The coming general election will be a verdict not only on the Cameron-Clegg government, but on the idea of coalition itself. Coalitions have generally had a rocky history. Disraeli famously said that England does not love them (Scotland and Wales, which have seen several since 1997 are a somewhat different matter). We have had five previous coalitions in recent history, three in peacetime (1895, 1918 and 1931), and two in war, (1915 – 16 and 1940). It’s been a case of four funerals and a wedding. The first three led to disaster – the Boer War, mass unemployment and appeasement respectively. The first world war coalitions are unlikely to be celebrated during the centenary commemorations. Only Churchill’s in the second world war is seen as a triumph of national unity. The present Tory-led coalition has been visibly disintegrating for many months, with Lib Dem ministers like Norman Baker and Sarah Tether falling by the wayside. Whether the bleak verdict on coalitions will be reversed remains to be seen.
The present coalition has one big similarity with earlier ones and two major differences. It resembles its predecessors because it was formed at the political centre, in circumstances of almost conspiratorial secrecy. It was scrambled through in a few days in May 2010 after a general election in which nobody actually advocated a coalition. There was no grass roots involvement and it was imposed on unenthusiastic constituency parties. It resembled Lloyd George’s notorious private pact (‘coupon’) with the Conservatives in July 1918 or the secret talks, involving party leaders, the governor of the Bank of England and the King during the ‘bankers’ ramp’ of August 1931. Its origins coloured its reputation from the very start.
The two differences are almost equally stark. Unlike the contrived unity of 1918 and 1931, we have had an almost total absence of collective responsibility. Since 2010 there have been endless arguments within government about education, taxation, the constitution, immigration – and, above all, Europe where a collective government view has been impossible to make out. In three previous coalitions, 1895, 1918 and 1931, there was an agreed coalition manifesto put before the electors. There was none in 2010, other than a politicians’ ‘coalition agreement’ cobbled together after the polling ended. Over 5m. electors voted for Lloyd George’s coalition in 1918; nobody voted for Clegg’s. Internal argument has been persistent with the Lib Dems arguing that a reactionary government would have been even worse had they not been in it. An extreme example was the decision of Lib Dem Ministers not to vote in boundary changes for the next election on the spurious grounds that they were linked to House of Lords reform which the Tories scuppered (actually it was linked to the AV referendum). So one partner in the coalition fought hard to ensure that the other could not win the next election, perhaps costing Conservatives 30 seats.
The other difference is that nevertheless there has been no likelihood of internal break-up, compared with earlier coalitions. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, designed to make sure the Lib.Dems. were kept on board, guarantees its life until 7 May 2015. It has done so at a terrible price. We have been for months in a state of political inertia, with the esteem of politicians falling ever lower. How they must all wish for an early release.
All our coalitions have been unstable. Even Churchill’s became disunited as peace drew nearer in 1944 – 5. Almost all of them have been unsuccessful. All have been disastrous for Liberals, split into two in 1918 and into three in 1931, destroyed as both a party of government and one of opposition, and now almost going into receivership. Yet there is a supreme irony. Even though the coalition idea is now unpopular, the next election, an unpopularity contest, may land us with another one, with a hung parliament and multiple parties, Italian style. The next combination could be even more unstable – a Tory-UKIP alliance, a Labour-SNP one – even, some speculate, a ‘grand coalition’ between the Tories and Labour. The declining Lib-Dems. could again be the fall guys. Party managers should prepare themselves for the idea. Civil servants might dust off and update their Cabinet Manual. It all confirms that if you ignore history, it is likely to repeat itself.