Something happened in British politics in the days after the general election of 6 May 2010 that will generate books, theses, conferences and public argument for years to come. By any routine standards of democratic procedure, its narrative heart was as banal as can be: a series of negotiations that led to the formation of a coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats – respectively the first and third parties in terms of the popular vote and seats won. By the standards of Britain’s brutal majoritarian politics – and indeed in light of the combative month-long election that had just ended – it was a high-level political compromise that felt (and still feels, three weeks later) like a revolution.
So the questions raised by these extraordinary six days in London go beyond (even if they include) the cyclical contingencies of electoral politics. Does the Con–Lib Dem coalition represent a crucial stage in Britain’s progress towards becoming a “normal” democracy, or does it highlight the country’s enduring democratic exceptionalism? Does the core partnership of the respective party leaders, David Cameron and Nick Clegg (now also prime minister and deputy prime minister), offer a true departure from discredited monopolistic governance or its restoration in different guise? More prosaically, will the government succeed in managing the acute public-debt crisis, and rule for a full five-year parliamentary term as it has promised? And how will the Labour Party cope with opposition after the thirteen-year hegemony of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and which of its characters will emerge dominant now that the “New Labour” era is over?
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