Reviewed by Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, Department of Political Science, University of California, Davis. Email: gawsmith [at] ucdavis.edu.
The author of this short but thoroughly enjoyable and, I think, very important book has written on both parts of his topic before (Bogdanor, 1983, 2009). Others have broadly surveyed the history of coalition politics and government in Britain (Butler, 1978; Searle 1995; Powell, 2004; Oaten, 2007). Still others have written at length about particular coalition governments in British history (Smart, 1999; Morgan, 1979), including the present coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats cobbled together when the 2010 British general election, in early May of that year, failed to give either the incumbent Labour government of Gordon Brown or any single major opposition party a mandate (Laws, 2010).
Indeed, notwithstanding the oft-quoted and rather sour observation Benjamin Disraeli made about the English not having much affinity for coalitions in their politics, in 1852, when Disraeli was Chancellor of the Exchequer and faced a coalition defeat of his budget, the actual politics of coalitions over the years have received a not inconsiderable amount of scholarly attention. So, too, have the prospects for electoral and governing coalitions that might realign British party politics, particularly on the left (Joyce, 1999).
One great value of this new book by Bogdanor is that it weaves together all this earlier work on British coalition politics. In the process, it also shows how great the gap is between the expedient rationale for the present Coalition Government of David Cameron (the Conservative Prime Minister) and Nick Clegg (the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister) and mainstream academic assumptions about the origins, desirability and value of coalitions in British political life.
The central intellectual conceit of most previous scholarship has been that in the interests of effective government in Britain, which must also mean a strong government commanding a clear majority in the House of Commons for an agenda or platform on which an election has been fought, coalitions are undesirable and ought to be avoided. They are symptomatic, for want of a better term, of a continental disease, born of backroom and often extended squabbling among multiple parties representing a badly splintered electorate.
More than that, they bring with them a lack of decisiveness in public life. While they may perhaps be capable of creeping toward incremental, highly compromised solutions to pressing public problems they are not really equipped for serious and sustained public problem solving. Coalition government, in a word, is a poor way to advance national interests.
So when, against many expectations, Cameron and Clegg forged an [*150] ideologically improbable and, it must be said, more than slightly audacious alliance to pursue a very mixed agenda the electorate had never seen, let alone approved, what was happening?
One way to answer this question starts at the micro level with the distribution of seats among the parties represented in the Commons after the general election of 2010 was over, and then looks at the various ways different combinations of parties might have been able to finesse the problem of a hung parliament by constructing a working majority. The question can also be addressed by asking whether it might have been possible to arrange, if not a working majority government, at least a workable minority government led by one of the two major parties and sustained by an agreement to differ on issues, for example, of confidence and supply.
At a much larger, structural level, the advent of the present Coalition Government can be explained as the product of secular changes in British politics under way since the end of the Second World War. These have yielded, among other things, substantial shifts in the country’s demography and, therefore, its electoral geography, marked declines in party membership and identification, and a sea change in various aspects of the British constitution, notably but not exclusively involving the devolution of power to constituent parts of the United Kingdom, where coalition governments are commonplace (King 2007; Bogdanor 2009).
One of the nice things about Bogdanor’s book is that it assiduously pursues all these possible lines of explanation, and does so with considerable confidence and persuasiveness. The book begins (ch.1) with a detailed look at how the outcome of the 2010 general election produced a hung parliament, at the range of choices then open to the various parliamentary parties to form a government, and at the constitutional niceties of making one or the other of these choices. This last involves some very interesting analysis of the roles played by the civil service and the monarchy in the formation of British governments after an election.
Bogdanor then turns to the formation of the present Coalition (ch.2), the way it organized itself to govern, and the program it laid out, first in the Coalition Agreement and a little later in a more detailed Programme (sic) for Government (ch.3). The rest of the book is taken up with an analysis of the generally unfavorable political environment in which British coalition governments, including the present one, must try to be successful (ch.4) and with a detailed examination of two of the major constitutional reform items on its agenda. One is electoral reform through the introduction of the alternative vote (ch.5), a reform already rejected in a referendum held in early May 2011. The other is the introduction of fixed term parliaments (ch.6), which on balance Bogdanor appraises negatively because it is so easy to demonstrate that it will “make less difference than its proponents imagine” (p.119).
[*151] Throughout these chapters, Bogdanor provides lively commentary on and analysis of both contemporary British politics and the history of various British governments since the latter part of the nineteenth century. When Anthony King published his recent, delightful book on the British constitution he observed that “Most writing about the British constitution, especially most academic writing, is somewhat po-faced…The style…is that of Othello’s ‘most potent, grave and reverend seniors’” (King 2007: p.vii). Bogdanor has done his share of such writing, most notably in his book on the monarchy and the constitution (Bogdanor 1995). But in this new book on coalitions Bogdanor is vigorous, lively and charmingly provocative. He writes as if he is enjoying himself. And it is worth a moment to ask why this might be so.
