“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. Even here the differences have become blurred, given Labour’s marked—and, it now seems, mistaken—friendliness to business during its recent years in office. Nevertheless, there is widespread dislike of the Conservatives as the party of wealth and privilege, and many Lib Dems were upset when their leader, Nick Clegg, took his party into a coalition with them. Yet a Conservative–Lib Dem coalition was implicit in the election results, given the need for a secure government at a time of severe economic crisis, something a minority Conservative administration would not have provided. Neither would an unsteady Labour–Lib Dem line-up, preferable though this might have been to people on the left. The voters, one can say, really screwed things up for the established parties.

For the British, a peacetime coalition is an unfamiliar animal, though they are common in other European countries where there are several parties and a more proportional electoral system. Anguished cries of “betrayal” have come from the left, and there is distress among idealistic Lib Dem voters, who have not understood that being in politics involves, on occasion, behaving politically. Nick Clegg certainly understands this. In the negotiations to form a government he seems to have persuaded the Conservatives that he might after all do a deal with Labour, and so got more concessions. Machiavelli would have approved. One senior Lib Dem, Charles Kennedy, a former leader of the party, opposed the agreement, but Clegg got the support of his MPs and the party apparatchiks. It remains a high-risk strategy, though. It certainly benefits those who have jobs in the government, where there are Liberal ministers for the first time in many decades, and it is probably the best arrangement for the country. But it could be damaging to Clegg’s party, sending anti-Conservative voters back to Labour, which was defeated but not disastrously so, and is likely to revive before long.

The coalition’s joint program suggests that a lot of hard bargaining went on, and both sides had to give up positions they had previously fought for. Some ideas in the program are likely to go down well, such as reform of the banking system. One excellent proposal is that parliaments should have a fixed life of five years—though I would have preferred four—unless they are defeated in the Commons. This removes the power of a prime minister to call an election whenever he wants to, for party advantage, a power that has been exercised capriciously. Insistence on electoral reform was a basic Lib Dem position, and they extracted the minimum they were prepared to accept, and the maximum the Conservatives, who are happy with “first past the post,” were prepared to grant: a referendum on the subject. This could lead to Conservative and Lib Dem members of the government campaigning for different results, though there are precedents for that. If the proposal is accepted by the country it could produce a very different political landscape.

There is common ground between Conservatives and Lib Dems on matters of personal freedom and civil rights in the “age of terrorism,” which Labour was not very good about; an expensive and unpopular scheme for national identity cards is to be dropped. David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives and our new prime minister, takes global warming seriously, unlike the rightists in his party. There are a number of interesting environmental proposals in the joint program, such as abandoning Labour’s much-criticized project for a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport. Cameron probably finds it easy to work with the Lib Dems because he belongs to the liberal tradition in Conservatism, which goes back to Disraeli and his belief in “One Nation,” uniting all factions and classes. The “One Nation” idea was upheld by Winston Churchill as a peacetime prime minister, and his successors Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. David Cameron talks about a “Great Society,” which looks like an updated version of One Nation. This has been dismissed by his enemies on the right of his party (who are angry with him for not winning the election properly) as a vacuous notion. Their ideal remains the hard-nosed Toryism of Margaret Thatcher, who believed that the so-called free market should rule, and who appeared to have disliked whole areas of British society, such as organized labor and those unfortunates who could be dismissed as “losers.”

After the coalition was agreed on, Cameron and Clegg stood together at a joint press conference in the garden at Downing Street. Clegg has the title of deputy prime minister, which sounds grand but is largely honorific, with no specific duties. The TV presentation of the occasion prompted me to murmur, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” Both men exemplify the successful modern politician, in the style of Tony Blair, Labour’s former high-profile leader. Like Blair when he came into office in 1997, they present the image of a youthful-looking forty-something (at forty-three Cameron is the youngest prime minister in two hundred years), trim, well turned-out with good suits and haircuts, and a relaxed but forceful manner. Unlike Gordon Brown, they are at ease in front of the camera. Like Blair, Clegg and Cameron have young families and attractive wives with careers of their own. Both were privately educated—Cameron at Eton, which has provided many previous prime ministers, Clegg at Westminster School—and have degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. They may be cleverer than Blair, another Oxford man. Cameron took first-class honours in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, which is a formidable combination to do well in. Blair spoke French, but Clegg speaks four European languages as well as English, has a mature taste in classical music, and has claimed that his favorite author is Samuel Beckett.

The coalition may not last. One newspaper has published a series of future scenarios: in the worst case it collapses within a year, leading to another election; the best case sees the coalition succeeding brilliantly, with a revived economy, and thus completing a five-year term. Meanwhile, there is work to do in restoring our massively indebted economy, with the certainty of large-scale cuts in public spending. The new government is now twisting the knife by proclaiming that the situation they inherited is worse than Labour admitted. We must fasten our seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night.


Related: Brown Out: Why Things Look Bleak for Labour, by Bernard Bergonzi

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.
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Published in the 2010-06-04 issue: View Contents
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