The Coalition and the Constitution

As UK citizens go to the polls on AV, Paul Whiteley is impressed by an analysis of joint governance

May 5, 2011

Despite its brevity, this book tells students of British politics all that they need to know about the constitutional implications of the coalition government formed after the 2010 general election. It closely examines the coalition formation process and the experience of the new government in 2010, before taking a forensic look at the constitutional changes it has pursued. It is particularly strong in dissecting the consequences of the proposed change in the electoral system and the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments agreed by the two parties during their negotiations.

In a felicitous phrase, Vernon Bogdanor reminds us: "Under an uncodified constitution such as the British, it is never precisely clear which matters are 'constitutional' and which are not." This means that we discover what our constitution is by examining historical precedents, legislative changes and developments in the customs and practices emerging from the day-to-day operations of government. Unlike in the US, where lawyers dominate constitutional studies, in the UK constitutional analysis is primarily a field for political scientists and historians.

The author cites Benjamin Disraeli's famous assertion that "England does not love coalitions", while pointing out that we have had more than our fair share of them - three in peacetime and two in wartime - since 1895. The peacetime coalitions were the Conservative and Liberal Unionist government from 1895 to 1905, the David Lloyd George-led coalition from 1918 to 1922 and the National Government, which lasted from 1931 to 1940 until it was replaced by the all-party wartime coalition led by Winston Churchill.

Bogdanor's historical analysis of the dynamics of these earlier coalitions is particularly good and brings out very well the recurring dilemmas faced by coalition partners. On the one hand, they wish to retain their identities as political actors in order to do well in subsequent elections, but on the other they must also maintain collective responsibility in government.

The historical evidence suggests that the Conservatives, the largest partner in all three peacetime coalitions, benefited much more than their smaller partners. The result was that these governments were not the starting point of a continuing series of multi-party coalition governments, but rather staging posts towards the restoration of two-party politics. On each occasion, the Liberals were the losers - in part because they were disunited before entering the coalitions.

Bogdanor illustrates this dynamic in the case of the 1918 Lloyd George coalition. At the time, the Conservatives were thought to be dominated by shady business interests and, in one apt phrase, "hard-faced men who had done well out of the war", and they had a weak leader in Bonar Law. In contrast, Lloyd George was the leader of a group of Liberals who split from the party after ruthlessly ousting Herbert Asquith as prime minister. He was also tainted by corruption in connection with a sale-of-honours scandal. This led one wag to call the coalition a deal between a flock of sheep led by a crook (the Coalition Liberals) and a flock of crooks led by a sheep (the Conservatives). Bogdanor comments wryly that "it began to look as though the coalition had no purpose except to perpetuate itself". By 1922 the Conservatives had had enough and, in a meeting at the Carlton Club, voted for a return to single-party government.

Interestingly, Bogdanor thinks this pattern might be broken by the present coalition, given the long-term trend towards greater minor-party representation in the House of Commons and the weakening of partisanship in the electorate. Both are likely to lead to further fragmentation of the UK party system, and thus to coalition governments.

But another scenario is possible: that of the Liberal Democrats being squeezed in the middle between a resurgent Labour Party and the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats took 23 per cent of the vote in the 2010 general election and 57 seats, but at the time of writing, opinion polls put their share at about 10 per cent, ensuring that they would lose most of their seats if there were an early general election. This will keep the coalition going if, as seems likely, the electorate votes to reject a change in the electoral system.

But the Lib Dems' recovery depends on voters forgiving and forgetting, before the next election, the unprecedented cuts that the coalition is imposing on the public sector, with its knock-on effects on the private sector. The British Election Study reveals that in 2010 the Liberal Democrats obtained a greater proportion of their vote from public-sector workers than either the Conservatives or Labour. So history could easily repeat itself with a resurgence of two-party politics after the 2015 general election.

The Coalition and the Constitution

By Vernon Bogdanor

Hart Publishing, 162pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781849461580

Published 25 March 2011

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