human life that continuously exist, pressure groups are not new in Britain and even in British constitution. It is believed that when viewed from a contemporary perspective, pressure groups date back in the eighteenth century amid the activities of various reform groups in the country.

These groups mainly laid their focus on fighting and condemning human injustices that were being propagated by influential politicians and leaders (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007). They also targeted to change the opinion of the public on critical issues and the minds of MPs, who were key players in national decision-making and shaping of the political landscape of the nation.

In fighting slavery and other injustices, pressure groups have continued to evolve in order to advance their agenda in ever changing political atmosphere.

As a result, new groups like the TUC and CBI have cropped up to augment the process of allowing the public to have a voice in political and national matters through group representation (Pressure Group Politics n.d.). This interaction between pressure groups and politics has therefore occurred for centuries in the history of Britain and continues to be witnessed even in the contemporary political setup.

As noted by many scholars, pressure groups push for certain interests to take a particular course in order to have it assume a preferred direction by the public, contrary to the stance of the government (Lieber 1970). This may lead to controversy emanating from varying opinions carried by the group, public or the governing body.

In other words, pressure groups may not necessarily advance a general public opinion or policy but rather a group-oriented interest. In such a case, controversy is likely to exist as a result of three forces, which may be parallel towards each other (Watts 2004).

In the understanding of pressure groups, it is important to underscore the ultimate role and influence of their existence and the manner in which they manifest themselves. The following segments intensively explore the meaning, types, role and achievements of these groups in British contemporary politics..

What are pressure groups?

Also known as advocacy, lobby or interest groups, pressure groups can be defined as organized groups, which aim at influencing the legislation or government policy without necessarily having a candidate during general elections. In their operations, some people prefer not using the term “pressure” as it results into cases of misinterpretation of the activities of these groups.

Some people believe that these groups apply actual pressure while pushing for a particular cause. Despite the fact that there are countable political parties in Britain, the number of pressure groups has continuously increased throughout history, with membership of pressure groups reaching thousands (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007).

In defining pressure groups, the term “pressure” is too broad, making it impossible to have a clear distinction of those groups which fall under it. For instance, pressure groups vary in size and others register very high membership (Lieber 1970). A good example is the Confederation of British Industry, CBI, which is believed to represent close to one hundred and fifty thousand businesses in the country.

On the other hand, a pressure group may be locally based with a relatively small capacity of representation like the Central Area Leamington Resident’s Association, CLARA. CLARA has a membership of approximately three hundred households whose main focus is usually the improvement of Leamington Spa town (Norton 1999).

This definition also fails to distinguish the activities of pressure groups based on their active involvement in influencing the government. For instance, there is no distinction between the Animal Liberation Front that is actively involved in bombing activities and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which has close ties with the British Labor government and maintains contact with several cabinet ministers.

From a broader and general perspective, pressure groups aim at influencing people who in most cases have the authority to make critical decisions in the running of the country. Importantly, pressure groups do not consider getting support from a political office but target influencing decisions made by these political office bearers (Baggott 1995).

In most cases, pressure groups may find themselves at odds with rival groups in attempting to make their influence to be more pronounced than any other source. However, there are countless instances in which pressure groups have joined forces to achieve a common goal using combined influence.

Notably, pressure groups offer means for the public to participate in local elections and have its voice heard. For example, 1994 saw the A454 Coordination Group fight against plans by the Warwickshire County Council to have the A452 converted in a dual carriageway (Baggott 1995).

The group registered immense success through intensive lobbying that left the council with a lone option of dropping the plans it had purposed to accomplish before. The influence of pressure groups is also enhanced by the fact that most of them have specialist knowledge and have access to secure and important information that is highly valued in the entire process of decision making.

They therefore gain an upper hand in not only sensitizing the public, but also as a source of relevant information that finds a lot application in a political decision-making process. Examples of these cases include MIND and MENCAP groups, which solely campaign for individuals who are mentally handicapped or challenged (Oxford University 2006).

