Coalition of the Willing: Letter from Britain

Article excerpt

England does not love coalitions," the great Victorian statesman Benjamin Disraeli told the House of Commons, and he was right. But since last month's general election we are learning to put up with one, if not to love it.

After a kicking from the voters, none of the main parties got what they wanted. The Labour Party under Gordon Brown were put out of office after thirteen years, while the Conservatives, who had been confidently looking forward to returning to power, ended up with the largest number of seats but were short of a majority. The Liberal Democrats, whose hopes had been raised by favorable polls during the campaign, were cut down to size with a net loss of five seats, though their total vote was up 1 percent from the last election. The result was a "hung parliament," with two possible outcomes. The party with the largest number of members could form a minority government, depending on other parties to get its legislation through, which does not make for stability. Or they could enter a coalition. The possibility of a coalition had been talked about during the campaign, when an inconclusive result looked probable, but this envisaged a coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who see themselves as a center-left party, in a "progressive alliance." A Labour-Lib Dem coalition looked an attractive prospect to many voters, including me. But after the election the numbers did not add up, since both parties together would still have been short of a majority, and in any case the idea of a "coalition of losers" would have been hard to sell to the country.

Britain is going through a slow-moving constitutional crisis, caused by the collapse of the two-party system. That system reflected what is often seen as an essentially adversarial element in British culture. Other countries arrange their legislatures in a semi-circular area where the parties locate themselves according to their place in the political spectrum; in the UK this is true of the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But in the House of Commons the government and opposition benches face each other across a narrow oblong space, with the speaker at one end, so that the honorable members can fling comments, corrections, or abuse at the honorable members sitting opposite. In the nineteenth century the Conservatives and Liberals alternated in office under their leaders, Disraeli and Gladstone. It seemed a natural and unchangeable system, where, in the words of another eminent Victorian, W. S. Gilbert, "Every boy and every gal/That's born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative." In the early twentieth century the Liberal Party provided two notable prime ministers, H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George, but it declined as Labour became the principal force on the left. By the 1950s it was said that the entire parliamentary Liberal Party could fit into a London taxi. Nevertheless, it hung on in a few regional bases, and experienced a revival in the 1980s, when it merged with a breakaway faction from the Labour Party and changed its name to the Liberal Democrats. Although the Lib Dems are supported by about 25 percent of the voters, the "first past the post" electoral system gives them less than 10 percent of the seats in the Commons. Not surprisingly, the party is strongly committed to some form of proportional representation.

When Labour was persuaded by Tony Blair to drop its commitment to "the public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange"--in other words, socialism--ideology disappeared from British politics with the exception of a few outside fringe movements of the far left and right. The established parties are committed to parliamentary democracy, a market economy with some degree of regulation, the welfare state, particularly the National Health Service, and a foreign policy that combines Atlanticism with a commitment to Europe. The differences between them reflect history, tradition, and culture, and the power of interest groups, whether business or organized labor. …