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European Cleavage Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2850 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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European Cleavage Society

Have European societies de-aligned from their previous cleavage divisions? If so, why might this be? Provide evidence for your answer.

Since the Middle Ages, Europe has developed at a remarkable rate. Today, European society continues to evolve, moving further away from its traditional roots. Lipset and Rokkan set out four classic cleavages in European society that influenced the formation and policy-making of political parties: state-church, urban-rural, employee-employer and centre-periphery.

Although parties that stemmed from these traditional cleavages still exist within European party systems, this essay will assume the postmodernist argument endorsed by Inglehart that European society is evolving beyond such classifications. The key reason for this is economic development. Increased levels of education and income, liberation movements, industrialisation, urbanisation, the introduction of mass suffrage and the free movement of people and goods have all had a profound effect on citizen’s perception of themselves and society around them.

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Previous impediments to economic growth such as religious conservatism, conflict between cultures and class segregation are steadily diminishing. Using evidence from two dominant, but very different, countries in Western Europe, the United Kingdom and Spain, this essay will assess each of Lipset and Rokkan’s cleavages in turn and propose that previous cleavages are gradually being replaced by a state and an individual priority for economic and social improvement.


Lipset and Rokkan identified three historical waves which led to the formation of cleavages within European society. The first of these was ‘the national revolution’; the period of European history when states were formed. As state boundaries evolved and mutated over the years, various nationalities and cultures became unified under a single state and controlled by a central government.

Often, this resulted in conflict between citizens that were separated by cultural differences, or the rebellion of minority cultures seeking their own autonomy. Thus, artificial state boundaries frequently resulted in the emergence of a centre-periphery cleavage. Evidence of cultural divisions in European countries still persists to this day. In Spain, one of Europe’s most decentralised countries, there are seventeen different autonomous regions, all intent on retaining their own individual culture and traditions.

A prevailing concern for the Spanish Government is the struggle for autonomy in the various regions. In particular, the claims for independence in Catalonia and the violent outbursts from separatist groups in the Basque country. However, a long history of violence and bloodshed has left Europeans with a palpable distaste for conflict. While regional differences exist in Spain, prolonged periods of peace under a central government naturally lead to integration. Modern extremist parties tend to have waning bases of support.

In the 2008 Spanish election, every constituency voted for one of the two dominant parties, either the Spanish Socialist Workers Party or the People’s Party, indicating a decline in nationalist values. Current dominant parties avoid drawing attention to cultural segregation. For the majority, economic policies have become more important. In the recent Spanish election, the main concerns for Spanish voters were how parties were going to approach declining GDP growth, estimated at a poor 2% for 2008, high unemployment and rising inflation.

Perhaps the most high-profile centre-periphery cleavage in Western Europe is in the UK province of Northern Ireland. However, following three decades of sectarian violence, nationalist differences are gradually being put aside. Through a series of peace-agreements, such as the progressive Belfast Agreement in 1998, and commitment toward power-sharing by Unionist and Nationalist parties, there seems to be a feasible end to sectarian violence and a focus on productive measures for economic and social improvement. As the mission statement of new Executive proclaims, “we must grow a strong local economy, rebuild our infrastructure, tackle poverty, intolerance and racism and deliver improvements in key services such as health and education”.


A second cleavage that emerged during the national revolution was the division between the state and the church. However, the impact of this cleavage was heavily dependent upon the religion in the country. Since the Reformation in the 16th century, European countries have been divided into Northern Protestant states such as Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and Northern Germany and Holland, and the remaining Catholic countries in Southern and Western Europe. This has had a profound effect on the political and economic development of the various European countries.

Politically, the religious values of Protestantism complimented the objectives and ideals of the state and thus no major state-church cleavages emerged. In contrast, the Catholic Church rejected any government authority over the moral laws and education of citizens, creating a palpable rift between the state and the church. As party systems developed in Catholic countries, anti-clerical parties such as the Communist party emerged on the left, most notably in France and Italy, countered by the Christian Democrats on the right. Economically, the Catholic Church’s dominance over education meant that the technological and scientific advances stemming from Northern Europe, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, were rejected as contradictory to religious belief. Today, however, the Catholic Church’s influence in Europe has waned considerably.

The undeniable benefits and logic behind scientific advances could only be repressed for so long. As education levels increased, particularly over the past century, Catholic teaching continued to be undermined. More recently, the younger generation has been pushed even further from the Catholic Church by the sexual liberation movement.

Declining religious values in traditionally Catholic countries, such as Spain, are illustrated by the majority support of legislative reform for contraception, abortion, divorce and same-sex civil partnerships. While traditional religious ceremonies such as baptism and marriage continue to be practiced, the Catholic Church has lost the bulk of its political influence and political parties have distanced themselves from religious association.

Britain, in contrast, is a more pluralist society, although traditionally England is Anglican, a religion which compliments the liberal values of the Government. Adherence to Christian doctrines is waning in Western Europe however. A recent report compiled by the UN claims that: “two-thirds of British people now do not admit to any religious adherence”. Nonetheless, a progressively more contentious cleavage has arisen between the Muslim minority and Christians.

While this cleavage is not a relatively new one, division has intensified following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Fuelled by Muslim resistance to liberalist values in the Middle East, the integration, and possible attrition, of the Muslim culture in Western Europe has been strongly criticised by an increasingly vocal number of radical Muslims. Political theorists such as Nietzsche, Marx and Lerner all noted the inevitable decline of religion as a result of modernisation; an eventuality some Muslims are trying hard to resist.