Because of their access to informative and imperative knowledge, they often receive government invitations to make briefings concerning certain pertinent issues. The principle behind this approach is that such pressure groups usually have the opportunity to contribute in decision-making and may consequently receive financial support and contributions from the British government.

Influence channels

Based on their aim and operational domain, pressure groups in Britain use a wide range of ways to influence the law and inform the public of the right cause to be pursued in order to achieve their targets. A common approach is where these groups go ahead to inform legislators and other relevant organs of the preferences of the public and what they perceive to be more suitable for the nation (Williams 1998).

This is therefore adopted after survey and research have been carried out to ascertain the position of the public before this stance is made known to the government for legislative incorporation. Another way in which pressure groups use in advancing their agenda is giving out money, time and other resources for the purpose of supporting a given election campaign (Oxford University 2006).

This support is only given to an individual or parties, which seem determined to pursue the public cause and meet its legal demands. Since pressure groups have varying members and can as well merge with others to achieve a common goal, these groups are fond of threats of voting as a bloc in order to either support a preferred political victory that recognizes their demands or against political parties that appear opposed to the demands of the public and certain pressure groups.

By threatening to harm non-cooperative legislators and parties, pressure groups get attention that allows them to have their demands heard and attended to without delay (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007).

Aside from the above enlisted influence channels, pressure groups may also engage in speeding up the legislation process by drafting relevant bills using legal approaches and to offer assistance that is crucial to legislators in realizing progressive ratifications.

Lastly, a pressure group may consider influencing individual executive members with law-making input and who are highly regarded in terms of decision-making and proper legislative progression (Oxford University 2006).

In such cases, the voice and position of a pressure group are heard through a powerful and influential political officer. For example, Charter 88 has been seen engaging in campaigns supporting a written constitution that appreciates as well-established Bill of Rights for Britain.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection is actively involved in fighting for animal rights. In recent years, the union has been seen intensifying its war against the growing use of various animals in research tests and experiments (Oxford University 2006).

On the other hand, the British Roads Federation focuses its attention towards ensuring that citizens enjoy high-standard road services from the United Kingdom Road Network. In addition, Earth First is highly involved in the protection of the environment by preventing the encroachment of set laws by the public and the government. Other groups include but not limited to Liberty, Unison, National Union of Teachers, NUT, National Farmers’ Union, NFU, Institute of Public Policy Research, IPPR and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children.

Types of pressure groups

This segment discusses common types of pressure groups in Britain and how they have influenced the political landscape in legislative decision-making.

Sectional Pressure Groups

This type usually seeks to steer and advance the interests of a given section of the society and not the entire community. As a result, members of these groups develop a concern over the progress of the group as they usually stand a high chance of gaining from campaign activities both professionally and economically.

This category may comprise of professional bodies, trade unions and employers’ associations. They include the National Union of Teachers, Law Society, Traders and British Medical Association among others. Membership of these groups is restricted to certain individuals who have professional and economic similarities. To achieve their target, sectional pressure groups ensure reaching out to as many eligible members as possible (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007).

Promotional Pressure Groups

They are also referred to as “cause” groups since they advance a particular cause in their campaigns. Unlike sectional groups, these groups are not self-interested since their achievements do not necessarily imply the benefit of members. Common examples in Britain include Greenpeace, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Shelter.

They usually have non-restricted membership since their goal is usually to pursue a given cause regardless of the profession of members (NGFL Wales Business Studies 2009). This allows them to have large memberships even though some groups are small but with immense influence. A good example is the Liberty group which influenced the Labor Party to integrate the European Convention on Human Rights into the United Kingdom’s law promptly.

