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Home » Coalition, Focus

An unpredictable future is the greatest peril facing a coalition

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 16:55

By Dr David Butler, The Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

In parliamentary democracies coalitions or minority governments are the norm, not the exception. Even in Britain the House of Commons spent 27 years of the twentieth-century without a clear single party majority administration.

A minority government is de facto a coalition. It can only preserve its majority and its continuance by an understanding, tacit or explicit, with one or more of the other parties. Often this only implies forbearance in the issues it puts forward as essential matters to be test in a vote of confidence.

The trouble about coalitions is that, while they have to work together in government they have to differentiate themselves before the electorate- unless the coalition is to turn into a merger. When parties ask the voters to continue them in office they want to boast only of their successes while blaming others for their failures. Every impermanent party alliance must suffer tensions as it looks to the next election. The closer they have worked together in office the harder it become to disassociate themselves in their manifestos. Coalitions end with a split or a merger. After 1922 and 1931 the Conservatives swallowed up a number of their lesser allies.  But, even in the short-term, by-election or local council contests must put a strain on governmental cohesion or party independence..

Since May this year we have seen how the Opposition and the media are constantly alert to drive a wedge between the governing  parties, pointing to campaign pledges that had to be abandoned because of the compromises necessary for ministerial cohabitation. And, because every party is itself a coalition, the sacrifices needed to keep an administration going may prove too much for rank and file followers. Coalitions are as likely to be disrupted from the bottom as from the top.

But the greatest hazard to any party deal lies in unforeseen events. Parties may negotiate a pact which covers all immediate problems but suddenly a war or treaty or a strike may confront any government with irreconcilable challenges to its unity. A sudden death or a resignation may upset the carefully negotiated balance in the Cabinet

I wrote three books about coalitions thirty years ago and I was recently invited to update Governing without a majority written in 1987. I had no hesitation in refusing. The world has changed too much. Early this year, Robert Hazell and the Institute of Government have produced a superb 200 page report entitled Making Minority Government Work. This document drew heavily on recent events at home and overseas. Since 1990 we have watched the formation of both minority governments and coalitions in Scotland and in Wales together with really significant new conventions developing in Canada and in New Zealand. Buckingham Palace has cooperated in genuinely reducing the possible role of the Queen becoming politically involved. The arrangements suggested by the Institute of Government and supervised by Sir Gus O’Donnell had a significant influence on what occurred between the British parties on May 7 to 13 2010.

The big, overriding question now is: Can the Conservative-LibDem coalition last its promised five years?