In the European Union, under more proportional electoral systems than Britain, coalition government is a frequent occurrence. To list just a small selection, there are currently coalitions in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. In this respect, why should British politicians regard coalitions as somehow chaotic, and why do British voters have such a sceptical perception of coalition government?
‘Coalition of chaos’ has become a ubiquitous phrase in current British politics. During the recent general election, Theresa May warned voters of the supposed dangers of a left-wing coalition led by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. May now faces the same accusation after opening discussions with the Democratic Unionist Party over a confidence and supply agreement to prolong her stay in Downing Street.
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) April 27, 2017
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain has seen three distinct phases of coalition rule for a combined total of twenty-six years. During the First World War, coalition government was initiated by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and continued into peacetime under his successor David Lloyd George.
At the time, Lloyd George’s deputy and leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Bonar Law, believed Britain had entered into a new age of collaborative politics, writing to a colleague that ‘I am perfectly certain, indeed I do not think any one can doubt this, that our Party on the old lines will never have any future again in this country.’ 1
This prediction proved premature; in the end, the ‘Welsh Wizard’ was brought down in 1922 through a combination of Conservative impatience and his increasingly presidential methods.
Coalition government returned in 1931 in response to the economic emergencies of the Great Depression. King George V prevailed on Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald to remain Prime Minister of a National Government with Conservative and Liberal support. Whilst formally a coalition, the government became a Conservative administration in all but name at the ensuing general election.
This remained the case for the remainder of the 1930s under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, with Labour returning to serve as part of Winston Churchill’s wartime ministry. With victory in the Second World War achieved, the clamour of party politics resumed with the embittered general election campaign of 1945.
When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into coalition government in 2010, commentators again proclaimed a turning point in British politics. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, whilst eschewing ‘the tired old clichés about “new dawns”’, nevertheless described himself as ‘a little more hopeful than is rational’, allowing himself the further concession that ‘a little euphoria is justified’. 2
Yet again, however, the rose garden moment between David Cameron and Nick Clegg did not lead to a more permanent rejection of party politics. By 2015, one report found that only 29% of respondents still expressed support for coalition government. 3
With such inauspicious historical context, it is doubtful that a Conservative-DUP agreement will inaugurate a new era in cross-party government. Nor is a potential “rainbow coalition” led by Jeremy Corbyn likely to herald an abrupt shift in British politics.
British voters, it seems, will tolerate coalitions if the perceived emergency – whether world war or economic crisis – is of sufficient magnitude to necessitate political unanimity, but this support always comes with an expiry date, and tribalism remains a more enduring feature of our politics than consensus or compromise.
As Benjamin Disraeli famously cautioned in 1852, ‘This too I know, that England does not love coalitions’. Both main party leaders might do well to remember this dictum in the weeks ahead.
Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @ DavidCVessey.
Header image: Downing Street. Credit: Sergeant Tom Robinson RLC. Open Government Licence [via WikiCommons]