The segregation of the Muslim population into separate schools, the introduction of discriminatory, protectionist measures due to the threat of terrorism and the censure of different cultural practices, such as Jack Straw’s criticisms of wearing face veils, serve to strengthen the sense of cleavage existing between Islam and European liberalist values. However, at present, the Muslim population in Europe is relatively small. Therefore, while a cleavage may exist, its impact remains negligible.


There are three necessary characteristics for social groups to be regarded as cleavages. They must have a distinct structural basis, members must be conscious of their collective identity and, finally, they must have a coherent, organised political expression. Living in the countryside, therefore, does not mean a person is a member of a rural cleavage. Rather, rural cleavages generally comprise of agrarian parties who feel that a growing urban population could threaten their professional interests.

Consequentially, rural cleavages are most common in primary-based economies. With the economic development of Western Europe, however, the number of farmers declined, their political voice weakened and agrarian parties gradually assimilated themselves into larger parties on the centre-right. For instance, in Ireland successive agrarian parties that emerged during the early to mid twentieth century such as the Farmers’ Party, the National Centre Party and Clann na Tlamhan all eventually merged with Fine Gael.

In modern European politics, control over farming policies such as subsidies, tariffs and quotas have been submitted to the European Union’s common agricultural policy (CAP). Agrarian parties that do exist in Northern Europe, such as Finland’s ‘True Finns Party’, have marginal bases of support. It is now more effective to raise specific agrarian concerns through lobby groups rather than political parties, such as FARMA (the National Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association) in the UK.

Furthermore, with easier mobility, people from rural areas frequently commute to the city to work or study, whilst many urban elites choose to move to the suburbs or rural areas to escape city life. Thus, while urban and rural communities still experience different paces of life, as people move about with greater regularity, urban and rural populations are no longer as segregated as they once were. As a result, the rural cleavage is no longer prevalent in Europe.


The second wave identified by Lipset and Rokkan was the ‘industrial revolution’. With industrialisation, a new class cleavage emerged. This left the most obvious mark upon divisions between modern political parties. All European countries have parties on the left and the right side of the political spectrum that traditionally proposed polices that assisted the sector of society they were trying to attract support from, be it working classes on the left or middle to upper classes on the right. However, these days, the division between classes is no longer as distinct, creating an overlap in the policies people desire.

Moreover, there is now a predominant middle class in Europe. Accordingly, dominant parties on either side of the spectrum are reluctant to veer too far from the centre. Prior to the Spanish elections this year the two leading parties, on the centre right and centre left, tried to gather support through a succession of proposed spending pledges and tax cuts. The ruling socialists started off by offering €2,500-3,500 for every newborn child. The centre-right party, the People’s Party, then responded by offering special tax cuts to working women and low-income earners, a policy which would traditionally be favoured by the left.

This was succeeded by a socialist pledge to scrap a patrimony tax, a wealth tax which chiefly affects middle class earners. Drawing from past experience, modern Europeans associate extreme political ideologies, such as communism or fascism, with oppression and economic stagnation, and view pure capitalism with suspicion.

Although dominant political parties on the right and left still express a slight preference toward a more liberal economy as in the United Kingdom, or a more socialist, welfare state traditionally favoured in Scandinavian countries, at election time dominant political parties tend to preach catch-all, centrist policies designed to boost the economy while remaining appealing for voters, such as more efficient public services or attractive tax cuts.

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The United Kingdom is a prime example of a European country that traditionally had a distinct class cleavage. Conservatives tended to attract support from London and South Eastern areas. Labour, on the other hand, drew its support from densely populated areas in the North and industrial periphery regions of Scotland and Wales. Observation of recent polls in the UK, however, reveals fluctuating levels of support.

Over the past six months, confidence in the Labour party, under the leadership of Gordon Brown, has dropped in every region of the country, while Conservative support is steadily increasing. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, would be classified as “posh” by English standards, the first posh Tory leader in over forty years and evidence of declining class resentment. As noted above, these days, English voters are more likely to switch alliances as a result of economic policies and the tax benefits on offer.

For instance, surges in Tory support toward the end of 2007 were accredited to the Shadow Chancellor’s proposals for cuts in inheritance taxes. From a party perspective, Labour and the Conservative Party do not like to draw attention to their traditional ties to the working and upper classes respectively. In effect, dominant political parties in European countries are no longer as polarised. The modern value system in Europe is moving away from socialism versus liberalism and toward a joint aspiration for public well-being coexisting with markets and private property.


Lipset and Rokkan observed that cleavages emerge during revolutionary waves. In the third and most recent of these, the ‘post-industrial revolution’, Inglehart proposed that two new cleavages have emerged, materialist/post-materialist dimension and left-right materialism. However, newer parties that have surfaced, such as the green party, have marginal support. Rather, existing political parties have de-aligned from strict adherence to previous cleavages and adopted a more centrist approach to satisfy a changing society.

Furthermore, modern voters in Europe are no longer as fervently attached to a political cleavage. Most cultural differences have been resolved by reforms against ethnic discrimination, power-sharing or integration, religious values are waning, and class and rural divisions have declined considerably. The main concern for individuals nowadays is that parties in power are capable of providing economic growth and social security.

In essence, while Europeans have not abandoned their core values and ideals completely, well-defined traditional cleavages have been largely replaced by a concern on all sides with tackling the oppressive aspects of industrialisation, religion, cultural discrimination and the inequality associated with capitalism through focussing upon human rights, democracy and economic and social improvement.


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