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From Churchill to Brexit: Coalitions in the UK

David Mathieson

5 mins - 21 de Diciembre de 2023, 07:00

As Winston Churchill observed, in a democratic system “one is a majority” and the UK’s system often produces results in which one political party wins enough seats to govern alone. In large part this clarity has arisen from two factors. First, a single constituency system in which the candidate with the most votes wins the seat, even if he or she does not win more than 50%. All other votes are “lost”.  Secondly, the political system has historically been dominated by the two national formations, Conservative and Labour. Consequently, there has been little need for coalition governments in British politics since 1939, with only three exceptions.

During the Second World War Churchill himself led a coalition government to represent a united nation in its determination to ally itself against the threat of Nazism. It was possibly the most successful government in modern UK history. The main objective, to overthrow Hitler’s regime, was achieved in 1945. Meanwhile, at home, ministers and experts worked hard to lay the foundations for a new welfare state, a system of education, and access to health care for all.

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Since 1945 there have been only two occasions when a coalition, explicit or implicit, has been necessary. In 1978 the Labour administration of Prime Minister James Callaghan lost its majority in the House of Commons. Elected with only a slim majority in 1974, the government was badly worn down by a deep economic crisis. The socialist party lost a series of by-elections and in March 1978, Callaghan lost his majority. Faced with a vote of no confidence, Callaghan negotiated a minimum agreement with the Liberal party that allowed him to remain at the head of a minority government. But the socialist Premier lasted only a few more months in Downing Street and was defeated by Margaret Thacher in May 1979.

The most important experience of a coalition was between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat (LD) party from 2010-2015. For Prime Minister David Cameron’s majority Conservative party, the exercise was a great success. But for the minority LDs, the coalition presaged electoral disaster. And for the UK it paved the way for Brexit. In 2015, after five years leading the coalition, the Conservatives increased the number of seats in the 2015 general election and Cameron won an absolute majority. However, the Liberal Democrats saw their representation in the House of Commons brutally reduced, from 57 seats to just eight. Even more painful for the LDs was the cause of their demise: most of the seats lost by the LDs were won by the Tories. During the election campaign, the Tories attacked their own coalition partners in their most vulnerable seats. The Conservative share of the vote in 2015 increased by only 0.8%, while the number of seats they won increased by 8%, most of them from the LDs. No wonder, then, that the Tory party is the oldest – and most unrelenting – party in all of Europe.

The decline of the Liberal Democrats was, in many ways, like the defeat of a formation very similar to Ciudadanos in Spain. And the defeat of the LDs serves as a lesson to all smaller parties in a coalition. The Conservatives managed to neutralise the LDs’ proposals, forcing them to support a very right-wing economic strategy.

For example, the LDs demanded a referendum to reform the electoral system and introduce a more proportional system. The conservatives accepted the plebiscite, but then campaigned against the reform in the referendum, and the proposal was defeated. The 2010 LD election manifesto contained a promise to abolish university student fees. However, in coalition, the LDs were forced to accept a Tory proposal to increase fees from 3K to 9K a year. The reaction of many young people was fierce, and they refused to support the LDs in 2015. Meanwhile, the Tories were promoting an economic policy of brutal reductions in public spending. Ideologically, this was not a problem for many Conservatives, and, with their strong tendency towards Thatcherism, Tory voters expected no more. However, the LD party’s much more centre-left constituency did not understand why their party was part of a government dedicated to an agenda of neoliberalism.

Finally, the strength of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories in Parliament gathered momentum during the period, and this created an unbridgeable gap with the LDs. In 2010, the two parties agreed that the UK would not join the euro and that there would be no further transfers of sovereignty or competences to Brussels during the next parliamentary term. The LDs, always in favour of a more integrated Europe, hoped that this promise would be enough to stem the rise of Eurosceptics in the UK. They were wrong – and it was a fatal mistake. In 2015, Prime Minister Cameron promised an ‘in-out’ referendum to appease Eurosceptic MPs and Tory activists. In part, Cameron made his pledge to undermine the ultra-Eurosceptic UKIP party, distance himself from the pro-European LDs, and thus, govern alone without the coalition. But it was a most foolish strategy. It destroyed the Liberal Democrats in 2015, ended Cameron’s mandate when he lost the Brexit referendum in 2016, and, most importantly, crippled the UK as a force within Europe. Entering a coalition can be a risky process, and exiting it, even more so.
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