Of the relationships which characterise the institutions of Western European democracies, that between governments and the parties which support them is perhaps the most intriguing as well as the least well-known. We may or may not like parties – usually we do not – yet we are convinced that parties should have a large influence in democratic politics. It seems to follow that they should greatly influence the way governments are shaped and take their decisions. Except, however, that we are only half-convinced when we come to this last point, because we also believe that governments should not be the ‘prisoners’ of parties: we therefore quickly join our voice to the concert of those who attack ‘partitocracies’ and their cortege of unsavoury camaraderie, favours and corruption.
Such a set of rather contradictory standpoints does not help much, if at all, in a quest for the understanding of what the relationship between parties and governments is or of what that relationship should be. Contradictions in attitudes about the relationship echo the apparent impossibility of finding an acceptable ‘niche’ in which both government and parties which support them can comfortably live together. Hence perhaps the huge gap in this field of political science; hence, too, in a more mundane fashion, the fact that this book has taken so long to appear after a first effort was made in a volume entitled Party and Government, published in the mid-1990s, which described how the two sets of bodies – parties and governments – seemed to relate to each other, seriatim so to speak, in a number of countries, mainly of Western Europe.
This is not a hugely valid excuse to justify the fact that this book has taken so long to emerge: the data had been collected; the will to tackle the problem was there. Yet the problem became increasingly daunting as we came closer to confronting it. Difficulties relating to data seemed to pale and to pale more and more by contrast with the difficulties which the normative and the analytical questions posed. What do we really mean by ‘party government’? Is it that the government should be dominated by the parties in a democracy? Yet if it should not be dominated, what should the mode of influence be? And should not the government also exercise an influence? We knew we had to navigate between two extreme, equally unacceptable solutions: yet only these unacceptable