Let us set aside the liberating effects of Bogdanor’s recent retirement from the University of Oxford, where until 2010 he was a professor of government. As Bogdanor made clear in an earlier work (Bogdanor 2009), he champions an ambitious agenda of electoral, political, and governmental reform in Britain to go along with the emergence of what he calls the new British constitution. This new book on coalitions allows him to revisit that agenda, which in broad strokes he reaffirms.
More than that, this new book is an opportunity for Bogdanor to argue that, in line with earlier analysis of the secular dynamics that have been driving British political development since the end of the nineteenth century, and particularly since the end of the Second World War, the Coalition Government of Cameron and Clegg is not an aberration or an accident but “a harbinger of things to come” in British political life (p.127). Bogdanor thinks, in other words, that coalition governments may come to characterize British politics in “a post-bureaucratic age” (p.132).
Of even greater interest for those readers of Bogdanor’s new book who are intense students of British politics and government but live in the United States is the turn Bogdanor takes in his last chapter (ch.7) towards the work of Samuel Beer, who was for many years at Harvard the leading American student of British politics and government, by far. Beer it was who understood as early as 1969 the changes in British society and electoral behavior that would yield a dealignment of party and class (Beer 1969, 1982).
Bogdanor thus credits Beer with the original understanding, first, of what led to the collectivist age in British politics and, second, what produced the collapse of the political and constitutional consensus that sustained Britain’s public life and shaped its public policies in the immediate post-War years. Beer foresaw a departure from party government and with it some loss of stability in British political life. Politics would become more fluid as parties other than Labour and the Conservatives consistently garnered parliamentary votes and seats, as the veto power of large organizations, most notably the trade unions, was blunted, and as class and electoral blocs and party discipline dissolved in the face of society’s more individualistic interests and ambitions.
[*152] This would all be a good thing, perhaps, if it were clear that the turn away from party government and the advent of a more pervasive coalition politics in Britain would avoid what Beer called pluralistic stagnation, a blocking of the country’s ability to solve its problems and move forward because the politics of alternating between the one major party and the other was too sticky. But here, having leaned on Beer’s theory of political development in post-War Britain, Bogdanor parts company with his prescient colleague.
The focus, Bogdanor insists, should be less on how parliamentary parties and the leaders of those parties cope with a more fluid British politics than on the broader provisions that need to be made in the new and still evolving British constitution for direct democracy. The Coalition Government of Cameron and Clegg is incongruent, Bogdanor warns, with the fluid politics of a post-bureaucratic age in which the political system is (or should be) more open to voters and to popular control.
The current Coalition “exemplifies parliamentarism (sic), not popular participation or popular control of parliament. It exemplifies the principle of parliamentary government rather than the principle of democratic government, in that neither the formation of the government nor the Coalition Agreement were endorsed by the people; while the constitutional reforms proposed by the coalition might well insulate parliament still further from the people” (p.143). Bogdanor has a four point program to avoid this insulation. He advocates it energetically, although other prominent political and constitutional critics of the Coalition Government, such as David Marquand (2011), see little chance that Bogdanor’s agenda will find adherents and be pursued.
Nonetheless, taken all together the words in this book are fighting words, and properly so. The audacity and weak legitimacy of the Coalition Government ought not to go unchallenged, and certainly not with respect to its constitutional reform agenda, which Bogdanor shows to be poorly thought out, insufficiently comprehensive and of little interest to British voters. It is also important to say that this book will be argued over for years to come, even if, or perhaps especially if, after the next British general election either Labour or the Conservatives secure a working majority and party government reappears. And this will, I think, assure for Bogdanor, and probably now for Beer, a vital place in the literature of British politics and government that just a few years ago would have seemed unlikely.
Beer, Samuel H. 1969. Modern British Politics: A Study of Parties and Pressure Groups (2nd ed.). London: Faber and Faber.----. 1982. Britain Against Itself. London: Faber and Faber.
Bogdanor, Victor (ed.). 1983. Coalition Government in Western Europe. London: Heinemann.
----. 1995. The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
----. 2009. The New British Constitution. Oxford and Portland, OR: Hart Publishing.
Butler, David (ed.). 1978. Coalitions in British Politics. London: Macmillan.
Joyce, Peter. 1999. Realignment of the Left? A History of the Relationship Between the Liberal Democrat and Labour Parties. London: Longman.King, Anthony. 2007. The British Constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Laws, David. 2010. 22 Days in May: The Birth of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition. London: Biteback Publishing.
Marquand, David. 2011. “Review Article: The Once and Future Constitution,” Government and Opposition 46(2): 274-292.
Morgan, Kenneth O. 1979. Consensus and Disunity: The Lloyd George Coalition Government, 1918-1922. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Oaten, Mark. 2007. Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Government from 1850. Petersfield, Hants.: Harriman House.Powell, David. 2004. British Politics, 1910-35: The Crisis of the Party System. New York: Routledge.
Searle, G.R. 1995. Country Before Party: Coalition and the Idea of ‘National Government’ in Modern Britain, 1885-1987. London: Longman.Smart, Nick. 1999. The National Government, 1931-1940. London: Macmillan.
© Copyright 2012 by the author, Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith.