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Party games: coalitions in British politics

The general election of May 2015 brought an end to five years of coalition government in Britain. The Cameron-Clegg coalition, between 2010 and 2015, prompted much comment and speculation about the future of the British party system and the two party politics which had seemed to dominate the period since 1945. A long historical perspective, however, I think throws an interesting light on such questions.

Famously, Benjamin Disraeli declared to the House of Commons in December 1852, against the background of a violent thunderstorm, that “England does not love coalitions”. The Liberal leader and prime minister Herbert Asquith pronounced that “nothing is so demoralising to the tone of public life or so belittling to the stature of public men as the atmosphere of a coalition”. The term coalition has often carried strongly negative connotations. Yet coalitions have not been rare in British politics since the early 19th century. What do they tell us about the party system? What lessons do earlier coalition governments offer to those interested in the nature of the party system?

Let me suggest that there have been two types of coalition governments over the last 160 years. Most obviously, there are those coalitions formed at moments of national crisis or emergency. Most often this has occurred in the context of war. Asquith and Lloyd George’s coalitions of World War One and Winston Churchill’s coalition ministry of 1940-5 clearly fall into this category. Ramsey Macdonald’s “National Government”, a coalition in all but name, was formed in 1931 amidst an economic crisis. Yet there have been other peace-time coalitions of a rather different kind. These coalitions portend or foreshadow fundamental shifts in the alignment of political parties. The Aberdeen coalition of 1852-5 is an example of this. Supposedly bringing together “a distillation of talent”, the Aberdeen coalition contained Whigs, Liberals and Peelites. William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Aberdeen, called it “a mixed government”. Rather than the result of war, the Aberdeen coalition was brought down by war, the conflict in the Crimea producing vivid reports of military and logistical mismanagement. Yet the Aberdeen coalition anticipated that merger of party elements that came to form the parliamentary Liberal party in 1859. Similarly, the 1895 coalition government of Lord Salisbury marked a profound process of party realignment, as Conservatives and Liberal Unionists came together to form the Conservative Unionist party. Lloyd George’s peace time coalition after 1918 also signalled party realignment as a fractured Liberal party gradually gave way to the Labour party as the major opponents of Conservativism.

The coalition (Aberdeen ministry) of 1854 as painted by Sir John Gilbert (1855) via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
The coalition (Aberdeen ministry) of 1854 as painted by Sir John Gilbert (1855). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

What historical lessons do such peace time coalitions, foreshadowing party realignment, suggest? First, they show how the prospect of the next election hangs over the coalition like the sword of Damocles. Secondly, they reveal that entering coalition government is far easier than exiting from it gracefully. And finally, they show coalition relations are easier to maintain the closer one is to the centre of power. Coalition in the cabinet is easier to sustain than in parliament, and coalition relations are easier to sustain in Westminster than in the constituencies. In short, retribution for the failures of coalition seeps in from the grass roots. The weight of these lessons was all the greater in 2010 as, unlike the coalitions of 1895, 1918, and 1931, coalition was not endorsed by the electorate. It was the result of hurried private negotiations over a few hectic days. Also, when the Liberals entered coalitions in 1895, 1918, and 1931 it was a section of the Liberal party that combined with other parties. In 2010 it was the Liberal Democratic party as a whole that entered coalition.

What light does all this throw on the Cameron-Clegg coalition of 2010-5? It was formed and presented as a coalition in the context of a national financial emergency. The first kind of peace time coalition I have described. But it transformed into a coalition of the second kind; a coalition portending profound shifts in party alignment. Retribution from the grass roots fell upon the Liberal Democrats with a vengeance in May 2015. Equally importantly, Scotland became a virtual one-party state with the SNP eradicating almost all Labour representation north of the border. That UKIP received about 4 million votes signalled a further seismic shift in popular party sentiment.

Two broad historical conclusions might be drawn I think. First, coalition government is not an aberrant occurrence in British politics. Indeed, for the sixty-year period between 1885 and 1945, for only ten years was a single party commanding a Commons majority in government. For fifty-years of that period coalition or minority governments held office. Perhaps only between 1859 and 1880 and 1945 and 1979 has a simple binary two-party alignment of parties been dominant. Secondly, what kind of coalition is formed can indicate and then precipitate impending profound changes in the longer-term nature of party alignment.

Headline image credit: Palace of Westminster at dusk, by chensiyuan. CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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