Conversely, large promotional groups like CND have failed to influence the government on pertinent issues like in 1980s when its march in London failed to persuade the government on defense policy (NGFL Wales Business Studies 2009). It is worth noting that promotional groups can be further grouped depending on pursued aims, i.e. attitude and cause groups. Other researchers have further categorized these groups depending on their status and method of influence. This gives Insider and Outsider Pressure Groups.

Insider Pressure Groups

These groups usually have connection with decision-makers and are consulted regularly for information. They are recognized by the British government as being legitimate and their input is therefore integrated during decision making. These groups can be included in meetings led by civil servants and ministers and may be part of government proposals.

They use direct methods in influencing political decisions and have a long-term impact. Sectional groups are more of insiders compared to promotional pressure groups. These groups further remain loyal to set rules and keep some matters private without direct attack on the government (Page 1999).

It is important to note that insider groups can further be classified into two groups. Institutions which fall under the apparatus of the state belong to the first class. This category mainly comprises of the police force and the Church of England. The two organs belong to the insider group because they are usually consulted when matters involving their activities are being discussed by the government.

The second class is referred to as the external group, which does not have consultative privileges enjoyed by those under state apparatus (Page 1999). These groups are considered to be independent and are only consulted by the government when there is need for expertise. They include trade unions and charities among others.

Outsider Pressure Groups

Unlike insider pressure groups, this category does not have privileges and advantages. For instance, they are not consulted by ministers or civil servants during decision-making. Basing on the fact that these groups work outside the government’s legal process of making decisions, they play a negligible role in determining the policy direction (Page 1999).

It is therefore within the mandate of the British government to decide whether the input of these groups is acceptable or illegitimate. For example, it does not recognize the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which continues to fight for a United Ireland. The government considered its approach to be illegal and non-democratic.

It is therefore important to note that insider groups have different approaches in realizing their targets. They sometimes aim at gaining insider status by analyzing the political atmosphere and commonly support the opposition (Page 1999).

Pressure groups and democracy

Pressure groups in Britain continue to play different roles in advancing democracy. In essence, pressure groups either promote or undermine democracy. In this understanding, it is imperative to reiterate that democracy is vested in the principle of decision-making by using the “majoritarian” approach. Political representatives are appointed through an electoral process that has to be free and fair. In a pluralistic society, pressure groups help in steering the interests of other groups, which may not be well represented politically.

In Britain, these groups have enabled some interests and causes to be heard and pursued. They have also been essential in decision-making processes. These groups overcome democratic deficit and allow the people to have access to quality democracy.

Through opinions and influence, minority groups and the forgotten electorate get the opportunity to advance their interests (Budge, McKay & Newton 2007). Consultations further allow the government to make rational decisions and augments quality legislation occasioned by inclusivity of diverse ideas and opinions from the public.


Pressure groups are important organizations in Britain and their influence continues to impact the country in different ways. As groups that represent the interests of sections of the society, pressure groups have played a major role in promoting social cohesion in Britain through social participation and public integration.

These groups have ensured that certain issues are given priority by the government by crating public awareness and offering expertise. In general, it is worth noting that pressure groups can either promote or undermine democracy in a nation depending on their agenda.


Baggott, R., 1995. Pressure groups today. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Budge, I., McKay, D. and Newton, K., 2007. The new British politics. Harlow: Pearson Longman.

Lieber, R., 1970. British politics and European unity: parties, elites, and pressure groups. Berkeley: University of California Press.

NGFL Wales Business Studies, 2009. The Impact of Pressure Groups. [online] Web.

Norton, P., 1999. Parliaments and pressure groups in Western Europe. London: Routledge.

Oxford University, 2006. Pressure Groups and Policy Networks. [online] Web.

Page, E., 1999. The insider/outsider distinction: an empirical investigation. British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 1(2), pp.205-214.

Pressure Group Politics., n.d. Pressure Group Politics: The Case of the British Medical Association. California: Stanford University Press.

Watts, D., 2004. Understanding US/UK government and politics: a comparative guide. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Williams, A., 1998. UK government & politics. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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