Britain does not love coalition, but should it?

Coalition government in Britain has historically been an instinctive source of fear and dislike within both the media and public immortalised by Disraeli’s now legendary proclamation that “England does not love Coalitions” in 1852. This is potentially a strange idea from the outside, It was after all a coalition that led the nation to momentous victory in the Second World War. However, ever since this most famous formation, led by Churchill himself, Britain has never had – or wanted – another until the last general election of 2010. But is coalition in theory, such a terrible thing?

Historically, coalition governments in Britain have almost only ever been created during times of national crisis with both World Wars being the most obvious modern examples. Perhaps it is for this reason that these leaderships have acquired a reputation for weakness. Coalitions have been formed to deal with the most dangerous and pivotal moments in modern British history – an indication that they are arguably best form of government for dealing with tough situations. When compared with the events of the World Wars, the context of the general election in 2010 may not seem all that dramatic. However the political scene was set for drama from day 1. From the moment Gordon Brown visited the Palace opinion polls were already indicating a hung parliament.

The principal argument often made  in favour of coalition is a simple one: a coalition government is by definition more democratic as it represents a greater proportion of the population and political spectrum than a majority government. In 2010, 36.9% of the vote was for the Conservatives and 23.5% was for the Liberal Democrats. Therefore with the formation of the coalition, 60.4% of public vote is now technically represented in ruling government which is higher than any majority of a single party since World War II. Thus, in purely numerical terms the current coalition government in Britain is the most democratically representative government in over 70 years. The coalition is also far from a small majority. With an overall working majority of 83 seats the government has a comfortable position from which to work policy. After all it is not unheard of for single party governments to rule with less than 5% of this majority.

Another advantage that coalition holds over majority government is in fact something that some cite as one of it’s core weaknesses: it’s reliance on compromise as a political tool. While the term ‘compromise’ has inherently negative connotations, when replaced with the arguably more accurate description of ‘accommodation’ it starts to sound far more appealing. The accommodation that each party in the coalition must make to the other(s) has two main benefits; checks and balances against extreme policies and harmonisation of potential ideological clashes. In a speech just after the coalition had been announced, the new Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg emphasised this exact point saying that “the coalition’s reform plans had been strengthened by the need for compromise.” Far from acting as a diluent, the need for compromise or accommodation appeared to have a positive affect on policy and ideology from the outset of the new government.

In a coalition a shared cabinet means that policy that veers toward the ‘extremes’ is far more likely to be contested, amended or even blocked altogether by a coalition partner who will almost always hail from a different area of the political spectrum. However, this of course creates the potential for one side of the coalition to obstruct policy on party-political grounds, creating a blockage in the system. This is why “after the May election, the parties moved quickly to agree a framework for consultation dispute resolution” so that this system could not be exploited by either side. It is through agreements such as these that coalition government helps to centralise ideology as all parties in a coalition must invariably allow some degree of political accommodation. Modern Britain is a place where centrism has been the political norm for many years. It is therefore theoretically beneficial for the public that coalition governments tend to force differing political ideologies closer to a shared middle ground.

Another strength of political coalition is that by combining two (or more) separate parties, it is possible to get a ‘best of both’ effect in terms of policy. In the document entitled ‘The Coalition: our program for government’ released jointly by the Conservatives and Liberal democrats after the 2010 election, the foreword states that “We have found that a combination of our parties’ best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos”. The example given in the document was taking Conservative plans to encourage social responsibility and combining them with the Liberal Democrat passion for protecting civil liberties, thereby creating the (rather ambiguous), “ big society matched by big citizens”.

On the reverse side. the principal case made by opponents of coalition is the fact that it is inherently divisive and that different party ideologies make the forced alliances unstable. There were numerous speculations in 2010 just after the coalition was announced, and which persist to this day, that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat pact would be unworkable in practice. However it appears that, similarly to how the World Wars galvanised British coalition governments, the all-consuming political issue of Britain’s current economic crisis has forced the two parties to put such potential ideological conflicts aside.

A further criticism of coalition is that it makes policy and legislation more difficult to simply ‘get done’. The theory goes that due to divisions within cabinet and conflicting ideologies, many decisions and policies will be either blocked or rejected by one or other of the sides in the coalition. However the counter to this point of view is that two parties with no common ground are highly unlikely to go into coalition together in the first place. Certainly, in all recent cases British coalitions have been able to get the day-to-day business of government done without the government falling apart. David Cameron himself admitted that there was “barely a cigarette paper between us (Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) on a range of issues”.

Another claimed weakness of coalition government are the sacrifices that must be made by all participants in order to put partisan party politics aside in favour of unity. These sacrifices may be ideological, or more practical in their nature; usually pertaining to the more extreme aspects of the party, which would be least compatible in a coalition format. The most pertinent example from the current British coalition was the necessity for the Liberal Democrat party to ‘U-turn’ on their promise not to support an increase in university tuition fees – something the party, and especially their leader Nick Clegg, had made a core part of their initial election campaign against the Conservatives.

The result of this decision was nothing short of a media witch-hunt and many commentators have predicted that this concession alone has destroyed the reputation of the Liberal Democrats for generations to come, as well as putting Clegg’s leadership position and thus the coalition in jeopardy. While this is undoubtedly a significant problem for both the Lib-Dems and the coalition as a whole, this is arguably more of a personal mistake by the Liberal Democrat leader rather than a coalition induced failure. Mr Clegg admitted as much when he made a public apology for the mistake; “we (I) shouldn’t have made a promise we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver.”

Coalition government, it is therefore possible to argue, is a potentially ‘better’ (read: more democratic) system in theoretical terms than majority government in Britain, however it is undoubtedly far more difficult to implement successfully. The success of coalition government – even more so than majoritarian – is highly dependent on the abilities and personalities of the party leadership. This is due to the absolute need for both personal strength to retain party allegiance while at the same time be accommodating to a partner who is trying to do the same, all the while technically in political opposition. Perhaps this is why Britain ‘does not love coalition’ – they do not trust leaders to be able to face it’s heightened challenges and responsibilities, and given the experience thus far, it may indeed be that they are right to do so.