Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


The case for Cameron-Clegg
Corriere della Sera - April 27th 2010

The British have long been suspicious of the idea of coalition governments, believing them to be a dangerously unstable continental idea. Despite the fact that, at least until Margaret Thatcher in 1979, our single-party governments were not noticeably more effective than the coalitions in Germany or Italy, Britons have liked to think that strength and decisiveness can come only with a Conservative or Labour government with a "first past the post" , or winner-takes-all electoral system. On May 6th, this looks very likely to change. And frankly, it will be good if it does.

                My country has not been run by a coalition since the all-party "national government" led by Winston Churchill in 1940-45.  That is why we call an electoral outcome in which no party has an overall majority a "hung parliament", implying it is something bad, for it is completely unfamiliar. That is also why the rise in the opinion polls and in national prominence of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, has been seen as a surprise, as a creation of the innovation of televised debates between the leaders of the three national parties. Yet it should not really be a surprise at all, for it reflects a long-term trend.

                That trend is that the share of the vote won in general elections by the two dominant parties, Labour and Conservative, has been declining for more than 30 years. It  used to be the case that the winning party could expect to get more than 40% of the vote. Now, if the Conservatives do win an overall majority it is likely to be with only about 35%. The reason is, first, that regional parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been increasing their votes and eroding the national parties´ dominance.  There are also more tiny parties that win no parliamentary seats but do each take a few percent of the vote: the Green Party, the racist British National Party, the anti-European UK Independence Party. But, mainly, the reason is the Liberal Democrats.

                During my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, the Liberal Party, as it was then called, used to win only a handful of seats: somewhere between 10 and 20. Then, in 1980, four leading Labour politicians split away from their party saying it was too left-wing, and founded the Social Democrats, known as the SDP. For a short while, it looked as if the SDP might become the true opponent of Margaret Thatcher. But then came the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982 and a surge in popularity for Mrs Thatcher, and the SDP threat started to decline. To remain relevant, they formed an alliance with the Liberals, and eventually the parties merged in 1988. That is where the rise of the Liberal Democrats began.

                In election after election, the Lib Dems (as they call themselves) have increased their seats and vote: in 1992 they had 20, 1997 they got 46, 2001 they got 52, and in 2005 they got 62 seats (out of a Parliament of 646 MPs) with 22.1%. So they have been building their strength steadily. Originally, their method was rather like that of the Lega Nord: focus on local municipalities, building a reputation for good management of local issues. Their continued national rise under Tony Blair´s "New Labour" was widely dismissed as just a reflection of tactical anti-Conservative voting, with Labour voters supporting a Lib Dem candidate in constituencies where the Lib Dem had more chance. The rise of Lib Dem support in opinion polls during this election campaign, to over 30% in most polls, shows that this was unfair.

                So unless there is a sudden slump in their support, it now looks likely that the Conservatives, on 33-36%, will win the largest number of seats, but that a Lib Dem party with about 30% support and about 90-110 seats will prevent them from getting an overall majority. In that situation, constitutional convention requires Queen Elizabeth, our head of state, to invite David Cameron, the Conservative leader, to try to form a government, which in those circumstances means a coalition with Nick Clegg´s Lib Dems.

                Disaster! Hung parliament! Unstable Italian-style solution! That is what the Conservatives are warning about this outcome, and it is what some of the media will say on May 7th, the morning after the election. The worry especially is that the pound sterling might slump, as fears grow about a weak new government´s lack of action on our big budget deficit. But in my view this will be wrong, for several reasons.

                First, all the big parties agree that the deficit needs to be cut and the public finances restored. So it will not be hard to reach a coalition agreement on this point. And such painful measures, of cutting public spending and raising taxes, would surely be easier to implement by a coalition government that jointly has commanded 60-70% of the vote than by a single-party government that won just 35% or so.

                Second, if a coalition is formed at a time when the third party, the Lib Dems, has had a strong showing and with a popular young leader (many call Nick Clegg "the Barack Obama of Britain"), it is unlikely to be unstable or short-lived. Mr Cameron would be unlikely to try to call another general election within a few months, as some people worry.

                Third, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are quite compatible in their views about everything except the European Union (to which the Conservatives are hostile). This is no Fini-Berlusconi-Bossi situation. Essentially, Mr Cameron is a liberal Conservative, and Mr Clegg is a conservative Liberal. If a coalition forces Britain to be more constructive about Europe, that will surely be beneficial.

                Finally, it would be a politically legitimate and fair outcome. At a time when the British public is quite hostile to politics and disillusioned with the main parties thanks to expenses scandals and the recession, it would be much better to reflect that attitude by forming a government that includes the most favoured "new" personality, Nick Clegg, and his party.

                As a condition for joining a coalition, Nick Clegg will certainly demand electoral reform, with a referendum to choose a new voting system. Given the trends over the past 30 years, the old first-past-the-post system has become more and more unfair and illegitimate—as is shown by the fact that even if the Lib Dems get nearly a third of the votes they are likely to win less than one-sixth of the seats. If a new system can be agreed upon, coalition governments will become a permanent feature of British politics. That will not always be comfortable. But we will have to learn to live with it.


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