In the past seven months or so there’s been a radical change in the way that coalition governments are perceived in Britain. From being a “Johnny Foreigner” pernicious form of government, coalitions are now seen by many commentators as a form of virtuous politics.
But experience across Europe shows that coalition governments are by no means necessarily virtuous. and rarely reflect a 'national consensus'. They are simply necessities that enable the process of governing when electorates are unconvinced about the ability of any of the major parties to deliver the policies they think their country needs.
They are a result of necessity, and as such coalitions only work well in the long term and if they are aware of two key realities and follow two iron laws.
Firstly, they need to be acutely aware of the electoral verdict. Contrary to what is understood by many commentators, British voters did not vote for a coalition government. What happened in May of 2010 was that none of the political parties won a mandate to govern the United Kingdom. Moreover, Britain does not have a tradition of coalition governments like Germany and the Netherlands. It cannot be assumed that voters were expecting one.Furthermore, where there is a tradition there is a clear expectation of who will go into coalition with whom.
The second key reality that needs to be considered follows from the first. Because no political party won a parliamentary majority, it follows that the ensuing government will not have full democratic legitimacy. Awareness of these two key realities normally dictates the following the two laws of coalition government:
First, when the party with the greatest number of votes or seats decides to form a coalition (as opposed to leading a minority government), normally it opts to form it with parties of the same ideological family (right wing parties form coalitions with right-wing parties; left-wing parties with left-wing parties, and so on). This will ensure some coherence to the coalition programme of government and will ease the hard task of negotiating policy compromises.
Second, because the coalition government is aware of its thin democratic legitimacy it normally engages in fairly inclusive policy-making strategies that involve consultation of the different sensibilities within the parliamentary parties and local party structures while keeping an eye on public opinion and traditional supporters.
Normally, the result of this inclusive and consensual process of decision-making is cautious, moderate and incremental policies.
The current conservative-led and lib-dem supported coalition is ignoring these two iron laws. It is true that there is some ideological convergence between the two parties. The current leadership of the liberal-democrats, a 21st Century version of Gladstonian Liberals, is very much at home with Cameron’s agenda of shrinking the state and privatizing public services. However, a large proportion of lib-dem MPs, councillors, and more importantly, supporters signed up for a Keynesian social liberal agenda (which has roughly been the dominant ideological strand of the party in the last 100 years). They are becoming increasingly demoralized and feel betrayed. Sooner rather than later, this ideological disjunction within the Liberal-Democratic Party will create instability in the coalition itself.
But perhaps the larger mistake of the coalition, cheered on by some of the Britishcommentariat, has been to think that their initial popularity and acclaim for being different from the usual one-party rule, permits them to rule as if they are a single party with a single mandate. This misunderstanding has led the coalition to feel free to implement one of the most radical policy agendas of recent time (radical reforms to the National Health Service, Education, funding of higher education, local government, matched by a stringent programme of public sector cuts).
But it does not in fact have a democratic mandate for this. On the contrary.
In the past, the label “elective dictatorship” did not seem to upset Prime Ministers who were happy to steer the wheels of supposedly "strong" government and they allegedly efficient British government machine. But for a coalition government that promised a “new politics”, the accusation of becoming an unelected dictatorship cannot be so easily dismissed. Even in the strange Star Wars environment of Whitehall and Westminster 'The Rule of Two' is likely to prove unstable without popular support.