Magazine article Public Finance

Collective Irresponsibility

Magazine article Public Finance

Collective Irresponsibility

Article excerpt

IN THE VERY EARLY days of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats made what might prove to be a fateful decision - to 'own' everything the government does. This has neatly slotted into the 'constitutional' conventions of Cabinet government and collective responsibility as practised in the Westminster system.

What is unclear is whether anybody really thought through the long-term consequences of such a decision. What sounded good in the heady days of May 2010 is already turning into a headache for both parties.

Probably the best example of this so far has been the invidious position of Vince Cable. The business secretary has not only had to sign up to several policies he is clearly unhappy with but to defend them in public. We know that, from his own words revealed to undercover Daily Telegraph reporters, he is not happy with some of these 'Maoist' policies. Several other LibDem ministers were also trapped into similar comments. These incidents raise a problem about trying to run a coalition government in a system that evolved solely for one-party rule.

Coalitions have happened before in Britain of course, but mostly during wartime and they have been 'national' governments including all parties. They were therefore very different from the present 'majoritarian' coalition, where there is also a strong opposition.

Coalitions of this type happen frequently in Europe and have become the norm in Wales and Scotland (Northern Ireland is different again). But not all operate in the strong 'collective responsibility' way that our one is trying to do.

In any coalition, there are essentially four ways in which policy decisions can operate. These are: where parties can genuinely agree because their preexisting positions were more or less the same; where a compromise is possible; where a compromise is not possible and one or other partner has to accept - for the sake of the coalition - a decision they would otherwise oppose; and where no compromise or concession can be made by one of the parties and they have to agree to disagree and resolve the issues through means external to the coalition, such as a vote in Parliament. …

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